Monday, September 29, 2014

Tloong vs. Murm on the Red World

Clark Ashton Smith is best known for his distinctive horror and fantasy, as well his poetry.  However, in the early 1930s he attempted to expand into the field of science fiction.  He wrote a series of stories featuring his character of Captain Volmar, an early version of the various captains—Archer, Kirk, Picard, Janeway—who piloted the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The Red World of Polaris was intended to be the second in the series.  Smith had been encouraged by the relative success of the first story Marooned in Andromeda (1930), which introduced Captain Volmar, though he only played a minor role in this debut.  (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda).

According to Ronald Hilger and Scott Connors, who edited an interesting collection of Smith’s CaptainVolmar stories back in 2003, the second story was not as well received by Hugo Gernsback of Wonder Stories.  It was criticized for being overly descriptive, lacking in plot or complications, and devoid of interesting action.  These are fair criticisms.  Much of the story is essentially a travelogue about what the crew of the starship Alcyone observes on a strange planet orbiting Polaris.  There is almost no dialogue, and the characters are essentially interchangeable because undeveloped.  Smith himself was apparently ambivalent about the work.  Hilger and Connors quote a letter of Smith’s in which he responded to the magazine’s feedback:

“…if human motives are mainly what they want, why bother about going to other planets—where one might conceivably escape from the human equation?  The idea of using the worlds of Alioth or Altair as a mere setting for the squabbles and heroics of the crew on a space-ship, (which, in essence, is about what they are suggesting) is too rich for any use.  Evidently Astounding Stories is setting the pace for them with its type of stellar-wild-west yarn.  There doesn’t seem to be much chance of putting over any really good work, and a survey of the magazine field in general is truly discouraging.”

The Red World of Polaris is not one of Smith’s better works, though it is interesting to see the author’s indelible style translated and coarsened by the expectations of pulp science fiction circa the 1930s.  The story contains many familiar science fiction tropes that are still in use today:  tractor beams, amorphous polypoid monsters, (APMs), alien thought projection devices, a technologically brilliant but doomed civilization, genetic mutations—even a mad scientist.

(Editorial comment:  why is it often the assumption that extraterrestrial civilizations, when we encounter them, will be superior to our own?  That they may be inferior in some respects, and vulnerable to our encroachment, seems equally as likely.) 

As in many similar stories of the time period, extraterrestrial names are nearly unpronounceable conglomerations of consonants.  The “Tloong” are a technological race of alien brains encased in robot like exoskeletons, whose principle occupation is the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  They are threatened by a veracious subterranean organism of their own creation, the “Murm”.  Volmar and his crew—who are labeled “Ongar” in the alien vernacular—arrive just in time to observe the final conflagration.  Smith gives considerable attention to the visual details and conceptual aspects of Tloong culture and architecture—that is, the setting; with a few more plot twists and some identifiable characters, a version of The Red World of Polaris would have made an entertaining Star Trek episode.

The second installment of Captain Volmar’s adventures was rescued from obscurity and published in an anthology of the same name in 2003 by Night Shade Books.  Except for a couple passages, in which he describes the bizarre ecology of the planet and later its catastrophic demise, Smith’s poetic, hallucinatory depictions are absent from the story.  The Red World of Polaris otherwise closely resembles other pulp science fiction tales of the time in its emphasis of concept over narrative and characterization.

Like his colleague H.P. Lovecraft, Smith struggled to adapt to the then emerging field of science fiction, which rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.  Neither accomplished a successful transition, save for perhaps a few stories at most.  Fortunately, Smith went on to write his marvelous Averoigne and Malygris stories, among other dark fantasies.

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