Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Terrors of Alien Zoology

One of the pleasures of reading speculative fiction from the early twentieth century is to discover the origins of many of the images and ideas we take for granted in contemporary science fiction.  Near the beginning of Clark Ashton Smith’s Marooned in Andromeda (1930) are these words describing the journey of the ether ship Alcyone:

For five years he had driven the great vessel further and further away from the earth and the solar system, which had long ago dwindled into points of telescopic light—for five years he had hurled it onward at more than the speed of cosmic rays, through the shoreless, bottomless night, among the shifting stars and nebulae.

In another Captain Volmar story, The Red World of Polaris, the commander of the Alcyone reflects on his “…unearthly vaulting ambition which had led years later to his first intersidereal voyage and then to his present project of circumnavigating the known universe.”

So it seems no accident, several decades later, that William Shatner would intone the famous words which introduce the original Star Trek episodes:  “Space: the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds…”  The original Star Trek series ran just three seasons, from 1966 to 1969, before suffering an untimely death at the hands of its inept network executives.

Interestingly, the crew of the Alcyone did not exactly “boldly go where no man has gone before”.  They complained of the loneliness, tedium and anxiety of prolonged space travel, so much so that the first of the Captain Volmar stories begins with a mutiny among crew members.  To be fair, the Alcyone had nowhere near the elbow room or amenities of a Federation starship.

Boomers may recall another popular TV show from the 60s, involving the mostly misadventures of the Space Family Robinson, on board the Jupiter II, in Lost in Space.  That show also ran for just three seasons, from 1965 to 1968.  In retrospect, many of the episodes seem played for camp, but at the time it was an engaging show, always ending with some terrifying loose end—typically with Dr. Smith screaming—which connected it to the next week’s show.  For the time period, the monsters and the special effects were cool.  As a kid, I would delight in spotting the monsters that were shared with an earlier show produced by Irwin Allen, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Old fans of Lost in Space—and we would be getting old about now—may remember the two part episode called “The Keeper”, in which an intergalactic zoologist attempts to add Will and Penny to his menagerie of weird alien creatures.  He uses a glowing staff to hypnotize his specimens and keeps them in glass cages on board his spaceship.  The Keeper’s collection is a horror show of leering, threatening monsters.  He manages to capture the two youngest children while the rest of the family tries desperately to rescue them.  In part two, Dr. Smith and the Robot sneak on board the Keeper’s ship and accidentally release all the alien creatures.

A similar encounter is the focus of Clark Ashton Smith’s A Captivity in Serpens (1931), also known as The Amazing Planet.  The story has the distinction of being the longest work of fiction that Smith ever wrote.  Captain Volmar and his crew discover an interesting “Mercurian” world, a planet whose orbital pattern leaves one side in perpetual sunlight and the other in eternal darkness.  The Alcyone lands in a narrow longitudinal belt of vegetation in the penumbra of the sun’s glare, and Volmar and first mate Roverton leave the ship to explore the planet’s unusual biosphere. 

As in the other Captain Volmar stories, Smith delights in describing strange flora and fauna.  The categories are quite indistinct, with mobile vegetation and creatures that are odd blends of insect, mollusk and vertebrate life forms.  This is the most entertaining aspect of Smith’s science fiction, his nearly hallucinogenic visual descriptions of weird terrain, architecture and biology.

Volmar and Roverton are captured by technologically advanced aliens from a nearby planet in the Serpens system, and taken to what is essentially a zoo or biological laboratory. There they endure all sorts of vaguely scientific torments and privations as “lab animals”.  As in the Lost in Space episode above, attention is given to describing the other more bizarre specimens in this alien zoo.  Much of the remainder of the story details Volmar and Roverton’s attempts to escape their insect-like captors.

An earlier passage in A Captivity in Serpens is remarkable for its anti-chauvinist stance on extra-terrestrials.  Describing the perceptions of the aliens, Captain Volmar comments:

“Anyway they are probably so conceited as to believe that their own world is the only one capable of producing highly evolved and intelligent life-forms…I remember, back in my boyhood, before space-travel became an actuality, how many of our own astronomers and other scientists argued that the earth was the only world in all the universe that was inhabitable by any kind of organic life.”

Is this the beginning of changes in attitudes that led to the formation of the “Prime Directive”?

A Captivity in Serpens was the second and the last of the Captain Volmar stories published in Smith’s lifetime.  Ronald S. Hilger, in his prefatory remarks to the 2004 collection The Red World of Polaris, describes how Smith was frustrated with the restrictions and expectations placed upon him by the editors of Wonder Stories Quarterly, who wanted more action and less preoccupation with literary quality.  Sadly, disputes over payment for his work, combined with the deaths of both his parents later in the decade, brought Smith’s career as a short story writer to an end.  However, he continued to write poetry and devoted his later years to macabre sculpture.   

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.