Saturday, April 11, 2015

Prometheus Returns the Flame

Clark Ashton Smith was probably best known for his dark fantasy, though he did write science fiction on occasion.  His early attempts in this field are interesting, though not as successful as his better known work in horror and fantasy. For example, there is his short cycle of Captain Volmar stories, written in the early 1930s, in which the crew of the ether-ship Alcyone—a proto starship Enterprise—visit exotic planets teaming with hostile and predacious life forms.  (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda and Tloong vs. Murm on the Red World.) Like his colleague Stanley G. Weinbaum, who produced several memorable stories around this time, Smith applied his vivid prose to the depiction of strange flora and fauna on other worlds, much of it hazardous.

Late in his career, Smith wrote much more sophisticated science fiction, of which Monsters in the Night and Phoenix are examples.  (Smith died in 1961.)  Both stories were published in 1954, and reflect post World War II anxiety about rapid technological change; Phoenix in particular references the growing fear of nuclear weapons, pervasive in the speculative fiction of that time period.

Monsters in the Night is an interesting blend of fantasy and science fiction.  Smith imagines a contemporary setting that includes werewolves and vampires as well as unspecified monsters of more recent creation.  He seems to imply that there are traditional monsters in the country side and “newfangled” ones in the cities—all of them equally lethal. 

The story is quite short and begins with a conventional depiction of a man’s transformation into a werewolf under the light of the full moon.  “But in no sense was he akin to those monsters beyond nature, the spawn of a new and blacker magic, who killed without hunger and without malevolence.”  Which ‘new and blacker magic’ is almost certainly science and technology.  Because Smith has used all of the expected trappings of the werewolf tale—especially those familiar from the 1941 film The Wolf Man—readers are unprepared for the surprise ending. 

As with his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft, Smith’s attempts at science fiction show the tension between science and fantasy in the weird fiction of these two authors.  Smith was somewhat more successful than Lovecraft in making the transition to the “scientifiction”, which was encouraged by the new market for such literature.  However, stories like Monsters in the Night and Phoenix are transitional forms, combining elements of both horror and science fiction, and interesting because of this, (as is Lovecraft’s 1928 story The Shunned House).  

Phoenix is reminiscent of Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories.  The setting is somewhat similar; in terms of fictional timeframe, the story is set in a future beyond that of Zothique’s decadent civilizations.  The sun is no longer red and dwindling with great age. It has become a volcanic smoldering black orb, leaving a remnant of technologically advanced humans to survive beneath the dark icy surface of a frozen Earth.  The story is similar to William Hope Hodgson’s ambitious but difficult 1912 novel, The Night Land.  Both are in the subgenre of “dying Earth” stories.

In Phoenix, the light of human civilization is about to flicker out because of a kind of genetic decadence, the result of having to live underground for millennia.  The ominous deterioration is also seen in the livestock and hydroponic gardens that had flourished for centuries in artificially illuminated caverns.

“Generation by generation a mysterious sterility had lessened the numbers of the race from millions to a few thousands.  As time went on, a similar sterility began to affect animals; and even plants no longer flourished with their first abundance.”  

Desperate to save their world, scientists formulate a plan, a risky technological fix involving still useable nuclear weapons from “the old atomic wars.”  They will send an intrepid crew to the surface of the dead sun and attempt to reignite it with synchronized explosions.  This is probably one of the first appearances of this familiar, post-World War II science fiction trope—that terrible weapons of war can be used to save humanity and its earthly home, rather than annihilate them both in a paroxysm of self-destruction.  

“How glorious,” he went on, “to use for a purpose of cosmic renovation the deadly projectiles designed by our forefathers only to blast and destroy.”

Though one of his later stories, Phoenix is very much an echo of the pulp science fiction of the 1930s.  It is short on characterization, dialogue and plot, but full of big, thought provoking ideas, a kind of thought experiment.  The story contains interesting speculations about humanity’s racial, linguistic and technological future.  There are also several allusions to ancient Greek mythology: besides the titular reference to the mythical bird that is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor, there is a clever reversal of the story of Prometheus.  Smith even includes a meditation on the possibility that history is a circle that returns to same point again and again over vast eons:  “Had he and his companions gone forth in former cycles to the relighting of former perished suns?”  

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