Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What Was It?

The Horror at Martin’s Beach (1923) is unique among H.P. Lovecraft’s numerous collaborations; it was co-written with Sonia Greene, who would become his wife in 1924—though not for long.  When the story originally appeared, it was given the title The Invisible Monster. Although he does not get a byline, it was the first appearance of a work substantially by Lovecraft in Weird Tales, which began publication in March of 1923.

L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1975 biography of H.P. Lovecraft, relates how the idea for the story originated.  While visiting Sonia Green in a small Massachusetts resort town, the two went for a stroll along the shore on moonlit evening, and heard “a peculiar snorting, grunting noise, loud in the distance.”  Green suggested this might provide Lovecraft an idea for a story, but he encouraged her to write one instead.  Shortly afterwards, she produced an outline, which Lovecraft either revised or used to produce the complete story.  S.T. Joshi classifies the story as a “secondary revision” although Lovecraft’s influence is pretty obvious.

De Camp feels that The Horror at Martin’s Beach is similar in some respects to Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing (1893) and Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It? (1859). These well-known classics both involve invisible entities, one a voracious predator and the other a mysterious humanoid, but the creature in the Green-Lovecraft effort is more concealed than invisible.  The marine setting and reference to the captured beast becoming exhibited as a seaside tourist attraction recalls another story, one very similar to J.G. Ballard’s 1964 The Drowned Giant, but appearing much earlier and possibly forming the basis for the Ballard story. 

(In the story I am remembering, villagers in a seaside town discover a giant male cadaver just offshore after a storm.  The novelty soon wears off and as the body decays the fisher folk begin to take away pieces of it for their own use, mutilating and desecrating the corpse.  However, the drowned giant’s mate comes to retrieve the body and drags it back to the ocean depths.  As in The Horror at Martin’s Beach, there is an element of revenge and justice for the desecration.  I have not been able to identify this story—it was probably published in the late nineteenth to very early twentieth century.  Do any of my readers know?)  

The beginning of The Horror at Martin’s Beach is very different in tone and conceptualization than the end.  The opening suggests that it will perhaps be a science fiction story:  a strange creature is captured at sea, and scientists attempt to classify it.  The organism has some similarities to more familiar marine animals and may be some kind of deep sea fish.  However, its enormous size and “certain curious modifications, such as rudimentary forelegs and six-toed feet in place of pectoral fins” as well as its highly developed brain and weird single eye indicate a more evolutionarily advanced species.  Adding to the mystery is the determination that the specimen is an infant, only recently hatched.  In short, the horror is a sea monster, or so readers are led to believe.

But the end of The Horror at Martin’s Beach is more akin to nightmare, and the story reads like the creative reworking of an item from the author’s dream journal.  It culminates in the single image of a dozen or so men unable to save themselves from being drawn out to sea and drowned—presumably by the parent of the infant sea monster.  A thunderstorm roars overhead as spectators on the beach, powerless to help, retreat indoors.

Held in the clutches of an unknown vise, the line of the damned dragged on; their silent screams and unuttered prayers known only to the demons of the black waves and the night wind.

The narrator imagines the victims in the throes of “all the fright, panic, and delirium of a malignant universe—all the sorrow, sin, and misery, blasted hopes and unfulfilled desires, fear, loathing and anguish of the ages since time’s beginning…” S.T. Joshi identifies the “typical verbal flamboyance” of these last few paragraphs as indicating that Lovecraft wrote them.  The story becomes strongly supernatural and even mythological in tone, no longer about a sea monster, but an apocalyptic vision of humankind’s fate.  Typical of Lovecraft’s fatalistic approach to life, victims and spectators passively accept their powerlessness over events, and merely watch, doing nothing to save the men or by extension, themselves.

Joshi was critical of the ending of The Horror at Martin’s Beach” because in his words “there has been insufficient build up for it” and “it is inappropriate to the circumstances,” [his emphasis].  Certainly the first half of the story seems awkwardly joined to what follows in the second.  Was the disjointedness of the text a result of Green’s and Lovecraft’s differing and irreconcilable contributions to the narrative?  Is The Horror at Martin’s Beach an example of Lovecraft’s difficulty making the transition from supernatural horror to more materialistic science fiction, even early in his career? 

The observant but uninvolved narrator tells readers from the very beginning of the story that he has “never heard an even approximately adequate explanation of the horror at Martin’s Beach.”  And one is unlikely given the metaphysical questions underpinning the story.  But it has something to do with hypnotism!  He cites a controversial article published by one Professor Alton around the time of the calamity:  “Are Hypnotic Powers Confined to Recognized Humanity?” 

Probably not.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Our Cerebral Future

“Where are we going? Life, the timeless, mysterious gift, is still evolving. What wonders, or terrors, does evolution hold in store for us in the next ten thousand years? In a million? In six million?”
The Outer Limits, (From “The Sixth Finger”, October, 1963)

A couple of recent posts have focused on early science fiction about genetic engineering.  In Anthony N. Rud’s Ooze (1923), a microbiologist finds a way to remove the chromosomal limitations on the size and lifespan of the common amoeba, with disastrous results.  (See Clues at the Scene of the Slime.)  In Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Proteus Island (1936), a scientist alters the flora and fauna of a remote island by blending the genes of its inhabitants and causing ecological chaos.  (See Darwinian Disasters).

It is interesting to note that these stories about genetics and evolution are roughly coterminous with the Scopes Trial of 1925, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, or more formally, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes.  Scopes was a substitute high school teacher who was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in a state funded school.  Scopes was found guilty and fined the monetary equivalent of about $1000.00, though the verdict was overturned on a technicality. 

Nevertheless, the trial was a media event that dramatized the still ongoing—and mostly unnecessary—conflict between science and religion.  The theory of evolution was perceived as a threat to the authority of Biblical accounts of humanity’s origins.  Though it seems incredible to us now, Christian fundamentalists were able to use this legal battle to significantly limit the teaching of evolution in American public schools for decades.

For people who like to argue, the debate between Biblical authority vs. the theory of evolution, or more broadly between religion and science, is a never ending source of inspiration and passion.  If the religionists would focus their attention on the question of “why” and the scientists on the question of “how”, both camps could be kept reasonably separated and avoid unpleasantness.

Edmond Hamilton, co-founder of the genre of “space opera”, took a different angle on the subject of genetic manipulation and evolution in his The Man Who Evolved (1931).  Two old college friends are invited to the home of their professor, Dr. John Pollard, who has fashioned a device that concentrates cosmic rays.  Believing that cosmic rays are responsible for driving evolution on earth (by causing genetic mutations), Pollard wants to make himself an N of 1 study of the impact of cosmic rays on human biological advancement.  He wants to know what humans will look like millions of years from now, and needs the narrator and his friend to operate the machinery.

As in many of Hamilton’s science fiction stories, complex and powerful technology, even alien technology, is relatively easy to learn and operate:

“The cylinder is now gathering cosmic rays from an immense area of space,” he said, “and those concentrated rays are falling through that disk into the cube’s interior.  To cut off the rays it is necessary only to open this switch.”

Against their protests, Pollard manages to persuade the two younger men to operate the device and expose him to the cosmic rays in a series of applications.  With each dose the effects are remarkable and instantaneous.  Pollard initially becomes a superhuman, god-like creature, still recognizably a man. But subsequent applications depict a clear trend:  Pollard’s cranium expands and he becomes ever more brain-like in appearance and power as the rest of his body dwindles in size and importance.  Dr. Pollard’s advanced form, and the contraption which brought him to this state, is depicted on the cover of the magazine in which the story appeared:

However, the final application of the cosmic rays produces an ironic and appalling result.  Older science fiction fans may recall an episode of the original Outer Limits, (“The Sixth Finger”), which aired in October of 1963.  A scientist, remorseful for his role in developing nuclear weapons, develops a machine that can accelerate human evolution. He uses it on a local miner played by David McCallum, advancing the man through a million years of human development and vastly increasing his mental and psychokinetic powers.   The story is similar in many respects to Hamilton’s and also ends tragically.

Interestingly, in light of the Scopes trial mentioned above, the television censor for the 1963 broadcast objected to the episode’s implied support for evolution, and had an explanatory speech given by the scientist deleted from the original script.  One of the minor characters in the show is the scientist’s trained chimpanzee, called “Darwin”—he gets few lines.

It is a familiar assumption, at least in early science fiction, that human advancement is equated with increased intelligence, metaphorically expressed as a large cranium, even an exposed brain—as if the business of evolution was to develop ever more powerful intellects.  One can see this trope also in the depiction of advanced extraterrestrial races, which almost always have enlarged heads or perhaps are remotely controlled by an enormous inert brain.  In the classically awful film The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), the highly evolved aliens are brains.  (See also Donald Wandrei’s The Red Brain, discussed in 1. When Brains Are All You Have Left.) 

Conceivably, evolution might have other plans, if it has any plans at all.  Evolution may over time emphasize other attributes, depending on prevailing environmental conditions:  sheer proliferation, or preservation against climate change, or imperviousness to environmental toxins.  Intelligence may be overvalued, even a liability.  There are thousands of relatively brainless organisms whose mindboggling numbers and adaptation over eons make them far more successful than we have been so far.   

The Man Who Evolved was originally published in the April 1931 issue of Wonder Stories.  Hamilton’s story appeared alongside one of Clark Ashton Smith’s attempts at science fiction, his novelette An Adventure in Futility, a title that seems in some ways prophetic about his efforts in that genre.  Also represented was work by one of the most successful of the shudder pulp writers, Arthur Leo Zagat’s The Emperor of the Stars, a short story he co-wrote with Nat Schrachner.

The version of The Man Who Evolved that I have is in a wonderful “autobiographical” anthology from 1974, Isaac Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, which features a representative sampling of science fiction from the 1930s.  Asimov reports that Edmond Hamilton’s science fiction was an early favorite and an inspiration for his own contributions to the field.


As of this date, The R’lyeh Tribune is two years old!  Iä! Iä!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Darwinian Disasters

As I write this, protesters are gathering in my town and in cities across the globe to protest the increasing use of GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in our food supply.  The “March Against Monsanto”, one of the larger proponents of this technology, is now an annual event that strives to educate citizens about the dangers of GMO products and persuade voters to take action against their proliferation.  Currently the focus is on legislation that would that would at least label the presence of GMOs in various food items.  It has been an uphill battle. 

Some of the anxiety about GMOs is legitimate.  With respect to the human food supply, genetically altered plants, animals and bacteria could theoretically become a source of new food allergies, increased toxicity, and reduced nutritional value.  Genetically altered bacteria may confer additional antibiotic resistance or give microbes greater ability to circumvent the human immune system. 

With respect to the environment there is great concern that cross pollination between GMO crops and native or “heritage” plant species will contaminate and degrade these valuable genetic resources, which are vital to supplies of food and pharmaceutical products.  For example, in Mexico, heritage species of corn already show GMO contamination.  Growing GMO crops tends to require more pesticides, and these in turn have an impact on the health of local ecologies.

To be fair, concerns about GMOs have not yet been substantiated with much independent research, so some of these fears are largely speculative at the moment.  People who are afraid of GMOs are also often afraid of large corporations.  On the other hand, people eager to maximize profit and efficiency and reduce cost tend to be less concerned about long term impacts on society or the environment.  Human nature being what it is, one suspects that political and economic motivations underlie the efforts of partisans on both sides of the GMO issue.

Not surprisingly, science fiction writers have anticipated some of these concerns about genetic engineering or “tampering” as early as the 1930s.  An interesting example is Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Proteus Island, a novella published in 1936—but see also his meditation on the hazards of human genetic engineering in The Adaptive Ultimate, published the year before.  (See Maladaptations).

Sam Moskowitz notes that Weinbaum was successful and influential because of “the high degree of scientific authenticity he imparted to his otherworldly creations, rescuing them from the realm of the fairy tale.”  Though he studied chemical engineering, Weinbaum gave especial attention to the exotic biology of the fantastic worlds he created, and one can see this beginning with his first science fiction story, the classic A Martian Odyssey (1934).  He also seems to have been intrigued by language and the possibilities of communication between completely different life forms.  A linguistic focus underpins some of the conceptual or back story content of his tales, and cleverly used, adds interest and intrigue.

In Proteus Island, zoologist Alan Carver is abandoned by his fearful expedition crew on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand.  Almost immediately he discovers unusual, unclassifiable animals among the more familiar species of the region.  As he leaves the shore and progresses towards the center of the island, approaching the origin of the mystery, he finds himself surrounded by an ever greater variety of plant and animal forms.  Which forms are strangely singular, with no more than one of each represented.

But the fact that bore home to him now was another stunning repetition of all his observations of Austin Island—they did not resemble each other!  Indeed, it occurred to Carver with the devastating force of a blow that, so far on this mad island, he had seen no two living creatures, animal or vegetable, that appeared to belong to related species.

Unique among all of these singletons is a beautiful young woman whom Carver names Lilith, after the mythological being that Adam supposedly encountered in Eden before the creation of Eve.  The allusion to the Genesis story is inescapable, but Weinbaum keeps the reference a subtle one.  Proteus Island is essentially an adventure story of the “mysterious island” type.  But its structure, that of a “crime scene investigation”, is reminiscent of another biogenetic-horror who-done-it, Anthony N. Rud’s 1923 novella Ooze (see also Clues at the Scene of the Slime).  Unlike many pulp science fiction stories of the time, Proteus Island includes a credible though doomed romantic interest: the zoologist cannot resist falling in love with his wild eyed female specimen.

Near the center of the island, Lilith and Carver discover the ruins of a research laboratory, that of one Ambrose Callan, a scientist renowned for his pioneering work in “synthetic evolution”.  Using a process involving radiation and injection of modified chromosomal material, Callan created genetically modified tree and animal species.  Windblown pollen from the trees contaminated all the other plant species on the island, and his animal subjects similarly spread their disordered heredity throughout the local ecology. 

Not only did this disaster make the island’s denizens more ferocious and its vegetation toxic, it ruined plant and animal taxonomy, making it impossible to classify or identify life forms.  In a neat reversal of the Genesis story, in which Adam names all the animals in the Garden of Eden, zoologist Alan Carver sees in Callan’s disastrous experiment the un-naming and un-creation of all living things.

Contemporary readers may shun traditional Holy Scriptures like the Bible, but there is at least science fiction to help us know what the future may hold for humankind.  The horrors of Proteus Island are very much the same ones that terrify the protesters gathering for the “March Against Monsanto” this afternoon.