Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hell on Venus

Though not his forte, Clark Ashton Smith made several forays into science fiction, in stories like “Marooned in Andromeda” (1930), “A Captivity in Serpens” (1931) and the posthumously published “The Red World of Polaris” (2003).  These three featured the intrepid yet gloomy character of Captain Volmar, a sort of Solomon Kane in space.  (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda.) 

One of Smith’s best science fiction stories was the nightmarish “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (1932), the narrative of a doomed Martian landing crew that encounters a monstrous threat in the shadowy depths of an ancient ruin.  The latter showcased Smith’s finesse with incorporating elements of horror and dark fantasy into an interstellar adventure.

Not all of Smith’s science fiction stories were set in outer space.  An eccentric occultist invents a device to amplify the “dark vibration” emanating from the source of absolute evil in “The Devotee of Evil” (1933).  In “The Face by the River”, one of his most realistic stories, a murderer is driven to madness and death by an eidetic image of his victim seared into his visual cortex, a sort of physiologically mediated haunting.  (This story was published posthumously in 2004.) 

Despite his preference for horror and fantasy, Smith certainly demonstrated the potential to write memorable science fiction stories.  Readers may know of additional examples.  One wonders what he might have produced in this genre had he continued to write with the intensity that he had between 1930 and 1935.

Whether on earth or in outer space, nearly all of Smith’s science fiction stories involved disastrous outcomes for his characters.  A recent post discussed Smith’s tale of a Venusian invasion of Earth, “The Metamorphosis of the World” written around 1930 but published in 1951.  Although humanity rallies against the Venusians—who attempt to transform our planet’s geology, climate and ecology to something more to their liking—the story ends with a stalemate rather than a victorious and secure earth.  (See also Venusians and Global Climate Change.)  Smith seems not to have liked the planet Venus very much, judging by another story of his, “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931).  Then again, he was not very keen about Mars, or our own planet for that matter.

Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky, and has been of interest to astronomers and philosophers for millennia.  By around 2000 B.C. its path across the sky had been determined, and in modern times it became an object of intense scientific interest because of its nearness and similarity—in size and composition—to Earth.  However, the impenetrably thick atmosphere prevented astronomers from seeing its surface, but allowed pulp science fiction writers to speculate wildly about what life might be like on Venus.  At least this was so until the late twentieth century, when Mariner 2, the two Venera missions, and the Magellan orbiter provided a more detailed picture of the planet’s geology and climate.  Which picture argued against the likelihood of any life on the planet.

It is now known that Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, hotter even than Mercury, despite the latter being the closest to the sun.  Its surface is rocky, volcanic and desert-like, with an average temperature of 863˚Fahrenheit.  The dense atmosphere is about 95% carbon dioxide, which creates the most intense greenhouse effect in the entire Solar System.  There is no water on the surface of Venus, and little seasonal variation.  However, there is a kind of rain and snow on the tops of high mountains —composed of sulfuric acid and possibly lead sulfide—as well as lightning and thunder.  Of all the planets that have been studied so far, Venus is the one most closely resembling the biblical Hell.
However, at the time that Clark Ashton Smith wrote “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931), it was assumed by many speculative fiction writers that Venus was a hot, steamy planet, covered by jungle vegetation, perpetually wet beneath tropical rain clouds.  It resembled prehistoric Earth, often supporting saurian life forms and treacherous carnivorous plants.  This notion persisted well into the 1950s and 1960s, for example in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, which is in his classic collection The Illustrated Man (1951).  In that story, hapless explorers endure endless rain and a predaceous environment to reach a “Sun Dome” before they go mad or fall prey to various hazards.  As in Smith’s “The Immeasurable Horror”, the message of Bradbury’s story seems to be that humans don’t belong on Venus.

“The Immeasurable Horror” chronicles the demise of the second Venusian expedition, in particular an exploration party led by the narrator, which leaves the relative safety of the mission base to investigate the equatorial plains of Venus.  The doomed crew encounter various hazards along the way.  The unearthly vegetation has predatory or parasitic traits, a common image in the outer space science fiction of the time.  Smith makes frequent use of this trope in his Captain Volmar stories.  It was also used to good effect in the imaginative work of Stanley G. Weinbaum, in stories like “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), “The Lotus Eaters” (1935)—which also takes place on Venus—and “The Mad Moon” (1935).   

Besides the hazardous jungle flora, there is a horrendous specimen of Venusian fauna, immense, nightmarish and relentless, that the men must contend with.  It is interesting to compare the organism in “The Immeasurable Horror” to the primordial entity called “Ubbo-Sathla” in Smith’s 1933 story of the same name.  (See also The Hazards of Curiosity Shops.)  In the former, the monster is an enormous omnivorous amoeba, enveloping and digesting its prey like “The Blob”.  This being science fiction, the Venusian monster is exaggerated micro-biology, essentially a mobile and apparently intelligent stomach.    

In the latter story, published a couple years later, Ubbo-Sathla is biologically very similar—an immense protoplasmic slime that encircles prehistoric earth.  But it is also the horrible and loathsome chaos from which all sentient life evolves, the “unbegotten source” according to The Book of Eibon. “And all earthly life, it is told, shall go back at last through the great circle of time to Ubbo-Sathla.”  (Per Clark Ashton Smith, there is also reference to Ubbo-Sathla in the Necronomicon—so it is helpful to have both resources on hand.) 

Unlike “The Immeasurable Horror”, “Ubbo-Sathla” is a Lovecraftian fantasy involving past-life regression via an ancient palaeogean crystal—the device recalls the “Shining Trapezohedron” in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936).  The entity is amorphous and vaguely marine, as repellent and shocking as anything invoked in one of Lovecraft’s Mythos tales.  Whereas Lovecraft has his entities scheming to restore their rule over earth from the outside, Smith puts godawful slime at the heart and origin of all life on earth, a sort of icky original sin woven into our genetics and race memories.  This is probably where it belongs.

“The Immeasurable Horror” appeared in the September 1931 issue of Weird Tales, alongside of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane adventure, “The Footfalls Within” and August Derleth’s “The Bridge of Sighs”. 

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