(Our) Year in Review
Fiction: 'Zombie Hitler vs Neil Armstrong' by Marie Vibbert

Review Round-up: Tedric, A Strange Discovery, Scientific Romances

TedricThree old science fiction stories, liberated from the vaults of Project Gutenberg. Includes E.E. Doc Smith's "Tedric", Charles Dake's A Strange Discovery (his sequel to Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym) and C.H. Hinton's Scientific Romances. They're all... flawed... but very interesting.

"Tedric" (1953) and "Lord Tedric" (1954) by E.E. Doc Smith

"Tedric" is good ol' fashioned sword and sorcery novelette, bracketed by some science fictional wand-waving. Professors from the SPACEFUTURE see the Darkest Timeline coming about and, accordingly, fiddle about in the past to find a way of preventing it. Their roving time-eye lands on Tedric - an ironworker in a quasi-fantasy realm who is disgruntled with the whole 'human sacrifice' ethos of the reigning theocracy. The friendly professors pass Tedric the secrets of steelworking and the ironworker (6'4" and 200+ pounds of man-muscle) builds himself an Iron Steel Man suit and a big sword. A one man revolution ensues. 

There's certainly some brawny charm to this - and it isn't totally unlike, say, Robert Howard's Almuric - but this ode to galvanised steel misplays its technological advantage. Once Tedric is geared up, there's literally nothing that can stop him, a point that the story makes abundantly clear. An adventure story without any threat is completely devoid of tension, and "Tedric" is a lesser story for it.

"Lord Tedric", however, is more charming (and also more bonkers) - a creative, post-modern revisitation that puts "Tedric" solidly in the role of straight man. Again a time-travelling professor interferes in brawny-man Tedric's timeline, this time embracing his role as a god, Llosir. Under his tutelage, Tedric stands as the right-hand man to his monarch, Phagon. Phagon is demonstrably smarter than Tedric - a schemer and a military tactician, whereas Tedric really likes to charge forward and hit things. With the 'god's' help, Tedric keeps Phagon alive for the duration of a campaign against the empire of Sarlon. Phagon is the brains, while Tedric does the heavy lifting (often literally). This sequel is more tongue-in-cheek as well. Tedric is a bit goofy, and his superheroism related in comedic tones. 

As with "Tedric", the concept is based around a single Jonbar point - a moment where the existence of the DARKEST TIMELINE can be thwarted. However, in "Lord Tedric", the execution is more intriguingly oblique. Tedric is still invincible, and now he's united with his rather brainy monarch - but unlike its predecessor, "Lord Tedric" still maintains tension. We are told from the beginning that there's a single mistake - a slip-up - that brings everything down. And as Tedric and Phagon plot and counter-plot, we're interested: no matter how impressive the duo are, something terrible is going to happen. 

Incidentally, it does. And it is a huge let-down. But, hey, at least "Lord Tedric" keeps the reader's attention throughout.

E.E. Doc Smith and Gordon Eklund continued Tedric's stories in later, longer stories, bringing Steel Man forward in time and throwing him into space battles - which sounds like an intriguing way of combining both the framing device and the meat of the stories.. But as to the two novelettes here - the conceit is interesting, but there's surprisingly little drama. "Lord Tedric" at least finds a way to form a challenge around the protagonist's invincibility, but that's little consolation.

A Strange Discovery (1897) by Charles Romyn Dake

The abrupt ending of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym ruffled a lot of feathers.  (If you've not read it, definitely worth seeking out - but seriously, the ending is weird.) Dake was a leading physician and a noted homeopath and, apparently, more ruffled than most. Although not known as a writer (he'd had two previously published short stories), he took it upon himself to write A Strange Discovery - a sort of companion manuscript to Arthur Gordon Pym. Dake sets out to demystify the mystery, solve the cliff-hanger ending and add in a lot of world-building detail. Dake, if you'll excuse the phrasing, Haggards his Poe. <blushes furiously>

Except, well, A Strange Discovery is sooooo boring. Our narrator is a traveling Englishman, who, doing business in Indiana, takes full advantage of his 'outsider' status to share his observations on absolutely everything - from religion to politics to race to wine to poetry to food. It takes fully half the book before the 'sequel' even begins. The narrator meets two local doctors (who have their own opinions, leading to endless 'lively' debate on everything from Prohibition to medical practices), one of whom is treating Peters - the quasi-'simian' sidekick from Arthur Gordon Pym. The three all head out to Peters' deathbed, where they prod at his PTSD and generally treat him like a lab rat until he spills his story. And it takes forever to get there. Dake had a lot of opinions, and was quite keen to share each and every one in excruciating detail. Some of it, I'm sure, is lost in translation - the narrative is set the the 18970s, and I suspect that Dake (writing in the 1890s) was infusing his political/social commentary with searing insight. And, if so, bless him. But, good lord, this is boring.

As for the adventure narrative - Dake really does Haggard his Poe. Arthur Gordon Pym isn't Poe's strongest work, but even then it contained Poe's naturally poetic turn of phrase, macabre leanings and compellingly weird atmosphere. Dake has none of that - and his trinity of worthies (Peters quickly loses his narrative voice, and his story handed over to the Englishman and his friends) grind Pym's narrative down into complete rubbish. Kept: the ludicrous racism. Abandoned: all sense of mystery or fun. A stylish, adventure is transformed into a lengthy pseudo-historical reel that's no more interesting - or plausible - for being comprehensive. It is hard to see how Dake wasn't influenced by the 'lost world' books of Haggard and De Mille that were published between Pym (1838) and the 1890s, as the author sets out to describe the lost world in excruciating detail. 

A disappointment, but a fun one, I suppose - perhaps more for the book than the text. Jules Verne also took it upon himself to 'complete' Arthur Pym, in An Antarctic Mystery (1897), and his efforts seem to be slightly better known. Between Haggard, De Mille, Verne and Dake, that makes for a very short period of time where a lot of these seminal 'lost world' narratives were published (although I suspect the popularity of Haggard and De Mille led to Verne and Dake being inspired to tackle Poe?). And certainly Dake's use of the adventure story as a platform for social philosophising isn't new, but he is impressively, uh, overt about it. As a final, grim note - Dake discovered he had cancer and took his own life in 1899 - the year of A Strange Discovery's publication.

Scientific RomancesScientific Romances (First Series) (1886) by C.H. Hinton

So, C.H. Hinton was kind of awesome. According to Wikipedia, he:

  • Coined the term "tesseract"
  • Built a gunpowder-powered pitching machine for the Princeton baseball team (it could even do curveballs!)
  • Gets namechecked in works by Alan Moore, Aleister Crowley and Jorge Luis Borges

The latter is, I suppose, the most relevant here (although, c'mon GUNPOWDER PITCHING MACHINE!). Hinton was one of the foremost thinkers on the math and geometry of higher dimensions. Moreover, with works like his Scientific Romances pamphlet series, he came up with ways of expressing and illustrating his work for the lay-person. 

To be personal about this, I picked up two major lessons from Scientific Romances:

First, if you can't read the back of the book, don't be afraid to Google it. For example, if you're searching Project Gutenberg for an interesting read, "Scientific Romances" could mean early science fiction or cheesy/charming love stories or any number of things. But what it really means is a Big Book of Math. 

Second, and more seriously, this is a lovely example of a fiction book - and a successful one - that's not about storytelling. This seems a truism, but it was something discussed in my review of M.A.R. Barker's first Tékumel novel, and, to be honest, is also a constant point of debate in the SF/F community. Hinton lays it on the line with his introduction to the section called "A Plane World":

I should have wished to be able to refer the reader altogether to that ingenious work, "Flatland". But on turning over its pages again, I find that the author has used his rare talent for a purpose foreign to the intent of our work. For evidently the physical conditions of life on the plane have not been his main object. He has used them as a setting wherein to place his satire and his lessons. But we wish, in the first place, to know the physical facts.

This is rather wonderful. Hinton's description of "Flatland" is biased, but accurate. Although Abbott's (brilliant) work does include the basics of higher dimensional theory by way of metaphor, it is, mostly, a thinly-veiled social satire - touching on, amongst other things, the Victorian class system and the role of women. It is, I suppose, another book where the story is secondary - and, indeed, that sort of 'dreaded' overtly political novel that's since become a science fiction classic.

Hinton, on the other hand, cares about none of that. Certainly his goal with "A Plane World" is to teach math, and fair enough - judged by that metric, "A Plane World" is an outstanding success. But this slightly snide introduction is the equivalent of saying "that piece of science fiction wasn't scientific enough" - another critical approach that will be familiar to contemporary readers. This criticism is made more interesting because Hinton doesn't use Flatland as a jumping-off point, with "A Plane World" as a non-fictional treatise. Rather, "A Plane World" is presented as fiction, a work of world building, complete with "anecdotal" interjections. Hinton uses his mathematical presentation to address not only the geographic conditions of his world, but also their society, moral characteristics and even mythology. And it is really, really bad. As a vehicle for teaching math? This is clearly the primary goal - and Hinton's work is terrific. As a means of storytelling? Being rigidly scientifically accurate may allow Hinton to sleep better at night, but certainly didn't make the story any better.