Jan 21, 2018

Y in the... ?

sleeping together, but interrupted by Langley
I was pleasantly surprised that episode #2 ("This") of  The X-Files season 11 was almost a science fiction story. Rather than science fiction, "This" is a typical X-Files conspiracy fantasy with some Hollywood pseudo-science crammed into the plot by Chris Carter.

Golden Braid: Struggle to Kill the Shark
"This" continues an old X-files Sci Fi theme that was revived in "My Struggle III": some remaining members of the Syndicate are trying to arrange for a select few humans to escape the imminent END OF THE WORLD.

artificial Langley
In "My Struggle III" we were introduced to Mr. Y and Erika Price. Erika shows up again in "This", running some sort of hi-tek think tank, a virtual reality system in which a digital copy of Langley's mind has been kept since Langley's death (see "Jump the Shark"). "This" will remind X-Files fans of the old episode, "Kill Switch".

Jump Again
still got some scoot in her boot
"This" is silly and goes over the top with absurd action scenes that I'll try to forget as soon as possible. The worst part of the episode comes when we are told that Erika Price's mysterious mind-snatching organization can use smart phones to suck the contents of peoples brains into their virtual reality-generating server array. Viewers of the episode are told that inside that virtual reality, the minds of Steve Jobs and assorted rock stars function as digital slaves, solving tough problems for Erika, presumably getting her close to being able to escape from Earth, go into outer space and live happily ever after on a Dyson sphere.

Plus One
in bed together
During The X-Files season 11 episode #3 I kept hoping that they might tie the telepathic powers of the perps to the telepathic powers of William or the characters in Season 10's "Founder Mutation" episode. However, there was little effort made towards having this episode make sense. One hint of logic: maybe these perps were born with the ability to telepathically "push" people towards suicide, but Scully had the power to resist (three cheers for alien DNA).

Karin Konoval
Watching this episode (and all of Season 11 so far), I felt transported back to the 1960s when Captain Kirk had to have a fist fight in every episode of Star Trek. Now in every X-Files episode Mulder has to fight someone and Scully has to lament becoming an aging spinster. Every episode now also has to show Scully and Mulder sleeping together.

a telepathic connection
Did Mulder just get lucky when he stumbled upon the first of the two twin perps? For an agent called "spooky", I'm willing to believe that Mulder has some kind of telepathic ability, maybe an ability to receive telepathic signals from folks like the perps in "Plus One".

I have to believe that Mulder and Scully had exactly what it took to defeat the two telepathic perps, telepaths who have been killing people since they first became murderers by killing their parents. Scully, in particular, was able to summon her rationality (just like Spock in Star Trek) and so defend herself (and Mulder) from the two perps. And we have to believe that it was the smokey fire of the Mulder-Scully relationship that ignited a feud between the two perps, distracting them and ultimately making them kill each-other rather than the two stars of the show.

Mulder and Scully are not getting any younger, and it seems like Chris Carter wants us to believe that they are now (finally) both ready to turn to each-other for comfort. The shippers go wild.

The Y-Files
The Y-Files
I previously fantasized about ways that The X-Files might morph into a new existence as some sort of "X-Files the Next Generation" science fiction television series. It looks like Season 11 is stumbling towards a "My Struggle IV" final episode that will show William's struggles and which could easily set the stage for a "Next Generation" X-Files continuation. The rest of the Season 11 episodes might just continue to show Mulder and Scully getting ready for retirement.

Related Reading: The X-Files Season 11 Episode 1
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Jan 20, 2018

A Lost Flame

cover art by Edmund Emshwiller
Theoretically, this blog post is a retro-review of a Stanley G. Weinbaum story called "The Black Flame". However, I'm most interested in the role that Weinbaum played as a link between older style adventure stories and the new literary genre of science fiction that was being created during the short period of time when Weinbaum was actively publishing his stories. "The Black Flame" is a story that was rejected by publishers during Weinbaum's lifetime, but it was eventually published after his death. It is fun to imagine reasons why editors originally refused to publish "The Black Flame".

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame
Weinbaum is famous for his stories such as "A Martian Odyssey" that include alien creatures from other planets. I suspect that I first read "A Martian Odyssey" in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (although it may have been in this anthology). I don't think I bought that book, but I probably read just the first story (which was "A Martian Odyssey") while standing in a book store. I've previously mentioned some stories that I first saw in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume IIA and IIB.

on Mars in 1934, click to enlarge
I still (more than 40 years later) remember my distaste for "A Martian Odyssey". I felt that Weinbaum's depiction of Mars and life on Mars was absurd, silly and at the outer fringes of science fiction. Of course, opinions of what constitutes science fiction vary from person to person. What did people think about science fiction back in 1934?
An editorial from the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories that included "A Martian Odyssey"

July 1934
This editorial (above) suggests that science fiction is educational and it introduces new ideas that can lead to scientific advances. I'm not sure that those lofty ideals apply to the works of Weinbaum, a man who apparently began a pursuit of an engineering education but dropped out of college. Weinbaum's 1934 imagined account of life on Mars was completely unbelievable by the time I read it 30 years after its publication.

I found "The Black Flame" the be an odd mixture of fantasy, romance and science fiction. It would be interesting to know which pulp magazines rejected the story; it was finally published after his death when fans were lamenting Weinbaum's loss and publishers were willing to alter their standards and publish anything that Weinbaum had ever written.

"A Martian Odyssey" begins with the crew from the first ever expedition to Mars learning about the alien beings who reside on the surface of Mars. After landing on the planet, it is their job to fly around and do aerial photography. In contrast, for "The Black Flame", Weinbaum imagined a future in which giant Earthly telescopes had been able to obtain high resolution images of the surface of Mars long before an expedition was ever sent from Earth to Mars.

includes "A Martian Odyssey"
Of course, Weinbaum, living in the pre-computer age, never imagined that automated spacecraft would be sent to Mars and obtain high resolution images of the surface by means of digital photography from orbit. And certainly "The Black Flame" came closer to reality than did "A Martian Odyssey", which reads just like some old-fashioned adventure story in which white explorers go to deepest darkest Africa, find a man Friday and plunder the precious jewels of the native tribe. I have to say, I feel that "The Black Flame" is a better science fiction story than "A Martian Odyssey", so I need to explain why it was that "A Martian Odyssey" got published and "The Black Flame" got rejected.

I feel that "The Black Flame" is essentially an early story about what we call the "technological singularity", the idea that scientific discoveries and technological advances are coming at increasingly fast rates and sometime soon we will reach a discontinuity after which the world will be completely transformed by technology and will then exist in a new domain, distinct from all previous human history. Today, most people who predict the imminent arrival of such a "technological singularity" usually predict that humans will produce super-intelligent artificial lifeforms who will then dominate Earth and be cognitively as far above we humans as we are above ants. Weinbaum imagined a different kind of future for human advanced technology development, one that I find more interesting than the current craze for shouting "Super-intelligent A.I. is coming; it is the end of the world!".

I believe that the likely reason for why editors rejected "The Black Flame" is that Weinbaum did not have an original idea for how to get his story started. In fact, I can understand if pulp magazine editors thought Weinbaum had inexcusably stolen too many plot elements from other authors. Rather than just write a story about an imagined future of Earth with advanced technologies, Weinbaum wanted to provide a direct connection between his readers in the 20th century and the world that he imagined existing 1000 years in the future. He did this by putting the hero of the story (Thomas, a man from the 20th century) into suspended animation.

Suspended animation
Suspended animation has long been a popular plot element of stories. I was first exposed to the idea of a "long sleep" by the story Rip Van Winkle in which a man drinks something magical and falls into a long sleep.

Han rocket and
disintegrator beams
The story "Armageddon 2419 A.D." (published in 1928 in Amazing Stories) by Philip Francis Nowlan (1888 - 1940) introduced Anthony Rogers, who eventually became Buck Rogers. Anthony miraculously "arrives in the future" just when the Americans are ready to revolt and get rid of the "Han Airlords" and their leader (who is known as "the Most Magnificent"). The "Han Airlords" are invaders from Asia who reside in 15 cities while the defeated Americans still have most of the land in North America. Rogers arrives in 2419 A.D. through accidental suspended animation. The magical mechanism: he gets trapped in a mine with radioactive gas that puts him into suspended animation. In Nowlan's story, Rogers has to fight the Second Revolutionary War in order to liberate the Americans from the Han invaders. I suspect that when editors received "The Black Flame" as a new story from Weinbaum, they could not publish it due to its many plot similarities to Nowlan's famous "Buck" Rogers saga.

big hair in 1953
The closest I've come to buying a magazine so that I could read a Sci Fi story was when I bought a few issues of Omni magazine back in the late 1970s during the period of time when Ben Bova was the fiction editor for Omni. These days, we can download PDF copies of the old Sci Fi magazines like Amazing Stories.

When I first saw the drawing in Amazing Stories of an immortal Jules Verne coming out of his grave (see below), I was creeped out. I suspect that Weinbaum was inspired to sit down and write the first few pages of "The Black Flame".

For "The Black Flame", Weinbaum imagined that an electrocuted man could be inadvertently put into a state of suspended animation. He wakes up 1000 years later, at which point he has been reduced to little more than a dried-up walking skeleton.
the immortal Jules Verne in Amazing Stories
future war: 2419 A.D.
I Died, But I Got Better
The version of "The Black Flame" that I've read is the one published in 1939. I've never seen another version, apparently some 18,000 words longer.

At the start of "The Black Flame", we are provided with a sickening account of the near-skeletal body of Thomas being eroded out of an old cemetery, a thousand years after his death. Thomas Connor was electrocuted as punishment for killing his soon-to-be wife's lover in a fist fight. Weinbaum did not expend much effort providing a fictional science explanation for how someone could survive being buried for a thousand years.

"A Tribute to the Late Stanley G. Weinbaum" by Otto Binder
In the 1939 issue of Startling Stories where "The Black Flame" was first published, there was also a tribute article written by Otto Binder. Binder wrote that "The Black Flame" might be Weinbaum's masterpiece.

Since 1920 when Arthur Eddington proposed the idea that stars might get energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei, there had been speculation about fusion power. One of  Weinbaum's imaginary future technologies in "The Black Flame" is fusion power, both for industrial use and for powering spaceships. I'd be interested to know if there was any earlier fictional account of using hydrogen fusion as a power source.

In the first page artwork for "The Black Flame" (shown below) there is a triangular fusion-powered spaceship just below the "L" in "FLAME". Also visible on the coin that partially covers the "B" in "BLACK" is the Black Flame herself, who becomes part of a love triangle with Thomas (image to the right) and Evanie (image to the left).

Evanie and Thomas fight to depose The Master (click image to enlarge). Interior art by Hans Wessolowski
Ruler of Earth
The Black Flame is the sister of The Master, ruler of Earth. The Black Flame gives Thomas a ride in her spaceship, but since she only has an hour to spare out of her busy schedule, they only get into Earth orbit. However, readers learn that humans have visited the Moon. Given the availability of fusion-powered spaceships, I was left wondering why there had been no trip to Mars or even more distant destinations.

The center of the universe
St. Louis is the center of the universe. Not only does our hero, Thomas, get buried there, but he "wakes up" at exactly the right time to join Evanie in her revolt against The Master. Evanie's father previously tried to lead an insurrection against The Master, but he was killed for his attempt to depose The Master. AND, as further proof that St. Louis is the center of the universe, one day while Thomas is recuperating from his death and walking on the outskirts of town, the Black Flame, out randomly slumming in the wilds (and first seen gazing lovingly at her own reflection in a pond), bumps into our hero.
Thomas tries to kill The Master.

Evanie is the first woman that Thomas meets in the future and he thinks she is "gloriously beautiful". However, Evanie has a dark past: she is part mutant. While trying to genetically engineer immortal humans, several types of mutated humans were created, and Evanie carries some mutant genes. Evanie's mutant genes are supposed to explain why such a gloriously beautiful woman is single and available to become Thomas' girl friend.

The Black Flame and The Master are also mutants: two of the Immortals. There are only about 50,000 Immortals, most of them the nerdy scientists who The Master has deemed worthy of being made immortal. The Master became ruler of the world when his friend, an uber-scientist, discovered the secret of immortality. With his cadre of immortal scientists working for him, The Master has the technological power to rule the world. In this technological singularity story, it is not an evil A.I. that takes over Earth, but the Immortal Master.

The Black Flame takes Thomas for a ride in her spaceship.
Thomas thinks that the Black Flame is endowed with "goddess-like beauty". Eventually Thomas ditches Evanie and hitches up with the Black Flame. However, one limitation of immortality is that it causes infertility. However, (as Weinbaum patiently explains to readers) Thomas and the Black Flame must mix their superior genes and make a batch of babies, so she will allow herself to become mortal again, for a time. The plan: after they've had children, both Thomas and the Black Flame will be given immortality.

drone attack
What about the dumped girlfriend, Evanie? After her revolution against The Master fails and her attempt to kill the Black Flame with a nuclear weapon fails, she decides to live happily ever after with her long-time admirer, Jan Orm, who is willing to ignore her mutant genes.

Why does the Black Flame fall in love with Thomas? After a few good meals, Thomas recovers from his death and regains his normal manly proportions. But "normal" for the 20th century is unusual compared to the small, effeminate men of the future. Also, the Black Flame tries to intimidate and scare Thomas, but unlike the men of the future, he acts tough and unafraid; The Black Flame swoons. So much for the "triangles", both nuclear powered and romantic in Weinbaum's story.

artificial life
In my view, what makes this an interesting science fiction story is the "technological singularity" depicted by Weinbaum. Yes, The Master rules the world, but he is actually a benign and enlightened dictator.

One of the Master's hi tek tools for keeping control of the world is his drone surveillance system. When Evanie and Thomas and their gang of incompetent revolutionaries attack The Master's palace, they discover that their lame plot is known to The Master and their actions have been anticipated. When the revolutionaries storm The Master's palace, the palace guards are safe behind a hi tek deflector field. Evanie and Thomas run off after their coup fails, but they are tracked down by The Master's drones and returned to the palace. There, Thomas tries to shoot The Master as he sits on his thrown, but The Master is also safe behind a deflector screen. By this point, The Master is losing his patience and is ready to kill Thomas, but the Black Flame intercedes to save Thomas; after all, she's bored with her endless life and views Thomas as a manly man from the ancient past who might enliven her tedious existence.

Most people in this futuristic, post-scarcity Earth are happy. Advanced technologies have been used for projects such as irrigating the Sahara desert (image to the left). Nuclear-powered factories provide Stuff to meet everyone's material needs. Only a few malcontents like Evanie want revolution, for reasons that she has difficulty expressing. Thomas eventually develops a man-crush on The Master and decides to move into the Palace and live forever with The Master's sister. It is easy to imagine that Weinbaum, had he lived longer, might have written a sequel to "The Black Flame" in which Thomas and his wife would go off together in a fusion-powered spaceship to explore outer space.

The funniest part of "The Black Flame" comes when Thomas must divulge what he knows about lost knowledge from the 20th century. Here, Weinbaum's engineering education shines through and he has Thomas carefully explain logarithms to an enthralled Black Flame. She gushes, "We must have ten-place logarithm tables worked out".

Related Reading: Weinbaum in an alternate Reality
Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1939 includes the S. G. Weinbaum story "Dawn of Flame"

Next: telepathy
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