Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Fort

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 3

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

After I had been working on “The Spires” for about a week, I had what might have seemed at first like a lot of material. I knew that the main character would be a bush pilot in Alaska sometime in the thirties, and I had a decent sense of his backstory. The mystery would revolve around the silent city in the sky that Charles Fort discusses in New Lands, and despite my initial trepidation, I even had an explanation for it, in the form of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program and a mirage that went backward in time. But while this might seem like a fair chunk of story, it really wasn’t much at all—because I didn’t know what would actually happen yet. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman speaks of the range of possibilities that he confronted when he began writing an original story based on his love for red wine:

Now, what kind of tale could I try? Answer: anything. There are no rules when you start in. I could have written a heart-wrenching drama—Ray Milland deux, if you will. A Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, set in Prohibition, about who owns Chicago. I could have made it a George Lucas job, set in the future when scientists have discovered that if you substitute blood for Bordeaux, people will stagger around a lot but they’ll also live forever.

Goldman ended up writing it as a romantic comedy thriller, and the result was The Year of the Comet, a flop so infamous that its male lead, Tim Daly, recently said wistfully to The A.V. Club: “That was my shot, right? That was my shot to be a movie star.” Which might be a warning in itself.

As far as “The Spires” was concerned, though, I found that I could reason my way toward a plot largely from first principles. My protagonist probably wouldn’t fly up to Willoughby Island alone, since it’s usually better to have more than one character, if only so that he could occasionally talk to someone. Like most of my stories, it required that a fair amount of information be fed to the reader, which is usually best handled with dialogue. I didn’t want my main character to be an expert on Charles Fort, mirages, or time travel, since this didn’t fit his background, and by withholding some of the details for as long as possible, I would have more options when it came to structuring the mystery. The obvious conclusion, then, was that my pilot was flying someone else into Glacier Bay. It occurred to me at some point that it could be a woman, which suggested a few angles in itself, and when I added a third man—the woman’s husband—to the equation, the possibilities multiplied. For a while, I considered writing it as an homage to Dead Calm, and there are still a few traces of this in the finished result, although I didn’t take it as far as I might have. This might all sound pretty mechanical, but I hoped to proceed along these lines for as long as possible, simply by following my instincts about what this sort of story needed. I also like to get ideas from the setting, and I spent some time reading about Willoughby Island. Its geography gave me a few story beats, and I learned that at one point it had been a fox farm, which provided me with some useful images. (Remarkably enough, about six months after writing the story, I ended up on a cruise to Alaska, and I had a chance to see Willoughby Island with my own eyes. To my relief, it looked more or less like I’d imagined it.)

It wasn’t until I’d been working in this manner for a while, and maybe not until I started writing, that I realized that I had a problem on my hands. Because I was dealing with HAARP, which still made me uneasy, I decided to stick all of that material at the very end, outside the boundaries of the main plot, which would put some distance between it and the narrative. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it also gave “The Spires” the structure of a setup followed by a punchline. In other words, it was a shaggy dog story. There’s a venerable tradition of this kind of thing in science fiction, so this wasn’t necessarily an issue in itself. The trouble was the tone. In most cases, a plot like this benefits from a light touch that alerts the reader to the fact that the ending is going to pull away the rug, and if not, then it should at least be short. (One of my favorite examples is “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, which is close to my ideal of this sort of story.) “The Spires” was neither of the above. It was moody and atmospheric, with a dynamic between the three main characters that was played more or less straight, and it became clear early on that it was going to be a novelette. Part of this has to do with my own tastes—and limitations—as a writer. My stories vary widely in time period and setting, but their tonal range tends to be relatively narrow. I don’t really do humor, because that’s a specialized skill that only a handful of science fiction writers have ever managed to pull off, and I’ve refined a style over time that works for me. If my touchstone is The X-Files, I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a Darin Morgan episode, but on a good day, I can manage something like “Ice” or maybe even “Pusher.” So I ended up writing “The Spires” in my usual fashion, even if I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And to be honest, a year and a half later and with the story in print, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I still think that the connection between HAARP and the silent city is pretty neat, to the point that it outweighed my other misgivings, and the way that the story is resolved through primary sources turned out to be rather elegant. The human side works well, too. I like the characters, the setting is exactly as evocative as I hoped it would be, and the writing seems fine, although I probably could have pushed the period angle a bit further. The trouble is how these two halves fit together, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if either piece fully serves the other. On the shaggy dog side, the story spends a lot of time developing relationships and conflicts that aren’t strictly necessary for the twist at the end, and while the length is appropriate from the point of view of internal logic, it feels long for a plot that is essentially there to deliver a slightly precious idea. (If a lot of the gimmick stories in Analog have historically suffered from flat characters and dialogue, this might simply be a case of managing the reader’s expectations.) And the fact that the ending unfolds through a series of quotations means that the plot doesn’t really get the conclusion that it deserves. As a result, I deliberately allowed the drama to simmer beneath the surface, because I knew that it wouldn’t receive a traditional resolution, but I wonder now if that was a mistake—if I’d gone with something darker or bloodier, the punchline might have landed harder. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have worked at all. In the end, this was going to be a weird story no matter what, and I did what I could to hold it all together. And maybe that’s how it had to be. As Fort himself once wrote: “The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.”

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March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 2

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

A few months before I began working on “The Spires,” I briefly spoke with the science fiction writer Gregory Benford at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. At the Campbell Awards, Benford shared an anecdote about a conversation with John W. Campbell that was so striking that I knew at once that it would end up in my book, mostly because of the editor’s comments about race, which is a subject for another post. For now, I’ll only say that the intended purpose of their encounter, which took place at the Worldcon in Berkeley in 1968, was to discuss a potential article about tachyons, or hypothetical particles that travel faster than light. Benford had written a paper on the subject—with the uncredited collaboration of Edward Teller—that he hoped to turn into a piece for Analog, and he tracked Campbell down at the hotel bar to pitch it to him in person. Campbell had written dismissively of tachyons in the magazine before, and when Benford tried to discuss it further, he was dismayed to find that the editor didn’t seem to fully grasp the physics involved. In the end, Campbell passed on the proposed article, and Benford later used tachyons as a plot point in his novel Timescape, in which they serve as a means of sending a message from the future into the past. I don’t actually mention tachyons in “The Spires,” because, frankly, I don’t fully understand the physics involved, at least not to the point that I would feel comfortable presenting it to the picky readers of Analog. (And I should confess that when Benford asked me if I knew what tachyons were, I may have said something like: “Only from Star Trek.”) But if I was thinking about particles traveling backward in time at all, it was probably thanks to that conversation with Benford.

The central premise of “The Spires,” which I still think is pretty neat, is that a mirage could work in time as well as space, with an image from the future traveling backward through the kind of atmospheric duct that produces such optical illusions as the Fata Morgana. (If this sounds confusing here, it hopefully makes more sense in the story itself.) Since the story was set in Alaska in the thirties, it occurred to me that a research facility in the present day might produce such an image by accident, casting a shadow of itself on the past without anyone even knowing about it. All I had to do was find an appropriate source of spooky radiation in Alaska, and after about ten seconds of online searching, I did. Unfortunately, it was the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you should count yourself lucky. There are times when I wish I’d never heard of it. Here’s how a recent article in Nature describes the project:

HAARP is the most powerful ionospheric heater in the world. At its heart is a phased-array radar that emits radio waves that are partially absorbed between 100 kilometers and 350 kilometers in altitude, accelerating electrons there and “heating” the ionosphere…The facility…is perhaps the only research facility that has had to justify itself as being neither a death beam aimed at Russia nor a mind-control device. So prevalent are the conspiracy theories that HAARP has even been referred to in a Tom Clancy novel, in which a fictional facility is used to induce mass psychosis in a Chinese village.

In other words, it’s the last thing that you should put at the center of a serious science fiction story, precisely because it appeals to an audience of adolescent conspiracy theorists. I should know, because I used to be one of them. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a novel that revolved around exactly this kind of mind control program, and I seem to have read such books as Angels Don’t Play This HAARP and HAARP: The Ultimate Weapon of the Conspiracy. In my defense, I was nineteen years old at the time, and this was a few years before the episode of The X-Files, written by Vince Gilligan, in which a similar array causes Brian Cranston’s head to explode. (On the bright side, this means that we also have it to thank for Breaking Bad.) Almost two decades later, for my sins, I found myself trying to build a story around it, and I almost gave it up as unworkable. At one point, I definitely decided not to use it at all. The trouble was that not only did I fail to find anything better, but I wasn’t sure that I ever could. HAARP was just too perfect. Its famous antenna array looked a lot like the city of spires that witnesses described in the sky above Alaska—a phenomenon that probably has more to do with atmospheric turbulence, but which was hard to resist for purposes of this story. Even better, or worse, was the matter of location. The “silent city” is said to appear over Mount Fairweather when viewed from the southern tip of Willoughby Island, and given those coordinates and some basic facts about mirages, it’s easy to draw a line on the map that would indicate where the “real” city would be. And one of the towns within that narrow slice of land happens to be Gakona, where the HAARP facility is located.

Ultimately, I decided to use it in the story after all, and I’m still not sure that it wasn’t a mistake. I decided to deal with it using two narrative tricks, neither of which was altogether satisfying in itself. One was to present the “solution” to the mystery entirely through quotations from primary sources, which would serve as a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand to disguise how contrived it all was. I wound up using quotes from Fort’s New Lands as epigraphs for the novelette’s three sections, followed by three passages at the end from the Alaska Dispatch, Popular Science, and Wired, which bring the story up to the present day. (It’s a conceit that also requires me to drop the human story, which is a sacrifice that may not have been worth it.) My other strategy was to make the paranoid mindset an explicit theme of the story itself. This wasn’t exactly a stretch, given the connection to Fort, and I gave a speech on the subject to one of my characters, who argues that some degree of paranoia within the larger population is justified, because it occasionally turns out to be right. As far as such themes go, it isn’t bad, but it’s there entirely to make the closing connection with HAARP slightly more palatable. Both tactics, you’ll notice, are about ironizing the narrative. The use of quotations situates the puzzle’s resolution outside the main body of the story, so that crucial information is given to the reader, not the characters—which is the textbook definition of irony. Meanwhile, the material about paranoia is my way of anticipating or deflecting any criticism of the story’s more ludicrous elements. It’s very different from my usual approach, but I think that it sort of worked. The greater problem was combining it with a story about characters who were supposed to be basically realistic. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I dealt with that challenge, and why I’m still not completely satisfied with the result.

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2018 at 9:27 am

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 1

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

On December 1, 2015, give or take a few days, I was browsing in my local thrift store when I came across a copy of the book Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country by Archie Satterfield. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it struck me at once that the subject matter would make a decent foundation for a short story—the time and place were evocative, the material was available but obscure, and the pilots that it described were the epitome of the competent men that so much science fiction uncritically celebrates. (I’ve become more skeptical of the whole idea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t use it in the service of a larger narrative.) After some dithering, I bought the book, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it right away. As it turned out, it sat on my shelf for close to a year before I picked it up again, and as it turned out, that delay profoundly affected the result. A story is the product of whatever constellation of influences and interests happens to be in a writer’s head at a particular moment, and the version that emerges on a given day might differ considerably from the one that crystallizes a few months later, even if the starting point was exactly the same. In my case, between buying the book and writing the story, not only had I begun the research for Astounding, but I’d spent months doing nothing else but reading science fiction from the golden age. In a few weeks, I would take the plunge into the first draft. And it seemed to me that if I was going to write a story in the meantime, I might as well turn it into an homage to the authors and stories I’d been reading.

First, however, I had to decide what it was about. As I had expected, Alaska Bush Pilots furnished me with an abundance of good material, and I ended up focusing on the chapter about a pilot named Frank Barr who was active in the early thirties. In late 1932, he was stranded for a month at Wolfe Lake, about fifty miles north of Anchorage, when high winds overturned his plane on the ice. Here’s how Satterfield describes the scene:

A steel cabane strut holding the upper wing to the fuselage was buckled. The plastic windshield was broken. Several ribs in the wings were broken and flattened. The fabric covering was ripped in several places. The top of the rudder was smashed. Worst of all, the propeller had about six inches broken off one tip…He started on the wing. He flattened a gas can and nailed one edge to the top of the wing spar, then curled it over the leading edge and fastened it to the bottom of the spar. He patched the broken windshield by drilling holes along both sides of the break and lacing them together. He straightened out the cabane strut and dug an axe handle out of his supplies and lashed it to the strut as a splint…There was no prop-balancing machine nearer than Juneau, over the mountains in Alaska. So he did the next best thing. He made a paper pattern of the broken tip, which gave him an idea of where to begin cutting off the good tip. He smoothed down the rough edges of the broken tip and hoped he was at least close on his estimate.

This was obviously great stuff, and I used a lot of it, along with biographical information about another pilot named Shell Simmons, who provided much of the backstory for the character I eventually called Bill Lawson.

At this point, I knew that I was writing a story about a bush pilot who gets lost in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t know what he was doing there. Under most circumstances, I would have turned to see what my favorite science magazines had to say about Alaska, but this time, I decided to take a different approach. I had always been vaguely aware of the work of the paranormal researcher Charles Fort, but I had recently been reminded of him by such stories as Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” and, above all, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, which I’d feel comfortable ranking these days as my favorite science fiction novel of all time. Instead of Discover or Scientific American, then, I did a quick search for Alaska in the online edition of Fort’s complete works. There weren’t as many references to it as I had expected, but I did come up with a section from Fort’s book New Lands that eventually became the epigraph to “The Spires”:

In the English Mechanic, Sept. 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. He had just returned from the Yukon. Early in June, 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. But whether this city exists in some unknown world on the other side of the North Pole, or not, it is a fact that this wonderful mirage occurs from time to time yearly, and we were not the only ones who witnessed the spectacle. Therefore it is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

Fort relates that the silent city was first described by a prospector named Dick Willoughby, who, after repeated attempts, actually succeeded in taking a picture of it. After quoting an earlier account of the story by the author Miner Bruce, Fort notes dryly: “Bruce publishes a reproduction of Willoughby’s photograph, and says that the city was identified as Bristol, England. So definite, or so un-mirage-like, is this reproduction, trees and many buildings shown in detail, that one supposes that the original was a photograph of a good-sized terrestrial city, perhaps Bristol, England.” As I looked at the picture itself, which I managed to track down online, it seemed to me that I had a decent beginning, and I began to research possible causes. There were plenty of rational explanations for what Willoughby claimed to have glimpsed, but they weren’t particularly interesting. The fact that so many otherwise reliable observers had described the apparition as a city was enough for me to argue—at least within the context of a story—that it was something other than a mirage, and the fact that it had been compared variously to Bristol, Toronto, Montreal, Peking and “some immense city of the past” suggested that it was really like none of the above. (I was influenced by the famous red herring in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which a voice is reported by different witnesses to be that of a German, an Englishman, or a Russian. It’s actually an orangutan.) At some point, I came up with the idea that the city in the sky was the image, cast backward in time, of some future structure or scientific project based in Alaska, which the witnesses were unable to identify because they had never seen anything like it. All that remained was to figure out what the source of this mirage might be. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer—and when I did, I really, really didn’t like it. But as I’ll explain tomorrow, I ended up using it anyway.

Looking for “The Spires”

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Over two years ago, I was browsing at my local thrift store when my eye was caught by a book titled Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket read: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” This might not seem like a volume that would appeal to the average reader, but I bought it—and I had a particular use for it in mind. Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories that I like to write, I’d call them carefully plotted works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the thirties seemed like as good a setting for this as any, and that book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would need for a novelette. I’ve come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored topic, and I automatically got to thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never interested me before.

It took me over a year to get to it, but the result was my novelette “The Spires,” which appears in the current issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was the first story that I’d attempted since commencing work on Astounding, and it was more informed than usual by the history of science fiction. When I sat down to think about it in earnest, I decided more or less at random to approach it as a tribute to the work of Charles Fort, who filled four large books with accounts of unexplained events that he gleaned from the newspaper archives at the New York Public Library. In New Lands, Fort mentions a phantom city that has occasionally been seen in the sky over Alaska, which seemed like an excellent place to start. My goal, as usual, was to begin with what sounded like a paranormal phenomenon and work backward to a scientific explanation that wouldn’t be out of place in Analog, sort of like The X-Files in reverse. I’m still not entirely sure what to think of the result here—and I resisted it for a long time. It comes perilously close to a shaggy dog story, but I like the atmosphere, and the “solution,” while not one that I would have chosen under most circumstances, ended up feeling inevitable. If you read it, I hope you’ll agree. In a few weeks, I’ll talk about its origins at length, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Fort: “My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike ever to mention fraud. Accept anything. Then explain it your way.”

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2018 at 9:00 am

The Valley of Lost Things

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Patti Smith

Patti Smith once lost her favorite coat. As the singer-songwriter relates in her memoir M Train, it was an old black coat that had been given to her by a friend, off his own back, as a present on her fifty-seventh birthday. It was worn and riddled with holes, but whenever she put it on, she felt like herself. Then she began wearing another coat during a particularly cold winter, and the other one went missing forever:

I called out but heard nothing; crisscrossing wavelengths obscured any hope of feeling out its whereabouts. That’s the way it is sometimes with the hearing and the calling. Abraham heard the demanding call of the Lord. Jane Eyre heard the beseeching cries of Mr. Rochester. But I was deaf to my coat. Most likely it had been carelessly flung on a mound with wheels rolling far away toward the Valley of the Lost.

The Valley of the Lost, as Smith explains, is the “half-dimensional place where things just disappear,” where she imagines her coat “on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins.” Smith concludes: “The valley is softer, more silent than purgatory, a kind of benevolent holding center.” It’s an image that first appears in Dot and Tot of Merryland by L. Frank Baum, who describes the Valley of Lost Things as “covered with thousands and thousands of pins…A great pyramid of thimbles, of all sizes and made of many different materials. Further on were piles of buttons, of all shapes and colors imaginable, and there were also vast collections of hairpins, rings, and many sorts of jewelry…A mammoth heap of lead pencils, some short and stubby and worn, and others long and almost new.”

I encountered the story of the black coat in the recent wonderful essay “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, in which she, like Smith, uses the disappearance of physical objects as an entry point for exploring other kinds of loss. After a very funny opening in which she discusses a short period in which she lost her car keys, her wallet, and her friend’s pickup truck, she provides a roundup of the extant advice on finding lost items, including the “suspect” rule that states that most objects are less than two feet from where you think you left them. As it happens, I’m familiar with that rule, which appears in How to Find Lost Objects by Professor Solomon, which I’ve quoted here before. Personally, I like his idea of the Eureka Zone, the eighteen-inch radius that he recommends we measure with a ruler and then explore meticulously. It’s a codification of the practical insight that our mistakes rarely travel far from their point of origin. Joe Armstrong, the creator of the programming language Erlang, makes a similar point in the book Coders at Work:

Then there’s—I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself—Joe’s Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place where you last changed the program…It’s the same everywhere. You fix your car and it goes wrong—it’s the last thing you did. You changed something—you just have to remember what it was. It’s true with everything.

By this logic, the Valley of Lost Things is all around us, and we’re wandering through it with various degrees of incomprehension. As Daniel Boone is supposed to have said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Charles Fort

I’ve been thinking of the loss and retrieval of objects a lot recently, in my unexpected role as biographer and amateur archivist. When I began my research for Astounding, I had to start by recovering countless scraps of information that must once have seemed obvious. Even something as basic as the number and names of John W. Campbell’s children turned out to be hard to verify, and there are equally immense facts, like how he met his first wife, that seem to have vanished into the Valley of Lost Things forever. (Not even his own daughter knows the answer to that last one.) I also have thousands of seemingly minor details that I hope to assemble into some kind of portrait, and they’re vulnerable to loss as well. I’ve spoken before about the challenge of keeping my notes straight, and how I’ve basically resorted to throwing everything into four huge text files and trusting in its searchability. Mostly, it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. During the editing process for my Longreads article on L. Ron Hubbard, a very diligent fact checker sent me questions about more than fifty individual statements, for which I had to dig up citations or revise the language for accuracy. I was able to find just about everything he mentioned, but one detail—about Hubbard’s hair, of all things—was frustratingly elusive, and it had to come out. Similarly, as I work on the book, I’ll occasionally come across a statement in my notes that I can’t find in my sources, and I have no idea where it came from. This has only happened once or twice, but whenever it does, it feels as if I’ve carelessly let something slip back into the Valley of the Lost, and I’ve let my subject down.

But as Proust knew, it’s in the search for lost things, however trivial, that we also find deeper meaning. As a biographer, I’m haunted by Borges’s devastating putdown: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Maelstrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.’” I’ve often found myself obsessed by exactly those “changes of residence,” but it’s only in the accumulation of such material that the big picture starts to emerge, and the search often means more than the goal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that a dead end almost always turns into a doorway. Whenever I’ve had to deal with a frustrating absence of of information, it invariably becomes a blessing, because it forces me to talk to real people and leave my comfort zone to find what I need, which never would have happened if it had been there for the taking. The most beautiful description I’ve found of the Valley of Lost Objects is in The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, who calls it the Super-Sargasso Sea:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy.

As Baum notes, however, it’s mostly pins. The paleontologists, archeologists, and biographers comb through it, like “desperate urchins,” and pins are usually all we find. But occasionally there’s a jewel. Or even a beloved coat.

Quote of the Day

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Charles Fort

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike ever to mention fraud. Accept anything. Then explain it your way. Anything that assimilates with one explanation, must have assimilable relations, to some degree, with all other explanations, if all explanations are somewhere continuous.

Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

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