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Lin-Carter-Down-to-a-Sunless-Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

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Mike Ashley, in his book Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990, did not get everything right, alas. imageIn describing the stories in the Mid-December 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, he badly characterizes one of my favorite stories from that period, “Reasonable Doubt.”

This clever effort,

the debut story by Fred Singer, considers the violent attitude of certain humans towards aliens who are trying to foster relationships with Earth.

Now, I do not want give away the story, here, but it deals with what we might call the is/ought problem inherent in some popular forms of Social Darwinism. The premise of the tale is that humanity differs from the successful galactic species by being competitive and individualistic — and violent. This passage explains the story’s main thrust:

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It is not primarily about violent humans thinking dark thoughts about the newly-arrived aliens, not really. That would be the knee-jerk mod-lib misinterpretation. It is about aliens judging humans for humamity’s reactionary tendencies.

The aliens, are old-fashioned Progressive/new-fashioned alt-righters. They worry about what to do about the “problem” of a quick-adapting species that could disrupt the galaxy’s civilized order, spreading the poison of violence.

The aliens’ eventual plan, stated in the story’s opening, is to destroy the human species — or perhaps transform it in some twisted way so that it would become more like every other galactic species. That is, conformist and collectivist.

This being a human-centered story, the aliens’ intention is not considered a good thing: the predicament drives the plot, which ends in police over-reaction. The story, then, could be interpreted as a repudiation of modern, progressive prejudices — and conservative ones as well.

The two things that trouble the aliens the most? Humanity’s universal incest taboo and common belief in some form of a deity.

The former idea, merely mentioned in conversations within the story, helped give rise to complaints about the editorial direction Isaac Asimov’s was heading, towards increasing sex and violence, as Mike Ashley explains in his book. I tend to dismiss such complaints as prudery. Nothing sexual in this story, anyway, can be considered gratuitous. It is classic stefnal story-telling. And the reason for the one element of sexuality? Because sex is a huge part of almost all animal life, and if a species is to be judged. . . .

Which is what the story is, a Day of Judgment tale.

Yes, humans are violent. But Homo sapiens is the only pre-space civilizing species, the story’s alien relates, that, while being based on individuality and competition — and conflict, too — has conceived of “non-aggression” as well as concocted gods to nudge the species somewhat forward out of its violent past.

The narrator is a well-to-do lawyer, and he it takes upon himself to come to his kind’s defense.

I know nothing about the author, this Fred Singer. (I am pretty sure that the Fred Singer I have met isn’t he.) I have not seen any more of his work.

But I like this story, which I think should be dragged out of the memory hole and read by today’s sf readers. Maybe it should be anthologized. Perhaps the Sad Puppies might find something of interest here.

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FOUNDATION trilogyWho wrote that the proper place for scientism is science fiction?

Well, that judgment is relevant to this story, of economist Paul Krugman’s indecent love for Asimov’s scientistic set-up to his most popular series, as related at iO9:

Even if you’re not a huge fan of Paul Krugman, the trouble-making economist and New York Times columnist, you should check out his introduction to a new edition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. . . . He explains pretty succinctly just why these novels are great, and why they had such a huge impact on the young Krugman.

And then he talks about how the science of psychohistory means that every victory of the Foundation is predicted, in advance, by Hari Seldon. Which turns this into a “tale of prophecy foretold.”

That is all very well and good for fiction. I admit that Asimov’s literary art possesses attractions. But I will not admit that the goals and methods of psychohistory are good social science. They are fanciful. The reality is that prediction in the social realm will always be a limited, fragile art, not a rigorous “mathematical” science.

Krugman realizes that his economics is not up to the level of Asimov’s imagination. But I do not think he quite gets how far off it is. Consider:

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.

OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don’t expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.

Based on his idiotic columns, I would say he shouldn’t have tried.

Paul Krugman can’t keep scientism in its place.