Sunday, September 1, 2013

Author’s Afterword

When I was about twelve years old, visiting my grandmother's, I discovered a small bookcase full of paperback novels.  As a voracious reader, I was intrigued.  These novels belonged to my uncle, who had died in a car accident at the age of seventeen a decade earlier.  I borrowed a dozen or so and took them home.  Gradually all of the novels moved to my house, with a promise that I would take care of them.  A promise I have kept.  I think that my grandmother had always wanted to read them as a homage to her youngest child, but her tastes in fiction ran more to westerns and romances.

Many of the novels were by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Burroughs is best known for his Tarzan novels, which I enjoyed, but I found his science fiction much more interesting.  What Burroughs wrote was called scientific romance, because it really didn't meet the modern definition of science fiction.  I will not go into what science fiction is, mainly because I would never be able to climb out of that argument.  Burroughs had started publishing in 1912, long before the term "scientifiction" was coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1929, and died in 1950, over a quarter century before I started reading him.

The world of John Carter of Barsoom thrilled me, with adventures on a Mars where canals existed and a dying civilization struggled for survival.  The story was a combination of swordplay, daring heroics, rescuing the princess and other damsels, and futuristic marvels.  When the novels were written, the idea that Mars was a sister world to Earth, with canals on it, was still scientifically acceptable.

I also enjoyed the Carson of Venus novels, set on a jungle planet that thrived under the mysterious clouds that blanketed the planet nearest to us.  The idea that such a environment existed was quite plausible until the 1960s, when American and Soviet spacecraft passed by or landed on the planet.  We discovered not the steamy tropics, but a hellish furnace with temperatures over 800 degrees Fahrenheit and a surface pressure ninety times Earth normal caused by a run-away greenhouse effect.

His Caspak trilogy, beginning with The Land That Time Forgot, written in 1918, told of a green valley in the Antarctica, heated by volcanism, where the different stages of evolution were played out the further one walked up the valley.  Antarctica at that time was still a mysterious place.

The science behind Pellucidar, the land inside the hollow Earth, was discredited long before Burroughs created his stories, but they were a compelling read for me anyhow.  A whole new world, only miles below my feet, provided hours of enjoyment.  Other Burroughs novels such as The Moon Maid and The Mad King also excited my youthful desire for vicarious adventure.  Burroughs wrote about one hundred novels in his life and I calculate that I read about a third of them.  I also read other science fiction and fantasy novels in my uncle's collection, such as the Time Trader series of Andre Norton.

The novels of Burroughs are probably the one author that I regularly read repeatedly as a youth, other than the novel Swiss Family Robinson.  By my later teens, I could no longer read Burroughs.  The plots were too predictable, the characters too pulpy, and my tastes had changed.  Burroughs was a man of his times, and for modern sensibilities, he is racist, ethnocentric, sexist; a whole host of negative -ism's.  Burroughs was financially successful, and incredibly influential on the science fiction and fantasy fields emerging out of the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s.  The importance of Burroughs in the field of science fiction can hardly be overstated and one can say without qualification that he was the best-selling science fiction and fantasy author of the twentieth century.

The curious result of reading my uncle's books is that I was introduced to science fiction as if I had been twenty years further back in the past, and as my reading habits changed, they recapitulated the history of speculative fiction.  As a scholar interested in the history of the genre, this is an invaluable background.

It has been observed one can read older science fiction stories and novels and still enjoy them by considering them to be a form of alternative history.  Just remember what was known about science at that time and enjoy the story for what it was, not condemn it for what it got wrong.

[This Afterword is in the printed version of the novel, but not the ebook version.  I don't know why.]

Posted: 1 September 2013

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