The Cactus Handbook (Der Kakteen Führer), Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)

This book reminds me of the Philip’s Guide to Seashells, because it carries the same important themes: cacti can look very different, but they descend from a single common ancestor and their shape and color are governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables.

But there is one big difference between shells and cacti: the shells are dead and don’t change any more; the cacti are living and do. That means that there can be a startling contrast between the vicious spikes or blistering hairs of a cactus, intended to permanently deter, and its beautiful flowers, intended to periodically attract. Notocactus ottonis, for example, is a ridged ball of tough green flesh set with dozens of spikes; its flowers are a beautiful little fountain of yellow petals. Parodia sanguiniflora has even more spikes and even more beautiful flowers: a spray of scarlet petals around a golden heart of anthers and stigma. If the book was scratch’n’sniff, the contrast would because even sharper, because the flowers often smell attractive too.

All of that is adventitious from the human point of view, because the flowers and scent aren’t intended to attract us. But they do, and so do the strangeness and toughness of cacti, which is why a German author has written a highly detailed guide to plants from South and Central America. Some could probably never be grown in Germany, being far too large and demanding even for a specialist greenhouse; others can be grown anywhere with simple equipment.

And once again, as with any sufficiently detailed book about plants or animals, the scientific names have an appeal of their own: Mitrocereus fulviceps isn’t properly illustrated and perhaps could never live up to its name, which means something like “wax-cap tawny-head”, while the name Gymnocalycium horridospinum combines beauty and threat in the way the plant itself does. Its spines are indeed “horrid”, but beautiful violet-pink flowers sprout between them.

The cone-shells provide a similar contrast between beauty and deadliness, but you don’t actually see the deadliness of a cone-shell. However, you need a specialist vocabulary to describe both cone-shells and cacti properly, and both these books will help you acquire one. Being dilettantish, I haven’t put the effort in, but I know I should do, because it would help me to a deeper and richer appreciation of what I’m looking at.


dog-eat-dog-by-michael-browningDog Eat Dog: A Story of Survival, Struggle and Triumph by the Man Who Put AC/DC on the World Stage, Michael Browning (Allen & Unwin 2014)

You know you’re a true fan if your mind flies instantly to AC/DC when you see the title Dog Eat Dog on the spine of a book. Well, actually, you don’t. Because mine did and I’m not. Not any more, anyway. AC/DC used to be one of my favourite bands. Then I realized how much they changed for the worse when Brian Johnson became the lead singer and began to write the lyrics. But Bon-Scott-era AC/DC remained one of my favourite bands.

I can’t say that any more, but I still found this book interesting and entertaining. If Michael Browning really wrote it – no co-author is given – he’s a natural writer, with a relaxed style and excellent ear for dialogue:

“Don’t fuck with me,” Deep Purple’s stage manager told him. “I’m from the Bronx.”

“Are you now?” asked George, unimpressed. “Well, I’m from Glasgow.”

Then he thumped him. (ch. 12, pg. 144)

That’s George Young, older brother of Angus and Malcolm, and part of the Easybeats, one of Australia’s biggest and most successful bands in the 1960s. That’s how Michael Browning knew him. Browning was at the heart of Australian popular music for decades, booking bands for clubs and watching fashions like the Sharpies come and go.

But he says he wanted to be the first to take an Australian band to big international success. He did it with AC/DC, whom he first met in the B.B. era – Before Bon. Then Bon came on board and the band began its long climb to the top of rock’n’roll. Like Angus and Malcolm, Scott was originally from Scotland. Unlike Angus, he drank and took drugs, which is why he died long ago and Angus is still there. Michael Browning was sacked not long after Bon Scott died, but he saw the Youngs and Scott close-up as AC/DC rose from the pub circuit in Australia to the big time.

He records what he saw here, from AC/DC’s early – and unwanted – popularity with schoolgirls to the flying beer-cans and “Suck more piss!” chants popular with rough Australian crowds, from brawls with Deep Purple’s stage-crew to the “Snot Cyclone” Angus generated after he’d downed too much milk. There are some good photos too, like Angus “showing the poms who’s boss” atop massive speakers in a London club or wearing a Zorro costume on Australian kids’ TV. And the book remains interesting when Browning writes about bands other than AC/DC. Ted Nugent is supposed to have killed a pigeon with his volume; Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs killed an expensive tank of tropical fish.

But the cover of this book speaks the truth: it’s AC/DC that most readers will be interested in. They won’t be disappointed, whether they’re true fans or not. And there’s a lot of sociological interest here too. Australia is an interesting place. So is Scotland. Both countries are part of the AC/DC story and Michael Browning describes how.

Non à Don

Note: Post the appalling news from America, we in the close-knit Papyrocentric community feel this is a highly appropriate moment to re-publish this searing indictment of racism, hate and Other-phobia first issued in 2005 by the literary activist Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum (who is, of course, the life-partner of longstanding Papyrocentric favorite Dr Miriam B. Stimbers).

Faut-il Brûler Smith? (Con)futing the Hate Speech of Klarkash-Ton

by Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum

The Other is a liminal mirror in which we see reflected nothing other than the faces, distorted with rage, fear, and doubt, of the sentries patrolling the ambiguous and disputed frontiers of the Self. — Michel Foucault.

In terms of key issues maximally impacting committed members of the equality-activist community in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, there can be little doubt that the keyest is the confrontation with hatred of the Other. Be it in the form of antisemitism, racism, xeno-, gyno-, homo-, and/or lesbophobia, Other-directed prejudice and bigotry is a feral cancer whose seething tentacles cement a visceral shadow as much over the future of western societies as over their past. Yet members of the literary-scholarship community find that their field of critical and theoretic focus, one of the principal means of leveraging progressive ideas/attitudes in terms of the body (socio-)politic, often proves a double-edged discourse.

In short, and to be blunt, many past writers/authors were vicious bigots and/or racists. Nor are participants in “fringe” genres such as Weird fiction, themselves marginalized by mainstream literary discourse, innocent of an identical charge. Members of the Internet community, whether knowingly or unknowingly, can access the following on the Eldritch Dark, the premier web-resource devoted to maximalizing engagement with the literary legacy of Clark Ashton Smith, a core member of the seminal 1920s/1930s Weird Tales literary community:

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.1

I return the Ullman-Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.2

Antisemitism, arguably the most feral of all Other-phobic discourses, is a pivotal strand in the fluidic œuvre of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), a California poet/author now arguably most famous for his association with New England author/poet H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Texas writer/author Robert E. Howard (1906-36). Lovecraft’s and Howard’s own and more obvious Other-phobia has been the epicenter of an unswerving critical dissection for a not inconsiderable time-period post the Civil Rights era/epoch, and I would suggest that Smith’s less obvious but arguably, for that very reason, even more pernicious Other-phobia has fallen into the penumbra cast by the brickbats rightly focused around Lovecraft and Howard. The present essay is an attempt, however tentative, inchoate, and embryonic, to corrective this situation and foreground the urgent need for unacceptable components/elements of Smith’s literary/epistolary output to be engaged on multiple levels by committed members of the anti-racist community.

Accordingly, I shall interrogate the conte fantastique by which arguably more than any other the feral parameters of Smith’s visceral Other-phobia can be mapped and/or charted: “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” (1936). Experienced literary exegetists need engage with no more than the title of this fictive discourse prior to commencing a deconstruction of its probable Other-phobic narrative strategies. We confront not ‘simply’ a chromatically unmarked “The Abbot of Puthuum,” nor a chromatically ‘neutral’ “The Red/Yellow/Blue Abbot of Puthuum,” but “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” and the title immediately and explicitly conjuncts the racial Other of socially constructed Blackness with the textual Other of fictively constructed “Puthuum,” a factitious confection of visceral vocables nevertheless harboring feral echoes of “putridity-putrescence-putrefaction.”

Who could doubt, prior to embarking around a full engagement with Smith’s core narrative structure, that “The Black Abbot” will prove ‘Black’ by both socially constructed race but also by ideologically constructed nature, reinforcing/buttressing traditional Other-phobic discourses whereby Blackness is insolubly conjuncted with notions around soi disant ‘deviance’ and ‘criminality’? It comes as no surprise, then, for the attentive lectrice/lecteur, post reading-commencement, to confront the following literary tropes within the central core segment of the narrative proper:

The black man grinned capaciously, showing rows of discolored teeth whose incisors were like those of a wild dog. His enormous unctuous jowls were creased by the grin into folds of amazing number and volume; and his eyes, deeply slanted and close together, seemed to wink perpetually in pouches that shook like ebon jellies. His nostrils flared prodigiously; his purple, rubbery lips drooled and quivered, and he licked them with a fat, red, salacious tongue before replying to Cushara’s question.3 (Emphases mine.)

We see here an ‘optimal’ conflation of feral Other-phobic narratives of race whose visceral impaction on the reader is rather increased than lessened by the formalism of Smith’s conflicted, eurocentric prose. Indeed, we note that the Abbot becomes not merely the racial Other but the mammalian Other: his dentition is that of a “wild dog,” not that of a human being, and the sexual components of the ‘discourse of deviance’ long woven by white Other-phobes around members of the Black community are signalized in the “fat, red, salacious tongue” with which the Abbot animalistically “licks” his “purple, rubbery lips.” Soon post this passage, the Abbot’s unbridled Other-sexuality is further emphasized/foregrounded as he becomes not merely the mammalian but the vertebral Other:

Neither he nor Zobal was reassured by the look of lust in the abbot’s obscenely twinkling eyes as he peered at Rubalsa. Moreover, they had now noted the excessive and disagreeable length of the dark nails on his huge hands and bare, splayed feet: nails that were curving, three-inch talons, sharp as those of some beast or bird of prey. (Emphases mine.)

His visceral Otherness has become too ferally impactive to be confined within the anatomic/behavioral parameters of the class Mammalia (mammals) and is transferred even further, to those of the class Aves (birds). The Abbot’s subsequent attempts to both rape Rubalsa, the “queenly maiden” around whose non-consensual purchase and sex-trafficking the narrative centers, but also to murder and devour her ‘protectors’ are further cementings of Other-phobic racist discourses of Black promiscuity, violence, and cannibalism.

The multiply-stranded question that is begged by even a cursory interrogation of the soi disant “Black Abbot” is identical, mutatis mutandis, to that raised by French philosophe / critic / cultural commentatrice Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) in a key mid-twentieth-century text of theoretic and societo-literary engagement: the essay «Faut-il Brûler Sade?» (1951), or “Must We Burn de Sade?”. Here I ask «Faut-il Brûler Smith?» (2005), or “Must We Burn Smith?”. That is, is our objective of a progressive, egalitarian society in which the optimally-diverse value and contributions of all are of equal worth and standing maximally advanced by a visceral suppression of such feral tropes in the work of such writers/authors as Clark Ashton Smith?

Or must we seek another — and indeed anOther — means of transitioning key societal components to our desired post-racist, post-white-hegemonic end(s)? Attractive though the strategy of suppression must appear to those members of the progressive community who fully recognize the dangers of such hate speech, it is nevertheless incumbent on us to engage with issues around pragmatism and acknowledge the impossibility, at the present stage of societal evolution, of successfully fruitioning such a strategy.

Instead, we must adopt the strategy of confrontation and confutation, theorizing/triangulating Smith within the poly-dimensional temporal, societal, and ideological co-ordinates/parameters of his fluidic, polymorphic fictive and meta-cultural identities/personae and explicating, if by no means excusing, his profoundly regrettable co-optioning of Other-phobic discourses of antisemitism and racism.


The following CAS texts and letter can be found online at The Eldritch Dark.

1. “The Corpse and the Skeleton.”
2. Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, c. mid-October 1933.
3. “The Black Abbot of Puthuum.”

© 2005 Nigel M. Goldbaum

Life LocomotesRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

Heart of the MotherJourney to the Centre of the Earth: A Scientific Exploration into the Heart of Our Planet, David Whitehouse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)

LepidopterobibliophiliaBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

Minimal Manual – Georgisch Wörterbuch, Michael Jelden (Buske 2016)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Life Locomotes

restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

journey-to-the-centre-of-the-earth-by-david-whitehouseJourney to the Centre of the Earth: A Scientific Exploration into the Heart of Our Planet, David Whitehouse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)

Can you touch anywhere on your body with your right hand? Replying quickly, you might say you can. But what about your right elbow? You can’t touch that with your right hand. Science is like that, because distant things are often easier to study and understand than close things. We have a good understanding of how stars work, for example, but not of how the earth’s magnetic field is generated.

And while we’ve been able to predict solar eclipses for millennia, we still can’t predict earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Understanding the deep earth is difficult, so there are a lot of mysteries and conjectures in this well-written and compelling book about the interior of our home planet. Scientists have landed probes on Mars, millions of kilometres away, but the “deepest hole ever drilled on earth – the Kola Superdeep borehole in northern Russia” reached only 12,262 metres. That’s a mere pinprick by comparison with the radius of the earth. To get beyond that, scientists have had to study the shockwaves generated by earthquakes. The medium is the message: as the waves pass through or hit different regions and materials, they behave in different ways.

For example, when the Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovičić (1857-1936) “studied the records from several seismometers” after an earthquake near Zagreb, “he realised that some of the shockwaves […] were being reflected back to the surface from a boundary region between the crust and mantle.” (pg. 82 of the 2016 paperback) The region is now called the Mohorovičić discontinuity. But that discovery was made before the First World War and deep geology hasn’t advanced very much in the intervening century. This book borrows the title of a Jules Verne novel published in 1864. If Verne came back to life, he would be pleased to see that his work is still popular, but he would be disappointed to see that the human race was no nearer reaching the centre of the earth.

Or would he? The American geologist Don Anderson says: “Almost everything known or inferred about the inner core from seismology or indirect inference is controversial.” (pg. 211) Deep geology is a difficult science, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Something else that makes it interesting is that the inner earth can visit catastrophes on the outer earth and the film of the life that clings there:

The big question is: can we see mass extinction events on the way up? Some scientists believe that we can by looking for the plumes [i.e., giant plumes of rising magma]. Such a thing is seen in the south-west Pacific near the Fiji Tonga subduction zone. It’s 700 km deep, has a structure consistent with a massive temperature anomaly and may be rising. It could render the earth uninhabitable for humans and it will reach the surface in an estimated 200 million years. (ch. 17, “Plumes”, pg. 146)

Asteroid impact and gamma-ray bursts are not the only catastrophes that threaten the continued existence of the human race. They may not even be the most likely. The film of life on the surface of the earth is fragile and one day it won’t be there any more.

But there’s also life deep inside the earth, living in conditions of extreme pressure, heat and darkness. We still know little about this “deep biosphere” and it may hold some big surprises. The rest of the deep earth almost certainly does. And the deep earth is just the beginning: as Whitehouse describes in chapter 26, there are “Other Worlds, Other Journeys” to come, including the even more extreme conditions at the heart of Jupiter, where the temperature is a “staggering 37,000 degrees C” and the pressure is “over ten times that found at the centre of the Earth.” (pg. 239)

Or so scientists estimate. Will scanners be invented to prove their theories? Will probes ever get there and find out for real? We can hope so. In the meantime, this book is an excellent introduction to the ideas, the pioneers and the modern researchers into mysteries that are right beneath our doorsteps. Whether it’s discussing diamonds, demons or “Double-D-Prime”, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is popular science that’s interesting, entertaining and informative all at once.

british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

Minimal Manual

georgisch-worterbuch-bei-michael-jeldenGeorgisch Wörterbuch, Michael Jelden (Buske 2016)

My German is weak, my Georgian is weaker, so I decided to improve both by getting this German-Georgian dictionary and using it with a German-English dictionary. My plan is working, but the dictionary wasn’t as comprehensive as I hoped. For example, if you look up Gott in the Deutsch-Georgisch section, you get ღმერთი ghmerti, but you aren’t told that the irregular genitive is ღვთის ghvtis. Nor does that appear in the Georgisch-Deutsch section under ღმერთი ghmerti.

You could spot it from the entry for Gottesmutter, “God-mother”, which is translated as ღვთისმშობელი ghvtismshobeli (literally “God’s-bearer”), but you won’t get help like that with many other irregular words. The entries and definitions are minimal and sometimes the dictionary only works one way. Ketzer, or “heretic”, is translated as მწვალებელი mts’valebeli and ერეტიკოსი eret’ik’osi, but those words don’t appear in the Georgisch-Deutsch section. And although the Georgisch-Deutsch section has წალდი ts’aldi, translated Axt or “axe”, if you look under Axt in the Deutsch-Georgisch section, all you get is ცული tsuli.

Beside that, there are no verb tables or entries for morphemes (like “un-” or “-less”), as opposed to full words, and you won’t get much help with the subtleties of verbal prefixes. But a minimal German-Georgian dictionary has advantages over a comprehensive English-Georgian one. It’s more mental exercise, more fun and doesn’t have space to transliterate the Georgian, so you get more practise in reading it.

And physical dictionaries have advantages over electronic ones. You spot things by chance in a real dictionary and you make connections you might not otherwise make. For example, if you look up the Georgian for “night”, you might get a small but interesting insight into the spirit of the language:

ღამე, Nacht f […]

ღამურა, Fledermaus f

Georgian for “night” is ghame and Georgian for “bat” is ghamura. And Fledermaus, “flittermouse”, is an insight into German, if it isn’t your mother-tongue. So is Feuerstein, “fire-stone”, for “flint”. I learned Feuerstein from a German-English dictionary, but I was using that book only because I was using this one. I’d now like to get a Russian-Georgian dictionary too. Using one would be a bit like playing chess with chopsticks, but you can learn better when you make things harder for yourself.

Clarke’s SparksThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Deeper and DownBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

Manchester’s Mozzerabilist MessiahMorrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, Gavin Hopps (Continuum Books 2012)

• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)