Hastur Be Seen To Be Believed

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In the 1990s Chaosium decided to put out a series of Cthulhu Mythos short story anthologies as an adjunct to the Call of Cthulhu RPG. To oversee the line they engaged the services of Robert M. Price, who at the time was prominent in Lovecraft fandom as the editor of Crypt of Cthulhu. The Price-edited entries in the series tended to fall into one of two categories; compilations of works by a particular prominent Mythos author (such as the Lin Carter, Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner collections I’ve covered previously), and “Cycle” books.

These latter tomes were based around the idea of choosing a particular Mythos entity or subject and collecting together the major stories that dealt with the concept in question, as well as stories which seemed to influence the original conception of the idea in question. In principle, this is actually a pretty good idea, because it would allow you to place Lovecraft’s stories in the context of the broader tradition they were a part of. The concept stumbled when Price took the approach of building these cycles around individual creatures and entities, rather than around broader themes.

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The Reading Canary: After Such Knowledge

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

After Such Knowledge: Religious SF

James Blish’s After Such Knowledge trilogy continues the exploration in SF of religious themes pioneered by the likes of David Lindsay and C.S. Lewis. It takes its title from a quote from T.S. Eliot (“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”) and is based around the theme of secular knowledge – is it good or bad, on a religious level? At least, according to Blish that is – as I found, the theme of the books tended to stray from the central strand a lot. Although normally cited in the chronological order of publication – A Case of Conscience first, The Day After Judgement at the end, Blish actually had his own suggested reading order, beginning with Doctor Mirabilis and ending with A Case of Conscience, and that’s the order I’ll review them in here.

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Two James Falling Short of Excellence

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

James Blish doesn’t get nearly enough love these days. Stroll into any bookshop and the most you are likely to find of his work is the SF Masterworks reprints of the somewhat inconsistent Cities In Flight and the renowned A Case of Conscience. It’s difficult to say for sure why only these two books are considered worthy of keeping in print, but a big clue lurks in many second-hand bookshops: from the late 1960s until his death in 1975, Blish had the honour of producing official novelisations of Star Trek scripts. There’s a certain kind of literary elitism which looks down on people who write adaptations of films and books, and while I’m not sure that’s always fair I think it is somewhat justified in Blish’s case: the beginning of his Trek books coincided with a sudden drop in the quality of his independent output – aside from the twinned novels Black Easter and The Day After Judgement, which together comprise the third part of the After Such Knowledge trilogy, from 1968 onwards none of Blish’s output is considered to be especially gripping or important by SF critics and fans. Perhaps Blish found that Star Trek novelisations were such a tempting prospect (heck, any official Trek tie-in is a licence to print money) he didn’t feel the need to try anymore, or perhaps the demands of cranking out 12 collections of Trek stories in 8 years was simply too draining.

The blame can’t be entirely pinned on Star Trek, however. Blish could be entirely capable of being mediocre on his own. Galactic Cluster, published in 1960, is a collection of early short stories by him, and while they aren’t exactly bad they’re not of the high standards that we know Blish could produce, and as such they are frustrating. Many of them seem to be on the verge of exploding into genius but never quite doing so – the sole unflawed gem is A Work of Art, a brilliant account of the apparent resurrection of Richard Strauss in 2161 and what happens when he tries to write music again. It is here that Blish manages to ask big, important, meaningful questions, as he does in his best work, while at the same time producing interesting and well-written hard SF. Blish can more-or-less handle characterisation, when he can be bothered, has a firm grasp of the scientific theories of his time and contradicts them interestingly and consistently, and displays more intelligence and thoughtfulness in his philosophical musings than anyone else writing in SF at the time. (To put things in context, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick was still warming up at this point in time, and the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein were the big names in hard SF.) Blish, by rights, should have been huge.

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