Category: Classic Science Fiction

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

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The story is at its heart a lament for the end of the mechanical age and a critical examination of the superficiality and commercialism that typified that period of history. The story is broken into four parts the first two each contain a separate song. The first song is sung by the protagonist and the second by his companion Mrs. Davis. The second two parts concern the marriage of the protagonist (Tom) and his companion and the last part their eventual divorce. The characters both celebrate the passing of the age but at the same time fear the unknown age coming. Mrs. Davis states that, “I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort” (Barthelme).

It is important to note that God makes several appearances throughout the story. Fist he is a meter reader who checks on how much electrify is being used then again he appears to enjoy the destruction he is causing in the wake of a global flood. The story can be seen as an elaborate lament of the death of spirituality. Electricity has been discovered to be spiritual Grace. Man has rendered through science the control over the spiritual. The fact that God is destroying the world once again by flooding it could represent the falseness of God’s promise to man.  These religious metaphors continue into the songs. Our protagonist sings a song about Ralph. Ralph is a beautiful character perfect yet tragically flawed. He is most certainly the embodiment of the Anti-Christ the perfect salesman. He is even described as having hoofed feet and he is “coming” for us all.

Mrs. Davis’ song is no less religious in nature. She sings about a character named Maude. Maude is certainly a stand in for the biblical character of Eve. She is described as being under a church dome and yearning the first “yearn”. Obviously this is an allusion to the temptation of Eve by Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Maude also named all the tools in the world while I could probably make a sexual reference here it certainly seems she was around at the beginning if she was the one who had the job of naming things much as God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. In the end they both decide they must move on into the new age even if it will be uncomfortable. This seems to place the story into the context of Adam and Eve. Here are two characters who are forced out of their comfortable existence into one of uncertainty and possible strife.

In the second half of the story God is now seen as hiding. First behind a tree (the Tree of Knowledge perhaps) then behind a table (shades of the last supper).  God is more separate from Tom and Mrs. Davis further from them than he had been in the first two sections of the story. Tom tries to speak with God and his thoughts are very prayer like, but God disappears and Tom assumes it is to read the meters again. Here again is an absent God who does not hear our prayers. The story ends with the divorce of Tom and Mrs. Davis. They have a child and then go their own way each following Ralph (commercialism) or Maude (knowledge) but not God. God is manning the generators and ensuring light and grace at the end of the age.

The story illustrates the death of religion in the mechanical age and the rise of commercialism and scientific progress. Man follows that which is rational to him and wrestles the irrational such as the supernatural into rational concepts. Even though we do these things we still seem to need to see the world in terms of irrational belief. The marriage is certainly a study in irrationality. The rules make little sense but we engage in marriage because we still have a sense of magic and spirituality that even the mechanical age has not taken from us.
 

 

Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six.  Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. Continue reading “In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom”

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

Originally, I didn’t plan to follow up my list of Underrated Science Fiction Films with a list of those I consider the most overrated. First of all, such a list would frankly come off as self-trolling if not done right, an attempt to gain page hits by tempting potential visitors with a subtle “come see how much this will enrage you, and if it doesn’t, share it with friends who will be.” Secondly, there’s a not so subtle implication in such essays that there’s something wrong with those who already enjoy these movies (or books or shows or whatnot), instead of simply chalking up any disagreements to mere differences in taste. Continue reading “THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME”

The (other) Conquest of Space

Robert Conquest, one of the greatest and most important historians of the 20th Century, died earlier this week at the age of ninety-nine. His most lasting legacy, of course, was his exposing the fraud of communism to the intelligentsia and the public, although sadly many still remain in denial of his findings regarding Stalin’s body count. I am reasonably certain most readers of this journal are not among those that need to have Conquest’s evidence presented to them; I am in fact quite certain that most of them know his name, and even if they have not had the chance to read his monumental works The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, have read other credible sources that have cited them as impeccable sources on the topic.

But how many of you are also aware that he was a science fiction fan? Continue reading “The (other) Conquest of Space”

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

As we move into the Sixties and Seventies, you’ll notice that we’ve dropped in the number of films selected, from ten to seven. Unfortunately, the science fiction boom of the Fifties crested by the early Sixties, and the number of films being made by American studios plummeted; it’s not a coincidence that the bulk of the movies selected for this article came from outside the United States. 1968 then saw the release of two landmark films: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and PLANET OF THE APES. Not only did they help to revive adult-oriented science fiction as a viable genre, but they demonstrated for the studios that they could make back their investment in a big-budget science fiction film. A big-budget boom did not truly begin until STAR WARS was released in 1977. On the positive side, in demonstrating that they could make back their investment not once but many times over, it convinced the studios to produce far more SF films than any time since the late Fifties. Continue reading “THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies”

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

When coming up with a list of favorite or best science fiction films of the 1950s, a half-dozen indisputable classics almost always show up: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL , THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD,  FORBIDDEN PLANET, THEM, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The decade also saw the release of several second-tier classics: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE,  INVADERS FROM MARS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, THE FLY, DESTINATION MOON,  2,000 LEAGUES BENEATH THE SEA, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE,  and the first two QUATERMASS films. While not necessarily great films like the first six, they nonetheless range in quality from excellent to very good, and are worthy of their reputations. However, there are other movies made from the decade that are just as good but often overlooked, not just by general audiences, but by avowed science fiction fans as well. It is usually only the most devoted and well-read fan who is aware of them and actively seeks them out, and unfortunately, they tend to be an older demographic whose numbers are dwindling. Continue reading “THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties”

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I  The Twenties Through The Forties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I The Twenties Through The Forties

Lists. Every site creates them; why should this one be any different? Well, for one thing, this site was created specifically to provide an outlet for thoughtful writing on science fiction, not click-bait for advertising revenue, but given that I’ve enjoyed reading lists since I came upon my dad’s copy of THE BOOK OF LISTS by Irving Wallace back when I was eight or nine, and the rest of the Internet seemingly does as well (except when they have to keep plowing through one page after another because money-hungry designers couldn’t put them all on one page), I figured, why not? (Is there a “List of Longest Introductory Sentences on the Internet?” No? There should be.) More importantly, as explained further below, some excellent articles from other sources made me want to write on some of my favorite science fiction films, specifically those which are underrated either by audiences in general or fandom in specific. I quickly realized that there were so many genuinely good science fiction films that are either unknown to many or unfairly maligned for one reason or another, that it was necessary to split this article in several parts. Continue reading “THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I The Twenties Through The Forties”

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

The first few years of the Millennium were dark ones for fans of hard science fiction. In 2001, Poul Anderson died, followed a few months later by his frequent collaborator Gordon Dickson. Then in 2003, Hal Clement, who did more than any other writer to develop hard science fiction as an identifiable sub-genre by introducing a new degree of scientific rigor in writing and helped make world-building an art form, also passed away. Between these two massive losses came possibly the most tragic of them all, as physicist and writer Charles Sheffield lost a brief but brave battle with an aggressive brain tumor in 2002. Although he had begun writing quite late in life, Sheffield had nonetheless quickly developed a reputation as one of hard science fiction’s finest practitioners, a prolific and versatile writer whose diverse stories and series combined, as Spider Robinson (who would name the spaceship in his Heinlein paste-up Variable Star after his late colleague and friend) said, “the scientific grounding of Clarke, the storytelling skills of a Heinlein, the dry wit of a Pohl or Kornbluth, and the universe-building prowess of a Niven.” I would also add that he possessed Gregory Benford’s skill at realistic and believable depictions of scientists and science at work…even as practiced many centuries from now. As wondrous and exciting as his many novels and short stories were, there was still the feeling that the best was yet to come; alas, as had been the case with Stanley Weinbaum three quarters of a century earlier, the cruelties of cancer once again stole us of a promise yet to be fulfilled, and we can only surmise as to what might have been. Continue reading “Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield”

On Our Responsibility to Futures Past

I moved homes recently, and the most painful part of the process was, as it would be for any other bibliopath, deciding which books to keep and which to sell. I had built up a substantial collection over the years, maybe not as extensive as some collectors but still impressive, and I had to decide which books had the most merit, the most re-readability value, and the ones I had the greatest personal attachment with in order to makethese difficult decisions. Like many others, I have strong memories related to my first reading of a particular book-Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales From Planet Earth while on the shores of a beach in North Carolina, Ben Bova’s Mars while atop the massive red boulders of Ontario’s Killarney National Park-that makes me treasure the joys of returning to them even more.  Ultimately, after making my decisions, about 75% of the books in my collection-a large number of them duplicate copies-were sent to a charity book sale while those nearest and dearest to me remained on my shelves. A difficult task, as unfair as asking a parent to choose between their children (OK, I exaggerate a little), but a necessary one. Continue reading “On Our Responsibility to Futures Past”

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford and Relativistic Effects

 

 

I once attended a talk given by renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose where he described binary pulsars as the most beautiful objects in the universe, as they fulfill every prediction made by the Theory of Relativity. Similarly, the stories of Gregory Benford are among the most beautifully written in science fiction, not just because of their prose but how they illuminate the laws and hidden facets of the universe. As a physicist himself, much of Benford’s science fiction is distinguished by both his keen observations of the lives of scientists and his finely detailed depictions of them at work, and his ability to vividly convey the sort of cognitive and sensory impressions that are part of their experiences. Continue reading “Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford”