Sunday, July 24, 2011

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the SupernaturalCharles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charles Fort's renown rests primarily on four books -- The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents -- unclassifiable shaggy dog collections of old newspaper and magazine accounts of rains of frogs and other assorted critters, mysterious disappearances, unexplained phenomena of all sorts, and so forth, all shot through with wryly sardonic humor and a palpable sense of glee at tweaking consensus reality. Unlike Charles Berlitz, Erich von Daniken, or most of the other hucksters who peddled tales of the paranormal after him, however, he never took himself too seriously, occasionally offering half a dozen conflicting "theories" explaining his subjects in the course of a couple of chapters. In his own way he was a true skeptic, as likely to doubt the fantastic and the supernatural as much as received scientific wisdom (his legacy lives on in the pages of the magazine Fortean Times which concerns itself at least as much with why people believe in the paranormal as whether it's actually true or not).

Steinmeyer, a professional magician and historian of magic, doesn't add much to Fort scholarship that hadn't already been said by Damon Knight in his somewhat more critical Charles Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained, but it's a lively, well-researched, and well-written portrait of a great American eccentric, and a good place to start for someone just getting interested in the man and his work.

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Paris in the Twentieth Century: Jules Verne, The Lost NovelParis in the Twentieth Century: Jules Verne, The Lost Novel by Jules Verne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By now this novel's history is well-known: originally written by Jules Verne as a followup to his first bestseller, Five Weeks in a Balloon, it was rejected by his publisher, who had been hoping for another rollicking adventure story like its predecessor, rather than the rather dour dystopian story Verne turned in. Verne evidently took this rejection to heart and spent most of the rest of his career writing the slick, fast-paced, somewhat formulaic, if often highly entertaining, proto-SF novels with which his name has become synonymous, while this book was forgotten until the manuscript was found in a family safe where it had been gathering dust for 130 years.

On the whole it's more interesting as an artifact than a novel: the story, about a young man named Michel Dufrenoy, a sort of hippie avant la lettre who dreams of being a poet in an age (the far-flung future of 1960) that only cares about commerce and technology, is not much more than an armature on which Verne hangs his often prescient depiction of 20th century Paris (what he gets right and what he gets wrong are often amusingly at odds -- he predicts a sort of version of the internet, yet his characters still use quill pens); as such this belongs firmly in the "Grand Tour" tradition of SF, alongside Stanley G. Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey or Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where the world in which the story takes place is as much the point as the story itself.

Nevertheless, there's still an interesting autobiographical aspect to this story: Verne, the son of a highly conservative provincial lawyer, was something of a bohemian in his youth. He worked for a while as a sort of gofer and hanger-on to Alexandre Dumas pere and tried his hand -- unsuccessfully -- at playwriting before turning to fiction, so it's hard not to see at least a little of him in Michel Dufrenoy, and to wonder if the rather more ambivalent attitude toward technology depicted here was something Verne really felt before he embarking on a career celebrating its wonders.

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Friday, July 01, 2011

Now, I Never Saw the Original Film ...

... nor do I have any particular desire to see this one, either, although I'd love it if it turned out that the reason there are no people in its universe is that they're actually sequels to Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive and that the cars had previously risen up and killed them all, perhaps revealing this development when, during the course of their zany misadventures, the cars run across an isolated group of human survivors holed up in a remote desert gas station and proceed to systematically slaughter them.

In a wacky, heartwarming way, of course.