I’m currently reading The Man With The Strange Head. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the book except that it promised science fiction stories from an earlier period, and had a great cover.
It’s nice to once again come across stories thatÂ make you think. While Miles J. Breuer is not a great writer, he’s the forebear of great writers, and was one of the first writers for “scientification” magazines around the start of the 20th century.
Amazing Stories started out by re-publishing almost all of H. G. Wells’ stories and then sought contributions in the same vein. There’s a nice quote from the publisher – Hugo Gernsback – in one of his editorials:
It must be remembered that we live in an entirely new world. Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible. Science, through its various branches […] enters so intimately into all our lives today, and we are so much immersed in this science, that we have been rather prone to take new inventions and discoveries for granted. Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress, and it’s little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations – impossible 100 years ago – are brought about today. It is in these situations that the new romancers find their great inspiration.
Basically Gernsback wanted “the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with science fact and prophetic vision”.
Breuer delivers quite well for the most part. Some stories (and unfortunately the title story) expose his lack of exceptional talent, and his tendency to sketch a scenario where he could elaborate and elucidate. Still. he gets right to the heart of the action and delivers decent stories that often leave me pondering on how technology has changed, how forward thinking he was and with how much a keen intelligence he must have examined everything around him.
Jack Williamson, the “dean of science fiction”, was a protege of Breuer,Â and was himself the mentor of Isaac Asimov and a collaborator with Frederick Pohl. Basically every author I read, growing up; all the books by Heinlein, Asimov, Kornbluth, Niven etc. can be traced back to the precepts driving Amazing Stories and the work of Breuer (among others).
So far, the story I have enjoyed the most is an adventure about machine intelligences (petrol/coal driven mechanical brains) taking over a techno-utopian island civilization until helped by the (ruggedly hansome) outsider who falls in love (reciprocated, of course) with the (radiantly beautiful) grand-daughter of the (tragically misguided) inventor of the machines. It’s all bracketed cliches by now, but probably wasn’t at the time. It’s called Paradise and Iron and definitely worth a look, if the genre appeals.
There’s another story about dimensional travel, that also gained my attention – The Gostack and the Doshes – in which the dimensional travel is more a sense of consciousness change, than heavy-duty machinery and material science; firmly encompass the mathematical/philosophical underpinnings in your mind and the rest will follow. In this case, learn to realise the rotational/translational transformation between the four dimensions and, rather than time being a fixed arrow forward, you can substitute any of the others and find yourself walking into another world.
The whole by-word of the era (and I guess the vision that turned ultimately into Scientology), is that intent and imagination is all you need. Of course, all the new advances in technology at the time – the mass introduction of mechanised transport and the engine, electricity and magnetism, flight – all must have made certain people feel like they were suspended in mid-air, with the ground dropping from under their feet and being carried off to some fantastic place, either utopian or Dantean. The only certainty was the capacity of the human imagination to encompass new ideas.
It’s the sense of wonder of a child, I guess – seeing a switch flicked on the wall and light emanating from the ceiling. For the hint of that wonder at the magic of science that the stories give me back, I’m very grateful.