Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction – Part 4

As you probably realized by the mere existance of this series, I love going back into the past of he genre and looking at the short fiction of the past.  Of course, the actual subject matter is dictated by my strict first-in-first-out reading order which, by making things even more random and eclectic aparently jives with our manifesto.

This time, we travel back to the sixties, and if we’re talking about short fiction in the sixties, one name towers above the rest: Judith Merril, the decades great anthologist.

By great, of course, I mean the most influential and trend-setting as opposed to the best.  I’ve gone on record more than once in saying that her attempts to turn science fiction into a bastion of literary experimentation aligned with the pop consciousness of the era were misguided.  She isn’t well-rememberedtoday outside of the students of the genre.

I still read any of her books I can get my hands on.  The history of SF in the sixties, though much less significant than the Golden Age, is still interesting. It was then that the genre gained a cerain amount of respectablity: stories from Merrill’s antho’s having origins as diverse as The Atlantic and even The New Yorker, something unheard of in Campbell’s time.

All of the above actually prefaces a Merril antho that is less literary than most – after all, as the major anthologist of her era, she couldn’t dedicate herself exclusively to the obscure, experimental and unreadable.  It’s entitled SF The Best of the Best Part Two.

SF The Best of the Best Part Two Edited by Judith Merril

By pulling out the best of the stuff from her series of anthologies, a certain amount of dross that seemed like a good and cutlurally relevant idea at the time could be eliminated.  The cream that rose to the top and populates this book is still an annoying mix of pseudoscience, PSI and media (in that infant era of media which thought it was mature) without much in the way of exploration of things that weren’t of concern to the intellectuals of the day, but at least it’s perfectly readable.  Any one of these stories inserted into a book of more traditional SF tales would make a nice change of pace.  There’s even  Sheckley stoy that foreshadows The Truman Show.  An entire book is a bit much, though.

A reader looking for far future stories, space opera or even just some fun Earth-bound tech stories, will need to look elsewhere.  For Merril, those things don’t belong in Science Fiction and are a bit lowbrow.

Even the Asimov and the afrementioned Sheckley are pretty much character driven social stories.  Not bad, just a little lacking in the sensawunda compared to other offerings from these two.  Aldis or Budrys, of course, are a much more comfortable fit here.

Anyway, this is an interesting book, like everything Merril edited.  She was influential even if she was guiding the genre in the wrong direction.  When SF stops being fun to lock itself in an ivory tower, what happens is wht is happening today: readers flock to fantasy in droves, and SF moves away from the printed page to the big screen.


The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).


Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them


For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!