Sunday, 23 February 2014

"Creatures of the Light" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Oh jeez, guys. This story...I mean, this story! Right? Oh wait, you have no idea what I'm talking about. I have to try to collect my thoughts about a story that is so bad it nearly broke my brain into tiny places and tell you something coherent about it. Good luck to me!

Let's give you an example. One of the most hilarious bad lines in the story is: 

"Because you can help me in my plan to populate the earth with a new race of godlike people. But don't question me too closely now."

Well, I'm not listening. This story could use some good questioning.

It's the first story I've seen written by a woman. I can't find anything about the author, though. For all that, the gender roles are ridiculous. And the characters in the story are surprisingly blase about suggested rape. Along the lines of "well, he took away your true love threatening to rape her, maybe we should just let him have her?" That's not an actual quote, but I can't stand going back through it to find it. It's pretty close to the meaning.

Okay, let's start with the plot, such as it is, then move to hilarious quotes, then my rundown of themes I like to consider. That gives us a structure, which is really more than I can say for the subject matter.

So, there's a scientist. He has a humpback. This is important, for this story is all about physical perfection, and shining examples of amazing maleness and femaleness. (And how evil those perfections can be! Eep!) He has apparently been experimenting with a "Light Ray" (or was it Life Ray? Seriously, don't make me go check.) And breeding his own race of physically and intellectually perfect specimens, from beautiful young men and women. And his own Antarctic paradise. (It's very Savage Lands.)

Of course, his prime specimen turns out not only to be physically perfect, but EVIL! And when the humpbacked scientist recruits a new physically perfect scientist to be one of his gene sources, Adam (the EVIL guy - the name is not original. And he has a counterpart named Eve. Now, given that they're something like generation 25 of this guy's plans, why did he hold on to those names until then?) wants the physically perfect shopgirl who doesn't seem so bright (Ugh!) for himself! So he kidnaps her! And develops a Death Ray to counteract the Life Ray! Because he's EVIL!

In a battle to the death, seductress Eve wants the new scientist for herself, and they turn the Death Ray against Adam. But the only survivors are the humpbacked scientist, the new scientist and his shopgirl instalove! And the humpbacked scientist learns the danger of trying to do science. When will those scientists ever learn?

It's not the storyline, which is really no more hackneyed than most I've read so far. It is the prose. This is prose that is so purple, it's nearly ultraviolet. You want some examples? Let's see....

When describing the scientist being recruited as gene fodder, he is illustrated as "not merely a good-looking young fellow of twenty-five, he was scenery, magnificent and compelling." And the physical descriptions only get more florid from there.

Oh, oh! And in one of my favourite silly bits, the humpbacked scientist drops his wallet on purpose to see what the handsome scientist will do. When he returns it, he is informed "[i]t just was my way of testing what your Professor Michael told about you—that you are extraordinarily intelligent, virile, and imaginative."

Honesty, maybe. But virility? Did he have sex with the wallet before it was returned? Huh?

The science is silly, all about how "the electrical impulses in the brain set up radioactive waves."

But better yet are the scientifically magical lips of Eve. "Again the subtle change wrought by Eve's magic lips had taken place." The handsome scientist is referring to the time travel she's brought him into, by kissing him! Because lips!

And there's insta-love, more bad science and bad prose.

Okay, poking fun at the writing aside, the gender politics. Oof, the gender politics. And this was allegedly written by a woman! I've mentioned the surprisingly acceptance of threatened rape. Plus the shopgirl who falls instantly in love with the handsome scientist, and how Eve is powerful and seductive, and really, almost as evil as Adam.  This duality, paired with the prose, almost makes me think this is the same author as the fantasy-masquerading-as-SF I reviewed from the first issue of this magazine.

Race is an issue, since this is pretty much about eugenics, and creating the perfect human specimens. It, sadly, goes without saying that all these prime physical specimens are white. (Or, at least, their ethnicity is in no way commented on and the descriptive passages heavily imply whiteness.) Of course, at the end, it's shown to be a bad plan, but more because of scientists playing God than because eugenics is bad. And it was certainly trendy at the time - mere years later, people will start to become aware how bad the repercussions could be.

And yes, science is the big bad here, again. The humpbacked scientist might have good intentions, but you can't trust those super-intelligent, handsome, sexual supermen he creates! Why, one of them goes crazy! So there's that tension, between eugenics and the fear that that'll mean the general extermination of humanity.

Oh man. This one was almost painful, but hilarious in the pain.

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