October 03, 2004

Boldly Going Places Man Was Not Meant to Know

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber is on a re-interpretations of Lovecraft kick, sparked by Charlie Stross's A Colder War (free on-line), described by Teresa Nielsen Hayden as "the Oliver North/Guns for Hostages scandal, seen from the viewpoint of a CIA bureaucrat, in a universe in which the entire Cthulhu Mythos is real". (It's really good, and made me read Stross's Singularity Sky, which is also really good.) Here are some brief notes on science-fictional re-interpretations, based on what I wrote in the comments thread on Henry's post.

None of these stories exactly re-use the specific characters and props from Lovecraft, but are definitely variations on his theme, with ancient, incomprehensibly alien Powers menacing humanity in more or less subtle ways. None of them have any supernatural elements, but that just accords with S. T. Joshi's interpretation of Lovecraft, which I pretty much buy.

  1. Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. This the best take I've seen on the old "distributed algorithm gone horrifyingly hay-wire" idea. (Or rather, it's a tie with Clarke's "Dial F for Frankenstein".) Some of the jokes will probably not be so funny to those who don't remember Usenet, back when it was good for something. It's so well known that further commentary on my part is superfluous.
  2. My favorites, at the moment, are Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space and sequels (Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap; I'm saving the last for a rainy day so don't tell me about it). These open with archaeologists excavating a city of the Old Ones and disturbing (even) Elder Things. Reynolds gets bonus points for depicting various fragments of humanity in the process of turning into Lovecraftian monstrosities themselves. (Parts of of Revelation Space, in particular, are filed in my mind under "Some of My Best Friends Are Monstrous Chimeras of Tortured Flesh and Nanomechanical Viruses".) Plus, being an astrophysicist by day, Reynolds does a very good job of keeping the science plausible, which matters to me.
  3. Finally, Thomas Harlan's Wasteland of Flint has a very similar theme to Reynolds's first book, where the Lovecraft is hybridized with Carlos Castaneda. The latter is motivated by an alternative history, pleasantly never fully spelled out, in which the Aztecs conquered the world, with the Japanese as junior partners. This is not hard SF, and there may be a bit too many of the usual space opera props and properties for some tastes (Harlan is apparently a role-playing game designer by profession). It's set more in the human world, and less in that of implacable cosmic weirdness, than Reynolds. But it's still a tasty bit of mind-candy, with some genuinely creepy and effective scenes. The sequel, House of Reeds, is fractionally less good, but amusingly transposes the Hellenistic-era topography of what is now south-eastern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan (i.e. Gandara, Arachosia and "India" around Taxila) onto an alien civilization.

Cthulhiana; Scientifiction

Posted by crshalizi at October 03, 2004 08:55 | permanent link

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