Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mooning over "The Moon Woman"

Some odd things can happen when you get non-genre writers writing science fiction, such as C. S. Lewis' Perelandra trilogy, Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos pentology and Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Not being familiar with the genre's established tropes, non-genre writers can sometimes experience a feeling of irrational exuberance when they come into contact with them. They also fail to understand the underlying rationale behind science fiction, which is the effort to remain within the realm of the scientifically plausible. While this rationale is sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance, even genre writers who flout scientific accuracy at least do so deliberately, in open defiance of the genre's most basic convention. Non-genre writers, on the other hand, tend to disregard scientific accuracy out of ignorance, both of the genre convention of scientific plausibility and of scientific knowledge itself.

It can be argued that Minna Irving's "The Moon Woman", from the November 1929 issue of Amazing Stories, doesn't quite fall into the category of the genre story from a non-genre writer. After all, Amazing Stories had only been on the newsstands for two and a half years when the story appeared, so it might be said that there was yet no such thing as a science fiction genre. However, this argument ignores the genre's long antecedents. Hugo Gernsback may have given the genre a name (actually, two names), but the importance of scientific plausibility had already been established in the 19th century by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.

A corollary to the importance of scientific plausibility is that whatever strange society you come up with has to have its own internal plausibility -- it has to work on its own terms. Thus, in a science fiction story, you are never, ever, ever supposed to find out at the end that it was all just a dream.

So, it turns out that Professor Hicks didn't decide to spend a year in suspended animation lying in a specially-built tomb, and wasn't betrayed by his debt-ridden colleague Dr. Blinkman. Instead, he spent less than a day in suspended animation, lying in his study while Blinkman kept watch over him. There was no tomb, and of course no Rosaria. It's even possible that Hicks got his numbers mixed up, as people do in dreams, and that the story does not take place in the year 2814, but in the late 1920s, as the passing reference to a trans-Atlantic steamship implies.

Although it fails as science fiction, "The Moon Woman" does contain two interesting bits of etymology: "loan shark" and "bozo" are both older than I thought they were. According to Wikipedia, "loan shark" goes back to the late 19th century, though the term didn't have the association with organized crime that it does now. And according to Merriam-Webster Online, bozo dates back at least to 1916, decades before the debut of Bozo the Clown.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Part of me thinks that the whole concept of "genre fiction" needs to be deep-sixed... I walk through the "Literature" section of the local B&N, and Shop Assistant Showdown is on the shelf, while Gene Wolfe is shelved next to the latest "emo vampire" opus.

If it were up to me, every fiction book would be shelved alphabetically.

Anonymous said...

Been meaning to come and say that every other kiddies book I've been reading to my 2 year old lately has the whole '... and it was a dream...' thing going on. I can't tell you how irritated I am becoming with it.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for making this available to read! I really enjoyed it! ^.^