THE DEEP ONES: "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" by Clark Ashton Smith
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"A Voyage to Sfanomoë" by Clark Ashton Smith
Discussion begins August 12.
First published the August 1931 issue of Weird Tales.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The End Of The Story: Volume One of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith
A Rendezvous in Averoigne
The Monster of the Prophecy
There are scans of the original Weird Tales appearance of this tale here:
Online for me, and the scans linked in >6 artturnerjr: appears to be a fun option.
Though they were old, old men, with five-foot ermine beards...
So after all that meticulous planning. they forgot to pack shaving supplies? I hope they remembered toilet paper!
I found that most of this story reads like a somewhat charming, if naive (in my 21st century eyes, at least), proto-sf exercise. The last few paragraphs bring it back solidly into the weird horror realm though, with "He had seen that an oddly folded leaf was starting from the back of his shrunken right hand. " Perhaps the "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" can be considered a literary botanical cousin to Hodgson's 1907 "A Voice in the Night".
It reads almost as a legend, and the pleasure for me was similar to that of a tone poem. There's a narrative, but the beauty and wonder is in the delivery, the tone and atmosphere. Smith's poesy works really well here. Given that frame, the last paragraphs actually packed more punch than I was expecting, not horror but again a suitably poetic ending.
I was a bit surprised that the brothers made no effort to bring along others: to "save the race", as it were.
>8 KentonSem: a somewhat charming, if naive (in my 21st century eyes, at least), proto-sf exercise.
From an astronautical perspective the length of their trip is puzzling. Despite the lack of shaving supplies, the weight of a mere fraction of the supplies to keep two men alive for decades could have been replaced with extra fuel to shorten the trip to less than a year. Smith wouldn't've cared, I presume, nor perhaps the avg 1931 WT reader, but if it's jarring if one reads the story from an SF perspective. It's better read, I think, in a sort of fantasy mindset (and it might have been an improvement to cite magic rather than science as to what enables the voyage).
Something that struck me during the scene-setting was that the slaves were said to be autochthonous - by implication, then, the high Atlanteans like Hotar and Evidon were relatively recent immigrants? Chimes a bit oddly with the storied antiquity of their civilization.
Interesting question: anything in a spaceship would look like newfangled science rather than magic, though functionally it is indistinguishable. If the engine core is fusion or a magic crystal, what's the difference? An argument could be made that the USS Enterprise is powered by magic.
I'd say the standard magical approach to space travel is a portal. A vehicle translates to science fiction.
And yet, hmmn: the Magic School Bus presents a major problem for my taxonomy.
Okay, so, I think I found the key that unlocks this story. While I was reading it I got to thinking about "The Disinterment of Venus", another CAS tale that we discussed here a ways back* (one's about a statue of Venus and one's about the planet Venus, so the connection came to me pretty naturally). Back then, I said that "Disinterment" is about (ahem) "the power of feminine sexuality and the male fear of the same". I think "Sfanomoë" is about the same thing... kinda. Let's think about the symbolic underpinnings of this story. You have these brothers (male, obviously) that are trying to escape from an island that is being encroached upon by the ocean (which, being the mother of us all, represents the feminine). They build a spaceship to do so, and travel to Venus (named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, an archetypal feminine symbol) where they are overwhelmed by flowers ("Flowers within art are also representative of the female genitalia, as seen in the works of artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Imogen Cunningham, Veronica Ruiz de Velasco, and Judy Chicago, and in fact in Asian and western classical art. Many cultures around the world have a marked tendency to associate flowers with femininity."**) and they die, but they're happy, they're ecstatic. What's up with that? Well, the brothers, representing masculinity, are finally reunited with the feminine forces they have been working so hard to avoid; yang has been united with yin, and harmony has been achieved. :)
Isn't the sea usually personified as male? Okeanos, Poseidon, Ægir, Ulmo ...
I'm reminded of the Farcaster portals in the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons. Even though they're supposed to be some kind of melding of black hole behavior and advanced AI technology, they do seem more like magic than mechanics.
The Magic School Bus=Science is Magical! You're right!
I hope they remembered toilet paper!
The last few paragraphs bring it back solidly into the weird horror realm though, with "He had seen that an oddly folded leaf was starting from the back of his shrunken right hand. " Perhaps the "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" can be considered a literary botanical cousin to Hodgson's 1907 "A Voice in the Night".
That reminded me a bit of the "Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" segment in George Romero and Stephen King's Creepshow. Wonder if this is where King got the idea (he is a CAS fan, after all) (he could have gotten it from Hodgson, too).
It reads almost as a legend, and the pleasure for me was similar to that of a tone poem. There's a narrative, but the beauty and wonder is in the delivery, the tone and atmosphere. Smith's poesy works really well here.
Yeah, the prose is really gorgeous here, and it has Smith's fingerprints all over it. Look at a sentence like this one:
Day by day the brothers toiled to perfect their invention; and night by night, through the ranging seasons, they peered at the lustrous orb of their speculations as it hung in the emerald evening of Poseidonis, or above the violet-shrouded heights that would soon take the saffron footprints of the dawn.
What an amazing and original sequence of images. It's almost like he invents these crazy scenarios so he can write stuff like that.
I was a bit surprised that the brothers made no effort to bring along others: to "save the race", as it were.
Here's the really crazy part (this is gleaned from podcast mentioned above - I actually missed it) - after they are in space, the brothers look back to Earth and...
...studying its oceans and isles and continents, they named them over one by one from their maps as the globe revolved...
Hold up here! Continents? They can build a spaceship to travel to another planet, but they can't build a bunch of boats to save their own people by taking them to one of the other continents on their home planet? Makes absolutely no sense.
ETA: the word "segment" in the second paragraph after the image; link to elenchus' post
>10 AndreasJ: ff.
In some cultures, yes. In others it's personified as female:
This is the kind of story where I'd expect the author (that is, "author" in the abstract not CAS, necessarily) to put in a moral, even if it's a superficially-sophisticated Cosmic irony.
I don't get that here. CAS seems as amoral (or, perhaps, as genuinely sophisticated) as Ambrose Bierce.
These two characters, Hotar and Evidon, shirk what would seem to most people (I assume) to be a duty to help their countrymen, and instead devote all their their time and energies to effecting their own escape from the oncoming catastrophe, leaving everyone else to a certain fate.
But, you may object, there was no alternative course of action. is there another landmass at this point in Earth's history? I assume there is - that the continents are not all beneath the waves. If so, why was evacuation by sea not raised as a possibility? Surely it would be a better gamble than the first journey to another planet?
It might be unthinkable for our two heroes if there is no other civilisation, but the narrative seems to give enough time for an evacuation by prospective colonisers to be arranged. But no, the people are abandoned to their fate, partying like it's a Cecil B DeMille movie...
But the brothers get their comeuppance don't they? No, I don't see it. They have lovely cultured time on board ship, and successfully land on Venus, being the first men to walk on the surface of another planet. Let's not forget what a big deal exploring - and being first - still was in the early part of the last century - and later. Mount Everest '52. The Moon (The Moon!!) '69. Then the air largely went out of it, didn't it?
As an aside, yes, Venus here lives up to the mythological/alchemical identification, seemingly being the embodiment of a fan de siecle version of over-ripe fecundity (to the extent of including a prose equivalent to one of Aubrey Beardsley's erotic/smutty details in his art: "animals...with orchidaceous blossoms springing from their rumps".)
Their death - dissolution - absorption - is not presented as horrific. Not to them at any rate. It looks to me like a drowsy, drugged, happy surrender to death. And CAS being a decadent, fin de siecle writer (born to late and, maybe, in the wrong country) at the same time a sexual metaphor. Very fin de siecle. Very Wagner, come to that. I wonder if Wagner (especially Tannhäuser) was at the back of CAS's mind when this story was gestating?
It hadn't occurred to me they could have escaped to other continents, though I did mark the line about watching the Earth and naming them as it revolved. Reflecting back on that, I realise it's because I assumed that since Atlantis was named, we know the fate: it sinks and all civilisation with it. And so, the story is exploring what to do within those constraints.
That simply explains why I didn't question it, but I agree it doesn't make much sense in terms of the characters or the story's self-defined constraints. Fin-de-siecle outlooks certainly seem appropriate here, almost as though the brothers reject saving their fellow Atlanteans, perhaps as an unworthy fate.
I was definitely thinking of Clarke's Law, but wasn't aware there were Two Other Laws!
>18 housefulofpaper: "Their death - dissolution - absorption - is not presented as horrific. Not to them at any rate."
Keep in mind also that they're seriously old when they meet their end - they can't very well have planned a long retirement on Sfanomoë. See Sfanomoë and die can't have been too far from the original plan.
As to why they didn't go for seaborne evacuation, the question might be aimed at the Atlanteans as whole - a pretty high level of civilization is indicated, and Atlanteans are prototypically supposed to be able to ship large armies across the sea. The attitude perhaps was that life outside Atlantis isn't worth living - note that before turning their sights on Sfanomoë, Hotar and Evidon's thoughts were on prevention rather than escape, and when they do escape, it's on a very individual level, without any hint of an attempt at securing the survival of Atlantean civilization beyond their own lifespans.
The practical effect of magic or science in a story may be indistinguishable, but the choice whether to present your plot device as the one or the other still affects how the reader (or at any rate this reader) receives the story. I wouldn't have started to think in terms of astronautics if CAS had told us the ship was propelled by demons.
But there's this from early in the story: "the peoples of Poseidonis continued to regard them as possible saviors, whose knowledge and resource were well-nigh superhuman". And CAS doesn't say, or even strongly suggest, that the general populace would choose death over migration, if they knew the true situation.
>13 artturnerjr: and >18 housefulofpaper: and definitely defensible interpretations.
When I first read the story years ago, I took the point to be the brothers could have spared themselves the trouble and stayed on Earth given their fate on Sfanmoe.
This time it seemed like almost a total renunciation of the pulp science fiction space voyaging story. The brothers are not heroic saviors of their civilization or attempting to plant a colony on a distant world. The voyage takes long enough where they age, so they don’t land on Venus as virile young men. They do not conquer the biosphere of Venus. Instead, it subsumes them. And they aren’t conquered by intelligent aliens or animals. Fauna grow on them like they are a new type of soil.
However, looking through the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entries on "Space Flight", "Space Travel", "Spaceships", "Venus", and "Fantastic Voyages" I don't have a clear sense as to how many stories of spaceships traveling to other worlds were around for CAS to react to besides the big ones of Wells and Verne.
This is definitely one of CAS' science fiction pieces that works as dreamy prose -- as opposed to his Captain Volmar stories which don't.
>13 artturnerjr: I like the gender analysis.
There's more than a taste of the fate of Baucis & Philemon here, but the relationship to the hospitality ethic is unclear.
I've been thinking a little more about the blending of genre tropes in this tale discussed earlier. Ryan Harvey (in the Black Gate page Kenton linked to in >1 KentonSem:) finds this troubling, too, especially when "Sfanomoë" is read after "The Last Incantation" (the Poseidonis tale that precedes it in composition order:
In his second Poseidonis story, Smith seems uncertain exactly how he wants to portray this final vestige of Atlantis. “The Last Incantation” shows a world of sorcery, but here the backdrop shifts toward science fiction.
Whereas to me (as I've said before), this is the fun of this era of speculative fiction. Science fiction as a genre (if we date it to the debut of Amazing Stories in 1926) is quite new at this point; the fantasy genre as we think of it today won't be codified for a couple of decades at least; horror fiction isn't, at this point, much like it's thought of today, either. You can actually do stuff like Smith does here (place a sorcerer and a spaceship in two different stories set in the same cycle) and nobody bats an eye. You don't have these kinds of clear demarcation lines between genres that we have today; that seems to me like it would have been much more liberating (and entertaining) for writers, and it seems to me like a great deal of that freedom, that joy, is translated in a positive way into the finished product.
But the salvation they hope for is, it seems, the prevention of the foundering of Poseidonis. Those sea-ports must have held ships, and the brothers' maps implies someone went to those continents and mapped them. If moving shop to Africa, or wherever, were a thinkable option, it's not clear why Hotar and Evidon's knowledge and resource would be needed.
CAS seems to be taking his space travel cue from H.G. Wells, if not Georges Méliès .
Ryan Harvey (in the aforementioned Black Gate article) cites Wells' The First Men in the Moon as a possible influence on this tale (as well as mentioning "Sfanomoë"'s possible influence on Stanley G. Weinbaum's story "Parasite Planet" and Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain (which I haven't seen).
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601211h.html ("Parasite Planet")
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0414993/ (The Fountain)
...an out-an-out magic-powered space voyage might have been an improvement. I'm trying to think of such an instance in sf/fantasy lit...?
There's a lot of this sort of thing in early sword and planet fiction. In Gulliver of Mars (1905), the protagonist arrives on Mars via magic carpet. In A Princess of Mars (1912) (and other Barsoom books), characters travel there by astral projection. One could also go way back to the 2nd century AD to stuff like Lucian's Icaro-Menippus, in which the protagonist flies to the moon with a pair of wings!
Well, maybe you're right. It would make sense if, in CAS' mythos, there were descendants of the Atlanteans in after times. I don't know if this is the case or not.
The question of the fate of the general population isn't the focus of CAS's attention here. I don't feel that, by itself, this story provides enough evidence to settle the question. In other words, though you may be right I don't feel impelled to give up my reading of the story - yet (but thanks for making me think!).
Wanted to make sure that everyone here was aware that The End Of The Story: Volume One of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (which includes "A Voyage to Sfanomoë", "The Last Incantantion", and other stories we have discussed here, and a used hardcover copy of which will now set you back more than $100), is now available for Kindle for two dollars at Amazon:
On January 17, I paid 50¢ for the Panther paperback reprint of Lost Worlds, volume 2 at my local Friends of the Library used bookstore. I'm still reading it. "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" annoyed me because Hotar and Evidon didn't warn their compatriots that it was hopeless, pack up and sail away. Unless those slaves were born deaf and mute, they were mutilated for their owners' convenience. The fact that they freed their slaves before they left didn't make feel better because the slaves didn't have long before the last of Atlantis sank.
#10: The slaves were 'members of an aboriginal race,' which implies there were other aboriginal races. How recently did the highest type of Atlanteans immigrate to Atlantis? Perhaps it was many thousands of years before the brothers' time. On the other hand, did 'aboriginal' have the same connotations in 1931 that it has today? Were the slaves merely supposed to be a race that still lived in a primitive fashion?
#15: Magic School Bus joke -- hee!
#22: Yes, the brothers did seem devoted to science. I suppose the idea of spending decades in happy pursuit of their interests and getting to die walking where no Earthman had walked before was a good one to them. (I can't help wondering if they lacked a sex drive or considered artificial satisfaction good enough.)
While I can't swear that it didn't have additional looser meanings in the '30s, "aboriginal" has had the meaning of "original inhabitants" as long as it's been in English, since the 17th century. It comes from the Latin ab origine "from the origin".
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