Saturday, September 23, 2023

Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs

At an antique store, my eye was caught by a Dover edition with charming illustrations (somewhat ironically bursting with phallic imagery) by Willy Pogany of an English translation by Alvah C. Bessie of Pierre Louÿs' 1894 The Songs of Bilitis.  I was too cheap to spring for the book, but back home I did read (via the sorcery of the internet archive) translations of Louÿs' little work by Mitchell S. Buck and Mary Hanson Harrison.  The Songs of Bilitis are almost 150 prose poems, each shorter than half a page, that detail the sex life of a woman in Ancient Greece, or at least some 19th-century Frenchman's fantasy of what such a woman's sex life might be like.  The first of the prose poems is about how our heroine masturbates by rubbing her crotch against a tree limb--well, at least I think that is what is going on.

Trans: Mitchell S. Buck 

The poems describe Bilitis' various sexual relationships over the course of her life, including those with the man who fathers her child, but the famous thing about the book (if the cover of the Buck translation is any guide) is its depiction of Bilitis' lesbian affairs; a highlight (in the fifty-third poem) is Bilitis as groom at her wedding to the love of her life.

Buck again

But alas, Bilitis' little wife abandons her and we witness Bilitis' struggles to drown her sadness in the caresses of one girl after another.  Then she becomes a courtesan and a procurer, growing rich selling sex to men and throwing extravagant parties complete with jugglers and dancers at her big house.

from 133, trans. Mary Hanson Harrison

Finally, Bilitis grows old and dies; the last three poems in the book are the inscriptions on her tomb.

Louÿs' book is a pleasant diversion, perhaps valuable to students of literature about homosexuals (this book, though written by a man, was apparently embraced by activist lesbians) and to those interested in literary hoxes--like the guy behind Ossian, Louÿs wrote these little ditties about girls groping each others' breasts and bathing in the nude and shopping for a dildo and so forth and then tried to convince people he was merely translating ancient texts he had discovered.  Hilarious.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Astounding, Feb '42: Hubbard, Moore, Brackett, Jones & Sturgeon

In the early 1940s, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics and the religion of Vinnie Barbarino and that woman from Cheers, published in the leading SF magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding, a series of stories collectively known as The Kilkenny Cats.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we have been reading the Kilkenny Cats series in scans of those old World War II-era magazines, and today we tackle the fifth and final installment, "The Rebels."  As we have followed the adventures of those future revolutionaries betrayed by their erstwhile comrades and exiled to planet Sereon, we have also been reading other stories that appeared in Astounding alongside Hubbard's, stories by people like Manly Wade Wellman, Eric Frank Russell and Ross Rocklynne.  Today we will be doing the same, and we are in for a treat, because "The Rebels" appears in an issue of Campbell seminal magazine full of work by writers of particularly high reputation and importance: Theodore Sturgeon, C. L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett.  There's also a piece by Raymond F. Jones, for whom I have a soft spot, so we've got five stories to deal with today.  This might be a long one!

"The Rebels" by L. Ron Hubbard 

At the end of the fourth Kilkenny Cats story, "The Mutineers," aristocratic naval officer Steve Gailbraith, through skilled (i.e., duplicitous) diplomacy had set the exiles up on a planet of giants.  Since then, six months have passed, and things are not going well for the humans living boring and uncomfortable lives among the giants.  The working class thugs who comprised labor leader Dave Blacker's battalion during the revolution on Earth and were forced to join him in exile have been engaging in petty crime, and as a result the Brobdingnagian natives have been lynching them.  As for Steve, he has become a drunk!  Vicky Stalton, love interest and former top propagandist for the revolution, is broken hearted to see Gailbraith, the hero who saved their lives so many times, reduced to such a state, but none of her pleading or cajoling has managed to get him back on track to fulfilling his destiny, which Vicky and we readers assume is to overthrow the communist dictator, Fagar, who exiled Steve, Vicky, Blacker and the rest after the revolution achieved success.  

This situation is unsustainable, and Blacker tries to cut the Gordian knot by sending a message to Earth and conniving with the Fagar government--Blacker will launch an uprising against the giants that will facilitate a raid on the planet's wealth by Fagar's space navy; in return, Blacker's people will be pardoned and allowed to return to Earth.  As Gailbraith, and we readers, expect, when the Terran government forces arrive they don't just neutralize the remainder of the native defenses, but gather together Blacker and his people and execute them on the spot.  Gailbraith, Stanton, and a handful of the middle-class scientists among the exiles witness this mass murder from hiding and we have a front row seat along with them; one of the particular features of this episode of the Kilkenny Cats is the high volume of eye-popping gore, with Hubbard describing how the giants pull humans limb from limb, for example, and lingering over descriptions of the effect ray guns have on people struck by them.

Fagar's Terrans, then, fall into Gailbraith's trap--our boy Steve has been roused from his stupor by Stanton's feminine wiles, she having inspired jealousy in the man she loves by flirting with Blacker.  Back on an even keel, as he has so often before, Gailbraith preserves the lives of the aristocratic and bourgeois exiles with his knowledge of space navy operations and a fair bit of trickery.  When Fagar's ships take on supplies they unwittingly load water that Steve has spiked with the powerful native alcoholic beverage he has been imbibing--soon the entire fleet is in a comatose state, allowing Steve to seize one of their vessels and disable the rest.  As the story ends, Gailbraith, Stanton and the scientists have an operational space battleship again and Steve's quest to overthrow Fagar--along with his and Vicky's love affair--can proceed.

"The Rebels" isn't bad--I like that the Gailbraith-Stalton relationship moves forward and that there is lots of space naval warfare--but I think it is inferior to its predecessors in the Killkenny Cats series.  I didn't find all that credible the idea that ruthless veteran labor leader and revolutionary Blacker would think he could trust Fagar to keep his end of a deal, the dictator after all having quite recently sent him into an exile meant to kill him after Blacker had helped Fagar win the throne of Earth.  Gailbraith's trick in this one didn't feel as convincing or as fun as some of his earlier plot-resolving schemes, either.  Distractingly, the origin story for Stanton in this one seemed to contradict that in the previous KC story, uninteresting new characters of limited utility are introduced for some reason (a huge "Negro" who acts as a sort of servant to Gailbraith and an earnest young cabin boy type) and I even found some of the sentences here in "The Rebels" puzzlingly opaque.  I also had sort of expected the last KC story to see Gailbraith taking over the Earth or at least overthrowing Fagar, so I was a little disappointed about that.  Maybe Hubbard had planned to continue this series but ran out of steam or was responding to a lack of interest from Campbell or Astounding's readers.  Too bad.

Merely acceptable.  

"There Shall Be Darkness" by C. L. Moore

Catherine L. Moore’s famous Weird Tales stories of Northwest Smith are all about sexy Terran criminal Smith’s dangerous relationships with sexy alien women, and one of the supporting pillars of Moore’s story here in the February 1942 issue of Astounding is a very similar theme, but alongside that facet of the tale are somewhat more "serious" themes related to the politics of imperialism and the supposed cycles of history.  You see, for centuries Earthmen have ruled the solar system, imposing civilization on the natives of the other planets.  But today the Terran Empire is crumbling under the pressure of attack from extrasolar barbarians as well as rebellion in the colonies!

Captain Jamie Douglas is the commander of the last Terran base on Venus.  Douglas is a big wide-shouldered Scotsman, and Moore here in "There Shall Be Darkness" indulges in the romanticizing of Celtic culture and ethnicity we have seen in the work of her husband, Henry Kuttner, as well as the stories of their friend Leigh Brackett, flavoring the story with fragments of Scottish song and intimations that Celts have special powers, that they can gain insight from visions and through dreams and so forth.  Moore's choice of ethnicity for her Terran lead may also be a reflection of the idea that Scotsmen were the vanguard of the British Empire; Moore further reminds us of popular images of martial Scotsmen by having her Venusian natives march into battle to the sound of "skirling" "pipes."

This last Terran base is in a prosperous "Terrestrialanized" city, and living on the base with Douglas is our Venusian lead, his slender beauty of a girlfriend, Quanna; Quanna is perhaps the true main character of "There Shall Be Darkness."  Little does Douglas know that Quanna is in close contact with her brother, Vastari, the ambitious leader of one of Venus’s disparate warring tribes, a man whose ambition is to kick out the Terrans and unite the planet under his own royal rule.  In fact, Quanna has been charged by Vastari with the sacred duty of murdering Douglas with a special ceremonial dagger--Douglas’s name is actually written upon its blade!

In contrast to manly man Douglas, who represents the best of (a now decadent) Earth, the natives of Venus are characterized as effeminate; they are manipulative, inscrutable, sneaky, selfish, and obsessed with fine points of etiquette and ignorant of big abstract ideas--the men are even slender and wear long hair.  At the same time, Venusian society is terribly sexist--among the natives women are second class citizens, generally consigned to harems.  (At times I think Moore is trying to evoke readers' impressions of British soldiers and administrators in Afghanistan or among Arabs--besides the reference to harems there is an ambush in hill country, for example.)  The plot of "There Shall Be Darkness" revolves around Quanna’s clever and underhanded machinations and manipulations, which involve lots of lying, drugging, backstabbing, and passing through secret doors, as she engineers events to achieve her goals, which at times are somewhat mysterious to us readers: is Quanna trying to help the strapping Earthman she apparently loves, or her own wild and beautiful planet and people, or is she just acting out of radical selfishness, putting at risk everything and everybody in her pursuit of her own desires?  The backdrop and foundation for all this action is the theme of cycles of history that reminds us of Robert E. Howard (whom Moore famously admired) and Poul Anderson, the theory that the vigor and expansion of young civilizations is succeeded by decadence and collapse into barbarism.  Terra has lost Mars and its other colonies and as our story begins the rulers of Earth are summoning Douglas and his soldiers back from Venus to help protect Earth from those extrasolar invaders.

Quanna’s elaborate schemes to convince Douglas to take her with him to Earth don’t quite work out, and it is deus ex machina developments—the arrival on Venus of a bunch of those extrasolar barbarian reavers and the manipulations of an alien almost as mysterious and deceptive as Quanna (but more responsible), a Martian merchant resident on Venus—that resolve the plot and offer Quanna and Douglas the opportunity to try and build some kind of life together as well as some kind of enduring civilization on Venus that we might see as a hybrid of Terra and Venus' cultures (perhaps this is Moore telling us that society needs both male and female aspects to prosper.)

"There Shall Be Darkness" is a pretty good story, with numerous strengths as well as elements that will perhaps make it interesting to 21st-century readers.  Moore offers plenty of romantic descriptions of Venus scenery (e. g., mangrove swamps and mountains plagued by rockslides ) and depictions of exotic wildlife (Quanna is a master of flying snakes, Venusian horses and venomous arachnids and employs her knowledge of these creatures in her complex plots.)  In the past I've complained that Moore overdoes all the surreal and romantic description in some of her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories, but the descriptions here in this 1942 tale contribute to the story without overwhelming it.  

There are a lot of feminist/gender studies angles to "There Shall Be Darkness," what with the fact that Moore is herself a woman, the person who drives the story’s plot is a woman who uses stereotypical feminine methods to pursue her stereotypical feminine goals, and that the Venusians are coded female while Douglas the Terran is hypermasculine.  And there are timeless political issues:  When is law and order in fact tyranny, and when is freedom merely anarchy? Should the colonized welcome peace and elevated standards of living if it costs them autonomy?

A solid piece of work, especially if you are interested in depictions of imperialism, gender stereotypes, and ethnicity in SF.  Martin Greenberg included "There Shall Be Darkness" in the 1951 anthology Journey to Infinity (reprinted in German in 1964 as 8 Science Fiction Stories) and in our own century Frederick Krome selected it for inclusion in his anthology Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914-1945, which I guess was marketed to colleges as a text book or something--how many SF anthologies cost $64.95 in paperback?

"The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" by Leigh Brackett

This story, the title of which is so similar to that of the book version of Brackett's 1949 Thrilling Wonder piece "Sea-Kings of Mars," appears in two 21st-century collections I own, Haffner Press's Martian Quest: The Early Brackett and Gollancz's Sea-Kings of Mars, but I don't think I've read it before.  

Brackett's "Sea-Kings of Mars" AKA The Sword of Rhiannon involves a Terran archaeologist on tired old Mars who gets a glimpse via esoteric means of the young and vibrant Mars of a million years ago, and endures the experience of having some other intelligence impinge upon his own mind and try to take over his body.  Here in "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" Brackett presents similar themes.  Max Brandon is a tomb raider guy who illegally uncovers ancient artifacts on the desert planet of Mars to sell to collectors and scientists on the black market; this adventurous behavior apparently wins him lots of girls, but he mostly does it for neither money nor love, but because of his fascination with the mysterious and glorious past of Mars, ancient home of lost races which, apparently, had more advanced technology than today's spacefaring Earth imperialists.

Max is alone and on foot, having been separated from his vehicle and essential supplies by a sandstorm.  Exhausted, he is dragging himself over a barren waste that was once the bed of an ocean which thousands of years ago carried the voluminous maritime trade that flourished in the glory days of old Mars.  He comes upon a wrecked sailing ship, is draw to a sealed cabin, and inside he has the sorts  of visions that C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett seem to think Irish and Scottish people have all the time, even when they aren't hitting the sauce: he sees two striking individuals sit at a table, glaring at each other, one a stern man, the other a beautiful woman of the mythical race of blue-haired people who ruled the Red Planet over forty thousand years ago.  When the vision passes, Max sees that, in fact, it is only the skeletons of two such people sitting at the table in the cabin; the bones of these skeletons crumble to dust when Max seizes some artifacts from the table, among them a flask.  A parched Max drinks from the flask and something amazing happens: the liquid in the vessel is the medium upon which was recorded a duplicate of the consciousness of the long dead Martian scientist and monarch whose final resting place he has disturbed, and now Max must share his body with what amounts to a wizard's soul!

Tobul, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, has vast scientific knowledge as well as an indomitable will, and Max has to do his bidding, marching across the desert that Tobul knew as an ocean to get to Rhiannon, which in this story is the name of the town where Tobul had his HQ back in the day, a town archaeologists and tomb robbers like Max and his rival, Dhu Kar the Venusian, have long been searching for.  Tobul's quest is disrupted when one of Max's girlfriends, rich tomboy Sylvia Eustace, who has been searching for Max in her aircraft, shows up, and it turns out the Earthgirl's body is inhabited by the consciousness of Tobul's deadly rival, that blue-haired woman, Kymra of the superior race of the Prira Cen!

Tobul and Kymra revive the long dormant war for control of Mars waged by their races tens of thousands of years ago, making Max and Sylvia's bodies fight with guns and psychic powers.  Before this struggle can be resolved, Venusian Dhu Kar appears in his space craft and attacks.  Tobul neutralizes this troublemaker, but during the fight Kymra/Sylvia sneaks away to what is left of Rhiannon, a subterranean vault in which reposes a treasure trove of high technology, including weapons so mighty whoever has them can take over Mars with ease.  By the time Max and the ancient hitching a ride in his brain get to the vault, Kymra has already built herself a beautiful new body and she spends the climax of the story naked, manipulating a super weapon.  Kymra and Tobul fight over the super weapon while Max and Sylvia desperately try to keep them from killing either of them or causing an explosion that will wreck half of Mars.  The Martian police arrive and they also get mixed up in the struggle.  Eventually, Max resolves the plot amicably by convincing Tobul and Kymra that they should become lovers and work together to turn arid barren Mars back into a lush sea-covered world.  Wrapping up our happy ending with a bow is the fact that Max decides to stop sleeping around and commit to Sylvia.  

This story is OK.  The climax is too long, and the way random new characters keep popping in to prevent the Kymra vs Tobul fight from reaching a decisive conclusion is a little repetitive and deflating.  Brackett would make up her stories as she went along without any kind of plot outline in mind (see the introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton) and it sort of shows here.  "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" would not be reprinted until the 21st century, presumably because the story is a little weaker than her average, and because Brackett addressed many of its themes and employed many of its components more satisfyingly in "Sea-Kings of Mars" AKA The Sword of Rhiannon.               

"Starting Point" by Raymond F. Jones

People love the idea that history moves in a predictable direction through distinct phases or follows some kind of recurring cycle.  If you went to college you were perhaps exposed to Marxist theories of history, and if you are some kind of history buff maybe you've heard of the Whig view of history or the theories of Oswald Spengler.  We often hear the cliche "he [or she] was ahead of his [or her] time," as if developments in artistic styles and changes in social mores follow a time table.  MPorcius Fiction Log superfans may recall how Anthony Burgess founded his novel The Wanting Seed on a theory of historical cycles, and of course we just read a story by C. L. Moore that had as a major theme the idea that civilizations develop and decay in a predictable fashion.  

In "Starting Point," Raymond F. Jones presents a theory about the interplay of technological innovations and society.  One of the story's main characters, a successful businessman who owns and manages a fleet of rockets, propounds the theory that radical new means of transportation, like the automobile or airplane--and in the present case the space ship--appear suddenly on the scene, and inspire brave pioneer-type men, heroes and geniuses, to great feats of exploitation and further development of the new technology.  Then follows a period of maturity, when the transportation technology is easy to operate and development stagnates because mere technicians who follow their manuals and the training they received in schools are running the machines, not seat-of-your-pants heroes and geniuses. 

The guy who is offering this theory fears the rocket ship has entered the stagnant mature phase too early, only a few decades after the first rockets blasted off for the moon.  Mankind's first generation of space ships are not as safe, fast, and efficient as they could be, because space flight is dominated not by pioneers, but school-trained technicians.  More heroes and geniuses ae required, and he has hatched a scheme to produce some!  He announces a race around the sun that starts in the asteroid belt--his company will provide volunteers with standard atomic rocket motors, and each volunteer will attach these propulsion systems to the asteroid of his choice and race his fellows, and the first to return to his stating point will win the tempting prize.  Presumably such a competition, conducted in such an atmosphere of novelty and risk, will attract risk takers and inspire them to think outside of the box in pursuit of victory.

The other main character of "Starting Point" is our narrator, one of the original rocket pioneers, a space pilot who was injured on a dangerous mission and relegated to teaching astrogation at a technical college.  Many of his students participate in the race, and we watch the race through his eyes as one of his students, a stutterer whom the media treats as comic relief, wins the race via brash unconventional interpretations of the rules and extreme risk taking that none of the other participants, products of a safety-obsessed society who slavishly follow all the conventions they learned in school, would ever consider.  His perilous adventure even cures the young man of his stutter--his speech impediment was a symptom of his own fear, and his nightmarish trip close to the Sun was so harrowing that now he fears nothing!

This is a fun little story that follows the classic science fiction formula of having a guy overcome plot obstacles with his knowledge of science and ability to brazenly trick others.  It also celebrates risk takers and reminds you that much of what such "authorities" as school teachers tell you is likely a load of crap.  Amen!

It looks like "Starting Point" was never reprinted.  We read the deep cuts here at MPorcius Fiction Log!  

"Medusa" by Theodore Sturgeon 

Here we have a tale by the author of the unforgettable "Microcosmic God," "Killdozer!" and "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"  A tale whose focus is abnormal psychology.  And while Jones's "Starting Point" has languished in obscurity, "Medusa" would be reprinted many times in Sturgeon collections, including a French collection for which it served as the title story.

Our narrator is one of the most reliable spacemen in the service, and for three years he has been subjected to a battery of psychological tests and interventions that prove his mental stability is nonpareil--government scientists have done things to him that would drive any other man completely bonkers, and he is still on an enviably even keel.  Finally, the day for which the narrator has been prepared has arrived, and he is mustered onto the eight-man crew of a space ship on a very special mission.  Before take off our hero is told that while the government head shrinkers have been assuring themselves that his sanity is rock solid, they have also been assiduously driving the rest of the crew insane in a very specific way for very specific purposes!

After departure, the spacers open up their sealed orders and learn what their secret mission is--destroying the field that emanates from planet Xantippe and makes space travel in the vicinity of that planet so treacherous.  You see, the Xantippean Field inflicts upon people a total mental breakdown, reducing spacemen to "useless," "drooling," "mindless hulks," which is a real problem because Xantippe's "unpredictable and complex" "cometary orbit" lies between Earth and a bunch of colonies that require shipments from Terra.  

The trip to Xantippe and the final battle against the planet (which turns out to be a giant monster analogous to a Portuguese man-o-war) features lots of uncertainty and numerous psychological breakdowns, but in the end our hero succeeds in his mission to open up the space lanes. 

Sturgeon fills his story with speculative psychology and speculative physics (the workings of the space ship's innovative warp drive and its super particle beam weapon) that probably make no sense whatsoever and certainly use terminology in a way we do no longer (e. g., the narrator says at one point that "a manic depressive is the 'Yes master' type") but are sort of interesting regardless.  Sturgeon's style is good and I liked the story, but I was a little surprised by how straightforward it was--I was expecting more of a twist at the end of "Medusa."    


This is a good issue of Astounding--while it is easy to point out problems with these stories, I enjoyed all five of them (though the Hubbard was a close call.)     

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Astounding April 1941: L R Hubbard, M Jameson and P Schuyler Miller

Here at MPoricus Fiction Log we are reading the Kilkenny Cats series, a bunch of stories written by L. Ron Hubbard that appeared in Astounding in the early 1940s under the pen name Kurt von Rachen.  We are reading these tales in scans of the magazines in which they debuted, and sampling other offerings from each issue as we proceed.  Today we read the fourth Kilkenny Cats story, "The Mutineers," from the April 1941 Astounding, in which also appear two stories I have already read, Theodore Sturgeon's famous classic "Microcosmic God" and A. E. van Vogt's "Not the First," as well as the first part of a serial by L. Sprague de Camp.  Leaving those pieces aside, at least for the nonce, today we'll be reading the tales in this issue of John W. Campbell, Jr's iconic magazine by less prominent authors Malcolm Jameson and P. Schuyler Miller.  

"The Mutineers" by L. Ron Hubbard 

In "The Mutineers" Hubbard builds up the backgrounds of hero Steve Gailbraith and his other characters, for example describing in greater detail than heretofore vouchsafed to us Gailbraith's decision to betray the aristocracy and side with the rebels who overthrew the monarchy, and providing us more info on Fagar, the miner at the head of the communist faction of rebels who made himself dictator of Earth and had Gailbraith and other non-communist rebels killed or sent into exile on Sereon.  Besides these sorts of flashbacks and expository passages, we learn how the exiles have fared since Gailbraith captured them a ship and got them off Sereon in the last episode.

An experienced space naval officer who has already saved the exiles' lives repeatedly, Gailbraith felt it natural he should take command of the ship, but neither the leader of the small coterie of scientists among the exiles, Jean Mauchard, nor the leader of the hundreds of longshoremen, Dave Blacker, would recognize Gailbraith's authority.  And Gailbraith is also on the outs with beautiful blonde Fredericka Stalton, who like Fagar fought her way up from the working classes to be a leader of the rebellion (the charismatic and gorgeous Stalton found her ladder to success in the propaganda department.)  Stalton objects to Gailbraith's imperiousness, and Gailbraith's aristocratic attitudes about women, whom he doesn't see as fit for leadership, also rankle.  At the same time, Hubbard makes it still more clear that Gailbraith and Stalton belong together by revealing that Stalton has aristocratic blood--she grew up in a tenement because she was abandoned and unacknowledged by her philandering upper class father (ripped from today's headlines!)

We also learn more about Mauchard, who is the prime mover of the plot of this story.  The scientist knows of a planet, New Terre, rich in natural resources, and wants the exiles to travel there in their captured battleship.  Gailbraith and Blacker are reluctant to go, Steve warning that such a valuable piece of real estate is probably guarded by a force of Fagar's or has even been captured by hostile aliens during the chaos of the Terran civil war, while Blacker objects because he suspects on such a planet his working-class followers will be consigned to the position of laborers--Blacker's idea is that the exiles they should use the battleship to take up space piracy.  In an effort to cut this Gordian knot, Mauchard pumps the ship full of sleep gas, leaving only himself and his dozen or so fellow scientists awake so they can take over the ship and chart a course to New Terre, where, after the twelve-day trip they are, sure enough, fired upon by the locals.  Luckily Gailbraith has woken up a little earlier than everybody else and employs his sterling leadership ability and intimate knowledge of space ship operations to quickly win the subalterns over to his way of thinking, take over the ship from Mauchard, and save the day by bluffing the hostile aliens.

This is an entertaining classic-style SF story with space naval battles and people using technology and trickery to try to defeat foes and overcome other plot obstacles.  Like the first Kilkenny Cats story, it explicitly denounces revolution, and like so many SF stories, it romanticizes the role of the individual in society and endorses what we might call "the great man theory of history," pushing a sort of elitism and suggesting the common people should defer to their betters if they want a stable and comfortable society.  Perhaps interestingly, Hubbard in "The Mutineers" favors the highborn fighting man over the middle-class scientist, though the blackest villains of the piece are of course vengeful working-class thugs.  Hubbard in Steve Gailbraith tries to depict a character who evolves--a man who has made a terrible mistake and is almost psychologically destroyed by regret, but under pressure proves his abilities and works towards some kind of redemption, and who, perhaps, is going to grow out of his antediluvian attitudes about women.

"Slacker's Paradise" by Malcolm Jameson 

Way back in 2015, I read a story from Malcolm Jameson's Bullard series and denounced it as something a child would write.  Eight years later I read another Bullard tale--will I like it any better?  

The Solar System is wracked by war, millions dying as the the alliance of Earth and Mars resists the expansion of the Jovian Empire.  The main character of "Slacker's Paradise" is a young junior lieutenant in the space navy, MacKay, skipper of a patrol boat; as the scion of a wealthy family, he is experienced in operating small spaceships because he has his own space yacht.  MacKay is somewhat ashamed because he has never been in a battle--his influential aunt has pulled strings, against his wishes, to make sure he is never sent in harm's way--"slacker's paradise" is the slang term for his vessel's assigned duties, which are far from the battle zone.

Suddenly, MacKay gets an opportunity to be a hero!  His idol, Captain Bullard, winner of many battles, needs MacKay's fast patrol boat to deliver a message so important it cannot be transmitted through the aether, only hand delivered!

On the mission strange and unexpected circumstances arise that force MacKay to make drastic decisions that may well determine the fate of the war and the futures of all the peoples of the Solar System.  The plot is a little complicated, but basically it looks like Earth and Mars are worn out and may have to come to terms with the Callistan dictator who has forged the Jovian Empire by subjugating the other moons of Jupiter, but MacKay, by luck, learns that many of the peoples of the Jovian moons are sick of the war themselves and will consider rebelling against the Callistan tyranny if promised Terran aid.  Inspired by the example and advice of his hero Bullard ("any action is better than inaction"), MacKay takes the radical risk of shouldering the responsibility of Terran diplomacy without any authorization from his superiors, sending deceptive messages to the Callistan rulers and to potentially rebellious factions within their empire.  MacKay's trickery pays off, the war is won, and Bullard pins a metal on MacKay's chest.

A long footnote from Jameson explains how a major part of the plot of "Slacker's Paradise" is based on an incident at the end of the First World War, the surrenders of the Austrian battleships Zryini and Radetzky to American submarine chasers.  Maybe we're supposed to think of Callisto as being an analog of Prussia.  

"Slacker's Paradise" feels a little like a juvenile, what with its plot that centers on a young person meeting his role model and earning the respect of this father figure by making good by following surrogate daddy's advice, but the story is reasonably well-written and kinda fun.

"Bird Walk" by P. Schuyler Miller

"Bird Walk" is set in a wildlife preserve on Venus, which has been inhabited by Terran colonists for like 200 years.  These have been two turbulent centuries, with a struggle for independence from Earth which ended up founding an autocratic monarchy which was in turn overthrown and replaced by a democratic republic; since then there has been a series of royalist revolts.  One of the symbols of the currently deposed Venusian royal family is a huge ruby, and more than once leaders of the royalist uprisings have kicked off their restoration attempts by seizing this jewel from its resting place in a museum and using the fabulous relic to inspire royalist sympathizers among the masses.

The hero of our tale is the junior of the two-man staff of a small space navy outpost on the edge of the wildlife preserve.  Young New York-born officer Dave is a keen amateur ornithologist who knows the wildlife preserve like the back of his hand and has become an expert on the local flying fauna.  Miller's story begins with some metal-eating Venusian birds somehow getting into the outpost's radio shack and destroying the only radio in the area; the outpost's senior officer accuses our boy Dave of letting the gluttonous birds in, but he protests his innocence, and soon evidence arises that somebody else probably let the birds get at the radio as part of a scheme to hide the royal jewel, which the naval officers learn has just been stolen again.  Could the culprit be the head park ranger, an aristocratic type with whom the space naval officers don't get along?  

A tour group arrives at the wildlife refuge--our heroes deduce that a member of this group must be in possession of the jewel, and Dave uses his knowledge of the exotic local fauna and a lot of chicanery to identify the rebellious royalists and save Venusian democracy. 

"Bird Walk" reminded me a bit of Jack Vance's short stories.  As Vance sometimes does, Miller develops a somewhat elaborate background full of speculative politics, sociology and biology, including a long list of strange animals, to serve as the foundation of a crime story.  Among the things that really struck me as Vancian were Miller's suggestion that life on Venus, after only two hundred years, could lead to changes to the human phenotype, with Venus-born humans having a different skin and hair color than Earth-born humans, and how fashionable people in the story's universe cosmetically alter their skin and hair color.                 

Pretty good.  I've only read one other story by Miller (1944's "As Never Was"), but I have enjoyed both, so maybe I should make an effort to read more work by him.  


Three stories about space naval officers fighting autocracy by outwitting people, perhaps a reflection of the time in which they were written as well as the SF genre in general.  I enjoyed all three, but none of them has ever been anthologized; the Hubbard and Jameson stories have been reprinted in collections, while it looks like the Miller has never reappeared.  I, for one, generally find it profitable to read these sorts of minor almost-forgotten SF stories, and I certainly did so today.  Kudos to the internet archive yet again for making this sort of material easily accessible.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Astounding Jan 1941: L R Hubbard, M W Wellman and M G Hugi and E F Russell

Let's twiddle the knobs and tune in the pre-Dianetics L. Ron Hubbard and read the third installment of Hubbard's Kilkenny Cats series in its January 1941 incarnation in an issue of Astounding, the leading science fiction magazine, at that time edited by the towering figure of John W. Campbell, Jr.  Also in this issue is the first part of Robert Heinlein's serialized Sixth Column, a novel I haven't read yet and won't be starting today.  What we will be reading today from the 1/41 Astounding besides Hubbard's contribution is a story by Manly Wade Wellman, author of many weird stories and space operas, and a collaboration between Eric Frank Russell, reportedly Campbell's favorite author, and Maurice G. Hugi, a guy I don't know anything about.  

(Here are links to my blog posts about the first two Kilkenny Cats stories, "The Idealist" and "The Kilkenny Cats.")

"The Traitor" by L. Ron Hubbard

The colony of exiles on Sereon is in trouble.  Not only are the tensions between the small cadre of educated professionals and the large group of laborers erupting into violence again--perhaps even worse, a green plague has started infecting the colonists.  Fortunately, former royalist space naval officer Steve Gailbraith, who turned revolutionary and once the revolution was won and had  turned on him turned reactionary, a man who doesn't really get along well with the eggheads or the working class thugs, is on the scene to patch things up. 

Steve pretends to be a traitor to his fellow exiles, commandeering the colony's communications apparatus by force and transmitting a cock and bull story to the communist government that exiled them about how the colonists have dug up a space worthy warship abandoned on Sereon long ago and are now preparing it to harass government shipping.  This call brings back to Sereon the space battleship that brought the exiles to the planet.  The ship's officers are untrained and uncharismatic incompetents whom the ordinary spacers and marines don't respect, so Gailbraith is able to seize control of the ship through trickery and personal magnetism.

"The Traitor"'s chase scenes and military scenes, involving various ray guns and force fields and people getting gruesomely blasted, are pretty entertaining.  Hubbard also provides the pay off for the scenes in the last installment that showed how unfit for command were the revolutionary officers of the battleship, and advances Gailbraith's relationship with beautiful propaganda officer Frerdericka Stalton.

Pretty good.  Now that Gailbraith has a space ship, I guess we'll see what he does with it in the next installment of the Kilkenny Cats series.

"Lost Rocket" by Manly Wade Wellman

Here we have a murder mystery in space with not only a cast of suspects/potential victims and a bunch of clues for the cast to cogitate over and argue about, but also the space suits, ray guns, and zero-G physics we SF fans crave.  Wellman handles all this material pretty well, so I enjoyed "Lost Rocket." 

It is the spacefaring future; mankind's furthest flung colonies are among the Jovian moons.  Some robber barons are making more money out there under the Great Red Spot than the government on Earth likes, so in the mail on the latest supply ship is a written order to the current colonial governor, whom the Terran officials have deemed too friendly to the robber barons--he is to stand down and make way for his second-in-command.  But the supply ship doesn't make it to Jupiter intact!  The vessel's engines explode, killing some thirty men!  The bow of the vessel and a limited supply of oxygen remains intact, and the five spacemen who were there when the motor went boom survive: the captain, his lieutenant, a squid-like Martian mechanic, and two ordinary spacers, one young and enthusiastic, the other gruff and "beefy."  The five men figure that one of their number must have sabotaged the ship at the behest of the Jovian robber barons, making sure he was in the bow so he would survive the blast and live to get his reward from the Jovian monopolists.  No doubt a ship working for the robber barons will collect them, rescuing the robber barons' agent and killing the other four men.  Do the innocent spacemen have time to figure out who the villain is before they are picked up by the criminals and murdered?  Could they somehow alter the course of their unpowered coasting rump of a ship?  And what will the canny saboteur do to protect his identity and make sure he hooks up with his payday? 

I liked the space walk scene and the fight scenes, but the mystery is pretty good as well.  Thumbs up for "Lost Rocket!"  

Wellman is a pretty well-known and well-liked writer, and I recommend "Lost Rocket," but according to isfdb it has never been reprinted.  The publishing world can be as cruel and inexplicable as the void between the stars!

"The Mechanical Mice" by Maurice G. Hugi and Eric Frank Russell

Anthologists may have given "The Traitor" and "Lost Rocket" the cold shoulder, but not "The Mechanical Mice," which appears in multiple US and European anthologies.  The story was printed under Hugi's name here in Astounding and in the 1957 edition of Healy and McComas' Adventures in Time and Space I consulted at isfdb; Terry Carr, however, in his 1978 anthology Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age, credits it to Russell, and explains in his intro to the tale.  It seems that Russell wrote the story based on the germ of an idea that was included in a story Hugi wrote but which was rejected by editors some twenty times; Carr tells us Hugi was a good friend of Russell's, but "a dreadful writer."

(Carr's intro is pretty colorful, describing Russell typing the story in Liverpool during a Luftwaffe raid and letting Hugi take credit for it as a favor to a sick friend close to death who would be cheered up by seeing his name in Astounding.  Like a real scholar, Carr provides a long citation list of his sources for his intro, which also touches on the history of SF in Britain in the early 20th century, so if Russell or British SF generally is one of your interests, check it out.)

"The Mechanical Mice" is a pretty good SF horror story, with gore and some sense of wonder elements that perhaps inch into cosmic horror territory.  One of my complaints about "The Mechanical Mice" is that while Russell employs first-person narration, he also includes long passages describing in detail events to which the narrator was not a witness; Russell should have just composed the entire thing in the third person.  

The narrator is a writer, and he has a friend who is an inventor.  Friend some years ago invented a super efficient battery.  In the beginning of this story the narrator learns how his pal came up with that impressive invention.  You see, this brainiac also has, secretly, invented the "psychophone," a thing you attach to your noggin that allows you to look into the future!  What you witness is largely random, but the inventor was lucky enough to peer through the mists of time and watch a person of the future manufacturing a battery; he was then able to reproduce that process in his own 20th-century lab and thus made a mint marketing to consumers the superior technology of the far future.

(As in so many time travel stories, in "The Mechanical Mice" Russell addresses time paradoxes and the possibility of changing history; Russell asserts that you cannot change history.)

The narrator dons the apparatus and takes a crack at observing the future and witnesses scenes of violence and grue in a totalitarian dystopia in which people are controlled via headsets they are obligated to wear.  The tone of "The Mechanical Mice" is that of a weird horror tale, and the futures it depicts are strange and disturbing.

The inventor has another mind-blowing revelation for the narrator.  For years now, based on his glimpses of the future, he has been building a machine, but he doesn't actually know what the machine does.  It appears that the inventor, gazing into the future, laid eyes upon an advanced machine, a robot, that was capable of detecting the inventor's prying eyes and even look back, implanting into his mind blueprints and hypnotizing him into making a replica of itself in the 20th century.  The inventor shows the resulting mystery machine to his friend; it is is a sort of refrigerator-sized box on casters adorned with camera eyes as well as antennae that remind the narrator of a devil's horns.  In keeping with the story's horror tone, the narrator repeatedly describes the machine as being the size and shape of a coffin, and both our main characters uneasily recognize a sinister "air" about it.

The second half of "The Mechanical Mice"'s 18 pages concern how this future machine proves to be a terrible menace and our heroes and some minor characters fight it.  Russell uses animal analogies to explain how the machine operates.  The machine, it turns out, is like a queen bee that gives birth to swarms of smaller robots; these robots are likened to rodents, being mouse- or rat-sized, and capable of scurrying along with terrific dexterity at astonishing speed.  So like rodents are they that cats who see them instantly attack them, but these little droids are armed with wickedly sharp blades, and over the course of the story many felines are killed, Russell describing in some detail their bloody wounds.  The mechanical mice steal watches and clocks and bring them back to the mother robot, and anybody who tries to stop them gets cut.

Our two guys wreck the mother robot, and we have a sort of climax and denouement in which the inventor muses on the robot-dominated future of Earth (offering a crumb of optimism by raising the possibility that the robots only take over the world because mankind has graduated from an Earthbound existence and emigrated to the stars.)  But then for some reason the story keeps going, with another mother robot discovered (built by mice from the first one) and the mechanical mice's reign of terror continuing.  So our heroes have to find and destroy this one as well.  This final part has some good gore scenes and a fun idea on how to defeat the robots, but Russell should have somehow integrated that material into the struggle with the first robot queen--two climaxes is one too many; after the defeat of the first robot queen I couldn't muster up sufficient interest in a second queen to make lengthening the story in this way worthwhile.

As I have suggested, I have some gripes about the construction of this story, but the plot and themes are good and individual sections are all well-written.  So, thumbs up.


Three entertaining stories that make good use of so many beloved standard-issue SF components: inventors, space warships, forcefields, space suits, ray guns, malevolent robots, and time travel.  A solid issue of Astounding.

More Astounding and L. Ron Hubbard next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log.   

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Astounding Sept '40: L R Hubbard, R Rocklynne and V Phillips

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading stories from the issues of Astounding in which L. Ron Hubbard's Kilkenny Cats stories debuted.  Today we've got the September 1940 issue, from the pages of which we will read not only Hubbard's contribution but a piece by Ross Rocklynne, even though the last time we read a Rocklynne story I denounced it as a "repetitive" and "tedious" "waste of time" consisting of "anemic jokes" (ouch) and a story by Vic Phillips, about whom I know nothing. 

(This important issue of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s magazine also features the first installment of the serialized version of A. E. van Vogt's famous Slan, and a story from Robert A. Heinlein's Future History, "Blowups Happen."  I read a book version of Slan many years ago, and may read this magazine version someday.  "Blowups Happen" I blogged about way back in 2014.  I reread "Blowups Happen" yesterday, and can't think of anything additional to say that is any more interesting than what I said back then.)

"The Kilkenny Cats" by L. Ron Hubbard

Like the first Kilkenny Cats story, "The Idealist," "The Kilkenny Cats" appears under the pseudonym Kurt von Rachen.  According to isfdb, this story has never been reprinted on its own, just in the 1980 Italian Kilkenny Cats collection I ribelli dell'universo and the 1992 small press hardcover Kilkenny Cats collection.  

At the end of "The Idealist," the leaders of the Anarchist party were captive on a starship headed for planet Sereon, having been sentenced by the newly installed communist government of Earth to exile on that mysterious planet.  (The naive anarchists had been the commies' allies in the revolution against Earth's aristocratic rulers, only to find the Reds turning on them as soon as the aristos were out of the way.)  Hubbard spends the first few pages of "The Kilkenny Cats" demonstrating somewhat comically how the starship, run efficiently when manned by the men of the old Royal Space Navy, is now being run haphazardly and lackadasically by the uneducated communist dopes who have succeeded the deposed aristocrats.  We also learn that the dictator of Earth, Fagar, has given the commander of the starship, Lars Tavish, instructions to set up the penal colony on Sereon in such a way that will foster a self-destructive fight between the disparate groups of anarchist exiles.  The two main factions are the seventeen middle-class scientists led by Jean Maucahrd and the longshoremen (375 in number) led by Dave Blacker; also in the mix are our two main characters, Colonel Stephen Gailbraith, a space navy veteran and hero of the revolution who now heartily regrets his support of the revolution and Fredericka Stalton, master propagandist and former poster child for the communist party who has been exiled along with the anarchists because Fagar worried her popularity threatened his rule, especially after she expressed misgivings about communist policy.

Lars Tavish sets up the scientists in one camp and the laborers in another, the former with all the food and high tech equipment, except for the rifles, which go to the longshoremen.  Almost immediately following the departure of the ship, the two groups are at each other's throats.  Meanwhile, Gailbraith, accompanied by Stalton, who don't get along with either Mauchard or Blacker, march off into the wilderness.  Demonstrating an iron will, a talent for command and endless resourcefulness, Gailbraith succeeds in getting Mauchard's boffins and Blacker's laborers to stop fighting each other and work together by introducing an external threat--packs of native carnivores.  Stalton, a tough and cynical girl whose ability to manipulate others carried her out of the tenements and into the top ranks of the revolution, constantly bickers with Galbraith, but as he proves his abilities and saves her life she begins to respect him.

An acceptably entertaining SF story in the classic mold, showing one clever man overcoming obstacles using logic and trickery and demonstrating how diverse social demographics need to work together to make a thriving society, though it will probably take elite manipulation to get them to do so.  Again Gailbraith's future--as the man who will overthrown the communist government--is foreshadowed.  Presumably we will see this feat in a future installment of Hubbard's Kilkenny Cats series.

"Quietus" by Ross Rocklynne

Two bird-like aliens arrive on Earth in their spherical spaceship to discover that your home planet and mine is a total wreck, having been hit by an asteroid 15 or so years ago.  Except for a few thousand square miles in North America, the Earth's surface is a barren waste punctuated by ferociously active volcanoes; but in that green strip in the Western Hemisphere lives 21-year-old Tommy and his pet crow Blacky.  Blacky can talk, and parrots things Tommy says and occasionally repeats things people said when Tommy was just a little kid, before the cataclysm that killed everyone Tommy knew, phrases Tommy can't quite understand.  (Impulsive Tommy survived the asteroid strike because he had run away from home and was hiding in a cave the night of the disaster.)

Tommy is crying because of a hunger he cannot define--we readers of course instantly recognize that Tommy's hunger is for a woman.  Tommy stumbles upon evidence that he is not the only human left on Earth, and that the other survivor is a girl!  He starts tracking her, and she, shy and skittish, evades him, but as time goes by she becomes more and more curious about him.

All the worlds love a lover, and I'd like to tell you that Tommy and whatshername live happily ever after, but, as the title of his story suggests, "Quietus" is a tragedy and Rocklynne lays a depressing twist ending on us.  The two avian aliens watch Tommy, and one of them assumes that Blacky, who rides on Tommy's shoulder and is always jabbering, is the intelligent being and Tommy a beast of burden.  Again and again, Blacky's cries and chatter startle and scare off the young woman, and eventually the emotional Tommy vents his frustration with his black-feathered friend by throwing pebbles at him.  Thinking she is saving a fellow bird-person from a mere animal, one of the aliens shoots Tommy down; the last Earthwoman emerges from cover to stand sobbing over the corpse of the last Earthman.

Not bad.

Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas saw fit to reprint "Quietus" in Adventures in Time and Space (one of the most famous s-f collections of all time!) and Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg included it in the volume of their series The Great Science Fiction Stories covering 1940, which was later reprinted under the moniker Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction.  (Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere, angel.)

"Emergency" by Vic Phillips

It is the future!  Mankind has colonized the solar system, and operates under a single central government on Earth.  Human civilization relies on powerplants that can transmit energy safely and efficiently through air or vacuum to where ever it may be required.

"Emergency" begins in the chamber where the Earth's ruling council of seven men are confronting an unprecedented and bewildering crisis.  Over the last few hours, all contact with the other planets and moons of the solar system has been lost, one after the other, suggesting some alien force is travelling through the system, deactivating the power transmission infrastructure in each colony as it proceeds.  Earth's rulers have no idea what to do as whatever it was that has just silenced Mars approaches our home planet!

All machinery on Earth ceases functioning, and the capitol city goes dark.  But wait, out the window, is that a single light?  Yes, the centuries' old electric bulb on display at the museum!  The eighth man in the council chamber, the "chief liaison officer," who seems like a sort of secretary and office manager, leads the councilmembers to the museum, where he has a brain wave:
Whimhurst, Farraday, Franklin, Hertz, the ghosts of these and a dozen others of the ancient pioneers seemed to be with him at that moment....
Gathering together tools and materials from the museum, and recruiting hobbyists who have obsolete skills that have not been remunerative for hundreds of years, they labor to build a last ditch defense against the invader.

We learn what this defense is in the climax.  At the direction of the secretary, amateur technicians have generated a powerful static electricity charge using hand-cranked generators ("Taupler Haltz machines"), and stored the charge in a human "condenser," a line of thousands of hand-holding volunteers.  When the alien, a six-foot wide sphere that is absorbing all of the power generated by human civilization's powerplants and transmitting it back home, hovers close enough, the head of the line of volunteers touches it, discharging the static charge.  Fifty of the Earth's heroes are killed in the explosive discharge, but it interrupts the alien's energy piracy long enough to bring Earth's defense weapons back online so they can blast the alien.

A decent enough science gimmick story.  "Emergency" has, it seems, never been reprinted.  Sometimes we dig up the deep cuts here at MPorcius Fiction Log!


Readers, I presume, were happy with this issue of Astounding; not only does it include the major van Vogt and Heinlein stories, but even these three lesser pieces are pretty entertaining and full of daring deeds, tragedy, life advice (don't get mixed up with commies!) and science.

More Kilkenny Cats, and more Astounding, in our next episode.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Astounding July 1940: L R Hubbard, R A Heinlein, L del Rey and R M Williams

After four weird fiction blog posts in a row featuring ghosts, witches, voodoo and demons, let's shift gears and read stories from a magazine in whose pages we expect to see stories about science that speculate on what life will be like in the future, John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding.  The July 1940 issue prints the first story in L. Ron Hubbard's Kilkenny Cats series, and we'll take a gander at that, as well as stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey and Robert Moore Williams.  Nota bene: I am reading these stories in a scan of the World War II-era magazine, so my comments will not reflect any revisions to be found in later reprints.

"The Idealist" by L. Ron Hubbard

"The Idealist," which appears under the pen name Kurt von Rachen, begins with a long epigraph, an historical essay about the fall of Earth's aristocratic government in 2893 to a workers' revolution and the character of the succeeding government.  This epigraph, and the story that follows, illustrates the wisdom you will find in conservative magazines, that government is generally terrible but violently overthrowing the government will cause tremendous hardship and probably just open the door to an even worse government.  

The first third or so of the story proper, which is like twelve pages of text in total, is set in a crowded courtroom scarred by gunfire, where the judges of the new Communist government are passing sentence on their former allies in the workers' revolution, now their defeated rivals, the leaders of the different components of the Anarchist party.  The obese cigar-smoking head judge banters with the captive anarchists, physicist Jean Mauchard, labor leader Dave Blacker, and soldier Colonel Steve Gailbraith, Hubbard demonstrating how the commies are bloodthirsty monsters and the anarchists are brave idealists who made the error of underestimating the evil of their socialist allies and the gullibility of the masses.  These heroes of the revolution are too popular to execute out of hand, so the commies who have control of the government decide to exile them to planet Sereon in the Sirius system; they can sell this punishment to the mob as assigning them the noble task of colonizing another solar system.

The rest of "The Idealist" takes place on the star ship that is taking the captive anarchists to Sirius.  Our main character is Colonel Steve, and we get flashbacks to his military career before and after he joined the revolution.  He meets the beautiful Fredericka Stalton, a former communist propaganda minister who has also been sentenced to the Sereon expedition.  Heartbroken over the failure of the revolution to usher in a better world, Steve has lost his will to live, but Fredericka, who is one tough cookie with a passionate determination to survive this new ordeal, tries to snap him out of his funk. 

Fredericka alerts Steve to the fact that Dave Blacker and his working class followers have a plan to seize the ship from the commies and then murder the Anarchist Party's bourgeois and aristocratic elements, among whom are numbered Steve, Mauchard and herself.  Just as Blacker is about to commit his foul deed of murder, Steve uses his knowledge (gleaned from his service in the space navy before the revolution) of how the ship works to foil the mutiny and save himself and his fellow middle- and upper-class anarchists.  The story ends with a little speech from Steve about his regret at having supported the revolution that destroyed the good as well as bad elements of the old regime and his realization that the common people are incapable of self-rule and need strong government.  There is also the implication that Steve is going to take up the task of overthrowing the communist government and presumably become himself the strong ruler that he feels the common people need; maybe we'll see Steve perform this feat in the later Kilkenny Cats stories.

Acceptable.  We saw Hubbard pursue the argument that people need a strong leader when, nine years ago, we read his novel Final Blackout, which debuted in Astounding in early 1940.  I'm curious to see where Hubbard goes with this theme and these characters, so plan to read more of the Kilkenny Cats stories soon.

"The Idealist" doesn't seem to have been widely reprinted.  According to isfdb, the first book to reprint the Kilkenny Cats series as a whole was an Italian volume in 1980, I rebelli dell'universo; this was followed in 1992 by a small-run special edition from Author Services, Inc., a publisher associated with the Scientology organization. In 2019 "The Idealist" appeared independently of the other Kilkenny Cats tales in the 35th volume of the anthology series L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future.

"Coventry" by Robert A. Heinlein

"Coventry," one of the stories that make up Heinlein's Future History, collected in the thick 1967 volume The Past Through Tomorrow, bears some similarities to Hubbard's story in its structure and concerns.  "Coventry" begins in a court room in a future post-revolution world, where the hero, Dave MacKinnon, faces sentencing from a judge.  But the revolution is far in the past, and the future United States depicted in the story is a technocratic authoritarian utopia with synthetic food, scientific control of the weather where there is practically no poverty or crime--order is maintained by using advanced psychological techniques to alter the personalities of anybody who gets out of line.  Dave is just such a person, a literature professor (he's an expert on Zane Grey) who punched a guy in the face for insulting him.  Having been convicted of this trespass, Dave is given a choice--psychological adjustment, or, exile to the "reservation known as Coventry," which lies within the borders of the United States behind a forcefield.  Denouncing the utopian USA as a bore lacking any risk or excitement and inhabited by "weaklings with water in their veins," Dave chooses Coventry.

Reminding us readers of the themes of Heinlein's 1955 novel Tunnel in the Sky, Dave brings a lot of high-tech equipment and supplies with him beyond the forcefield but his fancy kit avails him little and is quickly lost to thieves so Dave has to rely on help from other people to survive and thrive in Coventry.

Dave had expected to find in Coventry an anarchistic utopia of rugged individualists living on independent homesteads, but instead Coventry consists of cities with even more tyrannical rulers than the USA he just left.  One of the two principal polities in Coventry is New America, a democratic republic with a corrupt and overweening government that levies crushing taxes and ruthlessly conscripts the menfolk into its periodic wars with the other major polity in Coventry, a monstrously totalitarian revolutionary surveillance state known as the Free State that is devoted to conquering New America, breaking out of Coventry and then conquering the world.  I guess these are like satiric versions of the USA and the Soviet Union.

Dave arrives in New America and has all his stuff seized by the government and then is thrown in jail.  He and a man who is apparently a career criminal, Fader Magee, break out of jail and Dave is welcomed into the criminal underground of New America.  When news filters down to the underworld that New America and the Free State may be aligning to bust through the forcefield and conquer the outer world (somebody in Coventry having apparently developed a new superweapon), Magee tries to sneak through the forcefield to warn the world, but is severely injured in the attempt.  Dave saves Magee's life by getting him to the best doctor in Coventry.  Doc has a well-read and attractive 15-year-old daughter, and it is suggested that Dave falls in love with her and it is his love for her that inspires him to sneak out of Coventry himself to warn the USA of the threat from Coventry.

In the end, we realize that Magee is a spy for the United States government and the whole super weapon-New America/Free State alliance threat is no big deal.  The "real" plot of "Coventry" isn't the adventure narrative in which Dave risks his life to save the world and impress a girl--though Heinlein does a good job presenting entertaining chase scenes and descriptions of perilous journeys--but Dave's psychological growth, as he builds human relationships, joins a community, and realizes that the technocratic and psychologically intrusive government of the USA is maybe not so bad as the alternatives and that life under it may actually provide opportunities to face challenges and experience risk, at least for special people like Magee and, it turns out, himself.

This is a pretty good story with effective adventure elements as well as speculative/satiric elements that are somewhat more subtle than we often see.  Heinlein presents both the pros and cons of the awesomely powerful government and of being a rebel, and unlike so many SF stories about rebel undergrounds in authoritarian states "Coventry" presents a paradigm shift that takes place not on the scale of nations or planets but on the scale of one man's mind.  I was also surprised by how much psychology was in the story; for example, Dave's psychological issues are blamed on his rigid father.  Heinlein often writes about liberty and authority and the tension between them, and it was interesting to see him depicting not just governmental and religious institutions as the locus of this tension, but the family, something I would be more likely to expect of his friend Theodore Sturgeon.

Besides in the many editions of The Past Through Tomorrow, you can find "Coventry" in the shorter Heinlein collection Revolt in 2100 and anthologies edited by Damon Knight--Beyond Tomorrow--and Groff Conklin--6 Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, which has an uncharacteristically triumphant (rather than moody or creepy) Richard Powers cover.

"Dark Mission" by Lester del Rey

In 2014 I read Del Rey's famous story about a runaway atomic reactor, "Nerves;" I recall finding the story to be a drag, but looking at my blogpost about it, I see I was sort of generous.  A few months later I read del Rey's violent time travel story "I Am Tomorrow" and liked it better.  Better still was the del Rey piece I read in 2017, "Day is Done," the tragic tale of a Neanderthal victimized by gentrification.  In 2021 I read Del Rey's "Natural Advantage;" I don't actually remember anything about "Natural Advantage," but the documentary evidence indicates I found it "acceptable" and was reminded by it of Edmond Hamilton's space operas.

Let's see if "Dark Mission" can dethrone "Day is Done" and become my favorite del Rey story.  "Dark Mission" has been anthologized quite a lot, so there is reason to hope it is a good one.

"Dark Mission" is one of those stories in which the protagonist is suffering amnesia and doesn't know who he is so a major component of the plot is his quest to learn his own identity.  Our hero wakes up with a head injury in the woods near a dead body and a wrecked house, among the wreckage of which is a crashed rocket.  Was he in the rocket when it crashed?  Or was he in the house when the rocket hit it?  And who is the dead guy?  He can't remember anything! 

Our guy travels around, driven to do various things by obscure, but powerful, subconscious urges; he is able to accomplish these tasks thanks to some remarkable powers--when in proximity to other people his mind can absorb information from their brains, and they are none the wiser!  It becomes clear that he is an alien, a Martian, who has come to Earth to sabotage the human race's efforts to send a rocket to Mars, which are being spearheaded by a private man of means.  As the story ends we find that his mission is one of noble self-sacrifice--the people of Mars are being wiped out by an incurable plague, and he has come to Earth to prevent the human race from being infected by this disease and exterminated in turn.  Dying of plague himself, the hero not only has a limited amount of time in which to stop Earth's first space rocket from lifting off, but at the same time must take care not to infect any of the people he meets.

An entertaining story--it may actually be my favorite del Rey production!

"The Red Death of Mars" by Robert Moore Williams

In February of last year I read three of Robert Moore Williams' adventure novels, Jongor of Lost Land, The Return of Jongor, and Zanthar at Trip's End, and told my readers that two were bad and one was acceptable. I did, however, like his short stories "The Counterfeiter," and "Robots Return," so there's no need to write off this story before we read it.

"The Red Death of Mars" is a conventional adventure story, told with competence; I am judging it merely acceptable.

Eleven years ago Earthers first landed on Mars and discovered ancient cities bearing signs they were abandoned by the natives in desperate haste.  Just recently, an expedition led by the foremost of Earth's astronauts, Avery, left for an as yet unexplored Martian metropolis; HQ has lost contact with the Avery expedition and has sent a rescue ship to search for it, among the crew of which is Avery's son.

The rescuers discover that this city is different than the others--while also abandoned, it seems to be in good order, as if its inhabitants left with deliberation and expected to return.  Also, scattered all over the place are fragile red crystals that look like fist-sized rubies but shatter if roughly handled.

The astronauts find the men they have been sent to rescue--dead, with not a mark on their bodies.  Even more mysteriously, the nuclear reactor of their ship is not working, though it has suffered no visible damage.  After additional searching, the Earthers discover an underground chamber full of Martians, each of them in a pod in a state of suspended animation.

"The Red Death of Mars" has five chapters, and in chapter III it becomes obvious that the red crystals are the dormant cocoon-like form of monsters whose active form is as a cloud of gas.  These monsters feed on radioactivity, and killed the astronauts of the first expedition and crippled their vessel's nuclear reactor by sucking the radioactivity out of them.  (It is explained, not terribly convincingly, that the human heart requires radioactive potassium to beat and eliminating this radioactivity killed the men.)  The rest of the story describes the monsters' attack on the second expedition; the captain is incapacitated in the fighting and promotes the young Avery to command, who risks his life to revive a Martian who can offer advice on how to fight off the monsters.  

Though not actually bad, "The Red Death of Mars" is pretty pedestrian in plot and style.  A truly skilled writer, like Tanith Lee or Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, could have taken the obvious monster and horror material and made it legitimately disturbing, and Lee or Wolfe could also probably move you emotionally with all the business about young Avery's relationship with his hero father and his efforts to emulate dear old Dad when responsibility is thrust upon him, but Williams' treatment here is no more than adequate.  

Martin Greenberg (a different guy than the more famous anthologist Martin H. Greenberg) included "The Red Death of Mars" in his anthology Men Against the Stars, Donald Wollheim reprinted it in More Adventures on Other Planets, and it also appears in the anthology The Year After Tomorrow, edited by Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer.  Matschat and Carmer were successful mainstream writers with little other intercourse with the SF world, Matschat a geographer and botanist and Carmer a folklorist; both Carmer and Matschat wrote volumes of the Rivers of America series, which wikipedia is telling me was a big deal.


The Heinlein and del Rey stories are actually good, the Hubbard is sort of interesting and the Williams is an acceptable bit of filler, so, a respectable batch of Golden Age SF about guys on dangerous journeys that throws some political theory and speculative science at you.

More Astounding next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log.