Sunday, May 31, 2020

Three 1949-50 tales by Leigh Brackett from Thrilling Wonder Stories


I enjoyed my recent look at the 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories with Leigh Brackett's "The Dancing Girl of Ganymede" and Henry Kuttner's "The Voice of the Lobster," so, to take a break from my rereading of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I propose spending some time reading more stories by Brackett and Kuttner from Thrilling Wonder (we might end up checking out some Thrilling Wonder contributions by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, as well.)

Today we'll just focus on Leigh Brackett, with three stories that appeared in TWS (as we fans call it) in 1949 and 1950.  If you are really in the mood for some Brackett TWS action, you can also read my scribbles about an earlier Brackett story from TWS, 1944's "The Veil of Astellar."  (Even better, read all four magazines at the internet archive.) 

"Quest of the Starhope" (1949)

"Quest of the Starhope" appears in the same issue of TWS as Hamilton's memorable "Alien Earth" and Ray Bradbury's "Concrete Mixer," which I am making a mental note to read soon.

Bert Quintal is a man driven by ambition, a man without a heart!  He was born in the slums of Chicago, signed on to the crew of a space ship at thirteen, and has fought his way to fame and fortune, never having made a friend, never having felt love!  He made his money and won his reputation by capturing alien creatures on Venus and Mars and shipping them back to Earth for display to what Brackett calls "gaping mobs."  This is a dangerous career, but early on Quintal found his ace in the hole, a tiny little alien with psychic powers.  Quintal threatened to kill this little guy's wife, so the little guy, whom Quintal calls Butch, became his lieutenant.  Butch can sense and read minds at long range, and send telepathic messages at short range, so he sits on Quintal's shoulder, hidden under Quintal's hood, and helps Quintal sneak up on creatures, avoid ambushes, and talk to aliens.  Butch has saved Quintal's life many times, and made possible the ruthless trapper's string of successes.

Quintal is not satisfied by wealth and fame--he is restless, always looking for new creatures to capture.  So today he is anxious, worried, even scared, as it looks like he has captured every worthwhile creature on Venus and Mars, and current technology isn't sufficient to take a ship beyond the asteroid belt.  With no more goals to pursue, life is going to be miserable.

But wait!  Quintal, flying over the desolate surface of Mars in his one-man scout ship, the Starhope he spots something moving in one of the old abandoned cities that dots the Martian landscape.  Once, Mars was the home of numerous highly advanced civilizations, but a series of catastrophes, earthquakes and the like, caused their downfall long ago.  Quintal lands to find that this city is half buried in sand and inhabited by the short and barbaric descendants of one of those highly advanced races.  Quintal plans to capture some of these degenerate Martians to put in cages and display to those mobs back on Earth, but when he explores a buried factory, he discovers a far greater boon--those ancient hi-tech Martians had just developed a process to produce anti-gravity metal when the environmental cataclysm buried their cyclotron and foundry!  If Quintal can get the factory working again he can build a ship that will enable him to fly to Jupiter, to seek out new life and new civilizations to put in cages to bring back to Earth!

With the essential aid of Butch, he uses trickery and threats to get these Martians, who are scared to go into the factory because it might get buried again at any moment, to put the cyclotron and foundry back into operation and to modify his one-man ship so he can fly it to Jupiter.  They are almost finished with this task when a sandstorm comes and kills most of the Martians, just as they had feared!  Butch is guilt-ridden, and works with the few surviving Martians to overpower Quintal.  They paralyze the hunter, and then send the freshly upgraded Starhope on a one-way mission to deep space, a trip on which the immobile Quintal will soon die of dehydration.  The factory being buried again, it will be a long time before anybody from Earth will be able to get his hands on some anti-grav metal, pushing back the day on which the people of Jupiter and the rest of the outer planets will run the risk of being enslaved and humiliated by Earthmen.

This story isn't bad.  I speculate that it is this kind of anti-imperialist story, with sympathetic alien victims of Earthmen's exploitation and the suggestion that technological breakthroughs lead to oppression, that lead Michael Moorcock to gush about Brackett and dub her "one of the true godmothers of the New Wave."  (See Moorcock's essay 2000 essay "Queen of the Martian Mysteries."
               
"Quest of the Starhope" was republished in a 1964 reprint magazine, Treasury of Great Science Fiction Stories, and in a 2007 volume from Haffner Press, Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances.


"The Lake of the Gone Forever" (1949)

On the cover we see depicted the tragedy of
Rand Conway's parents
Rand Conway is a man driven by ambition!  His ambition is to get to Iskar!  When he was ten years old, Rand's father committed suicide--Dad's last words were "I can never go back to Iskar, to the Lake of the Gone Forever."  Iskar is a planet the elder Conway, some kind of space prospector, discovered, and now, over a decade after his death, he is still the only Earthman ever to step on its surface.  Rand has worked his way up the ranks as a spaceman, and is now a master pilot.  In order to get the resources he needs to get to Iskar, he has worked to interest an ethnologist, Peter Esmond, in the planet, because Esmond is betrothed to Marcia Rohan, daughter of important businessman Charles Rohan, the kind of guy who has a spaceship named after himself manned by a big professional crew.  As our story opens the big day is almost here: the Rohan is approaching Iskar, Rohan curious to open trade with a new race, Conway eager to study this as-yet-unsurveyed population, and Conway eager to get rich--he has been telling people he just wants to solve the mystery of his father's life and suicide, but he has reason to believe there is something on Iskar that will make him richer even than the Rohans, something he wants to keep all for himself!

When our protagonists get to the White City on icy Iskar, the native Iskarians, tall beautiful people armed with spears who hang skins in front of the doorways of their homes because there is no wood on Iskar, aren't too happy to see them.  In fact, when Rand, Esmond and Charles Rohan are standing before the city gate, the natives, in the halting English they learned from Rand's pater, threaten to kill them if they don't leave.  Esmond and Rohan want to negotiate their way in, just what you'd expect from an academic and a businessman, people who make their way in the world via words and horsetrading, but Rand, like the Iskarians, knows the way the universe really works.  He tells the Iskarians that their ship is armed with high tech weapons, and if anything happens to them, the ship's crew will raze the whole city!  This gets the three of them in, but all the crewmen and Marcia are left behind, along with most of their firearms (Rand keeps a stunner secreted in a concealed holster.).

The natives act like they are going to lynch the three Earthers, but their leader, an old geez ("cragged" and "gnarled," and "strong as a rock") called Krah stops them.  Apparently Rand Conway's father did something to piss them off, and they have not forgotten it.  Luckily, Rand and company don't let on that Rand is the descendant of the man the Iskarians call "Conna."

The people of the White City have very strong ideas about gender norms; Brackett tells us "Conway noticed that the women and children did not mingle with the men," and provides other stark examples.  Conway, Esmond and Rohan are given sleeping quarters in Krah's house, and during the night Marcia Rohan, all by herself, worried about them, comes to the city, and the women of the city, seeing a woman in mannish clothes walking around unchaperoned, stone her!  Fortunately, Krah intervenes before Marcia is maimed or killed.

In Krah's household is an attractive woman, Ciel, who tries to make contact with Conway--this chick remembers "Conna" with admiration and sees how Marcia acts among the Earthmen, as if she is their equal.  Ciel wants Rand to take her to Earth, a place where women, she believes, "[are] proud like man....Free."  (It seems that one reason the Iskarians are resentful about "Conna" is that he put ideas of gender equality into the heads of a few women like Ciel.)  Besides this, Ciel is smitten by the rough and tough Rand, who makes bookworm Esmond and merchant Rohan look like wimps--Rand is almost like an Iskarian himself!
Conway smiled.  He liked her.  They were the same kind, he and she--nursing a hopeless dream and risking everything to make it come true.
Rand agrees to take Ciel to Terra if she'll help him sneak off in stolen native clothes to find the Lake of the Gone Forever his father talked about.  Cunning Krah, however, knew Rand was Conna's son all along, and he and his five sons are watching.  They follow Rand and Ciel to the black lake that lies on the other side of some challenging terrain.  By the Lake, Conway and we readers come to learn the truth of Conway's life.

The Lake has strange powers--if you look upon its black surface it records your moving image, and if later some person comes to the Lake and gazes on it while thinking of you, he will see that recorded reflection run like a movie.  Conway's father, "Conna," and fell in love with a woman--Krah's daughter--and tried to settle down in the White City, but the potential financial value of whatever mysterious substance gives the Lake its crazy psychic influence gnawed at his mind and finally overcame all his inhibitions.  Conway watches a recording of his father's disastrous attempt to gather a sample from the Lake--disastrous because Rand's mother, trying to stop Dad from defiling the sacred Lake, fell in and was lost forever.  Brokenhearted, Conway's father left Iskar with his son, never getting over his loss and his guilt.

Conway came to Iskar to do what his father failed to do--steal a sample of the Lake himself and thus get rich.  But seeing the story of his mother's death, realizing he is half-Iskarian, and falling in love with an Iskarian woman just like Dad did, he decides he wants to stay on Iskar and marry Ciel and live like  a barbarian, throwing aside his career as a guy who pilots spaceships for a career hunting beasts with a bone spear in year-round subzero temperatures.  Krah--his maternal grandfather-- accepts his repentance and everybody lives happily ever after.  Even Ciel accepts this, even though just a few hours ago she was saying she would murder Rand if he went back on his promise to bring her to Earth.  I guess she figures an Earthborn husband will treat her more as an equal than would a native-born Iskarian husband.

(Conway has kept the Lake a secret from the rest of the expedition, so I guess there is no risk of the Rohan clan trying to steal a sample from the Lake.)

Obviously "The Lake of Gone Forever" has the same sort of anti-imperialist themes we saw in "Quest of the Starhope"--the less these Isakarians have to do with Earthpeople and their technology and culture, Brackett suggests, the better.  But this story is more nuanced and more complicated, bringing in other themes.  The main points of the story seems to be that your rightful place in the universe is in your native culture--not the culture you grew up in, necessarily, but the culture of your blood (again and again Brackett gives hints that Rand is in tune with Iskar, even though he grew up on Earth)--and that you shouldn't tinker with your culture's rules or disaster will result.  Brackett seems to side with the barbaric sexist culture of Iskar over the capitalistic, scientific, liberal culture of Earth represented by businessman Rohan, egghead Esmond, and liberated Marcia--for the crime of being women who act independently, Iskarians beat Ciel in one scene and stone Marcia in another, and Brackett doesn't portray those who performed this violence being punished in any way.  In the end Rand chooses to abandon high tech and liberal Earth and embrace the low-tech savage culture of his mother's civilization, while Ciel, who wanted to escape the sexist culture she was born into after learning there existed a less sexist one, decides to stay.  Damn!

I have to say the themes of this story have me shrugging my shoulders--I certainly wouldn't want to spend my life wearing animal skins instead of my J. Crew sweaters and catching my food with a bone javelin instead of a credit card.  And I was cheering on Ciel for wanting to ditch home and build a life of her own, and was kind of let down to see her stuck in that ice-covered city where there was no wood or paper or pizza place.  Brackett's attitude doesn't comes as a surprise, though.  In preferring barbarism to civilization she is following in a long tradition of which her antecedents in the sword fighting adventure game Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are exemplars.  Maybe her romanticizing of the embrace of one's ethnic heritage is a response to what some have seen as the alienation and deracination attendant with modern urban life, depicted, for example, in T. S. Eliot's early work.  As for the gender role stuff, we saw Brackett sympathizing with traditional ideas about gender roles in Alpha Centauri or Die!

I have to respect Brackett for not sugarcoating her message and having Iskar be some kind of utopia--remember when Chad Oliver had a guy leave a spacefaring civilization to join a Plains Indian tribe?  Old Chad made that hard-to-swallow choice go down a little easier by telling us that the Indians had (somehow) achieved immortality!  Cripes, that was lame.  Brackett here doesn't come up with some totally bogus reason that living like a savage is better than living like a city slicker--she tells you should embrace the ways of your people because they are the ways of your people, even if your people's ways suck.

There are some little plot oddities to "The Lake of the Gone Forever" that had me scratching my head.  Conway's father somehow got to Iskar all by himself, but his son felt the need to get the support of a rich guy?  (Obviously Brackett needs the nerd, the lucre-lover and the women's libber there to serve as contrasts to the Iskarians, but you sort of have to wonder why Rand didn't just go to Iskar himself if his father had the means to do so.)  Another thing is that the men of the White City are all described as tough warriors, and it is implied they have a whole tradition of honor based on fighting with spears, but who are they going to war against?  We never hear about any other polities on Iskar, or bandits or whatever.  Maybe Brackett should just have said they were tough hunters. 

(I've given up wondering why Earth people in these old SF stories can have children with aliens, something I used to complain about; in particular I recall grousing about this in Chad Oliver stories--I guess I kind of use poor Chad as a punching bag on this here blog.  Now when I read these stories in which Earth people and aliens have the hots for each other I just assume what some of them make explicit, as Hamilton does in the Captain Future stories, that humans are not native to Earth, that long long ago some aliens seeded the galaxy with human spores or there was once a human empire that spread across the galaxy but decayed leaving no trace of their existence or something like that, and so people from different solar systems are as genetically compatible as people from different Earth continents.)

Whatever you might think of this story's politics, it is thought-provoking and a decent read, and it has lots of stuff about icy scenery and Rand's dreams and psychology that people might like.  Perhaps because of its provocative look at an intersection--one might say a collision--where modern attitudes about imperialism and gender norms meet, it has been included in two different anthologies of SF by women which have gone through multiple editions, Pamela Sargent's More Women of Wonder and Richard Glyn Jones and A. Susan Williams's The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy By Women.


"The Citadel of Lost Ages" (1950)

"The Citadel of Lost Ages" appeared in an issue of TWS whose editorial is a long celebration of women SF authors and how they have improved the SF field and how things are so much better today in 1950 than in the benighted past when there was so much sexism in the SF field.

A dude wakes up in a tiny dark room with a little slit of a window.  He doesn't remember his name or where he is or what is going on!  He looks out that window and sees a vast city of stone, wood, and mud buildings, of market squares and throngs in the streets riding horses and leading other beasts.  Somehow he knows, though, that this city once had towering metal skyscrapers.  Another weird thing--the Sun in the sky doesn't move, and he somehow knows it should!

A pretty girl with a face somehow reminiscent of a cat's opens the heavy metal door on our dude's cell and he grabs her, covers her mouth, threatens to kill her if she cries out.  (Brackett's work is full of this kind of sexualized violence.)  She is disappointed that he doesn't recognize her, and gives him and us readers tantalizing clues about the crazy world in which he finds himself--she is a temple slave, offers that she hates the "Numi," and is going to help him escape!

The young woman, Arika, leads our dude, whom she calls "Fenn," through the secret doors and passages of this huge stone building, the temple in which she is forced to work.  Along the way we learn that the Numi are a semi-human people who have somehow conquered the Earth.  They are tall and furred and muscular--when Fenn spies some of them Brackett tells us they are "beautiful," their bodies "more like the bodies of lions than men," but not at all beast-like, in fact "they seemed to Fenn to be above men like himself as he was above the brutes."

Hiding in the temple's tomb, Arika and Fenn listen as the queen of the Numi comes by to talk to her dead husband, who is encased in a crystal column.  She complains that "the human cattle" are growing insolent.  After she leaves, Fenn has to kill a Numi priest who stumbles on our heroes, and we get more sexualized violence as Fenn grapples with the muscular cleric, rolling around on the floor with him, "his thighs locked tight around his loins," the Numi scratching and drawing blood, Fenn biting the priest and tasting his alien blood as he struggles to crush the life out of him.  Zoinks!

Arika leads Fenn out of the temple into the slum of huts where live the humans who are the Numi's cattle and the half breeds like Arika, whose father was a Numi, who are their slaves.  (Like Rand Conway in "The Lake of the Gone Forever," Arika here in "The Citadel of the Ages" is a half breed who embraces her maternal ethnicity and rejects her father's imperialistic people.)  The Numi have all kinds of mental powers, and half-breeds like Arika have similar, though weaker powers.  Arika uses her powers and drugs to revive Fenn's memory, and we learn the astonishing truth of the fate of Earth in the 1980s!

Like in a 1929 Edmond Hamilton story, in the '80s a black star passed through the solar system, causing civilization-destroying events on Earth, earthquakes and tsunamis and so on--the Earth's speed of rotation even changed, so that it always shows the same face to the sun.  The eggheads saw the dark star coming, and knew it would make a mess of this big blue marble, and so the authorities built a Citadel in the Palisades that would survive the cataclysm and stored within it the knowledge and power with which to rebuild society!  Over a thousand years later the Numi heard legends about it, and one of their head priests, RhamSin, used his mental power on a captive human to reach back through his racial memory and pull forward the consciousness of a 1980s New Yorker named Fenway who had been in the Citadel just after it was completed.  But Arika has beaten RhamSin to the punch, extracting the location of the Citadel from Fenn before the Numi priest had an opportunity to do so!

"The Lake of the Gone Forever" and
"The Citadel of Lost Ages" both appear in
The Halfling and Other Stories
Fenn, Arika, and Arika's brother Malech steal horses and escape the city into the desert waste, headed towards New Jersey and the Citadel.  Before his consciousness was changed to that of a 20th century city slicker, Fenn was a desert outlaw, and he still has all his horseriding and arrow-shooting skills.  If you are wondering why the Numi ride horses and fight with swords and spears instead of riding hover bikes and fighting with plasma guns, we eventually learn that they are not space aliens, but evolved Europeans, "the New Men" who adapted to the cold and dark that hung over the Old World after the passage of the dark star, and then came across the sea to conquer the New World and enslave their unadapted brethren.  In this story Brackett doesn't just unleash the time-honored "cat people" trope on us but "homo superior" as well.

Malech looks like a Numi and has lots more trouble passing than does she when the three meet some outlaw humans and need their help.  Presumably Brackett based Malech's tragic life of being rejected by both humans and Numi on the plight suffered by multi-racial Americans who were never fully accepted by the communities of either of their parents.  Over a dozen of the desert outlaws join Fenn's party as they ride cross country towards the East Coast, and as the days and weeks pass, Malech becomes more and more alienated from the group.  At the same time, an expedition led by RhamSin is pursuing them and gradually closing the distance.

The expedition crosses into the zone of darkness where the sun never shines, a place of cold and ice.  The men are amazed by the sight of the stars, which they have never seen before.  This strange milieu challenges their sanity, and the cold threatens their health--only half the adventurers make it to the Atlantic coast where Fenn opens up the Citadel, a vast subterranean warehouse with more square feet than the Empire State Building full of books and films and models, all the knowledge and art built up by man over the centuries before the destruction wrought by the dark star.  But those who stocked the Citadel decided to leave out the machine guns, grenades, and flame throwers their descendants could have used to overthrow the Numi--idealistically, they left no weapons in this monument to humanity's culture and learning! 

RhamSin's party lays siege to the Citadel, and Malech betrays the humans and his sister--RhamSin has promised to accept him as a full Numi if he helps them take the Citadel.  There is a bloody fight, but in the end Fenn remembers something about the Citadel that gives the humans an edge in the fight.  As the story ends, we can be confident that, with the knowledge in the Citadel, mankind will throw off the tyranny of the Numi and build a new civilization.  If you are some kind of optimist, maybe you can tell yourself that the relationship between Fenn and Arika presages some kind of reconciliation and decent modus vivendi between us mundanes and our cat-like betters.

A pretty good story.  Besides in a few American Brackett collections, "The Citadel of the Ages" has also reappeared in some foreign anthologies.

 
**********

These are entertaining adventure stories about driven men, men who are on their own and trying to make a life for themselves in the universe, trying to bend the universe to their wills and not always doing the right thing.  The stories all include fun SF elements like anti-grav, lost races, and weird mental powers, as well as tense violence, and Brackett adds levels of psychological, political and sociological interest by introducing issues of cultural and ethnic identity, issues she resolves in ways liberal and libertarian types won't necessarily find congenial.  Thumbs up for all three, though the first I read, "Quest of the Starhope," is not as complex or effective as the later two, "The Lake of Gone Forever" and "The Citadel of Lost Ages."

More TWS in our next episode!   


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber

My copy
I am rereading the Ace paperback collections of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories I first read in the 1980s as an AD&D obsessed kid; today we read Swords in the Mist, subtitled "The Third Book of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser."  Swords in the Mist was first published in 1968--I own a copy of the thirteenth printing of 1984.  There is no Author's Introduction to this one.

"The Cloud of Hate" (1963)

"The Cloud of Hate" was first published in Cele Goldsmith's Fantastic, along with a story of Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes.  (You'll recall that Goldsmith was a fan of sword and sorcery and Michael Moorcock credits her with a major role in the growth of the market for the type of sword slashing fantasy fiction that now dominates the SF field.)  "The Cloud of Hate" was included in the 1975 Sword and Sorcery Annual, a magazine that reprinted a bunch of stories from Fantastic.  I wonder about the business side of these things.  Was Fritz thrilled to see "The Cloud of Hate" appearing in a magazine a second time twelve years later, thinking it was good advertising for Swords in the Mist and the other F&GM books?  Or was he groaning because it might compete with those books for people's limited SF budgets?  And did Fritz get paid a second time for this second printing?

Tonight, the nobles of Lankhmar, city of the Black Toga, are having a big party to celebrate the engagement of the Overlord's daughter to the Prince of Ilthmar, that city where they worship a rat-god.  Halfway across town, underground, in the huge Temple of Hate, five thousand worshipers and their masked priest summon a sort of fog that rises out onto the street level and joins the usual fog of that foggy, smoggy city.  Like a living thing, like a huge serpent or slug, the fog moves across the city, killing an innocent girl, then taking over the minds of four violent men, dangerous criminals armed with swords and daggers.  These four killers, surrounded by the fog, march towards the party in the aristocratic part of town.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are sitting on the street, on the fringes of the noble quarter, lamenting their poverty and debating the competing merits of freedom and employment.  The fog, hatred incarnate, latches on to them, but they successfully resist its control--after all, Fafhrd is essentially a decent guy, and the Mouser is very independent-minded.  So the two heroes fight and defeat the four hypnotized killers and then the fog itself, saving the people of Lankhmar from a menace they will never know about--even F&GM don't know what the fog was all about.  Our heroes take the coins from the dead criminals and head to a brothel.

As a kid I remember thinking this story was barely a story at all, just a little episode, and I still kind of feel that way.  Maybe Leiber has some philosophical reason for having the villains of the piece worship an abstract notion like Hate instead of a spider-god or snake-god or whatever; maybe it is so he can draw a distinction between Fafhrd and the Mouser--pirates and burglars who live by theft--and what Leiber considers "real" evil.  The hate-worshipers seem angry that the marriage alliance of Lankhmar and Ilthmar makes the prospect of war less likely--maybe this story is a very oblique anti-war story?

Acceptable.


"Lean Times in Lankhmar" (1959)

I remember laughing out loud at this story when I first read it and thinking it was brilliant, so I have my fingers crossed that I remain enough the same person I was in the 1980s that I can enjoy "Lean Times in Lankhmar" today as much as I did back then.

"Lean Times in Lankhmar" is written in a charming, comfortable, semi-scholarly style, with the narrator talking about the sources for his tale and the disputes among experts about why such and such a thing occurred.  "Exactly what caused the tall brawling barbarian and the slim elusive Prince of Thieves to fall out, and the mighty adventuring partnership to be broken, is uncertainly known...."  This is very effective, somewhat paradoxically making suspension of disbelief easier by admitting the unreliability of the narrative.

During a period of economic slowdown in Lankhmar, Fafhrd and the Mouser suspend their intimate partnership and their dangerous adventuring to settle down a little.  Fafhrd swears off booze and finds religion, becoming a follower of Issek of the Jug, a god of peace.  Issek, when Fafhrd becomes his adherent, has only one priest, the senile Bwadres, and almost no worshipers, but, with Fafhrd filling the position of lead (and sole) acolyte, the popularity of Issek skyrockets.  Fafhrd's sheer charisma and tremendous physical presence, and ability to sing and compose heroic poetry (remember, he was trained as a Singing Skald among the Northern barbarians who are his native people) brings to Bwadres's services plenty of attention and soon adherents.  Fafhrd's revisions of the gospel of Issek are quite amusing--in the traditional stories of Issek, Issek died while being tortured on the rack.  Fafhrd doesn't change the essential nature of this story of holy martyrdom, but punches it up a bit by describing in verse, in his lovely tenor while accompanying himself on the lute, how Issek's saintly form broke seven racks before he finally expired on an eighth.

In "Bazaar of the Bizarre" Leiber described Lankhmar's Plaza of Dark Delights, its unusual customs and traditions.  Here in "Lean Times in Lankhmar" we learn about the even more fascinating Street of the Gods.  New cults start when their clerics begin preaching on the street--brand new cults, with no followings as yet, start all the way at the gate that leads to Ilthmar; as they grow in popularity, their priests move their makeshift places of worship up the street, closer to the center of town.  Cults whose popularity is on the wane recede back towards the city gate.  There are dozens or hundreds of different cults preaching on The Street of the Gods every night; many perish after mere days, others flourish for years or centuries, the most successful building lavish temples at the end of the street furthest from the city wall and gate.

The cults close to the gate, should they pass around the collection plate, receive only crusts of bread and bits of charcoal, but as Issek's priest and his brilliant acolyte shift up the street and attract a higher class of parishioner, they begin to receive actual coins from those who attend services.  Bwadres, now in a position to eat a meal every single day, sloughs off his senility.

This is where the Gray Mouser comes in.  If Fafhrd's idea of settling down was to worship and proselytize for a god of peace, the Mouser's was to become lieutenant to a racketeer, Pulg, who forces all the successful cults on The Street of the Gods to pay him protection money.  While Fafhrd has grown gaunt from abstinence and sprouted a long beard, the Mouser, living the easy life bossing around thugs and eating sweetmeats and sleeping with dancing girls, has grown fat!  Anyway, Issek's cult has started getting real money, and it is the Mouser's job to get Pulg's cut from Bwadres.  Most of the religious institutions on the Street of the Gods are run on cynical, business-like lines, and accept the necessity of paying off Pulg the way you and I pay our rent and tax bills.  But Bwadres is honest and sincere, one of the few legitimately decent people in cruel and corrupt Lankhmar (this is what attracted Fafhrd to him in the first place) and refuses to waste the money provided him by those who have been moved by the story of Issek--Bwadres is saving as much as he can with the prospect in mind of purchasing the beautiful temple of Aarth the Invisible All-Listener, one of the oldest and most famous of the gods on the Street (but one whose treasury has taken a hit recently, leaving his clergy, perhaps, in the mood to sell.)  The Mouser scrambles to figure out a way to keep his job working for Pulg without having to order his old buddy Fafhrd beaten or maimed.

Leiber's plot gets pretty complex, with various unforeseen developments, but it is finely structured, and quite funny--I laughed out loud this time around, even though I knew what was coming.  In the end, F&GM sail away from Lankhmar with their servant Ourph the Mingol, leaving behind Bwadres and Pulg--a convert to Issekianity!--to lead their cult to prominence and (after three years riding high) total destruction at the bony hands of the black gods who truly represent Lankhmar.

A masterpiece--seven out of seven broken torture racks!  By objective criteria "Lean Times in Lankhmar" is a strong candidate for best F&GM story, though I think it is disqualified from that title because it is uncharacteristic of the F&GM stories as a whole--there is a minimum of sword fighting, black magic, and weird monsters.  But it is a brilliant specimen of speculative fiction in that it creates a believable alternative milieu, populates it with interesting characters, and presents a fun and exciting story--and all in less than 50 pages.     

"Lean Times in Lankhmar" made its debut in a special all-Leiber issue of Goldsmith's Fantastic.  It was reprinted in Grand Masters' Choice ("The best stories by the all-time greatest SF writers") in 1989. 


"Their Mistress, the Sea" (1968)

This four-page piece was written originally for this book, and serves as a bridge between "Lean Times in Lankhmar" and the next story in the ordering used in these Ace books (an ordering based on the history of F&GM's lives, not publication order), "When the Sea-King's Away."  It describes how our heroes get back into shape while sailing around, how Fafhrd gets a new sword and axe through piracy, and includes a somewhat tired rape joke and some romantic gush about the sea.  Ourph is left ashore, he not appearing in "When the Sea-King's Away."

"When the Sea-King's Away" (1960)

Here's another story from Cele Goldsmith's Fantastic"When the Sea-King's Away" has been anthologized a number of times, including in L. Sprague de Camp's Swords & Sorcery and Hans Stefan Santesson's The Mighty Barbarians

Fafhrd knows a crazy legend from Simorgya about how on the seventh day of the seventh moon of the seventh year etc. the King of the Sea leaves his palace on a trip and his queens and concubines then summon heroic sailors to have sex with them.  Fafhrd, observing various signs, believes that now is that time and that their sloop is floating, becalmed, above the palace!

Sure enough, a sort of vertical tunnel opens in the ocean water that our heroes descend via rope to the ocean floor, where they can walk in the deep muck within what Leiber describes as a magical "tent" of air.  They follow a long tunnel of air, stepping over dying fish and scuttling crabs and the corpses of long lost sailors, to the palace of the Sea King, where they meet two beautiful women with scales and webbed hands and gills in their necks, and an old scrawny witch, who is casting the spell that is creating this bubble of air underwater.  These three fishwomen wear elaborate masks that hide their faces.  To have sex with the slender fish girls F&GM have to fight terrible monsters--Fafhrd a giant octopus that wields swords in some of its arms, the Mouser the animated corpses of three dead sailors.  These opponents overcome, our heroes couple with the sexy girls, one green and one silver, and then flee when the spell weakens and water starts running back in to the palace.

The plot of this story is weak, like that of "The Cloud of Hate."  But the style is interesting, though I'm not sure we can quite call it "good."  Leiber spends many many pages describing the weird phenomena of the tunnels and "tents" of air within the ocean, describing how the light passes through the water and the way sound waves make the tunnel sides vibrate and how fish react to the tunnels, etc.  It is all very vivid and clever, but it makes the story very long.  The spell used by the witch to create this temporary bubble of air on the ocean floor is also very creative and memorable--she spins a bunch of tops with whips, making sure none of the tops ceases to spin or falls off the edge of a table or collides with another.  And there is in fact much much more to this whole momentous day that comes once every seven whatevers that I am not going to describe here, except to say that it is all very clever but makes the story long and perhaps unwieldy, and much of it doesn't really add to the story's plot or atmosphere. 

The fighting in the story is noteworthy.  Remember when we noted how in "Jewels in the Forest," the first published F&GM story, Leiber was trying to make the fighting realistic, with even the heroic Fafhrd hard pressed to handle two opponents at once?  For this story at least, Leiber had moved away from that sort of thing, and F&GM just brush aside the fearsome foes they face in the Sea King's palace--where the violence is concerned, Leiber has shifted from realistic thriller mode to mythic legend mode.

The most successful element of the story is its depiction of the relationship between Fafhrd and the Mouser, and the differences in their characters--Fafhrd brash and optimistic and reckless, the Mouser cautious and anxious and calculating.  This stuff was probably easier to write than all the descriptions of weird ocean phenomena, but it is direct and human and it is what brings a smile to reader's face. 

Mildly good--certainly better than "The Cloud of Hate;" "When the Sea-King's Away" has a similarly weak foundation, but the fun character stuff and the vivid aquatic stuff help distract you from the essential weakness of the plot and premise. 


"The Wrong Branch" (1968)

This is another written-for-this-book bridging section, this one preparing us for the fact that the next F&GM story, "Adept's Gambit," is going to be set not on Nehwon, but on our own Earth.  I actually found "The Wrong Branch" entertaining in its own right, it having its own little plot and fun little episodes.

F&GM, following their cuckolding of the Sea-King, suffer a series of terrible misfortunes, storms and shark attacks and so forth, and decide to ask Ninguable of the Seven Eyes to help lift the Sea-King's curse.  Ningauble lives in a labyrinthine desert cave not far from rat-worshiping Ilthmar (their second most powerful god, we learn in this piece, is a shark-god.)  The maze-like cave has outlets in many worlds and dimensions, and Ningauble, as well as lifting the Sea-King's curse, subtly directs them to an exit into the desert near Tyre in the Hellenistic period.  F&GM's minds are altered, so they speak Greek and Aramaic instead of Lankhmarese, and, for example, Fafhrd's memories are of a youth in the Baltic and not of the Cold Waste of Nehwon.

"Adept's Gambit" (1947)

A 1975 UK edition of Night's Black Agents
"Adept's Gambit" was first published in Night's Black Agents, the 1947 Arkham House collection of Leiber stories, but it had a long history before that--Leiber even sent a draft to H. P. Lovecraft in 1936, to which Lovecraft responded with several pages of criticism and suggestion--you can read Lovecraft's letter in Volume 10 of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. LovecraftLetters to C. L. Moore and Others.  (I've read the letter in my copy of Letters to C. L. Moore and Others and can report that HPL loved the story and offered lots of advice on finer points of English usage and ancient history that I think might be of interest to language nerds and history buffs.)  That original 1936 version of "Adept's Gambit," along with Lovecraft's comments, can be read in a 2014 volume edited by the leading Lovecraft expert, S. T. Joshi.  Leiber himself abridged a version of the story for publication in a 1964 issue of Fantastic.   I can't find that issue of Fantastic on the internet archive, for some reason, and I don't have that 2014 volume by Joshi, so I am just going to read the version here in my 1984 printing of Swords in the Mist.

As a kid I didn't take "Adept's Gambit" seriously, being irritated that it didn't present to us what I took to be the "real" F&GM--my idea of F&GM was that they were products of Nehwon and I wanted to see them in their characteristic milieu, the smoggy city of the Black Toga.  In this story Leiber stresses an idea quite like Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion idea, presenting F&GM as a sort of immortal force, two men mysteriously connected to ancient gods whose influence crossed multiple dimensions, two men manipulated by fate and powerful beings like Ninguable, sent by them to whatever world or universe required their services--Nehwon was only one of the many places they had inhabited and performed key deeds in.  Anyway, I remember very little about "Adept's Gambit," so my reading of it now is almost like reading a story new to me.

"Adept's Gambit" is long, like 87 pages here, and split into nine chapters.  In the first chapter F&GM are in Tyre, I guess around 197 B.C.  When not committing crimes, they hang out in a wine shop, where it becomes clear they are under some curse or spell--any girl they try to get amorous with turns into a disgusting animal, a pig in Fafhrd's case, a giant snail in the case of the Mouser.  The girl changes back a moment after the startled man throws her aside.  The one exception is a Greek girl, Chloe, who is attached to the Mouser.  For some time the heroes remain celibate in the case of Fafhrd, and faithful in the case of the Gray Mouser, but this does not agree with them--Fafhrd becomes depressed ("his laughter was heard no more") and the Mouser begins to pine for a mysterious close-lipped dark-haired girl, Ahura, AKA Silent Salmacis, who seems somehow mixed up in all this magical mess (she gave Chloe an amulet once, which Chloe still wears....)  So they decide to seek aid from Ningauble.

Ningauble, in this story, is portrayed as a collector and retailer of gossip and rumor from across all the universes, attended by a legion of vermin--bats and rat- and monkey-like things--who serve as his spies and messengers.  He tells the heroes that an adept ("a master practitioner of blackest magic") put the curse on them, and they have to go to a Lost City, bringing with them a bunch of arcane items ("the cup from which Socrates drank the hemlock," "the shroud of Ahriman," "powdered mummy from the Demon Pharaoh," etc.) with which to perform a ritual.  In the third chapter Leiber briefly sketches out how they steal all these items over the course of months.  To perform the ritual they nned the participation of a woman Ningauble wouldn't name, but implied would simply show up when the time was right--the heroes suspect the woman is Chloe, but it turns out to be Ahura who joins the quest at the last moment.

In the fourth chapter the three travel to the Lost City.  Along the way the men's friendship is tested by jealousy as they compete over the cold and mysterious girl's affection.  Ninguable sends them messages via birds, warning them to cease their quarreling and forgo any intimate relationship with Ahura.  At the Lost City (chapter five) they summon the adept from his tomb--he looks much like Ahura, whom the Mouser has begun suspecting is a man in disguise.  The adept tells the heroes that they have the potential to be adepts themselves and enjoy god-like power if only they become his lieutenants.
"I'll give you gods for foes, stars for your treasure-trove, if only you will do as I command....The universe will tremble at your lust, but you will master it and force it down." 
F&GM defeat the adept--or so they think!--with the help of Ahura--the adept's body stiffens, becoming like a statue, and falls over, the head cracking, revealing an empty space.  Then an arrow falls from the sky bearing the message from Ninguable that their quest is not over.  In the sixth chapter they learn that they must ascend a mountain to explore a castle known as The Castle Called Mist.

The seventh, eighth and final chapters are mainly constituted of an almost independent weird tale, the story of Ahura and her sickly twin brother Anra--Anra is the adept who rose from the tomb in the Lost City.  As they travel to the castle, Ahura tells F&GM the story of her childhood with Anra in the house of their mother in Tyre, their father having allegedly died before they were born.  From the earliest of ages Anra could see through Ahura's eyes and even read the minds of people she saw; he studied scrolls and ostraca to learn many languages, he later achieved the ability to control her and sent her on missions to steal books for him and spy for him.  She uncovered clues suggesting their real father was not human, but a man of stone, like a crude blocky statue.  Ahura met a wizard, and her brother enjoined her to bring him back to their home to be his live-in tutor--weak and coddled Anra had never left the house.  The wizard taught Anra many things, including eventually how to switch bodies with Ahura.  Anra's body, containing Ahura's soul, was left in the tomb in the Lost City, while Anra occupied his sister's body and conducted all kinds of wizardly shenanigans with the wizard.  He and the wizard tried to accomplish some great sorcerous goal, but failed, embittering Anra and ruining his relationship with the wizard.  When Anra, in Ahura's body, noticed Fafhrd and the Mouser and realized they are great heroes with connections across various dimensions and with beings like Ninguable, he decided to try to recruit them to be his assistants--maybe with their support he could achieve the goals he failed to accomplish when working in concert with that wizard.  So, the Mouser was right to suspect the woman he and Fafhrd almost came to blows over was in fact a man.  When the tomb was opened, Anra's soul returned to his now hollow and statue-like body, and Ahura again took custody of her own body.

In the castle the three find that wizard, a fragment of his former self, imprisoned and mutilated; Fafhrd euthanizes him.  Then the cracked but still smoothly operating Anra catches up to them.  Anra had wanted them to come to the Castle Called Mist, thinking its magnificence would inspire them to join him after all.  Ninguable also wanted F&GM to come to the castle, because it is where Anra's heart and brain are hidden.  The heroes find the heart and brain and by destroying them destroy Anra and the castle, which collapses.  (Anra's heart and brain in a bowl of goo in the castle's keystone reminded me of the alien brain of a living building in "Jewels in the Forest.")  In the end of the story Fafhrd and the Mouser decide to go to Nehwon, and Ahura asks if she can come along.

Much of what goes on in "Adept's Gambit" is good, but there are problems.  For one thing, there is no real reason I can see that it take place on Earth.  Fafhrd talks a lot about Odin and Frigga and such Norse stuff, and the Mouser talks about Greek mythology like Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, and there are references to Alexander and Philip V of Macedon and Xenophon and so forth, but this is just gingerbread, not essential to the story.  (If I was being harsh, I'd say this was Leiber just showing off his erudition.)  The story could have been set in Nehwon, and then we would have been spared a lot of superfluous rigmarole about moving between universes and all that.

More importantly, while the story of Anra and Ahura is a pretty good weird tale of body switching and ambitious wizards being frustrated and cool stuff like that, the integration of it with the main story causes structural and pacing issues.  Some 40 pages into the story (in chapter 5) we get the apparently climactic fight with the adept--Leiber spends a long time describing this fight, like four pages, and we are told it is the most taxing sword fight of the Mouser's life!  But it is followed by a whole anti-climactic chapter of the characters walking to a mountain and then in chapter 7 we start an entirely new story with several new characters (Ahura's mother, two of the household slaves, and the wizard) then stretches through chapter 8 and into 9.  I found it jarring and frustrating to be starting a new story in the middle of the ending of the main story--even though this Anra-Ahura material is good on its own merits, the whole time I was reading it (and it is like 24 pages) I was anxious to find out what was going on with Fafhrd and the Mouser.  Then comes the dual climax of both the main story and the Anra-Ahura story in the Castle Called Mist; unfortunately, I found the castle to be less interesting than the Lost City, and the final fight involving Anra's organs in the keystone to be less elaborate and exciting than the fight in the Lost City.  The end is thus kind of a let down--it doesn't feel right that the final scene be less complex and weighty than that middle scene.

"Adept's Gambit" has many good elements, but it just doesn't feel satisfying because of its structure and length.  Maybe I would prefer the original version, or the Fantastic version?


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Alright, another Fafhrd and Gray Mouser reread under my belt.  Before long we'll be checking out Swords Against Wizardry, but first more excursions into old issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Thrilling Wonder Stories from 1950 by Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner

In our last episode we read a story by Ray Bradbury from the February 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as a letter therein by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  I remarked that this issue presented a surfeit of attractive material, so today, seeking insight into the world of SF from 70 years ago, we take a closer look, focusing in particular on stories by two of our faves here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner.  (We've already read the story in the issue by beloved detective novelist John D. MacDonald.)  You should feel free to read along at the internet archive, that indispensable resource for arts and entertainment for all of us who are boycotting the 21st century.

The inside cover of the magazine is an ad for a Mickey Rooney film in which Rooney plays a race car driver.  A Lina Romay is listed in the credits but maybe not the Lina Romay you are thinking of--the Spanish Lina Romay from all those Franco movies took her stage name in honor of the Mexican singer who worked with Xavier Cugat and Droopy

The editorial space of this issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories is devoted to promoting Fantastic Story Quarterly, a new magazine that we are told will reprint SF classics from earlier decades (it was published from 1950 to 1955, changing its title along the way to Fantastic Story Magazine) and to a gushing book review by Robert Heinlein of The Conquest of Space, a book of Chesley Bonestell paintings with science text by Willy Ley.  This book is available at the internet archive, and some of the color reproductions, like those of Saturn as seen from Titan, Mimas and Japetus, are pretty terrific.   

"The Dancing Girl of Ganymede" by Leigh Brackett

"The Dancing Girl of Ganymede" would go on to be included in several Brackett collections as well as 1966's Award Science Fiction Reader and a French anthology of stories from Thrilling Wonder.  Here in Thrilling Wonder it gets a good illustration by Virgil Finlay.

On a plateau a thousand feet above the jungle, under a sky half-filled by Jupiter, sits the city of Kamar.  Low on funds, close to the point of having to steal food, Earthman Tony Harrah approaches the Street of Gamblers in hopes of improving his financial status by gambling.  There is music in the square ahead, and a crowd, and something, a smell perhaps, that sets the aboriginal forest dwellers of Ganymede, people little more advanced than apes, to flight--before scampering away, Harrah's aboriginal friend Tok warns him that in the square lie evil and death.

Ignoring his friend's warning, Harrah steps up to the crowd and finds they are watching four space gypsies, a mongrel people with the blood of every intelligent race in the solar system flowing through their veins.  Three gypsy men play musical instruments, to which a gypsy woman, the most beautiful Harrah has ever seen, dances.  Her body is warm and sensuous, but her black eyes are cold and full of hate.

Kamar is a dirty city of mazy streets and dark ways, and home to packs of feral dogs abandoned by spacemen.  These dogs don't like the smell of the dancing girl and set upon her!  In the chaos that ensues as the maddened dogs attack gypsy and non-gypsy alike, Harrah helps the girl, carrying her off to safety.  Fascinated by this woman, who in the fighting as in the dancing proved herself incredibly fast and surprisingly strong, who calls herself Marith (it means "forbidden") and says she hates all men and all women, he asks her to come home with him, and she agrees.  But on the way home three men, one Earther, one Venusian, one Martian, hold them up at gunpoint and take the girl away.
"We want the--the girl, not you."  His slow, deep voice hesitated oddly over that word, "girl."
The three gypsy musicians show up--they are Marith's brothers.  Using their physical strength to dominate Harrah, and their psychic powers to summon Tok (the gypsies can control Tok's primitive people with their minds in ways they can't a human being) they shanghai our heroes into helping them rescue Marith and kill the three kidnappers.

After this killing, Brackett throws us a curveball--Marith and her "brothers" are not multi-racial gypsies, that is a disguise--they are androids, artificial people!  Androids were built among the Inner planets, given super strength and good looks and other abilities so they could perform difficult and dangerous tasks and to provide entertainment, but normal humans' fear of being supplanted by the vastly superior androids has lead to them being rounded up for destruction, and a secret underground war people beyond the asteroid belt haven't heard about yet.  There are fewer than forty androids left, and they have mad their way to almost lawless Ganymede, but anti-android teams, like the one that Mirath's comrades just massacred, are on their trail.

Harrah has to choose between staying loyal to his own born-of-woman people, or joining the factory-built androids.  Of course, seeing as the superstrong androids can kill him out of hand, and he has, against his better judgement, fallen in love with Marith, he hasn't got much choice.

The group climbs down the plateau, which is easy for the monkey-like Tok and the superstrong androids, but impossible for Hannah, so the male androids effortlessly carry him.  Throughout the story the inferiority of all-natural and organic humankind is thrown in Harrah's face by these artificial superbeings.  Harrah is taken to the secret jungle base where the last of the androids are building a factory so they can mass produce an invincible army with which to take over the solar system.  Lacking lust, greed, hunger, and fear, the androids are sure they will be better rulers than emotional and corrupt mankind has been.

But wait!  Tok has sneaked away and rallied the aboriginal villagers!  The ape-like natives of the Ganymedean jungle fear the emotionless androids as much as humans do, and have set the jungle on fire!  All the androids will be burned to destruction--and Harrah along with them!  Mankind is saved!  Marith tells Harrah that she has learned to love from him, and the two embrace each other as the fire approaches, enjoying a moment of happiness before she is permanently deactivated and he is burned to death.

This is an entertaining story.  I didn't know where Brackett was going from one minute to the next with this story, which in some ways resembles C. L. Moore's famous "Shambleau;" would Harrah die, would the androids take over, would Harrah and Marith be able to make peace between humanity and humanity's creation?  The ending feels legit, though, with primitive and passionate natural man saved from emotionless advanced artificial man by people even more primitive and irrational, with a sad note, as the love between Marith and Harrah suggests it didn't have to be this way, that maybe there really was a choice besides slavery and extermination.  The ambiguous approach taken here by Brackett, in which there is some kind of nuance to how both the humans and nonhumans are portrayed, and both sides are seen to be acting in an understandable way, is far more interesting and entertaining than what Ray Bradbury does in this same issue of Thrilling Wonder, in "Payment in Full," with its monstrously violent humans and oh so perfect goody two shoes Martians.  Thumbs up.


"The Voice of the Lobster" by Henry Kuttner

Terrence Lao-T'se Macduff is a con man who travels the galaxy making a living through selling snake oil and gambling, smoothing the way for such activities by administering drugs, hormones and hypnosis to weaken people's sales resistance and by bribing corrupt officials.  As the story begins Macduff is on Aldebaran Tau, a planet inhabited by plant people, and he is in trouble--the city is in an uproar because one of his frauds has been exposed and the Mayor is implicated.  The streets are full of vengeful mobs.  In the course of making his getaway, Macduff cheats a lobster-like Algolian at dice--the Algolian owns a Lesser Vegan, a slave girl who, like all Lesser Vegans, is dim-witted but protected by a psychic vibration she emanates that disarms people, putting them at ease, and Macduff acquires her.  When Macduff, Lesser Vegan in tow, gets on a space liner he finds that the irate Algolian, now aware he has been cheated, is already aboard.

The Algolian is himself a card sharp and conman, and Macduff learns the lobsterman is involved in some industrial espionage, having stolen from Aldebaran Tau a plant whose seeds are of great value in the making of perfume; he has been paid to smuggle the plant to the liner's next port of call, planet Xeria, whose citizens have long tried, without success, to break the Aldebaranean monopoly on this valuable resource.  As a stowaway, Macduff will be left off on Xeria along with the lobsterman.  Macduff is also forced to work to pay for his passage, and he uses the access this provides him to the ship's inner workings to sabotage the valuable plant, making it useless to the Xerians in hopes that, in their rage at the lobsterman, they will side with Macduff should the lobsterman try to get revenge on him.  A byproduct of this scheme is an opportunity for Macduff to make a lot of money--with the money he buys himself and the Lesser Vegan tickets to Lesser Vega, so he need not get off at Xeria; on Lesser Vega he frees the girl.

Kuttner plays all this for laughs; Macduff, who is overweight, is always comically running away from mobs or from the lobsterman, and Kuttner includes plenty of jokes and gags, like the silly Scottish accent of the space liner's captain ("Vurra weel,") and a Macbeth reference tied to Macduff's name.  These jokes aren't actually laugh-out-loud funny, but they are not irritating.  At the same time that this is a comic story, it has an intricate plot,  with its many aliens it gives you the feeling of life in a vast multicultural galactic civilization, and, in classic Golden Age SF fashion, the hero overcomes enemies and achieves his goals by using intelligence, trickery and his knowledge of science.  You might think of "The Voice of the Lobster" as a P. G. Wodehouse story in a Star Wars setting, with Macduff playing both the Bertie (scared goofball) and Jeeves (imperturbable problem-solver) roles.  It also reminded me a little of something Jack Vance might do.  Thumbs up.

"The Voice of the Lobster" has reappeared in several Kuttner collections, as well as in the oft-reprinted 1950s anthology Adventures in Tomorrow and a 1978 issue of the Croat magazine Sirius.

   
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In our last blog post I pointed out Marion Zimmer Bradley's fun and interesting letter.  (I've never actually read any of Bradley's fiction, and I am aware of the abominable crimes she committed and abetted, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find this letter charming.)  Quite a few of the letters in this issue, though none written by anyone as prominent as Bradley (though John Jakes comes close, I guess) are good reading.  Robert R. Smith argues that science fiction will soon be the greatest field in literature and claims that "the detective story has fallen to pieces," citing the fact that John D. MacDonald has abandoned detective fiction for SF.  (Of course, in the event, MacDonald left SF behind to become one of the most successful of detective novelists.)  Grad student Donald Allgeier writes in to say he favors Brackett, Kuttner (though he doesn't like the Hogben stories), Bradbury, and van Vogt, even though van Vogt's work is full of what Allgeier calls "obscurities."  (This Allgeier guy has good taste!)  Allgeir does complain that the illustrations contain too much "cheesecake," however.  Gwen Cunningham loves the Hogben stories (as do Elizabeth Curtis and Bob Johnson), and also likes Brackett, though she erroneously thinks Brackett is a man (the editor sets her straight.)  Pearle Appleford writes from South Africa to report that an import ban has kept all pulp magazines out of the country, and asks if any Thrilling Wonder readers who throw their SF magazines away might mail them to her instead.  Many of the letters include jocular poems, and the editor responds to them with poems of his own; many of the letter writers rank the stories from the October issue, and there is a real diversity of opinion.  The letters column gives one the feeling that Thrilling Wonder is the center of a whole community of people with their own in-jokes, feuds and friendships.  And to bring things full circle the editor closes out the letters column by recommending you go out to the cinema to see Mickey Rooney in The Big Wheel!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Stories by Miller, Bradbury, Oliver & Beaumont from Man Against Tomorrow

You say you're looking to get a "sneak preview of horror and glories in worlds to come?"  Well, William F. Nolan has a book for you, his 1965 anthology Man Against Tomorrow.  We've cracked this one open before, when we read Kris Neville's "Special Delivery," but I think the rest of the stories in this volume are new to me.  So let's read a bunch of stories selected by Nolan to "open the door to the future," skipping (for the nonce, at least) people I've never heard of as well as Ron Goulart, Ray Russell and Robert Sheckley because I have had it up to here with broad satires, farces, and joke stories.


"I, Dreamer" by Walter Miller, Jr.  (1953)

In Nolan's little intro to "I, Dreamer," he tells us that Miller began writing while hospitalized after a terrible car crash.  Holy crap, didn't we just read that Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing, was hospitalized after a terrible car crash?  Stay out of those cars, people!  Move to New York, ride the subway--that is the safe way to live!

We've read a number of Miller stories about men being integrated with machines and the sacrifices men will have to make to conquer the stars, and this story is in the same vein.  An italicized prologue describes the experiences of an infant as it is born, meets its mother, and then is torn from her.  The bulk of the story is a first-person narrative in the voice of a computer being trained to pilot a space warship--this computer has integrated into it the brain of a human being, and so has consciousness, creativity, emotion, etc.  The computer doesn't realize it is part organic, but it is tormented by a desire for love and a fear of pain, just like you and me, and when it sleeps, it dreams of being human.  The plot of the story concerns the computer falling in love with a female technician and witnessing her being sexually harassed by the guy who is training the computer--this guy's behavior is emblematic of the society in which the story takes place, a militaristic space empire run by a dictator where men can have multiple wives and which is plotting to conquer the Earth.  When the woman refuses to join his harem the man tries to take her by force and by guile and threats.  The computer contrives to kill the man, which of course puts the computer at risk of destruction, and the woman as well.

The climax of the story is something you might see in a Barry Malzberg story if sad sack Barry had a slightly sunnier or more romantic disposition.  The woman, who may actually be the mother of the 12-year-old boy whose brain is integrated into the computer, is a member of a resistance movement that is trying to overthrow the government.  With nothing left to lose, she convinces the computer to crash the space warship into the palace of the dictator of the space empire--she leads the computer to believe that death will be a long dream of being human, and we readers are lead to believe this sacrifice will protect Earth from conquest. 

Pretty good.  "I, Dreamer" was first printed in an issue of Amazing (when it was edited by Howard Browne, who took over after Palmer, his boss, left) with a cover seemingly depicting some kind of sex dream.  It has appeared in many Miller collections, and two other anthologies listed at isfdb, one American, one Belgian.

 
"Payment in Full" by Ray Bradbury (1950)

Here's a Mars story by Ray Bradbury that is sort of rare--Nolan stresses its rarity in his little intro.  "Payment in Full" first appeared in Thrilling Wonder alongside stories by Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, John D. MacDonald and Raymond F. Jones--this issue is full of stuff I'd be interested in reading.  There's even a letter from Marion Zimmer Bradley in which she engages in some literary theorizing about the role of the sword in fiction!  "Payment in Full" has only been reprinted in an English language book one other time, in a $300.00 Subterranean Press hardcover from 2009, The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition.

You can see why this story hasn't been all that popular; this story is not Ray at his best, and it is a downer, but not a downer in an interesting way.

There are three Earthmen on Mars when the Earth is destroyed by nuclear war--the Earth becomes a "new small sun" that can be seen burning in the Martian sky.  The astronauts are depressed, and drink, and list off the various things they will miss about Earth, their friends' and family members' names and so forth.  One of the three men, making a dark joke about the end of the human race or perhaps just insane, keeps talking about how he will marry one of the other astronauts and have children with him.

A Martian appears, to the surprise of the astronauts, who hadn't thought Mars was populated.  The Martian telepathically invites the three last Earthmen to join the last thousand Martians in their beautiful city.  The Martians learned wisdom long ago, turning away from atomic power before it was too late.  No Martian has used a weapon in ten thousand years!  The Martian gives a long list of all the beautiful things in the city, fountains and minarets and all that.  And now that the Earth and all the violent Earthmen are gone, they don't have to hide anymore, they can turn on all the lights!

The Earthmen respond to the invitation not gratefully, but angrily, as if the Martian is bragging and pointing out Earth's inferiority.  They shoot down the Martian, then take off in their rocket to find the once-hidden, now illuminated city, where they land.  We get a list of all the wonderful things about the city, people reading books and children laughing and people dancing and so on.  "Everybody was happy."  Then the Earthmen emerge from their rocket and destroy the entire city with their machine guns, murdering everybody.

With its lists and its repetition...
The Martian named the places.  They must visit the deep fount pools where colored inks mixed into patterns every second, they must see the flame pictures in the walls, burning and changing.  They must climb the crystal minarets where flowers ten centuries old bloomed forever and forever as delicate as white children, as warm, as tender.  They must hear the music....   
"Now," said Comfort, with his machine gun.
"Now," said Jones.
"Now," cried Williams.
They pressed the triggers of their three guns.
..."Payment in Full" has the poetic elements we associate with Bradbury, but the whole thing is over-the-top and obvious, a monotonous misanthropic cri de coeur rather than anything sophisticated or clever.  I have to give this one a thumbs down, but stories that use aliens as props to show how crummy humans are almost always rub me the wrong way, and maybe others might find this sort of thing moving or validating.

"Transformer" by Chad Oliver (1954)

Chad Oliver is a guy who, in my experience, writes stories about how our modern life of eating ice cream and watching Laurel and Hardy on youtube (that's my modern life, at least) sucks and it would be awesome to live a stone age existence, hunting wildebeest with a javelin or something.  (Check out MPorcius coverage of Chad Oliver stories here, here, here, here, and here.  These links are what I am calling "blind boxes;" one of them is to a post on a Chad Oliver story that is actually good--that one is "the chaser.")

"Transformer" first appeared in F&SF, and a year later was included in the collection of Oliver stories entitled Another Kind.  Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg saw fit to include it in their DAW anthology The Great SF Stories #16: 1954.

"Transformer" is a gimmicky joke story that has as its basis that tired conceit that has made Pixar, the guy from Bosom Buddies and the guy from Tool Time a bazillion dollars--your toys are really alive and move around when you aren't looking and resent it when you break them during your experiments and get sad when you stop playing with them.  Most of the story has a first-person narrator, a tiny toy woman who is part of the scenery of a kid's electric train set.  (The magazine version has a joke about first-person narration that was excised for the book version.)  She describes all the parts of the train set at great length.  She has lots of boring complaints (e. g., the kid doesn't dust the set) and there are lots of obvious jokes (e. g., the little toy people in the toy town are tired of eating bacon and eggs, bacon and eggs being the only food items modeled in the toy diner.)  These are the kind of jokes an actual kid makes while playing with his toys.

The kid who owns the set is now thirteen and no longer plays with the set very often, and when he does he causes the trains to crash into each other, damaging some of the toy people.  So the little toy people try to assassinate the boy by tinkering with the transformer, but the malfunctioning transformer merely gives him a little shock.  Then he sells the set, separating the narrator from her friends, and she ends up in an even worse situation, with a kid who has an even lamer electric train set up.  (Oliver tries to make the story sad as well as funny.)

I know people eat up this kind of goop, but it is not for me.  I think I have to give it a thumbs down because I didn't like it, but recognize its essential competence (the author succeeds in his goals) and market appeal, so maybe the "real" score is "acceptable."

(By the way, this story has nothing to do with the future or man battling tomorrow or anything like that, Nolan's ostensible theme for this anthology, even though he tells us in the introduction to the book that "A worthwhile anthology...should project a comprehensive viewpoint.  The stories in this volume display Man's essential strength in facing complex futuristic problems."  I personally don't think an anthology needs a theme beyond "these are a stories worth reading," so I don't care, but it is odd to see Nolan set out a program and then just blithely divert from it.)

I sure hope somebody out there has that crazy mask from
 the Powers cover of Another Kind as his or her twitter avatar
"Mass for Mixed Voices" by Charles Beaumont (1954)

In his intro to "Mass for Mixed Voices," which first appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly, Nolan mentions Beaumont's famous story from Playboy, "Black Country," which I read in 2015 in Volume II of The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales along with stories by Thomas Ligotti and Gene Wolfe.  He also refers to Beaumont's association with The Twilight Zone.  "Mass for Mixed Voices" is the title story of a 2013 collection of Beaumont stories published by Centipede Press that sold for $125.00.

I guess this story is trying to be profound, but I have to admit I don't quite grok it.  It is the future, in a highly regimented and militaristic society.  Disease has been conquered, and people live very long lives--in fact, people die so rarely (it seems decades go by between deaths) that the government schedules everybody's euthanasia, making a big public event out of each person's passing, a "World Festival" with visits from diplomats from other planets, performances by dancing girls, etc.  People live so long that they grow tired of life, and welcome death, so there is no resistance to the government-scheduled euthanasia regime.

Until today.  Johnmartin has lived a long and full life, fighting with distinction in many wars, having had a successful marriage and produced many offspring.  Since retirement he has cultivated a big diverse garden full of alien plants which have emotions and wills and can move about almost like animals.  Johnmartin's day to die has come, but he tells the authorities that he does not want to die, that he is still fascinated by life, in particular his plants.  It appears he developed this love of life and desire to enjoy immortality from reading some ancient books he found (it seems there are no books in this society, though there is reading and writing--we learn that the government sends people letters and it is a felony to ignore them.)  


The government cannot permit anybody to refuse to die on his death day, and Johnmartin reluctantly submits.  But he first eats a bunch of seeds from his garden, and requests that he be buried in his garden and the government make sure somebody waters and weeds the garden forever.  The authorities agree, and as he dies Johnmartin has a vision, of a new flower in his garden, a flower of which he believes "there was something in it of every other blossom," and as he dies he welcomes the darkness.

Obviously this is a sappy and sentimental story that is supposed to pull your heartstrings, but what is its "message?"  That the kind of scientific and regimented society that could conquer death would, ironically and paradoxically, also forget the value of life?  That death is what makes life feel worthwhile?   Are we supposed to agree with the Johnmartin of the start of the story, the Johnmartin who wants to go on living, or with the Johnmartin who welcomes death in the last line of the story because he is going to live on in his plants?  (It is a little odd that the idea of living on in his plants makes him content but he never considers that he is going to live on in any of his "hundreds of descendants--none mutants.")  There are plenty of references to war and religion and intrusive laws in the story, but if the story is a satire of the military-industrial complex or big government or religious institutions it is a very subtle one, because there is no evidence offered that the wars were unjust or that people are groaning under tyranny or the victims of manipulation by priests--people are unhappy because they are "tired, bored, satiated."  If the story is making the commonly-made-in-SF point that utopias are boring because there are no challenge or goals, why include all that talk of wars--this society, and Johnmartin in particular, has faced many challenges and achieved many goals.  

I'm finding this story frustrating--thumbs down. 

**********

The Miller is pretty good, but it was downhill from there.  Well, they can't all be winners, can they?  Nolan seems to have chosen these stories on the basis that they pack some kind of emotional punch, that each tries to break our hearts, which is fine, but only the Miller has a plot that is interesting and well-constructed and makes sense as a SF story.  (The Oliver's plot is alright as a sort of silly fantasy.)  

More 1950s SF short stories in the next exciting (we hope) episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.