Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three stories by Leigh Brackett published during WWII

The hardcover edition of the collection,
cover by Jack Woolhiser
In our last episode we looked at four stories by Edmond Hamilton, published in the 1920s and 1930s and selected by his wife Leigh Brackett for inclusion in 1977's The Best of Edmond Hamilton.  Today the tables are turned--here are three stories by Brackett, first published during World War II and chosen for 1977's The Best of Leigh Brackett by Hamilton.  I'm reading them in my paperback edition from Ballantine-Del Rey with the Boris Vallejo cover, a celebration of the human body and stone surfaces.  This book also includes a very charming intro by Hamilton, which provides insight into Hamilton's and Brackett's quite different work habits and careers and their personal relationships (their friendship with Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, for example.)  It also enthusiastically informs us of their collaborative novel, Stark and the Star Kings, which was scheduled to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive Last Dangerous Visions.

"The Jewel of Bas" (1944)

"The Jewel of Bas" first appeared in Planet Stories, where it was billed as an "Off-Trail Novel" of "Fascinating Power." I don't know what "Off-Trail" means, but it reminds me of those hipsters who tell you that when they go to London and Paris they don't want to see Trafalgar Square or the Eiffel Tower like a damned tourist, but "experience the real Europe," I guess getting punched or groped by an authentic drunk or pickpocket in some dingy street in a lower-class neighborhood or something. Anyway, this issue of Planet Stories is available for free at the internet archive; fans of EC Comics will perhaps be interested to see the illustrations for "The Jewel of Bas" done by Graham Ingels--Ingels also did the cover for this issue of Planet Stories.

(I know you come to MPorcius Fiction Log for my boundless optimism, unflappable good nature and "get along" attitude, but I have to say that I have never liked Ingels' drawing or painting, even his famous EC work, and his cover of Planet Stories is probably the least polished and least exciting of the scores of Planet Stories covers you can see there at the internet archive.)

"The Jewel of Bas" also appears in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks #46, a copy of which I own
When I started this story I found it much better written than I had expected it to be, the setting and characters deeper and richer, more "real," than in Brackett stories I have read in the past.  Our protagonists aren't Tarzan or John Carter-like heroes, but poor people on the fringes of society, Ciaran, a sort of wandering minstrel or bard, and Mouse, a small skinny female thief, and they have a sort of semi-dysfunctional relationship, the kind we see in down-and-outers and artistic types in real life--they rely on each other, but also have endless disagreements which readily erupt into violence.  Ciaran and Mouse live on an alien planet with multiple suns which don't move in the sky, but the traditional songs Ciaran sings include clues that tell the reader that their ancestors came from Earth.  These songs also describe the powerful man, Bas the Immortal, who used an amazing artifact (his Jewel or Stone) to bring humans, and aliens (the short goblin- or kobold-like Kalds, who served as his evil army), to this world, as well as to build androids.  At the start of the story Ciaran doesn't believe the old songs, but over the course of the tale, which takes place in a forbidding desert far from civilization, Ciaran and Mouse have an adventure which reveals to them the truth behind those songs.

The plot is largely the usual adventure stuff.  Kalds who have been raiding border towns and enslaving humans add Ciaran and Mouse to their haul, but they use their musician and thief skills to lead an escape.  They sneak around the base of Bas the Immortal, observing the hypnotized human slaves building some tremendous machine at the direction of the androids; Ciaran does some eavesdropping and starts learning thereby what is going on.  Mouse is recaptured, but Ciaran finds his way to the ankh-shaped couch where sleeps Immortal Bas, who has the body of a child even though he is thousands of years old--he got his immortality powers by mischance when he was just a kid on Atlantis, back on Earth.  Ciaran alerts Bas that the androids are rebelling against him, and Bas eliminates the androids and Kalds, liberating Mouse and the rest of the humans.

"Jewel of Bas" includes one of those revelations of how the universe really works that we see in so much SF--Ciarn and Mouse's world is in fact an artificial construct inside a tenth solar planet, the "suns" and everything else powered by the Jewel--as well as a revolution or paradigm shift, another thing we see in SF all the time--not only is the slave operation of the androids and Kalds overthrown, but the Jewel is running out of power; fortunately the androids' great machine turns out to be a generator of replacing the Jewel, and Ciaran triggered Bas' wrath just after it was finished.  Bas goes back to sleep, retreating into a perfect dream world he has created because he is sexually frustrated in his child's body--in his dreams he has an adult body and can experience adult physical and emotional relationships.

With Bas's dream world I think maybe Brackett is setting up a contrast between childish masturbatory fantasies which are "perfect" but sterile, and real life sexual relationships like that of Ciaran and Mouse, which are messy and difficult, but fundamentally more satisfying and productive.  "Jewel of Bas" may also be a sort of camouflaged attack or expression of skepticism of religion.  (Keep in mind that, in his intro to The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton tells us that the book that turned Brackett on to genre fiction and fired her desire to be a writer herself was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Gods of Mars, in which John Carter exposes the religion of Barsoom to be an exploitative and murderous scam.)  In addition to the fact that the childish and selfish Bas is often described as a god (and even sleeps on a cross), Brackett includes a minor human character who is a hypocritical religious fanatic who impedes the humans as they try to escape the menacing androids and Kalds.

Perhaps also worthy of note are Brackett's mentions of Atlantis, Dagon, Cimmeria and Hyperborea, I suspect Brackett hearkening back to the Weird Tales tradition of which H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard are the most famous exponents, and of which her husband Hamilton and her friend Henry Kuttner were also a part.  The Best of Leigh Brackett is actually dedicated "To the Memory of Henry Kuttner."        

"The Jewel of Bas" is a good story full of interesting stuff, but I can't help but feel the second half isn't as good as the first half.  Because Mouse gets captured, the compelling relationship between Ciaran and Mouse plays no role in this second half of the story.  (In 1990 Karen Haber wrote a prequel to "The Jewel of Bas" called "Thieves' Carnival," and I wonder if she was inspired to write it by a desire to explore or expand upon the Ciaran-Mouse relationship.)  The fact that Ciaran isn't a traditional muscular sword or gun slinging hero sort of weakens the climax--Bas effortlessly resolves the plot with his invincible powers while Ciaran just sort of watches.  (One of my pet peeves is stories in which the main character is a spectator instead of the driver of the action.)  To be fair, Ciaran plays his harp to lead the hypnotized humans to safety pied-piper-style, but in my opinion this is weak sauce.


"The Vanishing Venusians" (1945)

"The Vanishing Venusians," first seen in Planet Stories, was selected by Isaac Asimov (and/or prolific anthologist Martin H. Greenberg) for inclusion in Volume 7 of Isaac Asimov Presents The Great Science Fiction Stories.  You can read the 1945 version for free and check out the accompanying illustration by a Crane (if you know this artist's first name please let us know in the comments) at the internet archive.

Twelve ships (with sails!) drift across the Venerian ocean, carrying over three thousand people who have long been searching for a place to land and start a new settlement.  All their earlier land falls were met by hostile natives or disease, and Earth immigrant Matt Harker is so pessimistic that he tells fellow human Rory McLaren that it would be better if McLaren's pregnant Venerian wife, Viki, died than if she and their child lived to face any more hardships and disappointments!  Forgive Matt for being such a downer--when he sleeps he dreams of the snows of Earth, and when he's awake he can remember that "I saw our first settlement burned by the Cloud People, and my mother and father crucified in their own vineyard."  Venus is a tough place for an Earther!


When land is finally spotted, Harker, McLaren and a big black guy, Sim, volunteer to climb a cliff to scout out a plateau.  The Earthers have long run out of ammo for their blasters, so when the three scouts have to fight half-plant, half-animal monsters in a tunnel they use knives and spears.  Sim sacrifices himself to save the white men, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" inhis last moments as he holds off the Venerian hordes long enough for Harker and McLaren can make it out of the tunnel.

Atop the cliff is a paradise inhabited by birds, butterflies, and beautiful telepathic nudists.  Unfortunately these nudists consider sick or injured people to be unacceptably ugly, and when Harker falls asleep they cart McLaren, who is recovering from a wound received in the fight in the tunnel, over to the local trash pile to die, like they do all their sick and aged relatives!  Harker rescues McLaren from the refuse pit, then, confident that the nudists have no souls, has no moral compunctions about redirecting a river to flood their home and exterminate them.  Harker dies in the deluge, but McLaren survives, the paradise dries, and McLaren summons the three thousand wanders to start a settlement in this, their new home.

This is a competent if unexceptional adventure story.  Maybe the religious overtones (sympathetic to religion this time, unlike in "Jewel of Bas") and portrayal of a black character and of interracial marriage make it more interesting?  Should we applaud the inclusion of a black hero and of a human who is having a child with his nonhuman wife, or decry them as condescending tokenism, the exoticization of the "other," and a celebration of white sexual imperialism?  I'm willing to give Brackett the benefit of the doubt, but I'm also not the kind of cutting-edge thinker who thinks white women shouldn't sell burritos, so don't quote me to your humanities professor!

"The Veil of Astellar" (1944)

First appearing in Thrilling Wonder Stories (check it out at the internet archive), "The Veil of Astellar" would later be included by Terry Carr in a 1976 anthology of space operas, Planets of Wonder, and by Stephen Haffner of the great Haffner Press in a 2010 anthology celebrating Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett Day.

While there are space ships and blasters in "The Veil of Astellar," in many ways this is more like a weird or gothic horror piece than what I think of as space opera--it is about callous parasitic aliens from another dimension and a human who becomes an immortal vampire and then fears the punishment that awaits him in Hell should he ever die.  The hardbitten and regretful narrator who has to choose between a sexy dame and doing the right thing also reminded me of noirish detective stories--Brackett of course famously wrote fiction and screenplays in the hard-boiled detective genre.


The main text of the story is a document sent to the "Space Authority headquarters on Mars," the confession of one Steve Vance that explains the mystery of the bizarre disappearance of so many space ships in a glowing cloud over the last few centuries. As we read the document we learn, in dribs and drabs, out of chronological order, Vance's astonishing biography and the inside skinny about that glowing cloud that has bedeviled spacemen for so long.  I'll just give you the main outline in a straightforward fashion, like I'm handing you a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces already put together.

Three hundred years ago Vance was a pioneering astronaut, the first man to reach Jupiter.  History records that he crashed and died but in reality he was captured by vampires from another universe!  Because Vance was such a fine specimen, their leader, sexy Shirina (if you think chicks with antennae are sexy!) took him as her lover and gifted him many vampire powers.  Shirina took Vance to see the amazing sights and sample the sensual pleasures of many other universes, including the home base of the raiders, Astellar.  In return for all these boons Vance periodically moves among ordinary humans, getting work on ships as a spaceman, and then guiding these ships into the death trap that is the vampires' glowing "Veil."  The Veil brings the ships to Astellar, where the aliens devour the life force of the captured humans--Vance shares in the feast, a cannibal as well as a traitor!

Like the two other Brackett stories we have talked about today there is a lot of religion in "The Veil of Astellar."  There are references to "Satan," "Lucifer," and, in particular, "Judas" (Vance is like a Judas goat), one normal human who suspects Vance is a vampire tries to kill him with silver crosses, and one of Vance's vampire bodies is said repeatedly to have no soul.  Vance recognizes that what he is doing is evil, but one reason he keeps committing these crimes is that if he stops devouring other people's life force he will die, and he fears the punishment that awaits him in the afterlife.

Before Vance left for Jupiter three centuries ago, he had a wife, and one day on Mars he encounters a pretty young woman who resembles his wife; he realizes she is one of his and his wife's descendants.  This woman is a passenger on a ship he is going to guide into the Veil, and the prospect of murdering and devouring the soul of his own descendant shocks him into abandoning his three-century-long career of evil.  He battles it out with his alien lover and various vampiric friends using blasters, mental powers and his fists, wiping out the monsters and escaping in a lifeboat.  Knowing death is just around the corner for him, he pens this confession and sends it to the human government in hopes that someone will read the account and pray for his soul! At the same time, Vance is plagued by second thoughts--why did he turn his back on eternal life and the love of the gorgeous Shirina, when, compared to the immortal and beautiful people of Astellar, ordinary humans seem no better than cattle!

Pretty good, Brackett's plot and style are compelling.  Telling the story from the point of view of the villain, rationing out info one little piece at a time, and all the religious, moral and psychological stuff about who you should be loyal to and what rules should you follow make for an engaging story.

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Michael Moorcock is a big fan of Brackett's work, and has called her a major influence on his own writing and a sort of inspiration to the people who lead the New Wave. While I have long enjoyed Brackett, I always found Moorcock's praise a little exaggerated or overblown, based on what I had read of her work.  But reading "The Jewel of Bas" and "The Veil of Astellar" has made Moorcock's praise more comprehensible; the somewhat complex and strange sexual relationships depicted in the stories perhaps do remind one of the New Wave, and the importance of travelling between dimensions in "The Veil of Astellar" are reminiscent of the importance of travel among the different aspects of "the Multiverse" in Moorcock's voluminous Eternal Champion output.  The religious components of all three of these stories also add a layer of interest--these tales have given me a greater appreciation of Brackett and her work, and I can only hope I will enjoy the next batch of Brackett stories I read as much as I did these.  But first, back to Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton for four stories from the 1930s.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Four stories by Edmond Hamilton from the 1920s and '30s


In the past I've mentioned Del Rey's cool Best of series of paperback collections of stories by classic SF authors; in fact, back in early 2016, I read 1978's The Best of Eric Frank Russell, which has an introduction by Alan Dean Foster, cover to cover.  In 1977 Del Rey put out a volume dedicated to MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton, edited by Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, as well as a book of Brackett stories edited by Hamilton.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we'll be reading both of these collections of classic adventure SF.  First up, four stories from The Best of Edmond Hamilton that first appeared in genre magazines in the 1920s and early 1930s.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" (1926)

On its second appearance in Weird 
Tales, "Monster-God" didn't get
a cover mention; I hope Hamilton 
this didn't feel like he'd got demoted!
This is Hamilton's first published story, and it is actually mentioned on the cover of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared, which must have been very exciting for a writer early in his career.  The Best of Edmond Hamilton is actually dedicated to the editor who bought the story, Farnsworth Wright, who edited Weird Tales from 1924 to 1940. "The Monster-God of Mamurth" has seen quite a few reprintings, including a second Weird Tales appearance in 1935.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" is a solid Lovecraftian-type story, complete with lost city, alien and/or prehistoric god, and invisible monster.  (Though I label these elements "Lovecraftian," they were not invented by Lovecraft, and Hamilton didn't necessarily get them from Lovecraft stories; in fact, I think Lovecraft's big lost city and invisible monster stories, like "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror" and "At The Mountains of Madness" were published after "Monster-God of Mamurth."  Lovecraft's "The Nameless City" was published in an amateur periodical in 1921, but was not widely available until the 1930s.)  Hamilton includes a (mercifully brief) frame story--our narrator is a white trader in the North African desert, and one night an American archaeologist who is near death crawls into his camp.  The archaeologist luckily has the strength to take up the narration for fourteen of the story's sixteen pages, telling us how he stumbled on written evidence (an inscription on stone in Phoenician) of a previously unrecorded ancient city, and went there by himself, even though the people who wrote the inscription and all the Arabs he talked to strongly advised him to stay away.  At the ruined city he explored an invisible temple and had to fight for his life against an invisible monster, much like a spider the size of a horse, presumably the god worshiped by the city's long dead citizens.

Hamilton paces the story well, and the descriptions of dealing with an invisible building and an invisible enemy are good.  More action-oriented and less extravagantly written than your typical Lovecraft story; maybe we should call this one "Howard-like"--after all, the archaeologist escapes the multi-limbed god, and it is via an adrenaline-powered feat of desperate strength, not by using his noggin or some dusty old book!

"The Man Who Evolved" (1931)

I've already written about the second story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, "The Man Who Evolved," so I'll be skipping it here.  I read it in Isaac Asimov's fun and interesting 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age.

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" (1932)

First appearing in Wonder Stories, "A Conquest of Two Worlds" would be reprinted 16 years later by Startling Stories, whose editors heralded it as a "Hall of Fame Classic"!  Then Donald Wollheim, the hero behind DAW books and so many other laudable (and a few questionable) SF projects, selected it in 1951 for his Every Boy's Book of Science Fiction.  Sounds like a must read!

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" is a sort of "future history" in 32 pages of Earth's expansion into the rest of the solar system, a history which, as Brackett tells us in her spoiler-rich introduction to the volume, is surprisingly "downbeat" and "realistic."  This story, Brackett relates, is a response to SF stories in which the Earthman is portrayed as having the right to take over other planets, which are universally inhabited by evil monsters.  In this story the people of Earth are portrayed as driven largely by emotionalism and greed, while the aliens are largely sympathetic.

The plot: Some egghead invents an atomic power source--atomic propulsion systems and energy weapons soon follow. The boffin takes a single trip to scout out the inner planets and Jupiter, then dies in a crash upon landing on Earth.  The people of Earth quickly form a sort of world government, build a fleet of atomic rockets, and send out expeditions to exploit the vast natural resources of Mars and Jupiter; in a series of episodes that recall events in the history of British exploration and imperialism in North America, Africa and elsewhere, the Earthmen trigger and prosecute tremendous wars against the stone-age Martian and Jovian natives!  Like American Indians, the Martian and Jovian populations are seriously diminished and the survivors end up on reservations!

Besides depicting Earth settlement of Mars and Jupiter as resulting in immoral wars, Hamilton keeps reminding us how dangerous space travel and exploration are with many mentions of rocket ship crashes and illness due to cosmic rays and extraterrestrial environmental conditions.  This is a story drenched in pessimism, and unrelieved by the idea that challenges excite humanity to noble deeds of heroism, and in this it reminds me of Hamilton's 1952 story "What's It Like Out There?", which I read four or five years ago, during the Iowa period of my life, having borrowed from a university library via interlibrary loan a number of books of Hamilton stories.  "What's It Like Out There?" appears in The Best of Edmond Hamilton and I will be rereading it as part of this series of posts on Hamilton and Brackett.    

Most of "A Conquest of Two Worlds" reads like an encyclopedia entry about a military campaign, but there are dimly realized characters whose careers are pegged to the campaigns to conquer Mars and Jupiter.  In the last dozen pages of the story one of these characters, 60 years before Kevin Costner would do it, 70 years before Tom Cruise would do it, and almost 80 years before whoever the hell is in Avatar would do it, turns against his modern and imperialistic people and culture to join the primitive Jovians and aid them in their doomed struggle against the Earth!

While it is interesting as a pioneering example of a revisionist anti-Western-imperialism story, "A Conquest of Two Worlds," because it is dry and the characters are flat, is not very entertaining, so I'm awarding it merely a passing grade of "Acceptable."

A PDF scan of the issue of Wonder Stories in which "A Conquest of Two Worlds" appeared is viewable at the internet archive.  There you can see the included illustration by Frank Paul (depicting a major spoiler), a portrait of Hamilton, and an editorial introduction that tells you the story is about the crimes of the white race and greedy businessmen (everywhere I look I'm finding spoilers for this story.)  But that's not all!  The owner of the magazine hand wrote one-line reviews on each story's first page, and while he or she gushes about Jack Williamson's "The Moon Era" (and check out Williamson's slick hairdo and cool spectacles!), "A Conquest of Two Worlds" gets panned as "timeworn" and "hackneyed."  Ouch!

"The Island of Unreason" (1933)

Another piece that appeared in Wonder Stories and was accorded "Hall of Fame" status by the people at Startling, who only waited twelve years to reprint this baby.  As I learned at isfdb, "The Island of Unreason" also appeared in a mysterious 1946 publication along with another Hamilton story, "Murder in the Clinic."  This odd little book, published in Ireland by London outfit Utopian Publications, was part of a British series of books and magazines of short fiction by American authors whose covers were adorned with drawings or photos of naked women.  While many of the stories are by legitimately popular and important SF authors like Robert Bloch, Jack Williamson, Clark Ashton Smith and Ray Bradbury, it is hard not to suspect that the real selling point of the books was their covers, most of which you can see at isfdb, should you be curious.

"The Island of Unreason" takes place in a socialistic technocratic future that fetishizes "reason," efficiency and cooperation, and condemns emotion and individuality.  When Allan Mann, Serial Number 2473R6, an engineer in City 72 (the future name of New York City--what kind of media bias is this?--NYC should be Number 1!) questions handing over the atomic motor plans he has been working on for two years to another engineer because he wants to finish the designs himself, he is charged with a breach of reason.  The authorities exile him for an undisclosed period to the Island of Unreason, where there is no government.  Now, I know all you Kmele Foster fans out there are thinking an island without government would be a paradise ("please don't throw me in that brier patch!"), but the inhabitants of this technocratic society, including Mann see a place without government as some kind of living hell!  The director of City 72 thinks by exposing Mann to life outside the paternal state will teach him how essential government really is ("cure" him of "unreasonable tendencies.")

Mann is dropped off on the island and, while initially horrified, quickly learns to cope without all-powerful government with the help of the "unreasonables" already there, who have a primitive village and a rough and ready sort of social order.  When his sentence is up and the government agents arrive to bring him back to City 72, he decides he'd rather stay on the island.

This is a better story than "A Conquest of Two Worlds" not just because I like anti-big government stories, but because it focuses more strongly on individual characters and presents more vivid pictures of societies.  It is actually amusing to watch Mann, a member of "the world's fiftieth generation of vegetarians" who is used to eating the "mushy pre-digested foods" rationed out by the government, sleeping in a government dormitory and having sex with women whom the "Eugenics Board" orders him to impregnate, respond and adapt to a world in which he has to eat fresh meat, sleep on the ground, and compete for sex partners because people get to choose who they have sex with based on their own far-from-logical preferences.

While I am contrasting them from a literary and entertainment point of view, I think we can see strong thematic similarities between "The Island of Unreason" and "A Conquest of Two Worlds."  Both feature a character deeply embedded in his society, an elite member of that society, in fact, who changes his mind about that society after being exposed to a different, less technologically advanced, society.  Both also evince a level of skepticism about modernity and progress and make an argument that a concern for material well-being can lead a society to abandon traditional morality and compromise people's freedom to an atrocious degree.

Good.

"Thundering Worlds" (1934)

Back in March we read the story from this issue
attributed to Heald, a collaboration with
H. P. Lovecraft
Over the course of this blog's life we've seen a range of types of stories from Edmond Hamilton: mad scientist stories, stories about evolution, today a weird lost city story and two nakedly political stories expressing views about Western imperialism and the role of the state in our lives.  But Hamilton is perhaps most famous for his epics about interstellar warfare conceived on the grandest possible scale with the highest possible stakes, wars in which civilizations maneuver the very planets and stars like so many aircraft carriers and battering rams as they seek to avert or inflict genocide. "Thundering Worlds," first seen in Weird Tales, is just such a story.  I read "Thundering Worlds" during the same period in which I read "What's It Like Out There?", but I have no compunctions about reading it again.

It is the far future, and the human race has colonized all nine planets, and the system is ruled by a council consisting of the leaders of each of the nine worlds.  Our narrator is the top official of Mercury, and as the story begins he describes how mankind is under a terrible threat--Sol is cooling off and the nine planets will soon be uninhabitable! The solution to this crisis is to construct atomic thrusters of mind-boggling size on each of the nine planets and then drive them like huge ships across the black void of interstellar space to a new sun!

The Mercurian's narrative relates how the nine planets go from one star to another, looking for a home.  One star produces radiation that is deadly to human life (radiation looms large in Hamilton's oeuvre), while another star system is inhabited by hostile aliens, and a terrible space naval battle between swarms of human and alien craft results.  By some terrible coincidence, these aliens (amoeba people) live in a star system whose sun is about to go nova, so they have the idea of hijacking the solar planets to escape certain doom.  When the Solar space navy repels their invasion, the amoeba people construct their own colossal atomic engines and the nine solar planets are soon pursued by four amoeba planets!

When the human migrants finally find a suitable star to orbit their worlds around, a showdown with the amoeba people is inevitable.  The narrator decides that Mercury will make the ultimate sacrifice--all the Mercurians evacuate their little world and then the narrator rams it into the lead amoeba planet, causing a five-planet pileup that wipes out the amoeba race and leaves us humans masters of all we survey!  Go Earth!

This is a fun story.  The first-person narration and a sort of rivalry between the narrator and the rulers of Pluto and Jupiter means it doesn't fall into the trap of sounding like a dry encyclopedia article that "A Conquest of Two Worlds" does.  I'm a little surprised "Thundering Worlds" hasn't been reprinted more often; maybe its lack of social or political commentary made it less attractive to editors.

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All worthwhile reads by World Wrecker Hamilton, and pleasantly diverse in their subject matter and tone.  In our next episode we start The Best of Leigh Brackett with three of her stories from the 1940s.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Star Gladiator by Dave Van Arnam

"Did you know that every tenth planet, roughly, in the Zarmithian Empire has a Star Games arena of one sort or another?  I didn't, but that's over seventy arenas.  A hundred thousand lives a month....They're restocking from Kalvar."
Last week I stopped by Karen Wickliff Books, the terrific used book store on High Street in Columbus, Ohio, mere miles from MPorcius Fiction Log's current MidWestern HQ.  There I pored over the SF shelves and the wall of unsorted paperbacks, and discovered a treasure from our friends at Belmont, a 1967 Belmont Double featuring Kris Neville's Special Delivery and Dave Van Arnam's Star Gladiator.  The cover is irresistible, with its fun fonts, extravagant and exuberant tag lines, and its illustrations chock full of so many classic ("shopworn" to you cynics!) SF elements, but the contents were also intriguing.

Now, I've already read and praised Neville's Special Delivery at this here blog, but Van Arnam I know nothing about.  He doesn't have a lot of publications listed at isfdb, but he seems to have been a committed SF fan (he wrote an article entitled "How I Learned to Love Fandom" for the NyCon3 Program and Memory Book) and an expert on Edgar Rice Burroughs.  He also co-wrote some novels with Ted White, whom I like (one reason I spent all that money on ebay for all those issues of Fantastic is that I find White an interesting character.)  So, I have plenty of reasons to read Star Gladiator, which first appeared in printed form in this very Belmont Double and since then no place else (there is, however, an electronic version with an embarrassing CGI cover that seems to be channeling the Herald of Galactus.)  Science fiction is full of people getting thrown into the gladiatorial arena--let's see what Mr. Van Arnam does with this classic ("hackneyed" to you blase types!) theme.

It is the future and humankind has spread throughout the galaxy--men reside on a million or more planets, divided into numerous empires.  One such empire, of over 700 planets, is that centered on planet Zarmith II.  The Zarmithians are a real bunch of jerks who have been expanding their empire by conquest for centuries, largely to enslave people so they can throw them into their gladiatorial arenas to be murdered by beasts or celebrity pro gladiators.

Our hero is teen-aged Jonnath Gri, son of an important member of the Grand Council of the independent planet Kalvar, a planet with high gravity where everybody is physically strong.  (Shades of John Carter, whose success on Mars was partly the result of being born and bred on higher-gravity Earth.)  The novel begins when the Zarmithian military conquers Kalvar in a lightning quick attack, the Kalvarans lacking weapons that can penetrate the Zarmithian force fields.  The Zarmathians exterminate the Kalvaran leadership, but capture much of the population alive to throw into the arena!  Jonnath, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend's little sister escape extermination by hiding in a vacant mansion, where they find rifles and pistols which they use to stave off attacks by members of the Kalvaran lower classes, who are using the catastrophe as an opportunity to engage in a little looting!  Unfortunately, all that shooting draws the attention of the Zarmithian troops and by Chapter 3 (Star Gladiator has eight chapters that span like 88 pages) Jonnath is in the arena on planet Changar and his fiance and prospective sister-in-law are in parts unknown!

I like the font used for the chapter headings of Special Delivery/Star Gladiator
When Jonnath's dad wasn't calling for an independent prosecutor or legislating subsidies for his friends in the tech industry or whatever it is that a Grand Councilor of Kalvar does, he was training Jonnath in hand-to-hand combat, so Jonnath is a success in the arena and soon becomes one of those celebrity gladiators.  After three years of fighting every week for the pleasure of both live in-person violence fans and those who prefer to enjoy their gore in the comfort of their homes via the TV, Jonnath is elevated from the small Changar Arena to the big leagues on planet Tansavar.  On Tansavar he meets a bunch of other Kalvarans, who, like him, have become successful pro gladiators.  Jonnath has to decide if he will join their conspiracy to take over the planet, or, if he will seek his freedom "by the book": if he can defeat a series of especially difficult opponents in the arena at the annual High Games, the Zarmithian spectators will grant him his freedom.  Complicating matters is the fact that, on Tansavar, Jonnath has befriended an alien genius whom everybody else thinks is a dumb beast, and this genius has an agenda of its own.

This is an entertaining enough sword and planet kind of thing.  The action scenes are not bad, and Van Arnam tries to give the secondary figures little idiosyncrasies that add up to interesting personalities. At times I thought Van Arnam might be trying to emulate Jack Vance--there is an elaborate meal and Van Arnam lists all the weird courses, and symbolic attire also plays a role in the story.  In the last quarter or so of the piece, after Jonnath has won his freedom, he goes full Kirth Gersen, doing detective work to locate the Zarmithian soldiers who killed his family on Kalvar so he can get revenge on them.

A problem with Star Gladiator is that Van Arnam seems to have tried to cram 150 or so pages of material into the 88 pages he had available to him, so some ideas and portions of the story feel rushed or merely glossed over.  (The alien genius who looks like a beast of burden, for example, doesn't really play any role in the plot.)  The wikipedia article on Donald Wollheim, architect of the famous and much-adored Ace Doubles, says he sometimes chopped up some writer's novel to make it fit the Double format, and one wonders if somebody at Belmont took an axe to Van Arnam's piece here.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I like these kinds of adventure stories, and if I see any of Van Arnam's books in my travels (for the low low price I paid for this one), it is likely I will pick them up.

**********

At the back of Belmont's Special Delivery/Star Gladiator are three pages of ads, including two pages listing many speculative fiction and Fortean titles available from Belmont (plus a "handy reference" to the bon mots of Marilyn Monroe's most famous conquest and a guide to how to find buried treasure.)  Of the books listed (besides Special Delivery and Star Gladiator), I've read Murray Leinster's Space Tug (at Gutenberg.org), Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton (in a 1979 reprint edition), Doomsman by Harlan Ellison, and my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction. which I like to think of as "The Book of the Year."  There are plenty of Belmont books listed which I have not read and would probably snatch up if I saw them by authors like James Schmitz, Kris Neville, Lin Carter, Ted White, Robert Bloch, or with crazy titles like The Throwbacks and The Cosmozoids.  It is good to know that, out there in the world's used bookstores, there are still so many treasures waiting for me to uncover them!
 
Click or squint to study Belmont's October 1967 offerings

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Four stories by Jack Vance from the period 1954-1962

It's the final four stories in my copy of When the Five Moons Rise, a 1992 collection of Jack Vance stories from the 1950s and '60s produced by Underwood-Miller.

"When the Five Moons Rise" (1954)

"When the Five Moons Rise" first appeared in Cosmos.  In addition to showing up in various collections of Vance's work, it would be reprinted in 1993 in Lighthouse Horrors, an anthology of stories linked, I guess, by the fact that they prominently feature lighthouses!  If you are wondering why a publisher would bet on a collection of stories centered around lighthouses, just ask a member of the Viennese delegation, as Nabokov calls them.

Perrin is one of two men who live in a remote lighthouse on a rocky seacoast on an alien planet.  Perrin isn't native to this planet--he can barely tell the five moons apart.  The moons orbit the planet at different speeds, and his partner warns Perrin that, on those rare days when all five rise together, "it is not wise to believe anything."

Sure enough, on the day when the moons rise at the same time, strange and dangerous things happen.  His partner disappears, and things that Perrin thinks of suddenly and improbably appear.  When the radio fails, a new radio set washes up on the shore.  When he feels lonely, a beautiful young woman arrives at the lighthouse.  Interrogating this woman provides clues that she is a dangerous being, perhaps analogous to a demon from Hell.  Perrin resists succumbing to his desire for the woman, lest he be dragged down to Hell or suffer some similarly dreadful fate.

This story is not bad, though the plot is a little gimmicky and pedestrian.  The way Perrin resolves the plot reminded me of Frederic Brown's famous 1944 story "Arena." In "Arena," the hero knocks himself unconscious to get through a force field which only permits passage of inanimate objects and unconscious creatures.  In "When the Five Moons Rise," Perrin knocks himself unconscious in order to foil the menacing beings, who apparently need the thoughts of their victims to take on physical form.
    
"Where Hesperus Falls" (1956)

"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is one of those poems people always mention but which I had never read.  Thinking it might be important to truly grokking what Vance was up to in "Where Hesperus Falls," and thinking at age 45 it was about time I got a little edjumacation, I pulled up Longfellow's 1840 poem at The Poetry Foundation website and give it a whirl.  It turned out to be a much easier poem than one of those brain busters like "The Waste Land" or even the relatively easy "Dover Beach."  You don't have to know about ancient Greece or Dante or anything to get "The Wreck of the Hesperus": a guy is given great responsibilities, and in his arrogance and overconfidence takes an unnecessary risk and destroys those for whom he is responsible, including his family and himself.

"Where Hesperus Falls" is set 96,000 years in the future!  Our protagonist is Henry Revere, who was born in the 20th century; when he was young a chemical experiment went awry and somehow made him immune from the aging process, and so he was watched the world and the human race change, empires rising and falling, human culture and human biology evolving, for over nine thousand centuries!  Bored with life, which offers nothing new, he wants to commit suicide, but the authorities of the day consider him a priceless treasure and watch him like a hawk, using all the high tech apparatus at their disposal to stop him from killing himself!

Revere comes up with a crazy scheme of ending his now burdensome existence.  He recalls that back in the 20th century a satellite (christened Hesperus) was launched, and its orbit is scheduled to decay sometime this decade! Revere does all the math and calculates that the Hesperus will crash in the middle of the ocean, and at the appropriate time sails a yacht there to meet his doom!  He doesn't really care that his squad of minders accompanies him--"This is the risk they assume when they guard me."  Obviously Revere's willingness to put others at risk is reminiscent of that of the sea captain in Longfellow's poem.

I thought a theme of "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was responsibility, and we also see this theme in "Where Hesperus Falls."  But while readers have no reason to doubt that the sea captain in Longfellow's poem has a legitimate responsibility to his daughter and fellow mariners, and is acting in the wrong by sailing them into a hurricane, Revere's load of responsibility and the justice of his actions is very much open to dispute.  Revere asserts a right to end his own life, but his "guards" insist he has a responsibility to the human race to survive, to serve as a link to the past.  Vance's story is about the tension between an individual's freedom and his duty to society--the head of the team assigned to preserve Revere's life dismisses Revere's claim of self-ownership and asserts the primacy of duty (and sends me to the dictionary in the process):
"We all must fulfill our existences to the optimum.  Today your function is to serve as vinculum with the past."
Do we live for ourselves, or for others?  And if others infringe on our freedom, are there limits to what we can do to preserve our liberty?  Even if we agree that Revere has a right to kill himself, does he have a right to kill his oppressors in the course of defending that right?

This story has some plot holes (modern civilization never tinkered with the Hesperus for 96,000 years?), but I like its various themes and ideas, and there are nice SF touches, as Vance describes the fashions and technology of the far future.  Good!

"Where Hesperus Falls" first appeared in Fantastic Universe, in an issue with an absolutely genius Hannes Bok cover and stories by plenty of big names.

"Dodkin's Job" (1959)

"Dodkin's Job" first appeared in Astounding, and later was included in Jerry Pournelle's anthology The Survival of Freedom (which includes an essay by anarchist intellectual David Friedman, a Robert Heinlein fan and the son of titan of free-market economics Milton Friedman), so I am expecting a hard core anti-collectivist/anti-government story from Vance.  Let's stick it to the commies, Jack!

Vance's novels often include excerpts from fictional reference books and scholarly works, and, setting up the story's theme, Vance begins "Dodkin's Job" with an extract from a Leslie Penton's First Principles of Organization, an extract in which Penton quotes one of the founders of the "Theory of Organized Society" thus: "When self-willed microunits combine to form and sustain a durable macrounit, certain freedoms of action are curtailed."

It is the future, a time and place in which the Theory of Organized Society has been put into action!  The government assesses all citizens, assigns them a rating, and then allocates to them appropriate jobs, housing, food, sexual relationships, and leisure time.  Our hero is Luke Grogatch, rated "Flunky/Class D/Unskilled," and recently assigned to work as part of a gang digging a new tunnel for the sanitation department.  Grogatch is relatively intelligent, and could have achieved a higher rating and better compensation (like "Class 7 Erotic Processing" instead of the "Class 15" he now enjoys, and a chance to choose which TV channel to watch instead of being stuck with only "Band H" at a communal screen) but he is a "Nonconformist" and refuses to employ "all the tricks and techniques: the beavering, the gregariousness, the smutting, knuckling" that are required to get ahead.  And now that he is in his forties, it is probably too late to start beavering his way to the "High Echelons" and such perquisites as "AAA Nutrition" and "a suite of rooms for his exclusive use."

New regulations come down that add three hours to Grogatch's workday without adding to his compensation.  All the other flunkies just accept this--most everybody but Grogatch in the Organized Society is a docile conformist--but Grogatch marches into the office of the bureaucrat who issued the new regulations in hopes of having the new rules rescinded, beginning an odyssey through the public services apparatus as each functionary and executive he confronts shirks responsibility and directs him to a different office or department--even the Secretary of the Department of Public Affairs and the Chairman of the Board of Directors pass the buck!  (Grogatch's peregrinations among the upper levels of the Organized Society is facilitated by his clothes, which belie his current status as a flunky--"the clothes make the man" is a theme we see elsewhere in Vance's body of work; it was in Son of the Tree, for example.)  In the end, Grogatch discovers where the real power in his society lies, and seizes it--will he use his newfound power to help others, or only himself?  

"Dodkin's Job" reminded me of the Cugel stories with its quixotic hero and in that it is laugh-out-loud hilarious; the style is very funny, and there are great individual jokes.  Here's a two-line paragraph that had me in stitches:
Luke, attempting a persuasive smile, achieved instead a leer of sinister significance.  The girl was frankly startled.  
Its theme of one man standing up against a stultifying and conformist society reminded me of Harlan Ellison's famous story "Repent Harlequin, etc", but where Ellison's story is overwrought and ridiculous, the monochrome wish fulfillment fantasy of a petulant child who sees himself as a victim/hero and any who disagree with him as villains, Vance's story is clever, inventive, morally ambiguous and fun, and it feels real, unlike Ellison's story, which feels like a fable.  All that stuff I sometimes blabber on about when I judge stories, like pacing and tone and images and characters, Vance handles perfectly, and apparently effortlessly, so the story reads smoothly, here.

I strongly recommend "Dodkin's Job."  So, is Vance sticking it to the commies here?  I definitely like to think so, but the docility and conformity themes are probably more pronounced than the government oppression theme, and Vance doesn't have the characters throw around obvious shibboleths like "comrade" and "hoarders and wreckers" that would mark the story as a direct allegory for revolutionary socialism or the Soviet Union--in fact, members of the High Echelon have titles like "Chairman of the Board" and are called "tycoons," not "commissars."  Lefties reading the story can easily interperet it is an attack on the "absurdities of the class system in capitalist America" or an indictment of the Byzantine and inhumane workings of the management of the evil corporations that are always foreclosing on community centers on the TV.  Perhaps we should see "Dodkin's Job" as a story about the way large organizations, be they private or public, embedded in societies relatively free or relatively repressive, take on a life and logic of their own, diluting responsibility and sucking the humanity out of their constituent members, giving them powerful incentives to act in ways they wouldn't in smaller, more natural, settings, to the detriment of themselves and all around them.  (You remember that Peter Gabriel song, don't you?)

"Dust of Far Suns" (1962)

This one has appeared under many names; I read it years ago (long before this blog made its stupifying debut) under the title "Sail 25;" I think "Sail 25" is the title Vance prefers.  The story was first published in Amazing, under the title "Gateway to Strangeness"--this looks like a good issue of Amazing, with an article on C. L. Moore, short stories by Roger Zelazny and James Schmitz, and lots of illustrations by Virgil Finlay.

I liked "Sail 25" when I read it way back when (probably in The SFWA Grand Masters: Volume Three) and, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it today.  In some ways it is a traditional hard SF story in which clever and disciplined men in space suits who know lots of science and engineering get into a dangerous situation and use their mechanical and technical knowledge to get out of the jam.  (Ignoramuses and those of weak character suffer a black fate.)  But Vance's signature amusing style and witty dialogue, and inclusion of an eccentric and morally questionable character, bring some laughs and ambiguity to the proceedings.

The plot: In a near future era in which ships propelled by the solar wind travel around the solar system, eight space cadets are about to go on their final training cruise, a test to see which of them is cut out to be a spaceman, that most intellectually, psychologically and physically demanding of occupations!  Administering the test is Henry Belt, a legend in the service for his idiosyncrasies.  After a technical test on the ground (the cadets are tasked with building computers out of a pile of spare parts) which only six pass, the class sets sail for Mars.  Belt observes while the cadets deal with one crisis after another that could very well send them to their doom beyond the solar system, judging their performance but not lifting a hand to help--he assures the cadets that he is ready to die.  The superior cadets save the day, and most of the class makes it back to Earth alive, where the capable cadets are graduated and the inferior survivors flunk out.

Entertaining, a good specimen of this type of story.

**********

The stories included in 1992's When the Five Moons Rise are all worth reading, and some are great, but you should probably seek them out in other collections and anthologies, as this book is full of typos and printing errors.  I'll probably sell my copy on ebay; my PayPal account took a serious hit recently when my sporting blood was aroused and I spent much more money than I had expected to triumphing over a tenacious fellow SF fan in an epic auction struggle over a stack of old issues of Fantastic.  I've already sold a bunch of old Games Workshop models and my copy of Arkham House's The Horror at Oakdeene, which I acquired at the same library sale where I got When The Five Moons Rise, but the financial loss has yet to be made good.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Three stories by Jack Vance from the period 1952-3

Back flap of dust jacket of my copy of
When the Five Moons Rise
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in the US presidential election, much to the dismay of fictional college professor Moses E. Herzog.  John Kasich and Vladimir Putin were born. And on the literary side, Clive Barker was born and Knut Hamsun died.  In 1953 there was lots of exciting Cold War news, with the bogus Doctor's Plot, the death of Stalin, the end of the Korean War, an uprising in East Germany against the communist government, and the execution of the Rosenbergs.  It was during this tumultuous period that the three stories by Jack Vance which we will be talking about today were first presented to the SF-reading public.  I read them in my copy of the collection When the Five Moons Rise, published in 1992 by Underwood-Miller.

"Telek" (1952)

"Telek" was first published in Astounding.  It later appeared, among other places, in a 1969 collection of Vance stories entitled Eight Phantasms and Magics and in 1970's Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, edited by Robert Silverberg.

"Telek" is one of those stories about homo superior and the tensions between this new strain of humanity with super powers and us poor mundanes.  We see a lot of these in the speculative fiction world, from van Vogt, Kuttner and Moore, Clifford Simak, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a million other people I'm forgetting or ignoring.  I just read one by Alice Laurence and one by Barry Malzberg, for example.  When I first started this blog, I had grand visions of dozens of descriptive tags that would help me categorize all the fiction I was reading, tags like "postapocalyptic," "sex," "dinosaurs," "socialism," etc., and "homo superior" would have been a good one to use.  But I got lazy and only use the author and "positive" and "negative" tags.  Anyway, lots of these homo superior stories are allegories of the plight of blacks in America or Jews in the West or gays or witches or some other oppressed or marginalized group and we are expected to sympathize with or identify with the people with superpowers.  Vance doesn't take that tack in "Telek," though.

Sixty years ago the first Teleks appeared, a tiny minority with amazing telekinetic and teleportation powers.  These jokers can teleport out to the asteroid belt, then teleport back with vast amounts of platinum and uranium, so they quickly became extravagantly rich.  At first the Teleks helped the rest of humanity, using their powers to bring wealth from space and to quickly accomplish arduous jobs like clearing jungles and building roads, but as time has gone by, they have been acting more and more high-handed.  Their weird abilities, and their tremendous wealth, mean the Teleks are essentially above the law and immune to any kind of social pressure, and each generation of homo superior feels less kinship to homo sapiens, so their behavior is getting worse and worse.  A small group of mundanes has decided that the Teleks are too great a threat to human liberty and must be destroyed.

Shorn is an architect, and an important member of the mundane underground, working for Gerskamp, who is in charge of a major construction project--building a stadium for a big upcoming Telek celebration.  Shorn recruits a reluctant Gerskamp to the rebel cause, and they mine the arena--when the Teleks are all assembled at the stadium they hope to blow up every last one of them at the same time!  (Didn't a mined sports arena also figure in the plot of Vance's 1978 Wyst: Alastor 1716?)

Even beyond the psyker business, "Telek" reminded me of a (more clearly written than is to be expected from that Canadian madman) van Vogt piece.  The story is set on a futuristic Earth of visiphones and slidewalks and aicars where the monetary unit is the "crown," and much of the story's 50 pages is taken up with high tech espionage stuff--people doubling back to lose tails, using hypnotic drugs to interrogate a recruit suspected of being a Telek mole, cobbling together in the lab a countermeasure to the two-inch long robot beetles the Teleks use to spy on people, and donning elaborate disguises.  There is also sociological discussion of the (im)possibility of Telek and mundane getting along, and speculation on just how the Telek powers work (Astounding editor John Campbell, Jr. was fascinated by psychic powers and encouraged writers to include them in stories.)  Perhaps more characteristic of Vance (and a reflection of 1950s architecture and culture) is a section in which Shorn laments that while people in his era have more political freedom and material wealth, in "the ancient monarchies" there was greater diversity in the look of buildings and of clothing, and in people's behavior--Shorn feels that modern life's utilitarianism and concentration of people in urban spaces has lead to a grey conformity. Do the individualistic and extravagant Teleks represent the opportunity for a flowering of culture as well as a risk of political tyranny?

Shorn, via skillful deception and his acumen in "the art of the deal," is inducted into the ranks of the Teleks and attains their astonishing mental powers.  (These powers are latent in every human being, and need only be coaxed out during a brief training session.)  With his new abilities Shorn foils the efforts to crush the anti-Telek underground and then triggers the awakening of the psychic abilities of all of mankind--mankind's adolescence is over, and a period of history in which every human has the freedom to roam the universe is beginning.

A good old-fashioned sensawunda tale.  Thumbs up!


"Noise" (1952)

This is one of the weaker stories in the collection.  Rather than being bold or sharp or striking or brisk, it is dreamy and slow.  I assume that is what Vance is going for, so it is more of a case of MPorcius not being the target market for what Vance is selling here than Vance failing in his aims.

There is a frame story, but the majority of the text of "Noise" consists of the journal of a shipwrecked space man.  In this journal he describes in detail the planet he has made his way to in his lifeboat, a world with unusual astronomical conditions and no apparent animal life.  There is a lake, some trees, a mountain, etc.  In turn, the planet is lit by a red sun, then a blue sun, then a silver sun, and on and on.  The planet seems to revolve at varying speeds and/or orbit an erratic course because each sun hangs high in the sky for many Earth days, then rapidly shoots below the horizon rather than crossing the sky at a constant rate.

After some time on the planet the castaway begins catching filmy glimpses of beautiful towns and people, and hearing music which has no visible source.  By concentrating, he is gradually able to interact with this mysterious parallel dimension more and more intimately.  He recognizes a parallel version of himself, and falls in love with a beautiful woman of this other dimension.  Before he is able to actually talk to the people from the other plane of existence, an Earth ship lands to rescue him, but he decides he doesn't want to leave--he prefers the beautiful faerie world to the world of his birth.

Just acceptable.  I feel like Vance spent too much time describing the terrain and too little time showing why this guy would fall in love with a fleeting vision and prefer some other universe to ours.  Despite my lukewarm reaction, everybody seems to love "Noise," and since originally appearing in Startling Stories it has been reprinted many times, including in The Best from Startling Stories, Deep Space, and Strange Glory.



"Ecological Onslaught" (1953)

Jack's name doesn't appear on the cover,
but the cover illo depicts Bernisty and Kathryn
in the climax of "Ecological Onslaught."
"Ecological Onslaught" has also appeared as "The World Between," a somewhat better title.  It was first printed in Future Science Fiction.

It is the far future; many star systems, including one called Blue Star and a nearby one called Kay, have been colonized by Earthmen, while Earth itself is almost forgotten.  A Blue Star exploration ship, commanded by Explorator Bernisty, discovers a planet equidistant between Blue Star and Kay; he claims it and starts terraforming it.  The Kays object, and try to eject the Blue Stars via threats, then by introducing invasive species of fungus and arthropods onto the new planet in hopes of foiling the Blue Star terraforming project.  Could the beautiful Kay defector Kathryn, whom Bernisty is developing a crush on, be the vector of this interference? Berel, Bernisty's jealous girlfriend, certainly thinks so!

(All proper nouns associated with Blue Star start with a "B," and all Kay people and places begin with a "K.")

A fun story full of entertaining SF touches, like all the details of the terraforming process and some medical procedures, and the many idiosyncrasies of the two human, but to us readers quite foreign, cultures.  Blue Star society includes a class of women somewhat like geishas or prostitutes (Berel is in this class), and has a taboo about being observed eating (Vance would use this idea again in one of the Alastor books, I think 1975's Marune: Alastor 933.)        

Quite good; especially of interest to fans of stories about terraforming and genetic engineering.

**********

I'm enjoying the stories in When the Five Moons Rise, but must register some complaints with the people at Underwood-Miller.  The punctuation in the text of "Telek" in When the Five Moons Rise is plagued by typos--missing hyphens and quotation marks, double quotes when single quotes are called for, that sort of thing.  I own a copy of Great Short Novels of Science Fiction and consulted it; in that edition "Telek"'s hyphens and quote marks seem to be in order.  There are also some major printing errors in this appearance of "Ecological Onslaught,"  Unfortunate, and an indication of how valuable to the SF community was the work of the Vance Integral Edition team.

In our next episode, we finish up with When the Five Moons Rise.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Three stories by Jack Vance from 1951

I enjoyed Jack Vance's Son of the Tree so much during our recent month-long celebration of Ace Doubles that I decided to read my copy of Underwood-Miller's 1992 collection of Vance stories, When the Five Moons Rise.  I picked up my copy of this hardcover at a library sale soon after my move to what they are calling the Buckeye state.  (When you move to a new place you learn new things; for example, people in Ohio don't like it when you call them "Hoosiers"--it seems that applies to people from some other state!)

When the Five Moons Rise contains twelve stories, but I've already written about two of them--"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" and "Ulward's Retreat"--on this blog. The remaining ten I will read in chronological order over three different blog posts.  Today we deal with three stories from 1951, "The New Prime," "Men of the Ten Books," and "The Masquerade on Dicantropus."

There's the loyal retainer and the beguiling
courtesan right there on the cover!
"The New Prime" 

"The New Prime" first appeared under the title "Brain of the Galaxy" in Worlds Beyond, a SF magazine I never heard of before.  Edited by Damon Knight, it lasted only three issues--"Brain of the Galaxy" appeared in the third, alongside stories by big names like Poul Anderson, Richard Matheson, C. M. Kornbluth and Lester Del Rey--Knight evidently got high class material for the magazine but still it didn't sell.  Business is hard!

Most of this story consists of a series of exciting vignettes, each set in a different society.  A 20th-century Bostonian finds himself naked at a party and must escape the police.  A soldier leads his unit in a war against giant intelligent insect-men.  A loyal retainer has a limited amount of time to search a ruined city for the legal document that will save his lord from the death penalty--he meets a beguiling courtesan who tries to distract him from his mission.  An artist who creates images with his mind competes against other imagists in an arena.  Finally, a gentleman on a diplomatic mission is tortured by the merciless intelligence officers of a totalitarian state--will he reveal his country's secrets?

After the entertaining vignettes comes the explanation that ties them together.  Our entire Galaxy is overseen by an executive (the "Prime" of the title) and an eleven-member deliberative body of Elders.  It is time to select the next Prime, and the candidates have just completed a test of their character and personalities, each sitting in a special couch, his mind absorbed in what we would now call a virtual reality simulation; each of the vignettes was one facet of the test, each assessed a valuable quality like the ability to think quickly under pressure, imagination, loyalty, etc.

The Elders have the task of selecting a new Prime, or allowing the current Prime a second term.  The incumbent Prime scored highest on the test, but the Elders note that such qualities as compassion and sympathy were next measured by the test, and perhaps it is these qualities that are needed at the present time.  The character of the Galaxy Prime, they believe, exercises a psychic influence over the many civilizations of the galaxy, and the current Prime's boldness, steadfastness and singleness of purpose have inspired a trend around the galaxy of authoritarian government--on Earth the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, for example.  The Elders have another candidate in mind, one so mild the stressful test may have severely damaged his psychology!

The vignettes are well-written adventure stuff, and the interesting resolution gives us a little of the old "sense of wonder" as well as a sort of twist ending--thumbs up for "The New Prime."

"Men of the Ten Books"

"Men of the Ten Books" (I believe Vance's preferred title is "The Ten Books"--at least that is the name under which the story appears in 21st-century publications) first appeared in an issue of Startling Stories alongside The Starmen of Llyrdis, a novel by Leigh Brackett which I read in early 2013, before the birth of this blog, and Earthmen No More, a Captain Future novelette by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton which I have not read and which does not appear to have ever been republished in English (maybe it will appear in a future publication of Haffner Press?)

Ralph and Betty Welstead are a married couple who disagree about everything.  (Who says SF is unrealistic?)  It is the far future, when the human race has colonized much of the galaxy, but there are still areas to be explored, and the Welsteads are explorers who make ends meet by mining asteroids.

The Welsteads discover a planet that was settled 271 years ago by the sixty-odd survivors of a shipwreck--these people have had no contact with other humans for all that time, but have succeeded in building a high tech, high trust, highly cultured society--the Welsteads think it is practically a utopia, with less crime and corruption and better technology and higher living standards than on Earth!  Ralph and Betty are shown around the planet, called Haven, by the mayor of the city they landed in.  The people of Haven are thrilled to meet the Welsteads, because they have a very rosy picture of Earth--the only books that survived that shipwreck were ten propaganda pamphlets gushing in purple prose about how wonderful Shakespeare, Rembrandt and other geniuses were (without actually including the text of one of the Bard's plays or a reproduction of one of Rembrandt's paintings) while glossing over all the crummy stuff Earthlings have been pulling since the dawn of time.  In fact, the reason the people of Haven are so successful is that their society is united behind the goals of constructing a civilization worthy of humankind's (supposed) grand traditions and developing a space drive so they can get back into contact with Earth.

The people of Haven are eager for the Welsteads to integrate them back into the wider human civilization, but Ralph fears that contact with Earth will corrupt the good people of Haven and he plots to sneak off the planet without letting them get a look at his space drive.  Betty isn't so sure Ralph should be "playing God" and isolating the Havenites' against their will, and goes behind her spouse's back to warn the mayor about Ralph's scheme.  Ralph's plan is frustrated, and the Havenites are set on a challenging course--facing the disappointment of learning the truth about Earth and maintaining their innocent culture in the face of Earth corruption--but the mayor assures the Welsteads that challenge is what the Havenites want, that mankind, on Haven or any other planet, is at its best when confronting challenges.

A solid and entertaining story.  I especially like the way "Men of the Ten Books" raises the topic of the reliability of secondary sources, of the distorted view they provide of the past or of other peoples.  (Perhaps even more subversive is the idea that suffering delusions can be beneficial for societies.)   The idea that a society united in pursuit of some grand goal is a better society is also an interesting topic we see in fiction and in the opinion press from time to time.  "Men of the Ten Books" appears to have been well-received, appearing in the anthologies The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952 and 1960's Out of this World 1, which has an introduction by Bertrand Russell.


"The Masquerade on Dicantropus"

Another story from Startling, with another sexy babe and rocket ship cover--what young man could resist such advertising?

Like "Men of the Ten Books," "The Masquerade on Dicantropus" is about a married couple.  Did Vance have marriage on the brain in 1951?  Is it significant that Vance and his wife travelled the world and would live for months at a time in European and African locations?

Jim and Barbara Root are living on the barren desert planet of Dicantropus; Jim is maintaining an antenna and engaging in some scientific work, looking over bones and rocks with his microscope.  What he is really interested in is a mysterious ancient ziggurat nearby, but the primitive natives don't want him poking around over there, and he respects their wishes.  Barbara spends her time complaining, stomping around, and counting the days (three months and three days to go!) until they can leave this boring ball of sand where they are the only humans--she's been here with her boring husband for six months already!  Her interest is piqued when a clue surfaces suggesting the pyramid is full of diamonds, but Jim refuses to try to bust his way into the structure--his job is to maintain the relay transmitter, not go to war with the locals Cortez-style.

A ship makes an emergency landing on Dicantropus--its sole occupant is Marville Landry, mining engineer and hunk!  After he is cured by Jim of his illness, Marv and Barbara start spending a lot of time together, long walks in the desert after fancy dinners and that sort of thing.  Not only is Marv dreamy, he is a man of action!  When he learns there may be diamonds in the ziggurat, he steals Jim's pistol from Jim's drawer, takes up an atomite torch, and that night he and Barbara the skank are drilling their way into the pyramid under cover of darkness!

It turns out that the "primitive natives" are neither primitive nor native to Dicantropus. They built the pyramid to distract visitors, keeping their attention away from their hidden space cruiser.  When Marv and Barb break into the pyramid they realize it is not ancient and find it is totally empty.  Their secret revealed, the aliens attack. Landry is killed, but Jim rescues his wife (for some reason.)  Jim transmits a call for help and the aliens leave.  Jim and Barb patch up their marriage, and, oh yeah, Jim found the diamonds--they were in the volcano where the alien space ship was hidden, so the Roots are now filthy rich.

This story is just OK.  The story's gimmick (distracting pyramid) isn't as clever as the gimmicks in the other stories we looked at today (ruler of the galaxy's brainwaves influence alien civilizations; virtual reality test; distorted view of reality based on biased sources leads to better outcomes.)  The plot doesn't hold together as smoothly as it might; for example, Landry has the gun but instead of shooting the aliens when they attack, he uses the gun as a club, and Vance gives a reason why the high tech aliens would want to live secretly as primitives on a barren planet but it just doesn't feel very convincing.  I'm also finding the ending unsatisfying.  Landry is the one who figures out the aliens' subterfuge, but instead of being rewarded for his boldness he dies while Jim, who was against antagonizing the aliens, benefits from Marv's enterprising nature and willingness to take risks.  Barbara isn't punished for her infidelity, nor is Jim for his inattentiveness to his wife.  This sort of material could be presented as a morality tale or as a tragedy, but instead the whole thing feels wishy washy.  Oh well, as sports guys might say, you can't hit it out of the park every time you go up at bat.

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More Jack Vance stories from early 1950s SF magazines in our next installment!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Herzog by Saul Bellow

He realized he was writing to the dead.  To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date.  But then why shouldn't he write the dead?  He lived with them as much as with the living--perhaps more; besides his letters to the living were increasingly mental, and anyway, to the Unconscious, what was death?
Back in January of 2016 I visited an odd bookstore in Edgewood, PA (mere steps outside Pittsburgh) with poet Jason Irwin and purchased a few things, among them a hardcover edition of Saul Bellow's 1964 novel Herzog with a jacket in a lovely blue.  Over the last week or so I read the novel, I believe the sixth novel by Bellow I have read (I have also read several of his short stories.)  Herzog, in my interpretation, is the story of an immature, irresponsible and alienated intellectual who over the course of a week resolves his psychological issues, recognizing his place in society and growing to maturity.

The first 200 pages of the 341 page novel introduce us to Moses Herzog and set the stage.  Herzog is a forty-seven-year-old college professor, an expert on modern intellectual history whose career has not really achieved its early promise--his dissertation on The State of Nature in 17th and 18th Century English and French Political Philosophy and his first book, Romanticism and Christianity, were well received, but since then all his ambitious projects, among them another book on Romanticism, have been aborted, despite the research grants he has received and some progress, in the form of piles of manuscript pages sitting in a closet, made.  Herzog is also a handsome womanizer with a long string of affairs and two failed marriages behind him; his second marriage, to Madeleine, an intellectual of varied and intense interests (ranging from de Maistre and Slavonic languages to murder mysteries and science fiction novels) recently collapsed and she is now shacked up with Valentine Gersbach, a poet and radio and TV personality who was one of Herzog's closest friends.  Depressed and confused, Herzog considers spending time with one of his girlfriends, 30-something Ramona, another intellectual woman and one of his students, but instead decides to stay with a friend out on Martha's Vineyard.

Herzog is a compulsive composer of letters, letters he never sends and many of which never make their way to paper, only ever existing in his mind.  The first one hundred pages of Herzog's 341 pages are taken up by the trip from Manhattan to the Massachusetts sea shore, and almost all of them consist of these letters and the flashbacks and reflections occasioned by these letters.  Thus we learn all about Herzog's life and thought.

An hour after Herzog gets to Martha's Vineyard and greets his friends he sneaks back to New York without saying good-bye--the whole trip itself was meaningless (and perhaps a reflection of Herzog's inability to see anything through)--it was Herzog's letters and memories that mattered to him and should matter to the reader.  The first part of Herzog is thus experienced by the reader as a series of episodes or anecdotes, presented out of chronological order and intersperesed with philosophical asides, in which Herzog deals with a vast panoply of other characters, all of them, like Herzog, members of a rarefied intellectual and cultural elite, most of them, like Herzog, Jewish.  These individual episodes are all readable and entertaining, and are used to show Herzog's starting point, the position and problems he grows out of and leaves behind.

Many of the characters, including Herzog, come across as self-absorbed, self-pitying, unproductive and even parasitic, members of an elite which has contempt for the rest of society.  There are plenty of complaints from the characters about how America is a "mass society" or a "money society," and plenty of bragging about how they have risen from humble beginnings.  One of Herzog's phantom letters is to Adlai Stevenson, and in the letter Herzog laments that the mindless common people had put a career soldier into the White House instead of an intellectual.  A letter that appears almost 100 pages later, addressed to the man who defeated Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, self-pityingly claims that it is the intellectuals who are the victims of contempt.  Significantly, Herzog tells Ike that intellectuals suffer not only the contempt of others, but have contempt for themselves: "Intelligent people without influence feel a certain self-contempt...."   Intellectuals may think that they should be telling other people what to do, but Herzog's own life suggests the folly of putting intellectuals in charge: Herzog once thought he could have made a difference to the world with his research on Romanticism, which is silly enough, but then he wasn't even able to finish that work!

As the letter to Ike suggests, the first half or so of the novel has an aura of uselessness and hopelessness.  Herzog, though regularly praised by others as a genius, a good man, a mensch, can't seem to accomplish anything--his academic career peters out, his marriages fail--and these failures cannot be ascribed to outside forces--they are due to his own psychological limitations.  Selfishness is perhaps chief of these limitations; there is a scene in which Herzog takes Marco, his son with his first wife, Daisy, to the zoo, but even though his time with the boy is very limited, instead of focusing on the child, Herzog's mind is occupied with plotting how to dump his current lover, Sono Oguki, a Japanese woman who lived in Paris during WWII, so he can make Madeleine his full-time mistress.

Related to this sense of uselessness and hopelessness (and also reflected in the letter to Eisenhower) is a sense of alienation.  Herzog and many of the other characters are people unsure where they belong, people who don't feel a part of the place they are in and move restlessly from place (be it spiritual, psychological or geographical) to place.  When Herzog first starts his affair with Madeleine, she, in an act of rebellion against her bohemian Jewish leftist parents whom she says taught her the "ABCs" from Lenin's State and Revolution, has been a convert to Catholicism for three months.  She soon abandons Catholicism, and once married to Herzog she convinces him to spend all his money on a country home in the Berkshires, then soon insists they abandon Massachusetts for Chicago.  Sono is a Japanese who has spent her life in Paris and New York.  Herzog is friends with a biologist who feels more kinship with a monkey than with his fellow human beings.  Throughout the period covered in the novel and throughout his life, Herzog himself is always moving, never settling down.  Herzog (like Bellow) was born and spent much of his childhood in Canada, and Herzog's comrades during his brief stint in the Navy perceived him as a foreigner.  Ramona likewise distinguishes him from other Americans: "You're not a true, puritanical American.  You have a talent for sensuality.  Your mouth gives you away."

Starting at around the 200 page mark the actual plot, Herzog's journey from alienation and immaturity to integration with society and maturity, kicks into gear.  For one thing, it starts to look like Herzog may actually marry Ramona.  More importantly, and more immediately, he takes steps to play a larger role in the life of June, his daughter with Madeleine.  Suspecting Madeleine and Gersbach are poor parents, he calls up a lawyer, Simkin (an art collector and epicure as well as a high-powered attorney), and discusses fighting Madeline for custody of June.  Then he rushes to Chicago to spy on Madeleine and Gersbach; he has his father's old gun in his pocket, and Bellow provides the reader some suspense by hinting that Herzog just may go out of his mind and murder Gersbach.  Then he takes June out for the day, getting in a minor traffic accident in which he breaks a rib and comes to the attention of the police, who bring him in because he is carrying the unlicensed and loaded revolver.

Herzog's quest to get closer to June put him in contact with the law enforcement system and expose him to the apparatus of the state, the lower classes, and minority groups.  These may be the scenes of the novel of most immediate interest to 2017 readers, living as we do in an intellectual climate consumed with identity politics.  In Manhattan, Herzog takes a cab downtown to the court to meet Simkin, and his cabby is a voluble Puerto Rican who presents his view of sexual relationships.  Waiting at the courthouse for his meeting with Simkin, Herzog sits in a courtroom audience, watching black drunks and gay prostitutes brought before the judge in mugging and robbery cases.  In Chicago, Herzog himself is brought to the police station by black police officers and spends time in a cell with a drunk and "a Negro boy."  To varying degrees Herzog sympathizes or identifies with these people, perhaps signifying a recognition of a kinship with members of the larger American society and an expansion of Herzog's concern beyond his self and his own small elite community.

Herzog's adventures in Chicago--the recognition (due to his spying) that Madeleine and Gersbach are not such terrible parents, the accident, and his arrest--have the effect of reorganizing Herzog's priorities and resolving his psychological issues; Herzog has matured.  Herzog sets about fixing up the overgrown and somewhat decrepit Berkshires estate, and on the last page of the novel Bellow indicates that Herzog will no longer be compulsively writing all those letters--the letters were a reflection of Herzog's anxiety about his place in the world and a sign of his immaturity.

As the novel has progressed Herzog has spent less time with psychiatrists and lawyers and such parasitic types, and gravitated toward his family--not only his children, but his brothers, who are successful businessmen, and Ramona, a potential member of the family as a prospective wife who also operates a business; should we see Herzog as a Candide who, after a dangerous journey, has learned the value of tending to his own garden and the value of productive work as opposed to sterile intellectualism?

Did I enjoy this novel?  I certainly was affected by the scenes set in New York that mirrored events of my own life--spotting an attractive woman in Grand Central and sadly thinking, "I'll never see her again," and then sitting in an outbound train, writing nonsense in a notebook no other person will ever read--sitting in Verdi Park--being dragged into a church by your Catholic wife and not having any idea what you are supposed to do in there.  The many references to literary and philosophical figures can be fun if you are already familiar with them--I enjoyed spotting references to Proust and Samuel Johnson on page 3, for example, but a lot of stuff went over my head and some of the philosophical asides about the meaning of life and the fate of the individual in a collectivist or mechanical society were rough going, leading my attention to drift.  

The many characters are interesting, if not necessarily likable--Bellow uses them primarily to illustrate his themes.  I haven't read any biography of Bellow or criticism of Herzog, but it is easy to imagine that many of the characters are caricatures of people Bellow knew.  One of the recurring stylistic motifs of the novel that struck me is how people's appearances, especially facial features, reflect their character, histories, or fleeting emotions.  The book has many many characters, and it seems like every other page includes a detailed description of somebody's face and/or body and a line or two like these:
Her downcast look, Moses at first took as agreement or sympathy; but he realized how wrong he was when he observed her nose.  It was full of mistrust.  By the way it moved he realized that she rejected everything he was saying.  (37)
His pale round face was freckled, and his eyes large, fluid, dark, and, for Moses's sake, bitter in their dreaminess.  (43)
Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even grey-he would never know.  But they were bitch eyes, that was certain.  They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him.... (34)
His green eyes were violently clear, his lips were continually tensing.  He must have been convinced that he was cutting the dead weight of deception from Herzog's soul, and his long white fingers, thumbs and forefingers worked nervously.  (84)
She had a smooth, long-suffering countenance, slightly tearful even when she smiled, and most mournful when you met her by chance, as Moses did on Broadway, and saw her face--she was above the average height--coming toward him, are, smooth, kindly, with permanent creases of suffering beside her mouth.  (108)
And on and on.  This idea reaches its acme in two men: Valentine Gersbach, Herzog's former friend and Madeleine's lover, and Herzog and Madeleine's Chicago lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein.  Gersbach has a wooden leg, having been run over by a train as a child, and Himmelstein, who is so short that Herzog thinks of him as a dwarf, was wounded at Omaha Beach, losing part of his chest.  "It made Herzog uneasy, perhaps, that he had been discharged from the Navy owing to his asthma and never saw action.  Whereas this dwarf and hunchback was disabled by a mine near the beachhead.  The wound had made a hunchback of him."  One of the novel's themes seems to be men's wounds, how men are created by their wounds, or how suffering a serious wound is a rite of passage that signals one's achievement of maturity--at the start of the novel Herzog has not suffered such a wound, but he does in Chicago, breaking a rib in that auto accident.

A worthwhile read that, I suspect, offers pleasure proportionate to the amount of work the reader is willing to put in trying to figure it out.

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I provide below a scan of the flier the very chatty owner of AF Booksellers gave me the day I bought Herzog from him.  A place worth checking out if you are in the Pittsburgh area.