Jeff Jones provides the cover art, a sort of cthonic, primordial, monumental image of Conan--the Cimmerian looks like he is emerging out of a mass of stone, maybe like one of Michelangelo's famous unfinished sculptures of slaves. Appropriate for an unvarnished, uncivilized, self-made man who owes his success and survival to his own native cunning and physical strength. Among the listed contributors, besides de Camp and Leiber, we see two MPorcius faves, Bob Shaw and Barry Malzberg, as well as critical darling James Tiptree, Jr. This is an exciting issue!
First we have Ted White's seven-page editorial. (No doubt you remember Ted White as author of Spawn of the Death Machine and Harlan Ellison's long-suffering friend.) Ted presents an interesting history of Fantastic, its many editors and its ups and downs and its relationships with other SF magazines, and gives us insight into his own editorial philosophy (he thinks a SF magazine should reflect its editor's personality, and include features like editorials and letters columns that generate a conversation and a community among SF professionals and fans.) He finishes by bragging that Fantastic has received its first ever Hugo nomination! Good work, Ted!
Next is the first half of Avram Davidson's The Forges of Nainland Are Cold. I have decided to put off reading this novel, which appeared in book form under the title Ursus of Ultima Thule. I will say that I like the illustration by Mike Kaluta, a stark female nude in front of a massive gnarled tree, that accompanies the piece.
"The Witch of the Mists" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
|There's Conan and Conn, fighting some|
crazy monster (could that be
Nenaunir on the flying beast?) I feel like
Conn is facing the wrong direction.
"Witch of the Mists" would later appear in the 1977 book of four Conan stories by de Camp and Carter, Conan of Aquilonia. Here in Fantastic the story is illustrated by Harry Roland, who, following the text, gives Conan a mustache! This is an older Conan, whose mustache and famous "square-cut mane" are "touched with gray!"
Conan is King of Aquilonia, richest kingdom of the West, and is out hunting with some of his courtiers and his twelve-year-old son, Conn. Conn gets lost chasing a white stag; the stag turns out to be an illusion, conjured by the witch Louhi to trap him! Having captured the king's son, the witch and her tall skinny henchmen use him as bait to draw Conan away from his companions. Conan follows the kidnappers' trail through a swamp and across the border of Aquilonia. Along the way he is robbed by a pack of inbred degenerates (the descendants of criminals who have hidden in the swamp for generations--I thought this a Lovecraftian touch) who steal his horse, armor and weapons, so that Conan has to proceed practically naked, reduced to fighting off wild beasts with a stick! When he gets to Louhi's castle, the HQ of her death cult, he is imprisoned with his son.
Louhi calls a meeting of the world's greatest wizards, and three other evil weirdos--Thoth-Amon of the West; Nenaunir, a huge muscular black shaman from the South; and an effeminate little sorcerer from the Far East, Pra-Eun-- teleport in to discuss what to do with Conan. When Louhi tries to prove to Thoth-Amon that the King of Aquilonia is not the hot stuff he's been telling her he is by having one of her cultists humiliatingly cudgel the Cimmerian, Conan turns the tables on his tormentors and he and Conn fight all four wizards, plus Louhi's coven of death worshipers, with whatever furniture they can snatch up and throw. During the fracas the Aquilonian knights finally catch up to their sovereign. Louhi and her entire cult, along with Pra-Eun, are killed, while Thoth-Amon and Nenaunir teleport away.
This is a pretty routine and underwhelming story. Nothing in "Witch of the Mists" feels fresh, and de Camp and Carter are incapable of elevating the pedestrian material with any literary style and fail to imbue it with a sense of drama or horror or fun. The battle between the barbarian king of the most sophisticated nation of Caucasians and a multi-ethnic mixed-gender cabal of the planet's four most powerful wizards should feel grand and momentous, and come at the end of a long build up, but, shoehorned into this brief story about a kid lost in the woods, it feels small and petty, like a bar brawl. Too bad; I'm judging this one merely acceptable--it feels like filler.
"Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Alice Sheldon, the woman who wrote under the male pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., is one of those SF writers the critics and college professors are always gushing about. Early last year I read and liked a few stories by Tiptree; let's see if she continues to live up to the hype.
It is the 21st century! The east and west coasts of the United States are vast megalopolises, Boswash and San Frangeles! But our story takes placed in sparsely populated Alberta, where our protagonist, Dov Rapelle, young geo-ecologist, has a cabin in the snowy wilderness.
One day Rapelle is just hanging around in his cabin when a helicopter drops off a naked teen-aged girl ("sixteen at the oldest") nearby. When he gets her inside he wraps her in his Hudson Bay blanket (wikipedia is telling me that the Hudson's Bay point blanket is an iconic article associated with Canada, and Tiptree tells us that this blanket has been an element of Dov's youthful erotic fantasies.) The mysterious girl proclaims she loves him and starts grabbing at his pants, initiating a graphic sex scene in which she loses her virginity. It turns out that the girl, Eulalia Aerovulpa, is a "time jumper;" her 75-year-old self, sixty years in the future, has switched consciousnesses with her 16-year-old self. In one of those time paradox thingies which always hurts my brain, elderly Eulalia remembered how her marriage to Dov started, and has come back in time to make sure she meets Dov and kindles their love. In an additional SF twist, teenage Eulalia's wealthy parents have had her conditioned to find men and sex disgusting so she won't get mixed up with males who are after her money, but elderly Eulalia knows the secret to undoing the conditioning: "The man whose toe she bites...she will love that man and that man only so long as she lives." She bites Dov's toe after their second bout of intercourse, so, when 75-year-old Eulalie's visit to 16-year-old Eulalia's body ends after a few hours, young Eulalia is as madly in love with Dov as senior citizen Eulalia was. (This presents the sort of philosophical conundrum presented by the love potion in the story of Tristan and Isolde: is Dov and Eulalia's love "real," or just the artificial product of psychological manipulation?)
Dov and Eulalia get married and briefly enjoy a happy life together, but Eulalia isn't content to let things be. A few months after their wedding, Eve-like, Eulalia convinces Dov that they should use the time-jumping apparatus to learn about the future (and to give their elderly future selves a little vacation from senescence.) Disaster occurs, and Dov is killed. Now Eulalia will have to endure 59 years without the man she is hopelessly in love with, her only comfort the knowledge that she will spend a few torrid hours with him when she is 75.
Perhaps it is noteworthy, this story having been written by a woman masquerading as a man, that the tragic victim of the tale for whom our hearts are meant to go out is the woman, even though the story is written more or less from the point of view of the man, and he dies because of the woman's recklessness. Also, Tiptree has Dov surprised by Eulalia's taking the sexual initiative, telling us that in his sex fantasies Dov is the aggressive partner.
This story isn't bad, but I'm not crazy about it. The somewhat complicated structure works (though I'm not quite sure I like that the psychological trigger of toe-biting works on the teenage consciousness even though that consciousness is absent from the body when the toe-biting occurs) but the whole story is too jokey and silly for the tragic ending to affect me. Acceptable.
"Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket" would later appear in the oft-reprinted and oft-translated collection of Tiptree stories entitled Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home and was chosen by Barry Malzberg for inclusion in the volume he edited for ibooks in 2003 entitled The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time.
"Allowances" by Barry Malzberg
Speak of the devil! "Allowances" was reprinted in 1974 in Malzberg's collection Out From Ganymede. I own Out From Ganymede, but haven't read "Allowances" yet.
The text of the story consists of the written testimony of eight employees of a race track and one customer, testimony presumably elicited by the management of the track or the police or some other government representatives. (Malzberg usually writes in the first person and often writes about horse racing.) Taken all together, these various reports tell the story of the day an insane and violent man came to the race track and made a serious nuisance of himself. This man wears odd clothes and insists he is an alien. His mental illness is, apparently, the result of his recognition that the universe is unpredictable (as symbolized by the unpredictability of the horse races) and general feeling that society is going downhill--machines dehumanizing life, the government becoming less trustworthy, etc. (The testimony of the witnesses indicates they also feel life is getting worse, many phrases like "nuts now being all over the place" and "unless the Racing Commission severely tightens its rules and regulations I see no future for the sport" crop up in their testimony.) The "alien" begs people for advice on who will win the races, even accusing them of fixing the races. He believes that if he can't win a bet, his alien civilization will suffer, and in desperation he threatens dire consequences if he should fail in his mission of placing a winning bet today.
"Give me a tip or I'll blow up your planet!"(Malzberg stories usually include an insane person, and this person is often preoccupied with alien or supernatural beings and catastrophic events like the alien conquest of the Earth or the coming of the Messiah or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, events for which they feel some level of responsibility. There's a story in which a guy has to win a chess game or aliens will win a space war, for example, and another in which an employee of the New York City government has to fulfill one of his quotidian job tasks in order to impress alien overlords.)
I avoid gambling and know almost nothing about betting on horse races. So I had to google around to figure out what the hell this story's title referred to. It appears that the second level of races a horse can participate in are "allowance" races, in which, based on their records, some horses have to carry more weight than others, to make the race more competitive. A horse that has lost a bunch of races will be "allowed" to carry a few pounds less weight than a more successful horse, is how I am understanding it.
This is Malzberg doing what Mazlberg does, and if you are hip to Malzberg's jive, you will appreciate it (I rather like it), but if you are sick of Malzberg treading the same ground again and again, or never liked Malzberg in the first place, this story is not going to change your mind.
"The Brink" by Bob Shaw
I like Shaw and was looking forward to this one. Unfortunately, it is a very short and gimmicky story that goes nowhere.
"The Brink" is a Cold War story and the title refers to "brinksmanship," the kind of thing we talked a lot about in history and political science courses when I was at Rutgers in the last years of the '80s and the first years of the '90s. An American aircrew is transporting a superweapon ("a nuclear device which yielded its energy over a period of years instead of microseconds") to the Far East, where it will be used to interdict Communist traffic on the future equivalent of the Ho Chi Min Trail in some unspecified jungle. The aircrew's huge cargo plane (which one character compares to the flying machines seen in the old film Shape of Things to Come,) is called Icarus, and the superweapon is repeatedly compared to the Sun. The tone of the story is gloomy and foreboding, and it is implied that participation in the Cold War has wrecked the economy of the United States but not that of Great Britain. (The UK is like Daedalus, the clever and creative father, with America as the reckless son.)
Stories which portray the United States as the villain in the Cold War always stick in my craw anyway, and the in-your-face sophomoric and pedantic use of classical symbolism in this one had me groaning. A waste of time, even at only three pages.
"The Brink" was later republished in the 1976 collection Cosmic Kaleidoscope.
After the Lupoff piece comes an installment of Alexei and Cory Panshin's critical history of SF, "SF in Dimension," these 12 pages covering 1926 to 1935. This article, for the SF fan interested in the period, is very engaging and very fun--it includes a long description of and excerpt from E. E. Smith's Skylark of Space, which the Panshins regard as extremely influential, a longish discussion of Stanley Weinbaum, covers the development of sword and sorcery as well as space opera and alien exploration-type SF, and places changes in SF in the larger context of changes in mainstream popular culture. Very cool!
Next up is Fritz Leiber's seven page feature of three book reviews, "Fantasy Books." First Fritz talks about Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil, which we at MPorcius Fiction Log just read! Fritz starts off by telling us that Heinlein is his favorite SF writer, and that his favorite Heinleins are probably Double Star, Spaceman Jones, and Time for the Stars, and then proceeds to discuss Heinlein's entire body of work in a provocative way that includes comparing it to his own writing. Very good.
In the back of this issue of Fantastic are thirteen pages of letters (and Ted's detailed responses to the correspondents.) Half of these pages are devoted to arguments about the TV show Star Trek; it seems Ted slagged the show in an earlier issue, inspiring a legion of Trekkies (Trekkers?) to rise to the program's defense. There are also letters complaining that the magazine includes too many novels that are published in book form soon after, or even before, the magazine hits the newsstands. And there is quite a bit of talk about how difficult it can be to find Fantastic, as the staff of some drug stores never even put the magazine on display. Ted's responses are an eye-opening look into the life of a magazine editor and his surprisingly limited authority; again and again Ted explains that there are parts of the magazine over which he has little control, like the Table of Contents, use of some illustrations, and even the "typographical makeup of the title page of the stories--which I do not see until I have an actual copy of the issue in hand."
The last two pages of Fantastic's 20th Anniversary issue consist of classified ads. These ads are pretty fun, including as they do an ad for an anti-gravity device, an ad for a free book on how to hypnotize people, and an ad from the "School of Wicca" in Missouri. "Obtain serenity and fulfillment," the ad promises, and offers a "serenity guide" and "protective pentacle" for only one dollar! One hopes that reading about the less than serene and fulfilling conclusion to Louhi's career as a witch (screeching in agony as she burned to death, a barbarian monarch having heaved a brazier-full of hot coals on her) didn't discourage serenity seekers from sending their dollar to the witches of Missouri.
|The School of Wicca (now the Church and School of Wicca, a wise|
tax move!) is apparently still in the business of selling
protective pentacles, though this institution of higher learning (they offer doctorates!)
has moved from Missouri to West Virginia.
In his editorial Ted White argues that nonfiction "features" are an important component of a SF magazine, and his own magazine proves him right. This SF fan found White's, the Panshins', and Leiber's nonfiction contributions to Fantastic's August 1972 issue more entertaining than much of the fiction! This magazine is full of info and educated opinions about 20th-century SF, and I recommend it unreservedly to people who care about that sort of thing. The Shaw and Tiptree pieces seem below average for those writers, and the Conan story is a weak example of the genre, but the Malzberg is a good specimen of that idiosyncratic scribbler's output. (And I do plan to read the Davidson novel someday!)
More Conan, Fritz Leiber, and Hugo news from a 1970s Fantastic in our next episode!