Monday, February 5, 2018

From Fantastic: 1974 stories from L. Sprague de Camp & Lin Carter and Mark Geston

Reading Ted White's editorials and responses to letters from the August 1972 and July 1973 issues of Fantastic gives one the impression that, as editor of Amazing and Fantastic, Ted was beset by one threat after another and that the magazines were perpetually on the brink of expiration.  July 1974's editorial is no different.  Ted has to squash rumors that the magazines were about to be sold, and has to deliver the news that Fantastic's cover price has risen from 60 cents to 75 cents.  This price increase is a response to the current "inflationary spiral," which Ted blames on Richard Nixon's "prejudicial policies."  Ted believes that the economy will improve after the president is removed via impeachment.  The rest of the editorial is devoted to giving advice to new writers; among the interesting historical tidbits that surface is the claim that John W. Campbell, Jr. actually read the entire slush pile at Astounding/Analog himself.

Of course, most people who bought this issue of Fantastic weren't doing so out of an interest in Ted White's economic theories or because they were wondering what proportion of submissions to F&SF by new writers were published by the magazine (the answer is one out of 600 during Ted's five-year tenure at F&SF), but because they wanted to see what Conan, Cimmerian barbarian and King of Aquilonia, got up to in the jungles of Zembabwei!

"Red Moon of Zembabwei" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

In producing the magazine cover and the interior illustration for "Red Moon of Zembabwei," Ron Miller employs some unusual techniques and styles, and I can't say I like what he came up with, but at least he included Conan's mustache.  (Miller has created lots of astronomical, science fiction and fantasy art over the course of his career, and much of it is idiosyncratic and not to my taste--many of the pictures look like collages of photographs or CGI images, his compositions often feel cluttered, and to my eye most of his work looks flat.  He does seem to have boundless energy and a willingness to take risks and try his hand at different things, however, and to have won some nice awards and attracted plenty of clients.)

The army of Aquilonia is marching south through jungles and savannas, Conan at its head, their destination Zembabwei, where Conan expects to find Thoth-Amon, living under the protection of his fellow evil wizard and the ruler of Zembabwei, Nenaunir.  From the sky attack black fighting men riding wyverns (as depicted on Boris Vallejo's cover to Conan of Aquilonia and Miller's cover of the July '74 issue of Fantastic.)  King Conan and Prince Conn are carried away to Zembabwei, to where Nenaunir, from his throne of human skulls, holds court.  After a brief interview,  Conan and his son are thrown in the ancient dungeons under the city--in ten days there will be an eclipse, and at that time the "white devils" will be sacrificed to Set, the Serpent God of Entropy!

In the dungeon Conan meets Nenaunir's twin brother, Mbega, who relates to the Cimmerian the tumultuous history of Zembabwei.  For generations, the Zembabweans have been ruled by pairs of twins who are selected by the priests (should a twin die, the survivor is deposed and is expected to commit suicide, at which time another pair of twins is selected by the priests.)  A crisis erupted in the last few years when Nenaunir abandoned his people's traditional gods and started worshiping the Slithering God, Set, and seized total control!  The elite and the young were swayed by Nenaunir's preaching about Set, and so, when they tried to launch a counterrevolution, Mbega's conservative faction was defeated.  But as the years have gone by, Set has demanded so many human sacrifices that the people of Zembabwei are growing disillusioned with Nenaunir's rule; if only Mbega can get out of the clink, he thinks he can gather up a rebel force that will overthrow his evil brother and restore the old order.

A spy from the Aquilonian army sneaks into the dungeon via the city sewers, freeing Mbega and providing Conan a dagger--the lock on Conan's cell has a spell on it making it impossible to pick, so Conan and son cannot be released.  Curse you, Thoth-Amon!  Come the night of the eclipse, Conan and Conn are dragged to the altar of Set, and the Snake God himself crosses the cold interstellar void to feast on their souls!  But thanks to Conan's strength and the work of that spy and Mbega's traditionalist faction, the sacrifice is interrupted, Nenaunir is killed, and Thoth-Amon has to flee even further south.

This is the best story yet in the sequence of stories by de Camp and Carter that would go on to form the 1977 book Conan of Aquilonia.  The setting of Zembabwei is more fully realized and more interesting than the locales of those earlier tales (the current city is built on the ruins of a city constructed by the snake people who ruled the jungle before the rise of mankind, for example), and de Camp and Carter do more than they have in the previous two installments to bring the villains and secondary characters like Thoth-Amon, Nenaunir, Mbega, and that Aquilonian spy, to life.  Of course, the story is constructed of adventure and weird fiction cliches--people locked in a dungeon, sacrifices to an evil god, infighting among royal families, giant snakes--but the authors use them in an entertaining way.  Moderately good.

If seeing the word "Negro" in print or finding that Conan says stuff like "damn their black hides" is going to hurt your feelings, you probably shouldn't read "Red Moon of Zembabwei," but if you are interested in the portrayal of black people and Africa in genre fiction you may find lots of stuff to think about in the story.  I personally wondered how much the political and military components of the plot (a "European" army intervenes in a civil war slash revolutionary crisis in an "African" country) owed to de Camp's and Carter's knowledge of Western imperialism in Africa or attitudes about the Cold War politics of Africa.  (I similarly thought the battle scenes in "Black Sphinx of Nebthu," the second story in this sequence, might be based on the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) and the Battle of Abukir (1799.))


Ted White and John W. Campbell Jr. may be game for reading hundreds of unpublished writers' stories, but I am not!  I seriously considered reading Richard Snead's story "The Kozmic Kid or The Quest for the Inestimable Silver Ball," but this thing set my spidey sense tingling like crazy.  For one thing, it is Snead's only credit at isfdb.  For another, there is Ted's intro to the story, which calls it "a trip into the surreal" and "a blending of the drug culture of the last decade and the metaphor of the Pinball Machine."  Finally, it is fifty God-damned pages long!  Jack C. Haldeman II's five pages of dream sequences and bad jokes from Fantastic July '73, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation," almost unhorsed me--I would surely choke on a helping of such fare ten times as generous.

I'm also skipping Barry Malzberg's "Track Two" and David R. Bunch's "At Bugs Complete" because I read them and blogged about them years ago.  There is another piece of fiction in this issue of Fantastic I have yet to read, and am willing to read, however.

"The Stronghold" by Mark S. Geston

"The Stronghold" is adorned with a terrific illustration by the great Jeff Jones which features beautiful lines and shading; this is one of my favorite Jones images.  (I tweeted this illo last year.)

I've never read any of Geston's work before.  In 2011, tarbandu wrote about Geston's novel The Day Star (check out the comments there for a little MPorcius humor), and, in 2012, Joachim Boaz blogged about Lords of the Starship.  Soon I can join them among the ranks of Geston veterans!

Tarbandu and Joachim's reviews suggest that Geston's stock in trade is people and places in decay and/or ravaged by interminable warfare, and this is what "The Stronghold" is all about.  For centuries a cyborg (almost entirely machine, basically a robot with a few small human brain components) has commanded the defense of a strategically critical city that was abandoned by its human inhabitants.  The city is a total wreck, almost all its surfaces burned black, and it is surrounded by the wrecked vehicles of the enemy attackers, but active fighting ended hundreds of years ago.  The cyborg has nowhere to go, however, it having almost no knowledge of life before the war or the world outside the city, and for those hundreds of years of peace has maintained the city's many sensors and weapons in working order should another attack ever come.

After hundreds of years of solitude, small groups of human beings begin to enter the city.  These people are like the stock characters of a fantasy novel, wizards and priests in robes and knights in armor, accompanied by unicorns and griffons and basilisks.  What little plot Geston includes in "The Stronghold"'s ten pages concerns the cyborg's response to and interaction with these mysterious people.

Geston is very good at creating a mood and painting powerful images of the wrecked buildings and half sunken warships in the harbor and the still functioning defense mechanisms of the nameless city and that sort of thing, but there isn't much story here, and there is no resolution--the relationship between the cyborg and the new people comes to nothing.  Maybe Geston is pulling a Malzberg here and the cyborg is insane and about to expire? 

Moderately good.  "The Stronghold" was translated into French and appeared in two different French books in 1982, both of which feature scantily clad women.  Vive la France! 


Instead of Fritz Leiber we have Bruce Burton doing the book reviews in Fantastic July 1974.  Burton talks about two 1973 books of art by icon of weird literature Clark Ashton Smith, The Fantastic Art of Clark Ashton Smith by Dennis Rickard, and Grotesques and Fantastiques: A Selection of Previously Unpublished Drawings and Poems put out by Gerry de la Ree.  Burton obviously loves Smith to death, and has a wealth of knowledge about Smith's career and the careers of related writers like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, de Camp and Carter, and shares that love and knowledge with Fantastic readers.
The last feature of the magazine is the letters section, this time inhabited by a high proportion of SF professionals.  Harlan Ellison, in a long-winded and rodomontade fashion, explains that if it looked like he said anything foolish in his interview in The Washington Post, it was the Post's fault.  (Fake news!)  Nicola Cuti at Charlton Comics writes in to thank Ted for printing a letter about his and Joe Staton's comic book, E-Man.  Barry Malzberg moans that the writing in the SF field is bad without naming any particular offenders, and praises Brian Stableford, author of the recent essay "Science Fiction: A Sociological Perspective," to the skies.  (The essay appeared in the March 1974 issue of Fantastic.  Stableford's 1979 doctoral thesis was titled "The Sociology of Science Fiction.")  Christopher Priest writes in to dispute some points in Stableford's essay, though he agrees with its main thesis, as he sees it--that "good" SF uses the future as a metaphor for the present, while poor SF writers actually try to write about the future.  I just read Stableford's essay myself, and have to agree with Malzberg that Stableford's main point is that SF is so low in quality that applying literary criticism to it is practically a waste of time, that what smarties should examine about SF is how and why SF readers "use" SF, especially since well-written SF seems to be as useful to SF consumers as what Stableford calls "trash."  Priest, perhaps, is willfully ignoring Stableford's thesis because it reduces SF to a commodity and suggests that working hard to produce high-quality SF is a pointless exercise.

(When she was earning her doctorate, my wife read some Alvin Toffler, and so it was fun for me to see that Stableford got his main theory of exactly what purpose SF serves, what SF consumers "use" it for, from Toffler: the 20th century saw a tremendous acceleration in the pace of change, and SF, by talking about the future and how different it might be, helps readers to more comfortably face such change.)

Letters from SF non-professionals express amazement that Ted was able to get for Fantastic a novel by a writer as important and talented as Brian Aldiss (Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound, which one correspondent suggests is full of sex, appeared in the March and May '74 issues) while one guy takes Harlan Ellison to task for those misstatements in the Post which Harlan has already explained away as misquotes.

The last page, of course, is the classifieds.  Not to be outdone by the Missouri witches and the New York witches, somebody advertises his (or her?) book on Brazilian magic!  The most diverting ad refers to a record from the future discovered on a New York City elevator--for three bucks you can get a copy of your own!  For more info on this record, check out the SFFaudio website!   

More sword and sorcery from Fantastic in our next episode!

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