Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Eric Frank Russell: "The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch," "With a Blunt Instrument," and "A Matter of Instinct"

Many are the times I have told readers of this blog and followers of my twitter feed that you can find thrilling SF and comic book bargains at the antique stores on Route 40 on the east side of Hagerstown, MD, and again I say this unto you.  One of my latest purchases at Antiques Crossroads is a copy of Eric Frank Russell's Dark Tides printed by Panther in 1964; the cover features a gentleman being molested by a tree and promises purchasers "freaks" who "slither and crawl" for a mere two shillings and six pennies.  (I paid three bucks American for my dry chewed up copy.)  The title page of this little volume quotes Brian Aldiss: "For twenty years nobody has rivalled Russell at his best."  Sounds like 2'6 was a bargain!  (Looking at ebay prices, it seems the $3.00 I paid was also a bargain!)

Dark Tides was first printed in hardcover in 1962 and collects twelve stories.  I've read quite a few things by Russell, but I don't think I have read any of these dozen tales.  So let's plan to read them all, three at a time, over the course of four blog posts, though not perhaps four consecutive posts--a varied diet is perhaps healthier than gorging ourselves on twelve freaks in a row.

"The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch" (1952)

Hyacinth Peuch is the "local imbecile" of the little French village of Chateauverne.  Russell relates to us the tale of Peuch and Chateauverne in a detached tone of cynical ironic humor: 

Chateauverne's citizens are almost entirely devoted to agriculture--if constant itching and bitching can be called devotion...

Josephine Rimbaud had a date.  She was young, buxom, interestingly rounded and far from overburdened with intellectual capacity.

At their secluded trysting place, a dense bunch of trees by an obelisk commemorating the site where a meteor landed some years ago, Josephine finds the hot guy she was scheduled to meet dead.  Nobody in Chateauverne is much broken up about this, they all being portrayed as callous selfish jerks--Josephine the slut is with another guy in hours.  As the story proceeds, more men, one by one, turn up dead by the meteor crash site.  After each body is discovered, moron Hyacinth predicts a heavy rain, which soon follows.  The text offers readers lots of jokes implying the French are oversexed cowards as well as other japery.  Eventually the National Police get the info they need from Hyacinth, whom everybody else has been ignoring because he is a limping and drooling idiot, and then the army burns down the monster, which, as we owners of Dark Tides have known for a long time thanks to the cover illo and back cover text, is a blood-drinking tree from outer space.  

"The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch" feels long, and it is not scary because of its cool jocular tone.  Russell's jokes are not bad (who doesn't like jokes at the expense of developmentally disabled people, French people and sex positive people?) but they aren't laugh-out-loud funny, either.  I don't want to call "The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch" filler, even though it has the unsurprising plot of a filler story, because Russell obviously put a lot of work into it--almost every line is a joke--but it is unmoving and forgettable.  And of course I am not the audience for joke horror stories.  I guess we're going to settle on calling this one "acceptable," as we do with so many things we read.  We are very accepting here at MPorcius Fiction Log

"The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch" made its debut in Fantastic; Russell's name is on the cover along with Ted Sturgeon's, Tony Boucher's and Truman Capote's, and on the inside cover is a little autobio from Russell.  This actually looks like a great issue of Fantastic, with stories by Jerome Bixby and Fritz Leiber as well as those named on the cover, and good illustrations of scenes of horror and of scantily clad young ladies by Virgil Finlay, Ed Emshwiller, and others.  The more I dig into old SF magazines, the more I find that I want to read.  

LEFT: Text from back of my copy of Dark Tides
RIGHT: Cover of 1969 anthology that reprints "The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch"

"With a Blunt Instrument" (1962/1941)

Russell also appeared alongside Boucher and Sturgeon in John W. Campbell Jr.'s fantasy magazine Unknown when in 1941 it published "'With a Blunt Instrument'."  The isfdb entry on Dark Tides lists the date of "With a Blunt Instrument" as 1962, with 1941's "'With a Blunt Instrument'" as a variant.  Glancing through the scan of the appropriate issue of Unknown, the only differences I can see are in punctuation and, tsk, tsk, in the introduction of typos into the British edition.

"With a Blunt Instrument" is a violent detective story about black magic.  The story begins with a fat woman hiring a tall skinny guy to murder her husband, whose life insurance money she covets.  One of her friends, another selfish and evil woman, has recommended skinny to her.  Skinny hands the job over to his associate, a black-skinned dwarf who smells like goat!  

Later scenes follow a math whiz who (luckily for the forces of justice!) is also a big strong athlete; this guy is a trouble-shooter with a big insurance company.  Poring over the stats, he has detected a spike in unexpected deaths in this town, which has cost the company a lot of money, and he investigates, interviewing women beneficiaries of recent deaths.  It turns out that the skinny guy is an Australian criminal and the black dwarf is a renegade aborigine witch doctor; these Aussies have been using sorcery to murder men holding insurance policies and splitting the cash with the wives.  The story ends with a ferocious fight in which multiple people are killed.

This is a good story; the characters all have personality, the use of math to solve the crime is interesting, the black magic is good and the fights are good.  Obviously, by today's standards, a story in which women ally with an immigrant member of a marginalized population to despoil white men is sexist and racist, so if that bothers you, steer clear, but I am giving "With a Blunt Instrument" a thumbs up--you know I like stories with black magic and stories about disastrous sexual relationships. 

"With a Blunt Instrument" has not been anthologized, as far as isfdb knows.  Spread the word, my friends!   

"A Matter of Instinct" (1962/1938)

isfdb tells us that 1962's "A Matter of Instinct" is a variant of 1938's "Impulse," which appeared in Astounding and was selected by Groff Conklin for his Invaders of Earth and Twisted anthologies, and later by lots of other anthologists.  Here we have a popular story.  Can we at MPorcius Fiction Log join the cheering crowds?

Dr. Blain has an unexpected visitor, a guy who looks horribly unhealthy and stumbles around, a guy who demonstrates he can read the doc's mind and then pulls a gun on the doc!  "He" explains that this gaunt clumsy body is that of a dead man, animated by the presence of parasitic microscopic aliens!  These tiny aliens customarily take over other creatures' bodies, and would prefer to take over the healthy body of an intelligent person, but doing so is tricky if the person is alert--these infinitesimal invaders from space want Dr. Blain to anesthetize some smart people so they can take over their bodies without risk.

Can Dr. Blain fight the aliens, who can predict his every move by reading his mind and have a gun with which to enforce their demands?  What will happen to the healthy young woman who comes by unexpectedly seeking medical aid for a family member?  Might the low IQ handyman Dr. Blain employs prove to be the savior of the human race?

This is a solidly entertaining little thriller: the pace is fast and the surprise ending makes sense and is fully integrated with the sciency elements of the plot.  Thumbs up!  Count me among the throngs cheering for "Impulse" AKA "A Matter of Instinct"!   

We've already read several stories from the "unholy bible" that is Twisted
including Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" and 
H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House"

**********

A promising start to Dark Tides.  Hopefully "With a Blunt Instrument" and "A Matter of Instinct," and not the overly jokey "The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch," are representative of the remaining nine stories.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more freakishness from Eric Frank Russell!

Syzygy by Michael G. Coney

"We're all human, and the sooner we understand that, the better chance we'll have to overcome this Effect.  Nobody can lie anymore.  Suddenly the human race must become honest, and about time, too.  It's easy for me, because I've always had the money to be able to afford to say what I think.  It's going to be difficult for some of you...."

I've only read two short stories by Michael G. Coney over the course of this blog's apocalyptic life, "Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel" from 1976 and 1971's "The Sharks of Pentreath."  (Joachim Boaz and tarbandu are far more familiar with Coney than I am.)  But just recently I purchased a copy of Coney's 1973 novel Syzygy because I was hypnotized by Gene Szafran's blondetastic cover illustration--it's like a Botticelli for the modern age!  Well, I liked those two stories of Coney's I blogged about, so, hey, might as well read this novel whose title I can't recall the meaning of and can't pronounce, either.

(Joachim wrote about Syzygy in 2019, but I can't really remember what he said about it, so I am still going in cold; after I have read the book myself and drafted this blog post I'll reread Joachim's post and see to what extent we disagree and to what extent we are on the same page.)

It is the interstellar future!  For like 130 years humans have been on planet Arcadia, a world with six moons, a world with no sizable land predators.  Our story takes place in a small village of fishermen and farmers on the coast next to a research station; the head of the research station is our narrator, marine biologist Mark.  Even though this is the space-faring future and the colony has been on Arcadia for over a century, almost all the technology and culture in the story feels like the mid-20th century, like the story is taking place in a 1950s in an English coastal village or a little New England town--Coney makes almost no effort to make the novel feel like it is in the future; the sea life in the story all has clear Earth-analogues, so it doesn't even really feel like the village is on another planet.  People drink brandy and smoke pipes and cigarettes, they kill sharks with knives and spear guns, they catch plankton in nets, they listen to government communications and the news on the radio, they hang around in the pub, they get around in rowboats and sailboats and motor boats that run on "petrol."  (My edition has American spellings, but Coney is British and the text has some Briticisms: young troublemakers are called "tearaways," people don't "dump" a handful of small items into a bag or a truckload of material into a river, they "tip" it, and boring stick-in-the-mud politicians are called "blimps.")  Coney does insist on calling the village a "colony" or "sub-colony" and the villagers "private colonists;" the pub is the "Social Club" and everybody calls his house his "unit," but this just feels odd instead of evocative of another time or another planet.

Narrator Mark was engaged to blonde beauty Sheila, but six months ago, a few days before their wedding, Sheila was found dead on the shore, perhaps victim of an accident, perhaps a victim of murder.  Had she just fallen of a seaside cliff, or been slain by a blow to the head and tossed into the water?  This murder mystery is woven into the story's main plot, and so we get detective fiction scenes here and there--people find clues and commit burglaries to steal the clues and that sort of thing.  

The main plot has to do with a unique natural phenomena which, as the novel begins, is just beginning and will peak in a few weeks.  Every fifty-two years all six of Arcadia's moons are on the same side of the planet, something most people on the planet have never experienced.  Records from the past are vague, but there are lots of stories about how when this happened 52 years ago, the village was struck by a ferocious crime wave that featured riots and murders, and there are even stories of people enjoying strange psychic powers during that period of a few weeks before and after the conjunction of the moons.  Significantly, the crime wave was confined to coastal villages like Mark's--inland towns did not experience the disaster.

A psychiatrist, Arthur, has arrived in the village to observe the villagers during the approaching conjunction, and asks Mark to help observe.  Mark, however, has his hands full with the extreme tides caused by the conjunction of the moons; water is already rushing at terrible speed in and out of the estuary upon which the village and research center are built, and at the peak of the conjunction the ocean will rise up the coast a hundred feet higher than usual, which threatens the research center's fish farms and will force quite a few villagers to temporarily move out of their homes.

As the conjunction approaches, there are lots of inexplicable fights, villagers just flying off the handle in ways they themselves can't explain.  Mark himself takes a crazy risk on impulse, jumping into murky water to fight a shark hand-to-hand to protect his fish farms.  The native wildlife acts strangely, as well.  A small animal, I guess like a monkey or squirrel, presents to Mark a clue about Sheila's death.  The unusual movements of the water in the local estuary have lead to a high volume per cubic foot of plankton, and when some people from another village come by to gather the plankton to sell, sharks attack their boats and kill them, acting not like individual fish but like organized members of an attack group.

In the second quarter of the novel Mark and Arthur figure out that the plankton have psychic powers and use those powers to enlist the sharks to defend them during the once-in-52-years extreme tides, the only time the plankton can mate and reproduce.  These powers are causing telepathic feedback among nearby humans; people can subconsciously sense others' feelings and sometimes even involuntarily read their thoughts, especially the pervasive negative feelings we all have for each other but hardly ever voice.  Sensing these feelings of hostility is what is causing all the unaccountable outbursts of violence in the village.  Mark learns he may be at  particular risk of being attacked because some people already suspect he murdered Shelia to get his hands on Sheila's nineteen-year-old sister, Jane, who is always hanging around thirty-two-year-old Mark; her behavior makes it clear to the reader that she is in love with Mark, and when the telepathic phenomenon really gets going her desire for Mark becomes clear to everybody.  

In the third quarter of the novel we witness the responses to the now universally acknowledged crisis of telepathic broadcasting: the efforts of scientists to communicate with the plankton, the efforts of the government to lockdown people so they can't harm each other (Coney contrives reasons why the coastal population can't just move in inland for a few weeks--there isn't enough housing or whatever), and all the ways the villagers, involuntarily picking up others' hostility and responding with their own hostility which is in turn detected so that a whole cycle of rage develops, get into fierce and dangerous disputes.  The government decides to kill all the plankton by poisoning the coastal waters, which of course will destroy the jobs of all the fishermen and ruin years of progress at Mark's research station; it will also take the government two days to get the poison ready, during which time many more people will be killed in violence.  So, a village mob rises up with the aim of dynamiting the local plankton.  As we sort of expect in old SF stories, Mark, the man of science, acts as a foil for the stupid common people and the stupid government and the stupid religious authorities, but in this novel the man of science is pretty ineffectual; Mark's efforts to guide others come to nothing, the dynamite attack goes forward and is a total disaster, and a lynch mob comes after Mark.  A blunt and domineering old rich woman who has been quartered with Mark because her home is too close to the shore saves him from the mob by threatening the angry populace with a pistol, and he flees on foot to hide at a farm just beyond the village limits.  The action scenes that follow his flight are a high point of excitement in this talky and slow book.

In the same way that Mark was surprised that that jerk of an old rich woman turned out to be more level-headed and helpful than almost anybody, he is amazed when a troublemaking young man turns out to be adept at resisting the powers of the plankton and helps Mark escape from the village mob.  In the final quarter of Syzygy, Mark learns that this young man's resistance to the plankton is thanks to his habitual use of a drug made from Arcadian grass.  "It doesn't get a hold of you; you can leave it off whenever you want.  It just makes you feel good for a while," he says, comparing it to habit-forming and carcinogenic nicotine and cognition-impairing alcohol.  These SF stories we read here at MPorcius Fiction Log often have elements of wish fulfillment fantasies, and we can add "opiate that has no ill side effects" next to "girl over ten years your junior chases you" on the Syzygy scorecard.

The discovery of the drug sort of feels like the resolution of the plot, but there are still like 50 pages to go in the 215-page novel.  Our heroes stop the poison from being put into their estuary by the government, but can only convince a small number of villagers to take the drug and thus get immunity from the plankton's psychic powers.  The plankton's abilities increase, and most of the villagers are hypnotized into worshipping the sea and seeking to commit suicide by jumping into the shark-infested waters.  (This is why there are no large land predators on Arcadia--every fifty-two years large animals that don't eat the local grass are impelled to commit suicide.)  The drug users take desperate measures to shock some senses into the hypnotized people, one of which is Jane's disguising herself as her sister Sheila.  Most of them are saved, though there are some fatalities, including the weak-minded rector who is the leader of the suicide cult and the man who turns out to be responsible for Sheila's falling off that cliff six months ago.  In these tedious final 50 pages we also get a resolution of the Mark-Jane relationship and a full explanation of the mystery of Sheila's death.     

Cover artists have striven mightily to make Syzygy look exciting, at least

I'm judging Syzygy to be just barely acceptable.  While the different plot threads all work smoothly together and Coney's writing style is professional and free of faults (it is certainly better than that of the Lin Carter books I have been reading), the novel feels very long and slow and Coney's style lacks personality or feeling.  Horrible stuff, the kind of stuff that we see in gruesome detective stories and weird tales and gory horror stories, like four men being torn to pieces by sharks in front of dozens of witnesses, a guy looking for clues as to who murdered his fiancĂ©, and a whole community being tricked into joining an alien death cult, happens, but Coney fails to convey any sense of fear or urgency--the plot of the book is an intellectual exercise, not a foundation for thrills or chills.  Could Syzygy be one of those "cozy catastrophes" I hear people talking about sometimes?

There are lots of characters in Coney's novel, and I didn't particularly care about any of them.  Mark, our main character, is pretty boring, and he doesn't drive the narrative, even though he is one of the most important members of the community, a man vested with authority; he never feels like a leader whose decisions matter, neither his specialized knowledge nor his position play any role in the resolution of the plot--Arthur the amateur is as good a practical biologist as Mark is and when Mark tells people what to do they just ignore him.  Beyond our narrator, Coney uses his characters to trot out the prejudices common among the sort of educated middle-class people who write and read novels: people without college degrees are always moments away from becoming a dangerous mob; religion is a scam and clergymen are interfering busybodies with second-rate minds (the prominence of the rector in the "colony" is one of the things that makes Syzygy feel like it is taking place in a little village on the English coast and not on an alien world in an interstellar civilization); politicians will do anything to get reelected; rich people are jerks.  Do I read SF to be fed this conventional fare that I could get anywhere?  Not really, and even worse, Coney's misanthropy lacks any passion.  The most passionate passage in the book, and the most surprising and unconventional thing in the novel from the perspective of us inhabitants of 2023, is when Mark recognizes thanks to the telepathic feedback effect that Arthur is a closeted homosexual--homosexuals make Mark's skin crawl and make him want to vomit!  

Disappointing.  

**********

Having drafted the above, I reread Joachim's take of three years ago on Syzygy, and we seem to agree on the main points, which saves me the work of marshalling evidence to defend my arguments but also means this blog post is sort of superfluous.  Well, I guess I can't blaze a trail every episode.

More British shenanigans in the next exciting episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Thongor Against the Gods by Lin Carter

"Daily, the young empire of Thongor grows vasteer and more powerful.  Already the barbarian and his princess rule the Three Cities of Thurdis, Patanga and Shembis on the Gulf.  At any time he may turn his savage eye southwards, upon Tsargol.  We must strike now!"

Welcome back to MPorcius Fiction Log!  Today we'll be reading the third of Lin Carter's Thongor novels, Thongor Against the Gods, first published in 1967 by Paperback Library with a cover by Frank Frazetta.  It is a Frazetta cover edition that I will be reading; if isfdb is to be believed, it seems that, unlike the first two Thongor books, Thongor Against the Gods was never adorned with a cover illo by Jeff Jones or Vincent DiFate.  

At the start of the first book in the saga of Thongor, Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, Thongor was an enlisted man in the army with a criminal record as long as your arm.  A month later, at the end of the second book, Thongor and the Dragon City, he was married to a princess and had been declared Emperor!  I don't know how Lemuria stacks up on such measures as infant mortality rate, Gini coefficient or per capita GDP, but Thongor provides anecdotal evidence that Lemurian society enjoys a high degree of social mobility.

Thongor Against the Gods begins almost two years after the end of Thongor and the Dragon City; Thongor has a one-year old son and the city of Patanga, of which he is king, has a whole fleet of air boats.  Chapter 1 of the novel starts off with a conference in the city of Tsargol; four people are in attendance, all of them druids or politicians who lost their positions of authority in the first two Thongor books thanks to the Northern barbarian's unwelcome interventions.  This conference of villains decides to hire Zandar Zan, the Black Thief, to kidnap Sumia, Thongor's wife, and Tharth, their son.  Zandar Zan is interrupted in the course of this operation, and only gets away with the queen, being forced to leave the baby behind.  And while he is flying a stolen air boat, with Thongor's own boat in hot pursuit, Sumia manages to knock the Black Thief unconscious, throwing the aircraft out of control!  It is tough out there for a thief!       

I believe the cover painting of the German edition of Thongor Against the Gods
is by Esteban Maroto.  Presumably it was originally created for some other property:
all us Thongor experts know that there are no horses on Lemuria!  

A convoluted series of events follows which sees one of the boats wrecked in the mountains and the other stalled, and the three characters separated, each individually facing what seems like certain death.  Totally unbelievably, all three survive.  

Interrupting the drama concerning King Thongor, Queen Sumia, and Zandar Zan the Black Thief, Carter introduces us to a new character, Shangoth, one of the Blue Nomads, a people who are eight or nine feet tall and have utterly hairless dark blue skin.  These super strong barbarians are split into many warring tribes that follow animal herds across the length and breadth of the plains of Eastern Lemuria in caravans of chariots and wintering in the ruins of long abandoned cities.  Emulating his models, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, Carter again and again has been telling us throughout the Thongor saga that Thongor the barbarian can do things city men and modern men are totally incapable of doing, and he tells us the same thing about the Blue Nomads.

Like so many characters in the first three Thongor books, Shangoth is a member of a royal family who has been forced into exile; Shangoth and his father Jomdath, chief of their tribe, were recently overthrown and are struggling to survive alone in the wilderness.  Shangoth enters a jungle in pursuit of game, and comes to the mountain that Zander Zan and Sumia's distracted driving lead them to crash their air boat into--Shangoth, who has never seen an airboat, witnesses the crash, and sees Sumia fall hundreds of feet down into the lake at the foot of the mountain.  He recovers her unconscious body (he has to fight a 100-foot long aquatic reptile to do it, but no biggie) and is amazed by her beauty--he has never seen a person with hair before or with white skin.

Not content with adding Shangoth to the cast, Carter then spends a few pages describing Shangoth's father Jomdath.  Dear old Dad was kicked out of the tribe he led for a hundred years (blue people live longer than white people) because he broke tradition and wouldn't let his warriors torture captured enemies.  Blue Nomads love to torture people.  We see this prominent feature of Blue Nomad culture up close when Jomdath is captured by the shaman of his former tribe; this joker was leader of the coup and is a wizard with a staff that can emit electricity which can be used to stun people and start fires, and he uses it to torture Shangoth's long suffering father.  (Conflict between the royal and religious establishments is a theme throughout these Thongor books we have been reading.) 

Meanwhile, Shangoth is going to burn on a funeral pyre the gorgeous little woman he found, thinking her dead, but just in a nick of time Sumia wakes up.  Shangoth's back is turned, and Sumia jumps to the conclusion that he is building a fire to cook her (remember, people were going to cook Sumia in the start of Thongor and the Dragon City--you don't just forget that kind of thing.)  So Sumia grabs some spears and is about to stab the blue giant in the back when, just in a nick of time, a wild boar appears to distract her.  The boar has saved Shangoth from Sumia!  Of course, this boar wants to kill both Sumia and Shangoth, but Sumia throws the spears at the beast, killing it just in a nick of time.  Sumia has saved Shangoth from the boar!  Princess and giant nomad make friends over a pork lunch, and march off together, only to be hypnotized by fell sorcery and drawn to a creepy black tower.

Back to our title character.  Thongor has also fallen in that lake, but is able to get himself out of it.  In a long sequence, parts of which make little sense, Carter describes in detail how Thongor captures a ceratopsian dinosaur and puts a bridle on it and teaches it to obey his commands so he can ride it around--the giant reptile can move with much greater speed than a man afoot, and is tireless besides, making it an ideal steed.  The barbarian rides in the direction he suspects his wife and the kidnapper to have gone, and comes upon the coup-plotting shaman torturing the deposed Jomdath; Thongor rescues Shangoth's dad (the shaman escapes) and they quickly become friends.  Thongor and Jomdath ride on, and Thongor blunders them into a field of narcotic and vampiric flowers, where they fall asleep.  The dinosaur wanders off, having contributed nothing to the plot despite the high word count Carter has devoted to describing it, and then the shaman catches up to our heroes and captures them.

Carter sometimes cuts away from all this drama in the east with Thongor, Sumia, Zander Zan and the Blue people to describe events back around Patanga and Tsaragol.  Karm Karvus, exiled Prince of Tsaragol, currently living in Patanga, goes to the mountains to consult the friendly wizard Sharajsha, who was a main character in the first Thongor book.  Sharajsha, an old geezer, is on his death bed, and  one of his last acts on this Earth is to use his magic to identify Tsaragol as the source of the kidnapping plot.  So the Patangan army mounts its fleet of flying machines and bears down on Tsaragol.  This fictional political/military history stuff is pretty boring, as Carter introduces a huge cast of characters on both sides, all of whom are totally forgettable.  (To make everything extra confusing, Carter, who has everybody call the reptile people who ruled the world before man "Dragon Lords," and has everybody call the city of Thurdis "The City of the Dragon," spends a lot of time talking about the toughest unit in the Patangan army, "The Black Dragons.")  

In a complicated way, Zandar Zan survived the crash of the boat he was piloting and acquired the boat Thongor was flying.  When we rejoin him he is flying around, trying tofigure out where he is and what to do, having failed in his mission.  He spots a crowd in a ruined city--it is the shaman and Shangoth's blue tribe just seconds away from burning alive their former chief Jomdath as well as Emperor Thongor.  The appearance of an aircraft, something none of the blue people has ever seen, throws the tribe into confusion, and, thinking the gods are angry, the tribe frees Jomdath and reinstates him as chief and sends the shaman into exile.  Zandar Zan drifts too close, and Thongor seizes the air boat; Zandar Zan gets killed in the process.

Aboard the boat, Thongor is accosted by the ghost of the recently deceased Sharajsha.  The wizard's shade directs him to the black tower where Sumia is in bondage and an evil wizard is summoning a demon that will devour Sumia's soul and animate her body so it can act as a spy and saboteur in Thongor's court at Patanga.  This wizard's dialogue seems to foreshadow the next Thongor book, Thongor in the City of Magicians.  Thongor arrives just in a nick of time to upset the spell, which leads to the destruction of the wizard and his tower and the preservation of his wife.

The last chapter of the novel sees the battle before the gates of Tsargol, which is a close run thing until Thongor arrives in his air boat with a dozen of the Blue Nomads as reinforcements; the city falls and Karm Karvus is installed as its king.        

I pity any Italian grad students who might have bought
Thongor Against the Gods thinking it was a Gramscian
satire of how Fordism leads to a conformist society

With its overly large cast and profusion of plot threads and superfluous scenes, Thongor Against the Gods is the worst Thongor book thus far.   As I have suggested before, Carter's style is not very good, and Thongor Against the Gods really shows signs that it would have benefited from some further editing.  One thing that stuck out this time around was Carter's use of anachronistic metaphors; e. g., a ceratopsian dinosaur is said by the narrator to be capable of "running like an express train," and when Zandar Zan sees a Blue Nomad caravan we are told that each its "great three-wheeled chariots" is "as capacious as a boxcar."  There are obviously no locomotives in Lemuria; it would be much better to compare the dinosaur and the caravan to something Thongor and Zandar Zan know about, or just skip the metaphors, which add nothing to the plot.  Another issue are little discrepancies, like how we are told the ceratopsians have beaks, but then later informed that they have lips.  Beaks and lips?  And how we are told that the women of Patanga fight on the battlefield besides the men--Carter didn't tell us that during the siege of Patanga in the last book, and there is no indication there are women fighting in the battle before Tsargol in the end of this book.  Carter obviously just came up with this stuff on the fly as needed to, for example, make Thongor's ability to control a huge dinosaur or Sumia's expert spear casting more believable and never revised the rest of the text to make it sit more comfortably within the larger whole.  

I also have to question the wisdom of introducing new characters who are barbarians like Thongor and exiled royalty like Sumia and Karm Karvus--if new characters are to be introduced, they should be different than the established characters.  Tabala the torturer and Xothun the blood-drinking scientist, who appeared in the second Thongor book and were killed in the same book, were novel and interesting, and I wish they had survived to be the villains in this volume--the crew in Tsargol who are the lead villains in Thongor Against the Gods get very little screen time and are totally forgettable, and while I like Zander Zan, he doesn't get much screen time either.  

I will generously grade Thongor Against the Gods as merely acceptable.  It is perhaps for the best that my relationship with Thongor of Lemuria must now go on hiatus, seeing as I do not own a copy of the fourth Thongor book, Thongor in the City of the Magicians.  I will keep an eye out for it, however.  And I own a bunch more Lin Carter books, so we'll be sampling his work again.  But first, a science fiction novel from the 1970s from an author who is, I think, a little more serious-minded than Carter.  We'll see!

MPoricus Cinema Blog (?!): Carnal Circuit AKA Femmine Insaziabili (1969)

Seeing that the fun guys at the Giallo Ciao! Ciao! podcast had put out an episode about the 1969 Italian-German erotic crime thriller that sometimes bears the English title of Carnal Circuit, I decided to watch the movie while doing my various chores about the country estate where I currently reside.  Watching this left-wing attack on the United States and capitalism, an epic on how the power of the market economy--the lure of fame and money--can corrupt even the most stalwart members of the educated and enlightened creative classes, I felt like I was in college again and blocked out an essay on the film in my head, a rough draft of which I have decided to type up here.

(Acquiring a legitimate copy of Femmine Insaziabili or Gli Insaziabili or Mord im schwarzen Cadillac or whatever you want to call it, with English dubbing or subbing, is not necessarily easy, but if you search around you can find such a copy to watch online for free--at least you could a few days ago.  The movie is full of naked attractive women and rough fetishistic sex, at least the print I saw was, which means it has charms as an exploitation flick as well as a Marxist propaganda piece, but you might not want to watch it at work or with the kids.  Oh yeah, my blog here is full of spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film and plan to, and want to enjoy the multiple surprises and twist endings, don't read any more.)

Carnal Circuit centers on two characters, Italian men of--when they were back in Italy!--high character, Giulio the architectural draughtsman and Paolo the reporter.  Giulio is active in the struggle of the labor unions against big business and Julio will do anything for a friend--even for a stranger!  But then Giulio's wife wins a contest put out by a big American manufacturer of soaps and toothpaste and other consumer chemical products.  The prize is a free trip to California!  Wifey doesn't go; instead Giulio does.  Giulio is smart and good-looking, and when he gets wined and dined by the chemical company people, who do a whole publicity campaign around Julio the visitor from Italy, they fall in love with the guy and find that using his irresistible Mediterranean mug* in their advertising has lead to an increase in sales!  So they hire him to be their full-time spokesman!  Demonstrating how America makes immigrants abandon their roots and become fake phony frauds, Julio Anglicizes his name and gets a dumb nickname!  And demonstrating how the advertising world and big business chew people up and spit them out, the full-time spokesman Julio is replacing kills himself!

*I'm sort of kidding here--I think the actor portraying Giulio may be German.

Lefties hate advertising, their theory being that capitalism uses advertising to create demand for products that people don't really need.  Choosing as the evil corporation in their picture a firm that makes toothpaste and soap is appropriate; when I was at Rutgers I had a leftist professor who told us that before the 19th century there was no mass market for products like soap and deodorant, that people were not bothered by how each other smelled, and that via advertising big business introduced to people the idea that they smelled bad and needed to spend money on products like cakes of soap.  (You'll also remember how American socialist Bernie Sanders decried the vast supply of resources being devoted to the manufacture and marketing of deodorant, he suggesting that that energy should be used to help the poor or the environment or something.)  A manufacturer of stuff like toothpaste is doubly appropriate because it demonstrates to the audience how America is a shallow society obsessed with surface appearances.*

*This element of the film is interesting because in grad school in New York City I knew Germans and Scandinavians who had spent time in Italy and they were of the opinion that Italians are more fashion- and image-conscious than Americans. 

Life in America turns good lefty Giulio into an absolute jerk who treats everybody like crap.  He (apparently) dies in a car crash, and Paolo the reporter investigates, thinking that his buddy was murdered by the chemical company or one of its big shareholders.  There is a whole convoluted plot concerning a diary Giulio kept with important information about the company, as well plot threads about how a bunch of different women tried to seduce Giulio or were seduced by Giulio and these same women now want to get their mitts on Paolo.  This is a leftist movie but not a feminist movie--besides all the female nudity and scenes in which men dominate women sexually in one way or another, and all the scenes of grasping and cruel American women manipulating men, the movie suggests that women's lust for money and status is what drives the market economy, is what makes men go along with capitalism.  After all, a bunch of [heterosexual] men hanging around together don't waste their time and money worrying about how white their teeth are and how nice their armpits smell--men take that stuff seriously only in order to impress women.

The narrative is presented all out of order with lots of flashbacks, as Paolo learns about Giulio's American career and change in character.  The climax is an action sequence at Sea World in which we learn that Giulio was not murdered--he murdered some other guy and used the corpse to fake his death so he could steal a pile of money before the chemical company fired him or a jealous woman murdered him or something.  Shots of beautiful and majestic killer whales in tiny pools, performing for the public to make money for a big corporation, symbolize how beautiful and talented Giulio was taken out of his home environment of Italy and used by a big corporation to make money--and Paolo is doomed to the same fate!  After Giulio dies in Sea World, Paolo has the chance to return to Italy and have a healthy relationship with an Italian woman, but instead he opts to get mixed up with the chemical company and the manipulative American women who are its chief shareholders because he thinks they can help him further his career as a writer! 

I don't take Carnal Circuit's attacks on the United States or the market economy very seriously, but the fact that the film has a strong central argument and pushes that argument in multiple ways makes it compelling, and because leftist values are shown to be defeated in the end, lefties shown to be hollow hypocrites with feet of clay, the film has more of the feel of a tragedy than a crude propaganda piece--the people that made this thing really put some thought into it.  All the soap opera relationships and the high volume of exploitative sex and violence also keep the movie from feeling like agitprop.  So, if you are interested in gialli, noirish films with doomed protagonists and femmes fatale, European perspectives on the land of the free and the home of the brave, or would like to see some photography of late 1960s California, Carnal Circuit is worth a look.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Thongor and the Dragon City by Lin Carter

"...he may sit on the Dragon Throne and be Sark in the open view of his lords and nobles...but it is I who really wear the Dragon Crown!  Oh, my good friend, life is so good.  He does everything I tell him.  I told him to seek out that crafty old Alchemist, Oolim Phon, who had succeeded in isolating the rare anti-gravitic metal urlium, with which we shall construct a mighty fleet of flying boats and bring all of Lemuria under our--my--hand!"

In 1966 Ace published Lin Carter's Thongor of Lemuria with a cover by Gray Morrow.  In 1970 Berkley put out a revised edition of the book with a cover by Jeff Jones under the title Thongor and the Dragon City.  I actually own both paperbacks, not realizing they were essentially the same the day I found them for low prices at Martinsburg, West Virginia's Bank Books.  I can easily rationalize my superfluous purchase of the '66 version--even though I am going to be reading my copy of the '70 Berkley printing, the earlier Ace edition has a fun little interior illustration on the first page of Chapter 1.

Like the first Thongor novel, Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, the second, today's topic, was a publishing success, going through many editions in several countries.  Some of the European covers suggest Thongor has access to a ray gun in Thongor and the Dragon City, so we have that to look forward to as we start this second installment in the Thongor saga.

Thongor and the Dragon City has an Introduction in which Carter engages in some reptile-exclusionary rhetoric by claiming the gods created the human race to keep the ambitious reptile people in check, and then suggests that these "Nineteen Gods of Creation" were permitted by "The Unknown One" to again intervene in Earthly affairs by creating and guiding Thongor.  This intro does not appear in the original '66 Thongor of Lemuria.  I personally am against adventure stories using these plots in which the gods or fate guide the hero--sure, maybe this is an effective allegory of the fact that the laws of physics prevent us from exercising free will or that in a complex modern society economic factors or government interventions or family ties keep us from doing but we want and are a major factor in whether or not we achieve our goals, but I would prefer an adventure story be about an individual who stands or falls based on his own merits, decisions, and personality.  If Carter's revisions consisted of adding this idea that Thongor is a pawn of the gods, I suspect I wouldn't consider them an improvement.

As the novel proper begins, Thongor the barbarian, Karn Karvus, exiled prince of Tsargol, and Sumia, exiled princess of Patanga, are travelling in Earth's only flying machine.  Blown off course in a thunderstorm, lightning bolts diminish the flying boat's gravity-defying properties, and the vehicle ends up floating on the ocean surface, where our heroes are attacked by a sea monster with teeth six feet long.  Luckily, this sea beast is distracted by a similar creature.  The boat washes up on a beach by a jungle that is full of dangerous mammals, including primitive men who look like apes but wield crude clubs and spears and speak the language everybody else in Lemuria speaks.  Thongor goes off hunting, and is knocked unconscious by one of these beastmen and left for dead; the beastman leaves Thongor's body behind because of the proximity of a dangerous black lion.

The prince and princess go looking for their missing friend, and, after tangling with carnivorous plants, KK and Sumia are captured by the beastmen.  The primitives plan to eat the royals, but shortly before the feast is to begin the beastmen's own king sneaks into the hut in which Sumia is imprisoned, thinking that, before she is cooked up, he will sample the physical charms of the princess, whose slim smooth pale body is so different from that of the squat and hairy women of his tribe.  Thongor, having woken up and eluded the lion, has been following his captive comrades Tarzan-style, moving unseen above from tree to tree, waiting for his chance to spring his friends.  Thongor busts into the hut just as his royal highness is about to have his way with a bound Sumia.  Seconds after punching out the apeman monarch, Thongor, for the second time in twenty pages, is knocked unconscious by a blow to the noggin from behind--this is going to affect Thongor's cognitive function if he is not careful.

In a case of mistaken identity, it was Karn Karvas who brained the barbarian.  Soon our cast is captive again, tied to stakes, about to be cooked!  Thongor busts free of his bonds and a terrible fight erupts, a fight brought to a conclusion by some heavily armed and armored strangers who join in the fracas just in a nick of time to save our heroes.  These strangers are the soldiers of the city of Thurdis, the city from which Thongor stole the air boat back in volume 1.

Thurdis is the "Dragon City" of the title; seeing as the first Thongor book was all about fighting reptile men who were called "Dragon Kings," maybe Carter should have thought of some other animal to represent Thurdis, whose population is 100% human.  (Similarly, Sumia's town Patanga is known as "The City of Fire," and the ape men who tried to cook our heroes call themselves "The Fire People.")  After Thongor refuses to tell Phal Thurid, the king of Thurdis, who aspires to conquer the whole of Lemuria with a fleet of air ships, where the prototype air boat is, the barbarian is sent to the dungeon to have this info tortured out of him.   

The first fifty pages of Thongor and the Dragon City are weak, a bunch of repetitive and inconsequential events, people getting saved in a nick of time again and again.  The novel comes to life in the dungeons under Thurdis when we meet the torturer, Thalaba, a hunchbacked dwarf who hides his body in cloak.  Thalaba actually has a personality and is a good horror figure.  When the lonely torturer  is alone with Thongor, telling him how they are going to become bosom buddies, he throws off his cloak to reveal he has a horrible disease--half his body is covered in a "spongy mould" which is eating his flesh away!  Portions of his form are naked to the bone, others consist of oozing sores!  Thalaba doesn't get information out of captives with whips or blades or thumbscrews--he merely threatens to infect those in his custody with his own disease!  And Thalaba has further astonishing revelations to make!  The torturer is the grey eminence behind the Dragon Throne of Thudis--he has addicted Phal Thurid to drugs, and when the king is stoned out of his mind, Thalaba whispers to him, whispers Phal Thurid takes to be the voices of the Gods!  It was Thalaba who gave the king the idea to hire the wizard-engineer who built the air boat, and who has inspired Phal Thurid to undertake the conquest of all of Lemuria!

The tunnels beneath Thurdis are an endless and unexplored relic of the centuries before the rise of Man, and are inhabited by unspeakable monsters that cannot abide light.  When Thalaba hears a sound, he scurries off to investigate, and a friend from Thongor's time as a mercenary in the army of Phal Thurid, Ald Turmis, sneaks in to free Thongor.  The two fighting men escape the dungeons via an underground river, encountering a colossal translucent slug along the way.  In an amazing coincidence that I guess we are going to have to chalk up to divine intervention, the air boat, which has regained its weightlessness and slipped its moorings, floats right to where Thongor is after making his getaway from the Dragon City.

Thongor almost immediately loses control of the flying boat, and it is drawn many miles across Lemuria, far from Thurdis, to an ancient ruined city in a jungle, to a giant piece of magnetic artillery mounted on a high spire that looms above the overgrown metropolis.  Thongor and Ald Turmis are captured by gaunt men who move sluggishly and look like desiccated corpses.  For one thousand years this lost city has been ruled by a master of esoteric science, a tremendously obese man named Xothun who drinks the blood of the city's inhabitants.  He spotted the flying boat in his remote viewer and quickly built the powerful magnetic ray projector so he could acquire it.  Xothun is eager to drink the healthy blood of a muscleman like Thongor, but Thongor, with the help of a native, overcomes the fat vampire's technological edge and kills him, freeing his long-suffering subjects.             

Meanwhile, the army of Thurdis has marched to Patanga to lay siege to that city.  Phal Thurid and Thabala have brought Karm Karvus and Samia along with them at the head of the army; the king of Thurdis can claim he is trying to restore Princess Samia to the throne which was stolen from her by the Yellow Druids.  KK and Samia sneak away in the night, only to be captured at once by the Yellow Druids.  

The army of Thurdis is about to storm the city, and the Yellow Druids are about to unleash their chemical warfare agents on the Thurdians, when suddenly everybody's armor and weapons are sucked up into the sky--Thongor has had the magnetic ray projector affixed to the flying boat.  The Thurdian army is thrown into confusion, and in the chaos Thabala and Phal Thurid are killed.  Within the walls of Patanga, the aristocracy and the city mob, who love Samia and resent the Yellow Druids, overthrow the  Druids and their supporters, who are easy prey bereft of their armor and swords.  

Samia marries Thongor right there on the battlefield, and Thongor is proclaimed Emperor, with authority over both Patanga and Thurdis.  It is traditional for guys like John Carter and Conan to eventually win a throne, but I feel like Carter and the Cimmerian demonstrated leadership to a much higher degree before their coronations than has Thongor, who has sort of married his way into the ruling class.

There follows an appendix which foreshadows the next Thongor book, and a second appendix which is a glossary of Lemurian terms.  (That first appendix does not appear in the original 1966 edition of Thongor of Lemuria.)

(No man-portable ray gun appears in the novel--never put your trust in the covers of SF books, kids.)

The first third or so of Thongor and the Dragon City is poor, worse than any part of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, it being silly filler.  And Carter's style isn't very good, and he doesn't seem to have put enough hours into copyediting and revision.  For example, as the sun sets, Thongor sees "the great golden Moon of Lemuria" peering down on the city of Xothun, but in the next chapter, when Karm Karvus and Samia are sneaking away from the camp of the army of Thurdis, KK thanks "the Gods of his House for a dark and moonless night."  Maybe we can interpret that as meaning it is cloudy over Patanga, but it certainly looks like Carter simply forgot he just told us nine pages ago that it was a moonlit night.

On the plus side, however, the middle section of Thongor and the Dragon City is better than anything in the first Thongor novel; Tabala is the best character in either book, and the translucent slug is the best monster in either book; the scenes in the dungeons under Thurdis are legitimately good, and the lost city scenes with Xothun aren't bad, either.

As I did with Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, I can mildly recommend Thongor and the Dragon City to fans of this sort of material.  Next stop: the third Thongor book, Thongor Against the Gods.    

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter

"We must reach the Mountain of Thunder before dawn, for the old year has ended and the new year begins--and in a few days the Dragon Kings will summon the Lords of Chaos from their dark abode beyond the Universe, to trample all Lemuria down into the slime from which it rose!" 

Back in July, I bought a stack of Lin Carter paperbacks in West Virginia, animated by low prices and Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta covers.  (I've already read one of these, The Black Star, and blogged about it in September.)  Five of these books have "Thongor" in their titles, but I didn't actually buy the first Thongor novel on that day.  Technically, the very first Thongor book is 1965's The Wizard of Lemuria, which has a cover by Gray Morrow featuring two of our favorite things, a dragon-like monster and a space ship-like flying machine.  But Carter revised the novel a few years later and it reappeared in 1969 as Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria with a cover by Jeff Jones featuring two other of our favorite things, a bound woman and some kind of reptile man.  I have been hoping to come across one of these Jones printings of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria in a used book store or flea market or someplace, but the gods have not so favored me, so I eventually purchased a 1976 copy of the novel with a cover by Vincent DiFate which has the same subject matter as Morrow's cover of a decade before, though a mountain town and the moon have been added.  (Thongor's debut was apparently popular and has gone through numerous editions, including Japanese and Polish printings.)

There is lots of Thongor material out there, I think six novels and a number of stories by Carter, plus additional stories by Robert M. Price, Biblical scholar and executor of Lin Carter's literary estate.  Let's see what we think of this first Thongor volume, and get an idea of how much of the rest of our lifetimes we want to devote to consuming further Thongor capers.

Thongor lives like half a million years ago, a muscular barbarian from the North of Lemuria, a continent in the Pacific where Mesozoic reptiles were still to be found.  Over his youth Thongor has been a hired killer, a thief and a soldier, and been in and out of the prisons of most of the towns of Southern Lemuria.  When we meet our title character at the start of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria he is a mercenary in the army of the ambitious ruler of Thurdis, Phal Thurid, but a few pages later he is in Phal Thurid's dungeon, having killed his captain in a tavern brawl after said officer, an arrogant noble, welched on a bet.   

A pal frees Thongor, who escapes the town by stealing Phal Thurid's prototype flying machine, a boat that has almost no weight because it is made of "urlium."  (Phal Thurid had plans to conquer Lemuria with a navy of such aircraft.)  An attack from flying reptiles damages Thongor's conveyance and there is a crash landing in a jungle teeming with giant carnivorous reptiles and blood-sucking plants.  Thongor is rescued by the greatest wizard in Lemuria, Sharajsha, who has been watching the barbarian in his magic mirror.  Sharajsha has an underground fortress, complete with dinosaur stables, a well-appointed laboratory and a world-class library, under a mountain that borders the jungle. 

Sharajsha tells Thongor the story of how reptile people who worship the Gods of Darkness AKA The Lords of Chaos ruled the world seven thousand years ago, and then the human race was created by the Gods of Light.  After a war of a thousand years, the snake men were defeated.  But some of these "Dragon Lords" slunk away to their secret island in an inland sea surrounded by impassable mountains to plot their revenge on humankind.  These scaly creepos endeavor to summon the Dark Gods to our Earth and return our world to primal Chaos.  This summoning can only take place when the stars are perfectly aligned, and after five thousand years, that alignment is nigh!  Sharajsha asks Thongor to join him on the quest to acquire the necessary magic weapon and then foil the summoning.  Thongor signs on with Team Sharajsha without even negotiating pay and benefits.  

Sharajsha repairs the flying boat and our heroes travel to the city of Tsargol, to steal the sacred meteorite of the Red Duids, which rests in a tower that turns out to be guarded by huge snakes with the heads of women.  These feminine constrictors capture Thongor, who is thrown into the arena along with a dissident Tsargolian noble.  Thongor and the noble, Karm Karvus, kill the venomous monster set against them and then king of the town, leading to a civil war between the Red Druids and the supporters of the temporal establishment.  (One of the few thoughtful recurring motifs in the very stripped-down narrative of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria is how each city is riven by competing factions--different noble families contend for power and the religious establishment and the royal establishment also compete for authority.)  Thongor and Karm Karvus are rescued by Sharajsha, who swoops over the arena in the flying machine.


The heroes proceed to the city of Patanga; Karm Karvus mans their getaway flying boat while Thongor and Sharajsha sneak into the crypts under the Temple of Fire of the Yellow Druids; at a volcanic vent where burns a super hot fire, the wizard forges a piece of the meteorite into a sword--the Star Sword.  Then Thongor and Sharajsha get captured.

Carter introduces a new character, Princess Sumia, a beautiful young woman who has refused to marry the top Yellow Druid and thus been condemned to be sacrificed to the Fire God.  She is the rightful ruler of the town, but the power of the Druids is waxing and they are abolishing the monarchy and setting up a theocracy.  Demonstrating an au currant contempt for the gender binary, the Druids throw Thongor and Sahrajsha into the very dungeon where Princess Sumia is spending her last hours; they are to be sacrificed along with the young beauty.

Such is Thongor's tremendous strength that, as the ceremony of sacrifice begins, he breaks free of his bonds and in turn liberates Sumia and Sahrajsha; with his magic the wizard holds off the attack of the guards until Karn Karvus can bring the flying machine into the temple to carry off the three as well as the Star Sword.

Next stop, the Mountain of Thunder, to the peak of which Sahrajsha must go alone to summon the lightning bolts which will energize the Star Sword.  There is a brief love-triangle thing, Thongor lamenting that he, a barbarian, cannot talk to Sumia as an equal as can Karn Karvus, a fellow noble; Thongor doesn't realize that his courage and his broad chest already have Sumia swooning for him.  Then, while the wizard is busy, a flying reptile attacks, seizing Thongor and carrying him out of sight. 

Assuming Thongor has had it, his comrades proceed to the island of the Dragon Kings, only to  immediately fall into the nine-foot-tall reptile men's seven-fingered hands and find themselves on the top of the local human sacrifice schedule.  Fortunately, the flying reptile nest from which Thongor extricates himself after killing the three hungry baby monsters whose meal he was to be, is right here on this island!  The barbarian finds the Star Sword (the people who capture our heroes never think to lock up the magic sword they are carrying around), sneaks into the castle of the Dragon Kings, and appears in the temple moments before his friends are to be sacrificed.  Lightning bolts from the Star Sword make quick work of the villains, saving the world.  The Epilog gives us the idea that Thongor and Sumia are now an item.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria is a simple and straightforward pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs  and Robert E. Howard elements and themes (the flying boat in a world where kings are called "sarks," distances are measured in "vorns" instead of miles and the dinosaurs have names like "grakk" and "zamph;" the Northern barbarian with a black mane), with a pinch of Lovecraftian spice tossed in (e. g., the castle of the Dragon Kings is said to have been "designed according to the geometry of another world.")  There is very little personality or atmosphere, though Carter tries to provide a sense of history by including lots of childish poetry; each of the fifteen chapters has an epigraph from a fictional primary source, like Thongor's Saga or Diombar's Song of The Last Battle or The Rituals of Yamath:

The naked virgins on thine altars plead
As scarlet flame on pallid flesh doth feed!
Lord of the Fire, drink down young lives like wine.
Hearts, limbs and breasts--their very souls--are thine!

and Thongor sings from the war songs of his people as he fights. 

Carter doesn't seem to be offering any commentary on politics or society or anything like that in the novel, attacking or defending the bourgeoisie or Christianity or feminism or socialism or whatever, as these adventure stories sometimes do.  When Carter tells us that, because he is a barbarian, Thongor can pull off some feat like climbing down the face of a glass-smooth mountain, the attempting of which would mean instant death to a city-bred man, you don't feel like Carter is making some comment about civilization, you feel he's saying this kind of thing because Burroughs says this stuff about Tarzan and Howard says this stuff about Conan on the regular.

It is easy to see Carter's influences and he doesn't do anything innovative or original; this is a mediocre thing.  Yet Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria has a spirit of fun, and I never found it boring or annoying--it isn't slow and it isn't overwritten.  I smiled indulgently at its silly bits rather than groaned in irritation.  I can't deny I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the second Thongor book, Thongor and the Dragon City, so I am judging it worthy of a mild recommendation to those interested in such a thing.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more Lemurian hijinks.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Four mid-'50s stories from worlds beyond selected by T E Dikty: R F Young, F M Robinson, T Godwin & T N Scortia

For some reason it is hard to tear your eyes away from the cover of 1958's Six From Worlds Beyond.  Is it the representation of an atom in the upper right corner?  No, I don't think it is that.  Is it the crudely imagined laboratory apparatus and the poorly realized veiny brain behind it over  there in the right center?  Naw, can't be that.  Could it be the sexalicious nude blonde reclining there in the lower third of the cover?  Oh yeah, I bet that is it.

The arresting cover of Six From Worlds Beyond came to my attention recently when I read Robert Bloch's "I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell," a story that is included in the anthology.  The pages behind that dreamy young lady and the accompanying collage of cliched science-related images are devoted to six stories extracted from T. E. Dikty's hardcover The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956.  We've already read two of the six, the aforementioned piece from Psycho-scribe Bloch just a few days ago, and critical darling Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" back in 2014.  Those stories are pretty good, so let's read the remaining four.  The internet archive, world's finest website, has a scan of The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 that one can borrow, so we'll be reading them there. 

"Jungle Doctor" by Robert F. Young (1955)

It looks like I have blogged about six stories by Young over the years, "The Ogress," "Thirty Days Had September," "The Dandelion Girl," "Ape's Eye View," "Starscape With Frieze of Dreams," and "When Time Was New" and I liked a majority of them.  

Lindsey is guy who works at a mechanic's, washing cars, and who loves poetry, often quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Milton to himself.  He is also a drunk who drinks all day.

One cold snowy night Lindsey is walking home when he finds a beautiful blonde teenager just laying there unconscious in the snow-filled ditch!  This girl, as we know from the little prologue, is Sarith, a medical professional from a super high-tech galaxy-spanning civilization who has ended up on our little low-tech Earth because she fed the wrong coordinates into the interstellar teleporter device that hangs from her belt.  Oops!*

Lindsey carries Sarith to his home and lays her out on the couch.  (I guess that is Sarith on the cover of Six From Worlds Beyond.)  The drunk falls asleep before she revives; when Sarith comes to, she uses the psychic powers so many aliens in these old SF stories have to learn English from Lindsey's mind, and also become familiar with his biography--Lindsey is drinking himself to death because his significant other died.  Sad!  How exactly she died is buried deep.  Mysterious!

Lindsey figures he has to report this lost teenaged girl to the police, but said girl, name of Sarith, invades his mind and deploys a mental block that will keep him from doing so--she needs some time to figure out where Earth is so she can get back to the Galactic Federation and she doesn't want the native law enforcers interrupting her.  But after she has figured out how to teleport to the nearest Federation system she delves into Lindsey's mind again and gets a better grasp of his tragic fate.  Perhaps inspired by a book by Albert Schweitzer she found in Lindsey's house (with her alien brain she can read an entire book in a few minutes), Sarith decides to stay on Earth and heal Lindsey's mind and the minds of other Earth people.

Young does a good job of describing Sarith's powers and Lindsey's psychology; his descriptions are clear and compelling and he doles out the details, like in a mystery story, in a way that keeps you curious.  And of course, Young's story is a wish fulfillment fantasy which gives form to your impossible but oh so comforting dream that a gorgeous blonde teenager might just fall into your lap from out of nowhere and use her super powers to patch up this life of yours that you have totally FUBARed.  Either way you look at it, thumbs up for "Jungle Doctor."  

"Jungle Doctor" debuted in Startling, in the same issue as James Gunn's "The Naked Sky," which we read in May. "The Naked Sky" was illustrated by Virgil Finlay, and Ed Emshwiller provides illustrations for "Jungle Doctor," as well as for other pieces in the issue, making the issue one all you lovers of SF illustration will want to check out--Medusa, futuristic fishing gear, a winged woman, a nude woman whose brain is attached to a machine via wires, a woman opening a coffin to find within it a body just like her own, a woman running through a ruined city; all these visions are there for you to feast your eyes on.

*Stifle those jokes about woman drivers!

"Dream Street" by Frank M. Robinson (1955)

Back in September I read six stories by Robinson and liked a bunch of them.  "Dream Street" debuted in an issue of Imaginative Tales that has a cheeky cover that illustrates a story by Robert Bloch that is probably supposed to be funny (and probably isn't funny--I am firmly of the belief that in a better world Bloch would have ditched the comedy schtick and focused all his energies on tales of tragedy and blood and guts.)  Robinson actually has two stories in this issue of Imaginative Tales, one under a pen name.  Maybe I'll tackle that pseudonymous one someday, but today we attack "Dream Street," which would be reprinted in a hardcover anthology in 1971, The Days After Tomorrow.

This is a well-written story about a kid of the future, when there are colonies on Mars and Venus and scientific expeditions going to Saturn and so forth.  The kid is an orphan who is obsessed with becoming a spaceman.  He runs away from the orphanage to make his way to the biggest spaceport on Earth with the idea of stowing away on a rocket ship.  As the kid meets all kinds of disgusting characters on his journey, like thieves and prostitutes, and lots of people who tell him that being in space and being on alien planets is either boring or dangerous, Robinson seems to be suggesting that conquering space is some kind of mistake, but in the end it is suggested that, for some people at least, like our main character, the romance of space is justification enough for incurring all those risks and enduring all those hardships--some men are just called to the stars, the way so many men throughout history have been called to the sea.

A solid and smoothly presented story; there isn't a twist ending or an explosive climax or any of that, but "Dream Street" is still a good read, one in which all the emotions and all the decisions of the characters feel authentic.

"You Created Us" by Tom Godwin (1955)

Here we have a story by Tom Godwin, author of the famous "Cold Equations."  We read a novel by Godwin back in 2014, Space Prison, and I gave it a mildly negative review.  But we won't hold that against him.  "You Created Us," which first was printed in Fantastic Universe, doesn't seem to have been printed after it appeared in Six From Worlds Beyond, but we won't hold that against Godwin, either.

The main character of "You Created Us" suffered a head injury while serving in Korea; as the story begins he works as an executive for a firm with a factory in San Francisco and is driving through the deserts of the Southwest, near nuclear weapons testing sites, en route to the plant.  Suddenly, he spots bipedal reptiles taller than a man!  They must be mutants, created by the radiation of the weapons tests!

Over the next few years our protagonist, while still maintaining his job and not saying anything to anybody to make them think he is brain damaged or insane, conducts a low key investigation of the truth behind what he saw on that desert drive.  It turns out that the mutants are more intelligent than us humans and have psychic powers that allow them to hypnotize those humans who see them into forgetting them.  The main character's head injury and the steel plate in his skull offer him some protection from these hypnotic powers, which is why he remembers them.  He learns that the reptile people are using their mutant abilities on the leaders of the Soviet Union and of the United States to make war inevitable and make sure the commies defeat us!  Once the land of the free and the home of the brave is a cratered wasteland, the reptile race--immune to radiation--will inherit the Western Hemisphere and proceed to use similar tactics to bamboozle the human race in the Eastern Hemisphere to exterminate itself; then the scaley psykers will rule the world.  The small number of humans who survive the nuclear wars will be their cattle!     

Can the protagonist warn the human race of its peril, or will the reptile people focus their psychic powers and overwhelm his ability to remember the horrible truth he has learned?  Can he maybe figure out a way to warn himself even if his memory is erased?

This is acceptable filler; not bad, but no big deal.  I guess students of SF stories reflective of Cold War fears of nuclear war and communist domination, and stories about radiation and evolution, may find it has historical value.  "You Created Us" is perhaps noteworthy because it is pessimistic--the main character's efforts to save human civilization fail and the human race is doomed to be conquered by the reptiles, just like, the story says, the dinosaurs were overthrown by the mammals.  (I guess this story also has historical value in its illustration of 1950s theories about the extinction of the dinosaurs.)  Man's science is not going to save him--in fact, as the title of the story, a phrase used by the mutants, indicates, man's own scientific "progress," and his propensity for violence, are what is going to destroy or subjugate him.   

"The Shores of Night" by Thomas N. Scortia (1956)

It looks like I haven't read anything by Thomas N. Scortia since 2019, when I jawed at length (over the course of three blog posts) about nine stories by him: "Alien Night," "Caution!  Inflammable!," "Sea Change," "The Bomb in the Bathtub," "John Robert and the Dragon's Egg," "The Icebox Blonde," "Though a Sparrow Fall," "Morality," and "Judas Fish."  According to notes in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 and at isfdb, "Sea Change," which I liked and which debuted in Astounding, is a small portion of "The Shores of Night."  So I guess I can expect to appreciate this full novella, which is over 50 pages in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 and would be reprinted in a French anthology in 1977 and in English in 1981's The Best of Thomas N. Scortia.

"The Shores of Night" is full of learned references: we find indirect references to T. S. Eliot, direct references to Greek literature (the story opens with a reference to Argus of the thousand eyes and one of its chapters is called "Bellerophon" and features a spaceship called Pegasus) and to the Bible, as well as a remark that the landscape of Pluto looks like a "block print...struck in the severest style...."  This is sort of an ambitious story, and I think Scortia pulls it off.

It is also a fundamentally optimistic story; like Robinson's "Dream Street," "The Shores of Night" has as its theme the question of whether conquering space is worth the risk and sacrifice involved, and while admitting that the cost is high, argues that mastering the stars is worth it.

Mankind has spent a century working on a star drive, spending a bazillion dollars and losing many brave spacemen.  The star drive currently under development won't work near a strong gravity field, and so, to escape the reach of the sun, a huge expense has been incurred constructing and maintaining a star-drive construction and testing facility way out on Pluto.  The cost is not merely financial and material, of course--military men and scientists and technicians have devoted their lives to the project for decades, and many have suffered collapsed marriages, been millions of miles away while their kids grew up, etc.  

The boffins and service personnel out on Pluto are just months away from a final test of the Bechtoldt Drive, named after its designer, the top physicist on Pluto, Beth Bechtoldt, when the Earth government pulls the plug on funding for the project--the tax payers and voters have had it with all the expense, especially after colonizing Mars and exploring the gas giants and all that has not yielded anything by way of profits: the whole space program is a drain, nothing actually useful has been found beyond Earth's atmosphere.  Of course, the space program boosters tell them that the real profit will come when we reach other solar systems, but those starry-eyed idealists have been saying that for decades and the stars don't seem any closer than they did fifty years ago.

Beth Bechtoldt is willing to follow orders, but the head of the Pluto base, Major General Matthew Freck, decides they are going rogue, testing the star drive anyway in the next few weeks, before the ship arrives from Earth to bring them home!  Of course, rushing the test will make that perilous enterprise even more risky for the test pilot, Art Sommers.  A lot of the story's drama is in the relationships Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommers have with each other and with the program to conquer the stars, to what extent they are selfish, brave, scared, etc.  Scortia does a pretty good job with all this emotional stuff--for example, the three aren't just archetypes who butt up against each other, but evolve over the course of the story--and of course readers can see it all as an allegory of their own lives.  What gives your life meaning, and what have you sacrificed in pursuit of that meaningful project?  Have you played it too safe?  Have you sacrificed family to your career or some passion in a way you regret?  Should you have done more in service to humanity, or have you been presumptuous in thinking you knew what was best for others and arrogantly telling them what to do?

The test fails and Sommers is blinded.  When the relief ship arrives it has new technology developed on Earth while the Pluto team was away, which is used to integrate Sommers's brain into the controls of the next test craft; more closely attuned to the drive, Sommers is able to make it work!  But the government on Earth, which is determined to stifle the star program, suppresses the details of the test!  Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommers get frozen up there on Pluto in an accident, but their brains are saved; the government, wanting to get rid of Freck but also wanting to keep his valuable knowledge accessible, integrates the general's brain with the semi-organic super computer that runs the Earth's most advanced city.  

This super computer is made up of human brains thought to be dead; in fact, the consciousnesses of the brains' owners still endure, though weakly.  Freck is a man of powerful will, and his consciousness is still strong, and he is able to wrangle the other souls in the machine and take over the whole apparatus!  There is also a series of scenes in which Freck despairs and considers suicide, but his eight-year-old granddaughter, inspiring him with an act of self-sacrifice within hours of him first setting his electronic eyes on her, gives Freck the kick in the pants he needs to get off his duff and foil the government efforts to scotch the star program.           
        
In the final section of the story we are assured that the effort to conquer the stars will succeed, and that Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommer's consciousnesses, operating star ships and in total rapport with each other, will never be lonely and are part of the human race's glorious history.

Thumbs up for this endorsement of mankind's quest to bend the natural universe to its will and its romanticization of mankind as a collective, a sort of immortal being of which we are all components.


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Six From Worlds Beyond turns out to be a quite good anthology, with no bad stories; the mesmerizing picture of Sirath on the cover is not the only reason to pick one up!