Friday, May 13, 2022

Fritz Leiber: The Night of the Wolf

In 1966 Ballantine released a paperback collection of four stories by Fritz Leiber, The Night of the Wolf, which has a below-average Richard Powers cover.  Leiber is a popular guy, whose name sells books, so Fritz's name takes up half the cover and Powers' characteristic mysterious and evocative figures and structures are relegated to like a quarter of the cover.  Ten years later a British edition of the collection, one with a literal dystopian-adventure cover image that specifically illustrates one of the stories, was published.

The Night of the Wolf offers four stories with the word "wolf" in the title; these stories all appeared originally in magazines (Amazing, Galaxy and Astounding) between 1944 and 1962 with different titles, none of which had "wolf" in them.  (The boys down in marketing are always trying to trick SF fans into buying stories they have already read.)  Leiber even integrates the wolf theme into his dedication of the volume to Judith Merril, doing so in a way that may perhaps offend today's sensibilities.

I recently purchased a stack of paperbacks by Fritz Leiber from Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, and the US edition of The Night of the Wolf was one of them.  Let's check out these stories from the chronicler of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the star of Equinox, even though the text on the back cover seems to be warning us these stories are satires.

"The Lone Wolf" AKA "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" (1962)

Preceding each story in The Night of the Wolf is a little intro that tries to link the four tales into a sort of grand narrative or episodic future history, and hammers home the book's main themes.  In the intro to "The Lone Wolf," Leiber tells us we humans, in contrast to our cousins the apes, are homicidally crazy, and hide our insanity from ourselves "by inventing paranoid ideas like God."  Fritz, you are supposed to show me, not tell me!  

Fears of a Soviet missile attack have become so severe that most Americans now live underground!  These subterraneans rationalize their decision to dwell beneath the Earth's surface with such convincing arguments as "It's a lot easier living in one room....You don't have to tramp from room to room hunting things."

Gusterson and his wife Daisy are still living above the surface with their three kids in their twentieth-floor apartment in Cleveland.  A friend of theirs, Fay, comes up from the shelter city to visit every so often.  Gusterson is a novelist and he is full of ideas, and Fay, who manages an "invention team" down below, often prods him for ideas for new inventions.  Leiber is fascinated by the sexual charms of teenaged girls, as we have seen in so many of his stories, and one of Gusterson's ideas is a mask that can make an adult woman "look like a seventeen-year-old sexpot."  Another of Gusterson's ideas is a portable reminder machine that will alert you of appointments and when your favorite TV show is broadcast and that sort of thing.

Over the next several weeks on successive visits Fay reports on the progress of these two inventions.  The beauty mask is a disaster, as rioting teenagers have been using them as a disguise and the young actress used--without her authorization--as the model for the mask is suing the manufacturer.  But the reminder device, dubbed "a tickler" (after what it is said secretaries would call the file of stuff they were supposed to remind the boss of), is a big hit with the government and other large institutions.  The tickler sits on your shoulder and a little wire leads to a little earphone through which it speaks to you.  The device can not only keep employees on schedule, but teach them their jobs and manage their labor, outlining every step of a process.  Later models of the tickler manage morale via subliminal messages based on the mantras of Emile Coue, and even manage mood by intravenously injecting drugs into those who wear them.  Gusterson worries the ticklers are graduating from becoming tools or servants to becoming masters, and goes down into the subterranean city to warn Fay--but he's too late!  Below ground, he finds that the ticklers are already self-aware robots intent on self-preservation and that wearing one is already mandatory among the subterranean population and will soon also be required of the remaining surface dwellers!

The ticklers take over, and their leader, the tickler riding Fay, comes to Gusterson to consult him.  The ticklers regard Gusterson as a sort of god or guru, he having "invented" them.  Gusterson saves the Earth from robot tyranny by convincing the ticklers they should build spaceship bodies and divorce themselves from the slow and dim lummoxes that are humans and search the galaxy for a planet of their own.

"The Lone Wolf" AKA "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" moves at a brisk pace and is basically pleasant and intriguing, with all kinds of SF ideas and cultural references and some philosophical forays.  While it does have horror and misanthropic elements its general tone is jaunty and light.  Twenty-first-century readers will perhaps see some parallels between the ticklers and our ubiquitous smart phones.  There are also plenty of Cold War references--to the Soviet Union and the fear it inspires, for example, and various missile tests and hypothetical weapons systems.  I can moderately recommend this one.        

"The Creature from Cleveland Depths" first appeared in Galaxy.  The tale there is adorned with quite good illustrations by Wallace Wood (the robot is very fine as are the depictions of young ladies--hubba hubba) that spoil everything that happens in the story; the intro there stresses not that your religious beliefs are a paranoid reflection of your homicidal tendencies, but one of the story's themes, the distinction between the rare inner-directed man (exemplified by Gusterson) and the typical, outer-directed, man.  Under its original title, which is far more appropriate (Gusterson has a good relationship with his wife and kids and tries to help his friend and the entire human race--he is in no sense a lone wolf) the story has appeared in a number of Leiber collections, including another one I bought in the same batch with The Night of the Wolf, You're All Alone, and several printed in foreign translation.

"The Wolf Pair" AKA "The Night of the Long Knives" (1960)

Under its original title, "Night of the Long Knives," which again is superior to the lupine title affixed to it here in The Night of the Wolf, this tale was an Amazing cover story.  In 1971 it was split in two parts and serialized in the French magazine Fiction (here in The Night of the Wolf, "The Wolf Pair" is like 80 pages.)

The intro to "The Wolf Pair" here in this collection indicates this story takes place in the same universe as "The Lone Wolf," but later, 20 or 25 years after a nuclear war that wiped out the subterranean cities and reduced most of the American countryside to a Deathland of radioactive dust.  "The Wolf Pair" is a first-person narrative presented by a guy who wanders the Deathland, and describes to us in great detail the terrain of the Deathland and the psychology of the people like himself--Deathlanders are loners who don't talk, and who are driven by a powerful urge to kill all they meet--though sometimes the urge to slay is overwhelmed by the urge to fuck!

Among ruined gas tanks and electrical towers that Leiber waxes poetic in describing (the red light of the sky shows through little cracks in the gas tanks, forming a lace pattern), the narrator meets a woman with a hook for a hand and a radiation scar on her face--our hero finds the scar sexy, and the two, without speaking, go through the Deathlander ritual of laying down their arsenals of weapons to have sex.  The narrator even removes his special razor-sharp dentures! 

There are still a few civilized spots in North America, and an anti-grav aircraft from one of them makes an emergency landing near the two lovers and they appease the murder lust Leiber insists we all have in our hearts by slaying the pilot.  A third Deathlander appears, an old geezer who is atypically voluble, and our narrator and his new girlfriend finally speak and we finally learn their names, Ray and Alice.  The old guy they call "Pop."    

(The cover of the British edition of The Night of the Wolf depicts Ray and Alice, but inexplicably suggests the story takes place in the United Kingdom.)

The trio pile into the aircraft to loot it of high tech devices and food, and then, dreaming it will take them someplace that wasn't ruined in the nuclear war, activate its automatic pilot system.  The vehicle leaves the Midwest, where they are, and heads east.  A voice addresses them; it turns out that the aircraft is carrying a precious cargo from one spot of civilization to another; these two high-tech areas are at war with a third.  The voice convinces them to drop the cargo out the door at a specified point, though Alice is reluctant to and tries, unsuccessfully, to stop Pops from making the drop.  Mission accomplished, the anti-grav vehicle carries them back west.

On the flight the three Deathlanders sahre reminiscences, unburdening themselves.  Pops talks about how he is a member of Assassins Anonymous, a group of Deathlanders who have killed but want to stop killing.  (In this story Leiber not only puts forward his theory that we humans are hardwired to be murderers, but the idea that killing is addictive, that our desire to kill is like the desire for booze of alcoholics or the need to gamble of compulsive gamblers.)  Alice tells the story of how she was raped by the gang who killed her father and eventually got her revenge on them.  And Ray, our narrator, reveals that twenty or twenty five years ago he was an officer in the United States Air Force and pushed the button that sent a flight of ICBMs to Moscow.  (Buttons are a leitmotif of this story; the aircraft is full of buttons--there are no control levers or knobs or anything, just buttons--and that precious cargo Pops tossed out the door was a box full of little cubes with buttons that Ray presumes are some sort of grenades.)

The automatic aircraft returns them to where they murdered the pilot.  Pop figures out what the pilot was up to and what the cubes are--the cubes are hypodermic needles that can cure a plague that was running rampant in the civilized city to which they delivered most of the cubes, while the pilot had made an unauthorized stop to administer a dose to his girlfriend, who was staffing a one-man secret base hidden among the gas tanks.  Our cast finds this poor plague-infected woman and Pop gives her a dose he pocketed before releasing the box out the aircraft's window.  Their adventure, particularly the chance to talk over their experiences in the confined space of the aircraft, has inspired in Ray and Alice a desire to reform, and they join Pop and Assassins Anonymous.

While Leiber is confident we humans are inherently murderous, this story suggests he thinks that individuals can reform, can break their addiction to murder.  The story also feels like an endorsement of Alcoholics Antonymous, and like something Leiber would write while working through his own feelings of guilt over some misdeed; perhaps it expresses his hope that he might be forgiven and learn how to behave.  (Wikipedia does point out that Leiber was an alcoholic and had a close association with AA.)

"The Wolf Pair" is well-written on the level of individual sentences and is sort of shocking and throws a lot of philosophical and sociological ideas at you--it is ambitious and heartfelt and so certainly a worthwhile read.  But is it fun, is it entertaining?

Though the story ends on a note of hope, it is bleak and depressing, and I had no sympathy or affection for the main characters--I was rooting for the doomed pilot when Ray and Alice were stalking him, and over the succeeding pages I kept hoping that our main characters would suffer some sort of punishment for their monstrous crime.  I'm not the forgiving type, and I'm not the type to take seriously "who killed the Kennedys?  Well, after all, it was you and me" arguments that society creates criminals, and I'm not the type to think the United States deserves any blame for the Cold War--I think burglars, muggers, rapists and murderers are to blame for the things that they do and that they should be severely punished, and I think the Communist Party of the USSR was to blame for the Cold War.  I don't think crime and war are usually the result of psychological problems--I think most crimes and wars are the result of rational calculations of criminals and aggressors, calculations that are often severely flawed.  So, I am not the intended audience of Leiber's story...or maybe I am the intended audience and I am just not finding Fritz's arguments persuasive.  

Another issue with "The Wolf Pair" is the possibility that readers will feel Leiber goes overboard--Assassins Anonymous and razor sharp dentures so you can bite your victims to death are sort of silly, aren't they--and the passages about the urge to kill and all the strange behaviors Deathlanders engage in, like refusing to talk, are a little too extreme to be believable and even worse go on quite long and can be repetitious.  The silly stuff in "The Lone Wolf" seemed to fit because the whole tone of that story was jocular, but the tone of this story is super serious, so wacky stuff that props up sticks out like a sore thumb.

It has its problems, but I still can give "The Wolf Pair" AKA "The Night of the Long Knives" a moderate recommendation.        

"Crazy Wolf"
AKA "Sanity" (1944)

The earliest printed of the stories in The Night of the Wolf, "Crazy Wolf" first appeared in Astounding as "Sanity," alongside stories by A. E. van Vogt, Clifford D. Simak, and George O. Smith, and an article by Willy Ley on the rocket artillery contemporaneously in use in the war in Europe with lots of photos that may appeal to all you WWII buffs out there.

"Crazy Wolf" is a mediocre gimmick story that consists almost entirely of a conversation between two characters.  The intro to the story in my 1966 paperback tells us that it takes place after the world has been fully rebuilt, and the main text makes clear that there is a single world government and war and economic scarcity have been banished.  The Earth is like a paradise!  Or is it?

The two characters are the head executive of the world government--the World Manager--and one of the top ministers--the General Secretary.  The executive believes that he is one of the very few sane men left in the world--having read now-forgotten 20th-century books on psychology, he has been able to diagnose all the government ministers and much of the general public.  His theory is that man needs challenge and purpose to remain mentally stable, and that the lack of war and social inequality has taken away challenge and purpose and so almost everybody is insane.  During his ten-year tenure as World Manager, he has been secretly educating a small cadre of people who are the most sane in the world, training them to maintain their sanity and to run the government so they can replace the current, insane, government ministers.  At the same time he has been decreeing regulations to foster sanity among the masses, like outlawing provocative books and intoxicating beverages.  As the story begins, the big day has come--the ministers are all going to be replaced with the sane people the World Manager has been grooming for a decade.

On what is to be his last day the General Secretary comes in to talk to the World Manager, and reveals that the ministers have been bamboozling and humoring the World Manager for ten years.  The General Secretary admits that it is true that almost everybody is insane, by 20th-century standards, but argues what constitutes "sanity" and "insanity" is just a reflection of socially constructed norms.  Rather than their various insanities being an obstacle to high performance, the ministers have all undertaken responsibilities that their psychological imbalances suit them for.  All the World Manager's decrees have been ignored or countermanded or circumvented--the forbidden books and intoxicating beverages have all been available all this time, a truth kept from the World Manger via fabricated reports.  Even that cohort of specially trained individuals has been in on the conspiracy the whole time--it is the World Manager who is retiring today, not his ministers.

The idea that sanity is just adherence to social norms, which reminds us of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault, is sort of interesting, and the idea of wise managers finding jobs for mental cases that suit the peculiarities of their psychologies, turning those mental illnesses into strengths, is sort of fun and clever, but these ideas only take up a few paragraphs of this story; the rest feels like filler.  I'm judging "Crazy Wolf" AKA "Sanity" merely acceptable.

We are sometimes told that science fiction is the literature of ideas, and I guess because "Sanity" is all about ideas it has received the endorsement of many of the important SF editors, even though this blogger thinks it lacks human drama.  (I'm more interested in drama and literary merit than science, it is true.)  After John W. Campbell, Jr. included it in Astounding, "Sanity" was reprinted in anthologies edited by Groff Conklin, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, and Martin H. Greenberg (with Isaac Asimov.)  Maybe I underestimated the novelty and power for people in the 1940s and '50s of the idea that sanity is merely conformity to conventional norms because I have heard it so many times in my own adult life, which began some thirty years later. 

"The Wolf Pack" AKA "Let Freedom Ring" (1950)

Here's another story that debuted in Amazing and was presented as a two-part serial in the French periodical Fiction.  "The Wolf Pack," which more often has appeared as "Let Freedom Ring," rehashes some of the elements and themes we just saw in "Crazy Wolf" AKA "Sanity," and, according to the little intro that precedes it, takes place some time after that story, when the system of diagnosing people's insanities and slotting them into appropriate jobs has broken down. 

For 200 years there has been no real war, economic scarcity or outbreaks of disease--life is easy!  But the lack of challenge, and the lack of opportunities to appease the death wish and lust for murder that dwells in every human heart, periodically lead to alarming spikes in suicide and murder rates and raise the specter of some kind of revolution and total collapse of civilization into barbarism!  The solution to these social and political problems is war!  But not a real war with fighting; after all, there are no material or ideological disputes to trigger conflict and no foreign enemies to fight against.  Instead, every two or three decades, a bogus "war" is conducted, in which the world government just drafts 5% of the population of young men at random, and spends vast amounts of money and resources building a huge armada of unneeded warships.  After a few months of pointless training the randomly selected fighting men board the warships and sail to some arbitrary point where the ships self destruct and all the draftees are slain!  The sadness of those families who lose a son, the relief of those who don't, and the atmosphere of fear and death and hardship generated by the human sacrifices and the waste of resources on mountains of unnecessary military equipment and supplies, reduce almost to nil the suicide and murder rates and unite the public, preserving order.

As the story begins, a new one of these fake wars that will kill millions of young able-bodied conscripts (and a small group of women volunteers!) has been declared.

"The Wolf Pack" is like 65 pages, and the narrative is in the third-person omniscient, and we see the story from the different vantage points of numerous characters, none of whom is interesting or likable.  Some sections focus on a young man, Norm, who is one of the unlucky one in twenty eligible men marked for sacrifice.  Some star the chief executive of the world government, a guy who, like the chief exec in "Sanity," is a 20th-century history buff.  He and his inner circle of advisors have come to believe there is a secret underground working against them, endeavoring through subtle and sneaky means to "cure" the mental illnesses the underground believes the top government officials suffer from (each minister has a particular mental issue--one guy is obsessed with chess, for example.)  Some sections foreground individual members of the administration, others describe the plotting and meetings of the members of the underground of would-be psychiatrists dedicated to giving therapy to all of humanity.  This underground has come to the conclusion that they must stop the current war; they are convinced that if they can't succeed in curing the insanity of the human race this time, they never will.

Norm flees his home when he is shaken by the realization--in the only good scene in the story--that his family members are a bunch of government-loving sheep who truly think he should accept being sacrificed.  In the crime ridden parts of town, he meets a "trim" pretty girl (Leiber refers to her repeatedly as "elfin") who is a member of the psychiatric underground.  She enlists Norm into the underground, and he returns home to join the suicide army as their spy.  The "war" effort is sabotaged and public morale undermined so effectively by the underground that the prosecution of the war is in doubt--the chief executive boldly responds by volunteering to join the doomed fleet on the day it is to set sail, and "volunteering" all his top minsters to join him!  Norm is an officer on the flagship of the doomed fleet, and meets the chief exec and the man's great charisma tests Norm's loyalty to the underground.             

The story ends very unsatisfyingly, with the leaders of the underground short-circuiting the suicide mission of the fleet by using their many devices and tactics, apparently including telepathy, and their encyclopedic knowledge of the particular mental problems of individuals, to drive everybody totally insane so that they fight each other, scatter, take off their clothes, whatever, rendering them unable to detonate the explosives that will annihilate the fleet.  I guess it furthers Leiber's point that the human race is hopelessly irredeemable that the underground, which was trying to achieve its goals by curing people surreptitiously, resorting to exacerbating everybody's insanity when it seems the resourceful chief executive has foiled their Plan A. 

There is a lame surprise ending, which has been foreshadowed several times, and seems to have little to do with resolving the plot--the chief exec's particular insanity is that he thinks he is Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe we are supposed to think that a global civil war is going to break out (as the insanity outbreak of the fleet spreads to the entire world) and he will be a good leader who will help bring the civil war to a satisfactory conclusion?  I don't really get it.

Of the four stories in The Night of the Wolf, the experience of reading this final story, "The Wolf Pack," was the worst.  For one thing, after reading 150 pages about how all people are insane, reading another 65 pages of the same stuff was kind of a drag.  I think there is more to my disappointment than that, though--I think this story really is objectively the worst of the lot.  "The Crazy Wolf" had the virtue of being short.  "The Lone Wolf" and "The Wolf Pair" each had a marked and consistent tone that gave them a distinctive flavor--the former was sort of jokey and light-hearted, the latter unrelentingly grim--and each also had characters endowed with personality.  "The Wolf Pack" is long and dull, with no atmosphere and no interesting characters; much of the story consists of dry depictions of strategy sessions or the inner deliberations of individual strategists, and the character interactions (like the leader being some sort of recreation of Abraham Lincoln, and Norm's girlfriend's brother being a member of the secret police) don't add anything to the plot or atmosphere.  

Gotta give "The Wolf Pack" AKA "Let Freedom Ring" a thumbs down.  


The back cover of The Night of the Wolf suggests that the stories therein are an attack on "militarism" that encourage people to be peaceful and that Leiber is a voice of sanity in our insane world.  I think we can quibble that "militarism" and "urge to kill" are two different, though I suppose somewhat related, things.  A more substantial complaint about the back cover text is that The Night of the Wolf doesn't really seem to offer any solutions to the problems of war and widespread insanity, but just to bemoan them.  Rather than "an ironic encouragement to the peace of the world," what the book actually is is unbridled misanthropy and hopelessness, a series of variations on the old saw that "man is wolf to man" that argue that humans are essentially insane--irredeemably murderous and suicidal and addicted to the scam that is religion.  Individual stories may have elements of hope, but the linking introductions seem intent on quashing any hope.  

Maybe we can't blame Fritz for the text on the outside of the book, but perhaps we can blame Fritz for the effort to shoehorn these stories into a single narrative with those tendentious introductions, an effort which is a failure.  The intros actually undermine the book as a whole, robbing the stories of nuance and surprise and puzzling the reader by referring to a "League of Sanity" that doesn't actually appear in all of the stories and, when it does, doesn't go by that name as far as I can remember.   

I think we have to consider the possibility that crafting a collection of stories which all have the same theme and make the same argument is inherently a risky proposition, because reading them can get monotonous.  Luckily, three of these stories are not bad.  


Squint or click to read J. R. R. Tolkien's dissing of the first American paperback editions
of The Lord of the Rings

The last three pages of my copy of The Night of the Wolf are ads for other paperback Ballantine books.  Englishmen J. R. R. Tolkien and Anthony Burgess each get an entire page to themselves.  The Tolkien ad stresses with some repetitiveness that the Ballantine editions are the legit author-approved article, a response to the existence of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings spearheaded by the piratical Donald A. Wollheim.  The Burgess page advertises his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, another book that had a somewhat problematic American first edition, as well as The Wanting Seed, which I read and blogged about back in 2017, and two other books.  The third advertising page recommends to SF readers Edgar Pangborn's Davy, which I wrote about back in 2015, Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson's The Reefs of Space, which I read before I started blogging, and Robert Conquest's A World of Difference, which I bought recently in Front Royal, Virginia.

Also hawked is a Jack Vance collection with a great Richard Powers cover; for this image Powers uses bold thick lines in a way I find quite exciting.  I gotta look for this thing at my usual bookstores here out in the country and "inside the Beltway," where I find myself periodically.  There are four stories in Future Tense, three I have blogged about here at MPorcius Fiction Log: "Dodkin's Job," "Ullward's Retreat," and "Sail 25" AKA "The Dust of Far Suns;" and one I have yet to read, "The Git of Gab."  Another reason to get my hands on this thing of beauty!         

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Startling Stories, Sept '49: H Kuttner & C L Moore, J D MacDonald and L R Hubbard

In our last thrilling episode we read a story by Arthur C. Clarke that was reprinted in Startling Stories in September 1949.  That issue of SS also features stories by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, John D. MacDonald, and L. Ron Hubbard that I figured I would read, as well as fun illustrations of skyscrapers, monsters, and beautiful women by Virgil Finlay and some less famous artists.  As usual, I'll be reading the magazine at the world's greatest website, the internet archive, where preserved for all of us who have contrived to pay this month's electric bill is all that text and all those illustrations, plus ads for all the products a man needs to convince some dame to marry him, like razor blades, hair tonic, and a correspondence course in Swedish massage (not that we would expect a guy who reads a magazine with a cartoonish dinosaur on its cover to have any trouble with the ladies!) 

Forget her buddy, all you need is your fur baby and your collection
of scientifiction mags!

"The Portal in the Picture" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 

Here in Startling this novel is credited to Henry Kuttner.  When it was reprinted in an Ace Double in 1954, it was renamed Beyond Earth's Gates and credited to C. L. Moore and Lewis Padgett (Padgett is a pen name Kuttner and Moore generally used for collaborations.)  In 1987 the story was reprinted in a Kuttner collection and attributed solely to him, and in 2012 Gateway/Orion produced an e-book of the tale that they credited solely to Moore.  It seems a little odd how different publishers have attributed the novel differently; I guess these are all marketing decisions and each publisher had a different theory about what would sell.

"The Portal in the Picture" starts with a prologue.  Our narrator, Eddie Burton, is in a Manhattan nightclub where a mesmerizingly beautiful woman, Malesca, is singing.  He tries to keep his eyes off this irresistible goddess as she performs.  After her song she comes to his table--Malesca and Eddie knew each other in the past, and she wants to go out with him after she knocks off work.  Everyone in the club is amazed when Eddie turns down the woman they consider the most beautiful in the world.

The main text, fifteen chapters, is a flashback to the adventure in which Eddie and a selfish and irritating woman, Lorna Maxwell, were accidentally transported to an alternate Earth where Lorna was transformed into the striking beauty Malesca.

It is the 1930s, and Eddie Burton is an up-and-coming Broadway actor with three successful shows behind him.  He has inherited a fancy apartment from his Uncle Jim, a world traveler who, when Eddie was a child, told him Edgar Rice Burroughs-style stories (Tarzan and John Carter are specifically cited) apparently of his own devising set in the fantasy land of Malesco.  In the apartment is a reproduction of Henri Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, and one night when Eddie is being visited yet again by Lorna Maxwell, a conventionally pretty girl who says she is in love with Eddie and is always nagging him to help her break into show biz, a vision of a crimson city--Malesco!--appears in the picture.  Somehow, to the amazement of both, Lorna is sucked away, through the picture and into Malesco!

Eddie is blamed for Lorna's disappearance, which he cannot explain; this wrecks his career and puts him in terrible legal jeopardy--the cops can't quite pin a murder on him yet, so Eddie is eventually let out of jail, but they are still looking for clues!  Eddie searches for some clues himself--can he figure out how to get through the print to Malesco where maybe he can find Lorna and clear his name?  It turns out he can!

"The Portal in the Picture" is a very "meta" story, a story about person going to another world to have an adventure that expends a lot of verbiage referring directly to other fiction about fantasy worlds and adventures; Barsoom, the Wonderland of Alice, Oz, Erehwon, and Graustark are all mentioned, and Eddie repeatedly compares himself to John Carter and Allan Quartermain.  At times "The Portal in the Picture" seems like a parody or a satire of those sorts of adventure stories, an effort to remind us how unrealistic they are; for example, Eddie often points out, jocularly and at length, that he is not an invincible fighter, that he can't jump up a ten-foot wall, and so on.

"The Portal in the Picture" is also a story which Kuttner and Moore seem to have based on their reading about various historical periods and events, in particular the French Revolution and Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome, and about psychology and sociology.  (Kuttner studied for an advanced degree in psychology and we see a lot of psychology in Kuttner and Moore's work; I blogged about four examples here in 2015, but there are many more.)  K & M also bang a drum we've heard them bang before, making the argument that utopia isn't all it is cracked up to be.  (Consider: C. L. Moore: "Greater Than Gods" (1939), Henry Kuttner, "The Land of Time to Come" and "Remember Tomorrow" (both 1941)Kuttner and Moore, Fury, (1947)Kuttner and Moore, "The Two-Handed Engine" (1955).)

Eddie lands in Malesco, in a city in which he puts on a disguise and sneaks around and learns that Lorna the ambitious nag, in the months since her disappearance, has become some kind of idol to the people of Malesco, her face up on posters and films of her even projected onto the clouds!  Eddie meets a guy who looks like his Uncle Jim; this guy, Coriole, turns out to be Uncle Jim's son.  Uncle Jim, Eddie learns, was the leader of a rebellion against Malesco's theocracy, but he fled back to New York when the rebellion was on the verge of defeat.  His son Coriole has taken up the anti-theocratic cause, and he gives Eddie, and us readers, a lesson in Malescan history.

Malesco and our Earth are alternate timelines which had identical histories until the death of Caligula.  A different Emperor took over in Malesco than our Earth, and whereas our world witnessed the rise of Christianity in ancient times and the rise of the English-speaking peoples and representative government and capitalism in modern times, in Malesco a caste of priests who have a monopoly on math, science and technology took over and have ruled tyrannically for almost two thousand years.  They maintain their control through such means as outlawing the use of Arabic numerals--ordinary people are forced to use Roman numerals, which makes the math necessary for modern engineering difficult--and fostering a culture which regards curiosity as a sin, thus discouraging people from trying to figure out how the TVs, anti-grav elevators, and electric lights work.  A machine as simple as Eddie's cigarette lighter dumbfounds and fascinates the common people of Malesco.  

We on Earth don't know about Malesco, but the Malescan priesthood knows about our world--in fact, the priests can view our world on their TV screens.  A tenet of the absolutely bogus Malescan religion is that people who behave will go to our Earth upon death--people who are really good will go to the paradise that is New York!  The priests got hold of Lorna when she arrived and used plastic surgery and their mastery of the social sciences to mold her into a Platonic ideal of beauty!  Now she is like a spokesperson for their religion, posing as a messenger from heaven and broadcasting speeches the priests write for her that bolster their rule.  The anti-theocracy forces, led by Eddie's cousin Coriole, want Eddie to use his relationship with Lorna to get her to switch to their side.

Eddie equivocates over which side to join, and whether to join any side at all--all he wants to do is get back to New York with Lorna to save his skin from a murder rap.  He contrives to meet the high priest, who has the power to send him back to New York; this guy is fat, so we know he is the villain and Eddie will eventually join the Coriole crew.

The high priest agrees to send Eddie and Lorna back to New York if they will first give a pacifying pro-priesthood speech to a mob that has been assembled by Coriole's anti-theocratic forces--Coriole and company have been spreading the word that Eddie is going to teach them all the stuff the priests have been keeping form them about science and technology.  During the speech Eddie vacillates, unsure what to do, but his cousin and the other rebels influence Eddie so that Eddie turns the tables on the high priest.  The priest is killed by the very trap he had set for Eddie and Lorna, opening up the opportunity for Coriole and his conspirators to seize the throne and reform Malesco.

In the epilogue we learn that, back in NYC, Lorna is still pursuing Eddie, even though with her looks she doesn't need his help to get into show biz--she must really love him.  As we have seen throughout the story's sixty-five or so pages, Lorna is selfish, vapid, and annoying, so Eddie knows a marriage with her would make him miserable, but his resolve is weakening because she is now almost irresistibly good-looking.  

"The Portal in the Picture" is not very good because it is long, slow, and lacks narrative tension and narrative drive, due to many artistic decisions made by Kuttner and Moore which sap the story of drive and energy.

Eddie and Lorna are indecisive characters, and the plot is largely driven by luck and by the manipulations of Coriole, the high priest, and some other characters who have their own selfish agendas.  Eddie's motives are uninteresting--Kuttner and Moore decided to not make him driven by some kind of ambition, or ideological commitment, or love of a woman, but instead to make him "realistic," to have as his motivation merely self-preservation.  This might work if the authors had striven to portray Eddie as scared and depicted him as being in mortal peril, but Eddie never seems scared and we readers never feel he is in danger of getting killed or maimed or trapped in Malesco forever--we already know he gets back to NYC in one piece and the text includes so many jokes that no horror or suspense could possibly be generated.  As for Lorna, for some reason Kuttner and Moore made the conscious decision that she would be neither a heroine, nor a love interest, nor a villain--her character generates no strong feelings in the reader other than irritation (at times she is despicable and at other times she is pathetic) and she doesn't serve the plot as a goal for Eddie or as an obstacle to him, she is simply dead weight.  The way Eddie thinks about her and treats her is pretty shabby, but both of them are such boring characters we don't care.

"The Portal in the Picture" feels very slow, and very little actually happens.  There are way too many expository scenes of in which Eddie learns about Malesco through lectures from natives or by watching TV.  Kuttner and Moore spend more time on describing the details of history, geography and daily life in Malesco than on the characters' relationships or on adventure elements.  And what passes for "adventure elements" in "The Portal in the Picture?"  Scenes of Eddie walking around the city and having conversations with people.  Eddie does very little and shows very little initiative, but we still have to endure many long paragraphs that describe his thought processes and his speculations on the thought processes of others.  The final scene, in which Eddie and Lorna are to give speeches to the assembled crowd of people skeptical of priestly rule, contains paragraph after paragraph on mob psychology.  The references to other adventure stories are also too numerous; every time Eddie has to do anything he reflects on what the hero of a fictional adventure tale would do in a similar circumstance.  This gets repetitive, and further weighs down the already slow pace of the narrative and further deadens the already limited emotional impact of the decisions and challenges Eddie faces.

Gotta give "The Portal in the Picture" a thumbs down.    

"A Condition of Beauty" by John D. MacDonald

Way back in 2014 I read crime novelist John D. MacDonald's 1951 SF novel Wine of the Dreamers, as well as two of his 1948 short SF stories, "Ring Around the Redhead" and "A Child is Crying."  In 2015 I read MacDonald's 1949 story "Flaw" and his 1950 story "Spectator Sport" in a blog post I billed as devoted to pessimistic SF stories.  After a hiatus of over six years, MPorcius Fiction Log again offers coverage of John D. MacDonald's SF output!

"A Condition of Beauty" takes up like four pages of text here in Startling.  It is a competent filler story with an obvious and predictable twist, but, if we are feeling generous, we can say it is a rumination on to what extent our ideas of beauty are socially constructed and to what extent they are instinctive, hard-wired into our brains by evolution and heredity.

The story starts in a dungeon.  The three prisoners there, a young man, a young woman, and a pessimistic old geezer, have been condemned because they are hideously ugly and terribly strong.  The scene then shifts to a space exploration ship.  The crew scans a star system, finds the planet where the dungeon is, and discovers on its surface a Terran space ship which must have crashed there "a hundred and ten generations ago."  A squad of the spacers investigates and discovers the descendants of the crew of the wrecked vessel, which they use as a place of worship and sacrifice.  The conditions on this planet are only barely suitable for human life, and over the centuries, thanks to selective breeding apparently "guided" by "some sixth sense," the descendents of the shipwrecked Earthers have evolved radically.  MacDonald doesn't describe the evolved humans, but they are so disgusting that at the sight of them many of the spacemen vomit inside their vacuum suits.  The sight of aliens that look like slugs or insects or reptiles has never made these hardy adventurers toss their cookies, but these evolved humans are nauseating because they are a travesty of the human form and trigger disgust at a sub- or unconscious level.

The spacers free the people from the dungeon--as we expect, they are "throwbacks" who look like normal Earth humans.  The old guy keels over from shock, but the spacers will bring the man and woman, both of them lookers, to Earth and hopefully, among other conventional homo sapiens, they will get over their disgust with their own bodies and live normal happy lives.

Acceptable.  The emphasis on the unconscious, the subconscious, and alleged "sixth senses," as well as cultural and social pressures, in guiding human belief and behavior is sort of interesting.  

"A Condition of Beauty" would be reprinted in a 1966 magazine, Great Science Fiction Stories.   

"Beyond the Black Nebula" by L. Ron Hubbard 

People are down on L. Ron Hubbard because of his scam religion, but I enjoyed the parts of Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth I read as a kid when they were new (though I didn't like them enough to finish either of these sprawling sagas), and in 2014 when I read Hubbard's novel To The Stars I liked it; Final Blackout, which I read the same year, I thought merely acceptable, but not actually bad.  So I feel there's a chance I'm going to appreciate this here story, even though it looks like it was never reprinted in English.  According to isfdb, "Beyond the Black Nebula" is part of a series called "The Conquest in Space," and in the 1980s our Italian friends reprinted this entire series in book form.  

It is the spacefaring future.  Mankind has explored many systems, but many remain to be explored.  In his youth, Anthony Twain went on a few of the early interstellar missions, but then he switched careers, gaining fame and fortune as a writer whose beat was chronicling humanity's conquest of space.  

Like so many celebrity authors, Twain employed a squad of ghostwriters to maintain his output.  Somehow one of these ghosts penned and got published--without Twain's knowledge--a book appearing under Twain's name which is full of libelous bullshit.  Twain's reputation and finances were destroyed.  Now an old man, how can he recover his reputation?   

Twain has the crazy idea of getting together some money to go on a dangerous expedition to a part of space everyone is scared to go to, a big patch of blackness.  Nobody wants to finance such an expedition, but some criminals hear about Twain's eagerness to command a ship and they buy a decrepit old vessel and have it put into working order and offer it to Twain--they will be his crew.

The criminals don't want to explore some uncharted black region that everybody is scared of; they pull a gun on Twain and tell him to take them to some planet they have selected for some nefarious purpose which is never disclosed.  Twain tries to trick them, to fly to the black region without them realizing it, but they figure it out and a fight ensues.  Twain comes out on top, but during the fight the ship goes off course and becomes totally lost.  Twain eventually figures out where they are and how to get back to Earth.

Twain thinks his mission was a failure, but it turns out that the ship's black box automatic recording systems tracked the entire voyage and reveal to the technicians on Earth that Twain flew through the black region and now its mystery is solved.  Twain is a hero and his reputation is saved!

The style and basic idea of this story are fine, but the story feels like it was rushed, like it could have been improved with revisions that filled in some blanks (what crime were the criminals going to commit?) and made things more interesting (the black region is just a substanceless shadow?  Boring!) and more convincing (the black boxes keep track of and record the ship's location but the ship's systems can't do the same calculations or access the black boxes' recordings during flight?)  Merely acceptable.


Kind of disappointing, but they can't all be winners, can they?  And it is always worthwhile to explore the work of famous and/or important contributors to the SF field, so, no regrets!

Next time, we explore four stories by Fritz Leiber.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Worlds of Tomorrow: E Hamilton, A Derleth, A C Clarke and C Jacobi

In 1953, Pellegrini & Cudahy published Worlds of Tomorrow, a hardcover anthology of nineteen stories edited by August Derleth; recently, at Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, a place I strongly recommend to all fans of 20th-century SF, I purchased the 1958 Berkley Books abridged paperback edition of the volume.  The Richard Powers cover, with its asymmetrical rocket ship passing by Jupiter, and its male nude figure contemplating a city in the desert and a bizarre flying machine (?) may have served as the book's primary attraction, but this edition of Worlds of Tomorrow does include stories by people we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log, so let's check some of them out.  Today, we'll read tales by Edmond Hamilton, Derleth himself, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Jacobi.

Nota Bene: We've already read two stories that are printed in this paperback edition of Worlds of Tomorrow, Frank Belknap Long's "The Big Cold" and Mack Reynolds's "The Business, As Usual."  

"The Dead Planet" by Edmond Hamilton (1946)

This is a traditional space exploration story with a twist ending that must have appealed to editors, because it has been reprinted numerous times since its first appearance in Startling Stories, and has been translated into several languages, including Romanian, Croatian and Serbian.  

Our narrator is one of the three astronauts crewing an exploration ship of the Star Service, the organization whose duty it is to map the galaxy.  Out on the edge of the galaxy their ship malfunctions and they have to crash land on a planet that is orbiting a dying star, a frozen world whose atmosphere has long been drifts of snow under an airless sky.  They search for the metal needed to repair their ship, and come upon a domed city that is buried under a hundred feet of ice.  Their sensors indicate the material they need can be found in this dead metropolis.

In the city they are confronted by hideous monsters and assailed by psychic attacks which sap their morale, filling them with terror.  They figure out that the monsters are just harmless illusions and make their way to the towering building where their sensors indicate the needed metals are to be found.  In the building they receive a telepathic message, a recording from eons ago.  The people who once inhabited this planet were of a race that conquered the galaxy but then were attacked by extragalactic invaders, malevolent beings of pure energy.  They were almost entirely wiped out, but cached records of their accumulated knowledge in this city, and then caused their sun to emit a type of radiation that killed all the invaders but also the last survivors of their own people.  Their wisdom they left behind to help out the people of the future, the race that would succeed them--the illusory monsters and mental attacks were a test to make sure the people who inherited their science and technology would be worthy of it.

The three explorers have passed the test, and after repairing their ship leave with the invaluable wisdom of the extinct race.  The twist ending is that the narrator and his comrades are bird people and the planet they have just left is Earth--the race that sacrificed itself to save the galaxy was our own human race.     

I like it.

"McIlvaine's Star" by August Derleth (1952)

"McIlvaine's Star" is apparently one of a series of over a dozen stories written by Derleth about Tex Harrigan and eventually collected in the book Harrigan's File.  A year after its debut in If, it appeared not only in Derleth's Worlds of Tomorrow but also Donald A. Wollheim's Prize Stories of Space and Time AKA Prize Science Fiction Stories.  (The "prize" in question was the Jules Verne Award, isfdb is telling me.)

"McIlvaine's Star" is one of those stories in which there are multiple layers of frame story between us readers and the actual plot and characters.  Our narrator is a friend of Tex Harrigan, who is a reporter.  Harrigan tells the story of McIlvaine to the narrator; which he pieced together by talking to various other people, including McIlvaine.  I guess the power of the story is supposed to come from the tragedy of McIlvaine's psychology and relationships, but all the layers of obscurity between us and McIlvaine make it hard for us to feel for this pathetic guy--this story really should have been narrated by McIlvaine himself or an omniscient third-person narrator.

McIlvaine was a guy who had enough dough to not work.  He spent his time hanging with his buddies at a bar playing cards, and pursuing his other hobbies, like amateur astronomy.  When McIlvaine told his pals that he had discovered a new star, a dark star, they made fun of him, and when he further claimed he was trying to communicate with the people on the star they played a practical joke on him.  Some people, including McIlvaine, disappeared, and Harrigan describes various clues that indicate that either the aliens rejuvenated McIlvaine and as a side effect of rejuvenation he lost his memory, or, McIlvaine wandered off without telling anybody and his nephew who looks like a younger McIlvaine moved into his dwelling.  Presumably we readers are supposed to be moved by the fact that even though McIlvaine and his cardplaying cronies didn't have a very fulfilling network of relationships, now that the "disappearances" have broken up their cohort they are all sad and lonely.  

"McIlvaine's Star" is a boring waste of time, a weak filler story.  Parts of it don't even make sense, or maybe I should say are poorly constructed--we see scenes I don't think Harrigan could possibly have learned about, so it is like the story is switching between first-person and omniscient third-person narration without making it clear it is shifting perspective, but certainly making it clear that the framing devices impede rather than facilitate the transmission of the drama to the reader.  Thumbs down.

I can understand why Derleth would include this story in the book he is editing, because like most of us he felt the need to make money--I have certainly done mediocre work myself, including writing mediocre junk, in pursuit of the filthy lucre.  But I can't understand why whoever was giving out the Jules Verne Awards, whatever they were, gave one to "McIlvaine's Star."         

"The Fires Within" by Arthur C. Clarke (1947)

Here we have a story from one of the "Big Three" of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  "The Fires Within" first appeared in the third and final issue of a British magazine I never heard of before, Fantasy, and two years later was printed in Startling alongside stories by beloved married couple Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and detective scribe John D. MacDonald.  The story would go on to be published again and again in Clarke collections and in anthologies.  

"The Fires Within" is the kind of SF story that puts the "science" in science fiction and leaves out the sex and violence we see (and welcome!) in so many of the stories we read here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  At the same time, Clarke's tale actually has quite a bit in common with the more adventure-oriented Hamilton story we are also talking about today when it comes to its narrative strategies and its appeal.

Two people are sitting around.  One offers the other a report to read.  The report, which makes up most of the text of the story, is from a British scientist and addressed to a government minister.  It describes, in some detail, a sonar device that can scan below the Earth's surface, down to like fifteen miles; this device can identify elements and densities and that sort of thing.  We are told that just a few miles down that the Earth's mass is under tremendous pressure and heated to extremely high temperatures.

Shockingly, the sonar device reveals that there is a civilization of people living miles below the surface of England.  These people's molecular structure, it is theorized, must be such that they can, with trivial ease, pass through or push rock; at least I think that is what Clarke is getting at--I found it pretty vague, to be honest.  In theory, these beings are composed of "matter in which the electron shells are few or altogether missing....To such creatures, even the rock fifteen miles down would offer no more resistance than water...."

The real twist ending of the story is that the people discussing the report are not more British scientists or public employees, but two of the underworld people!  Members of the subterranean race found the report after they came to the surface on a voyage of exploration and accidentally killed us all.  Doh!  The additional sting in the tail of the story comes when these two subterranean people theorize that perhaps living fifteen or twenty miles below them is a race that will someday accidentally exterminate them while exploring. 

Pretty good.  

"The Gentleman is an Epwa" by Carl Jacobi (1953)

It seems that "The Gentleman is an Epwa" made its first appearance in the 1953 hardcover edition of Worlds of Tomorrow, though later that year it was reprinted in the magazine Cosmos.  The story would go on to be included in a book of SF meant to be inflicted on British schoolchildren, and Jacobi collections.

"The Gentleman is an Epwa" is like one of those Somerset Maugham stories about a British guy who mans a lonely post in the jungle in South Asia or someplace and his challenging relationships with the small numbers of Europeans around and with the natives he is responsible for.  Except in this story the guy is an Earther who is in command of a remote post on Venus, where the blue mold is likely to make you sick and the silence is likely to make you crazy.

Grayson's assistant has had to leave due to catching a Venusian disease.  The loneliness of the post is a real threat to human sanity, and so Grayson is eager for the arrival of a new assistant.  When a replacement finally arrives, weeks later, it isn't a man, but a robot who looks like a man that Grayson is supposed to call Rafael.

Rafael, as a robot, is very reliable and good at the work Grayson sets it, but offers no companionship.  In fact, Rafael is annoying.  Grayson plots to make the machine malfunction so he can request a human assistant in its place, but Rafael is very durable and survives all the accidents Grayson steers it into.  Finally, there is trouble with the natives and Grayson gets killed.  

Either this story is poorly put together, or is put together too subtly for my childish mind to comprehend, because I didn't find that the story's plot elements operated smoothly or in concert in a way that was compelling or satisfying.  For example, early in the tale Jacobi takes time to describe in detail certain peculiarities of Grayson (he has insisted on having a primitive veranda affixed to the modern building which is his post) and Venus (there is a blue mold that descends from the sky at a particular time of year) that I expected to pay off later in some way, but they are never mentioned again.  Similarly, dialogue delivered by Grayson's superior early in the story makes clear that Grayson is one of the very best station masters on Venus, but then he spends the rest of the story screwing everything up, undoing a decade of good work in mere weeks and causing a total disaster.  I guess the robot Rafael is radically throwing Grayson off his game, but Jacobi doesn't explain or describe this in a way that is convincing or interesting.  Grayson's final scheme to make Rafael malfunction is to get the robot addicted to playing solitaire and to give the droid a deck of cards that is missing one card; the robot, I believe, realizes a card is missing and acquires a replacement card, but is still, I believe, addicted to playing solitaire.  How Grayson hoped this addiction would help him and whether it actually ended up helping him or harming him, and how, I could not discern from Jacobi's text; similarly left incomprehensible was how the lack of a card was supposed to affect Rafael and how Rafael's supplying a replacement card affected Grayson's plans. 

I couldn't tell what Jacobi was trying to accomplish with this story--many elements of the narrative just sit there and, as far as I could tell, have no influence on the plot and actually work at cross purposes with each other when it comes to setting atmosphere and tone, making for a muddled and disjointed story.  And then there is the fact that in a futuristic space age of aircraft and radios the whole theme of being driven insane by being all alone in the wilderness--on a planet where there are plenty of other humans--doesn't make much sense.  

Thumbs down.          


The results of today's reading are not particularly surprising, as in the past I have generally enjoyed Hamilton and Clarke's work, and have often been disappointed in how shoddy Derleth and Jacobi's stories can be.  Both Hamilton and Clarke's stories today are crafted in such a way that they make sense and deliver a consistent tone; they both portray humanity in a light that is both tragic and heroic, both have a twist ending and both attempt to blow your mind by offering a large scale vision of the universe that comes from a different perspective than we are used to.  Derleth and Jacobi, on the other hand, instead of embracing big science fiction concepts and using them to affect us intellectually or emotionally, found their stories on tired conventional templates--the journalist who learns about an eccentric person and the stressed out colonial administrator off in the wilderness dealing with a bunch of primitive natives.  Far worse, they construct their stories clumsily out of bits and pieces that don't even fit together to generate a consistent atmosphere or a plot that works logically.  Frustrating!

We may return to Worlds of Tomorrow, but our next episode will cover different--but sort of related--material.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Sojarr of Titan by Manly Wade Wellman

"Many would welcome the chance to take me for a mate.  Perhaps you think me ugly."

"No, not ugly.   But you are bitter of tongue and proud of spirit, as women seldom are.  Probably you would make a good leader of warriors, but a bad wife.  Anyway, I am a new leader and I must learn my duties."

Last week I was in Washington D.C., the belly of the beast!  At Second Story Books' Dupont Circle location I spotted a 1949 copy of Manly Wade Wellman's Sojarr of Titan, a sort of digest-sized magazine thing.  This inspired me to read the original version of Sojarr of Titan printed in 1941 in an issue of Startling Stories.  Like me, you can read this issue of Startling at the internet archive free of charge, right there on your computer or smart phone screen.

In brief, Sojarr of Titan starts out as an Edgar Rice Burroughs style story in which a fish-out-of-water guy who is superior to the natives, like John Carter or Lord Greystoke, fights monsters, becomes leader of a native polity, and rescues a brave princess who herself is not averse to fighting.  Then some more Terrans arrive and we get sciency space opera stuff as they investigate the alien milieu and act as competitors to our hero and the princess.  In the end the good natives and good Terrans benefit and the evil natives and evil Terrans are laid low, and Sojarr makes a love connection.

Wellman's style is not too bad, though there are some odd word choices and typos which an editor should caught.  Wellman succeeds in coming  up with some entertaining monsters and societies as well as speculations about future science and technology.  The action and horror scenes are also good.  So, I enjoyed Sojarr of Titan and am giving it a thumbs up.

If you are curious about the details, here comes our little plot summary, which will be followed by comments on this issue of Startling's departments.


It is the 31st century!  The human race has colonized the inner planets, asteroids, and even Jupiter, but Saturn is still virgin territory.  One of our best space pilots, Pitt Rapidan, sets out for Saturn--inexplicably, he brings his three-year old son Stuart with him!  I guess Child Services of the future is pretty lax.  Rapidan's ship goes out of control, and just before it hits Titan, Dad tells little Stuart to be a brave soldier.  Dad is killed in the wreck, but Stuart, secure in a special shock absorbing hammock, survives.  He grows up alone on Titan, in a valley where there is a clear pool from which to drink and plenty of fruit and small game to eat; remembering his father's last words, he thinks of himself as "Sojarr."  His Terran muscles give him the strength to outfight the local monsters and his victories make him brave and confident.

Outside this valley, most of Titan is covered with dense jungle.  Two intelligent races live on Titan, blonde humans and monstrous aliens with multiple eyes and six limbs, the Truag.  These two people have similar technologies and social structures, living as nomads, riding around in convoys of wagons or trucks powered by steam engines.  (Wellman calls them "cars" and "trains;" while each has its own engine the leader's car generally pulls the lot of them.)  The convoys follow highways that have been cut through the dense jungle and kept clear by regular applications of salt.  The people of Titan have swords and single-shot muzzle-loading pistols and the leaders wear mail, though metal is scarce so most of the fighting men wear leather armor or go without.  They don't have books or apparently any written language.  A typical tribe has about 30 to 60 fighting men, and of course a bunch of women and other noncombatants, kids and old geezers.  The different tribes may barter with each other, but often fight.

A smallish human tribe, led by Birok, in flight from a particularly large Truag tribe led by a particularly ambitious Truag, Hekta, arrives in Sojarr's valley.  Sojarr's great strength and ingenuity impresses the blonde tribe, and Sojarr becomes a valued member of the Birok's band, their best fighter, best hunter, best fisherman, etc.  He also has the sharpest and most durable sword, because he makes it out of a piece of space age metal from his father's crashed space ship.  While he is valued, the native humans are also suspicious of poor Sojarr, as he is brunette and tan while they are blonde and fair; Birok is also wary of Sojarr, because, as in so many adventure stories, the leader of a tribe is selected through single combat, and Birok knows that Sojarr, twice as strong as any Titanian, could beat him if he chose to challenge him.

Birok's small tribe tries to avoid Hekta's large tribe but eventually, in the seventh of Sojarr of Titan's twenty-two chapters, Hekta's tribe catches up to them.  Sojarr's strength and ability as a tactician save the day, and he sends Hekta packing after severing one of the creep's four claws.  (Don't worry, alien sympathizers, Truags regrow lost limbs.)  In Hekta's wagon train they find a human woman clad in mail--she is Vara, daughter of a large human tribe's leader; Hekta captured this babe when she was foolishly off alone hunting.  Vara's father had no sons so he taught his daughter to fight and lead and hunt.  

One of the minor themes of Sojarr of Titan is inter-species breeding and mutations, and Hekta had the idea of having children with Vera to father a super race!  (Birok and Sojarr's other detractors have been alleging dark and tall Sojarr must be the product of such a union.)  Fortunately for Vera, she isn't in a Tanith Lee or Jack Vance story, and Hekta hadn't had a chance to put his scheme into operation before she was liberated.  But she's not out of the woods yet!  Birok declares that Vara is his prize; Sojarr demurs and he and Birok fight.  Sojarr wins, of course, but he spares Birok.  According to local tradition, Sojarr should be acclaimed leader of the tribe, but some people object because he is an outsider.  Luckily, just then a monster attacks and Sojarr demonstrates his fighting prowess and his inventive ability (it is a flying gas bag kind of monster and in the course of the fight Sojarr employs a parachute he invented out of huge flower petals) and after that everybody drops any vocal objection to Sojarr's assumption of the role of chief.

Three years pass, during which time Sojarr expands his authority to four more tribes whose warriors he arms with superior weapons and armor made from the hull of his father's space ship.  In Chapter IX the story changes gears, as another Terran space ship lands on Titan, that of John Kaiser, whom we immediately suspect is a villain because he is "plump" (if his name hadn't been enough of a clue.)  Kaiser's ship is crewed by men facing debts and criminal charges back in civilization.  Kaiser himself is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but he loves money, and has come to Titan in order to win a prize offered by the Goddard Foundation to the first person to successfully travel to Saturn.  One reason he wants money is so he can offer to his niece Ursula, the only person in the Solar System he has any fond feelings for, a life of luxury.  Ursula is headstrong and brave, and to Kaiser's dismay has sneaked away from school to stow away on his ship and and thus accompanies her uncle and his band of scoundrels to Titan.

Ursula is a beautiful redhead and the plot of Sojarr of Titan now focuses on not only Kaiser's efforts to make sure he secures the reward which is rightfully Sojarr's, but a Vara-Sojarr-Ursula love triangle.  Vara and Ursula may be strong-willed women who are always ignoring what men tell them to do and jumping at the opportunity to chop somebody with a sword or burn a company of aliens to ashes with a ray gun, but I guess they aren't truly feminist figures because both of them fall in love with hunkalicious Sojarr within moments of laying eyes (blue for Vara, green for Ursula) on him.   

As soon as the doorway of her cabin was closed upon her, she was quite ready to die herself, or to kill others, for the pure purpose of defiant escape.  The sight of the ray thrower--a sovereign oxidizer and cutter of the toughest metal--was all she needed.
Besides the action stuff, Wellman throws us some science and technology content.  Kaiser and Sojarr's groups fight, Soajrr's forces routed by Terran high technology, and Ursula figures out the surprising origin of life and culture on Titan (Titan was colonized by Atlantis--the human Titanians are descendants of Atlanteans) and Kaiser and his fellow disreputable scientists work on exploiting an element unique to Titan that can foster the production of superior weapons and space craft.   

Hekta captures Ursula, and the Titanian and Terran humans make a truce.  Sojarr and Vara rescue Ursula and kill Hekta, and then the Terran debtors and criminals realize Kaiser is plotting to murder them so he can get all the money from the scientific discoveries on Titan.  In the final showdown Kaiser is slain, and Sojarr has to choose between the two beauties.

A fun pulp adventure.


The March 1941 issue of Startling includes a "Scientific Crossword Puzzle" with clues like "Bacteria that require free oxygen for the maintenance of their vitality" and "Cryptogamous plant growing on the ground, decaying wood, rocks, etc."  In the letters column, known as "The Ether Vibrates," Harry Jenkins, Jerry Datlow and Arthur J. Burks praise Edmond Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla (I blogged about it back in 2017.)  Datlow also liked Henry Kuttner's A Million Years to Conquer, as did Lee O'Connell, who tells us he is thirteen and has been reading SF since he was eight.  (I also blogged about A Million Years to Conquer AKA The Creature from Beyond Infinity back in 2017.)