Saturday, October 25, 2014

Three adventures set on Venus by Leigh Brackett

Let's travel back in time to the 1940s, and across the aether to our sister planet, through the medium of three tales by Leigh Brackett, and see what is going on on that world of mystery we know as Venus!  These stories first appeared in pulp magazines, where they were the lead stories; Brackett's name, apparently, sold copies.  I read them this week in my copies of Gollancz's 2005 collection Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (Fantasy Masterworks 46) and Haffner Press's 2002 Martian Quest: The Early Brackett.  You frugal types can get all three of the stories I'm talking about today in a single four dollar e-book from Baen entitled Swamps of Venus, complete with the kind of cover art Baen is famous for.

Cover must illustrate some other story
"Citadel of Lost Ships" (1943)

Earthman Roy Campbell is a renegade!  When the government seized his family's farm and flooded the area to create a reservoir so it could generate hydroelectric power for factories, Roy took up a life of interplanetary crime.  He didn't want to work in a city like a sheep ("He'd tried it, and he couldn't bleat in tune"), so he became a space wolf, hijacking space ships and selling the hot goods to fences on Venus.  When the space patrol is hot on his trail he hides out among a tribe of peaceful Venusian natives.

But now the Terra-Venus Coalition Government is about to pull the same eminent domain chicanery on Roy's Venusian buddies!  The government is going to relocate the tribe to town, drain their swamp, and extract coal, petroleum and other valuable resources from the area!

Roy, who somehow has a better space ship than the government fleet does, blasts off from the swamp, evades the space patrol, and visits Romany, a private space station that orbits Venus and is made up of dozens of decrepit old space ships welded together.  Romany is the home of thousands of space gypsies, people of many species and races who have been driven from their homes like Roy and his Venusian friends.  Romany, Roy finds, is in the midst of a civil war between those who want to continue being a refuge for interplanetary outcasts and those who want to come out of the shadows and integrate Romany with the Terra-Venus government.  Part of getting along with the government is handing over space pirates like Roy to the space patrol, which is on its way!

"Citadel of Lost Ships" is about ethnic minorities ("little people") who use their special powers to try to resist the "progress" and "efficiency" pursued by mainstream society.  Among the various aliens on Romany are psychics from Titan who can create impenetrable force fields and a harper from Callisto whose music stuns people.  Even Roy and the human girl from Romany with whom he falls in love because of her musical voice, pale heart-shaped face and "long and clean-cut body" which has "the whiteness of pearl," are mystical minorities because of their Celtic blood: "'The harp of Dagda,' whispered Stella, and the Irish music in her voice was older than time.  The Scot in Campbell answered it."

In the end Roy sacrifices his space ship and allows himself to be captured so that Romany and his Venusian swamp-dwellers can remain independent.  Brackett gives us the hope that Roy, who has money secreted away somewhere and apparently is some kind of folk hero, will be able to get out of prison soon and be reunited with Stella.

This story is entertaining, and I like all the space ship stuff, particularly the idea of the space station built up out of old ships, and the story's attitude about progress is interesting.  Roy, the Venusian swamp-dwellers, and Brackett herself admit that the new industrial society is inevitable, and will be safer and wealthier, but they care more about freedom and independence than safety and wealth and would like to be left alone. Government seizures of land and relocation of communities "for the common good" were presumably on many people's minds in 1943; a gander at the website of the Center For Land Use Interpretation informs you that during the 1930s and early 1940s numerous communities in New England and New York were condemned and flooded to provide drinking water for Bostonians and New Yorkers, while Wikipedia tells us that over 1,000 families were relocated by the Tennessee Valley Authority to make way for the Fontana Dam, which started construction in 1942.

The weakness of the story is that the pace is a little too fast, and there are perhaps too many elements jammed into its short length (36 pages).  The Titanians and the Callistan, for example, aren't foreshadowed or developed, they just suddenly appear deus ex machina style to use their powers to resolve the plot.  And the fact that Roy and Stella are Celts is raised on one page, mentioned on the next page, and then dropped.  Some may also complain that Brackett is taking the easy way out and softening the story's drama by having everybody use nonlethal weapons (Roy, Stella, and the government agents shoot at each other with needle guns that use anesthetic needles.)

It is interesting to compare "Citadel of Lost Ships" with Henry Kuttner's "Raider of the Spaceways" from 1937.  Both are about a space pirate on Venus, both include a cast of characters from various planets, and both include interesting space battles.  But whereas in Kuttner's story the pirate is the villain, the Space Patrol is good, and our protagonist is the son of the President of a future version of the United States, in Brackett's tale the hero is the pirate, and he's a poor boy who's been disenfranchised by the government and is pursued by its agents.  Kuttner's plot holds together a little better; the thing that saves the day in the end is foreshadowed early in the story, unlike Brackett's psychics and harper, who appear in the fourth chapter of a five chapter story.

I guess this is meant to illustrate our story (?)
"Terror Out of Space" (1944)

Venus has passed through a cloud of cosmic dust, and male inhabitants of the planet are going insane, committing murder and even worse crimes! Operatives from the Special Branch of the Tri-World Police, Lundy and Smith, have captured one of the aliens from the cloud that are driving every guy nutso, and also have Farrell, one of the victims, in protective custody.  But while they are flying back to base the alien uses its special powers to drive Smith and Farrell so bonkers that the aircraft the taxpayers have provided them crashes into the black Venerian ocean.

Smith and Farrell are killed, and Lundy, in his space suit, walks the ocean floor towards the shore.  He comes upon an ancient road that leads to a city that sank beneath the waves ages ago.  Nowadays the city is inhabited by plant people.  The cosmic alien has driven the male plant people insane, and the female plant people request Lundy's help.  Lundy provides them succor, which involves fighting some voracious plant monsters that come out of a fissure in the ocean floor (with two blasters, John Woo style) and catching that cosmic alien again.

"Terror Out of Space" reads like a draft that could have stood a few revisions.  There are lots of elements and ideas in the story, maybe too many, and the clipped, rapid style, full of metaphors and abstractions, is a little difficult to follow.  Some of the similes could have been toned down; at the end of Chapter 1 we are told that Lundy "was colder than a frog's belly in the rain...."  Two pages later, in the start of Chapter 2, we read that Lundy is "cold as a toad's belly and as white."  In Chapter 4 Lundy is cold again, but happily Brackett doesn't tell us he's as cold as a salamander's belly--this time he's "as cold as a dead man's feet and just as numb."  

The cosmic alien is described as a three-inch-long engraved and fluted crystal cylinder, and it is not clear how it moves.  Until the end of the story I wasn't even sure it ever moved of its own volition; through most of the story it is captive in a little net, or (I thought) driven by ocean currents.  The crystal creature generates illusions in the minds of men--they see the most beautiful woman they can imagine, their dream girl, and they do whatever she says, despite whatever harm it causes themselves or others.  This dream girl wears a veil over her eyes, or keeps them closed, and when she opens them the man is driven permanently insane or simply dies.  Because when his dream girl opens her eyes, a man sees that behind the lids is nothing, that his dream is nothing more than a dream.

At the end of the story it is revealed that the crystal aliens have no idea they are causing so much trouble, because pain and death were never factors in their existence out in space, and they've never been on a planet before.  They like being worshiped, and were just playing around with the people of Venus as if they were toys.  This carefree attitude doesn't quite jive with the other thing we learn about the cosmic crystals at the end of the tale; being on Venus is painful to them, the gravity, which they never experienced out in space, is crushing them and will soon kill them.  The wave of madness sweeping Venus will soon burn itself out, and Lundy's detective work and plant monster blasting was essentially unnecessary.

In "Terror Out of Space" Brackett seems to be saying something about gender roles and about men's view of women, and also about the way women can use their sex appeal to manipulate men and destroy stable family life.  We see how life is lived among the plant people, whom Brackett intends us to be sympathetic to.  The plant women spend their time tending flower beds of seedlings--these flowers are their children who are not yet old enough to leave the sand.  Lundy denounces the cosmic alien for causing men to leave behind their wives and kids, and we watch as the alien commits this very crime against the entire plant people community-- the plant men abandon their wives and children to chase a sexy illusion, an illusion that leads them straight into the jaws of their deadly enemies.  Perhaps "Terror Out of Space" should be seen primarily as a criticism of home-wrecking femme fatales and a lament over how dumb men can be when they see a pair of pretty legs.  You could call it a conservative message that endorses traditional gender roles; I recall that Alpha Centari or Die! also seemed to be endorsing traditional sex roles.

It's a good idea to write a story about how men's fantasies of the ideal woman can wreck their lives, and how men will do dangerous or stupid things to impress women, but I didn't find the story to be very well-executed.  The whole thing, from the action scenes to the way the plot elements fit together, felt abstract, impressionistic, dream-like.  Maybe that was Brackett's intention?  Personally I prefer things to be sharp and clear, and so I have to give this one a (marginal) thumbs down.

Finally, an illustration that matches the story
"The Moon that Vanished" (1949) 

Of the Venerian stories we are discussing today, this is the best; plot and style are smooth, the action scenes and characters are interesting.

David Heath is an Earthman on Venus.  There is a weird site on Venus, where sits the radioactive Moonfire, apparently a fragment of Venus' long lost satellite.  The natives of Venus, whose language has no word for "radioactive," believe that the Moonfire is part of a fallen god and that those who visit the Moonfire will achieve godlike power.  Heath himself once quested for the Moonfire, but only reached its fringes, and then fled, to live as an emaciated wreck in a tavern for three years, drunk out of his mind every day!

A brave barbarian, Broca, and his girlfriend, Alor, whose "body was everything a woman's body ought to be...wide-shouldered and leggy..." demand to be guided to the Moonfire by Heath, so our hero sobers up and off they go.  Broca wants to make himself a god and Alor his goddess, and, for his part, Heath wants to use the power of the Moonfire to create a simulacrum of his lost girlfriend, Ethne.  He's even named his ship after Ethne.

For some reason, there are no space ships, ray guns, computers, radios or even internal combustion engines in this story; the Ethne is a sail boat and Heath, Broca and Alor have to use a sail to get across the ocean and then scull their way through the monster-infested and fever-inducing swamp that surrounds the Moonfire.  They are pursued by the merciless priesthood of the Moon, whose ship has an emerald green sail.  This whole sequence is well done, real adventure stuff.  During the perilous trip Alor loses interest in the brutish Broca and falls in love with Heath, adding human drama.

The Moonfire gives those who remain in its environs the ability to manipulate matter, to make their dreams come true.  As in "Terror Out of Space," Brackett suggests that men's foolish dreams can ruin their lives and the lives of those who love them; the crater around the Moonfire is littered with the bodies of men who lived in dreamworlds of their own creation and died of starvation rather than leave.  Heath tries to create his dream vision of Ethne, but realizes it is Alor, a flesh and blood human being, whom he truly loves.  Broca creates a huge castle full of slavish courtiers and tries to achieve revenge on Heath for stealing his girl, but Heath and Alor escape to live happily ever after.  It would be easy to see this business of the Moonfire as being Brackett's attack on drugs, masturbation or even (ulp!) escapist literature as cheap and artificial ways of producing happiness which only serve to get in the way of true happiness, which comes from mature love relationships with other human beings.

I'm glad I read this one last, as it is by far the most satisfying of the three stories.


Recently, Jesse of Speculiction reviewed Leigh Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars" and made the bold assertion that Brackett is superior to her towering predecessor in the planetary romance field, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  He has also posted a hostile review of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel, A Princess of Mars, one of my favorite books.  I like Brackett, and I like "Black Amazon of Mars," and I certainly recommend that fans of Burroughs read "Black Amazon of Mars," but I'm going to have to register some disagreement with Jesse here.

I can certainly see why Jesse, whom it appears believes literature should instill progressive values in readers and raise cultural standards, would prefer Brackett to Burroughs.  Brackett is a woman, and her hero, Erik John Stark, is non-white, and Brackett includes more proactive and heroic women in her stories than does Burroughs, so all the identity politics points are on Brackett's side. And Burroughs certainly celebrates martial prowess (I recall John Carter in his later adventures telling us he enjoys life-or-death fighting!), aristocracy and imperialism (though both Carter and Tarzan do go native, preferring the violent barbaric world they come to dominate to the modern Western world, even as they bring some of the cultural benefits of Western society to the barbarians), while Brackett's heroes are working-class and Brackett is skeptical of elites.

Beyond these political considerations, Brackett, as Jesse points out, has a more modern style than Burroughs, and, writing decades after Burroughs began his own career, has a modern noirish or "hard-boiled" sensibility.  Brackett's stories also tend to be more believable than Burroughs', in which Carter and Tarzan single-handedly fight off dozens of foes at a time in close combat.

However, for me, Burroughs is the superior writer.  I recognize that it is not for everybody, but I love Burroughs' old-fashioned style, which is clear and straightforward, but, as Jesse suggests, somewhat formal.  I also enjoy his Victorian attitudes.  One reason I read science fiction and fantasy books is to explore a different world, and nowadays every TV show, every film, every newspaper, and every college class goes out of its way to decry racism, sexism, and homophobia and promote the interests of women, minorities and "the environment."  Burroughs' books, which simply accept or actively celebrate values we are now reminded tirelessly to abhor, are a window on a different world.  Similarly, nowadays "sophisticated" people are all cynical, sarcastic and "ironic," while Burroughs' books are sincere and optimistic.  Carter has a clear sense of right and wrong, loves Dejah Thoris utterly, and declares more than once in his career, "Where there is life, there is hope!"  Paradoxically, Burroughs' books, some published over 100 years ago, feel fresh.

Jesse hints at this paradox when he likens Burroughs' work to a sexy dangerous rebel, which in some ways is odd, because Burroughs' values were mainstream values, and it is the modern cynics who are (or purport to be) the sexy rebels.  I also think Jesse is mistaken when he suggests Burroughs' work is empty or meaningless.  In the same way that the Brackett stories I talked about above are adventure tales that try to say something about topics like the role of the individual in society, what constitutes freedom, how men and women should deal with each other and what role men and women have in society and family, some of Burroughs' work addresses important topics like the role of the state, eugenics, religion, and the virtues and pitfalls of modern and primitive societies.  Jesse's issue may not be that Burroughs fails to address life and the human condition, but that Jesse simply doesn't agree with what Burroughs has to say.

(Perhaps, on the subject of the racism of Burroughs' work, I should point out that in the second Barsoom novel, Gods of Mars, we meet the white men of Mars, who are arrogant creeps who have been bamboozling the people of Mars for centuries with their self-serving and bogus religion.  By current standards the Barsoom books are certainly racist, as Burroughs shows that different cultures and ethnic groups are different and some are superior to others, but I think his depiction of such topics is more nuanced than Jesse perhaps recognizes.)    

Most important to me, when comparing Burroughs and Brackett as entertainers (and of course their primary objective is to entertain) is how vivid and vibrant their settings are, and how thrilling their scenarios are.  I find Burroughs' Barsoom, and his fantastic version of Africa with its intelligent apes, to be more memorable, striking and "alive" than Brackett's settings. The weird alien cultures and exotic beasts Burroughs created have taken up permanent residence in my mind, and I think it is this facet of Burroughs' work which clearly sets him above Brackett.  I haven't read all of Brackett's work, but of what I have read, including "Black Amazon," the settings and action are not nearly as memorable as those in Burroughs'.


Oy, longest blog post ever.  We'll see if I can stick closer to the "pithy" end of the scale next time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Worlds to Conquer by Poul Anderson

"As always, he found engineer thoughts soothing.  Forces and matrices were so much easier to deal with than people." 
My (and Bill Meeker's) copy of the novel
Jesse at Speculiction recently reviewed The High Crusade, one of Poul Anderson's more famous novels. I read High Crusade soon after the start of my exile (it was in the local library here on the prairie), like four years ago, and I have to agree with Jesse that the novel is just too incredible. The idea that medieval English fighting men might have admirable qualities that are lacking in modern technological societies, like physical courage or a willingness to take risks or whatever, is an interesting insight and is typical of Anderson's work, but it is too difficult to accept them conquering societies with the wealth and organization required to achieve interstellar travel.

(On the other hand, I recall High Crusade being more readable and memorable than some of Anderson's later work, like For Love and Glory, which I read and have completely forgotten, and Harvest of Stars, which I read and remember being tedious.)

I may not be Poul Anderson's biggest fan, but I enjoyed Brain Wave and The Enemy Stars, and on this blog I have praised several Anderson stories and collections. I am quite sympathetic to Anderson's point of view, so, despite periodic bumps in the road, I keep going back to him.  This week I read a novel published four years after 1960's High Crusade, Three Worlds to Conquer, which was first serialized in If in the first months of 1964. I have the Pyramid paperback, X-1875, printed in 1968.  This copy, for which I paid $1.50 in Minnesota, was originally owned by a Bill Meeker.  

Fellow SF fan Bill Meeker,
we salute you!
Three Worlds to Conquer is a traditional science fiction story about science and wars.  Our hero is Mark Fraser, an engineer on the Ganymede colony of 5,000 people.  He's a skilled pilot of space craft and also the human most adept in the lingua franca that has developed between humans and the natives of Jupiter known as the Nyarr.  Because Jupiter is so inhospitable to human life, humans and Jovians have never met in the flesh, but for over a decade the two civilizations have corresponded via a neutrino-based transmitter system.  As the novel begins Fraser's counterpart on Jupiter, Theor, is asking for Fraser's help because another Jovian society, the Ulunt-Khazul, have launched an aggressive war on the Nyarr.  But Fraser has his own problems--the civil war taking place on Earth has just spread to Ganymede, and the crew of a space battleship (a huge sphere bristling with gun turrets--awesome!) is arresting all the technical personnel on the colony!

The narrative alternates between Theor and his war on the Jovian surface and Fraser's struggle on Ganymede; Theor and Fraser conduct their relationship entirely through electronic communication.  Three Worlds to Conquer thus reminded me of those hard SF classics A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (1999) and Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement (1954), which also centered on long distance human-alien relationships.

After suffering military defeats at the hands of their enemies, Fraser and Theor use their engineering ability, rhetorical skill, and willingness to incinerate people with rocket exhaust, to win the day.  

There is a lot of science in Three Worlds to Conquer; we hear all about neutrinos, the solar wind, the atmosphere and geology of Jupiter, and what kind of orbits space ships have to take to efficiently travel about the solar system.  I think Anderson spends two entire pages of Chapter 2 describing the neutrino communications device to us readers.  For the most part this stuff is convincing and interesting.  More fun, perhaps, is the strange ecosystem Anderson comes up with for Jupiter, particularly the plants, animals and people that fly/swim in the thick Jovian atmosphere.  He also makes a creditable effort to figure out what kind of technology the Nyarr and other people living on Jupiter's surface, under tremendous pressure and in terrible cold, would have.

Anderson has a tragic sense of life, and, besides all the people who get massacred in these wars, this is expressed in Fraser's relationships.  A skinny 40-year-old who complains about getting old, he has a wife and children, but his marriage has obviously grown stale.  When Fraser returns from a week-long mission to Io, he goes to the neutrino transmitter to talk to Theor before he goes to see his family.  ("Bros before hos," I guess, even if your bro is an alien you've never seen.)   Fraser and Lorraine Vlasek (mmm, pickles), a woman whose loyalties seem to vacillate between the two different sides in the Earth civil war, have a sad unconsummated love affair.  Fraser also deals with the stress of his work on Ganymede by smoking a pipe and taking "happypills," and frets when tobacco and "psych medicine" are in short supply.  Anderson doesn't imply any moral judgments about Fraser's attitude towards his family or his reliance on stimulants to get through a Ganymedean day.

Characters and style aren't the strong point of this short (143 page) novel; it's a story about plot and ideas.  There aren't any libertarian speeches like the one at the end of the Van Rijn collection Trader to the Stars, but Anderson's politics are in evidence; Fraser carps about government censors and bureaucrats, and Theor gets out of a predicament by trading with primitive natives he encounters.  Anderson portrays war as preferable to living under tyranny or surrendering what is yours, but many minor characters are willing to give up and/or collaborate and have to be convinced by people like Fraser and Theor to do the right thing and stand up for what is right.  And while wars will happen, at the center of the novel is the idea that different cultures will most profit through trade and friendship.

Not spectacular, but solidly entertaining; Three Worlds to Conquer has all the classic hard SF elements, and doesn't outlast its welcome, as new things keep popping up to maintain the reader's interest.


Some four years ago Joachim Boaz reviewed Three Worlds to Conquer; you'll have to take my word for it that I read his review after drafting mine. 

If we have any substantial disagreements about the novel, it is about Fraser's wife, Eve.  Joachim seems to think her lack of "screen time" is a careless flaw, perhaps a sign of sexism.  I, as I have suggested above, think this is a conscious artistic choice by Anderson, an effort to depict a stale marriage.  The very last line of the book is actually about Eve, and Fraser's strained relationship with her, suggesting Anderson thought the Fraser marriage an important element of his novel.

Joachim also suggests the aliens in the novel are silly-looking, but I thought them better than the cat people, teddy bear people, and girls with blue or green skin we so often get in SF.


The last page of my edition of Three Worlds to Conquer is an ad for the "Latest Science Fiction!" published by Pyramid.  Of the seven books advertised, I've only read the two included Jack Williamson Legion of Space novels, first written in the 1930s ("latest" indeed.)  I remember enjoying The Cometeers (yay, space war!), but being disappointed in One Against the Legion (instead of interstellar naval warfare we get a detective story in a space casino.)  Joachim read the Sturgeon collection A Way Home last year, and gave it a mixed review.

Feel free to let the world know via the comments why we should seek out The Butterfly Kid, Venus Equilateral, Against the Fall of Night, and The Synthetic Man, or why we should avoid them like we'd avoid the ammonia seas of Jupiter.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti

"Humanity is fickle.  In general, I do not love it.  Yet how gladly at that moment I would have joined with them.  The mob brooks no jesting.  Fearful is its vengeance...."
Growing up, then commuting to college and then work in suburban New Jersey, meant that for the first 25 years of my life I spent approximately 30,000 hours a week in an automobile. Then for over ten years I lived and worked in New York City, a blissful motor-car-free interlude. Four years ago I was driven by the black verdict of fate from that Eden, so I’m back on the 30,000 hours/150,000 mile a week plan.

As a kid, I loved to sleep in the car; similarly, as an adult, I loved sleeping on Metro North, the commuter train that travels between beautiful Grand Central Terminal and points north. I find the movement of the vehicle very soothing, the passing landscape hypnotic. Of course, I can’t go to sleep while crisscrossing the Middle West in the driver’s seat of my dented Toyota Corolla, so to stay awake I listen to the radio.

One black September night while I was barreling home at 70 miles per hour on Route 69 (or 65, I can’t keep these damn highways straight) John Batchelor, while talking to a scientist about monkeys, started running his yap about a Modernist novel called Auto-da-Fé by an Elias Canetti. It sounded pretty good, so I tried to find it at various nearby libraries, but had no luck. So I broke down and purchased a 1984 printing of the novel used, and this week read it.

Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria, traveled Europe in his youth, and in 1981 received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Auto-da-Fé, published in 1935 in Germany under the title Die Blendung, consists of three parts and totals 464 pages in the 1947 English translation by C. V. Wedgwood, which Wedgwood did in collaboration with Canetti himself, who lived in the UK for some decades following the Anschluss.

In Part One, "A Head Without a World," we meet eccentric and reclusive genius Peter Kien. Kien is the world’s foremost sinologist, and resident in a German city with his library of 25,000 books. Kien has refused many offers of university chairs, and conducts his work in private, living on an inheritance. Thanks to his peerless memory, vast erudition and iron discipline, each of the few papers he produces is a work of seminal and revolutionary importance in its field.

Kien lives for his work and his beloved books—money, food, sex, friendship, these mean nothing to him. He recognizes a need for rest and exercise, so every morning he takes a walk around the city, carrying with him a briefcase full of books to keep him company. He carefully selects which books to carry each day, and holds the briefcase close to his body as he takes his constitutional.

One day, in a moment of weakness and delusion, 40-year-old Kien is tricked by his ugly 57-year-old housekeeper, Therese, into marrying her. An ignorant, greedy, domineering and stupid woman, in short order Therese destroys Kien’s life, rearranging his orderly and comfortable home and schedule, stealing his money, physically beating his frail body, and finally throwing him out of his own apartment and onto the streets.

Part One of the novel is full of memorable images (Canetti’s description of Kien’s book-lined apartment is quite fine), psychological insights (throughout the book we are privy to the characters’ fantasies and dreams), and compelling scenes. Many scenes struck a chord with me, reflective as they were of the difficulties some of us have living with another person. In one scene Kien is so disturbed by the sight of the new furniture his wife has introduced into his rooms that he takes to walking around the apartment with his eyes closed. Kien’s memory is so exact and his library so well-organized that even blind he is able to retrieve any book he requires from among their thousands. In another scene, while confined to a sick bed, Kien has the delusion that he has grown ear flaps with which he can stop up his ears and protect his mind from Therese’s repetitive and moronic chatter.

In Part One we saw evidence of Kien’s tenuous grasp on sanity—he gives a stirring speech to his assembled books, for example, and has long conversations with apparitions of Chinese philosophers—but in Part Two, "Headless World," Kien’s mental state deteriorates further. Having memorized all the books in his library, Kien figuratively carries his books around in his head. But Kien comes to take that phrase literally, and each night he pantomimes pulling the books out of his skull and piling them up in his hotel room.  Kien even lays paper on the hotel room floor, so his noncorporeal books won’t get dirty, and hires a man, a hunchbacked Jewish dwarf, to help him with this task.

The dwarf, Fischerle, is a brilliantly realized and brilliantly funny character.  Fischerle is an unacknowledged chess master with ambitions of moving to America and building himself a palace.  He haunts a low class café where he pimps out his wife.  Kien in the second part of the novel reminded me of Don Quixote, and Fischerle plays the role of his Sancho Panza, but a malevolent Sancho who takes advantage of Kien’s delusions, stealing the money that Therese didn’t manage to get her mitts on.  Part Two climaxes with a long chapter that serves as an epic of Fischerle's hilarious adventures with Kien's money, which he uses in a tragic attempt to learn English, move to America, defeat the official chess champions and marry a millionairess.

In the third part of the novel, "The World in the Head," Kien totally, self-destructively, loses his mind, and we meet Kien's brother George, a psychiatrist who lives in Paris and is in many ways the polar opposite of Peter.   Where Peter has abandoned humanity and lived a life dedicated to favor of books, George has abandoned books and embraced humanity.  George comes to Germany to help his brother, and they find something to agree on when they have a learned discussion on how evil and disgusting women are, replete with scholarly references to Confucius, Buddha, Homer, and the Bible!  George tries to patch up Peter's life, getting rid of Therese, installing Peter back in his apartment, and rescuing Peter's books from the state pawn shop, but he is too late; absolutely insane (or "crackers," as Fischerle puts it) Peter immolates himself and his unique library.

The elements of Auto-da-Fé that most appealed to me were those about tragic male-female relationships (and there are several such miserable relationships in the book), but on the back cover of my edition Salman Rushdie and the publishers imply the novel is a “terrifying” work “concerned with the horror of the modern world….” What does this mean? Presumably men and women have been treating each other shabbily and suffering from unrequited love since the dawn of time, so that horror hardly counts as “modern.”

In about the final third or so of the book Kien, after a fight with Therese and others in the government pawn shop (Therese has come to sell her husbands books to this institution, which Canetti condemns with some bitterness), comes under the power of crowds (the subject of Canetti's famous non-fiction volume) and of the state. These powerful forces are irrational, corrupt, and quite dangerous. The crowd is eager to play some role in the Kien-Therese conflict, but its attitude towards the couple changes by the second as its members exchange one wrongheaded idea for another. When the police bring the combatants in for questioning we find that the police inspector and his officers act just as badly as the fickle and ignorant mob. Both the police and the citizens who make up the crowd relish committing violence against the helpless, and embrace any opportunity to do so.  Society, in Auto-da-Fé, as represented by the people and by the state, is an erratic and predatory monster.

Besides the horror of the urban crowd and of modern government, the talk of “horror” and “the modern predicament” on the back of the book is probably a reference to Auto-da-Fé being an attack on the importance of money and property in Western bourgeois society. With the exception of the Kiens, all the characters (and there are like eight or ten whom I haven’t mentioned) are motivated by a desire for money, and most try to obtain it through fraud. The characters often use the word “capital,” and Fischerle’s whore of a wife is called “The Capitalist” by the denizens of the café because she has a steady john who provides her a steady income. The dwarf calls his elaborate arrangements to defraud Kien of his cash his “firm,” calls Kien, the man he is robbing, his “business partner,” and calls his accomplices in this crime his “employees.” Similarly, a forger hired by Fischerle is obsessed with advertising his products to other members of the underworld.  The narcissistic and obsessive police inspector has a seat cushion which he has labelled “Private Property” and which he permits none of his colleagues to use.  In Auto-da-Fé business and remunerative work are synonymous with crime and predatory selfishness.

What are we to think of Kien, whom I have compared to Don Quixote?  Some readers of Cervantes see Don Quixote as a figure to be admired, even though he is insane and commits many anti-social acts, because The Knight of the Woeful Countenance represents a noble spirit or humanistic ideology that is in contrast to the fallen world in which he, and we readers, live. Should we admire Kien in the same way? Kien is obviously insane, and quite anti-social, but perhaps Canetti expects us to admire his dedication to books and learning and his disdain for money, despite his contempt for the common people, repeated refusals to provide even the most meager aid to his neighbors, his fantasies of murdering Therese, and dehumanizing misogyny.  Or is Kien an admonitory figure, directed at the intellectual and artistic classes, meant to dissuade them from or condemn them for turning their backs on humanity and using their gifts selfishly instead of for the betterment of society?  Perhaps it is significant that Peter and George Kien, who are undoubtedly intelligent and highly educated, make boneheaded mistakes just like the crowds and police, misjudging people and misinterpreting clues.  In my experience it is typical for academic types to look down on the uneducated common masses, and Canetti could be castigating them, pointing out that they are no better morally than those they despise, and are prone to the same mistakes. 

I enjoyed Auto-da-Fé, and would definitely recommend it. I laughed at many of the jokes (best joke: page 337), and found many of the situations, images, and characters compelling. I have to admit to enjoying the first part (pages 9 to 166) and the end of Part Two (the saga of Fischerle, pages 326 to 366) the best; a few of the middle sections, such as the long sequence at the police station, felt a little slow and repetitive. The novel is long, but not particularly difficult; I thought it was an easier read than (to pick another novel by a Nobel winner) Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I finished and can recommend, and (to pick another Modernist work) Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, which soundly defeated me after only a dozen pages or so.  I guess I should warn that some may be offended by the depictions and treatment of women in the book, and perhaps by the Jewish dwarf character, whose long nose and hideous hump are used to absurd and comedic effect time and again. On the other hand, you could easily interpret the novel as an expose of how women and the underprivileged are abused by men and society; Auto-da-Fé is the kind of book which rewards criticism from varying angles.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Far-out tales by A. E. Van Vogt: "Fulfillment," "Ship of Darkness" and "The Ultra Man"

This 1974 UK paperback edition has a mistake on the back cover,
referring to "The Ultra Ship" instead of "The Ultra Man."
This will be our last episode exploring the 1968 collection The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt.  I've liked the stories so far; let's hope the last three selections don't let us down.

"Fulfillment" (1951)

"Fulfillment" was published originally in a hardcover anthology of new stories, New Tales of Space and Time.  It seems to have been well-received; Brian Aldiss and Isaac Asimov both included it in anthologies they edited, Aldiss in the '60s and Asimov in the '80s.

This story is a first person narrative told in the voice of a super computer that has achieved self-awareness.  At the start of the tale, the computer sits on a hill in the far future, on a desolate Earth bereft of people and even atmosphere.  An opportunity to travel back in time presents itself, and the computer explores the twentieth century.  It has a battle of wits with another computer (Van Vogt readers will perhaps not be surprised that this other computer is, in fact, its own younger self), meets its creator, and solves the mystery of what happened to the Earth's atmosphere and population.  

"Fulfillment" has a philosophical point to make.  At the beginning of the story the computer is selfish and merciless, and also dissatisfied, living a life without meaning, wondering what its purpose could be.  At the end of the story it finds satisfaction in working in partnership with others, putting its abilities to use for the good of a community.  There may be a note of tragedy, though; we know that after helping humanity achieve the stars and immortality, that the computer will be abandoned on the dead Earth.

Another solid story, good and pretty far-out.

"Fulfillment":          Is it Good?: Yes.          Is it Far-Out: Yes.

"Ship of Darkness" (1948)

ISFDB is telling me that Fantasy Book, where "Ship of Darkness" first appeared, was printed in both a standard edition on pulp and a deluxe edition on higher quality paper, and that each edition had its own cover.  "Ship of Darkness" was also the cover story for the February 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination.   

Dispensing with any kind of realism, this is a sort of dream story.  D'Ormond lives some centuries in our future, in a time when interstellar travel is common.  He wants to test a time machine, and to do so must be very far from any planet, so he spends six months, all alone, flying out of and away from the Milky Way galaxy.  When the galaxy is far behind he sets the time machine for 3 million AD and activates it.

The time machine vanishes, and D'Ormond spots a bizarre space ship, a flat platform just a foot thick, but two miles long and a mile wide.  Naked people are walking on the platform, and using mental powers or something they get D'Ormond onto the platform and out of his little ship.

There's a lot of rigmarole with D'Ormond trying to figure out what is going on on the platform, trying to communicate with the people, etc.  He thinks the people on the platform are from the future and are spectacularly advanced, through evolution and/or some kind of high technology.  There is some New Age gobbledygook about men being anodal powers and women being nodal powers, and when a  similar, rival, platform appears the men sit cross legged and the women kneel, and they hold hands to generate power.  D'Ormond's platform generates more power and defeats the other platform, and the naked people become one with the universe. D'Ormond and one woman, who like him has clothes and was on some kind of probation, are left alone.

The two get in D'Ormond's space ship.  Looking at the stars, he realizes that his malfunctioning time machine sent him back in time instead of forwards.  (Greddar Klon feels your pain, D'Ormond!)  He spends months teaching the woman to speak; she pronounces his name "Idorm," and when they finally reach the unpopulated but fertile virgin Earth he has taken to calling her Eve.

To my mind this is the worst story in the collection.  Of course the Adam and Eve ending is groanworthy.  But the entire story offers little of interest--no character, no tension, no excitement, no speculations about technology or life in the future, no philosophical point of view.  I guess the story is meant to blow your mind with its crazy images and ideas ("whoa dude, this guy is his own ancestor!") but it is so unmoored from reality that it has no effect; it is like listening to somebody's surreal dream.  "Ship of Darkness" is a sterile exercise.  I've gotta give this one a thumbs down.

"Ship of Darkness":          Is it Good?: No.          Is it Far-Out?: Yes.

"The Ultra Man" (1966)

This is the kind of crazy, convoluted story in which a man attains tremendous mental powers that Van Vogt is famous for, and a good piece to end the book on.  "The Ultra Man" first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow.

The story takes place early in the history of human space flight. There is a multinational moon colony, and our main characters are the head of security, an Englishman named Wentworth, an American psychologist named Carr, and a Soviet psychologist, Denovich. Wentworth has noticed that a small but significant number of people who come to the moon suddenly develop terrific ESP powers.  These powers persist for two days, then go away, then return in a different and more powerful form for a brief period.  Carr is one such person, and while testing his novel mental ability he, by chance, uncovers an alien spy who has infiltrated the moon colony!

The alien, Xilmer, has disguised himself as a black African Muslim.  He has a communications device and a powerful ray gun hidden in his turban!  He is observing the humans on the moon colony, sending messages back to a space battleship twenty miles long!  These aliens plan to conquer the human race, and Xilmer is assessing our defensive capabilities.

Wentworth tries to catch the alien spy with the help of Carr's new powers.  Denovich, called in to help Carr deal with his new powers, instead uses a sleep drug oncarr so he can steal Carr's notes and send them home to the KGB.  Xilmer tries to dispose of Carr, but Carr's mental powers reach that second level just in time and he blows Xilmer away.  Xilmer's turban is not destroyed, and the captain of the alien battleship and Wentworth conduct negotiations through the turban as it lies on the floor in a pool of Xilmer's blue blood.

Carr's (temporary) super mental powers allow him to see the connections between things in the universe.  He can look at a person and see threads travelling from the person to every person he has interacted with, every place he has been.  He can also cut these threads, which has various effects.  He drives Denovich insane by cutting the threads linking Denovich to the woman he impregnated years ago; she died in childbirth and Carr's cutting those threads inflicts upon Denovich soul-crushing guilt. Then Carr teleports to the alien battleship, survives attack by a vast battery of energy weapons, and cuts threads linking the aliens to the moon and Earth--this destroys any memory the aliens have of the human race.  The aliens, unaware of us, leave the solar system, never to return.

Of course this story has loose threads and plot holes.  It is never explained how the moon energizes people's latent psychic powers.  And won't the aliens wonder what happened to Xilmer?  Don't they have any written or digital notes about their contact with the human race?  Recordings of their conversations with Xilmer and Wentworth? Still, I liked it.

"The Ultra Man":          Is it Good?: Yes          Is it Far-Out?: Yes.          


Before we bid a fond farewell to The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt, let's do a little tally.  Of twelve stories, eight are good, three are OK, and only one is bad.  So, a quite good collection.  But we were promised more, stories that were far-out, full of surprises and unforgettable "nova" concepts.  Did the book deliver?

I think the collection does deliver--I think it is far-out.  By my reckoning, seven stories are definitely far-out, three are somewhat far-out, and only two are not at all far-out.  

The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt is a collection I can strongly recommend.  It includes both characteristic Van Vogt works like "The Ultra Man" and "Purpose" which Van's committed fans should love, and stories like "Process" and "The First Martian" which I believe would appeal to a broad spectrum of SF readers. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Time Trap" and "The Lifestone" by Henry Kuttner

This week I read two more selections from Haffner Press's Thunder in the Void, a 2011 collection of Henry Kuttner stories.  

"The Time Trap" (1938)

One of the (many) shortcomings of this blog is that I louse up whether a work gets quote marks or italics.  Is it The Time Trap or "The Time Trap?"  At over 100 pages, is this a novel (novella?  novellete?) or a short story?  Since it was a portion of a magazine in 1938 and of a hardcover collection in 2011, I'm sticking with quotes.

"The Time Trap" first appeared in Marvel Science Stories, and in the 1970s Brian Aldiss included it in his anthology Evil Earths, which has had some pretty memorable covers. (I'd like to read Aldiss's intro to the "The Time Trap.")  Mike Resnick also included it in his collection Girls for the Slime God.
Kent Mason is an adventurous archaeologist, searching the Arabian desert for the ancient city of Al Bekr.  When he finds it, lightning activates a time machine among the ruins and he is transported four thousand years into the past, to the time when the ruins were a bustling city.  Al Bekr turns out to be a sort of Grand Central Station of time travel, where Mason meets a bunch of sinister freakazoids, among them the sexy priestess of Selene and mistress of intelligent leopards, Nirvor, and Greddar Klon, the evil genius who builds time machines and robots and currently rules Al Bekr with an iron fist.

Look, it's Nirvor and Greddar Klon!
Like "Avengers of Space," which we looked at in our last Henry Kuttner-oriented blog post, "Time Trap" includes a high proportion of prurient scenes.  In the first 10 pages, Mason, fleeing from robots, sneaks into Nirvor's room, and watches her preform a nude ceremony, invoking aid from her goddess, Selene.  Nirvor, we learn, is from the 22nd century, and, like Mason, accidentally activated the time machine and ended up in ancient times. Nirvor is astoundingly gorgeous, and she is very lonely, and tries to seduce Mason. But Mason can see the evil in her eyes, and a real man is not only good at attracting women, he's also good at resisting them! Rebuffed, Nirvor orders her two leopards, genetically engineered to be highly intelligent, to kill Mason!

After Mason escapes becoming cat food he meets Greddar Klon.  Klon is from a time thousands of years later than Mason and Nirvor's time periods, when people were good looking.  Klon is from the time period just after everybody got hit with the ugly stick; he is short, squat, with a huge bald head that holds a huge evil brain.  He has thick legs to hold up that massive skull, but skinny rubbery arms.  Klon rides around in a car that looks like a cup, and has his robots do all the physical labor.  He doesn't even torture people himself!  It was Klon who invented the time machine which is accidentally transporting people all over the calendar; in fact, he didn't intend to travel to Al Bekr in 2000 BC, either.

Alasha is the one sleeping in the floating prison;
she isn't being tortured here, but her turn will come!
Klon's Time Machine 1.0 was the kind that doesn't come with you (he was trying to travel to the future on his first trip, but somehow put 'er in reverse!) so he's been stuck in Al Bekr for a while.  He has taken time off from building his robots and Time Machine 2.0 to make himself dictator of Al Bekr.  In the first 20 pages of the book we see how he keeps the population under his thumb.  Klon calls an assembly of all the town's residents, and has his robots publicly torture a naked girl to death. (This scene is immortalized on the cover of Marvel Science Stories.)

When he took over, Klon imprisoned the legitimate ruler of Al Bekr, Alasha, an "elfin" beauty.  Mason rescues her, but then Nirvor catches Mason and the queen in a pit, where a centaur (stitched together Dr. Frankenstein-style by Klon) tries to rape Alasha.  Mason kills the centaur, and Kuttner tells us how the blood of the monster covers Alasha's pale naked body!

Klon finishes his second time machine and disappears into the future with Nirvor.  The bulk of the 105 page novel follows Mason, Alasha, and some other characters as they pursue Klon through time.  Klon plans to go to different periods of time, stock up on weapons, and then make himself the dictator of the Earth of 1929, and Mason and friends hope to stop him.

Lookin' good, Mother Earth!
Like "Avengers of Space," "Time Trap" is episodic; the characters move from locale to locale, fighting the creatures they encounter at each locale, getting captured, escaping, and witnessing women being tortured or killed.  (One woman is eaten by a plesiosaur!)  Some of the situations they find themselves in and creatures they meet are great (I love the image of a desolate far future Earth, the moon so close that it takes up a third of sky and causes tsunami-like tides) so I found the story entertaining and am willing to recommend it.  I was even taken by surprise at the end by one character's betrayal and by the revelation that Nirvor was not born human, but is a leopard turned human by Klon; those two leopards I thought her pets are her sisters!

I think "Time Trap" is probably better than "Avengers of Space," to which I have been comparing it.  The characters are more interesting, their motivations are more compelling.  Nirvor, for example, is a leopard elevated to the status of a human, but is frustrated in her dreams of having her humanity validated by receiving the love of a "real" human.  However, I want to note that Thunder in the Void is ostensibly a collection of space operas, and "Time Trap" is not really a space opera.  There are robots and ray guns, it is true, but the characters never leave the Earth!

"The Lifestone" (1940)

This one appeared in the February issue of Astonishing Stories, under the pen name Paul Edmonds.  Seventy years passed before "The Lifestone" was reprinted in Thunder in the Void.  All you cheapos out there can read the original issue of Astonishing at's magazine page.

A thousand years in the future mankind has colonized the solar system and humans live side by side with various alien natives.  The natives of Mars are one such race.  In the days of the Neanderthals the Martians had an advanced culture, but currently they live as desert nomads.  The Martians worship an ancient stone, the Lifestone, which humans are forbidden to see, much less handle.  When human Felix Lang steals the Lifestone and sneaks it onto the merchant spaceship Starbird, the nomads go berserk and threaten to kill all the humans on the planet!

The 27 page story begins on the Starbird.  Captain Griffin has figured out Lang is the thief, and holds him at needle gun point.  Then a meteor wrecks the Starbird, and Griffin and Lang end up together in a lifeboat.  They are rescued by a ship owned by two natives of the Moon, but these guys are crooks and steal the Lifestone for themselves.  

"The Lifestone" includes some racial essentialism you might not see in a story written today:
Griffin was sure now that Lang had some of the conscienceless Callistan stock in him--the cold-blooded, passionless exactitude of that race, and probably some candid, naive Venusian blood as well.
Moon people, we learn, are addicted to gambling, and, instead of splitting the profits from holding the Lifestone for ransom, the Selenites gamble to determine which of them should take custody of the stone and monopolize the profits.  What to gamble on?  How about a fight to the death between Lang and Griffin in the jungles of Titan?

Can Griffin survive Titan, outwit the Selenites, and get the Lifestone back to Mars before the human residents of Mars are massacred?

This is a fun story; in particular, Kuttner shows a lot of creativity in the bizarre creatures with which he populates the jungle on Titan.  


The violence against women in "The Time Trap" may offend some, and I wouldn't expect members of the Callistan Anti-Defamation League or the Interplanetary Society for the Improvement of Venusians to appreciate "Lifestone," but I enjoyed these fast paced adventure stories, full of strange creatures and striking settings.  So far, Thunder in the Void is a winner.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"Itself!," "Process," and "Not the First" by A. E. Van Vogt

Let's return to my 1968 Ace paperback of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt.  In this episode we'll look at some quite short stories by Van Vogt.  "Itself!" takes up just two pages, "Process" is merely six, and "Not the First" is thirteen.  Can Van Vogt produce stories that are both good and far-out at this length?

"Itself!" (1962)

To my amazement, this story appeared in the January 1962 issue of Scientific American, alongside articles like "Two-Phase Materials," "The Fine Structure of the Gene," and "Aftereffects in Perception."  But when I went to the august website of Scientific American I found no references to my man Van.  Hmmm... the mystery is explicated at the site.  Van Vogt, as well as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, and Frank Riley, sneaked into the pages of Scientific American when they were hired by Hoffman Electronics Corporation to pen short short stories to be placed in the firm's two-page ads.  (The advertisements have the theme "we are turning science fiction into reality!")

"Itself!" is about a self aware, apparently self-directed submarine that protects the Pacific from space aliens who seek to hide in the ocean depths prior to nuking us into oblivion.  This story is short, but Van Vogt packs it with futuristic weapons and even some laughs.  It seems that the ship's computer has not only been programmed to act like a territorial animal, it also has a subroutine or a secondary computer that eggs it on, working on its machismo to get it to do its job.  When an alien ship approaches, this voice, called by Van Vogt, "The Alter Ego," nags "You're not going to let somebody invade your territory, are you?"  When the aliens score a hit on Itself, the Alter Ego says, "You're not going to let them get away with that, are you?"  Somehow I found this very amusing.

The story suits the ad because Hoffman built a superior periscope for U. S. Navy submarines.  The Hoffman ad also indicates that they built some kind of model or novelty item based on the story, but they provide limited details about this item.

"Itself!":          Is it Good?: Yes.          Is it Far-Out?: Moderately far-out.

"Process" (1950)

This is an odd story, and seems to have caught people's attention when it first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It later appeared in some "Best of" anthologies and was the basis of a cover story in Andromeda, a Canadian comic book.

The main character of "Process" is a sentient forest.  The forest goes to war with adjacent forests, and is tricked by the crew of a space ship into mining uranium 235 for them. There is not much more to it than that, but the unusual topic and point of view, the striking images, and the effective pacing make it compelling and entertaining, and the prose is better than average for Van Vogt.

"Process":          Is it Good?: Yes.          Is it Far-Out?: Yes.

"Not the First" (1941)

"Not the First" was published in Astounding, and is one of those old-timey SF stories that is actually about science and engineering, with a little psychology thrown in.

Captain Harcourt is in command of the first spaceship able to achieve a speed greater than that of light, thanks to its advanced atomic engine.  But when the ship exceeds that speed, some "reaction of atomic energy on the fabric of space" drains the ship's electric batteries, leaving the ship with no electricity.  Even worse, the ship starts to accelerate at an incredible rate--soon the ship is traveling at a speed "a billion times that of light."  Sol is so far behind that it is virtually impossible for the crew to ever find it again.  And what's that?  We're flying directly into a star and will be burned up in less than an hour?

"Not the First" appeared as "Niet
de Erste Keer"in this Dutch collection.
  Where have we seen this cover before?
Most of the story consists of the science and engineering types trying to figure out how that disaster occurred, and how to get out of this pickle.  We also witness the captain using various psychological techniques to manage the crew, fostering conditions conducive to them coming up with ideas as fast as possible.  The door to the engine room is run by electricity, so the crew builds a steam engine out of whatever is laying around ("parts ripped out of great packing cases") to get the raw physical power needed to force the door open.  (They use uranium 235 to boil the water.)  Just before the ship flies into the star they manage to throttle down the engine.

But "atomic energy had created an initial tension in space, and somehow space demanded an inexorable recompense."  This means that, for the ship and its ill-fated inhabitants, time goes into reverse.  Van Vogt provides descriptions of people walking backwards, talking backwards, booze leaving their stomachs to fill the glasses raised to their mouths, etc.  Events in the ship rewind to the point when the ship broke the light barrier, and then goes forward again, and the same exact events occur.  The crew is doomed to live this disaster again and again, an infinite number of times.

I didn't find the physics of "Not the First" very convincing or even understandable, but the science on "America's Test Kitchen" taxes my little brain, so we should maybe put that aside.  I also found the ending a little disappointing, though I don't have any ideas of my own on how to get the crew out of the predicament the author has placed them in.  On the plus side, Van Vogt does a good job conveying the tension felt by the crew of the doomed ship.  I think this one deserves a passing grade.

"Not the First":    Is it Good?: Moderately good.     Is it Far-Out?: Moderately far-out.


These stories were pretty good, and pretty weird.  "Process" in particular is the kind of SF story that should appeal to SF fans who don't care for van Vogt's usual insane plots, obsession with psychology and mental powers, and convoluted syntax.

Only one more episode of this thrilling series to go!  How will "Fulfillment," "Ship of Darkness," and "The Ultra Man" stack up against those stories that came before?  Stay tuned to this ultra channel to find out!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"The Earth Killers," "The Cataaaa" & "Automaton" by A. E. Van Vogt

A British hardcover edition.  Groovy!
Let's explore more far-out stories from my paperback edition of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt.  As in our last episode, we are not only judging these stories on their literary merit and entertainment value, but assessing the veracity of the publishers' advertising: are these stories truly "far-out?"

"The Earth Killers" (1949)

Like "The First Martian," this is an anti-racist story.  Unfortunately it is inferior in every way to that tale.

Morlake is the most physically fit of the American military's test pilots, and he is up in the air, testing the new S29A superplane, on that terrible day in 1979 when atomic bombs blow up the largest U.S. cities, killing forty million people!  Morlake actually sees the bomb that hits Chicago, and notices that it is falling straight down.  A bomb sent from Russia or China or one of America's other rivals would follow a parabolic path, so the bomb must have come from the Moon!

Morlake is the only man with this information, and when he lands he runs into serious resistance to his theory that the devastating attack came from space.  The US government, which now consists of the military and just a handful of senators who were away from D.C. on that day that will live in infamy, scrambles to figure out who launched the attack, but there is no evidence to point to who may have done it.

Morlake gets imprisoned, escapes, steals the S29A (he is the only guy who can pilot it), and travels across America, trying to alert people to the fact that the bombs came from space.  At the end of the 28-page story Morlake (whom we were told hates racism on the second page of the story) reveals that it was racist Southerners, led by one of the few surviving senators, who have (somehow) secretly built a base on the Moon and launched the atomic attack so they could re-institute Jim Crow.  Morlake shoots the unarmed racist senator down in the middle of a government meeting, and the army prepares rocket ships for an assault on the moon base.

The plot is just OK (and somewhat reminiscent of 1947's Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein), and the story is choppy, switching back and forth between scenes with Morlake, "big historical picture" exposition, and scenes of the military personnel who are leading the pursuit of Morlake.  The racism theme feels superficial; there are no non-white characters and race issues are not discussed. You'd only have to change a few words of the story to make the villains aliens or bankers or Communists or some other group.

It is also a little hard to believe that American dissidents without foreign help could secretly build a moon base and stock its arsenal with atomic bombs.  On the second page of the story we learn that the government rocket program is extremely expensive and was discontinued before any government astronauts got to the moon; this means that the KKK has a better space program than NASA!  Did the racist Southerners build their own rockets and atomic bombs?  If they had a clandestine network of supporters in the military who stole the space ships and bombs Van Vogt does not tell us; in fact, after Morlake kills the bigoted senator, the military leadership is all on Morlake's side.

"The Earth Killers" first appeared in Super Science Stories and was illustrated by Hannes Bok; check out the illos here at, the invaluable website for Van Vogt aficionados.

"The Earth Killers" is barely acceptable as a story, and there is nothing crazy or wild or new in it.  Sure, I love warplanes, atom bombs, and space ships, but those are de riguer, not far-out.

"The Earth Killers":         Is it Good?: Not really.          Is it Far-Out?: No.     

"The Cataaaaa" (1937)

That's more "A"s than on a [insert ethnic group here]'s report card!

"The Cataaaaa" first appeared in Fantasy Book, and was reprinted later in Marvel Science Stories and even a men's magazine, according to  It also appears in the British version of Best of A. E. Van Vogt, and so is perhaps one of the works Van Vogt is most proud of.

Cat people are a fixture of SF (though recently it has come to my attention that there is a faction of SF fans and writers who are into raccoon people.)  "The Cataaaaa" is about a five foot tall cat person who comes to Earth and ends up as an exhibit at the carnival freakshow, where he keeps his civilized nature a secret.

The cat person reveals himself to our human first-person narrator, a college professor.  The cat person is a graduate student taking a Grand Tour throughout the galaxy; his kind live for thousands of years and have the ability to travel through space using mental energy alone.

I think this may be one of Van Vogt's favorites of his own stories because of its philosophical nature.  The feline grad student takes from each planet he visits a single item that represents all significant facets of the planet's civilization.  I thought maybe a gladius or a revolver would represent humanity's constant struggle and people's all-too-common will to dominate others and need to resist domination.  Of course I would prefer space aliens to think a Greek vase or a Chinese bowl or maybe a model of the Empire State Building best represents humanity.

When the alien asks the college professor what single object he thinks should represent mankind, the prof argues that humans are essentially religious, that they need faith to survive; even those who eschew traditional religion have faith in some scientific or economic theory.  He suggests a little statue of a man with his arms raised to the skies, its base inscribed with the phrase "I Believe."            

I thought that was pretty clever, but the cat person instead says that Earthlings are characterized by their narcissism, exhibitionism, and self-love.  (Ouch!)  When he teleports away he takes with him as his souvenir the man who ran the freak show--by exhibiting freaks, we are led to understand, he was really exhibiting himself!

The college professor loses his job because when he tries to tell people about the cat alien they think he is nuts.  He starts travelling around the country, going into several bars in every town he comes to tell the patrons about the cat alien.  Ostensibly he is trying to spread the word about the dangers of self-love and exhibitionism, but Van Vogt lets us know that by telling his story at every opportunity he is simply showing himself off, proving the feline visitor right.

"Cataaaaa" is OK, I'd give it a passing grade, but I am not enthusiastic about it.  Is it far-out?  A little, I suppose.

"Cataaaaa":          Is it Good?: It's OK.            Is it Far-Out?: Maybe a little?

"Automaton" (1950)

I'm happy to say we are back in far-out territory!

"Automaton" is about a future world in which the artificial people we built go behind our backs and secretly duplicate themselves in vast numbers.  They infiltrate the government, take over the world, and enact a policy outlawing sex!  Are we going to stand for that?  Hell no!  World-wide civil war erupts between human and tobor (the artificial people call themselves "tobors" because that is the reverse of the term "robot," which they find offensive.)  Those sex-hating tobor bastards have a lot of tricks up their sleeves; for example, they have a process whereby they can take a human and turn him into an automaton, a slave ready to fight to the death for the tobors!

John Gregson is one of these poor souls who has been captured by the tobors and "dementalized," turned into an automaton. Before capture he was a brilliant chemist with a beautiful fiance, Juanita Harding; now he is just Number 92, pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the tobor air fleet!

Number 92 gets shot down over a ruined city. He survives, but is surrounded by human forces.  The human intelligence service realizes who 92 once was, and wants to capture him alive, and repair his psyche, thus returning to him his humanity.  Their strategy for doing so is to broadcast propaganda at 92 which will remind him that he is a human being, and set up a movie screen near where 92 is taking cover.  The human forces project upon the screen a film of bathing beauties!  The sight of all that feminine pulchritude undoes the tobor programming, and John Gregson is back!  He is reunited with Juanita Harding and his knowledge of chemistry ends the war--he comes up with a chemical which will make the tobors as horny as the rest of us, ending the tobor prudery which caused the war in the first place.

We've seen Van Vogt tackle the topic of android takeovers before in stories like "Living with Jane." and then there are the computers who seize power over humanity in "The Human Operators" and Computerworld.  And I seem to recall the use of movie screens and broadcast propaganda on the pilot of a downed enemy craft in the classic short story from 1948, "The Rull."

"Automaton" first appeared in Other Worlds with an illustration by Malcolm Smith.  It is a short and fun story; I found it amusing, though I'm not quite sure in what proportion I am laughing with Van and laughing at him.

"Automaton":         Is it Good?: Yes.            Is it Far-Out?: Yes.


My edition of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt, Ace paperback H-92, includes a silly jokey bio of Van Vogt from Forrest J Ackerman which may be worth reproducing here.  Ackerman was van Vogt's agent and friend.

The final page of the book is an ad for Ace "Classics of Great Science-Fiction."  Of the fifteen listed books I've only read three, Brackett's The Big Jump, Vance's Big Planet, and Simak's City.  I liked all three, and strongly urge you to print out the page, mark the titles, and put it and two singles in an envelope and mail them off to beautiful Manhattan immediately.

My man tarbandu reviewed Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium earlier this year, and couchtomoon tackled Leiber's The Big Time.  Maybe you should put three singles in that envelope.


Not as good as the first three stories (did the publisher purposefully put the strongest material up front?) and not as far-out, but these three are worth reading.  Soon we'll take a look at what else The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt has to offer.