Thursday, July 30, 2015

West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn

"You're proposing," Dorothy said, "to take a chance on love?"
Wright was tranquil, watching the meadow.  "Whenever men put their chips on the other thing they always lost, didn't they?"

One of the few of my 386 SF paperbacks that is not currently packed up in a cardboard box is my Dell edition (#9442) of Edgar Pangborn's West of the Sun, a novel that first appeared in 1953.  My copy was printed in 1966; I purchased it at Second Story Books in Washington D.C., a cool place to buy old prints (I got a Kenyon Cox print) and tribal masks (these are outside the MPorcius budget) as well as 50 cent paperbacks of obscure SF novels.

I was afraid to guess what the blue thing was... could it be a plesiosaur fin?  Is that you, Nessie?
The collage on the cover by Hoot von Zitzewitz is pretty insane; from left to right we've got an orangutan with a (I guess) spear that our man Hoot helpfully drew in, some kind of sea anemone, young lovers running on the beach (we all remember that scene with Elke Sommer in 1962's Douce Violence don't we?) a tree (on fire?) and a hand drawing a bow.  Are these images emblematic of what takes place in West of the Sun?  Sounds like readers can look forward to the sex and violence we all crave in our genre literature.  Looking through Hoot's body of work via google, I was a little surprised to see that Dell used the same cover on its British edition of critical darling Judith Merril's ninth Annual of the Year's Best S-F anthology.  Maybe there was hope that the orangutan would join the rocket and the robot as iconic SF images suitable for any SF paperback's cover.

Internet SF gadfly Joachim Boaz told me (via twitter and in a comment on my post about Pangborn's Davy) that West of the Sun was so weak that he couldn't finish it, but I had just read Nicholas Thomas's book on James Cook's voyages so I was all revved up to explore new territory, no matter how forbidding!

Our cast of characters, and
Second Story's 50 cent stamp
The year is 2056.  The Earth is divided into two unhappy camps, a technocratic and technophilic socialist West ("the Federation") and a despotic East ("Jenga's empire.")  Human freedom has taken a hit, but the Federation has made major technological advances, and as the novel opens the multi-ethnic crew of the Federation's first star ship is about to land on Lucifer, a "red-green" planet named for the "son of the morning."  We get a serving of one of the novel's themes (the potential for all people, and all things, to do both good and evil) right there on the third page of text, when the mission's intellectual leader, Doc Wright, tells his comrades, "Lucifer was an angel....Devils and angels have a way of turning out to be the same organism."

Due to a fault in the construction of the star ship (perhaps an indication that the technology-obsessed Federation isn't even good at what it professes to be its primary focus) the six astronauts who lived to see Lucifer are shipwrecked on the red-green planet.  They quickly meet and befriend a member of an over-sized hairy race of territorial individualists; this character is depicted in all his glory, battling a serpentine reptile, on the Italian edition of the novel, and, I suppose, is represented by our man Hoot with that stock image of an orangutan.  Soon after, contact is made with a society of war-like Stone Age (Pangborn uses the word "Neolithic") pygmy villagers. As Harry Harrison would do with the reptile people in his Eden series in the 1980s, Pangborn flips gender roles with these belligerent shorties; among them the females are big and strong and form the ruling and military class, while the small and weak males are sensitive and raise the kids and form a parasitic priestly class.

The second of the book's three sections takes place a year after the arrival of the humans.  Doc Wright and his crew have tried to convince the queen of the pygmies to stop enslaving people and breeding them for the dinner table, but the pygmies are reluctant to change their ways, and, besides, are busy with a war against another, much larger, empire of pygmies.  Much of this second part of the book is taken up with a blow by blow account of the climactic battle of this war between pygmy empires; the humans with their firearms and a cadre of the hairy giants lead the smaller group of pygmies in battle.  The tone of the war chapters is tragic--the human led side is defeated, and we get lots of scenes of minor characters dying, Iliad-style.

The novel's final section takes place ten years after the Earthlings' landing. The handful of humans, giants and pygmies who survived the war have founded a peaceful city on an island. The pygmies have given up cannibalism, slavery, religion, and their antipathy to the giants.  While Doc Wright was building a libertarian utopia, Ed Spearman, the human most closely associated with the socialists back on Earth, struck out on his own to make himself ruler of yet another empire of pygmy villagers.  (One of Doc Wright's catchphrases is "No one is expendable," which reminded me of Ayn Rand's exhortations that every man "is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others"--Spearman's oft-repeated catchphrase is "you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs," a cliche associated with Stalinism and warfare.)  When Doc Wright and friends meet Spearman for the first time in years he is a paranoid dictator of a crumbling city.

Minutes after the meeting with Spearman, in one of those coincidences books are filled with, Earth's second star ship lands nearby.  The four members of this ship's crew are individualist small-government types, like Doc, so when everybody is sitting around drinking wine and talking about how Marx and Lenin suck, Spearman steals the new ship and flies off.  The last dozen pages of the novel are a transcription of a conversation in which Doc and his buddies describe the philosophy and practice of the utopia they have built on Lucifer.
When I talked about Davy, Pangborn's celebrated 1964 novel, I suggested it had a lot in common with the works of big name SF writers Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, and the same can be said for West of the Sun.  Like in so many Heinlein stories we get a strong dose of individualism (the likable Earth characters are dismissive of socialism, democracy, collectivism, and the state in general) as well as a discussions of the nature of freedom.  As in both Heinlein's and Sturgeon's work there is a hostility to religion, conspicuous anti-racism, and a stress on the importance of love (e. g., Doc Wright preaches to the natives that "we are all one flesh").

We even get scenes of nudism, another Heinlein/Sturgeon interest, one of those relationships in which an adult man marries a woman he knew as a prepubescent girl (like in Heinlein's Time for the Stars and Door into Summer), and group marriages.  The character of Dorothy, a young black woman, embodies much of the novel's ideology.  She was assigned to the mission as a little girl, straight from the government orphanage (it took eleven years to get to Lucifer.)  (I don't know why the government would use up any of the seven crew slots on its first interstellar mission on somebody with no college degree and no work experience, but there it is.)  Once on Lucifer she takes the lead in diplomatic relations with the pygmies, stripping off her top to demonstrate she has no weapons, and so the leaders of the matriarchal natives (who have four boobs) will be able to tell she is a fellow woman (though two boobs short.)  Dorothy married Paul Mason during the space trip, but when Wright looks to him to see if he approves of sending his wife on this perilous diplomatic mission, Dorothy strikes a blow for individualism and feminism, insisting that whether she will take this risk is her decision to make.  Later in the novel Dorothy bears not only Paul's children but another man's.

I mentioned above that I just read 400 pages about Captain Cook's three voyages to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s, and things in West of the Sun kept reminding me of stuff that happened to Cook and his compatriots.  The pygmies, for example, share attributes with some of the various Pacific and South American people Cook encountered: they practice cannibalism, wear tattoos and a smelly oil, worship giant idols, and their culture is characterized by tension between a priestly class and a warrior class.  Maybe Pangborn was influenced by accounts of Cook's explorations?

Click and squint to read Kim Stanley
Robinson's fulsome praise of Pangborn
West of the Sun also brought to mind Virgil and Horace.  Like those Latin poets and their readers, the human characters in the novel are preoccupied with memories of a recent civil war back on Earth.  Like the Trojans in the Aeneid, the humans and the pygmies in the novel flee trouble at home to found a new and better civilization.

I found West of the Sun interesting because of all these connections I was able to detect (or concoct) to other books I've read, and I am sympathetic to its ideology, but is it entertaining?  When it comes to style and pacing, it is just pedestrian, and the characters are not particularly well drawn or memorable. One of my issues with the novel is that there are very many characters, too many to really keep track of: eleven humans, ten or so pygmies, a bunch of giants, and a bunch of riding animals that are given precious names like "Miss Ponsonby" and "Susie."  (My apologies to all the Ponsonbies and Susies in the audience--your name is just too adorable!)  Another of my gripes is how the most interesting human characters, Dorothy and Spearman, disappear from the narrative for long stretches.  Paul is the main character for long periods, and he is just not compelling.

In the end, I have to give West of the Sun my overused "acceptable" rating.  Not bad, but not thrilling or special.  I can't decide whether I like it more or less than Davy... Davy has a better style and is more ambitious, but I think West of the Sun is better structured and more even.


My copy of West of the Sun has five pages of ads in the back.  None are for SF books, though some are for books that would perhaps be of interest to the SF community, like Arthur C. Clarke's novel about World War II flight technology, a pile of anthologies with Alfred Hitchcock's name on them, and the source material for one of the iconic manly man's films.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Five stories by George Gissing from the 1890s

You can blame P. G. Wodehouse for getting me interested in late Victorian novelist George Gissing.  A guy who writes about "gray squalor" and whose books "don't sell?"  Sign me up!  I liked "The Prize Lodger," published in 1896 and collected in the 1898 volume Human Odds and Ends: Sketches and Stories, so I decided to read some more of the book's 29 stories.  Neither the college library in the little town where I am currently residing nor the Des Moines Public Library seem to have any fiction by Gissing, so I turned for succor to the folks at Google, who have scanned an 1898 edition of Human Odds and Ends held by Harvard University; the PDF is freely available (along with scans of other editions) via Google Books.

If you have some beef with Google, you can read the stories in Human Odds and Ends as e-texts at a webpage dedicated to Gissing maintained by Mitsu Matsuoka of Nagoya University.  Personally, I like old typefaces, while my career as a subaltern in the academic ranks (duties included scanning and copy-editing hundreds of pages of mind-numbingly lame social science articles which would never be peer-reviewed) has made me preternaturally suspicious about scanning errors, so I stuck with the Google scans.

Last week, I read the first five stories from Human Odds and Ends.  The website indicates that these stories all first appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine, a fact I confirmed by taking a look at issues of the magazine from the collection of the University of Michigan, also digitized by the tireless people at Google.  These PDFs preserve for posterity the illustrations adorning each story (samples below.)

"Comrades in Arms" (1894)

At a restaurant a successful young novelist, Wilfrid Langley, is sought out by a friend, Bertha Childerstone, a woman ten or so years older, who writes articles for periodicals and lives on the edge of poverty.  She falls ill, and is incapacitated for over a month, during which time Langley pays her bills, gives her money, writes articles published under her name, and visits her daily.  He has been hoping to get married (on the first page of the story Gissing suggests that his freedom is not enough to satisfy him: "No one was dependent upon him; no one restrained his liberty....And for all that... something seemed to him amiss in the bounty of the gods") and falls in love with Childerstone during her sickness.  When Childerstone is nearly recovered he makes his feelings known, but she rejects his proposal of marriage and warns him that he should not get married, that it would "spoil" him.  After she is fully recovered Langley gets over his love for Childerstone and their relationship returns to its former, platonic, character.

To me, this story seems to be about how clever women can manipulate those around them.  Much is made of Childerstone's younger sister Cissy, and how big sister Bertha guided her into marrying a man Bertha thought suitable, even manipulating events to make sure Cissy did not marry Langley.  Gissing suggests that such manipulation is not necessarily wholly selfish or malicious; Childerstone is the self-sacrificing type, and one reason for her illness and poverty is that she "worked herself to death to provide" for her younger sister, among other things financing Cissy's trip to South Africa to be with her betrothed.  Childerstone also seems to be manipulating Langley, for her own benefit--he pays her bills and does her work while she is ill--and for what she sees as his--discouraging his inclination to marry her, or marry anybody.

Which brings us to the issue of marriage in the story.  Langley's success feels hollow because he does not have anyone to share his life with; this feels like Gissing advocating marriage.  But Childerstone strongly argues against marriage--she doesn't want to get married, she "prefers the freedom of loneliness," and she urges Langley to follow the same course.  Perhaps in the same way that Proust tells us in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time that friendship is a waste of an artist's time and energy, Gissing is arguing that marriage is an impediment to a creative person, that a writer should be willing to sacrifice happiness in order to pursue his (or her) art.

"The Justice and the Vagabond" (1896)

Like "The Prize Lodger," this story tells of a man dominated by his wife.  (Marriage is getting a bad rap in these Gissing stories.)  As it did in "Comrades in Arms," illness plays a prominent role in the plot.

Dick Rutland and Henry Goodeve were close friends at boarding school, in their early teens; both wanted to travel the world.  As an adult Rutland, who is quite rich, has no opportunity to travel because his provincial wife ("a woman of narrow mind and strong will; she ruled him in every detail of his life") does not care to do so, and is always pushing him to do this or that (running for electoral office, performing highly visible charitable works, opening flower shows and presiding over public lectures) in order to maintain her status among the other country ladies.

By chance, when they are in their forties, Rutland and Goodeve meet again.  Goodeve has travelled all over the globe, working his passage on ships, painting houses, doing plumbing or carpentry, and other odd jobs.  Rutland laments that Goodeve has lived the life of a man, while he has lived the life of a "slave" and a "vegetable."  "I mean, what a glorious life! I envy you, Goodeve; with heart and soul I envy you!"

Rutland's wife is away for a few days, and he comes up with the scheme of running away to Latin America with his old chum.  He will skip town before his wife gets back, leaving her a note--he knows he hasn't got the nerve to disobey her to her face. Goodeve makes the arrangements, getting steam ship berths and so forth, but Rutland (who has been under the weather since the story's first line) gets seriously sick and dies in his sleep, leaving poor Goodeve at the docks to assume the wife got to his hen-pecked buddy before he could escape.

"The Firebrand" (1896)

In his youth, I am told, Gissing was a socialist, but after a few years got better.  He really burnishes his conservative bona fides in "The Firebrand," a portrait of a left-wing agitator who doesn't espouse radical beliefs and stir up trouble because of a sincere concern for the working classes, but out of selfish desires to be a big man and further his own career.  (Or does he?)

At age eighteen, Andrew Mowbray Catterick, considered by some "an idle dog...given to self-praise," leaves the North Country town of Mapplebeck for London.  Five years later he returns; he's had a difficult time, years of little sleep and little food (one of Gissing's recurring themes is how physically taxing the life of a professional writer is), but is now a journalist for two London papers.  His "revolutionary opinions" embarass his Conservative family (Mom has "a comfortable four hundred per annum"--on her death half of it will go to Andrew) and Catterick flaunts these opinions, as well as his contempt for the people of the small town he grew up in.  He starts giving vitriolic speeches to the local miners, urging them to strike.  "A strike there undoubtedly would be, sooner or later, and how could he more profitably occupy his leisure than in helping to bring it about? The public eye would at once be fixed on him; with care and skill he might achieve more than local distinction...."

The more trouble Andrew stirs up the worse things get socially for his family ("Respectable Mapplebeck talked indignantly of his reckless and wicked meddling....")  There is even talk of postponing sister Bertha's wedding to the Dickensianly-named Robert Holdsworth, a solicitor.  Bertha lets slip that her brother is a coward, and Holdsworth forges a threatening letter to him; ostensibly it is from miners opposed to a strike, who warn that if a strike occurs, they will beat Catterick up.  This threat is all too believable (Catterick is well aware that the strike will hurt the miners financially, and that many are prone to violence), and when the strike begins, Catterick, making various excuses, flees to London.

Gissing certainly seems skeptical of the wisdom of the strike, and portrays Andrew Catterick as a selfish, hypocritical coward.  But Gissing also points out that, having lived in poverty himself in London, Catterick has some sincere sympathy for the workers.  While Holdsworth and the female Cattericks are the victors in the story, they win by trickery and are as selfish, or more selfish, than Andrew: like Andrew (who wants to become a famous journalist) they are driven by a desire for the approval of their social peers and a low opinion of their social inferiors.  Nobody in the story has pure motives, and nobody is particularly sympathetic, with the possible exception of the miners, whom their social betters callously disregard and use as pawns in their status games.

"The Inspiration" (1895)

On a whim, a wealthy man invites a pathetic door-to-door salesman in for dinner.  The pedlar is honest and intelligent, but also lazy:
"I'm one of those men, sir, that weren't made to get on in the world. As a lad, I couldn't stick to anything—couldn't seem to put my heart into any sort of work, and that was the ruin of me—for I had chances to begin with. I've never done anything to be ashamed of—unless it's idleness."
I know how you feel, buddy!

The wealthy guy feeds him a hearty meal and gives him a pep talk, invigorating the pedlar, who runs out and convinces his childhood sweetheart, now a wealthy widow, to marry him.  He could never have done it without the rich guy's support:
"Do you suppose," continued the other, gravely, "that I could ever have done that if it hadn't been for your dinner ? Never! Never! I should have crept on through my miserable life, and died at last in the workhouse...."
I think this is the only of the six Gissing stories I have read in which marriage is not looked upon as some kind of mistake or (as in "The Firebrand") the impetus to some kind of misbehavior.

On the face of it, this is a story with a happy ending.  But when we consider how narrow a margin (a single meal!) lies between a life of lonely misery and one of joy and comfort, and that it was only by the merest luck that the pedlar got on the right side of that line, Gissing seems to be leading us to think that our lives are governed by chance, or a whimsical Fate or God.  (The pedlar directly compares his benefactor to "the finger of Providence.")

On the other hand, maybe Gissing is suggesting that while the universe appears chaotic, in fact Providence metes out justice.  The pedlar, being lazy, suffered loneliness and a crummy job for years, but after this period of penance was given a second chance.  (Being essentially honest and decent, he was not sentenced to Hell, only to Purgatory, where he was cleansed of the sin of idleness.)  This interpretation is bolstered by the character of the widow, an innocent person who is rescued from a life of loneliness and the clutches of legacy hunters by the pedlar's unexpected arrival.

"The Poet's Portmanteau" (1895)

I've heard that Gissing's work is full of creative people who struggle to make ends meet and create their art, and here we have an example.  In this story a young poet, having spent ten months in the country writing a long poem, The Hermit of the Tor, returns to London to try to sell the piece.  At a lodging house he meets an attractive, educated young woman, Miss Rowe, who has fallen on hard times; each makes a powerful impression on the other. Rowe, a starving artist, driven to desperation, tricks the poet out of eight shillings and steals the portmanteau which holds the only copy of The Hermit of the Tor. She sells the luggage and all its contents, save the poem.  The money is the difference between life and death for her; she is able to leave London and get a crummy job (her art career is abandoned) which keeps body and soul together, and then marry a rich man she does not love.

Eight years after his manuscript was stolen the poet has abandoned his poetry career and taken up the lucrative trade of writing sentimental novels.  A mysterious woman, an aficionado of his novels, calls on him, to return the manuscript of The Hermit of the Tor, which she says was given to her by Rowe.  Rowe, she claims, recently died.

The poet, who has never married, is intrigued by this mystery woman, who will not give her name. She advises him to eschew marriage ("I'm delighted to know that you keep your independence.")  It is strongly implied that this woman is the former Miss Rowe, and that she and the poet would have found happiness together if her poverty had not pushed her to fraud and thievery.  The day these perfect mates met, instead of setting them together on the road to happiness, set them on a course that would see them turning their backs on their artistic dreams and living lives of financial security and loneliness.

As in "Inspiration," we see how thin for some people is the margin between happiness and misery, even between survival and death, and as in "Comrades in Arms" we see a woman arguing that marriage stifles an artist.


I like these kinds of tragic stories, in which love relationships are fraught with peril and people's hopes and dreams are dashed, and Gissing's style is good.  Being over a century old, they also provide a little insight into ways of living and thinking of our predecessors; these stories have enough raw material about such issues as class and gender to get any social science or liberal arts grad student salivating.

Googling around, I noticed some people have awarded Gissing with the appellation "feminist," and it seems worthwhile to consider how he portrays women in these five stories.  Do they provide reason to believe Gissing has earned the feminist seal of approval?

On the one hand, we do have examples of mothers and the wives who stifle the men attached to them by blood or marriage, a time-honored male complaint.  But both sexes suffer from the yoke of matrimony in Gissing's stories, and in "Comrades in Arms" and "The Poet's Portmanteau" the institution's most vocal critics are women who value freedom and independence.  Also, in "The Poet's Portmanteau" the mysterious visitor points out one of society's double standards: "She [Miss Rowe] was a girl who did what is supposed to be the privilege of men—sowed wild oats."  Maybe Gissing really does deserve the feminist label.


I'll be exploring more of Gissing's body of work in the future.  Until then (if it is not already too late!), make sure to think twice before letting somebody put that ring on your finger.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" and "The Miracle of the Lily" by Clare Winger Harris

Via twitter, internet science fiction gadfly Joachim Boaz pointed out to me the recent reprint of Clare Winger Harris's 1947 collection Away From the Here and Now and urged me to sample her work.  Being an inveterate cheapo I googled around and found two stories by Harris that are available as free e-texts, both from issues of Amazing Stories that hit newsstands in the late 1920s, and I read them this recent holiday weekend in those periods when I wasn't watching small town parades and fireworks displays, or making a pilgrimage to a statue of Godzilla.

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" (1927)

Clare Winger Harris had a story in Weird Tales in 1926, but "The Fate of the Poseidonia" is celebrated for being the first story published by a woman under her own name in a "real" science fiction magazine (I guess Weird Tales is considered more of a fantasy or horror magazine.)  Besides getting diversity points, "The Fate of the Poseidonia" has a cool origin story: editor Hugo Gernsback ran a contest for the best story based on the pretty insane cover illustration of Amazing Stories' December 1926 issue, and Harris won third place.  Her story was included in the following June issue, along with the first and second place winners.

December '26 on the left, June '27 on the right; click to get a closer look at these beauties

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" was reprinted not only in Away From the Here and Now in 1947 and 2011, but in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2000 and Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century in 2006.  My fellow tightwads will be happy to know they can read a scan of the original 1926 magazine version (including the original R. Frank Paul illustration) of the story at the Internet Archive, and a somewhat easier to read version at the Amazing Stories website, which includes a new (CGI?) illustration as well as a charming 1929 hand drawn portrait of Harris that first appeared in Science Wonder Quarterly, another Gernsback publication.

At a lecture about Mars our first-person narrator, George Gregory, meets a man named Martell, to whom he takes an immediate and irrational dislike.  Martell has an unusual physique, as well as skin of a strange hue and texture (Gregory notices when they shake hands.)  During the slide show (about how Mars is running out of water and so if people live there they are in a hell of a lot of trouble) our narrator notices that Martell's eyes glow in the dark!

Things gets curiouser and curiouser when Martell moves into the apartment next to the narrator's, and then starts dating Margaret Landon, Gregory's girlfriend!  Our hero sneaks into Martell's flat and discovers a device sort of like a two-way holographic TV.  Gregory's experiments with the communications device leave no doubt that Martell is a Martian spy, one of a group of alien agents here on Earth!

I liked the first half of the story; big emotions make for powerful drama, and I had hopes that Gregory's hatred of the alien and jealousy over Landon would lead to some dramatic scenes.  Unfortunately, in the second half of "The Fate of the Poseidonia," Gregory is more of a spectator to the plot than the driver of the action, and his hatred and jealousy have no role in the story.  Harris spends lots of time describing what Gregory views on Martel's communications device.  Gregory is captured by the cops for trespassing and put in a mental hospital.

Of course nobody believes his story of Martian spies until it is too late.  In the funny farm he reads newspapers that describe how mysterious space ships steal water from Earth (sea level drops "by several feet"!) and attack the ocean liner Posiedonia, on which Martell and Landon are passengers.  Martell (I think, though maybe Landon contrived to do it) has the communications device mailed to the narrator at the booby hatch.  Gregory fires it up, and receives a final message from his lost love Landon, now a captive on Mars, where the Martians have taken the Posiedonia as a sort of trophy.  I guess Landon is also a sort of trophy; the Martians let the rest of the Earthlings on the cruise liner perish in the cold of interplanetary space.  So ends the story--Mars has gotten away with grand theft, kidnapping and mass murder, and only one Earthman knows the truth!

As an early SF story, appearing a decade before the first publications of such giants of the Golden Age as Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt, "The Fate of the Poseidonia" deserves some examination. One thing that Harris does that is interesting, and fits very much into the SF mold, is try to depict a future, hi-tech, high science society in which people have private aircraft, ocean liners travel 100 mph, and our calendar has been replaced by an allegedly more rational system with 13 months of 28 days each.

I mentioned above that Harris had a story in Weird Tales before getting this one into Amazing, and I think in many ways "The Fate of the Poseidonia" resembles weird fiction (exemplified by somebody like H. P. Lovecraft) more than a traditional SF story of the adventure variety (say by Edgar Rice Burroughs) or of the sciency/engineering type (by somebody like the aforementioned Heinlein or Asimov.)  The protagonist does not drive the plot and determine its outcome by using bravery, martial prowess or intelligence to defeat the enemy and/or solve a problem; instead, like in so many Lovecraftian stories, our hero learns something horrible is going on, is powerless to stop it, and ends up in an asylum.  At one point Gregory actually uses the phrase "weird tale;" perhaps Harris winking at the audience?

Making Margaret Langdon a viewpoint character in addition to, or instead of, Gregory would have improved the story, as we could have witnessed the Martian attack and the trip to Mars firsthand, and Harris could have written about Langdon's evolving feelings about Gregory and Martell.  Maybe Harris and/or Gernsback doubted the readers of Amazing would like a female lead or care about the kind of relationship drama I would be interested in.  

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" isn't a particularly poor story, if you can accept the fact that the hero doesn't do much besides listen to lectures, read newspapers, and watch TV.  Unfortunately, it has some problems that should have been fixed (or were perhaps introduced) during the editing phase by Gernsback or one of his employees.  For example, it is unclear when the story takes place.  At one point we are told it is 1945, but at another that it is "the winter of 1894-1895."  Presumably the latter is just a typo for "1944-1945," but a character later states that there has been no war for "many generations."  How many generations passed from 1918 to 1945?  Could "many" be a typo for "a" or "two?"  (There is also a sentence in which the word "insignificant" appears, when I think "significant" is probably what Harris intended.)

Another problem that stuck out for me was how Harris includes in the text a transcription of a radio message from the doomed Poseidonia, but makes no effort to make the message sound like it came from a professional sailor calling for aid--it is wordy and emotional (like the last page of a Lovecraftian narrative) instead of concisely informative, and the sailor reports speed in "miles per hour" instead of "knots."
An interesting document in the history of SF, but as a story "The Fate of the Poseidonia" is merely acceptable.

"The Miracle of the Lily" (1928)

This one appeared in Amazing Stories' April 1928 edition.  Besides Away From the Here and Now it has been published in anthology books and magazines like 1968's Science Fiction Classics and 1980's Bug-Eyed Monsters, as well as female-centric 21st century books like Womanthology and The Dreaming Sex: Early Tales of Scientific Imagination by Women.  I read a free e-text; you can check out a scan of the original magazine, which includes a full-page illustration that spoils "The Miracle of the Lily"'s twist ending, at the Internet Archive.

(There are also fun ads: "Play the Hawaiian Guitar Just Like the Natives Do...You'll never be lonesome with this beautiful Hawaiian Guitar," page 88.)  

"The Miracle of the Lily" is a sort of history of the future in which a guy, Nathano, in the period 3928-3938, goes through the archives, reading old documents relating Earth history since the 20th century, and then describes to us his role in a revolutionary change.  The story doesn't have much emotional impact or characterization, and there are no human relationships, though it has some good ideas.

A main theme of the story is the idea that, just as the reptiles once ruled the Earth and were then overthrown by the mammals, that mankind's rule of the world will come to be threatened by the insects!  In the 30th century insects and the human race battle to the death!  Humankind triumphs by burning all of the world's vegetation and abandoning agriculture for good (food is produced by factories, while oxygen-producing machinery maintains a breathable atmosphere.)  With no plants to eat, the insects follow the plants into extinction.  

Another theme of the story is the boredom of life in the technocratic utopia run on scientific lines for maximum efficiency that reigns after the extermination of the insects.  In what we would now call a post-scarcity economy, with no enemies to fight or goals to achieve, human life lacks excitement or satisfaction, and people stop reproducing, leading to a population decline.  Sensitive people like our narrator Nathano lament that a world whose landmass is covered 100% in concrete lacks beauty.

In the year 3928 new avenues of excitement appear, however.  For one thing, Nathano finds some seeds put into storage by an ancestor and grows a lily.  The flower is so beautiful that romantic types across the world begin planting gardens of their own for pleasure, and are soon followed by foodies who insist that natural food tastes better than factory food.  For another thing, the Earth is in radio communication with people on Venus. The Venerians ask for help in a dreadful war to the death with insects, a war that apparently mirrors the conflict won by humans on Earth a thousand years ago!

Then comes the Twilight-Zone-style twist ending.  In 3938 somebody finally invents interplanetary TV, and it is discovered that the Venerians are giant beetles and ants while the pests they want to exterminate are little humanoids!  And Nathano discovers a beetle in his garden!  The war between mammals and insects is back on, and going interplanetary!

I don't have to tell you that this story's science is crazy and the plot is full of holes (the Earthlings and Venerians learn each other's languages and exchange technical information for years without revealing fundamental physical characteristics like how many limbs their people have?)  I don't let these kinds of things distract me very much from a good drama, but there really isn't much drama in the story.

"The Miracle of the Lily" is a little more sciency than "The Fate of the Poseidonia," with all the ecosystem/evolution stuff, but I think it still has a lot in common with weird fiction: people investigate the past and other planets, and in the final pages of the story discover mind-shattering horrors that are likely ineluctable.  On the good side, I like anti-utopian stories, and how Harris looks at the psychological and sociological effects on people of living on a planet wholly covered by man-made structures.  Harris also includes in the story pocket radios that the characters use as we use cell phones.

Like "The Fate of the Poseidonia," "The Miracle of the Lily" is interesting as a historical document, but mediocre as a piece of entertainment or literature.


These stories are worth reading, but they aren't great.  I'm toying with the idea of reading more stories from the April 1928 issue of Amazing; this will provide context for the Harris stories I just read as well as insight into a world in which a Hawaiian guitar is considered a surefire cure for loneliness.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Kipling's "The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case" & Gissing's "The Prize Lodger"

I'm back on the icons of modern Brit lit beat!

In 1961's The Ice in the Bedroom P. G. Wodehouse mentions George Gissing as a kind of exemplar of the writer of "gray novels of squalor" which "don't sell."  Being a philistine with a spotty education, I had no idea if Gissing was a real guy or just a euphonious name Wodehouse had made up.  Wikipedia informed me that not only was Gissing a real person, but that he was considered one of England's top writers by people like H. G. Wells and George Orwell.  Certainly worthy of investigation.

Several of Gissing's greatest hits are available at, and tucked among them is an odd title, Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages, an anthology apparently compiled in 2005 that includes stories by such figures as Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan-Doyle as well as Gissing.  This sounded like it was right up my alley--I have a weakness for tales of difficult sexual relationships, and here was my chance to dip my toe in the Gissing pool of "gray squalor," and read another Kipling story while I was at it.

A charming 1960 edition of
Plain Tales from the Hills
owned by blogger Douglas Dalrymple
"The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case" by Rudyard Kipling (188?)

The Gutenberg people assert that this story first appeared in 1884 in the Civil and Military Gazette out of Lahore, where Kipling worked from 1882 to 1887.  The people at the Kipling Society say it first appeared in the 1888 collection Plain Tales from the Hills.  A little mystery for us.

Bronckhorst is an absolute anti-social jerk who is always humiliating his innocent wife and child; he takes pleasure in insulting and embarrassing them in front of visitors.  Another man, Biel, is friendly to Mrs. Bronckhorst in public, and Bronckhorst takes him to court, accusing him of having had an affair with his wife.  Kipling tells us that it is common for the native Muslims and Hindus to lie in court in return for bribes, and Bronckhorst's case against Biel relies on just such false evidence.

Biel hires a detective, Strickland, who is a master of disguise and skilled at dealing with the natives.  Strickland disguises himself as a fakir and gathers evidence that Bronckhorst's case is wholly fraudulent, and uses his ability to influence the natives to get Bronckhorst's paid perjurers to recant their testimony.  Bronkhorst is defeated in court, and then Biel thrashes him with a whip; everybody in town approves of this method of frontier justice, and Kipling hints that Bronckhorst became a better husband as a result.

This is an entertaining and interesting story; along with the detective stuff and "life in British India" stuff is the perhaps even more mysterious, and certainly more universal, theme of the inexplicability of sexual relations and marriage.  Why do women like Mrs. Bronckhorst marry men like Bronckhorst?  Why does Bronckhorst treat his wife so terribly?  Does it even make sense for people to pair off and spend decade after decade together--is seeing the same face every morning for twenty, thirty, forty years really how we want to spend our lives, really the path to happiness?  Such conundrums, Kipling suggests, are "unanswerable," and perhaps "too unpleasant to be discussed."    

First ed. of Human Odds and Ends
for sale at 
"The Prize Lodger" by George Gissing (1896)

I liked the Kipling story, but it has the trappings of adventure or genre literature; an exotic locale, a criminal trial, a detective, disguises, violence.  A collection called Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages, I had expected, would include stories of a more "literary" character, with more psychology and less of what you might call "sensationalism." I'm pleased to say that "The Prize Lodger" fulfills my expectations and is quite good--it may have turned me into a George Gissing fan!

According to "The Prize Lodger" appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine in 1896.  It was included in the collection of stories entitled Human Odds and Ends in 1898.

It is 1889 in the London neighborhood of Islington.  Archibald Jordan, age 45, has a comfortable income and leisurely lifestyle as the owner of a grocery store; he handles the books a few hours a day, and leaves most of the business operations to his partner and subordinates.  He spends his free time relaxing with friends and walking the streets of the neighborhood where he has lived his entire life.

Jordan does not own a home, but lives in lodgings, and, in fact, is famous among the local landladies for being a very desirable tenant.  He is very particular about his desires, and demands attention, but landladies are always willing to put up with his peculiarities because he is so respectable and because he not only never questions the bill, but overpays it.  To the dismay and bewilderment of the landladies, he has never, over the course of two and a half decades, stayed in one place for more than a year.

In 1889 Jordan moves into the house of a thirty-three year old widow, Mrs. Elderfield. Mrs. Elderfield turns out to be the best cook and most efficient landlady Jordan has ever encountered, and he resolves to marry her.  But the realities of married life come as a dreadful shock to Jordan.  All his adult life he has been his own master, and been able to dominate landladies, who have been eager to please him.  But as a husband it is he who is dominated.  His wife moves him out of his beloved neighborhood and into a big house in the suburban countryside, insists that he come home at the same time every evening, scolds him for tracking mud in, and demands that he break the habits of a lifetime:
'You mustn't read at meals, Archibald. It's bad manners, and bad for your digestion.'
'I've read the news at breakfast all my life, and I shall do so still,' exclaimed the husband, starting up and recovering his paper. 
'Then you will have breakfast by yourself.'
Jordan's freedom and happiness are in jeopardy, and as the story ends we are not sure what he will do.  It seems possible that Mrs. Jordan cares only about her fine house in the suburbs and her husband's comfortable income, and will not object if he moves back to Islington without her.

A great story; I loved the plot, characters, and style.  Wells and Orwell seem to have known what they were talking about!


Two good stories about marriage that express skepticism (dare we say "realism"?) about that revered institution.  There's more Kipling and Gissing in my future.

The Ice in the Bedroom by P. G. Wodehouse

"To oblige his uncle Lord Blicester, I took him into my employment and he arrives in the morning and leaves in the evening, but apart from a certain rudimentary skill in watching the clock, probably instinctive, I would describe him as essentially a lily of the field."
My copy, veteran of innumerable readings
The doughty souls who read this here blog regularly are well aware that I recently read Edgar Pangborn's Davy, a novel which was supposed to be funny but which did not quite reach the mark.  To make sure I hadn't lost my sense of humor in some head injury my wife has tactfully neglected to mention, I next read my withdrawn library copy of P. G. Wodehouse's 1961 novel The Ice in the Bedroom.  You'll be relieved to hear it inspired quite a few smiles and laughs, proving my funny bone still functional.

I acquired the volume pictured to the left at an epic sale at the Central Branch of the Des Moines Public Library; this sale has been one of the high points of my tour of duty out here in the Middle West.  A hardcover from Simon and Schuster which says "FIRST PRINTING" on the publication page, my copy of The Ice in the Bedroom was apparently one of the Des Moines Library's star attractions for several decades, and is in quite rough shape; most pages bear one or more unidentifiable stains, many are held together with tape, and several made a break for freedom while I was reading them.  Luckily I am in the midst of packing for a move and have lots of tape of my own at hand with which to give the book a new lease on life.

The Ice in the Bedroom's 246 pages are full of intertwining plots, wacky coincidences, sharply drawn characters, and references both subtle and overt to high literature.  I sometimes find Wodehouse's plots convoluted to the point that I can't really follow them, and thus regard them as little more than a dimly-seen skeleton upon which the meat of his writing, the amusing dialogue, is hung, but I was able to master the plot of The Ice in the Bedroom without undue effort.

Unlike most of the famous Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are first person narratives, The Ice in the Bedroom is told in the omniscient third person.  Our hero is Frederick Fotheringay Widgeon, nephew of Lord Blicester and resident of the London suburb of Valley Fields, but there are like a dozen other characters, and we spend as much time with each of them as with "Freddie," and witness the workings of all of their (to varying degrees, eccentric or deranged) psyches.  Foremost among these are beautiful young blonde Dolly Molloy, shoplifter and jewel thief, and her husband, con man and brute Thomas, American crooks come to London to prey upon the English middle and upper classes; and forty-something novelist Bessie Binns, who writes under the name Leila Yorke.  Yorke is probably my favorite figure in this drama.  She has grown rich writing best-selling sentimental novels of love which almost all of The Ice in the Bedroom's characters, including Yorke herself, consider "slush" or "bilge." Yorke aspires to write something dark and serious, a grim work of literary merit:
"But can you?"
"Can I what?"
"Write an important novel?" 
"Of course I can.  All you have to do is cut out the plot and shove in plenty of misery."
Dolly Molloy with the title ice,
disguised as a maid 
Freddie is in love with Sally Foster, Yorke's assistant, but Sally is angry at him and has declared she wishes to never see him again.  To bring Sally back into a state of propinquity, Freddie convinces Yorke to rent the recently vacated house next door to him in Valley Fields, which is known as Castlewood.  He tells the novelist, quite fallaciously, that Valley Fields is a grey depressed area, where she will be able to soak up lots of atmosphere for her novel about the oppressed proletariat.  Who recently vacated the palatial estate of Castlewood?  The Molloys of Chicago--Thomas ceased renting the property while Dolly was doing a brief stint in Holloway gaol.  When Dolly gets out of gaol she reveals to Thomas that she hid some jewels she stole from Myrtle Prosser, wife of Freddie's friend Alexander Prosser, in the bedroom of Castlewood, so Thomas and Dolly devise and execute many abortive plans to sneak into Castlewood and recover the hot ice. This is no easy task, as Yorke is as handy with a shotgun as a pen and Freddie's cousin and roommate George is an officer of the law.

The other characters, like Mr. Shoesmith, Alexander's father-in-law and Freddie's boss (it is his assessment of Freddie that I chose as the epigraph to this blog post) all have their own narrative arcs which interact with Freddie's and the principal characters'; these include Sally's suspicions that Freddie is chasing Dolly, Yorke's hiring a crooked private eye to search for her estranged husband, and the fallout from Freddie blowing all his savings on shares in a valueless oil field in Arkansas, sold to him by Thomas Molloy.

All the varied plots have happy endings. In particular, the reader is relieved that Yorke, displaying the sympathy for the consumer we expect from creative types, even abandons her scheme to write a "significant" literary work and goes back to giving the people what they want:
"There rose before me the vision of all those thousands of half-witted women waiting with their tongues out for their next ration of predigested pap from my pen, and I felt it would be cruel to disappoint them.....And there was another aspect of the matter.  Inasmuch as these blighted novels of squalor have to be at least six hundred pages long, hammering one out would have been the most ghastly sweat...."
Sally discovers Freddie applying
iodine to Dolly's skinned knee 
I found The Ice in the Bedroom lots of fun; the characters and storylines are all funny, but, as usual, the real joy of Wodehouse is his writing style, turns of phrase, and all the cultural references; in this one we get a surfeit of allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, George Gissing, and the literary life.  Thanks to Wodehouse fans more learned and industrious than your humble blogger, who have compiled footnotes to The Ice in the Bedroom's allusions and quotations here, none of the cultural references need escape the reader's comprehension.

Everybody and his brother, from Jack Vance and Jonathan Ames to George Will and Christopher Hitchens, is always falling all over themselves trying to tell you how great Wodehouse is, and on this topic I am happy to be part of the crowd.  The Ice in the Bedroom is a worthwhile diversion, a charming and pleasant bit of fun I don't hesitate to recommend.  I purchased a stack of Wodehouse hardcovers at that Des Moines Public Library book sale, and don't regret spending a single one of those pennies.