Monday, May 29, 2017

Four 1930s stories by Edmond Hamilton

Hardcover edition
Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading the late 1970s collections The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett--I have the 1977 paperback printings of each from Del Rey/Ballantine.  Today we have four tales by Hamilton first published in 1930s issues of Weird Tales.

"The Man Who Returned" (1934)

The last time we read Hamilton we encountered stories which tried to convince you that imperialism and government interference in your private life are wrong, the kind of stuff we find in SF pretty regularly.  But "The Man Who Returned" offers the kind of lessons you get from reading Proust--that you live your life alone and you can never really know how people feel about you!

"The Man Who Returned" starts off as a story about premature burial!  John Woodford wakes up to find himself in his coffin!  With his last ounce of strength, he breaks out of the casket and staggers out of his mausoleum.  (Because he is subject to cataleptic fits Woodford has feared being buried alive all his life, and made his family agree to forgo embalming him and to inter him above ground.)  Hamilton does a good job with the physical and psychological horror business in the first part of the story, describing Woodford's panic and his desperate efforts to force his way out of his tomb.  But the real horror of the story comes when Woodford eavesdrops on his family and learns his wife never loved him--she loves his best friend!--and when he finds out that his employer of decades considered him a subpar worker and only refrained from giving him the sack because he felt sorry for him!  He thought he had a successful life, but in fact Woodward was a failure!  Realizing he is better off dead, Woodward returns to his coffin.

After I read "The Man Who Returned," I read Edgar Allen Poe's 1844 story "The Premature Burial," which I figured was likely an inspiration for Hamilton.  Sure enough, just like Hamilton's character, the narrator of Poe's story is subject to cataleptic fits and makes precautions to avoid being buried alive, a black fate of which is he perpetually terrified.  Poe's story, however, does not touch upon the Proustian issues which are the real centerpiece of Hamilton's tale; in fact, Poe's story has a happy ending, as the narrator gets over his catalepsy and his obsessive fears of being buried alive.

"The Man Who Returned" is an effective horror story.  Since first transmitting its sad and cynical realism (Leigh Brackett tells us that the story "is too damned true") from the pages of Weird Tales, it has been reprinted in numerous collections of stories from that magazine, as well as in a 1980 volume entitled Fear! Fear! Fear! edited by a Helen Hoke.

"The Accursed Galaxy" (1935)

I read and wrote about "The Accursed Galaxy," the seventh story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a few years ago and so am skipping it here.  Isaac Asimov liked the story, and in her intro to The Best of Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett uses it as an example of a "streak of misanthropy" detectable in some of her husband's work. Besides being misanthropic, "The Accursed Galaxy" is actually pretty funny--it is worth the time of fans of eighty-year-old SF for numerous reasons.

"In the World's Dusk" (1936)

As I may have mentioned, I recently purchased a big stack of Fantastics on ebay.  I have been flipping through them, and just yesterday came upon, in the May 1957 issue, a review penned by Villiers Gerson of Donald Wollheim's The End of the World. The End of the World is an anthology of six stories, and while he praises the Heinlein, Dick, Clarke and Coppel selections, Gerson expresses derision for the included stories by Amelia Reynolds Long ("Omega") and Edmond Hamilton ("In the World's Dusk"), lumping them together in this merciless paragraph:

Well, "In the World's Dusk" is the next story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton--let's see if it deserves this harsh assessment.

It is millions of upon millions of years in the future, so far in the future that the Earth is covered by a single desert because the water of the oceans has "dwindled, due to the loss of its particles into space from molecular dispersion."  Only one city still stands, the city known as Zor, and it is deserted, mankind having lost the will to live and died without issue.  Except for one man!  Galos Gann, the genius scientist!  Gann is one of those "never say die" types who refuses to believe that the days of humanity are over. "Somewhere and somehow I will find means to keep the race of man living on!" he tells the night stars.  "It is my unconquerable will that my race shall not die but shall live on to greater glories."

It is easy to see why Gerson would object to "In the World's Dusk;" it is a weird mood piece, full of romantic images and extravagant verbiage, inspired (Hamilton tells us in the afterward to The Best of Edmond Hamilton) by the fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.  Gann animates the dead, and then summons people from the past via time travel, hoping to create a breeding stock that will bring forth an heroic new human race.  But we learn that the soul is not physical, that it cannot be revived from death nor travel across time, and Gerson only succeeds in populating Zor with spiritless automatons and raving maniacs.

Finally, Gann retreats to the Earth's core, and, using powerful machines that cause earthquakes and volcanic activity, recreates the conditions of the Earth at the dawn of life.  Then he puts himself in suspended animation, measuring out his drugs so he will awake when he expects the human race to have evolved again and built a great civilization.  But when he awakes he finds he has missed this second human race's glory days, that the Earth is again a desert, and again only one city stands and again it is inhabited by a single man, the last man of his race.

I think this story is entertaining, but of course it is silly and has gaping plot holes, and its "highfalutin' prose" is not to everybody's taste.  Gerson's opinion does not seem to represent a consensus of speculative fiction editors and readers, however--"In the World's Dusk" has appeared in a number of American and European anthologies since its initial appearance in Weird Tales and its selection by Wollheim for The End of the World.

"Child of the Winds" (1936)

After those two downers that tell us that nobody appreciates us and our most strenuous efforts are a waste of time, maybe "Child of the Winds" will cheer us up?  That's what people turn back the nude-woman-in-peril cover of an issue of Weird Tales looking for, isn't it, a little lighthearted cheer?

In remote central Turkistan there is a plateau reputed to be the site of gold!  But the people who live in the nearest village tell ambitious gold prospector Dick Brent (isn't that one of Bill Clinton's nicknames?) that the place is too dangerous to visit, because the winds up there are alive and kill all trespassers.  Brent has trouble finding anybody to come along with him, even when he offers them double pay!  The only guy willing to accompany Brent is Dasan An, a semi-Westernized local who wears "white-man's clothes" and speaks a little English--this guy tells Brent he is not superstitious like the others--he has even been to Tehran!

Maybe in real life guys who have been to the big city are better informed than superstitious villagers, but, in a story that first appeared in Weird Tales, the smart money is on the superstitious villagers.  Brent, his native buddy, and Brent's four camels go up the plateau and in short order the winds hurl the camels off a cliff and batter poor Dasan An to an unrecognizable pulp.  Brent escapes this horrible fate because there is a beautiful English girl, Lora, living on the plateau, and she calls off the winds.  When she was a child Lora accompanied her father on a gold prospecting expedition up the plateau--the winds killed all the beasts and adults but kept her as a pet.  Every day the winds blow fruit up onto the desolate plateau for her to eat, and she spends her leisure time dancing with the winds.  (For some reason Virgil Finlay, when illustrating "Child of the Winds," chose to depict Lora cutting a rug with her elemental buddies--check it out at the internet archive--instead of bending his talent to the task of immortalizing the tragedy of poor Dasan An, who was pounded to jelly for betraying the beliefs of his people and trying to make a buck the Western way.)

This story has a premise somewhat similar to that of "The Monster-God of Mamurth," but where that story had interesting images and good action and horror scenes, the meat of this story is, I guess, the relationship between Brent and Lora, and this relationship is boring.  Despite all he has seen, Brent refuses to believe that the winds are intelligent beings (every time the winds pick him up or bring him some food he thinks it is just a freak coincidence) and instead of spending time describing their burgeoning love and making us care about these two, Hamilton uses up a lot of paper and ink on Lora's efforts to convince Brent the winds are alive.  Boooring.  The climax of the story comes when, having fallen in love, Brent and Lora leave the plateau to return to civilization, and those winds who want to keep Lora and kill Brent are foiled by a kinder wind.
"Tender?"  Try telling that to Dasan An's mother!
I've got to give this one a thumbs down.  The idea that the winds are living beings is already a little weak, Hamilton's love story is feeble, and both Lora's affection for the winds that massacred her party and Brent's refusal to believe they are alive strain the reader's credulity.  The most interesting character in the story is Dasan An, and maybe scholars of Western depictions of non-Western peoples will find Hamilton's portrayal of him interesting.

"Child of the Winds" would be included in the 1965 Boris Karloff's Favorite Horror Stories, which would go through several editions with different titles and covers (all these covers are worth looking at.)

"The Seeds From Outside" (1937)

Like "Child of the Winds," "The Seeds From Outside" is about a love relationship, but here Hamilton presents us with something much more convincing and interesting.

Standifer is a painter who loves to paint "green growing things" and so he leaves the city to live in the woods and tend a garden.  One day a meteor strikes, and from the landing site Standifer retrieves a small package from an alien world containing two large seeds.  He plants them, and from them grow two alien (adult) plant people, a beautiful plant-woman and a plant-man!  Standifer and the green-haired, green-eyed woman fall in love, but the jealous plant man murders her, shattering the painter's dreams of happiness.  Standifer destroys the plant man (appropriately enough, with a scythe), and then moves to Arizona where he need never again see green growing things.

Brief and to the point, I think this one works.  Hamilton sketches out an actual personality for Standifer, and succeeds in making his feelings for the plant woman seem real to the reader.  After its appearance in Weird Tales,"The Seeds from Outside" appeared in a few anthologies, including a French "Best of" collection of Weird Tales stories.


In our next episode we continue our look at Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton's body of work with two Brackett tales about women from other planets!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three stories by Leigh Brackett published during WWII

The hardcover edition of the collection,
cover by Jack Woolhiser
In our last episode we looked at four stories by Edmond Hamilton, published in the 1920s and 1930s and selected by his wife Leigh Brackett for inclusion in 1977's The Best of Edmond Hamilton.  Today the tables are turned--here are three stories by Brackett, first published during World War II and chosen for 1977's The Best of Leigh Brackett by Hamilton.  I'm reading them in my paperback edition from Ballantine-Del Rey with the Boris Vallejo cover, a celebration of the human body and stone surfaces.  This book also includes a very charming intro by Hamilton, which provides insight into Hamilton's and Brackett's quite different work habits and careers and their personal relationships (their friendship with Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, for example.)  It also enthusiastically informs us of their collaborative novel, Stark and the Star Kings, which was scheduled to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive Last Dangerous Visions.

"The Jewel of Bas" (1944)

"The Jewel of Bas" first appeared in Planet Stories, where it was billed as an "Off-Trail Novel" of "Fascinating Power." I don't know what "Off-Trail" means, but it reminds me of those hipsters who tell you that when they go to London and Paris they don't want to see Trafalgar Square or the Eiffel Tower like a damned tourist, but "experience the real Europe," I guess getting punched or groped by an authentic drunk or pickpocket in some dingy street in a lower-class neighborhood or something. Anyway, this issue of Planet Stories is available for free at the internet archive; fans of EC Comics will perhaps be interested to see the illustrations for "The Jewel of Bas" done by Graham Ingels--Ingels also did the cover for this issue of Planet Stories.

(I know you come to MPorcius Fiction Log for my boundless optimism, unflappable good nature and "get along" attitude, but I have to say that I have never liked Ingels' drawing or painting, even his famous EC work, and his cover of Planet Stories is probably the least polished and least exciting of the scores of Planet Stories covers you can see there at the internet archive.)

"The Jewel of Bas" also appears in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks #46, a copy of which I own
When I started this story I found it much better written than I had expected it to be, the setting and characters deeper and richer, more "real," than in Brackett stories I have read in the past.  Our protagonists aren't Tarzan or John Carter-like heroes, but poor people on the fringes of society, Ciaran, a sort of wandering minstrel or bard, and Mouse, a small skinny female thief, and they have a sort of semi-dysfunctional relationship, the kind we see in down-and-outers and artistic types in real life--they rely on each other, but also have endless disagreements which readily erupt into violence.  Ciaran and Mouse live on an alien planet with multiple suns which don't move in the sky, but the traditional songs Ciaran sings include clues that tell the reader that their ancestors came from Earth.  These songs also describe the powerful man, Bas the Immortal, who used an amazing artifact (his Jewel or Stone) to bring humans, and aliens (the short goblin- or kobold-like Kalds, who served as his evil army), to this world, as well as to build androids.  At the start of the story Ciaran doesn't believe the old songs, but over the course of the tale, which takes place in a forbidding desert far from civilization, Ciaran and Mouse have an adventure which reveals to them the truth behind those songs.

The plot is largely the usual adventure stuff.  Kalds who have been raiding border towns and enslaving humans add Ciaran and Mouse to their haul, but our heroes use their musician and thief skills to lead an escape.  They sneak around the base of Bas the Immortal, observing the hypnotized human slaves building some tremendous machine at the direction of the androids; Ciaran does some eavesdropping and starts learning thereby what is going on.  Mouse is recaptured, but Ciaran finds his way to the ankh-shaped couch where sleeps Immortal Bas, who has the body of a child even though he is thousands of years old--he got his immortality powers by mischance when he was just a kid on Atlantis, back on Earth.  Ciaran alerts Bas that the androids are rebelling against him, and Bas eliminates the androids and Kalds, liberating Mouse and the rest of the humans.

"Jewel of Bas" includes one of those revelations of how the universe really works that we see in so much SF--Ciarn and Mouse's world is in fact an artificial construct inside a tenth solar planet, the "suns" and everything else powered by the Jewel--as well as a revolution or paradigm shift, another thing we see in SF all the time--not only is the slave operation of the androids and Kalds overthrown, but the Jewel is running out of power; fortunately the androids' great machine turns out to be a generator capable of replacing the Jewel, and Ciaran triggered Bas' wrath just after it was finished.  Bas goes back to sleep, retreating into a perfect dream world he has created because he is sexually frustrated in his child's body--in his dreams he has an adult body and can experience adult physical and emotional relationships.

With Bas's dream world I think maybe Brackett is setting up a contrast between childish masturbatory fantasies which are "perfect" but sterile, and real life sexual relationships like that of Ciaran and Mouse, which are messy and difficult, but fundamentally more satisfying and productive.  "Jewel of Bas" may also be a sort of camouflaged attack or expression of skepticism of religion.  (Keep in mind that, in his intro to The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton tells us that the book that turned Brackett on to genre fiction and fired her desire to be a writer herself was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Gods of Mars, in which John Carter exposes the religion of Barsoom to be an exploitative and murderous scam.)  In addition to the fact that the childish and selfish Bas is often described as a god (and even sleeps on a cross), Brackett includes a minor human character who is a hypocritical religious fanatic who impedes the humans as they try to escape the menacing androids and Kalds.

Perhaps also worthy of note are Brackett's mentions of Atlantis, Dagon, Cimmeria and Hyperborea, I suspect Brackett hearkening back to the Weird Tales tradition of which H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard are the most famous exponents, and of which her husband Hamilton and her friend Henry Kuttner were also a part.  The Best of Leigh Brackett is actually dedicated "To the Memory of Henry Kuttner."        

"The Jewel of Bas" is a good story full of interesting stuff, but I can't help but feel the second half isn't as good as the first half.  Because Mouse gets captured, the compelling relationship between Ciaran and Mouse plays no role in this second half of the story.  (In 1990 Karen Haber wrote a prequel to "The Jewel of Bas" called "Thieves' Carnival," and I wonder if she was inspired to write it by a desire to explore or expand upon the Ciaran-Mouse relationship.)  The fact that Ciaran isn't a traditional muscular sword or gun slinging hero sort of weakens the climax--Bas effortlessly resolves the plot with his invincible powers while Ciaran just sort of watches.  (One of my pet peeves is stories in which the main character is a spectator instead of the driver of the action.)  To be fair, Ciaran plays his harp to lead the hypnotized humans to safety pied-piper-style, but in my opinion this is weak sauce.

"The Vanishing Venusians" (1945)

"The Vanishing Venusians," first seen in Planet Stories, was selected by Isaac Asimov (and/or prolific anthologist Martin H. Greenberg) for inclusion in Volume 7 of Isaac Asimov Presents The Great Science Fiction Stories.  You can read the 1945 version for free and check out the accompanying illustration by a Crane (if you know this artist's first name please let us know in the comments) at the internet archive.

Twelve ships (with sails!) drift across the Venerian ocean, carrying over three thousand people who have long been searching for a place to land and start a new settlement.  All their earlier land falls were met by hostile natives or disease, and Earth immigrant Matt Harker is so pessimistic that he tells fellow human Rory McLaren that it would be better if McLaren's pregnant Venerian wife, Viki, died than if she and their child lived to face any more hardships and disappointments!  Forgive Matt for being such a downer--when he sleeps he dreams of the snows of Earth, and when he's awake he can remember that "I saw our first settlement burned by the Cloud People, and my mother and father crucified in their own vineyard."  Venus is a tough place for an Earther!

When land is finally spotted, Harker, McLaren and a big black guy, Sim, volunteer to climb a cliff to scout out a plateau.  The Earthers have long run out of ammo for their blasters, so when the three scouts have to fight half-plant, half-animal monsters in a tunnel they use knives and spears.  Sim sacrifices himself to save the white men, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" inhis last moments as he holds off the Venerian hordes long enough for Harker and McLaren can make it out of the tunnel.

Atop the cliff is a paradise inhabited by birds, butterflies, and beautiful telepathic nudists.  Unfortunately these nudists consider sick or injured people to be unacceptably ugly, and when Harker falls asleep they cart McLaren, who is recovering from a wound received in the fight in the tunnel, over to the local trash pile to die, like they do all their sick and aged relatives!  Harker rescues McLaren from the refuse pit, then, confident that the nudists have no souls, has no moral compunctions about redirecting a river to flood their home and exterminate them.  Harker dies in the deluge, but McLaren survives, the paradise dries, and McLaren summons the three thousand wanders to start a settlement in this, their new home.

This is a competent if unexceptional adventure story.  Maybe the religious overtones (sympathetic to religion this time, unlike in "Jewel of Bas") and portrayal of a black character and of interracial marriage make it more interesting?  Should we applaud the inclusion of a black hero and of a human who is having a child with his nonhuman wife, or decry them as condescending tokenism, the exoticization of the "other," and a celebration of white sexual imperialism?  I'm willing to give Brackett the benefit of the doubt, but I'm also not the kind of cutting-edge thinker who thinks white women shouldn't sell burritos, so don't quote me to your humanities professor!

"The Veil of Astellar" (1944)

First appearing in Thrilling Wonder Stories (check it out at the internet archive), "The Veil of Astellar" would later be included by Terry Carr in a 1976 anthology of space operas, Planets of Wonder, and by Stephen Haffner of the great Haffner Press in a 2010 anthology celebrating Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett Day.

While there are space ships and blasters in "The Veil of Astellar," in many ways this is more like a weird or gothic horror piece than what I think of as space opera--it is about callous parasitic aliens from another dimension and a human who becomes an immortal vampire and then fears the punishment that awaits him in Hell should he ever die.  The hardbitten and regretful narrator who has to choose between a sexy dame and doing the right thing also reminded me of noirish detective stories--Brackett of course famously wrote fiction and screenplays in the hard-boiled detective genre.

The main text of the story is a document sent to the "Space Authority headquarters on Mars," the confession of one Steve Vance that explains the mystery of the bizarre disappearance of so many space ships in a glowing cloud over the last few centuries. As we read the document we learn, in dribs and drabs, out of chronological order, Vance's astonishing biography and the inside skinny about that glowing cloud that has bedeviled spacemen for so long.  I'll just give you the main outline in a straightforward fashion, like I'm handing you a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces already put together.

Three hundred years ago Vance was a pioneering astronaut, the first man to reach Jupiter.  History records that he crashed and died but in reality he was captured by vampires from another universe!  Because Vance was such a fine specimen, their leader, sexy Shirina (if you think chicks with antennae are sexy!) took him as her lover and gifted him many vampire powers.  Shirina took Vance to see the amazing sights and sample the sensual pleasures of many other universes, including the home base of the raiders, Astellar.  In return for all these boons Vance periodically moves among ordinary humans, getting work on ships as a spaceman, and then guiding these ships into the death trap that is the vampires' glowing "Veil."  The Veil brings the ships to Astellar, where the aliens devour the life force of the captured humans--Vance shares in the feast, a cannibal as well as a traitor!

Like the two other Brackett stories we have talked about today there is a lot of religion in "The Veil of Astellar."  There are references to "Satan," "Lucifer," and, in particular, "Judas" (Vance is like a Judas goat), one normal human who suspects Vance is a vampire tries to kill him with silver crosses, and one of Vance's vampire bodies is said repeatedly to have no soul.  Vance recognizes that what he is doing is evil, but one reason he keeps committing these crimes is that if he stops devouring other people's life force he will die, and he fears the punishment that awaits him in the afterlife.

Before Vance left for Jupiter three centuries ago, he had a wife, and one day on Mars he encounters a pretty young woman who resembles his wife; he realizes she is one of his and his wife's descendants.  This woman is a passenger on a ship he is going to guide into the Veil, and the prospect of murdering and devouring the soul of his own descendant shocks him into abandoning his three-century-long career of evil.  He battles it out with his alien lover and various vampiric friends using blasters, mental powers and his fists, wiping out the monsters and escaping in a lifeboat.  Knowing death is just around the corner for him, he pens this confession and sends it to the human government in hopes that someone will read the account and pray for his soul! At the same time, Vance is plagued by second thoughts--why did he turn his back on eternal life and the love of the gorgeous Shirina, when, compared to the immortal and beautiful people of Astellar, ordinary humans seem no better than cattle!

Pretty good, Brackett's plot and style are compelling.  Telling the story from the point of view of the villain, rationing out info one little piece at a time, and all the religious, moral and psychological stuff about who you should be loyal to and what rules should you follow make for an engaging story.


Michael Moorcock is a big fan of Brackett's work, and has called her a major influence on his own writing and a sort of inspiration to the people who lead the New Wave. While I have long enjoyed Brackett, I always found Moorcock's praise a little exaggerated or overblown, based on what I had read of her work.  But reading "The Jewel of Bas" and "The Veil of Astellar" has made Moorcock's praise more comprehensible; the somewhat complex and strange sexual relationships depicted in the stories perhaps do remind one of the New Wave, and the importance of travelling between dimensions in "The Veil of Astellar" are reminiscent of the importance of travel among the different aspects of "the Multiverse" in Moorcock's voluminous Eternal Champion output.  The religious components of all three of these stories also add a layer of interest--these tales have given me a greater appreciation of Brackett and her work, and I can only hope I will enjoy the next batch of Brackett stories I read as much as I did these.  But first, back to Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton for four stories from the 1930s.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Four stories by Edmond Hamilton from the 1920s and '30s

In the past I've mentioned Del Rey's cool Best of series of paperback collections of stories by classic SF authors; in fact, back in early 2016, I read 1978's The Best of Eric Frank Russell, which has an introduction by Alan Dean Foster, cover to cover.  In 1977 Del Rey put out a volume dedicated to MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton, edited by Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, as well as a book of Brackett stories edited by Hamilton.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we'll be reading both of these collections of classic adventure SF.  First up, four stories from The Best of Edmond Hamilton that first appeared in genre magazines in the 1920s and early 1930s.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" (1926)

On its second appearance in Weird 
Tales, "Monster-God" didn't get
a cover mention; I hope Hamilton 
didn't feel like he'd got demoted!
This is Hamilton's first published story, and it is actually mentioned on the cover of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared, which must have been very exciting for a writer early in his career.  The Best of Edmond Hamilton is actually dedicated to the editor who bought the story, Farnsworth Wright, who edited Weird Tales from 1924 to 1940. "The Monster-God of Mamurth" has seen quite a few reprintings, including a second Weird Tales appearance in 1935.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" is a solid Lovecraftian-type story, complete with lost city, alien and/or prehistoric god, and invisible monster.  (Though I label these elements "Lovecraftian," they were not invented by Lovecraft, and Hamilton didn't necessarily get them from Lovecraft stories; in fact, I think Lovecraft's big lost city and invisible monster stories, like "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror" and "At The Mountains of Madness" were published after "Monster-God of Mamurth."  Lovecraft's "The Nameless City" was published in an amateur periodical in 1921, but was not widely available until the 1930s.)  Hamilton includes a (mercifully brief) frame story--our narrator is a white trader in the North African desert, and one night an American archaeologist who is near death crawls into his camp.  The archaeologist luckily has the strength to take up the narration for fourteen of the story's sixteen pages, telling us how he stumbled on written evidence (an inscription on stone in Phoenician) of a previously unrecorded ancient city, and went there by himself, even though the people who wrote the inscription and all the Arabs he talked to strongly advised him to stay away.  At the ruined city he explored an invisible temple and had to fight for his life against an invisible monster, much like a spider the size of a horse, presumably the god worshiped by the city's long dead citizens.

Hamilton paces the story well, and the descriptions of dealing with an invisible building and an invisible enemy are good.  More action-oriented and less extravagantly written than your typical Lovecraft story; maybe we should call this one "Howard-like"--after all, the archaeologist escapes the multi-limbed god, and it is via an adrenaline-powered feat of desperate strength, not by using his noggin or some dusty old book!

"The Man Who Evolved" (1931)

I've already written about the second story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, "The Man Who Evolved," so I'll be skipping it here.  I read it in Isaac Asimov's fun and interesting 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age.

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" (1932)

First appearing in Wonder Stories, "A Conquest of Two Worlds" would be reprinted 16 years later by Startling Stories, whose editors heralded it as a "Hall of Fame Classic"!  Then Donald Wollheim, the hero behind DAW books and so many other laudable (and a few questionable) SF projects, selected it in 1951 for his Every Boy's Book of Science Fiction.  Sounds like a must read!

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" is a sort of "future history" in 32 pages of Earth's expansion into the rest of the solar system, a history which, as Brackett tells us in her spoiler-rich introduction to the volume, is surprisingly "downbeat" and "realistic."  This story, Brackett relates, is a response to SF stories in which the Earthman is portrayed as having the right to take over other planets, which are universally inhabited by evil monsters.  In this story the people of Earth are portrayed as driven largely by emotionalism and greed, while the aliens are largely sympathetic.

The plot: Some egghead invents an atomic power source--atomic propulsion systems and energy weapons soon follow. The boffin takes a single trip to scout out the inner planets and Jupiter, then dies in a crash upon landing on Earth.  The people of Earth quickly form a sort of world government, build a fleet of atomic rockets, and send out expeditions to exploit the vast natural resources of Mars and Jupiter; in a series of episodes that recall events in the history of British exploration and imperialism in North America, Africa and elsewhere, the Earthmen trigger and prosecute tremendous wars against the stone-age Martian and Jovian natives!  Like American Indians, the Martian and Jovian populations are seriously diminished and the survivors end up on reservations!

Besides depicting Earth settlement of Mars and Jupiter as resulting in immoral wars, Hamilton keeps reminding us how dangerous space travel and exploration are with many mentions of rocket ship crashes and illness due to cosmic rays and extraterrestrial environmental conditions.  This is a story drenched in pessimism, and unrelieved by the idea that challenges excite humanity to noble deeds of heroism, and in this it reminds me of Hamilton's 1952 story "What's It Like Out There?", which I read four or five years ago, during the Iowa period of my life, having borrowed from a university library via interlibrary loan a number of books of Hamilton stories.  "What's It Like Out There?" appears in The Best of Edmond Hamilton and I will be rereading it as part of this series of posts on Hamilton and Brackett.    

Most of "A Conquest of Two Worlds" reads like an encyclopedia entry about a military campaign, but there are dimly realized characters whose careers are pegged to the campaigns to conquer Mars and Jupiter.  In the last dozen pages of the story one of these characters, 60 years before Kevin Costner would do it, 70 years before Tom Cruise would do it, and almost 80 years before whoever the hell is in Avatar would do it, turns against his modern and imperialistic people and culture to join the primitive Jovians and aid them in their doomed struggle against the Earth!

While it is interesting as a pioneering example of a revisionist anti-Western-imperialism story, "A Conquest of Two Worlds," because it is dry and the characters are flat, is not very entertaining, so I'm awarding it merely a passing grade of "Acceptable."

A PDF scan of the issue of Wonder Stories in which "A Conquest of Two Worlds" appeared is viewable at the internet archive.  There you can see the included illustration by Frank Paul (depicting a major spoiler), a portrait of Hamilton, and an editorial introduction that tells you the story is about the crimes of the white race and greedy businessmen (everywhere I look I'm finding spoilers for this story.)  But that's not all!  The owner of the magazine hand wrote one-line reviews on each story's first page, and while he or she gushes about Jack Williamson's "The Moon Era" (and check out Williamson's slick hairdo and cool spectacles!), "A Conquest of Two Worlds" gets panned as "timeworn" and "hackneyed."  Ouch!

"The Island of Unreason" (1933)

Another piece that appeared in Wonder Stories and was accorded "Hall of Fame" status by the people at Startling, who only waited twelve years to reprint this baby.  As I learned at isfdb, "The Island of Unreason" also appeared in a mysterious 1946 publication along with another Hamilton story, "Murder in the Clinic."  This odd little book, published in Ireland by London outfit Utopian Publications, was part of a British series of books and magazines of short fiction by American authors whose covers were adorned with drawings or photos of naked women.  While many of the stories are by legitimately popular and important SF authors like Robert Bloch, Jack Williamson, Clark Ashton Smith and Ray Bradbury, it is hard not to suspect that the real selling point of the books was their covers, most of which you can see at isfdb, should you be curious.

"The Island of Unreason" takes place in a socialistic technocratic future that fetishizes "reason," efficiency and cooperation, and condemns emotion and individuality.  When Allan Mann, Serial Number 2473R6, an engineer in City 72 (the future name of New York City--what kind of media bias is this?--NYC should be Number 1!) questions handing over the atomic motor plans he has been working on for two years to another engineer because he wants to finish the designs himself, he is charged with a breach of reason.  The authorities exile him for an undisclosed period to the Island of Unreason, where there is no government.  Now, I know all you Kmele Foster fans out there are thinking an island without government would be a paradise ("please don't throw me in that briar patch!"), but the inhabitants of this technocratic society, including Mann, see a place without government as some kind of living hell!  The director of City 72 thinks by exposing Mann to life outside the paternal state will teach him how essential government really is ("cure" him of "unreasonable tendencies.")

Mann is dropped off on the island and, while initially horrified, quickly learns to cope without all-powerful government with the help of the "unreasonables" already there, who have a primitive village and a rough and ready sort of social order.  When his sentence is up and the government agents arrive to bring him back to City 72, he decides he'd rather stay on the island.

This is a better story than "A Conquest of Two Worlds" not just because I like anti-big government stories, but because it focuses more strongly on individual characters and presents more vivid pictures of societies.  It is actually amusing to watch Mann, a member of "the world's fiftieth generation of vegetarians" who is used to eating the "mushy pre-digested foods" rationed out by the government, sleeping in a government dormitory and having sex with women whom the "Eugenics Board" orders him to impregnate, respond and adapt to a world in which he has to eat fresh meat, sleep on the ground, and compete for sex partners because people get to choose who they have sex with based on their own far-from-logical preferences.

While I am contrasting them from a literary and entertainment point of view, I think we can see strong thematic similarities between "The Island of Unreason" and "A Conquest of Two Worlds."  Both feature a character deeply embedded in his society, an elite member of that society, in fact, who changes his mind about that society after being exposed to a different, less technologically advanced, society.  Both also evince a level of skepticism about modernity and progress and make an argument that a concern for material well-being can lead a society to abandon traditional morality and compromise people's freedom to an atrocious degree.


"Thundering Worlds" (1934)

Back in March we read the story from this issue
attributed to Heald, a collaboration with
H. P. Lovecraft
Over the course of this blog's life we've seen a range of types of stories from Edmond Hamilton: mad scientist stories, stories about evolution, today a weird lost city story and two nakedly political stories expressing views about Western imperialism and the role of the state in our lives.  But Hamilton is perhaps most famous for his epics about interstellar warfare conceived on the grandest possible scale with the highest possible stakes, wars in which civilizations maneuver the very planets and stars like so many aircraft carriers and battering rams as they seek to avert or inflict genocide. "Thundering Worlds," first seen in Weird Tales, is just such a story.  I read "Thundering Worlds" during the same period in which I read "What's It Like Out There?", but I have no compunctions about reading it again.

It is the far future, and the human race has colonized all nine planets, and the system is ruled by a council consisting of the leaders of each of the nine worlds.  Our narrator is the top official of Mercury, and as the story begins he describes how mankind is under a terrible threat--Sol is cooling off and the nine planets will soon be uninhabitable! The solution to this crisis is to construct atomic thrusters of mind-boggling size on each of the nine planets and then drive them like huge ships across the black void of interstellar space to a new sun!

The Mercurian's narrative relates how the nine planets go from one star to another, looking for a home.  One star produces radiation that is deadly to human life (radiation looms large in Hamilton's oeuvre), while another star system is inhabited by hostile aliens, and a terrible space naval battle between swarms of human and alien craft results.  By some terrible coincidence, these aliens (amoeba people) live in a star system whose sun is about to go nova, so they have the idea of hijacking the solar planets to escape certain doom.  When the Solar space navy repels their invasion, the amoeba people construct their own colossal atomic engines and the nine solar planets are soon pursued by four amoeba planets!

When the human migrants finally find a suitable star to orbit their worlds around, a showdown with the amoeba people is inevitable.  The narrator decides that Mercury will make the ultimate sacrifice--all the Mercurians evacuate their little world and then the narrator rams it into the lead amoeba planet, causing a five-planet pileup that wipes out the amoeba race and leaves us humans masters of all we survey!  Go Earth!

This is a fun story.  The first-person narration and a sort of rivalry between the narrator and the rulers of Pluto and Jupiter means it doesn't fall into the trap of sounding like a dry encyclopedia article that "A Conquest of Two Worlds" does.  I'm a little surprised "Thundering Worlds" hasn't been reprinted more often; maybe its lack of social or political commentary made it less attractive to editors.


All worthwhile reads by World Wrecker Hamilton, and pleasantly diverse in their subject matter and tone.  In our next episode we start The Best of Leigh Brackett with three of her stories from the 1940s.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Star Gladiator by Dave Van Arnam

"Did you know that every tenth planet, roughly, in the Zarmithian Empire has a Star Games arena of one sort or another?  I didn't, but that's over seventy arenas.  A hundred thousand lives a month....They're restocking from Kalvar."
Last week I stopped by Karen Wickliff Books, the terrific used book store on High Street in Columbus, Ohio, mere miles from MPorcius Fiction Log's current MidWestern HQ.  There I pored over the SF shelves and the wall of unsorted paperbacks, and discovered a treasure from our friends at Belmont, a 1967 Belmont Double featuring Kris Neville's Special Delivery and Dave Van Arnam's Star Gladiator.  The cover is irresistible, with its fun fonts, extravagant and exuberant tag lines, and its illustrations chock full of so many classic ("shopworn" to you cynics!) SF elements, but the contents were also intriguing.

Now, I've already read and praised Neville's Special Delivery at this here blog, but Van Arnam I know nothing about.  He doesn't have a lot of publications listed at isfdb, but he seems to have been a committed SF fan (he wrote an article entitled "How I Learned to Love Fandom" for the NyCon3 Program and Memory Book) and an expert on Edgar Rice Burroughs.  He also co-wrote some novels with Ted White, whom I like (one reason I spent all that money on ebay for all those issues of Fantastic is that I find White an interesting character.)  So, I have plenty of reasons to read Star Gladiator, which first appeared in printed form in this very Belmont Double and since then no place else (there is, however, an electronic version with an embarrassing CGI cover that seems to be channeling the Herald of Galactus.)  Science fiction is full of people getting thrown into the gladiatorial arena--let's see what Mr. Van Arnam does with this classic ("hackneyed" to you blase types!) theme.

It is the future and humankind has spread throughout the galaxy--men reside on a million or more planets, divided into numerous empires.  One such empire, of over 700 planets, is that centered on planet Zarmith II.  The Zarmithians are a real bunch of jerks who have been expanding their empire by conquest for centuries, largely to enslave people so they can throw them into their gladiatorial arenas to be murdered by beasts or celebrity pro gladiators.

Our hero is teen-aged Jonnath Gri, son of an important member of the Grand Council of the independent planet Kalvar, a planet with high gravity where everybody is physically strong.  (Shades of John Carter, whose success on Mars was partly the result of being born and bred on higher-gravity Earth.)  The novel begins when the Zarmithian military conquers Kalvar in a lightning quick attack, the Kalvarans lacking weapons that can penetrate the Zarmithian force fields.  The Zarmathians exterminate the Kalvaran leadership, but capture much of the population alive to throw into the arena!  Jonnath, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend's little sister escape extermination by hiding in a vacant mansion, where they find rifles and pistols which they use to stave off attacks by members of the Kalvaran lower classes, who are using the catastrophe as an opportunity to engage in a little looting!  Unfortunately, all that shooting draws the attention of the Zarmithian troops and by Chapter 3 (Star Gladiator has eight chapters that span like 88 pages) Jonnath is in the arena on planet Changar and his fiance and prospective sister-in-law are in parts unknown!

I like the font used for the chapter headings of Special Delivery/Star Gladiator
When Jonnath's dad wasn't calling for an independent prosecutor or legislating subsidies for his friends in the tech industry or whatever it is that a Grand Councilor of Kalvar does, he was training Jonnath in hand-to-hand combat, so Jonnath is a success in the arena and soon becomes one of those celebrity gladiators.  After three years of fighting every week for the pleasure of both live in-person violence fans and those who prefer to enjoy their gore in the comfort of their homes via the TV, Jonnath is elevated from the small Changar Arena to the big leagues on planet Tansavar.  On Tansavar he meets a bunch of other Kalvarans, who, like him, have become successful pro gladiators.  Jonnath has to decide if he will join their conspiracy to take over the planet, or, if he will seek his freedom "by the book": if he can defeat a series of especially difficult opponents in the arena at the annual High Games, the Zarmithian spectators will grant him his freedom.  Complicating matters is the fact that, on Tansavar, Jonnath has befriended an alien genius whom everybody else thinks is a dumb beast, and this genius has an agenda of its own.

This is an entertaining enough sword and planet kind of thing.  The action scenes are not bad, and Van Arnam tries to give the secondary figures little idiosyncrasies that add up to interesting personalities. At times I thought Van Arnam might be trying to emulate Jack Vance--there is an elaborate meal and Van Arnam lists all the weird courses, and symbolic attire also plays a role in the story.  In the last quarter or so of the piece, after Jonnath has won his freedom, he goes full Kirth Gersen, doing detective work to locate the Zarmithian soldiers who killed his family on Kalvar so he can get revenge on them.

A problem with Star Gladiator is that Van Arnam seems to have tried to cram 150 or so pages of material into the 88 pages he had available to him, so some ideas and portions of the story feel rushed or merely glossed over.  (The alien genius who looks like a beast of burden, for example, doesn't really play any role in the plot.)  The wikipedia article on Donald Wollheim, architect of the famous and much-adored Ace Doubles, says he sometimes chopped up some writer's novel to make it fit the Double format, and one wonders if somebody at Belmont took an axe to Van Arnam's piece here.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I like these kinds of adventure stories, and if I see any of Van Arnam's books in my travels (for the low low price I paid for this one), it is likely I will pick them up.


At the back of Belmont's Special Delivery/Star Gladiator are three pages of ads, including two pages listing many speculative fiction and Fortean titles available from Belmont (plus a "handy reference" to the bon mots of Marilyn Monroe's most famous conquest and a guide to how to find buried treasure.)  Of the books listed (besides Special Delivery and Star Gladiator), I've read Murray Leinster's Space Tug (at, Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton (in a 1979 reprint edition), Doomsman by Harlan Ellison, and my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction. which I like to think of as "The Book of the Year."  There are plenty of Belmont books listed which I have not read and would probably snatch up if I saw them by authors like James Schmitz, Kris Neville, Lin Carter, Ted White, Robert Bloch, or with crazy titles like The Throwbacks and The Cosmozoids.  It is good to know that, out there in the world's used bookstores, there are still so many treasures waiting for me to uncover them!
Click or squint to study Belmont's October 1967 offerings

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Four stories by Jack Vance from the period 1954-1962

It's the final four stories in my copy of When the Five Moons Rise, a 1992 collection of Jack Vance stories from the 1950s and '60s produced by Underwood-Miller.

"When the Five Moons Rise" (1954)

"When the Five Moons Rise" first appeared in Cosmos.  In addition to showing up in various collections of Vance's work, it would be reprinted in 1993 in Lighthouse Horrors, an anthology of stories linked, I guess, by the fact that they prominently feature lighthouses!  If you are wondering why a publisher would bet on a collection of stories centered around lighthouses, just ask a member of the Viennese delegation, as Nabokov calls them.

Perrin is one of two men who live in a remote lighthouse on a rocky seacoast on an alien planet.  Perrin isn't native to this planet--he can barely tell the five moons apart.  The moons orbit the planet at different speeds, and his partner warns Perrin that, on those rare days when all five rise together, "it is not wise to believe anything."

Sure enough, on the day when the moons rise at the same time, strange and dangerous things happen.  His partner disappears, and things that Perrin thinks of suddenly and improbably appear.  When the radio fails, a new radio set washes up on the shore.  When he feels lonely, a beautiful young woman arrives at the lighthouse.  Interrogating this woman provides clues that she is a dangerous being, perhaps analogous to a demon from Hell.  Perrin resists succumbing to his desire for the woman, lest he be dragged down to Hell or suffer some similarly dreadful fate.

This story is not bad, though the plot is a little gimmicky and pedestrian.  The way Perrin resolves the plot reminded me of Fredric Brown's famous 1944 story "Arena." In "Arena," the hero knocks himself unconscious to get through a force field which only permits passage of inanimate objects and unconscious creatures.  In "When the Five Moons Rise," Perrin knocks himself unconscious in order to foil the menacing beings, who apparently need the thoughts of their victims to take on physical form.
"Where Hesperus Falls" (1956)

"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is one of those poems people always mention but which I had never read.  Thinking it might be important to truly grokking what Vance was up to in "Where Hesperus Falls," and thinking at age 45 it was about time I got a little edjumacation, I pulled up Longfellow's 1840 poem at The Poetry Foundation website and give it a whirl.  It turned out to be a much easier poem than one of those brain busters like "The Waste Land" or even the relatively easy "Dover Beach."  You don't have to know about ancient Greece or Dante or anything to get "The Wreck of the Hesperus": a guy is given great responsibilities, and in his arrogance and overconfidence takes an unnecessary risk and destroys those for whom he is responsible, including his family and himself.

"Where Hesperus Falls" is set 96,000 years in the future!  Our protagonist is Henry Revere, who was born in the 20th century; when he was young a chemical experiment went awry and somehow made him immune from the aging process, and so he was watched the world and the human race change, empires rising and falling, human culture and human biology evolving, for over nine thousand centuries!  Bored with life, which offers nothing new, he wants to commit suicide, but the authorities of the day consider him a priceless treasure and watch him like a hawk, using all the high tech apparatus at their disposal to stop him from killing himself!

Revere comes up with a crazy scheme of ending his now burdensome existence.  He recalls that back in the 20th century a satellite (christened Hesperus) was launched, and its orbit is scheduled to decay sometime this decade! Revere does all the math and calculates that the Hesperus will crash in the middle of the ocean, and at the appropriate time sails a yacht there to meet his doom!  He doesn't really care that his squad of minders accompanies him--"This is the risk they assume when they guard me."  Obviously Revere's willingness to put others at risk is reminiscent of that of the sea captain in Longfellow's poem.

I thought a theme of "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was responsibility, and we also see this theme in "Where Hesperus Falls."  But while readers have no reason to doubt that the sea captain in Longfellow's poem has a legitimate responsibility to his daughter and fellow mariners, and is acting in the wrong by sailing them into a hurricane, Revere's load of responsibility and the justice of his actions is very much open to dispute.  Revere asserts a right to end his own life, but his "guards" insist he has a responsibility to the human race to survive, to serve as a link to the past.  Vance's story is about the tension between an individual's freedom and his duty to society--the head of the team assigned to preserve Revere's life dismisses Revere's claim of self-ownership and asserts the primacy of duty (and sends me to the dictionary in the process):
"We all must fulfill our existences to the optimum.  Today your function is to serve as vinculum with the past."
Do we live for ourselves, or for others?  And if others infringe on our freedom, are there limits to what we can do to preserve our liberty?  Even if we agree that Revere has a right to kill himself, does he have a right to kill his oppressors in the course of defending that right?

This story has some plot holes (modern civilization never tinkered with the Hesperus for 96,000 years?), but I like its various themes and ideas, and there are nice SF touches, as Vance describes the fashions and technology of the far future.  Good!

"Where Hesperus Falls" first appeared in Fantastic Universe, in an issue with an absolutely genius Hannes Bok cover and stories by plenty of big names.

"Dodkin's Job" (1959)

"Dodkin's Job" first appeared in Astounding, and later was included in Jerry Pournelle's anthology The Survival of Freedom (which includes an essay by anarchist intellectual David Friedman, a Robert Heinlein fan and the son of titan of free-market economics Milton Friedman), so I am expecting a hard core anti-collectivist/anti-government story from Vance.  Let's stick it to the commies, Jack!

Vance's novels often include excerpts from fictional reference books and scholarly works, and, setting up the story's theme, Vance begins "Dodkin's Job" with an extract from a Leslie Penton's First Principles of Organization, an extract in which Penton quotes one of the founders of the "Theory of Organized Society" thus: "When self-willed microunits combine to form and sustain a durable macrounit, certain freedoms of action are curtailed."

It is the future, a time and place in which the Theory of Organized Society has been put into action!  The government assesses all citizens, assigns them a rating, and then allocates to them appropriate jobs, housing, food, sexual relationships, and leisure time.  Our hero is Luke Grogatch, rated "Flunky/Class D/Unskilled," and recently assigned to work as part of a gang digging a new tunnel for the sanitation department.  Grogatch is relatively intelligent, and could have achieved a higher rating and better compensation (like "Class 7 Erotic Processing" instead of the "Class 15" he now enjoys, and a chance to choose which TV channel to watch instead of being stuck with only "Band H" at a communal screen) but he is a "Nonconformist" and refuses to employ "all the tricks and techniques: the beavering, the gregariousness, the smutting, knuckling" that are required to get ahead.  And now that he is in his forties, it is probably too late to start beavering his way to the "High Echelons" and such perquisites as "AAA Nutrition" and "a suite of rooms for his exclusive use."

New regulations come down that add three hours to Grogatch's workday without adding to his compensation.  All the other flunkies just accept this--most everybody but Grogatch in the Organized Society is a docile conformist--but Grogatch marches into the office of the bureaucrat who issued the new regulations in hopes of having the new rules rescinded, beginning an odyssey through the public services apparatus as each functionary and executive he confronts shirks responsibility and directs him to a different office or department--even the Secretary of the Department of Public Affairs and the Chairman of the Board of Directors pass the buck!  (Grogatch's peregrinations among the upper levels of the Organized Society is facilitated by his clothes, which belie his current status as a flunky--"the clothes make the man" is a theme we see elsewhere in Vance's body of work; it was in Son of the Tree, for example.)  In the end, Grogatch discovers where the real power in his society lies, and seizes it--will he use his newfound power to help others, or only himself?  

"Dodkin's Job" reminded me of the Cugel stories with its quixotic hero and in that it is laugh-out-loud hilarious; the style is very funny, and there are great individual jokes.  Here's a two-line paragraph that had me in stitches:
Luke, attempting a persuasive smile, achieved instead a leer of sinister significance.  The girl was frankly startled.  
Its theme of one man standing up against a stultifying and conformist society reminded me of Harlan Ellison's famous story "Repent Harlequin, etc", but where Ellison's story is overwrought and ridiculous, the monochrome wish fulfillment fantasy of a petulant child who sees himself as a victim/hero and any who disagree with him as villains, Vance's story is clever, inventive, morally ambiguous and fun, and it feels real, unlike Ellison's story, which feels like a fable.  All that stuff I sometimes blabber on about when I judge stories, like pacing and tone and images and characters, Vance handles perfectly, and apparently effortlessly, so the story reads smoothly, here.

I strongly recommend "Dodkin's Job."  So, is Vance sticking it to the commies here?  I definitely like to think so, but the docility and conformity themes are probably more pronounced than the government oppression theme, and Vance doesn't have the characters throw around obvious shibboleths like "comrade" and "hoarders and wreckers" that would mark the story as a direct allegory for revolutionary socialism or the Soviet Union--in fact, members of the High Echelon have titles like "Chairman of the Board" and are called "tycoons," not "commissars."  Lefties reading the story can easily interperet it is an attack on the "absurdities of the class system in capitalist America" or an indictment of the Byzantine and inhumane workings of the management of the evil corporations that are always foreclosing on community centers on the TV.  Perhaps we should see "Dodkin's Job" as a story about the way large organizations, be they private or public, embedded in societies relatively free or relatively repressive, take on a life and logic of their own, diluting responsibility and sucking the humanity out of their constituent members, giving them powerful incentives to act in ways they wouldn't in smaller, more natural, settings, to the detriment of themselves and all around them.  (You remember that Peter Gabriel song, don't you?)

"Dust of Far Suns" (1962)

This one has appeared under many names; I read it years ago (long before this blog made its stupifying debut) under the title "Sail 25;" I think "Sail 25" is the title Vance prefers.  The story was first published in Amazing, under the title "Gateway to Strangeness"--this looks like a good issue of Amazing, with an article on C. L. Moore, short stories by Roger Zelazny and James Schmitz, and lots of illustrations by Virgil Finlay.

I liked "Sail 25" when I read it way back when (probably in The SFWA Grand Masters: Volume Three) and, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it today.  In some ways it is a traditional hard SF story in which clever and disciplined men in space suits who know lots of science and engineering get into a dangerous situation and use their mechanical and technical knowledge to get out of the jam.  (Ignoramuses and those of weak character suffer a black fate.)  But Vance's signature amusing style and witty dialogue, and inclusion of an eccentric and morally questionable character, bring some laughs and ambiguity to the proceedings.

The plot: In a near future era in which ships propelled by the solar wind travel around the solar system, eight space cadets are about to go on their final training cruise, a test to see which of them is cut out to be a spaceman, that most intellectually, psychologically and physically demanding of occupations!  Administering the test is Henry Belt, a legend in the service for his idiosyncrasies.  After a technical test on the ground (the cadets are tasked with building computers out of a pile of spare parts) which only six pass, the class sets sail for Mars.  Belt observes while the cadets deal with one crisis after another that could very well send them to their doom beyond the solar system, judging their performance but not lifting a hand to help--he assures the cadets that he is ready to die.  The superior cadets save the day, and most of the class makes it back to Earth alive, where the capable cadets are graduated and the inferior survivors flunk out.

Entertaining, a good specimen of this type of story.


The stories included in 1992's When the Five Moons Rise are all worth reading, and some are great, but you should probably seek them out in other collections and anthologies, as this book is full of typos and printing errors.  I'll probably sell my copy on ebay; my PayPal account took a serious hit recently when my sporting blood was aroused and I spent much more money than I had expected to triumphing over a tenacious fellow SF fan in an epic auction struggle over a stack of old issues of Fantastic.  I've already sold a bunch of old Games Workshop models and my copy of Arkham House's The Horror at Oakdeene, which I acquired at the same library sale where I got When The Five Moons Rise, but the financial loss has yet to be made good.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Three stories by Jack Vance from the period 1952-3

Back flap of dust jacket of my copy of
When the Five Moons Rise
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in the US presidential election, much to the dismay of fictional college professor Moses E. Herzog.  John Kasich and Vladimir Putin were born. And on the literary side, Clive Barker was born and Knut Hamsun died.  In 1953 there was lots of exciting Cold War news, with the bogus Doctor's Plot, the death of Stalin, the end of the Korean War, an uprising in East Germany against the communist government, and the execution of the Rosenbergs.  It was during this tumultuous period that the three stories by Jack Vance which we will be talking about today were first presented to the SF-reading public.  I read them in my copy of the collection When the Five Moons Rise, published in 1992 by Underwood-Miller.

"Telek" (1952)

"Telek" was first published in Astounding.  It later appeared, among other places, in a 1969 collection of Vance stories entitled Eight Phantasms and Magics and in 1970's Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, edited by Robert Silverberg.

"Telek" is one of those stories about homo superior and the tensions between this new strain of humanity with super powers and us poor mundanes.  We see a lot of these in the speculative fiction world, from van Vogt, Kuttner and Moore, Clifford Simak, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a million other people I'm forgetting or ignoring.  I just read one by Alice Laurence and one by Barry Malzberg, for example.  When I first started this blog, I had grand visions of dozens of descriptive tags that would help me categorize all the fiction I was reading, tags like "postapocalyptic," "sex," "dinosaurs," "socialism," etc., and "homo superior" would have been a good one to use.  But I got lazy and only use the author and "positive" and "negative" tags.  Anyway, lots of these homo superior stories are allegories of the plight of blacks in America or Jews in the West or gays or witches or some other oppressed or marginalized group and we are expected to sympathize with or identify with the people with superpowers.  Vance doesn't take that tack in "Telek," though.

Sixty years ago the first Teleks appeared, a tiny minority with amazing telekinetic and teleportation powers.  These jokers can teleport out to the asteroid belt, then teleport back with vast amounts of platinum and uranium, so they quickly became extravagantly rich.  At first the Teleks helped the rest of humanity, using their powers to bring wealth from space and to quickly accomplish arduous jobs like clearing jungles and building roads, but as time has gone by, they have been acting more and more high-handed.  Their weird abilities, and their tremendous wealth, mean the Teleks are essentially above the law and immune to any kind of social pressure, and each generation of homo superior feels less kinship to homo sapiens, so their behavior is getting worse and worse.  A small group of mundanes has decided that the Teleks are too great a threat to human liberty and must be destroyed.

Shorn is an architect, and an important member of the mundane underground, working for Gerskamp, who is in charge of a major construction project--building a stadium for a big upcoming Telek celebration.  Shorn recruits a reluctant Gerskamp to the rebel cause, and they mine the arena--when the Teleks are all assembled at the stadium they hope to blow up every last one of them at the same time!  (Didn't a mined sports arena also figure in the plot of Vance's 1978 Wyst: Alastor 1716?)

Even beyond the psyker business, "Telek" reminded me of a (more clearly written than is to be expected from that Canadian madman) van Vogt piece.  The story is set on a futuristic Earth of visiphones and slidewalks and aicars where the monetary unit is the "crown," and much of the story's 50 pages is taken up with high tech espionage stuff--people doubling back to lose tails, using hypnotic drugs to interrogate a recruit suspected of being a Telek mole, cobbling together in the lab a countermeasure to the two-inch long robot beetles the Teleks use to spy on people, and donning elaborate disguises.  There is also sociological discussion of the (im)possibility of Telek and mundane getting along, and speculation on just how the Telek powers work (Astounding editor John Campbell, Jr. was fascinated by psychic powers and encouraged writers to include them in stories.)  Perhaps more characteristic of Vance (and a reflection of 1950s architecture and culture) is a section in which Shorn laments that while people in his era have more political freedom and material wealth, in "the ancient monarchies" there was greater diversity in the look of buildings and of clothing, and in people's behavior--Shorn feels that modern life's utilitarianism and concentration of people in urban spaces has lead to a grey conformity. Do the individualistic and extravagant Teleks represent the opportunity for a flowering of culture as well as a risk of political tyranny?

Shorn, via skillful deception and his acumen in "the art of the deal," is inducted into the ranks of the Teleks and attains their astonishing mental powers.  (These powers are latent in every human being, and need only be coaxed out during a brief training session.)  With his new abilities Shorn foils the efforts to crush the anti-Telek underground and then triggers the awakening of the psychic abilities of all of mankind--mankind's adolescence is over, and a period of history in which every human has the freedom to roam the universe is beginning.

A good old-fashioned sensawunda tale.  Thumbs up!

"Noise" (1952)

This is one of the weaker stories in the collection.  Rather than being bold or sharp or striking or brisk, it is dreamy and slow.  I assume that is what Vance is going for, so it is more of a case of MPorcius not being the target market for what Vance is selling here than Vance failing in his aims.

There is a frame story, but the majority of the text of "Noise" consists of the journal of a shipwrecked space man.  In this journal he describes in detail the planet he has made his way to in his lifeboat, a world with unusual astronomical conditions and no apparent animal life.  There is a lake, some trees, a mountain, etc.  In turn, the planet is lit by a red sun, then a blue sun, then a silver sun, and on and on.  The planet seems to revolve at varying speeds and/or orbit an erratic course because each sun hangs high in the sky for many Earth days, then rapidly shoots below the horizon rather than crossing the sky at a constant rate.

After some time on the planet the castaway begins catching filmy glimpses of beautiful towns and people, and hearing music which has no visible source.  By concentrating, he is gradually able to interact with this mysterious parallel dimension more and more intimately.  He recognizes a parallel version of himself, and falls in love with a beautiful woman of this other dimension.  Before he is able to actually talk to the people from the other plane of existence, an Earth ship lands to rescue him, but he decides he doesn't want to leave--he prefers the beautiful faerie world to the world of his birth.

Just acceptable.  I feel like Vance spent too much time describing the terrain and too little time showing why this guy would fall in love with a fleeting vision and prefer some other universe to ours.  Despite my lukewarm reaction, everybody seems to love "Noise," and since originally appearing in Startling Stories it has been reprinted many times, including in The Best from Startling Stories, Deep Space, and Strange Glory.

"Ecological Onslaught" (1953)

Jack's name doesn't appear on the cover,
but the cover illo depicts Bernisty and Kathryn
in the climax of "Ecological Onslaught."
"Ecological Onslaught" has also appeared as "The World Between," a somewhat better title.  It was first printed in Future Science Fiction.

It is the far future; many star systems, including one called Blue Star and a nearby one called Kay, have been colonized by Earthmen, while Earth itself is almost forgotten.  A Blue Star exploration ship, commanded by Explorator Bernisty, discovers a planet equidistant between Blue Star and Kay; he claims it and starts terraforming it.  The Kays object, and try to eject the Blue Stars via threats, then by introducing invasive species of fungus and arthropods onto the new planet in hopes of foiling the Blue Star terraforming project.  Could the beautiful Kay defector Kathryn, whom Bernisty is developing a crush on, be the vector of this interference? Berel, Bernisty's jealous girlfriend, certainly thinks so!

(All proper nouns associated with Blue Star start with a "B," and all Kay people and places begin with a "K.")

A fun story full of entertaining SF touches, like all the details of the terraforming process and some medical procedures, and the many idiosyncrasies of the two human, but to us readers quite foreign, cultures.  Blue Star society includes a class of women somewhat like geishas or prostitutes (Berel is in this class), and has a taboo about being observed eating (Vance would use this idea again in one of the Alastor books, I think 1975's Marune: Alastor 933.)        

Quite good; especially of interest to fans of stories about terraforming and genetic engineering.


I'm enjoying the stories in When the Five Moons Rise, but must register some complaints with the people at Underwood-Miller.  The punctuation in the text of "Telek" in When the Five Moons Rise is plagued by typos--missing hyphens and quotation marks, double quotes when single quotes are called for, that sort of thing.  I own a copy of Great Short Novels of Science Fiction and consulted it; in that edition "Telek"'s hyphens and quote marks seem to be in order.  There are also some major printing errors in this appearance of "Ecological Onslaught,"  Unfortunate, and an indication of how valuable to the SF community was the work of the Vance Integral Edition team.

In our next episode, we finish up with When the Five Moons Rise.