Friday, June 30, 2017

Phoenix Without Ashes by Edward Bryant & Harlan Ellison

"We all forgot we were on a ship.  We forgot the cataclysm, and the accident, whatever it was...and we even forgot the Earth.  We lived as if our entire universe was a hundred kilometers across with a metal sky...."
When I lived in Manhattan I would spend untold hours walking the streets and admiring the skyscrapers and the crowds of aspiring actresses and fashion models, loitering at the river watching the container ships, oil tankers, sailboats and cruise liners bobbing with the tide or cruising up or downstream, and squinting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Greek vases, Roman statues and European paintings and drawings.  Life in Central Ohio doesn't offer these same sorts of opportunities, but one Columbus area pastime I can recommend is scrutinizing the bookshelves at Ohio Thrift's various locations.  Among the rough of all the romance novels and cookbooks and computer language tutorials one can often find a diamond. For example, I recently discovered a paperback edition of South African athlete, writer and adventurer Robert Crisp's memoir of his service with the Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa, Brazen Chariots.  (I read Brazen Chariots in my teens, never forgot it, and having reread it now can confirm it as a great read.)

Another recent Ohio Thrift find was a 1975 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback, Phoenix Without Ashes, a novel by Edward Bryant based on a TV script by Harlan Ellison for the TV show he created, The Starlost.  I've never seen The Starlost, or even read about it (I'm a cultural illiterate!) but the first page of this paperback (that page where the publisher tells you how awesome the book is and shares ecstatic blurbs if they can get them--Fawcett couldn't get any for Phoenix Without Ashes, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King being too young, I guess) indicates that Ellison conceived of the series, wrote a teleplay (which won an award from the Writers Guild of America) and then, when the show was actually produced, felt that the TV people had screwed it up and ripped him off.  There's an acknowledgements page on which a host of writers who have used the "enclosed universe" idea are listed, apparently a prophylactic or retaliatory measure against those who might have the temerity to accuse Ellison of acting like he came up with the "enclosed universe" theme, and then there is a 20-page introduction from Ellison.  I decided to skip the intro and read the actual novel first, as if it was just some ordinary novel I might judge on its own merits and not an exhibit in the never-ending case of Harlan Ellison vs. The World.


The first 60 of Phoenix Without Ashes's 160 pages are set in Cypress Corners, a spot of land 100 kilometers wide with a hexagonal sun and moon and a metal dome for a sky.  Here lives a sort of 19th-century farming community managed by Elders who preach from a Book that says that premarital sex is bad.  Devon and Rachel are in their late teens and in love, but the Creator (a eugenics computer susceptible to manipulation by the unscrupulous Elders) has decreed that Rachel marry some other guy with a better "genetic rating."  This part of the book is there to tell you that sex is good, religion is a scam perpetrated by lying hypocrites, and people who believe in religion are sheep--you know, in case you forgot.  We get to witness Rachel's erotic dreams, as well as Devon's dreams which cryptically reveal to him the true nature of the universe--poor Devon can't just read the back of the book like we can to see that Cypress Corners is but one component of a generation ship ("space ark") and has to make do with his latent psychic powers.

Going full rebel, Devon pulls a tape out of the Creator computer and tries to convince Rachel's family that their religion is a trick, but he ends up being chased into the woods by a torch-wielding mob.  By luck (or through unconscious use of his powers?) he discovers a hatch that leads to the maintenance and control areas of the generation ship, which he finds bereft of crew and in considerable disrepair.

These generation ships are pretty unreliable means of transport, always suffering mutinies like in Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, or breaking down like in Aldiss's Non-Stop and Malzberg's "Over the Line."  And all the stories about them seem to somehow be about religion, mostly saying religion is crap, though in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun the crap religion obliquely leads the characters to what Wolfe considers true religion--at least that is how I remember The Book of the Long Sun, having only read it once, and that long ago.

Anyway, Devon figures out how to use a space suit and operate an air lock, and then spends 20 or so pages talking to a computer, learning the history of the destruction of Earth five centuries ago in 2265, the creation of the 1,600 km long ark, its populating with three million passengers from dozens of different cultures (each hermetically sealed in its own individual sphere) and its doomed voyage.  Yes, doomed--there was an accident 400 years ago that killed the crew and the ship has been off course since then, and, in fact, is projected to crash into a star in five years.

I like the back cover
illustration, spare and evocative
I had hopes that Devon would immediately start exploring the other biospheres, looking for a technological society that could help steer the ark onto a safer course, but instead he returns to Cypress Corners because he loves Rachel and wants to coax her into joining him in his adventures beyond the CC dome.  We readers get an abortive sex scene, and a full serving of the kind of material we have already seen hundreds of times in popular fiction: Devon throws pebbles at Rachel's window at night to awaken her; Devon climbs up a tree whose branch approaches her window; Devon gets captured by an ignorant mob; Devon is put on trial in a kangaroo court.  He gets sentenced to death by the fraudulent preachers, but a minor character liberates Devon from jail and he and Rachel escape Cypress Corners.  On the final full page of the book it is made clear to us that, as in The Fugitive and the Lou Ferrigno/Bill Bixby The Incredible Hulk, a not wholly unsympathetic person will be chasing our protagonist through future episodes.

This novel is not very good.  While essentially competent, it is very conventional, a bunch of ideas and themes we've seen before without any additional elements or a distinctive voice to make it fresh or engaging.  Phoenix Without Ashes doesn't inspire any emotion in the reader, the characters are stock and forgettable, the style is cold and bland, and the pace is slow and unvaried--each character's every little movement is described, so much of the novel reads like a mechanical record of stage directions transcribed by somebody watching a TV show.  Structurally it has problems--as the first episode of an episodic story it lacks climax and resolution and suffers from long expository sections--and I for one don't find Amish-Mennonite type environments very interesting; maybe the constraints of TV production or the desire to attack religion lead to the low-tech setting, but I would have preferred some kind of strange futuristic or otherwise speculative setting.


**********

UK edition
After I drafted the above I read Ellison's long intro, which is full of spoilers (if isfdb is to be believed, the 1978 British edition of the novel relegates Ellison's intro to the back and retitles it "Afterward"--heed the wisdom of a people steadfast enough to eat a bazillion jars of Marmite every year!)  It describes the genesis and development of The Starlost project, mostly focusing on how nobody involved with the show knew anything about SF, the exceptions being Ellison and Ben Bova, whom Ellison enlisted as a technical adviser and whom he describes as "editor of Analog, the leading sf magazine in the country," and the program was a disaster because these people wouldn't listen to Ellison.  Robert Silverberg and Gene Rodenberry have cameos as people who back up Ellison and attest to his greatness.

This intro, titled "Somehow, I Don't Think We're in Kansas, Toto," has the distinctive Ellison voice and thus is more readable and emotionally involving than Bryant's novel; it should interest people who like stories about Hollywood shenanigans and those who enjoy hearing Ellison insult people.  Most interesting to me was the fact that the Fugitive angle, seemingly tossed in at the end of Bryant's novel, was apparently the germ that started the whole project--we are told that a "West Coast head of taped syndicated shows" requested a meeting with Ellison because, he said, he wanted "the top sf writer in the world" to write "a sort of The Fugitive in space."

Bryant gets a page and a half to introduce himself, and his last line is "And I'm a dilettante inland lay-authority on sharks," which made me smile because one of Bryant's more memorable stories is about sharks.

While not offensively bad, I can't really recommend Phoenix Without Ashes.  Perhaps people interested in Bryant's career (this is his only novel listed at isfdb) and those who have seen The Starlost (Ellison says he never saw any episodes after the first, which he calls "the abomination," but that friends call him up to tell him how much they like it after catching it in reruns) will find it intriguing, and Ellison completists may want to own "Somehow, I Don't Think We're in Kansas, Toto."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Domain of Arnheim," "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," & "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe


I devoted so much of my young life to TSR, Games Workshop, and id Software that I didn't have much time left over to get educated.  So, when Edmond Hamilton namechecked three Edgar Allan Poe stories in his short story "Castaway," which I read earlier this week, it was the first time I had heard of them.  Thinking it better to get educated late than never, a few days ago my 45-year old carcass hied to the Columbus Metropolitan Library where I borrowed a copy of Doubleday's Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and I can now aver that I am familiar with these three important texts in the history of American literature and the literature of the fantastic.

"The Domain of Arnheim" (1847)

Most of this story reads like a treatise on aesthetics and psychology.  The foundation of the story's very thin plot is a theory I never heard of before, but which Poe assures us "none but the ignorant dispute": while nature is supreme in all other realms of beauty (e. g., a painting or drawing or sculpture of a beautiful flower or beautiful woman is never as beautiful as the real thing), in the realm of landscape, a brilliant painter can construct a more beautiful composition of scenery than can be found in real life.  Wherever you may be on the Earth, whatever direction you look, if you have a sophisticated eye you can detect an element of the scenery which can in some way be improved upon.

Our narrator has a friend who is astonishingly wealthy, and extremely sophisticated, a Mr. Ellison.  Ellison has a theory about happiness: it can be attained by following four rules: 1) exercise in the fresh air, 2) have "the love of a woman," 3) have contempt for ambition and 4) have "an object of unceasing pursuit;" the more "spiritual" the object, the more happy you will be.

From these bases follow an inevitable result: Ellison spends his vast resources on landscape-gardening on a colossal scale.  The narrator describes Ellison's years-long quest to find the perfect site, and then the finished garden, which covers hundreds of acres; one views the vast garden from a boat while travelling along a river, the trip finally ending at a hovering city of an architecture reminiscent of European cathedrals and Islamic mosques.

The theories described in this story may be thought-provoking in and of themselves, and as a specimen of Victorian thought, but I can't call this story entertaining.  There's no conflict or climax or resolution or anything like that--it's just eight pages of long paragraphs and long sentences about stuff like the "two styles of landscape-gardening, the natural and the artificial," and then three pages of mind-numbingly detailed description of water and cliffs and hills.
The uniformity of the top and bottom lines of the wall is fully relieved by occasional trees of gigantic height, growing singly or in small groups, both along the plateau and in the domain behind the wall, but in close proximity to it; so that frequent limbs (of the black walnut especially) reach over and dip their pendent extremities in the water.    
Is "The Domain of Arnheim" just Poe telling us his idea of an ideal landscape?  Or a weird allegory of the journey from life on Earth to the afterlife in heaven?  This is one of those strange things you are glad you have read, but are not really interested in ever reading again.

"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (1844)

This is a more conventional story with characters and plot and surprise ending and all that, and a story which holds appeal for all us SF and horror kids.  In fact, in 1958 it appeared in F&SF alongside stories by Poul Anderson, Mack Reynolds and Robert Bloch; editor Anthony Boucher credits Avram Davidson with pointing it out to him.

"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" begins with a frame story in which our narrator describes to us our young protagonist, an Augustus Bedloe, a resident of Charlottesville, Virgina who has no known relatives.  Bedloe is tall and emaciated, pale and stooped, and under the daily care of a doctor, Dr. Templeton, who doses him liberally with morphine and hypnotism.  The middle of the story is narrated by Bedloe, who, upon his return from a long walk in the mountains near Charlottesville,  describes being transported as if by magic to an Asian city of winding streets after getting lost in a foggy ravine.  In this city he participates in a wild fight between soldiers and the city rabble, and is killed; his soul flies back into the fog, where he awakens and returns to Charlottesville. The frame story resumes, and Templeton explains that he was first drawn to Bedloe years ago because of the young man's resemblance to his old friend Oldeb, whom he knew while both were serving in India in 1780, some 47 years ago; Oldeb was killed in exactly the kind of fight Bedloe described, and, in fact, while Bedloe was walking in the mountains, Templeton was writing about the battle and Oldeb's death in his notebook!  Bedloe, it seems, is the reincarnated Oldeb, or maybe a sort of ghost or wraith (as far as the narrator knows, Bedloe has no parents), this weird phenomenon may be explained by the fact that Oldeb was killed by a poisoned (blackly magicked?) arrow.

Not bad.

"William Wilson" (1839)

Like "Humbert Humbert," "William Wilson" is the euphonious pen name used by a sophisticated criminal with psychological problems in the writing of his memoir.  In the early 19th century Wilson attended a boarding school in the English countryside, Dr. Bransby's, the appearance and architecture of which Poe describes in great detail. But while the descriptions of the idealized landscapes in "The Domain of Arnheim" threatened to put me to sleep, the descriptions of this labyrinthine institution and its environs set a mood and painted distinct and enduring images in my mind.  (I'm guessing the school, with its innumerable mysterious passages, is a metaphor for the brain/mind, and the grounds, surrounded by a prison-like wall and an awe-inspiring gate, through which the students only pass to go to church, the body.)

Wilson is the cleverest student and best athlete of his class at Dr. Bransby's, admired by all the members of his cohort, with one exception: a student his same age (the very same birthday!) who arrived the same day he did and even has the same name!  This other Wilson, by imitating the narrator and providing subtle whispered bits of advice (usually to refrain from some bit of foolishness or knavery) antagonizes and infuriates the narrator, who, after some years, flees the school to escape his doppelganger's "tyranny."

The narrator continues his academic career at Eton and then Oxford, and then travels across Europe, living the life of a conman and a womanizer.  But again and again, when he is about to commit some sin, seducing a married woman or cheating a man out of a fortune at cards, for example, the second Wilson will suddenly appear and frustrate his schemes.  Finally, exasperated beyond endurance, the narrator drags this second Wilson into a private room and murders him, at which time he finally realizes what we readers may have already realized: this second Wilson was his conscience or soul, and by destroying it he has doomed himself: "henceforward art thou also dead--dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope!"

Of the three Poe stories I read this week, this is easily the most compelling and entertaining.

**********

Another spot of education under my belt.  Who knows what's next on this journey from ignorance to knowledge (maybe?) and then senility, oblivion and the grave?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"After a Judgment Day," "The Pro," and "Castaway" by Edmond Hamilton

It's the final installment of our look at The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a collection of stories published in 1977 and edited by the author's wife, Leigh Brackett.

"After a Judgment Day" (1963)

Throughout his career, Hamilton wrote stories about evolution and the related topics of radiation and mutation, and stories about the plight of somebody who finds himself the last man on Earth. We've read a bunch of such stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and Hamilton also dealt with such themes in his comic book work; for example, in "Superman Under the Red Sun," a story appearing in Action Comics # 300 (May 1963), Superman is tricked by the "Superman Revenge Squad" into travelling a million years into the future, where he encounters land-whales (the descendants of whales who have adapted to an Earth without oceans) and eagles which, due to radioactive fallout, have acquired the ability to shoot lighting bolts from their eyes.  Kal-El also finds that the human race has vacated the planet, making him The Last Man On Earth!  (Luckily, there is a robot version of Perry White available to keep the Man of Steel company.)

"Superman Under the Red Sun" was the cover story of Action Comics #300 (the other story in that issue was about Supergirl's horse...zzzzzzzzzz...) and one of Hamilton's other cover stories that very same year was "After a Judgment Day" for Fantastic, a story which is like a more adult, more apocalyptic remix of the same elements from that Superman story.

Martinsen is a scientist on a lunar research base; from this base robots designed to mimic humans travel to distant planets to collect data and then return.  Because their bodies resemble human tissue and organs, any effects suffered by the robots while walking around on the alien worlds serve as a good predictor of how real humans would react to those alien environments.

During Martinsen's tenure at the moon base a plague strikes the Earth--a previously-harmless bacteria, mutated by radioactive fallout, wipes out the human race in short order.  Most of Martinsen's comrades return to Earth, leaving Martinsen alone on the moon with a single colleague who has turned to popping sleeping pills for comfort (there is no booze on the base.)  And the robots, of course, though they have not been programmed to make conversation (unlike the Perry White robot in Action Comics #300.)  Martinsen, in a last romantic gesture, prepares a recording describing highlights of Earth history and culture, gives a copy to each of the robots, and then programs them to search the universe for intelligent life to present the recording to.  With luck, Earth's memory will thus be preserved.  After the robots have departed, fanning out across the galaxy, Martinsen and the pill-popper return to Earth to die.

This story is alright; it tries to pull the old heart-strings but didn't really do it for me; in that respect I think Hamilton's "Requiem," for example, is more successful.  The title "After a Judgment Day" comes from a poem by G. K. Chesterton, an epic of over 2,500 lines about 9th-century hero King Alfred called The Ballad of the White Horse. Chesterton is one of those important writers (he is one of Gene Wolfe's favorites, I hear) I haven't gotten around to reading yet.  Maybe someday.

"After a Judgment Day" has not been one of Hamilton's more popular pieces; besides The Best of Edmond Hamilton the only place it has reappeared has been in a 1972 magazine, Thrilling Science Fiction, that consisted of reprints of 1960s SF stories.

"The Pro" (1964)

If you are reading MPorcius Fiction Log, you probably already know that Barry N. Malzberg is one of the great historians and critics of SF, and that Malzberg considers his own career and the entire SF field to be a disappointment, a sort of failure or missed opportunity.  In his 1980 essay "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction," included in The Engines of the Night, Malzberg talks about two Robert Silverberg stories from the early '70s ("Science Fiction Hall of Fame" and "Schwartz Between the Galaxies") that, according to sad sack Barry, are a message from Silverberg telling us that "science fiction is doomed by its own nature and devices to be a second-rate form of literature." Malzberg goes on to discuss the hopes of the Futurians (that SF could "save the world") and those of "the field's best writers--Kornbluth, Clifton, Budrys, Heinlein" (that SF could "change society" and "alter institutions and personal lives") hopes that were, he suggests, unrealized.

Malzberg points out other SF stories and novels that, he believes, posit that "science fiction is junk" or "contemptible" or mere "comfort," including his own Herovit's World (1973) and Galaxies (1975), Samuel R. Delany's 1967 "Aye, and Gomorrah" and Edmond Hamilton's "The Pro."

(NB:  I think you should buy and read The Engines of the Night, but I have to warn you that my 1984 Bluejay edition, at least, was not properly fact-checked or copy-edited.  In the essay at hand Malzberg tells us Silverberg's "Science Fiction Hall of Fame" appeared in Infinity Three, when in fact it appeared in Infinity Five, and he refers to Silverberg's story "Our Lady of the Sauropods" by the name "Our Lady of the Stegosaurs."  Maybe such errors are rectified in the later enlarged edition from Baen which bears the title Breakfast in the Ruins?)

"The Pro" is a psychological study, its subject Jim Burnett, who, like Hamilton himself, is a science fiction writer with decades of work and a multitude of stories in pulps, paperbacks, and hardcovers behind him.  His son Dan is a member of the two-man crew of the first manned mission to the Moon.  Our story covers the day of the launch and the day preceding, as Burnett wrestles with his emotional responses to his son's participating in this historic, but dangerous, mission: the fear that his son may be killed and guilt that, through his writing, he may be responsible in some way for inspiring the whole space program and encouraging his own son's risky role in it, as well as envy that it is his son, and not he himself, who will be among the first to step on the Moon.  An interesting subtheme is the idea that the writer is a spectator of life, rather than a participant--Henry Miller said something to this effect in that thrilling, shocking, first chapter of Sexus, and it has always stuck with me.
Dan's the pro, not me.  All we writers who daydreamed and babbled and wrote about space, we were just amateurs, but now the real pros have come, the tanned, placid young men who don't babble about space but who go up and take hold of it...
Burnett's powerful but ambivalent feelings--he jocularly brags that he "invented" space travel one minute, then is vigorously denying that his writing and science fiction in general deserve any credit for inspiring the space program the next--feel very authentic.  This is what a real person is like: unsure if he has done the right thing, unsure even what the right thing is, almost always rationalizing, sometimes breaking down from regret or guilt or fear.  An effective story.  "The Pro" first appeared in F&SF (in the 15th Anniversary "All Star Issue") and then in various venues, including T. E. Dikty's Great Science Fiction Stories About the Moon (1967) and Mike Resnick's Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF (1992).


(I feel like I have to put in my two cents here and assert that I certainly do not consider science fiction a failure.  Most importantly, I don't think providing comfort or escape or entertainment is bad, or pointless; why shouldn't people have a little comfort or pleasure in this brief life full of trouble?  Beyond that, I think it obvious now (and almost as obvious in 1980) that SF has been influential, has made a mark on society. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster and Tarzan of the Apes are as central to our culture as Robinson Crusoe and Romeo and Juliet.  King Kong and 2001: A Space Odyssey are considered among the greatest works of cinema.  Popular TV and movie franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien are essentially the themes and visions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, A. E. van Vogt and Leigh Brackett projected on a screen, and I think half the TV shows my wife watches are about people with special powers or people living in a post-apocalyptic world. Lovecraft, Burroughs, Blish, Brackett and Bester are enshrined in the Library of America, and Jack Vance gets a glowing write up in the New York Times.  We are told that the people who were responsible for putting a man on the moon were inspired by SF, while libertarian intellectuals like David Friedman report being inspired by Robert Heinlein and statist intellectuals like Paul Krugman announce they were inspired by Isaac Asimov.  This all sounds like success to me.  What would sound like success to the Futurians, to "the field's best writers," to Malzberg himself?  Science fiction triggering the development of a communist utopia?  An anarcho-capitalist utopia?  A culture in which people like Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore and Barry Malzberg get the critical attention Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow get, or an economy in which they get the kind of money Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp get?  Such absurd and extravagant hopes are bound to be dashed.  I think Thomas Disch is much closer to the truth when he claims science fiction has conquered the world than is Malzberg with his lamentations.)

"The Castaway" (1969)

"The Castaway" appeared in SF historian and editor Sam Moskowitz's anthology The Man Who Called Himself Poe, apparently a collection of stories about Edgar Allan Poe or written in his style. Most of the included pieces seem to be reprints, but a few, including Hamilton's contribution, were specifically written for the collection.  "The Castaway" would reappear in the collection What's It Like Out There? as well as The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

"The Castaway" stars Edgar Allan Poe himself.  A woman comes to his office, tries to convince him that she is a traveler from an idyllic far future, inhabiting the body of a 19th-century woman.  She informs Poe that another such far future traveler's mind inhabits his body, but, because he has greater than average intelligence and will, his native mind has dominated the interloping mind instead of vice versa.  The submerged future personality's memories have, however, expressed themselves in his fantastical stories--"The Domain of Arnheim," "The Tale of the Ragged Mountains," and "William Wilson" are specifically mentioned.  The mind supposedly submerged within Poe's brain is that of the future woman's lover, and she tries, through conversation, to get it to emerge so it can return to the future with her, but she is frustrated by Poe's powerful personality, and returns to the future alone, leaving the 19th-century woman she was dominating to wake up in horror in Poe's office, from which she precipitously flees.

Not bad.  I could not muster the energy to read The Ballad of the White Horse, but maybe this week I will read the three Poe stories Hamilton invokes in "The Castaway."

**********

And so we bid a fond farewell to The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett.  I feel like this has been a very enjoyable and profitable project, and I'm happy I have more Brackett and Hamilton stories available to me both on my own bookshelves and at the internet archive.  For a personal look at these two giants of the SF community, their careers and their relationships with people like Ray Bradbury and John W. Campbell, Jr., check out an interview of Hamilton and Brackett conducted in 1976 by Dave Truesdale and Paul McGuire III pointed out to us a few days ago by commenter marzaat, available at the link.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Leigh Brackett's "The Tweener" and "The Queer Ones"

Abridged German edition
It's the last episode of our look at 1977's The Best of Leigh Brackett, a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club edited by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton.  It has been a fun project, and Hamilton seems to have a good job choosing from his wife's body of work--I have a higher opinion today of Brackett's writing than I did before reading this volume.

Today's stories appeared originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and its short-lived sister publication Venture Science Fiction.  I think it is fair to say that conventional critics think more highly of F&SF than the magazines in which the other stories from The Best of Leigh Brackett first appeared--Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories--so I am sort of wondering if these stories will be noticeably different in some way from those Brackett tales we've already read over the course of this series of posts.

"The Tweener" (1955)

"The Tweener" is actually a lot like "The Woman From Altair."  It starts as a sort of cozy story about an Earthman returning from space to a happy family, and quickly becomes a horror story about an alien victim of Earth imperialism trying to get its revenge on the family.

Matt has a nice suburban home, a wife and two kids.  His brother Fred is a psychologist with the expedition on Mars.  Fred comes Earthside for a visit, bringing with him a little Martian beastie that looks like a cross between (thus the name "tweener") a rabbit and a monkey. The tweeners are the highest lifeform on old and desolate Mars, "almost the sole surviving vertebrate," says Fred, but he assures everyone they are just dumb animals and totally harmless.

Fred goes to NYC for a conference, leaving the creature with his brother's family.  The kids love the thing, playing with it incessantly and naming it "John Carter."  This is a nice way for Brackett to honor the man, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who inspired her and so strongly influenced her career, but it is also an ironic, even subversive and/or sinister, name for the Martian.  While John Carter moved from Earth to Mars and made himself master of the red planet, the tweener was dragged from its home and brought to Earth a pet or a slave.  And while John Carter flourished on Mars because of Mars' lower gravity, the higher gravity of Earth is torture to the tweener.

Matt begins having terrible headaches and oppressive dreams of Mars, and his symptoms get worse and worse.  He begins to believe, due to the content of his dreams and from watching the tweener (it has opposable thumbs, for one thing!), that the tweeners are an intelligent race which, eons ago, as Mars' environment declined, abandoned their cities and technology but retained their intelligence and developed compensatory mental powers, a shocking truth the tweeners have kept a secret from the Earthmen.  Matt suspects that, doomed to death on Earth, "John Carter," fired by an enormous hatred of the human race, is trying to exact revenge by driving Matt insane, and, perhaps, manipulating his children in some fashion.  Before the alien can cause any more trouble, Matt kills him.  Instantly Matt's symptoms disappear, but a returning Fred assures him they were just psychosomatic, the result of a subconscious fear of the alien, and Fred should know--after all, he's the shrink who treats the multitude of astronauts on Mars who are always experiencing these very same symptoms!   (Don't all you softies out there worry that Matt's kids have been traumatized--Matt and Fred tell the brats that it was a loose dog (calot?) who killed "John Carter.")

This story isn't bad, but I'm a little surprised it is included here, because it is so similar to the also-included "The Woman from Altair."  I also have to say that "The Woman from Altair" is better than "The Tweener,"--the 1951 story not only has lots of sex and violence, but more clearly drawn, more interesting characters.  "The Tweener" feels like a toned down version of that story.  I was also a little disappointed that Brackett didn't do more with the kids; she hints that maybe this story will be like Ray Bradbury's 1947 "Zero Hour," in which aliens manipulate little Earth kids into helping them conquer the Earth--Matt's kids treat "John Carter" like a king, putting him on a throne and addressing him respectfully in what seems like an alien language--but Matt kills the tweener before anything can really get going.  (I personally find the ordeal of parents watching their children change, say, teenagers falling in with the wrong crowd and turning into drug addicts or thugs, or going to college and coming back as commies, to be a compelling theme, and would have welcomed something more in that direction.)

Unless you count French SF magazine Fiction, which had a deal to reprint stories from F&SF, "The Tweener" never appeared in a multi-author publication after its initial appearance, though, like Hamilton, Stephen Jones saw fit to include it in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks volume of Brackett tales, Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories.  

"The Queer Ones" (1957)

This is a story about a hillbilly teenager and her interstellar one night stand.  Sally Tate lives in Possum Creek, an Appalachian community of shacks and trailers in the shadow of Buckhorn Mountain, with her son Billy.  Billy's father is a TV repairman who goes by the name Bill Jones; Sally only met him once, but she is still carrying a torch for him.  You see, Billy is no ordinary kid, and his father was no ordinary TV repairman: Billy, just like his deadbeat dad, has "grave, precociously wise" copper eyes, a narrow skull, red hair with silver undertones, and moves with grace, like "a gazelle among young goats."  The "goats" are Billy's "rangy and big boned" cousins, and Billy comes to the attention of Doc Callendar down at the county seat when they, envious and suspicious, beat the crap out of him.  When Doc x-rays Billy and takes a blood sample he finds he has an amazing discovery on his hands--Billy, he believes, is the first of a new race, maybe a new species, of human beings, one much superior to us normies!  Doc enlists our narrator, Hank Temple, who runs the local paper (he could be on the staff of the New York Times but prefers to live where he can fish and hunt when the mood strikes) to help him look into the mystery of Billy Tate--this discovery could make their careers!

"The Queer Ones" is a detective story, in which our narrator the newspaperman looks for clues, interviews people, wears an automatic in a shoulder holster, sneaks around the woods, gets knocked unconscious, etc.  Hank discovers that "Bill Jones" the TV repairman left elaborate listening devices in all the TVs he serviced, Hank meets a beautiful woman with Billy's same metallic grace, and in a violent finale Hank uncovers the truth: Billy is not a mutant, but an alien half-breed!  "Bill Jones" (real name: Arnek) is an extraterrestrial coyote, an alien working with that beautiful woman (his sister Vadi) and a human accomplice to smuggle immigrant aliens who can pass as human onto the Earth via a space boat that periodically descends from a larger star ship to the remote cloud-shrouded peak of Buckhorn mountain.  The newspaper man has a shoot out with the human accomplice and the aliens suspend their operations, blowing up their mountain base and burning up Doc's hospital to destroy the evidence.  Poor Doc gets killed by a ray gun blast, and Sally Tate, lovestruck by Arnek, leaves with the aliens--just like you might expect from a shiftless hillbilly, she leaves her half-human kid behind to be raised by Hank.  Brackett ends the story on a sad wistful note (Hank is hopelessly in love with the alien girl Vida, to whom no human woman can compare, and so is doomed to a life of sterile bachelorhood) and with a provocative mystery (Hank and we readers are left to wonder how many aliens posing as humans are walking the Earth and why they would leave their high tech civilization for our little ball of wax.)

This story is alright, no big deal, really.  Living in our age of affirmative consent, some of the sexual elements of the story jumped out at me--our narrator Hank offhandedly tells us how he has often kissed girls who didn't want to be kissed, as well as girls who didn't even like him.  These remarks are occasioned by Hank's kissing Vadi while he is wrestling with her after having stumbled upon her attempt to burn down his house. Vadi responds to his kiss not by slapping him in the face like others have done, but with cold indifference--while he finds the alien irresistibly attractive, she sees him as an inferior species.  (She denounces her brother Arnek, Sally's lover, as "corrupt.")


"The Queer Ones" was included in 1958's The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 9th Series under an alternate title ("The Other People") and in a 1969 Belmont paperback entitled Gentle Invaders and that anthology's abridged German translation.

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These stories deserve a passing grade, but compared to the extravagant and colorful tales we've been reading, like "The Enchantress of Venus" or "Shannach--The Last," stories which initially appeared in the pulpier magazines, "The Tweener" and "The Queer Ones" feel earthbound and drab, pale and a little pedestrian.  Was this Brackett responding to changing market conditions (the old pulps went out of business in 1955) or just evolving as a writer?   Whatever, the case, I cannot deny that I found these stories somewhat disappointing.

In our next episode, we finish up with The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Exile," "Day of Judgment" and "What's It Like Out There?" by Edmond Hamilton

We continue to work our way through The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a 1977 Science Fiction Book Club Selection edited by Hamilton's wife Leigh Brackett.  Two of the next five stories in the book I have already written about on this here blog, but three offer an opportunity for me to type type type away.

"Exile" (1943)

This is a kind of Twilight Zonish story with a twist ending I predicted on page 2.  Luckily this story is only five pages long.  I guess you might also consider it "meta."

Four SF writers are sitting around, shooting the shit.  One of them, the moodiest and quietest of the four, explains that he once dreamed up a detailed geography, history and society for a barbaric world of violence and superstition in which to set a series of fantastic adventure stories.  In some amazing way having to do with a nearby power station's radiation, he realized that, by dreaming it up, he had created this world in another dimension.  Then he (stupidly) imagined himself into this barbaric world of violence.  When he got to it, he couldn't think himself back to his civilized peaceful home planet, and could only survive in the violent world by becoming a SF writer, using his peaceful home world as the basis of his fiction.

Of course, as we all knew from the start, the world of conflict and superstition he created is our own world!  (And, as all you science fiction scholars know, this idea of universes being the creation of authors from other dimensions is an important component of Robert Heinlein's later work, and also shows up in A. Bertram Chandler's later John Grimes stories.)


"Exile" is acceptable, largely because of its brevity, even if you are sick of obvious twist ending stories and misanthropic stories about how crummy the Earth and human beings are.  To be honest, to me, this story seems like filler.  Yet, after originally appearing in Super Science Stories, it has been included in several anthologies over the decades, including Milton Lesser's Looking Forward and various volumes with Martin H. Greenberg's name on them, some with and some without Isaac Asimov's name.  Maybe this story has the ability to blow the minds of people less world weary and cynical than I am, and satisfy the misanthropy of people even more world weary and cynical than I am.

No cow-man, lizard-man or owl-man appears
in "Day of Judgment," which is probably
for the best, because I hear lizard-man is a real
SOB when it comes to cross-examination.
"Day of Judgment" (1946)

Whoa, the cover of Weird Tales illustrating this story makes me think it is about the animals of the world sitting in judgment on the human race that has been eating them, riding them, and making them fetch our slippers for 3,000 or so years.  I hope we've got a good lawyer!

As the story begins, a cat-man and a dog-man with Stone Age weapons go to investigate the ruins of Manhattan--a meteor has fallen into Central Park. (Of course, these primitives don't use words like "meteor" and "Manhattan," but I can tell what they are talking about!)  As the story progresses (as if we hadn't guessed already) we learn that generations ago mankind destroyed human civilization in a nuclear war (I'm going to assume that the commies were to blame, but the illiterate cat-people and dog-people don't have any information to offer on this important issue) and that the radiation of all those bombs going off mutated the few surviving cats, dogs, bears, foxes, and horses, giving them human intelligence and human posture.  (If only the radiation had given some surviving humans superhuman intelligence and superhuman posture, whatever that might be.)

The meteor in Central Park is not natural at all--it is a space ship carrying the two surviving humans of the failed Venus colony.  (It failed because ships stopped bringing supplies from Earth, and a storm damaged those ships already on Venus.) The two humans are heartbroken to find the Earth ruined, but they have even bigger problems--the cat man wants to kill them tout suite, because the animal-people's lore is all about how evil humans were. The dog man, on the other hand, feels strangely protective of the two humans.  Their jury-rigged ship is out of fuel, so the two Venus colonists can't just bug out--they have to convince the cat-people to accept them, or the human race will be totally extinct!

This story is OK, no big deal.  A competent example of the many SF stories featuring cat people and the many SF stories in which humans have to plead their case before nonhumans who think we're dangerously violent, and one of numerous Edmond Hamilton stories about evolution and radiation. "Day of Judgment" hasn't been reprinted much, though it did appear along with Hamilton's "In the World's Dusk" in a 1982 anthology edited by Greenberg, Asimov, and Charles Waugh, The Last Man on Earth.

"Alien Earth" (1949)

I read and wrote about this story about a crazy botanist who can change the speed at which you experience life back in 2015.  Looking back at that blog post, I recall it as being one that was more fun to write than the average.  Am I supposed to admit that I laugh at my own jokes, both when I write them and then again when I read them a year and a half later?

"What's It Like Out There?" (1952)

I read this story back in my Iowa days, shortly after I had moved to the Middle West from New York, in a library copy of the paperback anthology of which it is the title story.  It is a pretty memorable story and still stuck in my mind some five years later, but I decided to reread it this week anyway.


"What's It Like Out There?," which first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, is a sort of serious, literary story about the psychological and social distance between men with dangerous jobs abroad, soldiers being the most obvious example, and the civilians back home who admire them but have no idea what really goes on in the danger zone. It is thematically linked to "Conquest of Two Worlds," in that both portray expansion into space as extremely dangerous, possibly immoral, and perhaps not worth the trouble.

It is the 1960s and United Nations expeditions are extracting uranium from Mars to fuel power plants on Earth.  Our narrator is a young sergeant in the UN forces, back from his first expedition to Mars, and is travelling across America, meeting the families of men from his squad who were killed on the expedition.  In flashbacks we witness the diverse array of horrible things that happened to these lost spacemen, but when talking to the earthbound families of his comrades the narrator softens the blow, lying and telling them their sons and sweethearts died peacefully.  There are no aliens to fight, so in addition to a mutiny that results from some spacemen going insane, Hamilton has to come up with all kinds of accidents and natural disasters, like rocket ship crashes, sandstorms, plagues, and lingering death from internal injuries due to extremes of acceleration, to get the tragic drama and bleak tone he wants.  These scenes of young men dreading death while strapped into claustrophobic vehicles, scrambling to fix a problem when every second counts, and dying in agony while surrounded by chaos, have the tone you'd expect to find in accounts of Allied servicemen participating in Operation Overlord or the strategic bombing of Germany.

The story works, though maybe it is a little long and repetitive--the narrator meets and lies to one family after another, each section of the story following the same structure. Maybe just one family would have been enough?

"What's It Like Out There?" seems to be one of Hamilton's most admired stories, and has appeared in many anthologies, including the hilariously titled Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction from 1966--that's La science-fiction pour ceux qui detestent la science-fiction to you Frenchies! In a fascinating commentary, the editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Samuel Mines, used the occasion of this story to talk about how the SF of the 1930s was a load of garbage for children and drooling imbeciles but now SF is mature literature, and put forward "What's It Like Out There?" as an example of this new grown up science fiction.


The literature that is considered "serious" or "mature" is generally literature about how everything sucks.  The Iliad and The Aeneid, Julius Caesar and MacbethMoby Dick and In Search of Lost Time,  these are all tragedies or, at best, stories about how life and the world are horrible and you have to make the best of the bad situation of your city getting burned down or your ship sinking or your friends and lovers betraying you.  Hamilton's "What's It Like Out There?" certainly strikes those tragic notes, and so it makes sense that Mines would see it as "grown up science fiction."  But another SF editor, John Campbell, Jr., famous for grooming such titans of SF as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, may have thought that, if it "grew up," SF would lose the thing that made it vital and distinctive.  In his essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," (written in 1980, published in The Engines of the Night) Barry Malzberg describes a meeting with Campbell.  Malzberg complained to Campbell that Analog was "antiliterary" and didn't deal with the "real issues," like how technology was "consuming" and "victimizing" people.  Campbell responded with assertions like these:
"I'm not interested in victims...I'm interested in heroes.  I have to be; science fiction is a problem-solving medium, man is a curious animal who wants to know how things work and given enough time can find out."
"If science fiction doesn't deal with success or the road to success then it isn't science fiction at all."
"Mainstream literature is about failure....a literature of defeat.  Science fiction is challenge and discovery."
Looking back from 2017, it is easy to poke holes in the assertions of all three of these important SF professionals--I certainly don't think all of the SF of the 1930s was trash; I think technology has liberated and empowered people, not consumed or victimized them; and lots of canonical science fiction stories, even many stories published by Campbell himself in Astounding, are full of darkness and despair.  (Malzberg has a good essay on this in Engines of the Night called "Wrong Rabbit.")  However, each of these theories of what SF is or should be (perhaps we should call them "ideologies?") opens up interesting ways of looking at individual SF stories and at SF history as a whole.

As does "What's It Like Out There?" itself.  We often hear a lot of blah blah blah about how America lost its innocence and/or respect for the authorities with the murder of JFK or in Vietnam or because of Watergate or whatever, and how the SF establishment was shaken by the New Wave and  Malzberg's pessimistic stories that questioned the space program.  And yet here is a pessimistic SF story doubting space exploration written over ten years before all those events, written by a guy most famous for extravagant space operas.  Science fiction, its history, and the people who write it, are more complicated and heterogeneous than they sometimes get credit for being.


"Requiem" (1962)

I read "Requiem" in 2013, in a library copy of a 1974 edition of Sam Moskowitz's Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction. 

**********

Our exploration of Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett's best work is approaching its completion.  In our next episode we look at the last two stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

"The Last Days of Shandakor" and "Shannach--The Last" by Leigh Brackett

It seems that 1952 was a big year for Leigh Brackett, at least in the eyes of her husband, Edmond Hamilton.  For the 1977 volume The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton selected two stories first published in SF magazines that year, "The Last Days of Shandakor" (heralded by the people at Startling Stories as "A Novelet of Ancient Mars") and "Shannach--The Last" (promoted by the editors of Planet Stories as a "Strange World Novel.")  You can read these stories (and check out the Alex Schomburg and Ed Emshwiller illustrations featuring creepy aliens and sexy ladies) for free at the internet archive.  You have no excuses this time for reading my spoilertastic blog post about the stories before actually experiencing them yourself firsthand!  

This cover suggests there are reasons to visit alien worlds
 which have nothing to do with dating up purple-haired
beauties; also, there is a planet very close by
that I don't know about
"The Last Days of Shandakor" 

This moody piece about a doomed race of superior beings living in a lost city is narrated by Jon Ross, Earthborn anthropologist, an expert on the ethnography of Martians.  When Earthlings first got to Mars, the red planet's dominant race was a form of humans only slightly different from Earth humans, and Ross's studies have been of the differences between the various Martian human groups. As the story begins Ross gets a big surprise when he meets a nonhuman Martian, a man with a sort of reptilian cast to his golden skin, pointy ears and "narrow and arched" skull.  When Ross learns that this joker comes from a city the human Martians know about but have kept a secret from Earthers, a city named Shandakor, he realizes that he has stumbled on an opportunity to do original research that will make him an academic star!  If he can get to the city and back to Earth with the data maybe he'll even get his own Chair!

Shandakor is not easy to get to, being on the other side of a desert and a mountain range where water is scarce, but Ross makes it, just barely.  He finds that the people of Shandakor are on the brink of extinction; once these reptile-people were the highest race on Mars, ruling half of the planet with their superior technology and making humans their slaves, but now they number only a few thousand and their fortified town is under siege by barbaric humans who hope to loot the city when the last Shandakorian dies of thirst.  The barbarians don't storm the city because they fear the Shandakor, whom they believe to be wizards.  Buttressing this superstitious belief is the fact that the reptile-people have a sort of holographic projector which makes the city appear to be as vibrant and as densely populated as it was centuries ago.  This device can interperet the record of ancient days etched by photons into the walls and streets of the city and recreate the long dead inhabitants and their daily lives as moving three-dimensional images.  (We saw this same idea in Kuttner and Moore's "Private Eye" of 1949.)

Even though the Shandakorians are inhuman reptile people who arrogantly insist they are better than humans, Ross manages to fall in love with one, a "girl-child with slender thighs and little pointed breasts" named Duani, after Duani, Pocahontas-style, convinces the rulers of the doomed city to let Ross live.  Ross tries to convince Duani to sneak out of town with him instead of participating in the planned mass suicide that is scheduled to begin when Shandakor runs out of water. He even breaks the holographic projector, hoping to force the issue, but the girl refuses, killing herself along with the rest of her people just before the barbarian hordes, emboldened to attack by the disappearance of the "ghosts," descend on the town.  Ross gets that Chair back at his university, but he always regrets his role in the destruction of the people of Shandakor, and wishes he had committed suicide along with his scaly girlfriend.  

One of the interesting things about "The Last Days of Shandakor" is how it is full of elements we see all the time in fantasy stories and romantic adventure-style SF. (Notably, the editor of Startling, Samuel Mines, in his gushing assessment of Brackett in this issue, concedes that this story is not "real" science fiction.)  There's the elf-like race of haughty people who are more sophisticated than us crummy humans but who are in decline and soon to be supplanted by us humies--the elves in Tolkien and the Melniboneans and Eldren in Moorcock are like this.  (Moorcock even has a high tech city of elves under siege by human barbarians and a human who comes to identify with the elves instead of his own people in The Eternal Champion.  And isn't it revealed in The Sailor on the Seas of Fate that the Melniboneans are descended from lizard men?  Hmmm.)  There's the atmosphere of decay and impending calamity, like in Vance's Dying Earth stories, and fading memories of a nobler Mars, like in Burroughs and Bradbury.  (All this sad decay and impending doom stuff is, I guess, also what people like about the tremendously hyped Viriconium books by M. John Harrison, the first of which I found pedestrian and derivative, remarkable mainly for being cloyingly overwritten.)    

Click or squint to read this message from the editor of Startling Stories
While all those connections are interesting, suggesting that Brackett is an influential component of a literary tradition, they don't necessarily make the story entertaining. "The Last Days of Shandakor" isn't bad, but I have to admit I found it disappointing. The way the characters act doesn't feel natural, doesn't make a lot of sense (for example, the people of Shandakor enslave Ross, a human, and put him in charge of maintenance of the holographic projector, which is their main defense from the human barbarian hordes) or at least isn't suitably explained, and you have to overlook problems in the plot (like, how did a city surrounded by a besieging army go unnoticed by Earth spacecraft and aircraft for year after year?)


Despite my lukewarm reaction, "The Last Days of Shandakor" has enjoyed an enduring popularity, evidenced by its inclusion in numerous multi-author anthologies and Brackett collections, including four I own (The Coming of the Terrans, The Best of Leigh Brackett, The Sea-Kings of Mars, and Martian Quest) and a quite recent anthology of SF by women, Women of Futures Past.

"Shannach--The Last"

Trevor is a prospector who has been searching Mercury for sun-stones for years.  A single sun-stone could make him rich--these rare crystals are used back on Earth to make super-electronics because they are unbreakable can resonate to the faintest transmissions, even human thought! His resources nearly exhausted, he sets out on his last trip, and faces total disaster when an earthquake ("Mercury-quake"?) buries his space ship, supplies, and equipment, trapping him in a desolate valley.  Desperately, he crawls through a series of caves under an impassable mountain with the dim hope of getting to the other side and finding a place with food and water. He makes it, just barely, and finds a lost city no Earther has ever heard about!

Most Mercurians are inhuman stone age savages, but in this city live the human Korins, who have a sort of medieval culture and technology.  The Korins keep as hunting dogs vicious flying reptiles, and keep as slaves the descendants of Earth colonists whose space ship crashed in this inaccessible and fertile valley some three hundred years ago.  This is all pretty surprising, but most surprising of all is the fact that the Korins and their hawk-lizards have sun-stones embedded in their skulls!

Trevor hooks up with some escaped slaves living in a cave.  He learns that the Korins are also descendants of Earthlings--their ancestors were exiled convicts who were on the same ship as the colonists and enslaved the colonists after the disaster.  Via the sun-stones the Korins can see and hear through the eyes and ears of the flying lizards and issue them commands.

"Shannach--The Last" is the title story of one
of Haffner Press's volumes of Brackett stories--
if I had any money I would buy every book
the Haffner people put out
When Trevor pulls a boner and accidentally guides the Korins to the refugees' cave (oops) he is captured and taken to the Korin city, where he learns the amazing truth--the Korins themselves are enslaved by a Mercurian monster named Shannach who commands them through the sun-stones. The city is built not to human scale but to the scale of the monster, who is humanoid but twenty feet tall! Shannach is the last of his kind, and Trevor is dragged to the catacombs where he lives among the scores of his mummified fellows!

Shannach has his minions install a sun-stone in Trevor's own forehead, and sends Trevor to the 300-year-old spaceship wreck.  Will Trevor repair the vessel so Shannach can spread his tyranny to the rest of Mercury?  Or is Trevor strong-minded enough to resist Shannach's control and use the old ship's equipment to liberate the human slaves?

(One of the themes of this series of blog posts about Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton has been possible influences from Brackett on Michael Moorcock, and--mein gott!--as tarbandu recently reminded us, one of Moorcock's major characters has a jewel with psychic powers embedded in his skull by the villains!)

"Shannach--The Last" does not seem to have struck the chord with editors and the SF reading public that "The Last Days of Shandakor" did, never appearing in any multiple author anthologies or foreign translations.  (The German edition of The Best of Leigh Brackett is abridged, and "Shannach--The Last" is one of the deleted pieces.) But I think I enjoyed it more than "The Last Days of Shandakor."  (I'm a rebel!) Everybody's motivations make sense, and Brackett provides plausible explanations for things like why no spaceship has ever spotted the Korin city.  And I like ideas like a city built by giants who are now hideous mummies and a monster who psionically dominates a bunch of jerks and flying reptiles more than how sad it is that arrogant elves who used to lord it over us are finally getting their comeuppance.  (I'm a pro-human chauvinist!)

**********

It seems like "The Last Days of Shandakor" is important, but I think you get more for your entertainment dollar from "Shannach--The Last."  Both stories are well worth reading, however.

Stories by Edmond Hamilton in our next episode as our trip through 1977's The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett continues!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Three more Best of Edmond Hamilton stories from the 1930s

A German edition of
The Best of Edmond Hamilton
It's three more stories by Edmond Hamilton, selected for the 1977 collection The Best of Edmond Hamilton by the author's wife, fellow golden age SF star Leigh Brackett.

"Fessenden's Worlds" (1937)

This is a mad scientist story endorsed by H. P. Lovecraft-loving writer and publisher August Derleth, who included it in his 1950 anthology Beyond Time and Space.  This anthology is huge (650 pages and 32 stories!) and offers an esoteric, wide-ranging selection of stories--I can't deny that it has my itchy ebay-finger twitching!  Somewhat bizarrely, the paperback edition of Beyond Time and Space, published in 1958, includes only eight of the hardcover edition's stories, all by famous and important 20th-century SF writers (you'll be happy to know Hamilton made the cut!)

The first sentence of Hamilton's 1931 mad scientist story "The Man Who Evolved" is "There were three of us in Pollard's house on the night that I try vainly to forget" and the first sentence of "Fessenden's Worlds" is "I wish now that I'd never seen Fessenden's damnable experiment!"  What is it with these snowflake narrators who don't fucking love science?  Both stories also end with an accidental fire that destroys the mad scientist, his house, and all the evidence!  No wonder scientific progress is at a virtual standstill!

Arnold Fessenden has been absent from the university for a while, skipping faculty meetings and enlisting assistants to teach his lecture courses, so our narrator, also a college prof, goes to visit him, curious to see what is up. Fessenden, he learns, has invented a bunch of machines--a gravity neutralizer and an atom shrinker that operates by contracting the orbits of electrons among them.  Using these machines Fessenden has created a new universe, a tiny one three or four yards across shaped like a lends that looks like a dense mass of millions of immobile sparks.  Each spark is a sun!  (As he did in Outside the Universe, I get the feeling that Hamilton is using the word "universe" as we would use "galaxy.") Fessenden has super powerful microscopes that can focus in on individual planets in this universe, and because time in a tiny universe runs very very fast he can watch, over a period of a few minutes, primitive animals evolve into people and empires and civilizations rise and fall.  He and the narrator do just this.

Fessenden is, declares the narrator, "the greatest scientist this planet ever produced--and the evilest!"  Why "the evilest?"  Well, Fessenden is not content to just observe the thousands of inhabited worlds that he has created in his laboratory--he likes to experiment on them!  These experiments consist of testing a civilization's vigor and ingenuity by seeing if it is up to the challenge of surviving a collision with a comet, or a radical change in its sun's temperature, or contact with another civilization, stuff like that.  These experiments, of course, kill billions of tiny people, something that appalls the narrator, much to the incredulity of Fessenden, who says that these people are his property and they are smaller than bacteria, so who cares!

This story may be more of a concept than a fully-fleshed out, fully-plotted story, but the idea is awesome and Hamilton vividly describes the numerous cool planets and exciting catastrophes the narrator observes, so I enjoyed it.  "Fessenden's Worlds" first appeared in Weird Tales, and was illustrated by Virgil Finlay--check it out at the link.  (Extra credit for all you SF scholars--compare "Fessenden's Worlds" to Ted Sturgeon's 1941 "Microcosmic God.")  


"Easy Money" (1938)

It's another first-person narrative about a mad scientist, but this time our narrator is no college professor, but a simple-minded lunk, and our story is a light-hearted one. "Easy Money" has not been widely anthologized, appearing in Thrilling Wonder Stories and then not reappearing until The Best of Edmond Hamilton almost 40 years later.

Slugger Martin is an unemployed boxer, sitting in beautiful Battery Park wondering where his next meal is coming from, when he is accosted by scientist Francis Murtha. Murtha has invented a teleporter/matter transmitter kind of thing, and wants to test it out on somebody!  He has used it to send rabbits to and retrieve them from alien worlds, but of course theses beasts can't describe their destinations to Murtha, so he wants to send a human.  And he wants to send a human who isn't smart enough to steal his scientific secrets!  Martin fits the bill, and when offered $1,000, accepts the job!

Martin is an uneducated dope, and Hamilton mines this for comedy, pulling all sorts of gags based on the fact that Martin doesn't know what is going on, but provides us readers information enough to clue us in to what is happening.  Martin is transported to an alien planet, whose urbanized civilization of pyramidal skyscrapers is a peaceful and orderly one because its wisest member wears a "Controller helmet" which transmits his thoughts to everyone in the world, giving them homogeneous opinions, a strongly conformist attitude and a unity of purpose.  I guess you could call "Easy Money" a "gadget story," because Hamilton offers speculations on what kind of society this device would produce, and because poor Martin, trial and error style, has to figure out how to use the device to get back to Earth.

Murtha's machine is proven a success when Martin reappears in his lab after his harrowing adventure.  But like in the other Hamilton mad scientist stories, the invention does not survive--Murtha's experience "in Egypt" (he refuses to believe he has been sent to another planet) was so bad that he wrecks the matter transmitter to spare any other unfortunate fool from being subjected to it.  These mad scientists can't catch a break!

A fun story, even if I have qualms about smart and educated people like Hamilton making sport of their intellectual inferiors.  The premise (down-and-out boxer teleported to alien planet by scientist) is strangely reminiscent of Robert Howard's Almuric, which would appear in Weird Tales in 1939, three years after Howard's untimely death.    



"He That Hath Wings" (1938)

Young widow Mrs. Rand just died in childbirth, and her baby is a hunchback!  Sad!  But wait!  The Rands suffered injuries in an electrical explosion a year ago, the complications of which killed Mr. Rand a few months ago, and the hard radiation released by the explosion messed with their genes--their orphan baby David isn't a hunchback, he's the first human being with wings!

My copy of The Best of Edmond
Hamilton
; there's David Rand
in his carefree teenage years!
A doctor raises little David Rand on an island off the coast of Maine, where reporters can't quite so easily get at him.  The doctor dies when David is in his late teens, and he goes feral, living like a bird for several years, eating game and fruit and flying south for the winter.  After a few years of animal-like freedom, David is grounded in an accident and meets a pretty girl, Ruth Hall.  Ruth and David fall in love, but Ruth won't marry a man with wings!  David is so lovestruck that he has his wings amputated!

At first David is happy to live with Ruth and work at her father's firm (imagine a world in which you don't need a college degree to get a cushy office job--hell, David didn't even go to grade school!)  When Ruth gives birth to their child (no wings--the wing gene is apparently recessive) Mr. Hall even makes David the head of the company!  (Holy nepotism, Birdman!)  But David has started missing flying, and he hasn't told anybody that his wings are growing back!  This second pair of wings may be short and stubby but they are better than nothing!

At night David tries out his stumpy wings, and it feels so good to fly again that he immediately decides to abandon Ruth, the brat, and his father-in-law's firm for the wild life of a bird.  Unfortunately these stubby wings can't carry him far, but he sinks beneath the waves content to have died doing what he really loved!

Here we have a story about the sacrifices we make, the ways we betray our true natures, to fit into society and to have sex.  Are our sacrifices worth it?  I thought it interesting that Hamilton seemed to be suggesting that they are not!  "He That Hath Wings" is kind of sappy and sentimental, and feels a little long, but it gets a passing grade.  It is an acceptable example of a SF story that is about human life and relationships, but throws a lot of science at you like the Asimov types think science fiction is supposed to.  After first appearing in Weird Tales, "He That Hath Wings" was reprinted in Fantastic in 1963 accompanied by a bibliographic essay by SF fan extraordinaire and historian Sam Moskowitz and an illustration by Virgil Finlay, and later in a few collections of stories from Weird Tales and anthologies of stories about mutants.

Artists apparently find the opportunity to depict a teen-aged boy with wings irresistible;
however, Hamilton makes clear that David Rand only ever wore shorts before
sacrificing his wings to his matrimonial hopes
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Brackett and Moskowitz think the sentimental "He That Hath Wings" is one of Hamilton's very best stories, but I have to admit I found greater enjoyment in the cynical, violent, and at times humorous mad scientist stories "Easy Money" and "Fessenden's Worlds."

In our next installment of our Hamilton-Brackett series, two Leigh Brackett cover stories from the early '50s!

Friday, June 2, 2017

"Enchantress of Venus" and "The Woman from Altair" by Leigh Brackett

My copy, cover by Boris Vallejo, depicting a scene from 
"Enchantress of Venus:" In an ancient temple, Eric John Stark confronts
an evil Venerian boat captain--the villain has been beating his own
daughter in order to goad Stark into attacking him.   Boris neglects to make
Stark as dark and the Venerians as pale as the text indicates.  
Let's continue our look at The Best of Leigh Brackett, a 1977 collection edited by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton.

"The Moon That Vanished" (1948)

The fourth story in The Best of Leigh Brackett is "The Moon That Vanished," which I read back in 2014.  Looking back at my blog entry about the story, I see I detected in it the same theme of the superiority of real life and real sexual relationships to masturbatory fantasies that I recently noted in "The Jewel of Bas." I also thought it better than Brackett's "Terror Out of Space" and "Citadel of Lost Ships"--I guess Hamilton did, too, because those stories aren't in this collection.

"Enchantress of Venus" (1949)

This is, I believe, the second of Brackett's Eric John Stark stories.  Stark is a Burroughs-style hero, an Earthman orphaned as a child on Mercury and raised by Mercurian savages.  His time on Mercury gave him superhuman reflexes and senses, as well as very dark skin, thanks to the proximity to the Sun.

This story begins with Stark on Venus, passenger on a boat floating on a sea of red heavier-than-air phosphorescent gas, bound for Shuruun, a town of pirates and drug dealers.  He narrowly escapes being kidnapped by the boat's treacherous crew, but before long ends up in the hands of the decadent aristocrats who rule Shuruun, the Lhari clan, anyway.  The Lhari are a disgusting dysfunctional family, their matriarch a woman so obese she can barely move, her children and grandchildren and their spouses a pack of cripples and backstabbers always at each other's throats.  (There's a lot of relationship violence and domestic violence in this story--the boat captain who initially tried to kidnap Stark beats his teen-aged daughter, for example, and when Stark and a woman kiss Brackett describes their embraces and caresses as "rough and cruel," Stark holding her "as though she were a doll.")  The Lhari put Stark to work on their slave gang, excavating the ancient ruins of the austere ebon city that lies at the bottom of the red gas sea, but Stark is so sexy that one of the Lhari, a beautiful silver-haired young woman named Varra, whom Stark thinks of as a "bold as brass" "hellcat" with a "swagger" which "at once irritated and delighted" him, tries to seduce him.  If Stark can kill off the rest of her family Varra will marry him, making him co-ruler of Shuruun and founder of a new, virile, dynasty.

That must be Varra, who sics her flying monster
on her fiance and other people who inspire
her anger
Brackett does a good job of setting up an oppressive, hopeless, claustrophobic atmosphere.  Venus is a planet of disgusting swamps, a place where you can't see the stars because of the heavy clouds, and Shuruun is a town where everybody is a dangerous criminal, a strung out addict, or some kind of perverted psychopath.  Stark is in this place because he is on the run from the Earth law--like the guy in Edmond Hamilton's "A Conquest of Two Worlds," he opposed Earth's imperialism and lead a native revolt in the region of Jupiter.  (The big difference between Stark and his Burroughsian models, Tarzan and John Carter, is that while Lord Greystoke and the Warlord of Mars are essentially Victorian gentlemen who play out imperialistic roles and aristocrats who support the establishment, Stark is a down-and-outer who works against imperialism and authorities.)  Stark is trapped in a box, and outside that box is just a series of slightly bigger boxes--Brackett is giving us the opposite of the "sense of wonder," the idea of limitless possibilities and fascination at the vast (but reachable) expanses of the universe, that we get from so much SF--this is a noirish SF.  

Brackett's story is also characterized by brutality.  I've mentioned the rough sex and violence between family members, and will add that Stark, who lived practically as an animal on Mercury, fights like an animal--more than once in hand-to-hand combat he bites an enemy bloody.  Yuck!  (In a story in which there are so many sexual overtones, you have to wonder if Stark biting other men has some kind of homoerotic charge.)

Anyway, Stark, with the help of a renegade member of the Lhari clan, a cripple who prophesized Stark's coming and has discovered via cleverness the ancient technology his family is searching for via slave labor, leads a slave rebellion and in the fighting the Lhari are wiped out.

A very good story--I have talked a lot about "Enchantress of Venus"'s atmosphere and mood, but Brackett also does a good job with the characters--the 70-page story features more than I have mentioned here--with even minor characters like the boat captain and his daughter having memorable personalities and following "arcs," with the fight scenes, and with the pacing and style.  Anybody who likes John Carter or Conan or Elric should like this one, and I'm sure the story is ripe for some kind of feminist analysis, an examination of whether and how a woman works with this sort of material in a different way from a man.  "Enchantress of Venus," first appearing as a Planet Stories cover story, has apparently already been the subject of scholarly attention, being included in 1978's Approaches to Science Fiction and 2000's The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as a bunch of other Brackett collections and SF anthologies.

I feel like we have here one of the most awesome and one of the most lameo covers
ever to appear on MPorcius Fiction Log; most of the dinosaurs 
on the Frank Paul cover are transparent copies of famous Charles Knight images

"The Woman from Altair"
(1951)

The narrator of "The Woman from Altair" is Rafe McQuarrie, scion of the wealthy McQuarrie clan, a family made rich these last two centuries via interplanetary trade and exploration.  Injured in an accident, Rafe has been unable to live the life of a space explorer (instead he's been working as chief financial officer of the family business), and so when interstellar travel was recently developed it was Rafe's little brother David who became a world famous hero by exploring other star systems and bringing back alien valuables.  As the story opens, David returns from an interstellar trip to uncharted worlds, and the assembled McQuarrie family and a gaggle of officials and journalists are amazed to lay eyes on one of these valuables--a gorgeous purple-haired and purple-eyed alien woman named Ahrian!  Perhaps most surprised when David announces that this alien is his wife is David's human fiance!

The first part of "The Woman from Altair" gave me a Heinlein vibe, reminding me in particular of 1957's "The Menace from Earth." There's the clever and smart-alecky characters with their witty comments and a plot about flirtations and courtships over a background of speculations about what life will be like in a spacefaring future.  But Brackett's story, while doing that stuff, takes a very dark turn, with horror and mystery elements that took me by surprise when they first reared their ugly heads, and an ending that questions the very wisdom of exploring outer space!

Rafe's little sister Bet, and other women, are skeptical of, even hostile to, Ahrian, but that can be dismissed as envy over Ahrian's good looks and sympathy for David's jilted fiance, can't it?  But when the family dog and Bet's favorite horse attack and kill (!) Bet, we readers begin to suspect something is not right with this sexy space lady!  Then Rafe stops calling his girlfriend Marthe, an aggressive news reporter, and having disturbing dreams of Ahrian's planet and obsessive thoughts of suicide!  Marthe storms over to the McQuarrie estate and tells Rafe that women sometimes get "nearer the truth than men because we aren't ashamed to rely on the instincts God gave us."  And what is Marthe's women's intuition telling her about Ahrian?  "She's evil.  She's filled the house with death."

Marthe, using her journalist skills and energized by her love for Rafe, figures out what is going on and puts an end to Ahrian's telepathic reign of terror over the McQuarrie family.  

This is a good story; the characters are well-drawn, the plot and pacing work smoothly and can surprise the reader.  Beyond being entertaining, "The Woman from Altair" is interesting in all sorts of ways.  Like "Enchantress of Venus," it is the story of an outsider disrupting a powerful and wealthy family, but in this one the family is, more or less, the "good guys" and the outsider the villain.  I say "more or less" because Brackett isn't reluctant to show us the stresses of family life and doesn't absolve the McQuarries of responsibility for their tragedies.  Rafe was expected to be another in a long line of McQuarrie space heroes, but he wasn't interested in leaving Earth and his beloved dogs and horses.  When he did reluctantly go up on a trip to Mars  he developed a debilitating fear of space, so he deliberately caused that accident which grounded him in order to get out of space duty!  Even worse, Ahrian didn't seduce David on Altair in order to get to Earth to murder people--sleuthing Marthe learns that Ahrian's family needed some Earth drugs, and David pressured the girl with the amethyst locks into marrying him in return for the medicine, practically buying her! Ahrian is using her mind powers to murder McQuarries to get revenge!  (Cleverly but unobtrusively, Brackett presents Ahrian and Rafe to us as parallels--each loved her or his planet and didn't want to leave it, but had to leave to satisfy filial duty!)

Perhaps I should note that the hero of the story, pushy reporter Marthe, is almost as much an outsider as the villain--in her efforts to get a scoop she injects herself into the McQuarrie milieu the same day Ahrain arrives, only later falling in love with Rafe.

Though Ahrian is killed, the stress of her campaign of vengeance, which killed Bet and drove David and Rafe to the edge of insanity, leaves terrible scars on the McQuarries: they abandon their 200-year-old estate and David's career as a space captain is over.  The final lines of the story have Rafe asking why mankind goes to the stars at all: "Have men ever brought more happiness back from the stars?  Will they ever?"  Again we see Brackett repudiating the forward-looking sense of wonder we so often associate with SF (as well as flouting conventional economic theory by suggesting trade is a waste!)


The leading role of women in the story is of course noteworthy; our narrator may be a man, but the hero (Marthe), the killer (Ahrian) and the murder victim (Bet) are all women.  Appropriately enough, Pamela Sargent included "The Woman from Altair" in her 1995 anthology Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.  I wonder if in her intro or notes Sargent remarked upon the traditional notions about women Brackett fills her story with, like women's intuition, women as manipulators of men, and women jealously competing with each other over men.  Brackett seems to have had essentially conservative politics; Alpha Centauri or Die!, which I read in 2014, has an anti-big government message and a traditional view of gender roles, and in his essay "Queen of the Martian Mysteries," Michael Moorcock says that Brackett's politics were closer to those of John Wayne, with whom she worked in Hollywood, than Moorcock's own. Of course, Brackett cleverly presents us with a male first-person narrator, casting some ambiguity over every comment he makes about women (and about the wisdom of space travel, for that matter): is Rafe always expressing Brackett's own beliefs, or is Rafe merely a product of Brackett's speculation of what a man's interior life might be like?

"The Woman from Altair" first appeared in Startling Stories.  In 1965 it was reprinted in a magazine called Treasury of Great Science Fiction Stories along with pieces by other important SF authors.

**********

Two really good stories, fun and thought-provoking, embracing genre traditions but taking them in unusual directions and mixing them up a bit.  Recommended to all genre fiction fans and students of pop culture created by women and depictions of women in pop culture.