Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fantastic Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories, July 1973

Our look through the August 1972 issue of Fantastic was so worthwhile I decided to similarly examine another issue in my collection, that from July 1973.  If you don't have a copy, and don't feel like spending ten or twenty bucks on ebay for one, you can read along at the internet archive.  No shame!

The cover featuring the mustachioed Conan, King of Aquilonia, by Harry Roland, while not terrific, isn't bad.  Swords and shields, dinosaur skeletons, human skulls, a grim muscleman, these are things we've all seen a billion times but which never lose their appeal.  The first thing we find in the magazine after an ad for the Rosicrucians and the Table of Contents is editor Ted White's editorial.  Ted uses three pages of his editorial to describe in detail the recent vote for the 1972 Hugo for Best Professional SF Magazine at LACon.  The somewhat complicated Australian ballot was used to pick the winner, and F&SF was awarded the Hugo, even though more voters picked Analog as their favorite mag.  (Fantastic came in fifth place out of five nominees, behind F&SF, AnalogAmazing and Galaxy.  Ouch!)

Ted then discusses the recent publication by Manor Books of The Best from Amazing Stories and the forthcoming release by the same publisher of The Best from Fantastic, and we learn that bringing these anthologies to market is a process fraught with peril!  Ted grouses that Manor's typesetting is poor and that they left out the introduction he wrote for The Best from Amazing Stories, and hopes they will do a better job on The Best from Fantastic.  He then spends half a page explaining the relationship of a magazine's cover date with when it will be appearing on newsstands.

Ted finishes up this editorial with some good news: the August 1972 issue of Fantastic, which like this issue contained a Conan story by de Camp and Lin Carter, was a very big seller.  Ted muses that the Conan brand sells magazines, and that fantasy, which for decades has been outsold by science fiction, may be expanding its market share!  This leads Ted to voice what sounds like a mission statement! is my conviction that, under Conan's herald, fantasy is enjoying a great popular resurgence today and that it is the function--indeed, the duty--of this magazine to join forces with the times.
Let's see what the herald of the fantasy renaissance of the early 1970s is up to!

"Black Sphinx of Nebthu" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

King Conan of Aquilonia has just lead his army to victory over an unexpected foreign invasion force.  Conan wonders why the leader of this foreign army would suddenly be so reckless as to attack wealthy Aquilonia and its famously warlike monarch, and his suspicions are confirmed by a white druid who comes by to tell Conan that the attack was inspired by the evil wizard Thoth-Amon.  So Conan leads his army to Stygia, a land of sand dunes and palm trees and the ruined city of Nebthu, which the druid informs Conan is Thoth-Amon's current base of operations.

"Black Sphinx of Nebthu" begins a year or so after the events depicted in "Witch of the Mists," the Conan story I talked about in my last blog post.  That tale featured the four greatest evil wizards in the world, including, besides Thoth-Amon, Nenaunir, a huge muscular black jungle shaman, Pra-Eun, an effeminate little Oriental, and the witch of the title, Louhi, a woman in charge of a death cult of skinny mask-wearing weirdos.  Maybe the three diversity wizards were offensive stereotypes, but each of them at least brings an interesting image to mind--Thoth-Amon is totally boring, just some guy.  Why did de Camp and Carter choose to make bland Thoth-Amon the lead villain of this story instead of one of the other, more interesting, sorcerers?  (Maybe I should be asking why de Camp and Carter didn't spend more time making Thoth-Amon more interesting.  And don't tell me Thoth-Amon is really cool in some earlier story, so de Camp and Carter don't need to expend ink making him compelling here--each story should be able to stand on its own!)

The Aquilonian army camps in the desert near Nebthu and a sphinx that looks like a hyena-headed monster.  At night a spy is spotted, and Conan, accompanied by his son and the white druid, shadow the dimly-seen enemy agent into the sphinx and underground, walking right into a trap!  In a huge circular room with seating on its perimeter, like a senate chamber or an arena, await Thoth-Amon and hundreds of evil wizards.  (When I read Andrew Offut and Richard Lyon's The Eyes of Sarsis I wondered how the economy of Tiana's world could support so many pirates, who, like government workers, don't produce wealth, just consume it, and now I'm wondering how the economy of Conan's world can support so many evil magicians, who presumably are not farming, hunting, fishing, mining, or doing anything else productive.) 

Thoth-Amon gives a speech in which he lists all the times Conan has defeated him (it's practically an ad for the Lancer line of Conan paperbacks) and then he and his battalion of wizards try to wipe out Conan's party with green rays, but the white druid ("the greatest white magician alive on Earth in our age") repels all their spells and then shatters their minds, leaving only their leader standing.  Thoth-Amon flees, but not before summoning the monster that serves as the model for the sphinx, the "ghoul-hyena of Chaos!"  This quadruped is "huge as half a hundred lions!"  The ghoul-hyena chases Conan and his friends out of the sphinx, but then the monster is distracted by the Stygian army (which is taking a break from beleaguering the Aquilonian army) and wipes them out.  The sun rises, and the sun-hating ghoul-hyena retreats to its lair before it can molest the Aquilonians.

Foreshadowing the next Conan story, the druid uses his powers to divine that Thoth-Amon is travelling south, to the jungle, so maybe we'll be seeing Nenaunir next time!

"Black Sphinx of Nebthu" is certainly better than "Witch of the Mists;" it feels larger and more momentous, and I like all the military stuff, the battle scenes between the Aquilonian force and the Stygian force and seeing how Conan leads his army on its march.   The Egyptian-type setting is also better than the boring woods and swamp of the earlier story.  Of course, the structure of the climax is pretty similar to "Witch of the Mists," with Conan blundering into traps and getting saved from a magic spell by one of his friends.  I'll judge this one on the high end of "acceptable," maybe "marginally good."

A British edition of
Conan of Aquilonia
One of the things about "Black Sphinx of Nebthu" I didn't really like was the implication that Conan's wild career was the result of the "Lords of Creation" impelling Conan "out of wintry crush evil in the world's West."  I like to think of Conan as a strong-willed individual, a self-made man, who does whatever he wants in an amoral universe in which the gods are indifferent or parochial or simply selfish; embedding Conan in a Good vs Evil narrative and portraying him as a champion or a pawn of the Lords of Light doesn't seem, to me, like a very good idea.  A Conan who bends the world to his will and, if he does the right thing, does it because he chooses to do so, is more interesting than a Conan who is the obedient servant or cat's paw of some establishment or set of principles.  (I'm not at all opposed to stories about champions of good fighting agents of evil or stories about people manipulated by gods or establishments, I just don't remember the Conan of the Howard stories being that sort of character--my image of Conan is as an icon of rugged individualism and self-reliance who pursues his own course, seizing life with gusto and the hell with everybody else and their rules.)

Another gripe I have with this story as well as "Witch of the Mists" is that the magic is boring.  The stories feature the four top black magicians in the world and the top white magician in the world, but all they do is obvious stuff like shoot rays at each other and teleport.  Offutt and Lyon filled their Tiana books with much stranger and creative magic.

"Black Sphinx of Nebthu" would reappear in 1977's Conan of Aquilonia.   Here in Fantastic it is accompanied by an unspecific and embarrassingly silly illustration by Billy Graham.  Graham doesn't even include Conan's mustache!

"Iron Mountain" by Gordon Eklund

It has been years since I read anything by Gordon Eklund, and a glance at old blog posts that mention him indicates I was not very impressed with his work.  Well, here's your chance to get me on your side, Gordon!

Chou Lun Chu served in Manchuria in World War II, made his way to Hong Kong, and then, ten years ago when he was 70, to San Francisco.  Since then San Francisco has been evacuated, but Chou decided to stay and is currently living the life of a scavenger!  Life for a single (the Japs killed his wife 50 years ago!) 80-year-old scavenger in a city full of smog and murderous gangs is no picnic, but Chou has no interest in moving to the countryside.

When he can't find any more canned goods in his residential hotel, Chou ventures out into the abandoned streets for the first time in a month.  He meets a young white woman, who befriends him and shares her food and water with him.  She also shares with him her little pleasures, like "shopping" in an abandoned clothing store, and explains to him (and we readers) why the city was evacuated.

This is a "literary" or "New Wave" story, more a psychological character study and collection of striking images than a plot-driven narrative.  Nothing is clearly resolved, though I guess we are supposed to think that Chou and his new friend are going to die a few hours after they meet and share a beautiful moment.  I thought the explanation of why San Francisco had been evacuated was a little silly, more like something out of a fable than a realistic story, but otherwise the tone is good and Eklund's style is good, and Chou and the young blonde are actually interesting characters.  Thumbs up for this one!   

It seems that "Iron Mountain" has never been reprinted, though the good people at Ramble House are producing a series of collections of Eklund's stories, so maybe it will eventually be back in print. 

"What I Did on My Summer Vacation" by Jack C. Haldeman II

Jack C. Haldeman II is the brother of Joe Haldeman, who wrote the classic Forever War and has won a stack of awards.  Jack was a biologist who wrote quite a few SF stories and novels, many co-written with people like his brother, Jack Dann, Harry Harrison and Andrew Offutt.  Jack also won a Phoenix award from the people who put together the DeepSouthCons; this is an award I have to admit I never heard of before, a sort of lifetime achievement award given to those SF professionals who "have done a great deal for Southern fandom."

"What I Did on My Summer Vacation" is one of Jack's earliest published stories, and its title has got me worried it is a sophomoric joke.  The story is accompanied by a graphic design style illustration by Don Jones which I like, however.  This is Don Jones' sole credit at isfdb, so who knows what the hell his story is.

Ugh, this thing is so tedious that while reading it I began to feel an urge to go wash the dishes and file our 2017 Columbus, OH local income taxes.  (Yes, residents of Columbus, OH are expected to pay a 2.5% income tax to the city above their federal and state income taxes.)  "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" is a first-person, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness narrative of a guy's dream in which he gets attacked in the shower of his hotel room, then watches a kid vomit after eating cigarette butts, then meets a giant wolverine in a movie theater.  Maybe I am supposed to appreciate this plotless mess as an indictment of U. S. intervention in the Vietnam War and of American TV and cinema, which have scrambled the narrator's mind?  The story is also full of leaden jokes.  Take a gander:

If we look at "Iron Mountain" as an example of literary or New Wave SF that works, I think we can see "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" as an example of literary or New Wave SF that fails utterly, abandoning plot but not replacing plot with human feeling or adept writing or good images, just self indulgent rambling.  Quite bad.

"What I Did on My Summer Vacation" has not been republished anyplace.


I'm skipping Part Two of Alexei and Cory Panshin's novel The Son of Black Morca.  If you are curious about it, check out tarbandu's review of the Panshin's novel; he read it in its book form, which bore the title Earth Magic.  Jeff Jones contributes a fine illustration to its appearance here in Fantastic, July 1973, a male figure.  (I tweeted the picture on Jones' birthday back in 2017.)

In the August 1972 issue of Fantastic, editor Ted White explained to a reader that, if the magazine staff finds they don't have enough material to fill up an issue, the publisher (without consulting Ted) will make up the shortage by reprinting a "portfolio" of old art.  After Part Two of The Son of Black Morca we find just such a portfolio, eight pages dedicated to Wesso's illustrations for the 1932 appearance in Amazing of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Invaders From the Infinite.  Some years ago I read the 1961 version of Invaders From the Infinite and wrote a negative review of the novel on Amazon.  These Wesso illos, however, are charming.  (What's not to like about a picture of a single space warship incinerating an entire modern city?)

Next up is the Panshins' SF in Dimension column.  This is the final installment of SF in Dimension to appear in Fantastic, and takes as its topic the period 1968-1972, which the Panshins see as a period of "imbalance and stagnation."  The authors dismiss Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies and Michael Moorcock's New Worlds as failed efforts to break out of SF's current doldrums, but are more impressed by recent "introspective" works like R. A. Lafferty's Fourth Mansions, Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, Robert Silverberg's Time of Changes and Joanna Russ' And Chaos Died.  The Panshins in this column get psychological and philosophical, even mystical, suggesting SF's problem is like that of an adolescent faced with the crisis of having to mature into adulthood, a problem for which the experiences of his or her earlier life offer no solution.  "These crises, these critical moments of impasse, continue to occur all throughout a lifetime.  They can only be solved by growth, by rebirth as a larger person.....It is these critical moments of impasse that are symbolized in fiction."  As examples of this symbolism the Panshins present long quotes and analyses of passages from Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea.  The authors finish up on an optimistic note, predicting that this period of stagnation in SF will end in 1973 and that the "speculative fantasy of the next years will be a great literature;" they even suggest that SF of the 1970s might guide our entire society in a much-needed process of rebirth!   

In his book review column, Fritz Leiber looks at an anthology of horror stories about cats, Michael Perry's Beware of the Cat, and a novel by Avram Davidson, The Phoenix and the Mirror.  Fritz comments on each of the cat stories in Perry's volume, praising most but judging Algernon Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries" "by far the best in this book."  In the review of The Phoenix and the Mirror Fritz asserts that the best fantasies are those that are "based on stuff that is half history" that strive for a sort of realism and are "fortified by a deep knowledge of the human condition." He lauds Davidson and his novel for meeting these criteria and presenting many unforgettable scenes.

Then come the letters.  There are two pages on which a postal worker, Ted, a reader, and even a U. S. senator opine on the United States Postal Service in response to an increase (of 100%!) in the cost to publishers of shipping magazines.  I was surprised to learn that the Post Office charges were not determined simply by weight and distance, but in large part based on how much advertising a magazine had; shipping a page of advertising cost almost three times what it cost to ship a page of fiction.  (The postal worker says about 6% of an issue of Amazing is devoted to ads, while Playboy hits 80%.)

In an amusing letter a guy denounces "Witch of the Mists" as "abominable drivel" and even more ferociously slags illustrator Henry Roland, whom he claims plagiarized his illos for that story!.  Given a chance to respond, Roland resorts to ad hominem, saying that the poison that drips from his detractor's pen surely indicates he is a "very unhappy person."  Then Ted gets in an argument with a guy who didn't like Ted's and Harlan Ellison's chapters in All in Color for a Dime, a book of essays about Golden Age comic books.  This guy says Ted and Harlan's writing is "subliterate," and Ted wittily responds by saying that, no, it is your writing that is sub-literate!  The fireworks continue with an underhanded attack on Star Trek from a guy who writes in to share sarcastic plot ideas for the show in the event it is revived.  Then we get a nice helping of SF snobbery, as a letter writer and Ted goof on the TV show UFO and agree that SF is not very popular because normies are scaredy cats--the reader says people are scared of technology and the future, and Ted asserts that "science fiction scares most people--its very precepts scare them."

Lester G. Boutillier, apparently some kind of superfan who attends many SF gatherings, contributes a letter that takes up two and a half pages.  He addresses a number of topics, including the whole postage increase issue (his father works for the USPS), but he is at his most entertaining when criticizing Poul Anderson (whom he admits seemed "a very nice man" when he met him at an Apollo launch party) for including too much "far right" politics in his writing, calling Anderson the "William Buckley (or perhaps I should say Ayn Rand) of science fiction," and complaining that there is too much nudity at SF convention costume events.  (A pinko and a prude?  This guy sounds like a real piece of work!)

Someone writes in to tell Ted that he was tricked into printing as new in the October 1972 Fantastic a story by Eric Frank Russell, "Vampire From the Void," that had already been published back in 1939 in the British magazine Fantasy.  Ted says he hasn't read the '39 story, but he doesn't think Russell would do such a thing.  (The wikipedia article on Fantasy actually addresses this issue, blaming Russell's agent for deceiving our long-suffering Ted.)  Ted finishes the letters with a page-long letter from somebody who thinks Ted has greatly improved the magazine over the last two years, and who likes both Poul Anderson's and Henry Roland's work.  So there, haters!

On the last page of Fantastic of July 1973, in the classifieds, we have some ads from New York witches, no doubt worthy rivals to the Missouri witches from our last blog post, and an ad for a book by the astrologer Solastro that will teach you how to win at the race track--you need merely conduct a simple numerological and alphabetical analysis of each horse's number and name to identify the winning horse 67% of the time!  Read more about Solastro and his system at this website, then get your ass to the Aqueduct and rake in the Benjamins!

There is also a mysterious ad for Richard E. Geis' fanzine Science Fiction Review which draws you in by announcing it is "adult," "outrageous," "uncensored" and "shocking," but doesn't tell you the periodical's title!  (It seems that Geis' zine went through periodic name changes.)  A quick look at isfdb entries on Science Fiction Review certainly makes it look attractive--besides all the great cover illustrations by Stephen Fabian there are many letters from and interviews with famous SF writers.

Shocking and uncensored covers of Richard Geis' Science Fiction Review
by Stephen Fabian--don't show these to Lester Boutillier!
A fun issue.  More Conan and more problems for poor Ted in our next Fantastic episode!


  1. I'm curious if the title "Iron Mountain" alludes to the infamous "Report from Iron Mountain" published in 1967 in its reason for emptying San Francisco.

    There's a Wiki entry on "Report from Iron Mountain" which doesn't lead me to any obvious connection from your plot summary.

    1. At the start of the story the protagonist has a dream based on a Chinese legend about an "iron mountain" that reaches above the clouds. We learn from the blonde that San Francisco and other major cities were evacuated because of a sudden increase in smog levels, and throughout the story we are reminded that the smog is so thick the characters can only see a short distance (even though everybody is gone so no new smog is being produced.) In the end of the story the two survivors climb up a skyscraper that reaches above the dense layer of smog and watch beautiful snowflakes falling.

      I'd never actually heard of "Report from Iron Mountain" before; thanks for pointing it out!

    2. Thanks for confirming my initial suspicion that it alludes to something Chinese. I had to ask though given the time of the report/hoax and the story.

  2. The 1970s ignited a demand for more Conan stories. After the original Howard stories were reprinted, plenty of writers "ghosted" more Conan tales. TOR published the most:
    Conan the Invincible (Jun. 1982) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Defender (Dec. 1982) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Unconquered (Apr. 1983) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Triumphant (Oct. 1983) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Magnificent (May 1984) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Destroyer (Jul. 1984) (adaptation by Robert Jordan of the movie of the same title)
    Conan the Victorious (Nov. 1984) (by Robert Jordan)
    Conan the Valorous (Sep. 1985) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Fearless (Feb. 1986) (by Steve Perry)
    Conan the Renegade (Apr. 1986) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Raider (Oct. 1986) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Champion (Apr. 1987) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Defiant (Oct. 1987) (by Steve Perry)
    Conan the Marauder (Jan. 1988) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Warlord (Mar. 1988) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Valiant (Oct. 1988) (by Roland Green)
    Conan the Hero (Feb. 1989) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Bold (Apr. 1989) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Great (Apr. 1989) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Indomitable (Oct. 1989) (by Steve Perry)
    Conan the Free Lance (Feb. 1990) (by Steve Perry)
    Conan the Formidable (Nov. 1990) (by Steve Perry)
    Conan the Guardian (Jan. 1991) (by Roland Green)
    Conan the Outcast (Apr. 1991) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan the Rogue (Nov. 1991) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Relentless (Apr. 1992) (by Roland Green)
    Conan the Savage (Nov. 1992) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan of the Red Brotherhood (Feb. 1993) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan and the Gods of the Mountain (May 1993) (by Roland Green)
    Conan and the Treasure of Python (Nov. 1993) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan the Hunter (Jan. 1994) (by Sean A. Moore) ISBN 0-8125-3531-6
    Conan, Scourge of the Bloody Coast (Apr. 1994) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan and the Manhunters (Oct. 1994) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan at the Demon's Gate (Nov. 1994) (by Roland Green)
    Conan the Gladiator (Jan. 1995) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan and the Amazon (Apr. 1995) (by John M. Roberts)
    Conan and the Mists of Doom (Aug. 1995) (by Roland Green)
    Conan and the Emerald Lotus (Nov. 1995) (by John C. Hocking)
    Conan and the Shaman's Curse (Jan. 1996) (by Sean A. Moore)
    Conan, Lord of the Black River (Apr. 1996) (by Leonard Carpenter)
    Conan and the Grim Grey God (Nov. 1996) (by Sean A. Moore)
    Conan and the Death Lord of Thanza (Jan. 1997) (by Roland Green)
    Conan of Venarium (Jul. 2003) (by Harry Turtledove)
    Conan: The Road of Kings (2001 - first published by Bantam, Oct. 1979) (by Karl Edward Wagner)
    Conan the Rebel (Oct. 2001 - first published by Bantam, Jul. 1980) (by Poul Anderson)
    Conan and the Spider God (2002 - first published by Bantam, Dec. 1980) (by L. Sprague de Camp)
    Conan: The Sword of Skelos (Feb. 2002 - first published by Bantam, May 1979) (by Andrew J. Offutt)
    Conan the Liberator (Jun. 2002 - first published by Bantam, Feb. 1979) (by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter)
    Conan the Swordsman (Dec. 2002 - first published by Bantam, Aug. 1978) (by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Björn Nyberg)

    1. Conan--the man who launched an industry! Have you read any of these? Can you recommend (or warn us away from) any particular authors?

  3. I own about 80% of this list of Conan TOR titles. I used to find them everywhere a few years ago, but things have really dried up lately. Sadly, I've only read 10%. I can warn you away from Harry Turledove's CONAN OF VENARIUM. It's a snoozer!