Friday, April 27, 2018

Mirkheim by Poul Anderson

"The issues are simple," Lennart declared. She repeated what she had said more than once at the conference table.  "Mirkheim is too valuable, too strategic a resource, to be allowed to fall into the claws of beings that have demonstrated their hostility.  I include certain human beings.  The Commonwealth has a just title to sovereignty over it, inasmuch as the original discoverers represented no government whereas the Rigassi expedition was composed of our citizens.  The Commonwealth likewise has a duty to mankind, to civilization itself, to safeguard that planet."
...van Rijn said, "what about those original discoverers of Mirkheim, ha?  What rights you think they have?"
Back in December of 2014 I bought a pile of SF paperbacks while on a visit to Columbia, South Carolina.  Looking over the stack of twenty volumes via the magic of my incompetent twitter photography (the light in that hotel room was terrible!), I believe I have read (and blogged about!) seven of the novels--Sandworld, Day of the Beasts, Diabolus, Orbitsville, Night Walk, Gender Genocide, and The House That Stood Still--and at least something from eight of the short story collections--The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind-BendersFuture Corruption, The Liberated Future, Infinity Two, The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, Special Wonder: Volume 2, Seven Trips Through Time and Space, and On Our Way to the Future.  I sometimes fear I buy way more books than I will ever read, but in a little over three years I checked off 15 of the titles of this big binge purchase, which isn't so bad.  And this week I checked off a sixteenth, Poul Anderson's 1977 novel Mirkheim.

Mirkheim is a component of Anderson's sprawling future history which, at isfdb, goes by the name "Technic History," and, on the cover of this book and various others in my library, "Future History of the Polesotechnic League."  It was dedicated to Jerry Pournelle, and has been reprinted numerous times on its own, and as part of Baen's Rise of the Terran Empire omnibus.  Let's double check the seals on our spacesuits, toggle on our voice translators, strap on our blasters and check it out!

The 22-page Prologue, which describes in episodic fashion happenings in the decades before the events related in the main text, clues us in to some of the themes of Mirkheim, which include conflict between social classes and social and political change.  On Earth, interstellar merchant Nicholas van Rijn (we met van Rijn in the stories collected in Trader to the Stars and have since encountered him a few different places) complains about pending legislation that will give labor unions and the government more power at the expense of business concerns and individuals, and it is hinted such legislation is part of a galaxy-wide trend of increasing corruption and diminishing trust in large public institutions.  On planet Babur the primitive natives are gradually deepening their relationships with the Solar Commonwealth (the big space federation centered on Earth), the Polesotechnic League (an association of the galaxy's big interstellar businesses), and other outside entities, conducting interstellar trade and developing into a modern spacefaring society; the Baburites' main link with the universe beyond their own system is human scientist Benoni Strang, a commoner from planet Hermes who harbors resentments against Hermes's aristocrats and holds close to his vest his own grand and mysterious ambitions.  On planet Valya, Lord Eric Tamarin-Asmundsen, one of those very Hermes aristocrats (and van Rijn's illegitimate son by the ruling Grand Duchess of Hermes), tries to convince a big unscrupulous mining firm to stop running roughshod over the other, much smaller, colonial businesses on Valya as well as the stone-age native Valyans.  Van Rijn's protege, David Falkayn, another Hermes aristocrat (but one who has been away from home for a long time), also figures in the prologue--it was his team that discovered Mirkheim, a planet of unusual chemical and physical composition due to its proximity, half a million years ago, to a supernova.  (We met Falkayn in the tales collected in The Trouble Twisters.)  Mirkheim, over two weeks hyperspace flight from Earth, lies only a few days travel from Hermes and Babur.

As the main text of the 216-page novel begins, Mirkheim is a catalyst for major trouble, as both the Solar Commonwealth and the young government of a newly united Babur claim the planet and its extremely valuable minerals; so useful are these minerals they have the potential to spark a technological revolution.  For years a company with ties to Falkayn and van Rijn has been mining the planet, keeping Mirkheim's existence a secret the whole time, but now the cat is out of the bag.  Van Rijn sends Falkayn's team, which includes Chee Lan the little cat-raccoon person and Adzel the hulking reptilian Buddhist, to the Hermes-Mirkheim-Babur region to gather information and hopefully prevent open hostilities that might threaten van Rijn's profits.

Mirkheim is classic old school SF, with space ships, space suits, hyperspace, aliens friendly and hostile, science lectures, and characters who defend the rights of the individual and the free market against the dead hand of government.  There is plenty of adventure stuff: people wear disguises, people get captured and escape, space ships chase each other, there are infantry firefights and a major space naval battle.  While the violence is exciting, Anderson makes an effort to keep things mature, realistic, and literary.  For example, rather than romanticizing war, he stresses the tragedy and pointlessness of it, airing standard libertarian arguments--Adzel ponders, "What does it [Babur] hope to gain?  As a world, a sophont species, it can only suffer a net loss by replacing peaceful trade with armed subjugation" and portraying politicians using war and security as an excuse to flout the law, increase their power and abuse their political opponents--and conjuring up scenes in which men bid sad farewells to their families before going into harm's way and people at risk in the battlezone think of the homes and families they may never see again.  I thought that in some of these scenes Anderson might be purposefully echoing passages from the Iliad; as he so often does, in Mirkheim Anderson advertises his own erudition and tries to turn us on to high culture, this time quoting Tennyson and Wordsworth and referring to sculptor Gustav Vigeland.

Along with the war we get the politics, and there are lots of negotiations between people with opposing interests and ideologies.  Anderson speaks the language of people (like me) who read the blog every day and follow the Cato Institute on twitter--he reminds us that all government is based on coercion, he depicts regulatory capture, he moans that so many people would choose security over liberty and that so many people are motivated by envy.  Remember when that letter writer to Fantastic in 1973 complained that Anderson was like the William F. Buckley or Ayn Rand of SF?--if he was still reading Anderson four years later, Mirkheim must have really made him grind his teeth!

The foreground plot of Mirkheim can be summed up thusly:  There hasn't been a major interstellar war for generations, so the Commonwealth space navy is relatively small, and in a short period the hydrogen breathing Baburites have been able, with the help of some mysterious humans and other oxygen-breathers, to build up a navy that can rival those of the Commonwealth, the League, and the various independent human planets like Hermes.  The Baburites seize control of Hermes, and the Hermes fleet, led by van Rijn's illegitimate son Lord Eric, flees to Earth.  Another Babur squadron repels a Commonwealth squadron from Mirkheim.  By the time David Falkayn, Chee and Azdel arrive on the scene it is too late to prevent war, but they manage to escape capture by the Baburites and even collect some info from the wreckage of a Baburite vessel knocked out during the battle at Mirkheim.  When Falkayn and company get to Earth they find the left-wing elements of the Commonwealth government are using the war as an excuse to seize control of all space craft and rein in those independent business entities (like van Rijn's) which haven't been already co-opted by the government.  Lord Eric, van Rijn and Falkayn and his buddies work together to sneak Falkayn back to Hermes, where Falkayn finds that Benoni Strang has been given authority over the planet by the Baburite conquerors and is turning Eric and Falkayn's homeworld into a communist dictatorship.  Having figured out the identity of the humans behind the Baburite war machine and its conquest of Mirkheim and Hermes, Falkayn sneaks back to Earth and he and van Rijn lead a successful effort to drive a wedge between the Baburites and their human enablers/manipulators via guerrilla warfare and piratical raids, bringing them to the negotiating table and ending the Mirkheim crisis.         

The larger, background, plot is about how the Commonwealth government and the Polesotechnic League have both become corrupt and incompetent to fill the roles for which they were created so long ago.  While the government has increased its power at the expense of individual citizens, many League businesses based in the solar system have essentially become an arm of the Commonwealth government--in fact, they now largely control the Earth government.  In response, many League businesses based in extrasolar space sought to build up a powerful government on Babur that could check the Earth government.  Founded to protect individual liberty and the free market against government interference, the League has fractured and its most powerful members have become the very thing they ostensibly exist to oppose, imperialistic and oppressive governments.  The Mirkheim crisis is a symptom, not a cause, of this galaxy-wide corruption, and while the independent businesses and independent planets lead by van Rijn and Falkayn have ended the Mirkheim war, they haven't stopped the decline of interstellar civilization.  Again and again the characters we are meant to sympathize with lament that the happy days of freedom and dynamic economic growth are ending, and a period of stagnation and intrusive government beginning.  (Anderson depicts this period of decadence and interstellar conflict in his Dominic Flandry stories, one of which we read last year.) 
A superior specimen of what Poul Anderson's science fiction (in my opinion, at least) is all about, Mirkheim gets a big thumbs up from me.  I look forward to reading more of the prolific Anderson's many Technic History stories.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mists of the Ages by Sharon Green

I sighed as I closed my eyes, called up a picture of the man in his fighting leathers to look at, and spent some time wondering if I would ever see him again.
Years ago, at one of the flea markets or antique malls my wife and I stopped at on one of our days-long car trips, I purchased a copy of Sharon Green's Mists of the Ages, a 1988 paperback from DAW.  I remember vacillating over the thing--I was curious, but would I really read it?  The book was over 300 pages, a serious time investment, and it gave every indication of living on the borderline of pornography--the description indicated that it was about a woman spy who teamed up with a male gladiator to investigate a "pleasure planet," after all, and one of the ad pages in the back was devoted to John Norman's Gor books.  (In a 2012 blog post reviewing Green's 1982 novel The Crystals of Mida, tarbandu directly compares Green's writing style and subject matter to Norman's.)  Well, all those years ago my curiosity overcame my reluctance to invest a dollar in the book, and this week my curiosity finally overcame my reluctance to invest the time it takes to read 310 pages of what I expected to be silly fights and nonconsensual sex--let's see what Mists of the Ages is all about; I like sex and violence as much as the next guy and maybe I will be pleasantly surprised!

Dalisse Imbro is the best burglar on planet Gryphon!  She's the best because she was mentored by the best, Seero, her surrogate father!  But Seero is dead, killed by the Twilight Houses, and now Imbro (her friends call her Inky!) is on a campaign of revenge against the Houses.

Chapter 1 gives us standard crime fiction stuff, starting in medias res with Inky in the middle of a burglary job, overcoming security systems and picking locks and stealing a document out of a hidden safe, and then we get all the background exposition at a bar, where Inky talks to her friends about Seero's demise and warns them not to help her on her campaign against the Twilight Houses because it is too dangerous.  Inky narrates the novel, and in these early chapters on Gryphon Green emulates the style of a hard-boiled detective story:
Getting out of my transportation brought me the stale but familiar smell of the air in that district, air that seemed to be holding itself as still as possible to avoid being noticed.  It was an attitude that seemed to be shared by a lot of the denizens of the area, and one that never failed to annoy me.
"I'm trying to say they weren't there," I answered, reaching for my cup of javi.  Black was the way I drank it, as black as my hair, and preferably as strong as my resolve for revenge.
Of course, instead of New York or L.A., Mists of the Ages is set in a space empire future where you ride your personal hover car to a night club and sit at a table drinking "javi," your privacy ensured by a "distortion field" that surrounds your table. 

In Chapter 2 we learn that Inky's method of taking down the Twilight Houses is to work with the local branch of the space empire's intelligence service: because the Gryphon courts are corrupted by bribes from the Houses, said Houses can only be successfully tried in Imperial Courts, and Inky steals the evidence that Imperial prosecutors need to make their case--Imperial prosecutors are permitted to use evidence obtained without a warrant or via a criminal act.  (Obviously the ACLU hasn't opened any offices in this space empire.)  When she goes to the intelligence service's HQ to deliver her latest burgled document, the intelligence people blackmail Inky into leaving the planet to join a team investigating weird goings on over on planet Joelare.  One entire continent of Joelare is covered in mists, and this continent has been turned into an amusement park called "Mists of the Ages" where wealthy people can spend time in recreations of cities from the past.  Lately people have been getting killed in mysterious accidents in the amusement park, and the Imperial cops think Inky's skills at stealing documents will be of service to them in their investigation--why bother with subpoenas and lawyers when you can just steal a company's records?

Chapter 3 covers an additional briefing Inky receives from an intelligence agent who flirts with her, and is a good example of the form most of this book takes.  Mists of the Ages is a talky book, and a typical scene consists of a long conversation larded with verbose descriptions of the furniture where the conversation takes place, the attire of the participants, and what my guide to the world of the legitimate theatre, Bertie Wooster, calls "stage business": what the talkers are doing with their eyes and what they are doing with their drinks--"I handed him a cup of javi," "he raised his cup of javi," "I sipped my javi," etc.  Green really wants you to know what a conversation between people drinking coffee looks like. 

In Chapter 4 Inky gets on the space liner to Joelare, and Green shifts gears; the noirish tone is abandoned and in its place we find the letter and spirit of one of those romantic comedy movies that infest our cinemas and cable networks.  On the liner Inky has her "meet cute" with the gladiator mentioned on the book's back cover--walking in a crowded corridor he is looking at a hot chick and Inky is looking at the hot chick's jewelry, so Inky and the muscleman blunder into each other and each blames the other for the collision.  Inky is told that this dude is Serendel, the most popular gladiator in the galaxy, and Green tries to wring some comedy out of the fact that Inky's fellow secret agents, female electronics expert Lidra and medical man Chal, are star struck at the sight of him while Inky finds him oafish and exasperating.  Of course, by the end of Chapter 5 Inky and Serendel are already softening towards each other after, in the liner's gym, he shows signs of being not a meathead but a gentleman, and she shows signs of being not a ditz but a talented athlete.

In Chapter 6, a third of the way through the novel, our three government spooks, undercover as tourists, and their new buddy, stud and arena star Serendel, arrive at Joelare and don the costumes they will wear as roleplayers in the amusement park.  The middle third of Mists of the Ages almost entirely ignores the espionage/law enforcement plot, and is instead about the relationships among our four protagonists, the development of which we directly observe and indirectly learn of via tediously long conversations.  We endure page after page of flirting and lovers' spats as Inky and Lidra play hard to get and try to maintain their independence in response to Serendel and Chal's pursuit of their favors, and page after page in which Chal or Lidra talks to Inky about the absent characters behind their backs.  These conversations are the same cliched glop you can hear on the TV every single night: Chal wants to "make a life together" with Lidra, but fears Lidra is reluctant because "she's been hurt in the past;" Lidra and Chal make each other jealous by flirting with Serendel and Inky; Lidra eventually explains that what she is really worried about is getting involved with men she works with; Lidra and Chal urge Inky to be more open to the gladiator's advances, etc.  Mind-numbing!

Independence is a theme of Mists of the Ages and we see it not only in how vigorously the ladies resist the men's advances.  Inky reminisces about refusing to join a clique in high school; Inky tells us how she doesn't care that the average person thinks that stealing is wrong (halfway through the book we learn that Seero and Inky aren't really thieves anyway, but more like vigilantes because all their breaking and entering is of the properties of bad people); when a member of the amusement park staff warns our four heroes to obey his advice in the interests of safety, they object: "Paying for the privilege of being bossed around isn't my idea of a fun vacation" says Lidra, and Serendel adds, "I don't obey anyone without question."  Serendel repeatedly complains about the burdensome responsibilities and limits put on him by his fans and trainers.

Over the course of Chapters 7 through 15 our heroes visit two of the amusement park's historical recreations.  The first of the two milieus the characters explore is ancient Llexis, where lords compete over women through the medium of their magicians.  Inky objects to roleplaying a woman subordinated to a lord, and decides to go off by herself; when she gets scared by some of the park's simulated dangers (actors in monster suits), Serendel appears and comforts her.  When another tourist's magician defeats Serendel's magician and, by the rules of the game, Inky is supposed to have sex with this guy, she and Serendel simply refuse to follow the rules.  I have to wonder why Green bothered with this whole "amusement park recreating many strange cultures" gimmick if 1) there are only two cultures represented in the book and 2) the characters just ignore the customs of these places that are actually strange and might present the reader with some kind of entertainment. 

As the final third of the novel begins, Inky and Serendel declare their love for each other and consummate their relationship.  It's the best sex of Inky's life!

Because tarbandu tells us The Crystals of Mida includes nonconsensual sex, I was expecting some nasty sex scenes in The Mists of the Ages, but, in fact, Green in this book practically fetishizes consent.  When trying to comfort her, Serendel asks Inky if he can put his arm around her shoulders and she rhapsodizes over how wonderful this is in comparison to all the times men in the past put their arms around her without asking first.  (Does this milquetoast attitude about sex really sit comfortably next to the novel's Death Wish/Dirty Harry attitude towards vigilantism and the use of illegally obtained evidence?)  Maybe in The Crystals of Mida Green was answering John Norman's Gor books by having women sexually exploiting men instead of the reverse, and here in The Mists of the Ages she is doing the same by having nobody exploit anybody and instead portraying safe space sex.

The characters move to the next recreated historical society, Bulm, where the crime story rises from the dead.  Inky and Serendel are to roleplay out a game in which she is chained up as a sacrifice to a monster and the gladiator is to rescue her, but instead of an actor in a suit a real monster shows up.  Fortunately Serendal has been carrying his gladiator sword with him all this time--it's essentially a light saber, a hilt that generates a force field blade when he turns it on--and our heroes kill the creature in a long fight scene in which we get detailed descriptions of the box Inky climbs up on and the chandelier she hangs from so she can wrap a chain around the towering monster's neck.

In the last 40 or so pages of the book our heroes sneak into the amusement park's HQ to seize the evidence they need and learn that the Mists of the Ages management are drug dealers who are spreading a powerful new drug throughout the galaxy by addicting tourists.  Inky distracts guards so her friends can escape, and is captured and tortured.  Luckily Imperial soldiers rescue her before she is actually killed.

The real climax of Mists of the Ages isn't this police stuff, but the fact that when Serendel realizes Inky isn't a full-time secret agent, but in fact a thief, he breaks up with her because he hates thieves!  A thief killed his sister!  Wait, how can a romantic comedy end with the main characters broken up?  Because Mists of the Ages is the first of an aborted series about Inky and Serendel's relationship!  The novel ends in a cliffhanger when Inky refuses to go on a second mission against the drug dealers for the intelligence apparatus and they threaten to haul her off to prison.  Presumably in volume two of the series, which was never published, Inky would win Serendel's love again (and continue the whole Twilight Houses plot.)

At the level of the individual sentence and paragraph, Mists of the Ages is more or less competently written, and some may appreciate its message about women's independence and the ability of women to steal and spy just as well as men, but I cannot recommend it--it is long, boring, and lacks originality.  It is only nominally a science fiction story--SF elements like the gladiator sword or the properties of the mist are essentially superfluous--or an adventure story--the pace is slow and there is very little excitement or suspense.  This is a comedy about meeting your soulmate hung on the skeleton of a detective story, but the characters are bland, their relationships conventional, and the jokes anemic, so Mists of the Ages fails in its real purpose as well as its ostensible one.     

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Day of the Shield by Antony Alban

"There she is, boys," he said soberly.  "Fortress America."
Here's a paperback I bought because of the Richard Powers cover, Antony Alban's 1973 The Day of the Shield.  Who is Antony Alban, you ask?  isfdb tells us "Antony Alban" is a pen name of British writer Antony Allert Thompson.  Alban does not seem to have set the SF world on fire; isfdb only lists two works by him, 1968's Catharsis Central in addition to The Day of the Shield, and if isfdb is to be believed, neither novel was ever reviewed in a SF magazine.

A minimum of googling brings up a book written under Thompson's real name: 1970's Big Brother in Britain Today.  (A few websites, including thriftbooks, which is already on my shitlist, list The People's Cookbook under his name, but I am pretty sure that is a mistake.)  That 1970 nonfiction title leads one to suspect that The Day of the Shield might be about government surveillance or propaganda or something.  Well, let's see.

The world is a mess!   A nuclear/biological war between Russia and China has turned most of Africa and Asia into desert.  Western Europe was safe behind a force field, but they aren't exactly living the good life, instead, due to overpopulation and drastic food shortages, Europeans live in crime-ridden and overcrowded slums and are sustained by a monotonous diet of synthetic goop!  As for the USA, also a beneficiary of force field technology, it is a land of plenty where the automatic factories produce a surplus of consumer goods, but the native-born population is down to a mere three million due to some kind of sterilization disease that results in very few babies being born--the skyscrapers and streets of major cities are in total disrepair because there are no people to use and maintain them.  (I kept expecting Alban to explain how Americans got sterilized, but if he did so in a straightforward way I missed it; a minor character offhandedly refers to some crime or attack inflicted on the US "back in ninety-eight," so maybe biological warfare is to blame.)  To make up for the dearth of population, America permits immigration by British subjects who, after a term of indentured servitude, are given land on reservations.  These "bondsmen" form a sort of second, inferior, class that performs what little work the robots don't do while most of the three million Citizens spend their time playing elaborate wargames; performance in these wargames largely determines social status.

Alban’s setting combines high technology--force fields, hover cars, sonic artillery, computers that can read your mood, prosthetic eyes and hands, and so on--with a social structure that is a kind of pastiche of various periods of medieval and early modern Europe.  The United States is now called the United Estates and those who govern the individual states are now called "Owners," and they rule their Estates like barons ruled their fiefs in Europe’s aristocratic past.  At the top of the feudal pyramid is the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, who resides in the White House.

The protagonist of The Day of the Shield is Fisk, a twenty-something Englishman who has immigrated to America; because of his impressive health, the computer gives him the job of serving as "body servant" to the daughter of the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, Lady Alice, a sexy but haughty and temperamental young thing.  Fisk's secondary job is to be her valet, driver, secretary and bodyguard--his primary job is to serve as a sort of living collection of space parts for her--all the Owners have such body servants, and many have survived violence and disease and lived to extreme old age thanks to many transplants.

I found Fisk's being selected for this job a little hard to believe: 1) Would your first choice of tissue and organ donor to a woman be a man?  Would big-shouldered muscleman Fisk's organs comfortably fit Alice's sexy girl frame? 2) Young and healthy Alice would most likely need donated body parts after a car accident, fire, or assassination attempt, yes?  But if Fisk is always with her, in the same vehicle and same building, wouldn't he be likely to be damaged in the same mishap that damaged her?  Shouldn't spare parts be kept in a safe place?  Well, whatever; Alban's book is more symbolic than realistic, and the plot requires that Fisk and his direct superior be of opposite sexes because the market for books with gay sex is smaller than the market for books with straight sex (at least I think it was in 1973.)

Alice spends her time going on fox hunts and shooting ducks and going to fancy parties, like somebody in a 19th-century novel.  Pushing the feudal and aristocratic theme, Alban even tells us she wears dresses of “Victorian cut” while the military officials she hangs around with wear uniforms that “would have done credit to a marshal of the Napoleonic Empire.”  When he is first presented to her, Fisk even has to fall to one knee and formally swear fealty to Alice.

Thrill-seeking Alice entertains herself with even more dangerous pastimes than fox hunting, like going in disguise to the reservations of manumitted bondsmen to see how they live behind the reservations' force fields.  The freed bondsmen, liberated from the need to work by the efficiency of the automated factories, follow bizarre lifestyles centered on cults and extravagant forms of roleplay.  Fisk accompanies Lady Alice to a sort of drug-fueled Mardi Gras bacchanal that features jousts between combatants on electric scooters.  Things get really out of hand when the "jester" who is master of ceremonies, by a crazy coincidence, turns out to be Fisk's predecessor, Alice's previous body servant.  He recognizes Alice through her old lady disguise, and tries to exact revenge.  Fisk saves Alice's life, and this precipitates their affair.  Fisk's secretive relationship with Lady Alice might be characterized as "hate sex" and features various fetishistic elements, like spanking and couplings in a mausoleum where cryogenically frozen people are warehoused.

About halfway through the book another of the bondsmen in the White House discovers Fisk and Alice's fuck nest in the cryogenics warehouse.  Fisk flees for his life, assuming this snoop will expose him and that the White House will have Fisk's brain wiped clean to hide the scandal.  But the snoop pursues Fisk instead of running off to tattle (the snoop does take time to blackmail Alice into having sex with him, though--all the sex in this book is nastily naughty!), giving Fisk a chance to kill the spy in my favorite scene in the book, a fight at an old high tech installation, a "solar furnace" with catwalks and elevators and a huge dish designed to generate tremendous heat by focusing the sun's rays (we are told a temperature of six thousand degrees Fahrenheit is achievable!)  Fisk hooks up with the Underground Railway, and these rebel activists connect him to the center of a revolutionary conspiracy lead by a Scottish bondsman; the head of the body servant union.  The conspiracy integrates Fisk back into the White House.

Fisk, as spearhead of the conspiracy, makes his big move on August 21, Execration Day, apparently a day on which the Commander-in-Chief publicly reads a list of people blamed for the sterilization crisis.  After attending an unexpected duel between the Owners of Georgia and Louisiana, and the scheduled exhibition wargames, Fisk manages to get an audience for himself and Alice with the Commander-in-Chief, Alice's father, Owner of Washington-Virginia.  The Owner, who is like 100 years old or something, lives in a sterile underground bunker because he has had so many transplants that his immune system is totally shot; he will be attending the Execration Day festivities via holographic transmission.  When they get to Alice's father's bunker, Fisk enrages the Owner by stripping his daughter and threatening to rape her.  The furious chief executive throws open his hermetically sealed room, exposing himself to germs that kill him mere minutes after he attacks Fisk with an electric weapon and accidentally kills Alice.  The Owner dies cradling his dead heir in his arms.

While Fisk is killing the monarch and his heir in a way that absolves him of moral responsibility (like the way The Red Skull used to get "killed" by his own foolishness while trying to kill Captain America in those old comic books), the rest of the bondsmen are paralyzing the assembled Owners with gas bombs, neutralizing America's executive branch.  Then Fisk deactivates the force fields protecting America and the billions of Europe sail over to resettle the New World. 

In The Day of the Shield, Alban seems to be using the very common SF device of overpopulation to express his resentment against the United States and the upper classes of the United Kingdom.  He transplants all that feudal oath and joust jazz from medieval England and the fox hunting and pistol dueling from the 18th and 19th centuries to the future USA, I guess in an effort to portray America's republican and democratic traditions, which are in part a rejection of British institutions, as mere hypocrisy.  Perhaps Alban is responding to the pathetic fawning over the Kennedys as a kind of American royalty and to such American attempts to ape European pomp as Richard Nixon's 1970 introduction of new uniforms for the White House security staff, uniforms inspired by those of European palace guards; maybe Alban is warning us of the fragility of liberal institutions and how quickly both elites and the masses will embrace old aristocratic ways in a crisis.  Here is how Alban refers to JFK, when Fisk is looking around the White House:
The drawing room, however, was much as it had been in the legendary days of Camelot, during the term of Kennedy the First.
References to "reservations," "manumission" and the "Underground Railway" are of course swipes at the United States for its treatment of native Indians and enslaved Africans; in the same way that Alban slots the American president and state governors, who of course in real life are elected and subject to restrictions from courts and legislatures as well as voters, into the role of dictatorial barons, he slots British immigrants into the positions held by in real life by Native Americans and Africans.  All the references to American wealth (the robot factories produce more consumer goods and food than the American population can consume, so that the manumitted bondsmen on the reservations use crates full of clocks, artificial limbs, books and silverware as building material for walls) and the contrasting misery in Britain may be a reflection of post-World War II economic realities, when the people of the USA experienced comfort and an economic boom while Europe lay in ruins; perhaps Alban carried with him bitter envy from living through this period as a child.

Presumably Alban's depictions of a working-class Briton spanking and sexually dominating an American aristocratic lady, and of British people overthrowing the American government so the English poor can get their hands on America's wealth, are wish fulfillment fantasies.  Sad!

The title of Alban's 1970 non-fiction book Big Brother in Britain Today is of course a reference to George Orwell's 1984, and a few things in The Day of the Shield did remind me of 1984.  For one thing, the Underground Railway turns out to be a government-run trap, paralleling the role of O'Brien in Orwell's novel.  Execration Day seems like it might be based on the Two Minutes Hate from 1984.

So, can I recommend The Day of the Shield?  There are lots of stories about rebels overthrowing governments in SF, and plenty of stories about palace intrigues and sexual liaisons across class lines  in fiction in general, and The Day of the Shield isn't a terrible example.  The writing style and the pacing and structure are fine; Fisk is a bland character, but Alice and her father are sort of interesting.  I liked the few chapters about Fisk's escape and fight with the nosy bondsman, and the technological SF elements are not bad.  The satirical elements are goofy, but maybe old-fashioned Marxist left-wingers who haven't become consumed with identity politics will enjoy them?  I guess I'll call The Day of the Shield acceptable.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

"Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler" by A. E. van Vogt

Late in February I read Richard C. Meredith's 1970 story "Earthcoming" and thought it might be an homage to A. E. van Vogt.  Exploring this theory, I reread van Vogt's story 1942 tale "Asylum," which first appeared in Astounding.  I enjoyed "Asylum" so much I have decided to reread two other van Vogt stories from 1940s issues of Astounding, "Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler."  These stories have been reprinted again and again, under various titles, but I will be taking advantage of the internet archive to read the very same texts SF fans read back during the reign of FDR and his successor Harry S. Truman.

Check out Isaac Walwyn's fun and informative website on van Vogt for more information on the crazy publishing histories of "Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler" and any other production of our favorite Canadian; Walwyn's site has helped me time and again over the years as I have explored van Vogt's perplexing body of work.

"Recruiting Station" (1942)

Rogers's cover illo depicts the beastmen
securing Jack Garson in the cockpit
of a swift little war machine of
20,000 years in the future
I believe I first read this story in a library copy of the 2003 collection Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt, back in my Manhattan days.  "Recruiting Station," which takes up almost 70 pages of Transfinite, has appeared in book form, presented as a novel, multiple times under the titles Masters of Time and Earth's Last Fortress.  For its appearance in Astounding it was adorned with some respectable drawings by Hubert Rogers.

Ten years ago social science college student Norma Matheson rejected physicist Jack Garner's proposal of marriage so she could focus on her career.  Things haven't worked out so well, and tonight she stands in a dark city park, before a river, considering suicide!  She turns away from this drastic expedient, sits on a park bench, and is approached by a strange figure--a mysterious man, his face in shadow, who somehow already knows her name and her sad history, offers her a cushy job and a decent apartment!  She accepts the offer, and starts work at a recruiting center where American men can volunteer to fight for Calonia, a sympathetic country that is the victim of some kind of aggression (presumably van Vogt is trying to evoke from the reader feelings about the Spanish Civil War; George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia was published in England in 1938.)  Norma realizes at her first day at work that the volunteers she sends into a back room, ostensibly for a medical exam, are being transported via a huge machine to fight in some dreadful war in the future!  She tries to contact the police, but the  head of the recruiting office Doctor Lell, he who hired her and an individual who in light of day is revealed to be of obscure ethnic background (he has dark skin like an African's, eyes like an East Asian's, a nose like a European's, etc.) has irresistible powers of surveillance, punishment and reward, rendering her his slave!  Among Lell's powers are the ability to read Norma's mind, and to adjust her biological age: if she follows orders he can make her as healthy as she was at twenty, but if she shirks he can transform her into a feeble old crone!  "We are the masters of time!" he brags, and in return for Norma's service offers her "eternal youth!"

Norma is no dunce, and neither is she a pushover, so she tests the limits of Dr. Lell's mind reading, writing a letter to her old beau, Jack, telling him of her unbelievable predicament.  When Jack comes to rescue her (this guy is a real softie, coming to the aid of the girl who shot him down a decade ago and is apparently bonkers!) he unwillingly ends up as one of Dr. Lell's recruits!

The narrative shifts from Norma to Jack, and we watch as Dr. Lell gives him a lecture and a little tour of the Earth of 20,000 years in the future.  In 200 centuries this big blue marble of ours will be ruled by the Glorious, a few million aristocrats who hold sway over countless numbers of slaves, beast-like people biologically and psychologically engineered to be strong, dim, and obedient.  These brutes live in vast cities of thousands of identical unadorned buildings.  Again referring to issues salient to 1940s readers, Jack compares this severely hierarchical society and its rigidly planned economy to that of the Nazis and Communists, even suggesting the ugliness of the culturally barren city is another example of the inevitable failure of all planned societies--Dr. Lell bridles at the comparison.

Humankind has colonized the solar system, and the Glorious are at war with the nation states that have grown up on the other planets; this alliance is called the Planetarians.  (The war was precipitated by disagreements over how to deal with overpopulation of the Solar System.)  The Planetarians are winning the war, having landed troops on Earth and surrounded the very city Norma lives in (in the far future this city is called Delpa.)  Every day the hulking Planetarian war machines advance forty feet deeper into the city, pushing back the Glorious "time energy barrier," a sort of force field powered by time (or something... one of the story's themes is how time is "the only reality" and "a titanic energy" that can be directed and exploited, I guess like a superior version of atomic power.)  Running low on brutes, the Glorious are recruiting human soldiers from every period of Earth history to die by the hundreds every day buying precious time for their scientists; Delpa is the site of the laboratory where the Glorious are developing a still more effective time energy barrier, one which will make them invulnerable and enable them to snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat!

As the story progresses it gets more and more complicated and confusing as Jack and Martha meet new people, learn new things, and so many of these people turn out to be liars or just mistaken, and so many things learned turn out to be untrue or incomplete versions of the truth.  Van Vogt keeps us off balance, switching gears and defying our expectations at every turn.  When we get this passage describing Jack's confusion:
Garson sighed wearily.  He felt suddenly genuinely exhausted, mentally and physically, by the twisting course of events.
we readers sympathize with him!

Along with the rest of the day's complement of men shanghaied from throughout human history, Jack is put into a "depersonalization machine" to be brainwashed; the others emerge as automatons willing to sacrifice their lives for the Glorious war effort,  but the machine fails to work on Jack.  In addition, the physicist receives a mysterious mental message, telling him that if the Glorious super time-energy barrier is activated it will destroy the entire universe, and so he must warn the Planetarians of this fact!  Once pushed out onto the battlefield Jack endeavors to get to the Planetarian lines.  Hit by a "paralyzer," he wakes up to find himself a captive aboard a Venus-bound Planetarian space ship--while he was in his coma the other captives have launched a mutiny and taken over half the ship.  The mutiny seems to be led by a character named Dra Derrel, a big wig among the people known as The Wizards of Lin, a civilization which purportedly invented the first space ship thousands of years before the rise of the Glorious.  Wizards of Lin?  Are these the same people referred to in the Clane/Empire of the Atom stories?  Or just our man Van, an early adopter of today's cult of reusing and recycling, using a cool-sounding name twice?  Zoinks, is this an indication I have to reread another van Vogt production I read some ten or more years ago?*  Anyway, Derrel claims to be the source of that mental message Jack received, but Jack isn't so sure, and the goings on he participates in on the ship provide reasons for him to suspect that neither the Wizards nor the Planetarians are all they are cracked up to be.

Interspersed with Jack's adventures in the far future are Norma's back in the 20th century--for three years she works for Dr. Lell, who shuttles back and forth between the war in his time and his job managing the recruiting center in the 1940s.  Norma figures out the means by which Dr. Lell manipulates her biological age, and herself receives mental messages about the dangers of the Glorious time-energy barrier.  Like so many van Vogt characters, she develops tremendous mental powers (we later learn these are called "Insel mind powers"--write your own joke!) and these powers enable her to travel instantly through time and space and to telekinetically fight the robots and computers Dr. Lell sends against her.

Norma and Jack's plot threads join together again when Norma, in the midst of a battle with Glorious robots near where she earlier contemplated suicide, uses her newfound powers to teleport him from the Planetarian spaceship back to the 1940s to aid her.  During his time in the far future Jack has figured some things out, and at his suggestion Norma summons the "mysterious manipulators of the universe," man's ultimate evolutionary form, who live at the end of time and have been sending her and Jack those mental messages.  In the last two pages of the tale these beings resolve some of the mysteries Norma and Jack (and we readers) have been confronted with heretofore and also explain their complex method of saving the universe (it entails creating new universes in which to quarantine malignant elements so that this universe is the best of all possible universes...I think.)  But their power is not unlimited, and they need Norma's help to prevent the Glorious time-energy barrier's construction, just as they needed her help to get to the 20th century.  Norma transports herself back to the very moment when she first met Dr. Lell, to live again her three years of service to him, but this time she knows all his tricks and has those Insel mind powers, and can with ease sabotage the development of the Glorious universe-threatening barrier (and build a happy marriage with Jack.)

"Recruiting Station" is full of wild SF ideas--a woman's  experience of her thirty-year-old body transformed into a more vigorous and beautiful twenty-year-old one, and into a feeble and wretched seventy-year old one; a totalitarian society of supermen who lord it over masses of beastmen; a man suspended in nothingness for millions of years when his girlfriend tries to use her newfound mental powers to teleport him to her from the future and he gets stuck in a "time emptiness" near the time-energy barrier around Delpa--and more!  Van Vogt doesn't necessarily explore these ideas deeply; sometimes he just addresses them briefly or throws them at you, leaving you to puzzle over their ramifications or simply allow them to wash over you in a tide of perplexity as he continues his story at a breakneck pace.  The Canadian mastermind's object is not to do detailed and exacting "world-building," but to generate a mood of strangeness and excitement, a sense of wonder at the dizzying possibilities of nearly unimaginable periods of time and inconceivable amounts of power.

Van Vogt is not known for having a good writing style, but some passages of "Recruiting Station" are actually quite effective.  The opening scenes in which Norma comes close to killing herself and her first few days of work for Dr Lell, in which she learns the extent of his powers, are good, and I liked the description of the starkly uniform city of the Glorious and of the battle at the periphery of the force field.  The fighting in Delpa, in which Jack Garson and the other Glorious soldiers pilot little one-man "torpedo-shaped craft" in a desperate attack on the Planetarian land battleships. reminded me a lot of a battle in Jack Vance's Durdane books, which I read in my New York days and then gave away to a friend so I can't consult them now.  Where I felt things sagged a little was in the scenes on the Planetarian spaceship with the Wizard of Lin; this section of the novel is less vivid and interesting, and felt less connected to the overall plot.

This is a fun story, though I had to make some effort to really "get" some of it (I essentially read the story twice in a short period) and of course it lacks some of the things I routinely praise in stories, like complex characters and human emotion--the characters and tone are essentially flat, van Vogt hitting the same notes again and again, though I guess you could say he hits them harder and harder as he moves the story relentlessly forward, one crazy idea or twist after another until we arrive at the end, Van having taken us full circle and deposited us back at the beginning.  To appreciate "Recruiting Station" you have to enjoy the work of figuring it out, the occasional powerful images, and the recurring surprises and general feeling of confusion and amazement it generates.  ("Dream-like" is a phrase often used to describe his work.)

In my opinion, "Recruiting Station" is a good example of what van Vogt is all about.  It is also interesting as a product of its time, as I have suggested, and feminist readers might find noteworthy its depiction of a college-educated professional woman who is given the responsibility of saving the universe but who at the same time has a man at the center of her psychological life, a man whose help she needs to succeed in her awful mission and to achieve personal happiness.  Students of van Vogt's long career may find his descriptions of the soldiers in the story as lusty, adventurous men unafraid of death, to be of a piece with his interest in "the violent male."  "Recruiting Station" gets a big thumbs up from this van Vogt aficionado.

*After I drafted this line but before I copyedited and uploaded this post I purchased a paperback edition of Wizard of Linn at the maze-like D.C. bookstore Capitol Hill Books.

"The Chronicler" (1946)

Life on the streets of Naze: Vampiric muggers
drink the blood of their victim
I think I first read this one in my copy of the collection M33 in Andromeda, where it bears the poetical title "Siege of the Unseen" and takes up nearly 80 pages.  Later appearances of the story carry the title "The Three Eyes of Evil."  The story was serialized over two issues of Astounding, where it features illustrations by Walter Swenson which, as a group, exhibit both a simple modern design sensibility and a sort of woodcut look.

Stock broker and married man Michael Slade is slightly injured in a car accident.  A strip of skin is torn from his forehead, revealing a third eye!  His wife wants him to have this third eye covered up again via plastic surgery, and when he decides to keep it exposed and see if he can train it to work in concert with his other two eyes, she divorces him!

"The Chronicler" is mostly related in the third person omniscient, with press clippings and court documents providing plot elements and "color."  These "primary documents" also inform us from page one that Slade has been found dead--on page three we learn he was "crushed"--which renders the main text as a sort of flashback.  (Again I am reminded of 1950's Sunset Boulevard, which I just mentioned a month ago; that film starts with us aware that the protagonist has died under gruesome circumstances, and proceeds to explain how the main character came to this pass.)  This way of structuring the story makes "The Chronicler," somewhat like "Recruiting Station," a circle--we both start and end the story with Slade's (spoiler!--supposed) death.

Our man Van is interested in questionable alternative theories of medicine--for example, he was deeply involved in L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics.  In "The Chronicler" Michael Slade trains his three eyes using odd methods that include exposing the eye to direct sunlight, the kind of thing I have been told all my life is akin to eye suicide.  In his brief reviews of the Ace publication of Siege of the Unseen and the Simon and Schuster edition of War Against the Rull in If (as you know, all issues of If are available at the internet archive), Frederick Pohl points out that the methods used by Slade are those of discredited weirdo William Horatio Bates.  Van Vogt describes the methods in detail, but never uses Bates's name, which is a little odd.

Slade briefly gets his third eye operating at full capacity, and sees into a parallel universe of cave men and a naked woman with three eyes!  But then his interdimensional vision fails him, perhaps because of something that woman does.  Slade leaves the city to spend time at his childhood home on a farm, and there is able to transport himself bodily to that other plane of existence.  This alternate world is parallel to ours (the lay of the land, hills and valleys and so forth, are recognizable, but trees and buildings are different) and, exploring a little, he comes upon a landed spaceship in a field.  Aboard the ship he meets the same three-eyed woman, and again his third eye is stripped of its power in short order, and he is returned to our Earth.

A month later Slade heads back to the city where he finds that the three-eyed lady (sing it!), has been to his home, leaving with his servant a note signed "Leear" and a self-destructing phonograph record so he can learn the language of the city of Naze!  According to the note, when he can speak the language, he is to make a midnight rendezvous with her at a specified spot out in the country.  When he makes the rendezvous, he doesn't see Leear, just hears her voice a moment before she teleports him to that other dimension, within the walls of the ancient and decrepit city of spires and vampires known as Naze!

Like Delpa in "Recruiting Station," Naze in "The Chronicler" is a city under siege, protected by a force field.  The inhabitants who crowd its streets during the day are decadent and depraved, with no work and no ambition other than to drink human blood!  (To this end everybody carries a syringe and a metal cup!)  At night the most vigorous vampires ambush those foolish enough to walk the streets past sunset, and during the day the weak beg the strong for a few drops of blood the way throngs of people beg me for a dollar every time I go into D.C. to visit the art museums and bookstores!  (In Naze you can whip beggars who importune you, but I don't think I'd get the approval of the authorities if I started tolchocking the impecunious citizens of "the District" with my umbrella.)  Leear has sent Slade to Naze to assist in its destruction, and, seeing the place, Slade is so appalled by it that he agrees that it should be destroyed by the spaceship that for centuries has hovered over the city, menacing the abominable metropolis...but is he sure he really wants to get mixed up with all these crazy people, to actually risk his life for them?  After all, Leear is found to be a master of deceit who has no qualms about sacrificing people to achieve her goal of destroying the city, and even the fifth columnists Slade meets in Naze are so addicted to human blood that they strap Slade down when he is unawares and steal some of his precious bodily fluid!

The people at isfdb warn that this edition is likely
Leear's powers only keep Slade in Naze for 36 hours or so, and back on Earth Slade tries to put all this Naze insanity behind him and renew his marriage and relationships--to put an ordinary life back together he even tells his ex-wife he's willing to cover up his third eye.  But wifey and former friends want nothing to do with the three-eyed freak!  So Slade gathers together weapons and equipment, trains his third eye with determination, and transports himself to the other dimension under his own steam!

Slade makes sure he appears on the other side not in the city of Naze, but among those three-eyed cave people. This tribe turns out to not be primitives at all, but sophisticated moderns who have chosen to live the simple life!  (Is Van pulling a Chad Oliver on us?)  The tribespeeps have total control of their nervous systems (down to the molecule!) and begin training Slade in achieving control of his own body.  ("The Chronicler" is all about the importance of training.)  The most important thing they have to teach him is the ability to relax--all our bodily and psychological problems come from tension, and, to be happy and healthy, what you have to do is relax! 

After a month of training to relax, Slade's relaxation is ruined when it comes out that the tribe is training him to control his body so he can help Leear in her war on Naze--she thinks that only Slade can kill the cruel ruler of Naze, a man named Geean.  Leear is not one of the tribe, but the tribe is working with her because the mere existence of Naze limits them--if Naze is destroyed, they can master control of their bodies beyond the molecular level to the very electron level and thus achieve immortality!  Slade storms off into the wilderness, only to be captured by airborne Naze troops!

Back in the diabolical city, Slade meets Geean himself atop the city's central spire.  Slade is astonished to find he has already met Geean among the tribesmen--was the tribe working for Geean under duress and only lying about working with Leear?  Leear appears, and these two competing immortals explain the history of how the hi-tech city of Naze degenerated and why Leear and Geean have been at war for a thousand years.  Ten centuries ago, the human race on this plane was falling into decadence and ennui because they had achieved immortality via machinery.  A vote was held, and it was ordered that everybody destroy his immortality belt so they all could learn how to achieve immortality via the newly discovered relaxation method--as long as any considerable mechanical construction remained it would be impossible to achieve the electron level of relaxation, so all the cities would have to be torn down.

Two people were permitted to temporarily retain their immortality belts, Leear and a companion, who were to observe the transition from the space ship (Leear is the "chronicler" of the title.)  A small number of rebels who opposed this transition struck just after the belts were destroyed--Geean was their leader.  In the fighting every other city in the world was blow up with nuclear weapons, and Geean killed Leear's companion and took his belt and made himself dictator of Naze.  Leear managed to get the space ship airborne before Geean could activate his force field, and she destroyed the immortality belt manufacturing facilities from the air, rendering it impossible to return to a fully immortal society via mechanical means--everybody Leear and Geean had known for thousands of years died while they continued on, immortal, his city and her ship locked in a stalemate.

Slade is able to kill Geean because he is from another plane, and can send Geean to our plane; as they are all in a skyscraper, and there is no parallel skyscraper back in our world, when Slade does so the tyrant falls to his death (his immortality device will not work in a different plane, which Van foreshadowed by demonstrating that the gunpowder in Slade's pistols didn't work on the Naze plane.)  The authorities back on Earth misidentify Geean's crushed body as Slade's--to the two-eyed, I guess all (crushed) three-eyed dudes look the same!

Slade learns that Leear genetically engineered him to have a third eye and manipulated his life on our Earth so he could serve as her cat's paw in her war to liberate mankind on her plane from mortality.  Slade is willing to overlook this (and the ten thousand year age difference), and it is clear as the story ends that Slade and Leear will become husband and wife and live happily forever after.

Though there are plenty of people using disguises and lying, and plenty of people who are misled and spread misinformation, "The Chronicler" is more straightforward and easier to understand than "Recruiting Station."  The story is also less economical, with passages I would consider fat.  For example, the long scenes about the (curiously unnamed) Bates method.  There is also an explanation that "Naze," even though it looks like "Nazi" on the page, is not meant to make the reader think of the German National Socialist party.  Wouldn't it have been easier to just make up a name for the city that didn't look almost exactly like the colloquial name for one of the most famous and provocative organizations in history?  A strange artistic choice on the part of the author.

 I like it, but our man Van has done better.


Two entertaining SF capers about cities under siege, people striving for immortality, individuals manipulated by superior beings, and men and women who ride a rocky road to marital bliss.  More van Vogt in our future!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

First to the Stars by Rex Gordon

I saw instantly that it did not matter how I lived or what I did.  My future was negative.  At the very best, for the rest of my life if I lived for a hundred years, it could only be the avoidance of love, of committal, of further pain.  What did it matter if the "people" around me were green-skinned, insectival, and busy as ants or bees?  Human society would have the same aspect to me: that of people engaged in hopes and aspirations that I could not share.  
Do you remember what you were doing on March 2, 2014?  I don't either, but if you scroll back, back, back far enough through this blog's content you will see that on that date I was complaining about the terrible writing and copy editing that went into Rex Gordon's 1969 novel The Yellow Fraction.

If I had remembered that on June 27 of last year I probably would not have purchased the Ace edition of Gordon's 1959 novel First to the Stars while down in Carolina visiting in-laws.  (Gordon's countrymen over in Great Britain printed this novel in 1961 as The Worlds of Eclos--the cover illustration includes what appears to be some serious plagiarism.  Perfidious Albion!)  But what's done is done; I have made my SF bed and will lie in it.  Maybe this 190-page novel, written 10 years before the one I denounced not only for its unforgivably poor style, but also for its politics and plot, will be better?

The United States government has determined that if you send a man alone out into space he will go insane.  Also, that if you send two men out together into space, they will both go insane.  ("Didn't O'Hara and Gollancz try to murder one another when we tried the experiment with the two of them?")  The taxpayers are not interested in financing a rocket big enough to haul three or four men, so it is decided that, for the three-year mission of mapping and photographing Mars, a crew of one man and one woman will be sent.  The man is our narrator, pilot Major David Spencer, and the woman is biologist Dr. Elvinia Köhl.  Spencer and Köhl immediately take a dislike to each other, but keep their antagonism to a minimum while on the ground because they know there are plenty of other people who would jump at the chance to make this historic voyage.

After blast off our bickering astronauts face many technical problems.  They find themselves so far  off course that ground control doubts they can get to Mars, and orders them back, but Spencer pulls a Nelson and claims he can't read Earth's signals and tries to reach Mars anyway.  After six weeks he realizes that their acceleration has caused Einsteinian effects to kick in much earlier than the government eggheads had predicted--while Spencer and Köhl feel like six weeks have elapsed, for the rest of the universe it has been six months, as evidenced by the fact that the Earth is halfway through its orbit of Sol.  At the terrific (relative to their own life processes) speeds they can achieve, the very stars are in reach, and Spencer decides to abandon the effort to get to Mars and instead explore interstellar space!

Karel Thole contributes a beautiful cover image
 to the 1978 Italian printing of First to the
--I love the colors, the female figure, the
 contrast between the hard straight lines of
 the ship and the eerie curves of the foliage, etc. 
Out among the stars Köhl proves herself just as insubordinate and ambitious as Spencer.  When Spencer nixes her idea of investigating a planet to see if there is any life there (she is a biologist, after all) she grabs a wrench and threatens to smash the "computor" if she doesn't get her way.  Shortly thereafter, when it looks like they will be unable to slow the vessel sufficiently to maneuver among a swarm of planets and are thus wdoomed to die in a crash, Spencer and Köhl confess their love for each other and spend six weeks having sex.  When these six weeks come to an end they, unexpectedly, survive a crash landing on a very wet planet with a breathable atmosphere.

(The number six, especially in reference to periods of time, comes up again and again in the novel, maybe laziness on the part of the author or maybe some kind of clue or symbol?)

The first quarter of the book covers that astronomical and psychological journey.  The second quarter takes place on the marsh-covered planet, where Spencer and Köhl struggle to survive.  Their space ship irretrievably submerged, Spencer builds a hut and raft with stone tools, and Köhl fishes with a line made from her own hair.  Köhl gives birth to their daughter, Eve, and in a plot twist that surprised me, Köhl dies and Spencer loses the will to live!  Fortunately, on the very same black day upon which Köhl expires, insectoid aliens from yet another oxygen atmosphere planet show up and their biologist quickly figures out how to feed little Eve.

The people at isfdb suspect this German
1963 edition is abridged
The aliens, called the Kara, take Spencer and Eve in their space ship to a modern city of skyscrapers, helicopters and hovercars on their home planet, where they raise Eve and have long scientific discussions with Spencer.  These discussions take up years, but don't accomplish much because the Kara have an entirely different view of the universe than Earth scientists do--they don't believe in electrons, for example.  Another problem is that Spencer is unwilling to reveal anything about Earth's location or technology, for fear of a war breaking out between the two species.  (No matter how friendly and pacific the Kara may be, Spencer assumes that Earthmen are all so racist and imperialistic that contact will inevitably lead to war, a war the Earth would lose to the more technologically advanced Kara.) 

Spencer only sees his daughter once a week or so, and she grows up with more in common, culturally at least, with the Kara than with humanity.  When she is thirteen, Eve, at the urging of the aliens, starts pressuring Spencer to tell the Kara where Earth is.  This is bad enough, but Eve also suggests that he have sex with her--the insect people don't want to go without human specimens, and no doubt Eve will want some human companions after her father dies!  Spencer is disgusted and torn--of course incest sickens him, but at the same time, does he want to leave his daughter the only human on a planet of bug-people whom he detests?  "What I knew was that I was going to hate myself whatever I did or did not do...."     

In the event, all these decisions are taken out of Spencer's hands--the Kara dig up his lost space ship on the marsh world and don't need his help after all to figure out where Earth is.  In the last quarter or so of the novel Spencer and Eve take on the role of diplomats trying to forge a peaceful relationship between the Kara and Earth.  A Kara ship takes them to our solar system, where negotiations are conducted via radio; when these negotiations break down, the Kara leave Spencer and Eve on barren Neptune and flee the system.

Back cover of my copy
The defining characteristic of First to the Stars, to my mind at least, is its existential angst.  The whole book is about a guy who is lonely and alienated from those around him, who looks at the future and sees only misery or catastrophe.  The novel is full of lines like "There was nowhere I could go and be welcome on that ship, where nerves were tense and where we were inevitably regarded as aliens..." and "Her remark cast me into a black depression."  When the pioneering astronauts land on the marsh planet, Köhl doubts that life is worth living.  When Köhl dies, Spencer doubts that life is worth living.  Among the insectoids, Spencer is obsessed with a fear that the aliens won't treat him and his daughter like people, but like animals to be put in a zoo, and that Earthmen won't see the Kara as people but monsters to be destroyed.

Despite this we get a more or less happy ending.  Because of those relativistic effects, by the time Spencer is back in the solar system some 200 years have elapsed on Earth, and he finds that the human race is grown rich from exploring and exploiting the solar system and has a level of technology that matches that of the Kara.  An Earth ship rescues him and Eve from Neptune, and he finds that his astronaut pay in the bank has been accumulating interest and so he is rich.  Eve, now among Earthlings, assimilates to human culture and develops a normal, healthy relationship with her father.  A Cold War develops between humanity and the Kara, but each empire colonizes different parts of the galaxy, and a shooting war is avoided.

As well as being a story about alienation, depression and pessimism, First to the Stars is also a traditional SF story in which a guy and his companions use their wits to solve problems and which exposes us readers to lots of astronomical, relativistic, biological, sociological and psychological speculations that probably don't stand up to scrutiny.

First to the Stars is not particularly well written, but the style is acceptable.  The plot is OK, and I like the fact that the novel focuses on Spencer's difficult relationships (with authority, with women, with society and with the universe) and his correlating psychological problems.  I can really get behind a protagonist who is unable to get along with others and thinks life is meaningless, and I can ignore the happy ending just like I always skip the inexplicably and discordantly happy song at the end of The Kinks' Give the People What They Want, an album otherwise about disappointment, perversion, violence and evil.  I'm giving First to the Stars a marginal to moderate recommendation.


First to the Stars, Ace D-405, has two fun pages of ads in the back.

Click or squint to learn about the books Ace was pushing in 1959
"David Grinnell" is a pseudonym of Donald A. Wollheim, one of SF's most important editors and an interesting and somewhat controversial character.

Of the works advertised, I think I have only read A. E. van Vogt's 1946 novella "Siege of the Unseen."  If you are curious about "Siege of the Unseen," stay tuned to this station, as it is scheduled to be discussed in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.  Or, read it yourself under its original title in scans of Astounding at the internet archive! 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Three Conan stories by Robert E. Howard written in 1932

Ed Emshwiller's jolly Conan from 1955
It's time for a stiff dose of that toxic masculinity we keep hearing about!  In his essay "Hyborian Genesis," Patrice Louinet tells us that Robert E. Howard wrote "Iron Shadows in the Moon," "Xuthal of the Dusk," and "The Pool of the Black One," three stories about Conan the barbarian that would go on to be printed in Weird Tales, in quick succession in late 1932.  Louinet also strongly suggests these three stories are inferior specimens of Howard's work ("routine" is one word he uses to describe them.)  I've read all the Howard Conan stories, and while I remember the ones the critics prefer like "Tower of the Elephant" and "Red Nails" reasonably well, I have to admit I can recall nothing about these three pieces.  My recent reading of those Frank Belknap Long stories brought "Xuthal of the Dusk" to mind, and so I decided to reacquaint myself with it and some other Conan stories from the same period.  Let's journey back through the mists of time to the forgotten Hyborian Age and explore lost cities, sail the high seas, and grapple with hideous monsters with the Cimmerian muscleman in stories written by his creator.

I read "Hyborian Genesis" and the three Howard stories under review today in my trade paperback copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, published by Del Rey in 2003 and illustrated by Mark Schultz.  The stories first appeared in Weird Tales, in a different order than Howard wrote them, and would go on to be reprinted again and again in various publications.  The texts of the stories as they appear in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian are essentially the same as the versions printed in Weird Tales back in the early '30s.

"Iron Shadows in the Moon" (1934)

This story appeared in Weird Tales in 1934 as "Shadows in the Moonlight," alongside stories by C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith, and a poem by Frank Belknap Long, all behind another Margaret Brundage Not-Safe-For-Work-Or-Anyplace-Else cover illustration that raises innumerable issues about race and gender and exploitative sex.

"Iron Shadows in the Moon" starts in medias res, with a princess, Olivia, who was sold into slavery by her ruthless father, being pursued by her current owner, Shah Amurath, the merciless lord of Akif!  She was only able to escape this guy because he and his cronies were drunk at a party--a party celebrating their destruction of a band of brigands lead by Conan of Cimmeria!  Shah Amurath catches up to Olivia at the sea shore, and moments later Conan, who was hiding in the reeds, catches up with him!  Conan slays the lord with ease, and then he and Olivia make off in a row boat.

The pair come to a forested island on which they find an abandoned city full of iron statues.  They spend the night in the ruins despite Olivia's fears, and she has a dream which indicates the statues are living men, criminals petrified as punishment for their misdeeds.  Olivia awakens and tells Conan of this dream, and our protagonists decide to leave the island at once, only to find that their little boat has been wrecked.  The next day, before Conan can build a raft, the Cimmerian meets and is taken captive by pirates who set up camp in the ruined city and commence to party hearty.

At night Olivia sneaks by the drunken sailors to free Conan; when they get outside the city he has to fight a giant monstrous ape which, it is hinted, wanted to rape Olivia.  (The ape's appearance solves some earlier mysteries, like who wrecked their boat.)  The iron statues come to life and kill more than a third of the pirates, who, cowed by this disaster, accept Conan as their new leader.  Olivia, having fallen in love with Conan, elects to join him in the next stage of his career of nautical murder and thievery.

"Shadows in the Moonlight" is included
in this Lancer edition of Conan stories, and
appears to have inspired the cover illo
"Iron Shadows in the Moon" is entertaining.  Conan is a sort of static character, but it is fun to see him fighting a giant ape and his huge self-confidence is amusing: "I could sleep naked in the snow and feel no discomfort, but the dew would give you cramps, were we to sleep in the open....My slumber is light as a wolf's.  Nothing can enter this hall without awaking me."  At the same time, Conan and Howard make clear that the Cimmerian benefits from others' mistakes, the help of those--like Olivia and some of the pirates--his animal magnetism and rough charisma win to his side, and dumb luck:  "What brought him [the ape] into the open, I can't say, but it was lucky for us; I'd have had no chance with him among the trees." 

Partly because of Conan's unchanging and superhuman nature, partly because of the way Howard presents the tale, Olivia feels more like our viewpoint character than does the Cimmerian.  We follow Olivia's thought processes as she becomes attracted to Conan and, due to his selfless and generous example, comes to admire barbarians over so-called sophisticated and civilized people like her father and Shah Amurath, who proved themselves selfish and ruthless oppressors.  We are privy to Olivia's dream, which first reveals the truth of the statues, and it is Olivia who first sees the ape.  And of course Olivia, who is scared of the pirates, ape and living statues, is easier for us mere mortals to identify with than the fearless Cimmerian, whose animal nature is stressed in this passage (which is also a good example of Olivia acting as our viewpoint character): she stared in wide-eyed horror at the bronzed figure facing the monster, she sensed a kinship in the antagonists that was almost appalling.  This was less a struggle between man and beast than a conflict between two creatures of the wild, equally merciless and ferocious.            
An enjoyable story.

"Xuthal of the Dusk" (1933)

Under the title "The Slithering Shadow," this story first appeared in Weird Tales in 1933.  (We gawped at Margaret Brundage's S&M cover for the tale in our last blog post, when we discussed Frank Belknap Long's 1924 "Death-Waters," which was reprinted in the very issue with "The Slithering Shadow.")

Xuthal is an ancient city surrounded by desert, a metropolis which has been out of contact with the rest of the world for aeons.  Once its people were great scientists, and some of their devices, like radium lights that switch on and off at a touch and machines that effortlessly create food "from the primal elements," still operate, but the descendants of the city's once vigorous and creative inhabitants have fallen into decadence and ineptitude.  These few hundred people, inheritors of a squandered legacy, spend almost all their time under the influence of powerful drugs, their bodies in a state of suspended animation while their minds enjoy elaborate and immersive erotic dreams.  Xuthal is home to two creatures besides these drug addicts; one is Thog, the god of Xuthal, who on occasion arises from his pit to devour a portion of the city's dwindling human population.

Conan, the motley army he had been serving with having been defeated and scattered, is fleeing for his life through the desert, accompanied by his blonde slave girl Natala, when they come upon Xuthal.  They spend some time exploring Xuthal, finding much-needed victuals and then meeting a beautiful brunette princess, Thalis, who tells them the history of the city.  Thalis is not herself a native of Xuthal, but through circumstances not that dissimilar from Conan and Natala's, stumbled upon the eerie city as a teenager when she was the sole survivor of an army that suffered a disaster.  Trained in the "mysteries" at the "temples of Derketo" in her native land, Thalis is a kind of sacred prostitute, and is thus popular with the sex-crazed men of Xuthal.

Conan and Natala are eager to vacate this city of sex maniacs and ravenous deities, but Thalis has taken a shine to Conan--after all, stuck in this city of dope fiends, she hasn't seen a real man in ages!  When Conan rejects her in favor of Natala, whom Howard tells us is "his sweetheart," the black-haired princess seizes the blonde slave and drags her through a secret door to dispose of her.  Natala is beaten, stripped, and bound to a wall to be whipped, but Thalis is only able to deliver a few good blows with the cat o' nine tails before Thog appears and ingests her.  Thog is about to make a second course out of Natala when Conan (who has been fighting and eluding Xuthalian guards) appears and grapples with the amorphous god, driving it back to its pit.

In the final section of the story Natala finds a healing elixir (more of that Xuthal super-technology) that reinvigorates the wounded Cimmerian, and then they sneak out of the city towards an oasis Thalis told them about.

"Xuthal of the Dusk" appeared in these French collections, the covers of
which foreground the spicy aspects of the Conan stories 
In his essay, "Hyborian Genesis," Louinet tells us that Howard produced only two drafts of "Xuthal of the Dusk," a rough draft and a final draft.  I think the story could have benefited from some additional polishing.  For example, Howard overuses feline metaphors: Conan and Thalis, because of their strength and speed, are compared to cats and panthers and tigers time and again.  Each instance on its own is fine, but Howard uses these descriptors way too much in a way that becomes distracting.  Then there is the character of the men of Xuthal, which is inconsistent, even sort of contradictory.  Thalis tells us that the Xuthalians are fatalists who accept that one day Thog will gobble them up, but we also see that fear of Thog can drive them into hysterical fits.  Thalis says that the men of Xuthal care only for sensual pleasures, and that the city's guards do not take their duties seriously, even taking drugs and getting high while on guard duty, but then the guards show courage and dedication in their repeated (and futile) attacks on Conan.  I'm not sure why they are so hostile to Conan, anyway; they never try to parley with him.

Howard also doesn't bother to give Natala much of a personality or develop any chemistry between Conan and the blonde.  I'm not the kind of person who would be bothered if Conan treated women as disposable sex objects--he's a barbarian thief, for crying out loud--but if Howard is going to make his attachment to Natala a plot point, he should try to make this attachment convincing.  As things stand, Thalis is much more interesting than Natala, and she has a lot more in common with the Cimmerian (like he, she is strong and fast, willful and ambitious, a confident outsider living among inferiors) than does the blonde, and I was disappointed that Conan rejected her so easily and that she got killed so quickly.

Despite these complaints, I enjoyed "Xuthal of the Dusk."  The city is a good setting, Thog and Thalis are good villains, and I liked the fight scenes.           

"The Pool of the Black One" (1933)

"The Pool of the Black One" was printed in the issue of Weird Tales that bore the most famous and perhaps best cover to ever appear on the unique magazine (it always reminds me of a Chiparus bronze.)  Brundage's work generally looks amateurish, but this image is like a bold Art Deco design that also hearkens back to the macabre work of turn-of-the-century artists, like Sarah Bernhardt's sculpture of herself with bat wings or Penot's Bat-Woman.

Zaporavo is a gloomy, introverted pirate captain.  Accompanying him aboard his ship, the Wastrel, is Sancha, the sexy daughter of a duke--he seized her from one of the many ships he and his men have captured (we are told Zaporavo has been in "a thousand fights.")  Sancha has a spirit of adventure, and actually enjoys participating in the Wastrel's dangerous voyages.

One day a giant of a man climbs out of shark-infested waters to join Zaporavo's crew--it is Conan of Cimmeria!  Conan is a fine sailor, a good looker, and possessed of an animal magnetism, and soon the sailors are thinking maybe Conan should be captain instead of Zaporavo, and Sancha is thinking maybe she should be sleeping with Conan instead of Zaporavo.

The Z man is too busy poring over ancient books and maps to notice he has a rival.  He sets a course that has the Wastrel sailing far from the inhabited world and customary shipping lanes--the pirates don't see land or another vessel for weeks.  When the pirates finally do weigh anchor at an island, Zaporavo goes off by himself, hoping to find the ancient treasure his research leads him to suspect is there.  Conan follows him, and, where there are no witnesses, challenges Captain Z to a duel to the death.  The book I'm reading is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, not The Voyages of Zaporavo the Hawk, so you can guess how the duel turns out.

Conan soon discovers the island's horrifying secret: in an ancient lost city (like John Carter's Barsoom, Conan's world is littered with abandoned ancient cities) live a tribe of seven- or eight-foot -tall giants with black skin and taloned hands.  These giants have a magic pool, and love nothing better than to put ordinary-sized people in the pool, where they drown and are shrunk down to action-figure size so they can be added to the giants' comprehensive collection of 8-inch tall human specimens.

Sancha catches up to Conan, the giants capture all the pirates (the corsairs are inebriated from eating some unhealthy fruit), and then Conan and Sancha rally the pirates and a long tedious battle ensues.  The pirates suffer terrible casualties, but the giants are wiped out.  The pool then comes to life like a giant snake made of water and chases the surviving buccaneers back to the Wastrel.  Conan sails away in charge of the ship and with Sancha in his arms, looking forward to terrorizing international sea-going trade.

The cover painting to my copy of The Coming of
Conan the Cimmerian
illustrates "Pool of
 the Black One."  Unfortunately it is not a very
good painting--I don't like the composition or
the figures' poses or their faces--Sancha
looks like she is smiling!  Sad!
"Pool of the Black One" is the weakest of these three Conan stories.  I like the start of the story, which focuses on the relationships among Zaporavo and Sancha and Conan--at times Sancha plays the role Olivia plays in "Iron Shadows in the Moon," that of a viewpoint character with an evolving personality with whom the reader can identify, and obviously the flawed Zaporavo has a more complex psychology than static and invincible Conan.  But then Howard jettisons these human characters to focus on his uninteresting and poorly realized monsters. Surely he could have come up with more compelling antagonists than speechless giants and some sentient green water--these monsters have no dialogue, there are no clues to their history or motives, and the action scenes involving them drag on way too long and are more silly than thrilling.  If I was editing Howard back in 1933, I would have suggested keeping Zaporavo alive longer--as a bookish and cruel civilized man he could not only have played the role of a foil that highlighted the good qualities of the barbarian Conan, but he could have explained what the lost city and pool and black giants were all about--as the story stands, both the Z-man's research and the black giants' nature feel like dangling loose ends.

Disappointing; gotta give this one a thumbs down.


I think my appetite for swords and sorcery and cosmic horror has been slaked for the time being; in our next episode we'll be exploring interstellar space!