Saturday, October 27, 2018

Three stories by Poul Anderson from 1951

There's Chryseis on Pelias the erinye.  Anderson's
text actually mentions the precious stones
she wears in her hair.
When people complain that SF from the past is sexist I think one of the things they have in mind may be the covers of Planet Stories--it seems that almost every one features some hot chick in trouble, or causing trouble for somebody else.  (The covers of Astounding from the same period present a stark contrast--I guess they are sexist because they rarely feature women on them at all, instead foregrounding technology, heroic men, and metaphorical tableaux.)

Another thing you'll see if you look at a bunch of covers of Planet Stories is Poul Anderson's name.  Let's check out three stories by Poul Anderson that appeared in 1951 issues of Planet Stories.  I think these stories are among Anderson's least well-known, but as my regular readers are well aware, I like reading things that have been largely forgotten or which have gotten a bad reputation.  I'll be experiencing all three of these tales of violence on other worlds on this very computer screen via the scans of the actual magazines in which they appeared that are freely available at the internet archive.

"Witch of the Demon Seas"

The January 1951 issue of Planet Stories actually includes two pieces by Anderson, the Dominic Flandry story "Tiger by the Tail" and the "novel" I'm reading today, "Witch of the Demon Seas," a cover story appearing under the pen name A. A. Craig.

"Witch of the Demon Seas" takes place on a planet where people live under a perpetually cloudy sky, fight with swords and bows, travel in sailing ships, live in castles and believe in magic (dismissed by some as mere "women's tricks.")  The surface of the planet is covered in oceans, and the many maritime kingdoms ("thallasocracies") are based on groups of islands, their economies based on seaborne trade and slave raiding.  The planet's human inhabitants come in many different ethnicities, including "blue-skinned savages" who serve as mercenaries in the armies of white kings.  One such white empire is Achaera, land of brunettes and the most powerful and extensive of the kingdoms.  The current king of Achaera is huge muscular Khroman.  As our story begins, Khroman's most dangerous enemy, huge muscular Corun the pirate, has just been captured.  Khroman's father, the previous king, conquered Corun's kingdom of blonde people, Conahur, and hanged Corun's father, the king of Conahur.  Ever since this conquest, Corun has been a fugitive and a pirate captain, attacking every Achaeran ship and town he can get his hands on.

King Khroman's top adviser is his father-in-law, Shorzon the sorcerer.  Khroman's wife died giving birth to their daughter, Chryseis.  Trained by her grandfather, Chryseis is reputed to be a powerful witch, and is also perhaps the most beautiful woman on the planet!  Anderson unleashes a lot of purple prose in this story, descriptions of landscapes and seascapes and the sky and how they make people feel, and we get elaborate descriptions of Chryseis's "chill sculptured beauty," "marble-white face," "eyes of dark flame," her clothes, her jewelry, her hair, etc.  Chryseis also has a tame monster by the name of Perias, a flying reptile of a species the characters call "erinyes" or just "devil-beasts"-- you can see witch-princess riding Perias on the cover of the magazine.  A pet monster, too?  This is like my dream girl!  Oh, wait, then there's the fact that she "ordered the flaying alive of a thousand Issarian prisoners and counselled some of the darkest intrigues in Achaera's bloody history."  Every rose has its thorn, I guess.

It turns out that Chryseis and Shorzon have bigger fish to fry than just maintaining the power and glory of Achaera.  The two magicians betray King Khroman, springing Corun the corsair from solitary after they have convinced him to join them on a quest that will shake the very foundations of this planet's whole civilization!  Chryseis is a real femme fatale, using her beauty as a carrot ("I like strong men") and her pet monster as a stick ("If you say no...Perias will rip your guts out.")   

Shorozon and Chryseis need Corun's guidance to get to the sea of the Xanthi, fish-people whose language lacks words for "fear" and "love" (but you better believe they have a word for "hate!")  Corun, besides being a first-class hunk and a cunning sailor, is one of the few people who has spoken to the Xanthi and lived to tell the tale, and so is a perfect addition to the crew of the wizard and witch's galley, which otherwise consists of blue men, "a cutthroat gang" whose "reckless courage was legendary."

Anderson's story totally lives up to the sex and violence reputation of Planet Stories--"Witch of the Demon Seas" fulfills the expectations set up by all those covers of beautiful girls facing or meting out horrible deaths. On the month-long voyage to the black castle of the Xanthi, Chryseis and Corun become lovers, and, in a fight against the Xanthi, we get to see Shorozon use his magic and Chryseis shoot her bow and ply her sword.  The sex-charged atmosphere, less-than-admirable characters and pervasive bloodshed reminded me of Leigh Brackett's work, which of course is a compliment!

Even though its full of dragons, sea serpents, witches and swordsmen, this is a science fiction story, not a fantasy.  What the characters seek is not a pile of treasure, but knowledge.  There's a scene in which Corun and another sea captain speculate about the possibility of using a chronometer and a sextant to determine a ship's position on the open sea (their world is too superstitious and low tech to accomplish these feats as of yet.)  All the magic is in fact telepathic hypnosis and illusion, as Corun learns when he does some espionage work, listening in on the negotiations between his girlfriend and her grandfather and the rulers of the scaly Xanthi, themselves formidable wizards.  Shorozon and Chryseis seek to join forces with the fish people and become as gods by enslaving the entire human race and using the masses of human brains as a source of psychic energy.  With their own minds amplified by those of thousands of slaves, S and C think that they and the Xanthi sorcerers can explore the universe beyond the clouds, riddle out the mysteries of nature, and achieve immortality!

When he realizes Chryseis is a megalomaniac who is going to screw over every human being in the world, Corun leads the blue-skinned sailors in a raid on the Xanthi arsenal, where he lights a fuse leading to a stockpile of the Xanthi secret weapon, "devil powder" (you and I would just call it "gun powder.")  The castle explodes during a running fight between the blue humans and the fish men--luckily enough blue people survive to man the galley.  Shorozon is decapitated in the fighting, while Chryseis and Perias escape into the jungle, pursed by a vengeful Corun.  Our hero kills Perias in a gory fight, gouging out one of the monster's eyes with his fingers--yuck!

With the monster dead, and Corun now immune to Chryseis's illusions, I was expecting the blonde muscle man to kill the witch in a cathartic Mickey Spillane-style ending.  I was disappointed to find Anderson was giving us a happily-ever-after ending--the death of her evil grandfather and her monstrous familiar broke the hypnotic spell Shorozon had put on Chryseis so many years ago, when she was just a little girl.  Chryseis was never really evil, she explains, she was just a pawn of her grandfather.  Now that the spell is broken her true (sweet) character is liberated, as is her sincere love for Corun.  As the story ends we are led to believe that Corun will marry Chryseis and eventually become the king of Archaera who unites Archaera and his native Conahur  on a basis of equality and brotherhood.

There is maybe too much blah blah blah about the luminescence on the waves and the smell of Chryseis's hair and all that, and I consider the happy ending that absolves Chryseis of all responsibility for her crimes a cop out*, but "Witch of the Demon Seas" is a pretty good sword fighting adventure story.  Robert Hoskins included "Witch of the Demon Seas" in his 1970 anthology Swords Against Tomorrow, and the Gene Szafran cover actually illustrates the story, depicting Shorozon's ship, a blue sailor, a fish man (with a face like a dog, unfortunately), and sexy sexy newlyweds Corun and Chryseis.

*Here's a question for all you feminists: which is more sexist, a story in which an evil woman uses her gorgeous body and superior intelligence to manipulate men in pursuit of becoming the world's greatest scientist and then gets killed by one of the men she manipulated, or a story in which a good woman is the pawn of a man who manipulates her to act against her goody goody nature and has to be liberated from this domination by yet another man?

"Duel on Syrtis"

"Duel on Syrtis" was printed in one of the most famous issues of Planet Stories, the one with Leigh Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars" (one of the Stark stories) and A. E. van Vogt's "The Star Saint" (I reread this great story of a hunky superhero, told from the point of view of the "muggle" whom he cuckolds for the good of the community--ugh, even my thick skull is not impervious to that suffocatingly ubiquitous Harry Potter goop!)

In this story, Anderson portrays the human race as a bunch of jerks!  When mankind colonized Mars they enslaved the native Martians, who look like skinny four-foot tall owls, if you can imagine such a thing.    (There is a good illustration of a Martian on page 5 of the magazine.)  They also hunted them for sport!  Slaving and hunting Martians was recently outlawed, but successful interplanetary businessman and big game hunter Riordan hasn't bagged a Martian yet, and he goes to a secluded spot on the red planet where the authorities don't have everything locked up tight yet, to shoot himself an "owlie."

The Martian owlies are very challenging quarry because they are intelligent and psychically in tune with the flora and fauna of the desert landscape--bushes and rodents miles away can warn them of an Earthman's approach, and even attack the Earther.  The Martian Riordan has set his sights on is a particularly tough nut to crack.  Most Martians are now debased members of the urban lower class, but Kreega is one of the last wild Martians, living in an isolated ruin in the desert.  Something like 200 years old, Kreega was one of the greatest warriors of Mars, a witness of the arrival of the first Earthman and a veteran of many raids on the human colonists before the signing of the peace treaties and amnesties now in force. Along with a hunting dog and a hunting bird, Riordan sets out to hunt this wily and venerable Martian hermit.

Anderson gives us a good long action sequence, describing the several days of the hunt through the desert, the various weapons and traps and stratagems employed by the hunter and hunted.  In the end Kreega not only defeats Riordan but captures the Earthman's space ship, and we readers are led to believe that, like the Martians in Chad Oliver's 1952 "Final Exam," Kreega and his fellows are going to be able to copy the ship and weapons and build a military force with which to challenge Earth hegemony.  (More on this Anderson-Oliver connection below.)  Riordan himself is put into suspended animation, still conscious, so that he will be forced to lie inert for centuries, contemplating his defeat.

We see a lot of these stories in which cloddish Earthmen with their high technology are contrasted with aliens who are sensitive and/or artistic and/or live as one with the natural world; I guess all these stories are reflective of a sympathy for the peoples the world over whom Europeans conquered or otherwise dominated, as well as a fear of technology and concern about the environment.  For me, this noble savage stuff has worn thin, but the meat of this tale is the well-written chase, and I can strongly recommend "Duel on Syrtis" as an engaging adventure story, a quite successful entertainment.

"Duel on Syrtis" has reappeared in Anderson collections and a few anthologies, including 1975's The Best Of Planet Stories, edited by Leigh Brackett.  I will also note that, in the issue of Planet Stories that includes "Duel on Syrtis," there is a little one column autobiography by Anderson; among other things, Anderson says that a year spent in Washington, D.C. convinced him that it was not "a town fit to live in" and that his favorite contemporary author is Johannes V. Jensen (Anderson is really into being Scandinavian.)

"The Virgin of Valkarion"

The setting of "The Virgin of Valkarion" reminds one of the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett--an old planet, thousands of years ago fertile and ruled by a glorious empire, now a desolate waste of dry sea beds and crumbling ruins.  Our hero is Alfric, a claymore-wielding barbarian who rides some kind of hoofed beast and has behind him a long career as bandit and mercenary general.  When he arrives at Valkarion, the capital of the last tiny remnant of that empire of long ago, two slaves marked in such a way that it is clear they are property of the priesthood try to ambush and murder him.  Why have they targeted him, a total stranger to the environs of Valkarion?

Alfric gets a room in a disreputable inn.  The room comes with what we now are calling a "sex worker," and what the introductory blurb of this story calls "a tavern bawd."  But this is no ordinary prostitute--she is one of the most beautiful women Alfric has ever seen, and she turns out to be exceptionally skilled in "the arts of love."  As that intro blurb told us (that intro is full of spoilers), she is also a Queen--the Empress of Valkarion!

Why are these strange things happening to Alfric?  Well, it all has to do with a prophecy and a major political crisis.  Not only is tonight important astrologically, but the Emperor is dying, and he has no heir.  The priesthood would like to take over the kingdom, but a prophecy from thousands of years ago (recorded in the "Book of the Sibyl") predicts that under just such circumstances an outsider will crown himself Emperor.  So the priests have been looking for a guy like Alfric (to murder) and the Empress likewise has been looking for a guy answering Alfric's description (to ally with.)  After their sex session, the Empress explains all this to Alfric, who is not unwilling to make himself Emperor, and then they get caught up in the open fighting between the agents of the Temple and those devoted to the Empress.  (If the traditionally anti-religious readers of SF haven't already gotten the message,  Anderson makes clear that the Empress would be a better ruler than the priests by pointing out that her financial policy features lower tax rates than that of previous administrations, and that the Temple tries to maintain a monopoly on knowledge of the high technology of the Empire's heyday, even executing those who read the old books and try to build the machinery described therein.)

Alfric and the Empress get captured, and the High Priest gives the Empress the opportunity to marry him, which would make him Emperor--if she refuses she will be gang raped by the Temple slaves and then burned at the stake.  She agrees, but, once untied, contrives to free Alfric, who kills the high priest.  The lovers escape the Temple, and lead the Imperial loyalists against the priests and their dupes, Anderson gives us several (too many) pages of tedious battle scenes.  The Empress herself wears armor and rides a beast and stabs people--I think we can say this story includes the much-sought-after "strong female protagonist."  The Temple and the Imperial Palace both get burned down in the fracas, but we readers are assured that Alfric and his lover will build a glorious new Empire and found a noble new dynasty.

This story is just OK.  I am tired of prophecy stories and the action scenes in this one are not particularly stirring and the characters are not very interesting.  "The Virgin of Valkarion" doesn't seem to have set the world on fire--I don't think it ever appeared in an Anderson collection.  It was translated into Portuguese, however, for inclusion in a 1965 anthology alongside pieces by H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and other worthies.

The issue of Planet Stories that includes "The Virgin of Valkarion" also includes a letter from Chad Oliver, the anthropologist and SF writer whose "Final Exam" I just compared to Anderson's "Duel on Syrtis."  In the letter Oliver praises the active SF community of letter-writers, makes literary puns, and says that Anderson's "Duel on Syrtis" was "outstanding."  Maybe he really did lift the central idea of "Final Exam" from Anderson!  Oliver also, bizarrely, denounces the cover of the March '51 issue, a cover whose use of color I find striking and whose central figure I find mesmerizing.  Chad may have been a good anthropologist, but he was no art critic!


Three worthwhile stories by Anderson, even if "The Virgin of Valkarion" is borderline, and I certainly enjoyed rereading van Vogt's "The Star Saint," while the Anderson autobiography and the letter from Chad Oliver both provide fun insights for us classic SF fans.  Those old magazines available at the internet archive are full of gems!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Comet Kings by Edmond Hamilton

"You can help us willingly with all your knowledge of this universe, and be rewarded by electric immortality.  Or you can refuse.  In that case, we will strip your mind of all knowledge and then destroy you immediately."
In his essentially mainstream novel about a science fiction writer who goes insane, Herovit's World, Barry Malzberg, who has read more SF and thought about SF more than just about anybody, includes a parody of SF of the Lensman/Captain Future type that features heroic scientists and fighting men who explore the universe and battle hostile aliens.  Let's check out an example of the very kind of story Malzberg was satirizing, Edmond Hamilton's The Comet Kings, first published in Captain Future magazine in 1942.  The Comet Kings is the 11th Captain Future Adventure; I am reading the 1969 paperback edition from Popular Library.

(We've read two Captain Future novels by Hamilton already, Quest Beyond the Stars and Outlaw World, and over the course of this blog's life I have read many other novels and stories by Hamilton, who, like his wife Leigh Brackett, is something of a MPorcius fave.)

The government of the Solar System, based in beautiful New York City on Earth, has a big big problem!  Dozens of space ships, both private commercial ships and government war ships, have vanished without a trace in a sector beyond Jupiter.  The Planet Patrol has sent out two of its best agents, old man Ezra Gurney and Joan Randall, a "dark, pretty girl" and "the smartest agent of our secret investigation division" who "knows the spaceways better than most men," to investigate.  These two geniuses also disappear, so the government turns to the Moon for help!  Only four people make their homes on the Moon, scientist Curtis Newton, known as Captain Future, and his three comrades, the Futuremen!  Newton has a crush on Randall, so everybody knows he will take this job seriously!

Who are the Futuremen?  Oldest of the three is Doctor Simon Wright, a genius scientist who was a close colleague of Curtis's father, biologist Roger Newton.  When his body approached death, Newton removed Wright's brain and implanted it alive in a box equipped with cameras, microphones, and projectors that emit "beams of force" that allow him to hover and fly.  Newton and Wright created in their lunar lab the other two Futuremen, Otho, the synthetic man, and Grag, the intelligent robot.  When his parents died, young Curtis was raised by Wright (AKA "The Brain") and Otho and Grag, and became a brilliant scientist himself, as well as "the most renowned fighting planeteer in the System."

I took these images of Curt Newton's comrades from the scan of the Winter 1943 issue of
Captain Future available at the Internet Archive
Apprised of the disappearance of Randall and hundreds of other people, Newton and the Futuremen fly off to the orbit of Jupiter to investigate.  It is not long before they suspect that Halley's comet is somehow connected to the disappearances, and, when they approach the comet to have a look-see,  their ship is seized by a magnetic force and pulled towards the mysterious body.  They discover, within the glowing energy field that is the outer shell of the comet, a small forested planet with an alabaster city on its surface.  Here lie all the lost space ships, and here our heroes are taken prisoner by the pirates who live on the comet, men and women whose very bodies pulse and glow with electricity!  These electric people do not need to eat or drink, and are practically immortal!

There are no three-eyed aliens in this story
The world inside Halley's Comet is full of surprises.  Our heroes learn that the people of the Comet (the Cometae) only recently became electrified and immortal, when their tyrannical rulers, King Thoryx, Queen Lulain, and the weird old adviser, Querdel, exposed them to the power of the Allus, creatures from another cosmos summoned to our universe by Querdel's science.  The majority of Cometae don't even want to be electrified, as they feel it has stripped them of their humanity--they are sterile and thus denied the joys of parenthood as well as the age-old natural cycle of birth, maturity, and death.  Another surprise: when he is brought to the royal court, Newton finds that his crush Joan Randall has been electrified herself!

Randall of course is only pretending to have joined the Cometae in order to learn more about them and the Allus--she is an intelligence agent, after all.  When Newton and the Brain promise the leaders of the anti-Allus majority population of the comet world that they will try to reverse the electrification of their bodies, the commoners launch an uprising against the royals, and Newton and the Futuremen are right in the thick of the fighting!  Unfortunately, when the rebels are on the cusp of victory, Querdel contacts the extradimensional Allus via his ten-foot-wide ebon orb and a wave of energy from another universe hypnotizes all the rebels into immobility, save the not-quite human Grag and Otho, who escape to the forest outside the alabaster city.

Querdel, in his six-wheeled car, drives the unconscious Newton from the white city to the black citadel of the Allus.  Luckily, Grag and Otho, hiding in the woods, see the car go by and march to the 1000-foot tool black tower.  Within the tower Curt learns the true nature of the Allus and their mission in our universe.  (The scenes in which Newton sees the true forms of the Allus for the first time, and when he looks through the Allus' portal into their universe of four dimensions, seemed to me to owe some inspiration to H. P. Lovecraft, Hamilton's fellow Weird Tales scribe.)  Newton, the Futuremen and Joan Randall work together to shut the portal from the other universe, dending the Allus menace, and then Newton, The Brain, and a Martian scientist figure out how to turn all the immortal electric people back into short-lived normal people who can have children and die.  (Hooray, I guess?)

There are no giant bats in this story
This is a fun, fast-paced, and brief (128 pages here) story, a good example of old-fashioned adventure SF.  The Comet Kings is full of speculative science about things like a comet's make up and why living things age and die, though I'm guessing these theories are today totally exploded, and our heroes overcome obstacles again and again by using their knowledge and via trickery--while there is some hand-to-hand combat and bloodshed, the story fetishizes not strength or martial prowess, but science and quick-thinking.

As part of my project of defending Golden Age SF from misharacterizing attacks, I will point out that while Malzberg's parody in Herovit's World suggests that SF scientist/soldiers are xenophobic, shooting first and asking questions later, and making servants or slaves of alien races, this Captain Future novel is practically a paean to diversity.  It is true that nobody gives a boring or self-righteous speech about the evils of racism and sexism--Hamilton instead depicts the people of the future matter-of-factly taking diversity and equality as a given, portraying Earthlings, Martians and Venusians working side by side, both men and women exhibiting intelligence and bravery, and all of them accepting such strange characters as Grag, The Brain and Otho as comrades.  The masses of the people of the comet are good and quick to aid the strangers from outside--it is only their aristocratic leaders who are evil, and they courageously oppose when given a chance (Hamilton perhaps exhibiting a very American attitude about hereditary rule.)

An entertaining, optimistic and wholesome space opera, perhaps an interesting contrast to the somewhat gritty, pessimistic and noirish Hamilton space opera we read a little while ago, "The Starcombers."


The last page of my 1969 paperback is an ad, but not for SF books.  Rather, it promotes the history of the Plantagenets by Canadian-born writer Thomas B. Costain.  It looks like people still read these--the first volume, The Conquering Family, published in 1949, has 25 reviews on Amazon.  I like to think that there are thriving classic SF and pulp fiction communities online, but The Comet Kings only has two Amazon reviews and the third volume of The Collected Captain Future put out by Stephen Haffner (which contains The Comet Kings and three other Captain Future novels) has only 11 reviews--I guess this Costain guy is a big wheel!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Four stories by C. L. Moore from Astounding

In 1952 Gnome Press published Judgment Night, a collection of work by C. L. Moore, famous creator of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry and collaborator of Henry Kuttner, her husband.  The hardcover volume with a cover by Kelly Freas included the title novel and four short stories; in 1979 Dell reprinted the collection in paperback with a cover by God knows who.  I own one of those 1979 paperbacks, and in our last episode we read the title work, originally an Astounding serial, the story of a princess's first love affair and the collapse of her civilization, a denunciation of human violence and an expression of skepticism of the value of gods.  Today we will look at those four short stories, all of which appeared in Astounding after Judgment Night's appearance.  I'm going to read them in the chronological order in which they were printed, not the order they appear in this book.

"The Code" (1945)

"The Code" appeared under the pen name of "Lawrence O'Donnell," like all four stories we are talking about today.  This pseudonym was also attached to numerous stories on which Moore and Kuttner collaborated, including the highly regarded tales "Vintage Season," "Clash By Night" and "Fury," and served as the inspiration for one of the pen names used by Kuttner/Moore aficionado Barry N. Malzberg, "K. M. O'Donnell."

(The unusual cover of this issue of Astounding is a collage of US military personnel operating some of their heavier weapons.  Maybe this is related to the included Eric Frank Russell story, "Resonance," the intro of which indicates it is about the Pacific War and whose illustrations feature what we would probably consider racist caricatures of "the Japs.")

Bill Westerfield and Peter Morgan are scientists, medical types.  They think that people get old and die for largely psychosomatic reasons:
"You've been conditioned to think you grow old because of time, and this is a false must be conditioned to reverse time.  The body and the mind react inseparably, one upon the other."
Bill's father Rufus serves as the guinea pig for their secret experiments on reversing the aging process, and they shoot the seventy-year-old full of drugs and hypnotize him so he will look at time differently.  And it works!  In the space of a few months Rufus develops the body of a healthy forty-year-old!  But something is amiss with Rufus's brain or mind; he has vague memories that cannot be his own.  Also, Bill and Peter think his face is different from that of the man Rufus was when he was forty...they suspect that Rufus isn't just "growing" younger, but changing into a different person altogether!  Then X-rays indicate that Rufus's bones and organs are changing--Bill's father isn't just becoming a different person, but a whole different species!

Moore explains, using a metaphor about parallel train tracks that I did not find very convincing, that Rufus isn't regressing to the Rufus he once was, but an alternate reality Rufus in a universe where the evolution of intelligent life proceeded quite differently.  Rufus, as he grows biologically younger and gets closer to that alien track, changes more and more.  In his biological twenties he develops a nictitating membrane and becomes a drunk--the booze helps his mind cope with the overlapping memories of his English-speaking Earth youth and his alien youth in a world of strange languages and weird tuneless music; alcohol is also one of the few Earth foods his half-alien stomach can handle.  He then seals himself in his room and ceases eating altogether, his body burning his tissues for fuel so that he shrinks and eventually becomes an alien egg or larva--for a brief moment Bill and Peter see Rufus's alien mother, before she and the embryonic alien Rufus vanish as he is fully integrated into that other time track.

Because it moves at a rapid enough pace and throws lots of ideas at you this is an acceptably entertaining story, even if the ideas are all kind of ridiculous.  It also aspires to a high level of erudition.  Readers of Astounding are expected to know about science, and on the very first page of "The Code" Moore refers to snowflakes making "pseudo-Brownian movements"--I had to look that up on google.  Besides the science stuff there are plenty of literary references--Faust, Theseus, Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, Longfellow.  This is a story for the educated reader!  The title of the story refers to Bill and Peter's idea that the intellectuals of the past knew more than they are given credit for, and even conducted experiments like the one B & P are conducting on Rufus.  Our heroes think their predecessors recorded their work in "code" in stories like the legend of Faust, and speculate that Faust's loss of his soul in the story represents some other loss suffered by a experimental subject back in the 16th century; at the end of the story our 20th-century experimenters get the solution to the mystery.

"The Code" is like several stories I have read by Kuttner and Moore that are about Earth humans interacting with items or people from other times or dimensions.  "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" is the most famous example, others include "Prisoner in the Skull" and "Shock."  "The Code" is included in a handsome-looking 900-page collection of Kuttner and Moore stories published in 2005 by Centipede Press and titled Two-Handed Engine after one of Kuttner and Moore's most celebrated tales.

We read To The Stars here at
MPorcius Fiction Log in early 2014
"Promised Land" (1950)

It is several hundred years in the future, and mankind has colonized numerous planets and moons within the solar system.  To do so, scientists have used controlled mutation and selective breeding to fashion humans suitable for life on alien worlds.  Some pure strain humans fear that the engineered humans are taking over civilization, that they, however freakish they might be, are the future of mankind.  One such engineered human is Torren, the dictator of Ganymede, the product of the thirteen generations of breeding in "The Centrifuge" that was the abortive project to create people who could live on Jupiter.  Torren weighs five hundred pounds and lives every moment of his adult life in a bath of oily fluid because he lacks the strength to walk--he can barely lift his own arm!  (When I was a kid they told us that Brachiosaurus probably stayed in water to support his tremendous weight, but I think that theory has been abandoned.)  Via TV screens and other devices Torren rules the people of Ganymede, humans specially bred to be able to endure Ganymede's deadly cold and breathe Ganymede's toxic atmosphere.

Years ago Torren chose from among the brats at an orphanage an heir, Ben Fenton, a pure strain human.  Fenton is an adult now, and as "Promised Land" begins he has had it with Ganymede and tells Torren to find himself another heir--he is leaving!  Why, you ask?

Torren is a selfish ruler who feels that the tragedy of his own life as the only survivor of the Centrifuges means he owes others no consideration.  He is having Ganymede terraformed so a large number of pure strain humans can live on it and efficiently exploit its resources--this will mean the small number of peeps tailored for Ganymede will have to live under domes the way Terron and Fenton do today!  Fenton sympathizes with the Ganymedeans and wants no part of throwing them under the bus.

Fenton's attitude was easier for me to understand when I realized that the people engineered to live on Ganymede weren't hideous insect people or ogrish yetis or something, but seven-foot tall Scandinavians with blue eyes and blonde hair and "milk-white" skin, and our man Ben Fenton has a crush on one of them.
He did not think he was in love with Kristin.  It would be preposterous.  They could not speak except through metal or touch except through glass and cloth.  They could not even breathe the same air.  But he faced the possibility of love, and grinned ironically at it.     
Fenton goes to meet Kristin, and, while they sit in his ground vehicle, an air vehicle bombs them.  They survive the attack, and Fenton sneaks back into Terron's palace to discover that a coup attempt is under way, Terron's pure strain assistant trying to take over.  Fenton foils the coup attempt, saving Terron, but as the story ends we know that Ganymede is about to be rocked by a civil war between Terron and his agents and the Ganymedeans, lead by Fenton, who are determined to resist the terraforming of their chilly home.  Who will win the war will be largely determined by the response to the crisis of the pure strain people on Earth and the engineered people living on Venus and Mars--who will intervene in the conflict, and on which side?  Perhaps the outcome of the Ganymedean civil war will signal whether the new artificially bred human races represent the future of the human race, or will always be subordinate to those who created them.

This is a pretty good story; like Judgment Night it conjures up a strange milieu and presents SF ideas and a civilization on the brink of a new era, but it is economical.  Perhaps Moore here is vulnerable to the charge of making things easy on herself by making the villain a big fatso and the innocent victims people who look like supermodels, however. 

"Heir Apparent" (1950)

To my surprise, I discovered on its first page that "Heir Apparent" was a sequel of sorts to "Promised Land," being set in the same universe, though on Earth instead of one of the other inhabited bodies of the Solar System and at a later period of time, when the solar system is in crisis as the engineered humans on Mars, Venus and Ganymede seek to achieve independence from Earth.  Our protagonist is Edward Harding, former member of Integrator Team Twelve-Wye-Lambda.  As we see in flashbacks, an Integrator Team is seven men, each with a high level of expertise in one field, who connect psychically across long distances via a computer called an Integrator, temporarily melding their personalities and skills within the computer to solve difficult problems related to the governance of Earth's interplanetary empire.  (A theme of this story is that empires collapse because managing them from what in college we called "the metropole" becomes too complicated.)  These psychic connections are so satisfying that those kicked off Integrator teams become depressed and wander the world like lost souls, suited for no other work.  Harding is one such lost soul, as is a former colleague of his, George Mayall, who blames Harding for getting him kicked off the team a few years before Harding himself was let go.

Bumming around the Pacific, Harding meets an obese rich guy, Turner, who is the head of a private espionage network.  (Does Moore hate fat people?  Or does she just hate rich people, and use obesity to signify indulgence and wealth?)  Turner tells Harding that Mayall is working with the seccessionists from a base on a Pacific island.  Mayall has camouflaged this island and surrounded it with traps so that it is almost totally invisible and inaccessible.  Turner wants to capture this island and work his own lucrative deal with the seccessionists, and thinks that Harding--who has the ability to integrate his mind with a boat's computer, controlling the vessel as if it was his own body, and has intimate knowledge of Mayall's way of thinking--is the only man who can get him to the island safely.  Harding and Turner become uneasy partners, each with his own agenda.

Once on the island Harding and Turner confront Mayall and we get doublecrosses and Mexican standoff situations involving guns, knives, holograms, paralysis rays, heat rays, post-hypnotic suggestions, etc.  These standoffs resemble the relationships between Earth and its colonies--they all want independence, but really need to cooperate to prosper, maybe even to merely survive.  The whole business of the Integrator, in which seven people fuse their psyches to produce a more efficient collective "being," mirrors this same theme.

During all the tense scenes on the island we learn why Mayall and then Harding were thrown off Integrator Team Twelve-Wye-Lambda, and what exactly Mayhall is up to on the island.  Mayhall has put together his own Integrator and set up his own Integrator team, one that is devoted to winning independence for Venus.  But who is on Mayhall's team?  Harding discovers that Mayhall has filled the other six seats at "the Round Table" of his Integrator not with human beings but with computer files!  Does this presage a future when human beings will be subordinate to machines, or surrender their humanity to become integrated with machines?  Like Judgment Night and "Promised Land," rather than ending conclusively, "Heir Apparent" ends leaving us expecting a radical shift in human history and wondering what--perhaps horrible--future is in store for mankind.     

Pretty good.  "Heir Apparent" was included in a 1988 French collection of Moore stories.   

"Paradise Street" (1950)

Jaime Morgan was one of the first men on planet Loki.  He is an irascible loner, a trapper who catches the sehft rats that infest the planet and drains their sehft sacs to sell the sehft oil.  But times, they are a changin'; once-wild Loki, a place for an independent manly man, is becoming civilized!  Settlers (Morgan denounces them as "Scum!") are putting down roots on Loki, starting farms and families, and they want to exterminate the sehft rats, who despoil their orchards.  Sehft has also been synthesized off world, so the value of sehft has gone down by like 99%, leaving Morgan in real financial trouble.  Law and order is also coming to Loki in the form of Major Rufus Dodd, an old friend of Morgan's--they grew up together on Mars.

"Paradise Street" is like a story about the old West, with a general store, a saloon, a new sheriff in town, desperadoes and ranch hands--there's even a minor character who is a Native American (a "hawk-nosed Red Amerindian.")  It is also like a 20th-century crime story--100% natural and organic sehft (not the synthetic stuff) turns out to be a powerful narcotic, and Morgan, due to ignorance and carelessness, gets mixed up with organized crime and the cops (in the form of his childhood friend Dodd.)  Venusian crime bosses want to get their hands on some organic sehft, but Dodd has confiscated it and locked it all up, so the Venusians hire Morgan to cause a native herd of cattle to stampede; this will distract the settlers and the lawmen and give the Venus mafia a chance to liberate the sehft.

To stampede the beasts Morgan has to get in tune with nature, and Moore gives us a scene in which Morgan "feels" the rhythm of Loki through his fingers and toes as he crouches in the moss.  Moore also gives us a quote from A. E. Housman's "The Night is Freezing Fast."  (A. E. Housman seems to be a favorite of SF writers.)   Morgan directs the stampede so it wrecks the crops the settlers have spent a year tending, but then the Venusians, with firearms, throw the stampede out of control so it damages the town and even kills a handful of innocent people.  The settlers take up arms and outfight and then lynch the Venusians.  The settlers want to hang Morgan as well, but Dodd, quoting Kipling's "The Explorer," (Kipling is another favorite versifier of the SF crowd, at least the conservative/libertarian faction of people like Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein) helps Morgan escape, directing him to a merchant space ship on which he can stow away and get to a newly discovered planet, where he can play "hermit trapper in touch with nature" again.  Morgan doesn't belong among civilized men, neither the boring community-minded types like the settlers nor the evil predatory type like the Venusian criminals--he belongs alone on the frontier.

There are some silly elements to "Paradise Street," and it does remind you of that famous Galaxy ad that derides that species of SF that is just Westerns in space, but it is smoothly written and entertaining.


All these stories are worth your time.  "Heir Apparent," "Promised Land" and "Paradise Street" all have action and revenge elements, and all talk about imperialism and colonialism, how individual human beings and the government deal with exploring and conquering and exploiting new territories; "Heir Apparent" and "Promised Land" also do the thing that Malzberg told John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, SF should do, explore how technology is "consuming" people, taking away their individuality and their ability to control their lives.  (See Malzberg's essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," in which our pal Barry recounts his meeting with Campbell; I know I have recommended it before--it is a great essay for those of us interested in both Golden Age and New Wave SF.) 


Squint or click to read about these Dell offerings
The last four pages of my 1979 copy of Judgment Night consist of ads for the Dell SF line.  Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake gets a page to itself, complete with glowing blurbs from Frank Herbert and Robert Silverberg and a sort of poorly reproduced illustration of a young lady grasping a scaly writhing phallic symbol.  I liked McIntyre's short stories "Recourse, Inc." and "Only at Night," (the techniques she used to tell these stories were quite good) and Dreamsnake won the Hugo and the Nebula, stamps of approval from the people and the pros, so I should probably consider reading it.

D. F. Jones's novel Earth Has Been Found also gets a page to itself (no blurbs, though.)  I thought it was funny that the marketing people at Dell thought that SF readers would be excited by the thought of a story about "California's finest doctor."  Gordon Dickson's novel about astronauts going to Mars, The Far Call, is another item that gets the full-page treatment; "undersecretary for space" sounds a little dry, but next to "best sawbones on the Left Coast," maybe it's not so bad.

If your criteria is efficiency, the best of the four ad pages is the one with a list of thirteen books.  I have a (peripheral, I admit) familiarity with a few of these.

For New Wavey, literary SF types, Dell offers Michael Bishop's Stolen Faces, which Joachim Boaz declared "a near masterpiece," and Richard Lupoff's Space War Blues (I read the ambitious and dense 90-page short story upon which this novel is based in my hardcover copy of Again, Dangerous Visions) and John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline, which I read before I started this blog and thought was alright.

Dell has stuff for the sword & sorcery and planetary romance fan as well.  I assume I read The Silver Warriors by Michael Moorcock decades ago (I know I owned a copy, which my brother probably still has back in New Jersey, greatest state in the union) but I can't remember any specifics about it; it is the second of the Erekose books and sometimes printed under the title Phoenix in Obsidian.  I actually remember the first Erekose book, more or less (I compared it to Edmond Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla last year.)  I enjoyed all those Eternal Champion books in my teens, and often think about rereading them.  Flashing Swords #4 includes Moorcock's "The Lands Beyond the World," which I think makes up a third of the Elric book The Sailor on the Seas of FateFlashing Swords #4 also includes one of the component stories of Jack Vance's delightful Cugel's Saga (AKA Cugel: The Skybreak Spatterlight.)  I own a copy of Andrew Offutt's Ardor on Aros, but haven't read it yet--I am interested in Offut's work, but I have got the idea that Ardor on Aros is a spoof, not a sincere adventure story, and this has put me off a little bit.  I read the first two Callisto novels by Lin Carter in the 2000 ibooks omnibus edition; they were mediocre.  Ylana of Callisto, according to isfdb, is the seventh Callisto book--I guess people were buying them.

Comments are welcome on all the advertised books, as well as on C. L. Moore, of course.


More SF from 1940s magazines in out next episode!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Judgment Night by C. L. Moore

"Every race has come to this end, since the first men conquered the Galaxy.  Each of them sows the seed of its own destruction.  Always a few see the way toward salvation, and always the many shout them down."
Back in June I explored Riverby Books, a used bookstore near the Supreme Court that Washingtonian magazine called "cozy" and the somewhat overweight members of the MPorcius Fiction Log staff called "cramped," and emerged from its basement with a copy of the 1979 Dell edition of C. L. Moore's Judgment Night.  In my last blogpost I was citing C. L. Moore as an example of somebody from the Golden Age of Science Fiction who could write about "the human heart" and so it seems an appropriate time to check out this novel.

Judgment Night first appeared in 1943 as a serial spread out across two issues of John W. Campbell's Astounding, and then was published in book form in 1952, in a hardcover along with four short stories by Moore.  isfdb makes a distinction between the 1943 version of Judgment Night and the 1952 version, so maybe Moore revised it for book publication or something.  My Dell paperback, which, like the members of the MPorcius Fiction Log staff is quite thick (384 pages), reproduces the contents of that 1952 volume, including the novel (like 168 pages) and the four stories.

Since conquering the mysterious planet Ericon long ago, one hundred successive Lyonese Emperors, most of them fierce warriors and cunning statesmen, have ruled the galaxy.  Though Ericon is their capital, and has been for one hundred generations, much of the planet is unexplored and beyond the control of the Lyonese.  The vast forests that cover most of the planet have been declared off limits by the mysterious Ancients, living gods who are aloof but merciless if crossed--even aircraft which dare fly over their forests vanish in a flash of light!  And then there are the catacombs and labyrinths under the Lyonese palace, the ruins of the many civilizations that ruled Ericon before the Lyonese took over.

After centuries of growth and stability, the Galactic Empire of the Lyonese is in trouble!  The reigns of the 97th, 98th and 99th Emperors saw rebellions on many imperial planets, and since then many systems have been taken over by space barbarians, the H'vani; as our story begins, during the reign of the 100th Emperor, things are looking bleak!  The current Emperor has no son, so his daughter Juille has been trained in the arts of war and stalks around the palace wearing a helmet and a "fire sword."  Juille is aggressive and talks of "wiping out" the H'vani, and advises her father to be ruthless, but the old man is something of a softie!  He thinks the apocalyptic war Juille relishes could destroy not only his Empire but all of human civilization, reducing the galaxy's population to a bunch of cave dwellers, so he wants to make peace with the H'vani.

Here on the cover of Astounding we see our
cast of characters in the ruins beneath the palace.
The blonde with the helmet is Princess Juille,
the blond man is Egide, the redhead Egide's
super strong right-hand man, the man in red
is an Andarean conspirator, and behind Juille is
her treacherous mentor.   
A big council meeting where there will be a big vote is coming up, and Juille decides to take a little vacay before it convenes.  Orbiting Ericon is a satellite known as Cyrille where rich people have access to any pleasure, no matter how decadent or perverse!  SF is full of pleasure planets and space resorts and holiday satellites; I hear there's even a casino planet in one of the Walt Disney Star Wars movies.  This is one of my least favorite SF cliches; casinos and resorts do not really interest me.  I suppose the prevalence of this trope is a reflection of fears that modern wealth will lead to decadence, and the influence of the theory that the Roman Empire collapsed due to an abandonment of the stern republican virtues that built it.  Presumably in her story here in Judgment Night about an empire in decline, barbarians at its gates, Moore is channeling that idea that Rome was in crisis during the period of Alec Guinness and Sophia Loren because people were too focused on pleasure and not enough on duty.  (Who could focus on duty with Sophia Loren hanging round?)  Anyway, Juille goes to this pleasure satellite, incognito, largely to experiment with wearing dresses and acting feminine--all her life she has rejected femininity and "embraced the amazon cult wholeheartedly."  Awaiting her on the satellite are not only expert dressmakers and special effects that allow her to make her room perfectly resemble any planet in the galaxy, but an assassin!

In a fancy restaurant with floating tables, and then the virtual reality reproduction of a long ruined city of canals, the assassin, Egide, flirts with Juille; no one has ever treated the arrogant and militaristic princess so informally before, and Juille is both excited and frightened by the experience.  I guess this is Moore writing about a girl's sexual awakening, though in Juille's case it is a late awakening.  Anyway, Egide refrains from murdering Juille, and after three days of dates the princess just returns to the planet surface.

The war drags on badly, with the H'vani taking over planet after planet, in many cases aided by a mysterious fifth column.  Juille watches the battles on TV from the safety of Ericon.  Over Juille's objections, the Emperor sets up a peace conference with the H'vani; Juille refuses to attend and orders assassins to murder the H'vani envoys--she wants the Empire to fight the H'vani to the finish!  Watching TV, she recognizes Egide as one of the envoys--she, along with us readers, realizes that Egide is the leader of the H'vani barbarians!  She expects to see her assassins shoot him down, but the attack fails to materialize, so Juille marches into the conference hall and shoots Egide herself.  Egide is wearing a vest that reflects the energy of Juille's ray pistol and so survives, and in the confusion Juille is captured by Egide and some of the fifth columnists, who include Juille's own lady-in-waiting, her life-long mentor!  We learn that the fifth columnists are Andareans, the descendants of the people who ruled Ericon one hundred generations ago, before Juille's dynasty conquered the planet.

Moore's writing about these different "races," as she calls them--Lyonese, H'vani and Andarean--is a little muddled.  They are all human beings, but it is suggested that they have distinctive physical appearances--one guy is said to have "Andarean features," and Juille snarls that H'vani are "hairy." However, Juille didn't recognize Egide as a H'vani on Cyrille, and it is not clear if Juille knew her lady-in-waiting was an Andarean before she revealed herself to be amongst the leadership of the fifth column.  This is a little sloppy, but a much worse sin is that Judgment Night is one of those stories in which our protagonist is ineffectual and is more of a spectator of the plot than a driver of it--Juille's assassination plans all fall through, and she watches battles on TV instead of participating in them, while other characters and forces--her father, the mysterious Ancients, the mysterious Andareans--make decisions and accomplish things and dominate Juille.

1943 illustration of a llar by A. Williams;
just adorable, right?
Egide and the Andareans carry Juille down into the catacombs below the Lyonese city, where lie super weapons made of such fine materials that they have not suffered a blemish over a thousand years.  The Andareans hand some of these weapons over to their allies, the H'vani, though it is hinted the Andareans may doublecross the H'vani in the future.  Egide goes to the forest to consult the Ancients--he is the first in centuries to do so--and the Andareans foolishly leave Juille alone so her little pet alien, a "llar," can arrive to untie her and deliver to her a super weapon recently developed by the Dunnarians.  The Dunnarians are a race that remained loyal to the Emperor and whose planet was recently conquered by the H'vani (this is one of the planets Juille watched get bombed to rubble on TV.)  Only one person escaped Dunnar when the H'vani took it, and that guy, called "the envoy," brought with him a prototype super weapon.  (This novel is full of strange super weapons with weird, outlandish, effects that Moore describes in detail.)

The llar guides Juille to the Ancients and then disappears.  Juille herself consults the Ancients, who appear differently to each supplicant (like the Wizard in the original book version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and give cryptic and vague advice.  To Juille they appear like smoke rings in a dark and disorienting space (Juille feels like a fly upside down on a ceiling in a pitch black room) and tell her she may be able to save her race, but only if she does not trust her instincts.  (No pressure!)  Egide captures and ties up Juille again.  (There is a lot of talk about Juille being a devotee of the cult of the amazon, dedicated to the art of war, but whenever she tries to murder people or gets in a fight with the H'vani she blows it.  Is a subtext of this book that fighting isn't women's work?)

Having been knocked out, our princess wakes up back on the pleasure satellite Cyrille, in one of its many holographic reproductions of a paradise planet.  Via a TV screen, she looks into the satellite's many rooms, seeing that the staff have been killed and that in a control room Egide is mounting one of those super weapons for use in bombarding the surface of Ericon below.  Now in the final third of the book Juille finally starts accomplishing things, making her way through the many corridors and illusory reproductions of Imperial planets (more than once she does that thing Princess Leia did on the Death Star, blasting a hole in a wall or floor and just jumping through it, to where she does not know), hunting for the control room and fighting not only perverts who live out their insane fantasies here on Cyrille but Egide's hulking right hand man as well.  (For a few pages it looks like Juille has killed this brute, but then we learn he is a robot and getting shot by Juille just slowed him down a little!) 

The cover of the 1952 edition of the book
features the Dunnar envoy and a llar
Unable to find the control room, Juille uses a hand held super weapon dropped by the robot when she shot it to destroy the satellite from within, jut blasting away at random.  In these scenes of destruction Moore throws a lot of allegories and symbolism at us.  Because Cyrille's innumerable rooms contain simulations of planets from all over the galaxy, Juille's destroying them with energy blasts is like the way the interstellar wars have been destroying the societies of one planet after another.  Juille's ability to destroy Cyrille and, metaphorically, all the galaxy's inhabited worlds, makes her like a god.  Judgment Night is not only an indictment of the human propensity for violence, but a denunciation of gods, or at least mankind's reliance on gods.

Juille wrecks the satellite but not before Egide has finished setting up his weapon and has used it to blast the Imperial palace below.  (I guess the fact that the heart of the Lyonese empire is destroyed from the pervert-infested pleasure satellite is part of Moore's Rome-fell-due-to-decadence theme.)   Juille has been outdone by Egide again; Egide even rescues Juille from the wreckage that is flying around the station due to the fact that the hull has been breached and the artificial gravity system is going haywire.     

Juille uses the Dunnarian super weapon to turn the tables on Egide, taking him captive.  They take a space boat down to the surface, slipping past the H'vani fleet and landing at the half-ruined palace, where the Emperor is organizing an evacuation into the hills.  Seeing what a ruin everything is, Juille realizes that 135 pages ago her father was right to pursue peace and she wrong to demand war--civilization really is collapsing!  Because of the Ancients' prohibition on aircraft, the final battle for the Lyonese Galactic Empire is fought by infantrymen and horse-mounted cavalry, the H'vani with the Andarean super weapons and the Lyonese with the Dunnarian super weapons.  Egide says he has changed sides and will fight for the Lyonese, but before he and Juille can join the battle the Dunnarian envoy reveals to them an astonishing secret--he is one of the all-powerful Ancients in disguise!  He tells them that neither H'vani nor Lyonese will win the war, that all of humanity will lose, and that the Ancients are tired of mankind and its violence.  The llar, creatures of wisdom who care neither for the individual nor for gods, but for the collective, will inherit the galaxy.  As the story ends we readers have no idea if Juille and Edige will live out the day.

1965 printing
Judgment Night has many good plot elements and ideas: a woman going through a difficult sexual awakening because her sexual desires are at odds with her emotional feelings and intellectual beliefs (Moore uses phrases like "her treacherous body"); an empire beset from without and within; a thousand year conspiracy centered on super weapons hidden in sinister catacombs full of traps; weird aliens with their own unfathomable motives; a character dedicated to war who changes her attitude when she sees the wreckage wreaked by war, etc.  Unfortunately, Moore's execution is not great; Judgment Night feels long and slow.  A lot of verbiage is invested in telling us about clothes, architecture, landscapes, and weather, and I'm not convinced that this investment pays off--rather than bringing the story to life a lot of that detail is just suffocating superfluity.  We get two pages of description of how Juille's black star-spattered dress is created and molded to her perfect body, we get fifteen pages about Juille's dates with Egide on Cyrille, and on and on.  Even the action scenes, when Juille fights perverts and the H'vani robot on Cyrille, are long and wordy and thus fail to transmit to the reader any urgency, any excitement.

I've already complained that Juille is too passive and too ineffectual for my liking--instead of directing events and mastering challenges, she is carried along by the plot and pushed around by the other characters--and another problem is how Moore, repeatedly, sets you up to expect something interesting or exciting to happen and then just lets the matter fizzle.  Right there in the beginning of the story Juille and her father talk about an upcoming contentious council meeting, and then the meeting happens off screen.  We are lead to expect assassination attempts but the attempts are aborted, the targets of the assassins never even knowing they were in danger.  We are given the idea that Juille is a great fighter but she almost never fights and when she does she doesn't kill anybody (well, save a bizarre pervert.)  I find this kind of thing frustrating.

Judgment Night is ambitious, with plenty of philosophical and psychological and political themes as well as lots of SF concepts, and it has the sex and violence we look for in our pulp literature, and I want to like it, but the structural and stylistic problems ruin it, it is neither compelling nor fun; a disappointment.

Even if I didn't really enjoy it, Judgment Night is still a cudgel I can use in my disagreement with portions of Harlan Ellison's 1974 review of Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World.  In that review (which is very interesting and informative and which I recommend even if I don't agree with every thing Ellison has to say) Ellison moans that SF must mature, must focus more on "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" and abandon its focus on "sexless heroes" with no emotional problems who wield lots of hi-tech gadgetry.  Well, over two decades before Ellison wrote that review, we see Moore wrote a novel full of war and gadgets and a person brimming over with psychological conflict, and the first version of it appeared in John W. Campbell's Astounding, the cover story of the most important SF magazine of its time.  Ellison was mischaracterizing the SF of the past, not giving the field credit for its breadth, its diversity.

People commonly say SF before such and such a date was sexist or sexless or imperialistic or one-dimensional or whatever; these people commonly exaggerate.  Of course there were particular stories with the characteristics people like Ellison denounced in the 1970s and people continue to denounce today, but there were also stories, even before the end of World War II, that lacked those characteristics, or had the opposite characteristics, stories criticizing Earth imperialism (like Edmond Hamilton's 1932 "Conquest of Two Worlds"), stories with female heroes (like Nelson S. Bond's 1941 "Magic City," another Astounding cover story), stories written by women like Moore and Leigh Brackett that were published by male editors and admired by male fans.  It makes you wonder if maybe some of SF's critics haven't actually read very many 1930s or 1940s SF magazines and are just repeating what they have been told.  Always consult the primary sources before passing judgement, people!


I can't tell you Judgment Night is good, but I have enjoyed C. L. Moore's work in the past, and I am interested in her career, so we'll be reading more of her work in our next episode!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Herovit's World by Barry N. Malzberg

"God, how I hate science fiction.  I hate everything about it.  I hate the people who write it and the people who edit it, and don't forget the idiots who read it.  And the word rates and the conventions and what people say to you if you are married to someone who writes this crap."
"It's an honorable field.  It foretold the splitting of the atom and the moon landing."
"Like hell it did."
In his 1976 introduction to The Best of A. E. van Vogt, Barry Malzberg compares himself to van Vogt, arguing that both of them are sui generis, writers who, while members of the science fiction community, must be judged by different standards than their contemporaries in the same field.  When I read this back in 2017 I was thrilled, because I had long enjoyed Malzberg and van Vogt, who are of course very different people in so many ways, in the same way, as wacky characters with wacky ideas who present their ideas in odd and distinctive ways, whose work is challenging because it can be difficult to grasp, difficult to grasp because it ignores some of the traditional structures and forms of fiction, especially genre fiction.  I was also interested to read Malzberg's apparently sincere and obviously well-thought-out* appreciation of van Vogt because I had got the idea that Malzberg's 1973 novel Herovit's World was some kind of attack on van Vogt.

*Malzberg's intro to The Best of A. E. van Vogt is a stark contrast to his intro to The Best of Mack Reynolds, which is an opaque metaphor which talks about Reynolds' actual work hardly at all.  Not every van Vogt fan shares my view, however: van Vogt expert Isaac Walwyn, who runs the very fun, very informative, website, considers Malzberg's intro to The Best of A. E. van Vogt to be "full of back-handed compliments."  

Well, today we read Herovit's World.  I own the 1974 Pocket Books paperback with the brilliantly strange Charles Moll cover.  I love the typewriter with an eye and the male nude in the crucifixion pose (writers, like most creative people, are totally full of themselves!)  The barren landscape of the background, and the strange font and odd colors serve to heighten the sense that this book, and the people and environment it describes, are otherworldly, bizarre, queer.  (As you can see below, quite a few editions of Herovit's World have good covers.)  On the back we have extravagant praise for Malzberg and this work in particular from Harlan Ellison and from the award-winning fanzine The Alien Critic, which would later change its name to Science Fiction Review and which I first learned about early this year.  Ellison's back cover blurb praises Herovit's World for "destroying SF cliches," while the quote from his review in F&SF on the front cover (and Robert Silverberg's blurb on the book's first page) tell us this book is "important."

To get myself in the mood for attacks on van Vogt and SF cliches, before starting Herovit's World I read the original 1948 version of "The Rull," available at the internet archive--in The Best of A. E. van Vogt Malzberg tells us that "The Rull" is "a largely ignored story in its own time and a forgotten one now, [that] has tremendous power, and may be the best single piece that van Vogt has ever written."  I'd read "The Rull" before, but in revised versions, like the version that appears in the fix-up novel The War Against the Rull, and as I have found in the case of other van Vogt stories, the original of version of "The Rull" is better than the revisions.  Suffice to say that "The Rull" is a terrific story, full of tension, violence, and high stakes, with a weird setting, an alien villain and many new pieces of technology, and it is a story that romanticizes (fetishizes?) science, engineering, quick thinking and intelligence, a sort of Platonic exemplar of Golden Age SF--it also reflects van Vogt's particular concerns in its preoccupation with psychology and "the unconscious mind."

(I also reread Malzberg's "Vidi Vici Veni," a good reminder of how hilarious and outrageous Malzberg can be.  No matter what Herovit's World is like, Barry will always be close to my heart!)

From the first page of Herovit's World we are firmly in familiar Malzberg territory, with present tense narration of the humiliating trials of a Manhattanite protagonist who has a disastrous social life and sundry sexual problems.  Jonathan Herovit is a successful SF writer, with almost one hundred novels and hundreds of stories to his credit, including the dozens of books in the Mack Miller of the Survey Team Series.  Long ago, before his first sale, Herovit's mentor, editor of Tremendous Stories John Steele, told Herovit that his name had "too much of a New-Yorkish type of ring" and so his many books and stories appear under the pen name "Kirk Poland."  This hint that the SF community is anti-Semitic is only one of the many charges Malzberg levels at the creators and readers of SF in this novel; Malzberg is openly hostile and drearily dismissive of SF, root and branch, in Herovit's World, suggesting SF readers are sexually impotent "disturbed adolescents" who don't know a good sentence from a bad one, portraying SF writers as faithless, lecherous alcoholics, and calling the whole SF field "infantile."  Herovit's pseudonym is perhaps also a reference to anti-Semitism, a sort of Polish joke (under the name of "Poland" Herovit writes books full of nonsense and grammatical errors) and a reflection of Jewish resentment of Poles--metaphorically, "Poland" is stealing credit for Herovit's hard work!  Malzberg does creative things with names in this novel; for example, Herovit's agent is Morton Mackenzie, known as "Mack," so that Herovit's most famous character has the same name as his agent, and editor John Steele (presumably based on John W. Campbell, Jr.) has a first name that is practically the same as Herovit's.

Even though Herovit has a dim view of the fictional people Mack Miller and Kirk Poland ("he wishes that he could meet old Mack so that he, Jonathan Herovit, could kill him") they also serve as alter egos, wish fulfillment role models, of Herovit's; when Herovit faces obstacles, like when his wife Janice refuses to have sex with him or, in a laugh-out-loud passage, fellow SF writer Mitchell Wilk comes into Herovit's home office and looks at the draft on his typewriter and says "Why, this is the worst thing I have ever seen," Herovit inwardly fumes:
Mack Miller would not have put up with this shit.  Mack Miller would not have to stand in his own office, his own control room, and listen to some balding, bearded fool of a washed-up hack bait him and then start teasing.  Mack would have seized a weapon a long time ago and cleared out the invader. 
Herovit even has a sharp image of Kirk Poland ("a picture of ease and confidence") in his head, and has conversations with Kirk Poland in visions and dreams.  Some of these conversations have a homoerotic character, with Poland, for example, smoothly trying to talk his way into Herovit's bedroom while Herovit tries to sleep (Janice is in the kitchen staring at the TV):
"Come on, let me in; let's discuss this.  Let's talk things over reasonably.  You've been waiting a long, long time for this; now we can have it out man to man.  You'll like it, you really will...."
Herovit is thirty-seven, and his wife Janice, a person who hates SF but whom Herovit met at a SF convention over ten years ago, is thirty-five, and they have a six-month-old daughter, Natalie.  Janice is no prize.  One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is Janice's treatment of their daughter, whom she calls "the bitch" and "the thing."  ("Outside, Natalie begins to cry, Janice to swear at her.  Midmorning, the usual.")  Feminists will perhaps find more chilling still the scene in which Herovit has sex with Janice against her will.
"You're hurting me, Jonathan," she says--at least using his proper name, which is a start.  "You've got to stop hurting me now, please, now, please," but it is impossible to stop and how well she must know it.
Herovit is no prize himself!  Besides the marital rape, we know Herovit cheats on Janice, having unsatisfactory one night stands with female SF fans he meets at conventions.  Malzberg's characters are unambiguously unheroic; in the same way that Herovit's shady business dealings and poor writing at least in part justify the criticisms lebeled at him by people like Mackenzie the agent and Wilk the two-faced friend, Herovit's treatment of women doesn't do anything to refute Janice's ferocious feminist harangues about how men treat women as housekeepers and only pay attention to them when they want sex.

Malzberg's work is not particularly plot driven, but let's look at Herovit's World's plot.  As the novel begins, Herovit is having trouble meeting his obligations on his first contract with a major publisher, finding himself unable to write the latest Mack Miller adventure.  He already has been paid, and the book is quite overdue, and failure to deliver in mere days could jeopardize his relationship with Mackenzie and his access to this important new market.  Then Herovit is visited by his old friend  Mitchell Wilk, who hasn't written fiction in years because he somehow got a job as a professor at a college even though he himself never finished high school, much less college.  Wilk's college is offering a course in science fiction and he invites Herovit to attend a seminar, even promising him a $100 honorarium!  But it is not the hundred bucks that really attracts Herovit, but the news that college girls are easy!
"...the truly important thing is that the ass on campus, the ass is fantastic.  Nowadays they call it cunt, Jonathan....Do you know that they like to fuck?  I mean, they really like it!"
 ...the thought of the ass that likes to fuck, like the remote strains of departed music, touches Herovit...."That's what I read," he says hoarsely, "in the newsmagazines and like that."  
"And it's true.  For once the media haven't lied to us!"  
On the brink of these new professional and social opportunities, Herovit's inability to finish the required novel and deal with his wife become just too much for him, and he accepts the insistent offer that the vision of Kirk Poland has been making him--Herovit surrenders control of his life to his alter ego, his "less New-Yorkish," "all-American" pseudonym.  As so many Malzberg protagonists do, Herovit has gone insane.

This cover is beautiful, but the man is too
handsome for the material--Herovit should be
haggard, unkempt, ugly...this dude is like
some kind of gorgeous male model, fresh from
the salon!
To get the hang of Herovit's body, Kirk takes a walk around the Upper West Side.  Early in the book while walking the streets Herovit was robbed by a beggar, but Kirk proves he is a master of the streets when he confronts and intimidates a reckless taxi driver.  Kirk then patronizes a prostitute--to test out the equipment he will soon be using on Janice, whom he believes will be more tractable after "a couple of fucks like she used to have."  (That morning Herovit had proven unable to perform satisfactorily with Janice when she initiated sexual activity.)  Back home Kirk calls up Mackenzie and humiliates the agent, insisting that he doesn't need "Mack" and is withdrawing from that contract with that big new client--Kirk even tears up the 50-odd pages of that latest Mack Miller adventure that Wilk so severely condemned--Kirk knows Wilk was right.

From his filthy home office (Malzberg's long description of this office and its contents is a great scene) Kirk goes to the bedroom to begin his program of using sex to resolve Herovit's marital issues--he is too late!  Herovit's failure in bed that morning was the last straw, and Janice is packing up all her things, determined to leave her husband.  Janice is actually a more interesting character than most of the flat characters we get in Malzberg's work.  She halfheartedly tries to convince Kirk to take Natalie off her hands, but Natalie's father isn't very interested in the infant, either.  Janice, in the course of denouncing the SF field and every person connected with it, reveals that she was hanging out with SF people back in her twenties because there were so few women involved with SF that even an ugly girl like her could get a lot of dates, which she liked, "even if I was mostly going out with losers."

Janice leaves and the next day, after a dream sequence, Wilk and a young female SF fan, a woman Herovit had sex with at a convention recently, come by, ostensibly to condole with Herovit.  This visit collapses into acrimony, and in the final pages of the novel Mack Miller appears and takes over Herovit's body.  Miller's solution to every problem over the course of his career in the Survey has been violence, and he punches Wilk, then runs out on to the streets of Manhattan, where he attacks innocent strangers and then is killed when he blunders into automobile traffic.  (This ending reminded me of Nabokov's The Enchanter, but the similarity must be a coincidence, as The Enchanter did not appear in English until the 1980s.)

Barry's name may not be on the
cover of this 382-page volume,
but isfdb assures me that Herovit's World
appears within entire.
Herovit's World is only barely a SF story.  A lot of science fiction, of course, speculates about the future or alternate conditions: what will government or war or sex be like in the future, and/or in an alien environment with different technology or cultural values?  Herovit's World isn't like that at all--it has more in common with books like those of Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski or Somerset Maugham, those semi-autobiographical novels and stories that describe the difficult life of a writer or artist and his difficult relationships with women.  I'm not complaining; I love all those books, and I love reading the biographies of men like Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis.  Judged as a novel of that type, Herovit's World is a big success--it is funny, well-written, and includes a genuinely affecting character in Janice (Herovit himself is too insane and too similar to other Malzberg protagonists to be surprising or truly moving.)  The plot sort of peters out a little at the end rather than building to a big climax, but it still works.

Herovit's World is a success as a novel of literary life, but it says "Science Fiction" on the back cover and all four of the blurbs are from SF sources, so let's assess Herovit's World as a novel about SF and figure out if it has something to say about SF that is valuable.

First, let's consider the idea that the novel is "important."  I think we can forgive people like Silverberg and Ellison for thinking that Herovit's World is important because it is more or less about them, professional writers in the SF field with what people years ago might have called "girl troubles," a sort of Uncle Tom's Cabin or A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich of the SF world, an expose of a world of corruption and injustice!  (Though, of course, Ellison and Silverberg made serious money and won wide acclaim in that world, and Herovit admits that his problems are his own doing, more the author of his own fate than a victim, unlike a black slave in 19th-century America or a prisoner in the Soviet Union.)

Second, let's look at Herovit's World as a roman a clef; what does Malzberg claim or imply about specific real life SF figures?  Joachim Boaz in his review of Herovit's World foregrounds Malzberg's satire of A. E. van Vogt, and, excepting Herovit--an exaggeration of Malzberg himself--our favorite Canadian is the most recognizable figure in the book, even though his appearance only takes up a few pages in a flashback to a meeting of a short-lived SF writer's professional society (a "guild.")  Under the name V. V. Vivaldi, van Vogt appears as a drunk who has not written lately because of his involvement in a goofy religion, but who speaks extravagantly of the superiority of SF to other forms of literature.  "Science a way of life, a way of thinking, a new and important means of dealing with the universe."  I don't think van Vogt was actually a drunk, but Malzberg portrays every SF writer as a drunk in this book, so why should van Vogt be portrayed any differently?  And of course van Vogt did get deeply involved in Dianetics, though he rejected the later evolution of L. Ron Hubbard's project, Scientology, a distinction van Vogt, who has no interest in religion or mysticism, makes very strongly in interviews (see Charles Platt's interview with van Vogt in Dreammakers), but a distinction which Van's legions of detractors (Joachim among them!) ignore.  Interestingly, instead of portraying van Vogt as a controversial figure (van Vogt's work was famously attacked by Damon Knight in 1945 and has had many detractors since), Malzberg has all the guild members siding with Vivaldi against Herovit when a dispute between them erupts.  I think the fairest stroke of Malzberg's impressionistic sketch of van Vogt is in portraying Van's confidence in SF--in this novel he talks quite like an uncharitable paraphrase of how he writes in nonfiction parts of The Best of A. E. van Vogt, in which he says stuff like: "the individual who repeatedly exposes himself to the reading of science fiction will eventually change his brain.  For the better."  Perhaps Malzberg means this to be ironic (Malzberg portrays SF as trash, so to have a guy extolling its virtues like this is ridiculous) but I actually find van Vogt's conviction and dedication charming.

After van Vogt, the most obvious representative (non-Malzberg) figure is John Steele as John W. Campbell Jr., who like Vivaldi is revered by the masses of SF fans and pros that make up the background characters of Herovit's World.  (Janice was chair of the Bronx Honor John Steele Society when Herovit met her.)  Steele's helping Herovit come up with a less Jewish-sounding pseudonym rings true, as Campbell did help people like van Vogt and Heinlein come up with pseudonyms, and he did take possible prejudices of his readers into account when making editorial decisions, for example, not printing Samuel L. Delany's Nova, which Campbell himself liked, because he thought his readers would not want to read about a black protagonist.

Herovit recalls a Mack Miller Survey Team story written in 1961 or so:
In 1961 the best way to sell to Tremendous was to cobble up a good justification of slavery and send it off the Steele with a sincere covering letter saying that you were trying to think the unthinkable through. 
Were there really lots of stories in Analog about slavery in the early 1960s, or is this just a sort of take on Campbell's dismissive views of blacks and defense of segregation and his oft-attested willingness to buy any story about psychic powers?   The 1961 story Herovit wrote for Steele was about the "cunning little Survey Team" brainwashing some aliens so they would rebel against their overlords and become the Survey Team's slaves--could this be a reference to the elitism of so many major SF works (Asimov, Heinlein and Sturgeon all advocate smart people manipulating the masses in the Foundation stories, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and "Slow Sculpture," all three of which won Hugos.)

Could Mitchell Wilk, the guy without a high school diploma who becomes a college professor, perhaps be based upon high school drop out (and SF Grand Master) Frederik Pohl?   

The description of that specific Mack Miller story and my speculation it is a spoof of the elitism of SF raises the topic of Malzberg's presentation of actual SF texts in Herovit's World.  What "SF cliches," as Ellison puts it, does Malzberg "destroy?" Are there specific authors' bodies of work or individual works he is satirizing?  One of the odd things about Malzberg--and I think Ellison is somewhat guilty of this as well--is that he will often moan that SF is horrible, but he always praises individual writers, even famously controversial writers who often serve as critics' punching bags, like L Ron Hubbard and van Vogt and Heinlein and Mark Clifton.  (The exception is Lovecraft, whom Malzberg slagged in the 1989 story "O Thou Last and Greatest!" though Malzberg wasn't even bold enough to use Lovecraft's name in that story, instead describing him with a contemptuous reference to the Rhode Islander's face--easy for a handsome devil like Malzberg to do, I suppose.)

Malzberg provides something like seven or eight pages from Mack Miller novels for us to examine.  The Mack Miller stories bear very little resemblance to either van Vogt's or Malzberg's own SF work, even though Herovit's life seems loosely based on Malzberg's own.  Herovit says that he doesn't know much about psychology or write about sex, that his "focus [is] on the hard sciences," and of course we know that both Malzberg and van Vogt have among their main themes psychology and the mind, and that Malzberg writes about sex all the time.  Neither man has a long series of SF novels about the same heroic character.  (Though Malzberg did write the 14-volume Executioner-style paperback series "The Lone Wolf" between 1973 and '75.)  What Herovit is writing seems to resemble the work of E. E. "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton, both of whom contributed numerous volumes to long-running series about teams of super soldier/scientists who, like Mack Miller, battle hostile aliens, the former the Lensman series and the latter the Captain Future novels.  Ellison in his review of Herovit's World links Herovit to Smith, but without using Smith's name.

I guess Malzberg's general criticism is that SF of the Lensman-style makes people appear simple and life a series of triumphs when in fact people are complicated and life is a tragedy.  Lensman-type heroes are too successful, they handle problems too easily, and they don't have any emotional or psychological issues.  In his review Ellison tells us SF has to mature and join mainstream literature, ascribes to Malzberg the belief that SF has to try to follow William Faulkner's prescription that fiction should be about "the human heart in conflict with itself," and that is the sort of stuff Herovit hoped to write (he has a "long novel of Army life... all blocked out in his head") and I guess Malzberg hoped to write as well.

I don't take this kind of criticism very seriously, as it is like complaining that an apple isn't an orange, when oranges are freely available.  If you want all that human heart stuff, it isn't hard to pick up a volume of Proust and let alone that paperback of Spacehounds of IPC.  It also ignores the fact that different writers have different objectives, and people's life experiences are diverse.  John W. Campbell, Jr. told Malzberg (see Malzberg's 1980 essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971") that science fiction was about success, about heroes, about the human ability to solve problems and figure stuff out, and of course sometimes people in real life really do solve problems and achieve success.  I don't think that a literature that celebrates humanity's achievements and ability to overcome obstacles is illegitimate, and I don't think that straightforward entertainment is illegitimate either. I also think that you see plenty of human heart stuff in the SF field, not only in post-New Wave era work by people like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe* who are obviously strongly influenced by "serious" literature, but even during the Golden Age from, say, Kuttner and Moore--"Vintage Season" is a good example.   

*In the same column in which he praises Herovit's World and our pal Barry to the skies, Ellison also reviews a pile of new anthologies and in the course of discussing them lists who he thinks the eight top writers in SF in 1974 are--Disch is #4 and Wolfe is #7.

On a more specific level, Malzberg portrays Mack Miller as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy who blasts a lot of aliens (though as we have seen he does turn some into servants or slaves.)  Is this caricature a fair portrayal of the Smith/Hamilton type of space adventure story?  Obviously there is a lot of war and violence in those space operas, just like in literature and entertainment in general, and obviously people enjoy it.  But is the implicit charge of xenophobia fair?  If you actually read Smith and Hamilton, as well as Heinlein and Burroughs and van Vogt (as Malzberg and Ellison certainly have), you'll see that the human polities form alliances with many alien races and that individual humans make friends with individual aliens all the time.  "The Rull" actually ends with the human race about to enter a peace treaty with the Rull.  SF is full of war, but it is also full of trade and diplomacy and camaraderie, just like real life.  This is a weak criticism!

(Malzberg and Ellison in the texts I am discussing today do not make the sort of standard allegations you hear from Christians, pinkos and other busybodies that violent entertainment creates a violent society or that pop culture makes people too individualistic or too consumerist or too conformist or whatever, even though in other contexts, like a film column in the January 1991 F&SF, Ellison argues that violent films cause street crime.)

Even though Ellison implies that Herovit's World "immolates" a long list of SF cliches, I am hard pressed to find many more SF cliches in the novel than that SF heroes are "too" competent and shoot lots of bad guys and manipulate people.  In the novel Malzberg notes that heroes like Mack Miller don't have sex, something Ellison makes a big deal about in his review, using the phrase "sexless heroes," and Ellison adds that they don't use the toilet.  Does every story have to have a relationship angle?  And how many stories would be improved by periodic updates on the characters' bowel movements?  I'm afraid Malzberg's attack on SF is not as comprehensive or as devastating as Ellison (in his back cover blurb) makes it out to be.

Silverberg and Ellison oversell Herovit's World, but I still loved it; it is hilarious and fascinating, on every page you find some gem of a joke or phrase.  And Malzberg doesn't oversell "The Rull."  Two masterpieces of their respective subgenres, and top examples of what their respective authors are trying to accomplish--I highly recommend both to people interested in the history of SF or just enjoyable reads.