Monday, February 25, 2019

1970 stories by Gardner Dozois, Avram Davidson and Thom Lee Wharton from Orbit 8

When I find myself near Dupont Circle in this nation's capital on a rainless day, I generally spend time looking at the clearance carts on the sidewalk in front of Second Story Books.  It is always fun to flip through the art books and military history books that are going for four bucks, and I have purchased quite a few SF paperbacks there for one dollar or even a mere 50 cents.  On my most recent visit I found two volumes in the Orbit series of original anthologies edited by Damon Knight, numbers 8 and 10.  A look at isfdb indicated that these books included stories by Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty that I did not already own and had not already read, so I parted with a dollar to take them home.  I'll read my perforated copy of Orbit 8 first--looking over the table of contents I have decided to read every story in this volume (excepting any I have already blogged about.)

Joachim Boaz, SF blogger extraordinaire and generous supporter of this here blog, read Orbit 8 and wrote about each story back in 2015.  Enough time has passed that my memories of his opinions are a little hazy, and I think I can read and assess these stories without being unduly influenced.  After I read each story and draft my own opinion I will check out Joachim's blog post and see if we are at loggerheads or seeing oculum ad oculum.

"Horse of Air" by Gardner R. Dozois

This is a well-written and compelling piece, a strong start to the book; Knight must have been excited to get it.  At least he included it in the 1975 Best from Orbit anthology.

Dozois employs an interesting narrative strategy: we get an unreliable first-person narrative, interspersed with a more honest stream-of-consciousness (or unvoiced inner monologue) narrative and a third-person omniscient narrative; these latter two texts emphasize or undermine the claims in the main text.  This is quite effective at presenting and distinguishing between different facets of the character, those he wants to display and those he'd rather not.

Our narrator is one of the few people left in a big city (I guess New York), trapped in a high rise apartment far above the street with a fenced in balcony like those one sees in public housing projects.  The start of the story consists of the narrator looking out over the city, of descriptions of his view and his intellectual and emotional responses to what he sees.  As I have told readers of this blog before, I love the kinds of descriptions of rooms and views we find in literary fiction like Proust's In Search of Lost Time (Marcel's room in Balbec, for example, and his view of the church steeples from a moving carriage) and Wyndham Lewis's Self Condemned (Rene Harding's Canadian hotel room) and Dozois really succeeds in painting an absorbing picture in the reader's mind here.   

Then the back story is filled in.  Our narrator, who studied at Annapolis, is a member of what he calls "the upper class" and even "the aristocracy."  (This isn't really the way educated Americans talk, especially self-described "liberals" as this guy is--perhaps a hint this is all a dream or fantasy?)  His class of people, in response to black crime, secluded themselves in these high-rises, and (shortsightedly) handed over political power to the managers of the high-rises.  Eventually the management company sealed the high-rises' inhabitants in, "for their own good." (The plumbing is maintained and twice a week food and supplies arrive via a dumbwaiter.) 

The narrator hates blacks because they "are responsible for the destruction, for the present degeneration of the world," but the third-person omniscient narration indicates that his hatred largely stems from envy--reminding me of the scene in Henry Miller's Plexus (Chapter 15) in which the narrator goes to hear W. E. B. Du Bois speak, Dozois enumerates the many ways (in the eyes of the narrator, at least) black people are better than white people; their easy sexuality, their depth of feeling, their exuberant and happy culture, their rebellion, all a contrast to the square and bland and boring and obedient ways of whites. 

In the final third of the story we are given an increasing number of clues that suggest that some, maybe all, of this SF stuff is the delusion or dream or fantasy of an ordinary man, maybe a businessman, who is stressed out by the pressures of city life in the late '60s/early '70s and a failed relationship with a woman.

"Horse of Air" is quite good, like a Malzberg story that has been carefully polished over a number of drafts instead of being slapped together at high speed as Malzberg's work so often appears to have been.  Joachim also liked it, saying it is the best story in the book.  Whoa, does this mean I should quit now?  "Horse of Air" would reappear not only in The Best of Orbit but the Dozois collection The Visible Man and the seventh Nebula anthology, it having been nominated.

"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" by Harlan Ellison

I tackled this one, the second story in Orbit 8, back in 2016 when I read Donald A. Wollheim's 1972 edition of World's Best SF.

"Rite of Spring" by Avram Davidson

Here's another story that Knight included in The Best from Orbit.  "Rite of Spring" doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of traction otherwise, however--I think it only ever appeared in books with "Orbit" on the cover.

This is a trifling little vignette (less than seven pages of text) from some weird (post-apocalyptic?) future or alternate world.  I am guessing it is an acknowledgement and demonstration of the fact that customs and social arrangements are arbitrary and silly.  Davidson's story is full of hard-to-decipher allusions and hints about the alien milieu it vaguely depicts; maybe it is supposed to recreate in the reader the feeling of spending the briefest moment in a foreign culture or being exposed to only a few snatches of information about a foreign civilization, to give us the sense that all the apparently bizarre things these people are doing have deep roots and layers of meaning it would take a lifetime to fully understand.  Maybe Davidson is trying to put us in the shoes of an explorer or traveler confronted by alienness, like an 18th-century European who found himself briefly among  people in China or Persia or sub-Saharan Africa, or an Eskimo or Yanomamo who suddenly found himself in Victorian London or the Paris of the Second Empire.

"Rite of Spring" takes place on a farm, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robinson.  Living there as well are a young man, Roger, a young woman, Betty, and a spectacularly obese woman, Mrs. Machick.  The action described in this deliberately opaque story suggests that the Robinsons are responsible for feeding the (apparently idle) Machick, and training young people like Roger and Betty in "the old ways."  It is suggested that both Betty and Roger are only the latest in a series of young people who are employed and tutored by the Robinsons; Betty does domestic chores and Roger does farm work, chopping wood and the like. Betty is from the city, where, the characters say, it is difficult to teach young people the old customs.  (These 1970s stories are down on city life; I guess I am lucky I moved to the Big Apple after it had been tamed in the mid-1990s.)  Roger wants to have sex with Betty, but he is told to wait until the time is right.  The arrival of the first robin of spring is the signal that the right time has arrived; Roger catches the bird, it is decapitated and its blood drunk, and then Roger roughly takes Betty, who initially puts up some resistance.

Gimmicky, a story that is technically competent but has no human feeling or real intellectual content.  Joachim liked it even less than I do, giving it only one out of five possible stars.  I am willing to say it is an acceptable experiment.

"The Bystander" by Thom Lee Wharton

Who is Thom Lee Wharton?  Well, this is his only story listed at isfdb, and that is all I know.

"The Bystander" feels like what I guess the mainstream detective novels I never read are like, if that makes any sense.  A retired dentist, in his forties, is now owner/manager of a bar in New Jersey (or as I call it, the greatest state in the union.)  An FBI investigator comes by to talk to him about his relationship with his business partner, "Joe the Nuts."  The dentist drives the flatfoot to the shore in his antique car (a 1934 Packard) where they talk in an old Coast Guard bunker from World War Two.  The bar owner describes how, like the guy in that Kinks song, he was a success as a bourgeois professional but was not satisfied and became a drunk.  After hitting bottom he lucked into owning a bar; the FBI man and we readers hear all about his struggles to make the bar a success.  And the bar is a success, because the Mafia supplies the food and entertainment.

In the story's last pages we learn that this interview was the first move in a war between the federal government and the Mafia in which many are killed.  The dentist is not killed however, and it is implied that he is somehow pulling the strings behind the scenes, that he caused this war because he is bitter that his wife and child died of a disease or something and he sees the Mafia and the government as equally bad.  Or something.  I don't get it.

This story has no SF content and as a mainstream crime story is a total waste of time.  Wharton makes no discernible effort to back up his apparent argument that the government is a racket just like the mob and is equally delinquent in any effort to portray the psychological pressures of a man broken by the loss of his family or dissatisfied with middle class suburban life.  I am very open to the argument that the government sucks and that middle class life is a tragedy, but the author offers only the tiniest of crumbs to dramatize these themes.  Instead we get twenty pages of pointless details, the literary equivalent of white noise.  Bad!  Joachim gives it one out of five stars and even admits he couldn't finish it!

Inexplicably, Knight not only included "The Bystander" here in Orbit 8, but in The Best from Orbit!  Damon, what are you doing?  Was Thom Lee Wharton the pen name of a loan shark? 

"All Pieces of a River Shore" by R. A. Lafferty

I recommended this one, the fifth story in Orbit 8with some enthusiasm back in 2016 when I read it in Wollheim's 1972 World's Best SF.


We'll get back to this 1970 anthology, but first we'll take a little trip to the 1920s and to the Moon with Edgar Rice Burroughs.                 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Vulgar Streak by Wyndham Lewis

"Where's the sense," asked a neighbour with militantly folded arms, "in bringin' children up above their station, I should like to know?  That young lady...young Maddie, I should say--she doesn't never seem happy, do she, for all her dollin' up and puttin' on the talk?"
In his introduction to an excerpt of Wyndham Lewis's criticism of George Orwell in the collection Enemy Salvoes, C. J. Fox mentions Lewis's 1941 novel The Vulgar Streak, calling it "a book about a proletarian con-man's attempted rise to middle-class prosperity."  In his Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, Paul O'Keefe reports that American publishers during World War II rejected The Vulgar Streak for being "too critical of England."  This sounded interesting to me, so I decided to read the novel.  I acquired a 1973 US printing via interlibrary loan; a scan of the same edition is available for free at the internet archive, though this edition is full of irritating typographical issues, so those interested should perhaps seek the 1985 edition from Black Sparrow (which I have never seen.)

From the start we see that The Vulgar Streak is about men who, to put it charitably, create or recreate themselves, or, to put it not so charitably, are fake phony frauds.  On the very first page of text we meet a man, Martin Penny-Smythe, a short and fat Englishman, who "cultivated a mild stammer."  Later we learn that he is a convert to Catholicism, and that he carries around a pipe (Lewis on that first page, before revealing his name, actually calls Martin "the pipe-sucker") in part to drive away women.  Martin is a man who has consciously created an identity for himself, crafted an image of himself to present to the world that is not entirely natural--he hasn't accepted the religion of his birth, nor even the speaking ability he has been born with.

On that first page Martin is walking ("strolling" is how the characters and Lewis describe it) in Venice in the late 1930s with another Englishman, an artist, the tall and elegant Vincent Penhale.  It is Vincent who turns out to be the novel's protagonist.  Vincent is even more affected (or self-created) than Martin.  While they ride a gondola, Vincent, jocularly referring to Martin's Catholicism, makes a "confession" to his friend, admitting that he is not the product of a middle-class family and a good school as he has led people to believe, but the child of a slum-dwelling working-class couple.  "...I am a sham person from head to foot," he tells Martin.  As Vincent flirts with a young Englishwoman, the niece of a baronet, April Mallow, he makes poses that she recognizes as theatrical, "reminiscent of the footlights."  We later learn that most of Vincent's artistic work has been for the theatre, designing costumes and the like, and that he is an actor who has appeared on stage.

In the first of the book's three parts, Vincent seduces April, who falls in love with him, despite her revulsion over another friend of Vincent's who makes an unexpected appearance, a thuggish working-class man named Bill Halvorsen, and her suspicions about a mysterious interaction Vincent has with the local police.  April is vulnerable to Vincent's advances for a number of reasons, including the tense atmosphere in which these British tourists in Venice are living: they all spend lots of time listening to the radio, scrutinizing the newspapers and assessing rumors regarding the possibility of war as a result of the ongoing Sudetenland crisis. 

The second part of the 247-page novel begins two months later, in London.  We learn that Vincent and April were married because April was pregnant; though April is as much in love as ever.  We become acquainted with Vincent's home and lifestyle, and meet Vincent's family, most of whom he hides from April and her wealthy family.  The one Penhale whom Vincent introduces to April is his beautiful sister Madeline ("Maddie.")  Like Vincent, Madeline has risen above her working-class origins, having married a professional cartoonist (whom Lewis tells us is "a hack.")  Also like Vincent, Maddie is perpetually putting on an act, and she too has a professional background redolent with artifice and performance, having done work as an artist's model.  Lewis emphasizes the tremendous amount of exhausting work it takes for Vincent and Maddie to keep up their facades ("One reason why she held herself so stately and unsmiling--perhaps a little queenly--was because she had had to be always on her best behavior"), in particular focusing on the study and concentration it takes for them to maintain their bogus Oxford accents.  Vincent, in one scene, gives Maddie lessons on how to pronounce "Buckingham Palace," complete with lecture notes and mnemonic devices.  Other characters remark that Maddie hardly ever talks--they don't realize that she keeps mum for fear of revealing her working class origins via some blunder in pronunciation.  Maddie even goes on "dates" with an educated man, Dougal Tandish, thus risking her relationship with her husband, because Tandish has, she believes, a good accent and she can learn by listening to him.

The reason Vincent and Maddie go to all this trouble, according to Vincent at least, is the stifling English class system.  "The relentless pressure of the English class incubus had poisoned the existence of one as much as of the other," Lewis tells us.  In this second part of The Vulgar Streak Lewis has various characters air their views on class.  Not only does Vincent discuss the English class system with a German therapist--a refugee from Nazi Germany--but we see Vincent interact with his working class siblings and in-laws--charwomen and automobile mechanics and the like whom Lewis gives broad accents--at his father's funeral.   

We hear lots of complaints from the Penhale clan about their treatment at the hands of the middle class and the government: e.g., doctors won't prescribe poor people the (expensive) medicine they need, and the tax-payer-funded hospital tries to speed up the death of poor patients rather than to cure them.  And then there is Vincent's pretentious lament to the curate who presides at Dad's funeral: "when are they going to learn, I wonder, to design a standard house for the Worker that is both sanitary and beautiful?"

More provocatively, especially for us 21st-century readers, Vincent compares the English poor to African-American slaves and to women in China.  In England, he opines, the working classes are considered an inferior breed, "creatures of another clay," and calls his siblings' accent and slang "a slave-jargon" that they can't help themselves from speaking.  He claims that:
"Since there are no niggers here, they had to create niggers.  The poor are the niggers in this country."
(Compare to this John Lennon / Yoko Ono home with headphones on)

"...the religion of England restricts the personal development of any man or woman born outside the genteel pale.  It denies expansion to him or her as much as the shoes formerly worn by Chinese ladies denied normal development to the feet."
While Vincent (and the mysterious Bill Halvorsen, it turns out) are willing to go to any length, to take terrible risks, to escape their class or oppose the class system, most of the other working-class people in the novel accept their station and even resent Vincent and Maddie's "putting on airs."  There is the unnamed minor character quoted in the passage I use as an epigraph to this blog post, for example, and one of Vincent's sisters, Minnie, who vocally resents her siblings' attitude and declares "I belong to the working-class an' I'm not ashamed to say so."  It was not clear to me if Lewis expected the reader to see the wisdom of these working class people's resignation to their fate, or condemn them, as Vincent does, as complicit in their own oppression.

After the funeral, the plot of The Vulgar Streak becomes increasingly melodramatic.  We learn how Vincent is able to afford trips to Venice--he is passing counterfeit money for Bill Halvorsen, who is a socialist activist and engraver who forges banknotes as a way of undermining the capitalist system (Vincent even voices a precis of Halvorsen's views on monetary theory.)  When Maddie's boyfriend (or whatever he is) Dougal Tandish, who is too clever for his own good, starts to suspect something is fishy with Vincent and Bill, he investigates Bill's engraving shop, where Bill shoots him dead.  (The best joke in The Vulgar Streak is that Vincent starts calling Halvorsen "Buffalo Bill.")  Vincent helps Bill toss the corpse in the Thames, but the bobbies are on to them almost immediately.  Vincent's true origins and involvement in the murder are splashed all over the papers, leading April to collapse and have a miscarriage, from which she dies.  Maddie's husband the hack cartoonist abandons Maddie.  Seeing how he has ruined April's and Maddie's lives, Vincent hangs himself.  Maddie has to move into the slum quarters of her alcoholic widowed mother and her resentful sister, and take up modelling again to put food on the table.

The Vulgar Streak is a little lackluster; Lewis is an idiosyncratic and controversial thinker, and I was hoping for something surprising and strange here, but I didn't get it. Tarr was challenging and unusual, and Self Condemned was full of unconventional opinions as well as memorable incidents, characters and images and even some quite funny jokes, but The Vulgar Streak feels like a pretty ordinary novel. I can't really object to the book's ideas about class and the dangers of maintaining a facade (and associating with commies!), but these ideas are not particularly novel or surprising--I feel like people are deploring the English class system and exhorting you to "be yourself" all the time.  Maybe the ambiguity of the novel (on the one hand the English class system is restrictive, but on the other people who resist it cause unhappiness for themselves and everybody they come into contact with) is "literary."  As for the style, it is just acceptable; there were no particularly scintillating passages or images, and I didn't really feel for or care about the various characters.

There are a few interesting things here and there in The Vulgar Streak for us culture vultures.  Lewis, one of the most prominent of the early 20th-century British painters and a prolific art critic, fills the Venice part of the novel with references to Guardi, Canaletto and Ruskin, figures with whom I was familiar.  I was more excited to be introduced to The Magnet and Billy Bunter, an element of British pop culture to which I had never been exposed.  Near the end of the novel there is a little talk of Stendhal's The Red and The Black, which Martin has read but Vincent has not.  I haven't read it either, but the juxtaposition of red and black reminded me of Lewis's own metaphorical description of 1930s Europe as being a plain in which 90% of the people live docilely, trapped between mountains inhabited by menacing hill tribes, one tribe following the red principle of communism and the other the black principle of fascism.  (This parable of Lewis's is quoted at length in Paul O'Keefe's Some Sort of Genius, where I read it; originally it appeared in the book Left Wings Over Europe.)

The Amazon page advertising the 1985 edition of The Vulgar Streak gives one the impression that the book is about fascism, that Vincent is a fascist sympathizer, but there is not really much in the novel about fascism, and Vincent is vocally hostile to fascists.  (He calls Dougal Tandish, whom he abominates, a fascist, though it is not clear if this is an accurate assessment or just Vincent, who is constantly lying, maligning the man unfairly.)  Vincent does have something in common with Hitler and Mussolini, however: when he visits the German shrink the idea that Vincent is a man characterized by "an excess of Will" is raised, and the therapist notes that Mussolini and Hitler are "extreme, and curiously disagreeable, expressions of this morbid Will."  Maybe another thing about The Vulgar Streak that is "literary" is that it seems to argue that being a "go-getter," what Samuel Johnson might have called a "projector," is a terrible mistake, that you, your spouse, your colleagues, and your relatives will be made miserable if not outright killed if you embark on some grand scheme to change your station in life or, even worse, change the world.  Entertainment fiction, of course, regularly celebrates the hero who masters his environment and accomplishes some project or solves some problem, or tries to do so and nobly fails--in The Vulgar Streak if you are a charwoman or a motor car mechanic you probably should just embrace it.   

Not bad, but not really remarkable, I'm awarding The Vulgar Streak the "acceptable" rating that gets so much use here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  Hopefully my next foray into Wyndham Lewis's fiction will be more exciting.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Cave Girl and The Cave Man by Edgar Rice Burroughs

And then, of a sudden, there rose within the breast of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones a spark that generations of overrefinement and emasculating culture had all but extinguished--the instinct of self-preservation by force.
As followers of my thrilling twitter feed already know, my brother, back home in the Greatest State of the Union, is reorganizing his many collections and sent me the Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks I bought in the 1980s and those he has been accumulating since I moved out of NJ and began my peripatetic adult life.  (My brother loves to collect things--comic books, punk rock posters, vinyl records, fantasy novels, Japanese war robot models--to hunt them down and meticulously organize them and artfully display them.  Every few years he sells or gives away one collection to make room to start a new one.  My brother is a fun guy, open to new experiences, excited about life, always meeting new people and embarking on some new job, new hobby, or new project.)

To commemorate this new addition to the MPorcius Library, I decided to read the $1.50 Ace edition of The Cave Girl my brother acquired when or where I know not.  This paperback edition of The Cave Girl includes both Burroughs's 1913 serial by that name and the 1917 sequel The Cave Man; both serials appeared in All-Story Weekly.  Our paperback bears the same Frank Frazetta image used earlier by Ace on a printing of Savage Pellucidar.  It's a good picture, so who can blame them for recycling?  One does wonder if Frazetta got an additional payment for this additional usage, however.

The Cave Girl (1913)

Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones of Beantown is the very picture of the effete and ineffectual intellectual.  A tall skinny blond, an expert on ancient languages, he has never in his life played any sports or engaged in any physical labor, and the very thought of violence disgusts him.  A real momma's boy, he is prim and proper, always concerned about what his own upper-middle-class crowd will think.  This guy has never even read any fiction!

Well, our boy Waldo had better acclimatize himself to a life of labor and violence pretty quick!  Because when we meet him on page one of our story he isn't in a drawing room discussing Homer and Ovid with a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended!  No, Waldo is all alone on the bleak shore of a Pacific island, having fallen overboard during a storm while en route to a more salubrious climate in quest of relied from his wicked cough!  (People in old books, fiction and nonfiction, are always travelling someplace as treatment for some ailment.)

If you have read any Edgar Rice Burroughs before, The Cave Girl isn't going to hold many surprises for you.  Waldo fights some savages that Burroughs calls "cave men," people so primitive that they don't even have spears or shields.  Waldo confronts a menacing great cat, a black panther.  Waldo befriends a beautiful woman, Nadara, who has left her own tribe of cave people due to mistreatment and been set upon by a different tribe, one she calls "the bad men."  On the last page of the story (The Cave Girl is about 100 pages in this edition) we learn she is not native to the island after all but was shipwrecked as a baby and adopted by cave people--she is in fact a French countess.  (Almost the same exact thing happened to the English Lord Greystoke, AKA Tarzan--Burroughs is a dedicated recycler himself.)  Many scenes of The Cave Girl consist of fights or chases, and people are always tracking each other--Burroughs makes copious use of the words "woodcraft" and "spoor."  Waldo and Nadara fall in love with each other, but due to pigheadedness and unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings they quarrel and separate instead of expressing their true feelings for each other.  Waldo learns how to not only survive but thrive in the jungle (his cough goes away and he makes a spear and a shield that give him an advantage over the natives) and more than once he has an opportunity to return to civilization but passes them up to stay on the island.  At the end of the tale Waldo kills the brutal leaders of Nadara's tribe just before they rape her and our two leads finally admit they are in love.

Something perhaps a little different and noteworthy about The Cave Girl is Burroughs's approach to his long term project, seen in many books, of convincing us that it is better to live in the primitive jungle than in our modern civilization.  This time he takes education as his focus, presenting his story as a satire of people who learn everything from books--in particular works of literature that offer no practical knowledge--and nothing from real life.  ERB makes a strong distinction between these two types of education, with Waldo an extreme representation of those who have heads full of book knowledge but cannot accomplish anything and cave girl Nadara a model of those with practical experience and useful knowledge--she cannot read or write, but she teaches Waldo everything he needs to know to survive in the jungle.

(I'm not familiar enough with Ralph Waldo Emerson to know to what extent and in what way Burroughs's choice of name for his protagonist is appropriate, but the wikipedia page on "Boston Brahmin" does suggest that they loved them some transcendentalism.)

I suppose it goes without saying that much of the spirit or ethic of The Cave Girl goes against what we are supposed to consider "forward thinking" in 2019.  The liberal arts are practically dismissed as a waste of time, while violence is celebrated.  The female characters consist of a manipulative and nagging mother who emasculates her son (a helicopter parent decades before the invention of the helicopter!) and a hot babe who worships a man because she thinks he is a doughty killer who can protect her.

One interesting way to look at The Cave Girl is as a story that portrays women as the true masters of the world; everything done by men in this story is done in pursuit of or response to some woman.  It is Waldo's mother who turned him into a useless sissy, and it is Waldo's love for Nadara, and Nadara's own example and tutelage, that transforms him into the he-man she wants him to be.
What one good but mistaken woman had smothered another had brought out, and the result of the influence of both was a much finer specimen of manhood than either might have evolved alone.
Perhaps the fact that Nadara is no shrinking violet will redeem this very unwoke story in the eyes of 21st century readers.  At the start of the tale Nadara is more brave and competent than Waldo; before she met Waldo she demonstrated her independence by boldly striking out on her own when she was mistreated by her tribe, and once Waldo is on the scene she saves him again and again from drowning and starving and getting ambushed in the jungle.  She even tries to help Waldo fight, but one of those unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings I mentioned above is when she throws a rock into a melee and accidentally hits Waldo in the cabeza instead of the guy who was trying to rape her.  Oops!

This is a fun story, a tale of action and violence about a man who adapts to circumstances, who changes almost everything about himself in order to overcome challenges and win the love of his life.  Much of it is told in a light-hearted, at times comic, manner, and I think the humor here works better than in some other of Burroughs's work.  I find Burroughs's style comfortable and engaging, and I am totally into any well-told story about a guy fighting to survive in some bizarre locale, so I enjoyed The Cave Girl.

The Cave Man (1917)

The Cave Man, presented as Part II of this book with a little note alerting you to its original title, is like 20% longer than The Cave Girl.  The chronology of this piece in relation to The Cave Girl I found a little confusing; it feels like it starts the same day The Cave Girl ended, but Burroughs keeps saying that Waldo has been on the island a year, while The Cave Girl had led me to believe he'd only been on the island six or seven months. There are also conflicting clues in the text, some suggesting no time has passed since The Cave Girl ended, others suggesting considerable time has elapsed.   

Anyway, Waldo and Nadara are a couple, but Waldo is reluctant to consummate their marriage without some kind of formal ceremony.  When he learns that Nadara's tribe, which hasn't invented the spear or bow yet, hasn't invented the wedding either, and then, from her dying father, that Nadara is not a native of this tribe but a shipwrecked baby whom he and his wife adopted, Waldo becomes convinced that they must get to civilization and get married before they can have sex.  Nadara thinks that Waldo's reluctance to be his mate is a sign he is not attracted to her after all (more pigheadedness and misunderstandings getting between our lovebirds!)

(The death of Nadara's adoptive father provides an opportunity for Burroughs to complain about the "ostentatious, ridiculous [and] pestilent " funerary services of the 20th century, some 60 years before Harlan Ellison would complain about the modern funeral industry in From the Land of Fear.)

The Cave Man is kind of a disappointing sequel.  Instead of pursuing a single strong plot or theme, it feels like a bunch of episodes sort of cobbled together; some of these episodes are good, but some are a waste of time and, most frustratingly, some consist of good ideas that are aborted instead of being allowed to flower into something interesting.

Waldo decides to civilize Nadara's tribe, and starts the process of teaching them how to make weapons and fight in concert like soldiers; he also wants them to stop living as nomads who periodically move from one complex of cliffside caves to another--his vision is for them to settle down and build huts and set up farms.  The challenge of reforming these savages' society is not a bad idea for a story, but after laying the foundation for such a plot Burroughs has an earthquake exterminate Nadara's entire tribe.  This earthquake strikes the same night that the leader of an enemy tribe, Thurg, kidnaps Nadara; the tremors present Nadara an opportunity to escape Thurg's lascivious clutches and also wipe out Thurg's tribe.

A third of the way through the story Burroughs abandons the island and takes us to Boston, beginning a long section starring Waldo's parents and their associates, who sail in a yacht to Nadara's island to look for their son.  Waldo's folks are not at all interesting enough to carry the story on their own, and the scenes in which that caricature of bourgeois decorum, Mrs. Smith-Jones, denounces Nadara for her skimpy attire (the crew of the yacht having rescued the cave girl from Thurg's latest attempt to have his way with her) are lame.  Convinced Waldo died in the earthquake, Nadara and the Massholes sail away, and a horny seaman tries to succeed where horny cave man Thurg failed, snatching Nadara and fleeing to a different island.  This guy jumped ship with Nadara on the spur of the moment without first arming himself, so when he is attacked by headhunters (these savages are advanced enough to employ spears and parangs and live in houses built on piles; they even have a huge wooden temple) he is at their mercy and suffers a gruesome fate!

The Cave Man comes to life in its final third as Burroughs returns us to the island for the best chapters of the serial.  Waldo, not dead after all, digs himself out from under the ruin of his cave, learns that Nadara has sailed away, and makes a boat and sails off to search the Pacific for her.  Burroughs's description of the construction of the boat and Waldo's ocean voyage is very entertaining.  This is why we read these stories, isn't it, to see a guy pursuing goals, making bold decisions and overcoming obstacles--it is satisfying to read about someone mastering his or her own fate, or at least trying to; reading about how somebody was saved by an earthquake or the sudden appearance of the cavalry, deus ex machina style, is kind of weak.

Waldo's cruise ends in yet another deus ex machina coincidence when he, during a storm at night, blunders into the island of the headhunters.  He makes friends with some pistol-packing Chinese pirates who are also shipwrecked on the island (it is a rare sea-going vessel in an ERB story that reaches its destination with crew and passengers intact), helping them fight off the headhunters and to repair their ship.  Waldo learns from them that the headhunters are now worshiping a white goddess who can only be Nadara, and, in the second best part of the story, Waldo rescues her from the headhunters' temple.  All you feminists will be happy to hear that, because Waldo has no experience fighting with parangs and guns, he has his hands full with these headhunters and Nadara has to pitch in, wielding a spear during the fight and saving Waldo's life by stabbing a guy.  It is also Nadara, with her superior woodcraft, that gets them out of the headhunter village and back to the coast alive.  Burroughs satisfyingly brings the story of Waldo and Nadara--and his parable about education--full circle:
"Follow me," she said, and to the memories of each leaped the recollection of the night she had led him through the forest from the cliffs of the bad men.  Once again was Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, the learned, indebted to the greater wisdom of the unlettered cave girl for his salvation.
Waldo and Nadara, after additional oceanic dangers, attempted rapes and killings of rapists, get hooked up again with the Chinese pirates and the Bostonians.  Peace is secured between Nadara and Mom, and our heroes are finally married and take up residence in a Beantown mansion.

The last third of The Cave Man--Waldo's ship-building, sea-voyaging, headhunter-fighting and countess-rescuing--is solid entertainment, but I can't deny that ERB had some trouble getting us there efficiently, wasting our time with all those lame Bostonians and truncating a potentially good sequence with that lame earthquake.  I would have liked to read more about Waldo civilizing Nadara's tribe of cave men and managing the tribe's contentious relationship with Thurg's tribe--the earthquake that wiped out both tribes was not a good plot twist, ERB!

Taken on its own I can only give The Cave Man a marginally positive rating.  But considering the saga of Waldo and Nadara as a whole, as it presented in this 1970s volume (and apparently has always been since the first book publication in 1925) I can be more kind, as The Cave Girl is legitimately good and raises the level of the entire production. 

With the entire book behind me I want to point out one noteworthy and salutary component of the tale of Waldo and Nadara, Burroughs's depiction of a love relationship in which the constituents are something like equal partners.  Waldo and Nadara complement each other, each learning from the other and contributing skills and abilities to their partnership that fill in gaps in the other's repertoire.  I think I can recommend The Cave Girl and The Cave Man as appropriate Valentines Day reading!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Three 1943 stories by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner

In the comments to my recent blog post about Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's Keeps stories, "Clash By Night" and Fury, George points out that the volume of Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg's The Great Science Fiction Stories covering 1943 includes five stories by Kuttner and Moore.  I had read three of them, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," "Clash By Night," and "The Proud Robot," and decided to read the other two, "Doorway Into Time" and "The Iron Standard" tout de suite.  To round out this blog post I thought I'd also read another 1943 Kuttner and Moore story, "Open Secret."  I read all three in scans of 1943 magazines available at the internet archive.

"Doorway Into Time" by C. L. Moore

"Doorway Into Time" first appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and just look at the Virgil Finlay cover illustrating it!  Gorgeous!  A man in a space helmet, a hot chick, and a saurian alien with some kind of energy weapon--three of our favorite things!--in bold colors in what looks like a Mucha composition!  A masterpiece!  In fact, this whole magazine is beautiful, with Finlay illustrations for a 1930 novel by John Taine, Iron Star, and Hannes Bok illos for Robert Chambers' 1895 "The Yellow Sign."  Worth a look if you are a fan of either of these unique, idiosyncratic artists.

On another world, a being with a passion for beauty lives among the vast collection of exquisite things he has acquired on his many journeys through space and time.  Over the centuries of his existence he has acquired something else--a taste for danger!  The more risk incurred in the collection of an item, the more he treasures it, and, old as he is, he has seen much and grown jaded, so that only terrible danger can excite him!

Via a screen he scans the universe for a thing of beauty whose acquisition will present the risk he craves, and he finally discovers it--a human woman!  Never has he seen a human before, and the beauty of the female form has him jumping through his interdimensional tunnel in hot pursuit of this jewel! 

The Earth woman, Alanna, is hanging out in the lab of her boyfriend, scientist Paul, who is working on his lightning weapon.  When the alien snatches Alanna, Paul grabs up his brand new electro blaster and chases them through the dimensional portal.  Paul and Alanna explore the alien's palace, taking in bizarre sights and facing hazards.  They struggle against the alien collector and eventually escape back through the tunnel to Earth; the alien decides not to pursue them further.

"Doorway Into Time" has an odd, sad tone that seems calculated to remind you of the futility of life.  The alien, despite its tremendous power and experience, is dissatisfied with its accomplishments, and the humans prove a disappointment to him; he is immune to their electric weapon, so they do not present the challenge he sought.  As for the humans, Alanna is sort of a feckless ditz, while Paul suffers the dismay of watching the alien shrug off the blasts of the super weapon he just invented.  Alanna and Paul spend much of the story thinking that their trip to the alien palace is just a dream, and Moore's long passages describing Paul's fruitless efforts to gun down the invulnerable alien reminded me of those nightmares in which, no matter how hard I try, I can't open my junior high locker or get the car started or find my way in a labyrinthine university building or run from danger or scream for help.

The most memorable components of the story are perhaps Moore's descriptions of extraterrestrial objets d'art, decorations, and mounted specimens; there are a number of Kuttner and Moore stories, like "Shock," in which cleverly described futuristic or alien artifacts loom large.  These strange items are a part of Moore's admirable effort in "Doorway Into Time" to depict true alienness.  Some of the art installations Paul and Alanna look at are so strange to them, so radically beyond their experiences on Earth, that their minds can't really comprehend them.  Similarly, Moore tells us repeatedly that the alien collector has no idea what the symbols on some artifact mean, or if some beautiful items he has hanging on his wall were once alive or are simply inorganic, or what the people he robbed of a big glowing stone thought of the stone.  The pervasive theme of the impossibility of achieving understanding across cultures adds to the story's air of futility.

While many individual components of the story are good and show inventiveness and effort, I am reluctant to strongly recommend "Doorway Into Time"; as a whole it is just not satisfying.  None of the characters accomplishes anything and none of the characters gets killed or otherwise ruined, so the story lacks any cathartic triumph or tragedy and left me feeling uneasy, like there should have been something more, a second shoe that never dropped.  I can certainly recommend it as a curiosity, valuable to students of Moore's work and 1940s SF in general, but based on conventional criteria (is it a solidly entertaining reading experience?) I'd have to say it is just acceptable.

"Doorway Into Time" may have left me feeling dissatisfied, but SF historian Sam Moskowitz included it in the 1965 anthology Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction (I actually read a few stories from that anthology back in my Iowa days, during this blog's infancy) and it was also included in Gogo Lewis and Seon Manley's anthology of "sinister" stories by women, Ladies of Fantasy

"The Iron Standard" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 

This is one of those SF stories in which smart guys get themselves out of a jam by using their brains.  This is fine in a story, of course, but we all know that in real life people overcome challenges through violence or sex appeal.

Our heroes in "The Iron Standard" are the six-man crew of the first ship to land on Venus, explorers carefully chosen for their intelligence and physical fitness.  This diverse cast includes a Navajo botanist, an Irish engineer ("a Kerry man" with fiery red hair and a fiery temper to match!) and the son of a rich WASP as the supercargo and handyman who, I guess, is on board the ship for kicks.  (Remember when a rich man's son got himself signed on to a space crew for the hell of it in A. E. van Vogt's The Man With a Thousand Names?  Now there was a trip!)  These dudes are in a bind because they traded away their food supplies to the Venusians for native food, and all that Venusian food has spoiled (those preservatives and GMOs aren't looking so bad now, are they, guys?)  Now the Earthers are facing starvation because they can't figure out any way to procure more food.

Kuttner and Moore come up with a long list of obstacles that stand between the Earthmen and the chow they so desperately need.  They surrendered their firearms when the natives proved to be so friendly so they can't just steal food.*  There are no sizable animals or edible plants in Venus's swampy wilderness so hunting, trapping, and gathering are out.  They can't buy food because the Venusians are on the "iron standard" of the title--gold and silver are very common on Venus, rendering the money the explorers brought valueless.  Venusian society is very stable and conservative, and the innumerable customs and institutions set up to prevent innovations or disruptions are the astronaut's biggest obstacle; for example, they can't beg for food or earn money by their labor because they aren't members of the beggar's guild or the laborer's guild, and to join a guild you have to pay some hefty entry fees.

The explorers scramble for ways out of their predicament, in the process realizing that many Venusians are open to change but those guilds have a stranglehold over politics and economics on Venus, suppressing any change because it might threaten their lofty position.  In a gimmicky way our heroes figure out a way to destabilize the Venusian economy while keeping within all those pesky laws; fearful of the first social or economic change in centuries, the guilds cry uncle, bribing the Earthers to cease their undermining ways with enough money to finance their food requirements until they can take off for Earth in a year's time.  It is suggested that the humans have given the static Venusian society a much-needed nudge and a period of dynamism and innovation is about to begin.

This is a mediocre story.  The whole thing feels contrived, it lacks any emotional content, and the characters all feel flat--the fact that one is an American Indian, another a short-tempered Irish-American and another a, as we might say today, "child of privilege," has no effect on the plot, it is just pointless window-dressing.  Maybe Kuttner and Moore simply thought it a good idea to show people from different backgrounds palling around and working together for a common goal?  That's commendable, and I guess understandable during the period of world crisis in which the story was published, but it's not compelling or entertaining writing.  While "Doorway Into Time" had numerous good elements but failed to really work as a whole, "The Iron Standard" is structured and organized in a way that functions but only on the most basic and simple level.  Barely acceptable.

After first appearing in Astounding, "The Iron Standard" was included in Martin Greenberg's Men Against the Stars and the British paperback Best of Kuttner 2.  (You'll remember that I read Best of Kuttner 1 back in 2014.  Good Lord, I've been operating this blog for-fucking-ever.)

*That's right, these high-IQ individuals went to an alien world where no Earthman had ever been before and the first thing they did was give away their weapons and food.

"Open Secret" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Here's another story from Astounding.  All you dino fans out there will be interested to know this issue of Astounding includes a non-fiction article by Willy Ley that tries to convince you that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not a ferocious killing machine but a lumbering scavenger.  Don't go breaking my heart, science boy!  "Open Secret" was included by Murray Leinster in a 1950s anthology published in the US and the UK, Great Stories of Science Fiction.

Psychiatrist Mike Jerrold is visiting New York City on business.  Instead of going to the museum to look at sculptures, he visits his physician friend at his skyscraper office for a check up.  (Where are this guy's priorities?)  There is an accident with the elevator and Jerrold ends up on the wrong floor, where he sees an amazing sight--many-armed robots are doing something weird with electronic maps of Manhattan!

Shocked and amazed by these robots (this story is set in the early- to mid-20th century, so Mike the shrink isn't seeing robots everyday at the grocery store like you and I do), Jerrold decides to investigate.  First step in his investigation is to get a date with the beautiful redhead sitting at the reception desk in the office with those robots.  (I told you that this is how real people overcome obstacles!)  He learns that there is an office of robots in every big city in the world, that these robots are running human society by subtly, cunningly, altering our minds, crafting our desires and aversions so that our actions, in aggregate, shift society in the direction dictated by their own inscrutable objectives.  "They manipulate stocks, swing business deals, start wars and stop them," that hot receptionist, Betty Andrews, tells Jerrold.  "They want the world different, but I don't know how."

Jerrold switches to Method #1 in his effort to overthrow the robots' rule, but fails utterly--he shoots an automatic pistol into a robot and then pours acid on its elaborate three-dimensional map of Midtown Manhattan, but the robot just ignores him and his fruitless attacks!  Jerrold feels like a "gnat"--he and his best efforts are beneath the invincible robots' notice!  Soon the robots will tinker with his brain and, like his new girlfriend, he will accept that resistance to robot rule is hopeless!

Here we have a story that, like the first we discussed today, suggests life is pointless, that things are out of our control.  Like the humans in Moore's "Doorway Into Time," Mike Jerrold, through an unforeseeable twist of fate, enters a dream-like environment, one characterized by bizarre sights and a deep sense of futility.  Like the alien in "Doorway Into Time," Betty Andrews sadly realizes she is doomed to a life bereft of satisfaction, whether or not her immediate desires are fulfilled.
"I'm very lonely, Mr. Mike Jerrold.  I like you to hold me.  Do you know what may happen to us?"

"What?" he asked softly.
"Marriage," she said, shrugging a little.  "Or not.  It doesn't matter." 

"Open Secret" is the most straightforward and economical of the stories we're reading today, and while not as stylistically ambitious as "Doorway Into Time," I think it is the most satisfying and entertaining of the three.  Kuttner and Moore scholars will notice in the text a reference to the poetry of Lewis Carroll, in this case "The Hunting of the Snark" and recall that in this same year the Carroll-centric "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" was published.


"The Iron Standard" is a conventional and bland puzzle story, "Open Secret" a more or less conventional sex and violence horror story that is quite ably put together, while the somewhat befuddling "Doorway Into Time" is creative and baroque, with one interesting character (the alien) and a strong sense of mood, but does not feel quite finished.  These were all worth my time, but they do not represent Kuttner and Moore's best work.