Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Three early stories by Frank Belknap Long: "The Ocean Leech," "The Flame Midget" and "The Peeper"

Let's read three stories by Frank Belknap Long, a celebrated member of the Weird Tales gang who also managed to get some stories into John W. Campbell's Astounding, as we saw in our last episode.  One can borrow a copy of the 1975 collection The Early Long from the internet archive, and from this volume I chose three stories whose titles I thought were amusing.  But before reading the stories, I read the long introduction by Long himself, a pleasant autobiographical sketch.  This collection also includes introductions to each story by Long as well, making it a fun book for fans of SF and weird fiction of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, full of references to and reflections on the many SF writers and editors Long read, knew, and did business with.  Long seems like such a nice guy in these non-fiction writings that I feel a little guilty for using his fiction as a punching bag here at MPorcius Fiction Log the last few years.  Let's hope these three stories are good enough that I won't have to resort to fisticuffs!

(I will note here that I have already read and blogged about four stories that appear in The Early Long"Death-Waters," "The Space-Eaters," "The Hounds of Tindalos," and "The Elemental."

"The Ocean Leech" (1925)

"The Ocean Leech" appears to have been a hit; after its Weird Tales debut in '25, it appeared again in the unique magazine in 1937 as a reprint, and since then has been included in numerous Long collections and horror anthologies like The Third Pan Book of Horror Stories and Thirteen Tales of Terror.  

"The Ocean Leech," like eight pages here, tells the story of the repeated attacks of a huge gelatinous cephalopod on an ocean-going sailing vessel--the thing has long tentacles with suckers, and snatches sailors and pulls them overboard, feeding on them by dissolving them as it drags them across the deck.  The story is narrated by the ship's captain.  Long describes in gruesome detail the process of men being pulled to their doom, their heads banging on stairs and getting stuck in the scuppers, and of the process of being dissolved.  Gross!  More intellectually compelling is the fact that the monster's victims do little to resist--something about the monster's chemical secretions seems to hypnotize the sailors so they actually take pleasure in being devoured!  Only one man, a man described as a "stoic," fights the monster, saving the narrator and driving off the creature for good.  When the captain admits he "enjoyed" being dragged from his cabin by the creature, the stoic seaman says "I saved you from yourself!"  Long appears to have written here an allegory about how men are often destroyed by their own base sensual desires, but can overcome such temptations with strength of mind and save themselves and their fellows.

(Is there any chance this gooey monster that sucks in men and devours them is a symbol for the vagina?)

Well-structured and paced, with effective images and a surprising philosophical/psychological level, "The Ocean Leech" is much better than I have come to expect from Long.  Thumbs up!  


"The Flame Midget" (1936)

"The Flame Midget" first appeared in Astounding while that  famous magazine was edited by F. Orlin Tremaine.  (In his intro to the story here in The Early Long, Long says John W. Campbell bought the story, but according to isfdb and wikipedia, Campbell was not hired to edit Astounding until 1937, so maybe Long's memory is in error.)  Groff Conklin saw fit in 1946 to include "The Flame Midget" in his bulky anthology The Best of Science Fiction and Ernestine Donaldy and Andre Norton selected it for their 1973 anthology Gates To Tomorrow: An Introduction to Science Fiction.  

Richard Ashley is a reclusive and misanthropic bacteriologist who spends all his time looking at tiny living things in his many microscopes.  Our narrator, John, is the closest thing this antisocial egghead has to a friend, and when Ashley contacts him, John rides a bus 300 miles to see what is up with the hermit.  Ashley looks worn out, and is shaking like a leaf, and soon John finds out why--Ashley has been contacted by a superior being from outer space!

This arrogant extraterrestrial is a scout from a civilization far more advanced and sophisticated than ours--in fact, these jerks see us as little better than bugs!  Speaking of bugs, these aliens (for pseudo-scientific reasons Long expatiates on at some length) are microscopic--even their space ships are microscopic!  The alien scout caught Ashley's attention by climbing onto the slide of one of Ashley's microscopes.  Conveniently, like in so much SF, the aliens are telepaths and this little bastard communicates by directly projecting images and concepts into Ashley's mind.  

The alien scout has admitted to Ashley that when he returns to his home world he is going to advise his people to just exterminate the human race and take over Earth, which you will be proud to learn is a prime piece of real estate on the galactic market.  Maybe you are wondering how a space navy whose ships are the size of an amoeba could defeat the human race; well, Ashley's little friend has demonstrated to him that he can shoot from his body a flame ray that can kill a human at a range of 3000 miles!  Long explains this amazing power with another hearty dose of eye-roll-inducing pseudo-scientific balderdash: 
...every cell of an animal body contains tiny centers of radiation called radiogens, which have a temperature of six thousand degrees centigrade....their excess heat is dissipated by the water in our tissues....the product of a hotter and more concentrated sun, its [the microscopic alien's] radiant energies are not damped.... 
Because of the distance between Earth and the home world of these wee little imperialists it will take decades for their scout to get home and for their microscopic genocide fleet to get here.  Ashley wants to kill the mighty mite, and thus delay the inevitable alien invasion still further--maybe with an extra century to work on our defenses we'll be able to defend ourselves form the microscopic menace!  The ending of the story describes in some gruesome detail the failure of Ashley's effort to slay the teeny tiny terror, and the anxiety our narrator, now the only man who knows the terrible doom the human race now faces, inherits from Ashley.

In his intro, Long stresses that this is a science fiction rather than a fantasy story (which is why he invokes the name of Campbell, a sort of icon of sciency SF.)  But I feel that a "real" science fiction story involves the writer coming up with some speculative science or technology idea (what if we could all teleport?  what if we set up a colony on the Moon?  what if we could extend our lifespans one hundred times?) and then building up some kind of drama around how this new science development might change the lives of individuals or society as a whole.  It seems to me that what Long did in "The Flame Midget" is come up with a compelling horror story idea (what if I looked in a microscope and there was a person in there hanging out with the parameciums--and this person was pure evil!) and then building up wild and unconvincing science mumbo jumbo to buttress his cool horror idea.  I'm not knocking Long for this--I like a good horror story as much as a good hard SF story--just questioning the taxonomy of the story (admittedly a sterile parlor game.)

Anyway, this story is OK; the central idea of seeing the reconnaissance operative of an invincible alien invasion force in your microscope, and the climax in which Ashley and the narrator suffer horrendous fates, are not bad.  
    

"The Peeper" (1944)

In his intro to "The Peeper," the final story in The Early Long, Long tells us that it contains some of his best writing, but has never been anthologized.  (Over ten years after Long wrote this, "The Peeper" would be included in the 1988 anthology Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors.)  Unfortunately, I have to report that this story is sappy and sentimental, full of tired cliched goop we've heard too many times before: not only must readers suffer romantic gush about how poetic Irish people are, but we have inflicted upon us one of the most boring of stock characters, the cynical gossip columnist who writes things like "What after-Pearl Harbor deb gave what buck private playboy the runaround, oh so recently, at the Pelican club?"  Lame!

Michael O'Hara is an Irish immigrant to New York, a graduate of Dublin University.  As a youth he was a sensitive poetic type who wrote perfect horror stories, stories only sensitive sophisticated people could truly appreciate!  But today he's a gray-haired 34-year old gossip columnist, in fact New York's most successful gossip columnist!  As we might expect of an Irishman, O'Hara staggers home drunk one night.  He finds in his bed the dead body of a beautiful young man in ancient Greek attire--it is his beautiful sensitive younger self!  A mysterious and bitter voice tells O'Hara that he killed this sensitive young man because O'Hara "could no longer abide his dreams!"  In the morning O'Hara tells himself it was all the product of booze or just a nightmare, but at his office where he's banging out another gossip column he discovers evidence that the dead body of his younger self really was in his own bed last night!  Then he has hallucinations of monsters and dies.  On the sheet in the typewriter before which O'Hara's corpse sits his editor sees the last lines O'Hara would write, some bilge about "the silver lark" that "takes wing" below the "cliffs of Inishowen;" the editor looks away, and when he looks back the page is now blank!   

Just a bunch of boring and obvious junk poorly riveted together to produce a tedious and irritating clunker--quite bad.  It is understandable that this story meant a lot to Long, who as a youth (as H. P. Lovecraft tells it in his correspondence) was an aesthete who wanted to devote his life to poetry and only churned out hack genre fiction to make a living, but "The Peeper" is just no good at all, absolutely failing to provoke any human emotion or provide any psychological insight or present any effective horror images.

**********

"The Ocean Leech" is a good story, and much of the non-fiction material in the book will be entertaining to the classic SF fan, so if you can look at The Early Long for free, as I have, it is worth your time.  But it is hard to recommend "The Flame Midget," and impossible to recommend "The Peeper," to anybody who doesn't already have some deep abiding interest in Long or the history of Weird Tales and Astounding.

More crazy stories from magazines printed before you were born in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

1943 stories by Raymond F. Jones, Fredric Brown and Frank Belknap Long

In our last episode, in which we read stories by British author Eric Frank Russell, I mused that I should read more stories from the October 1943 issue of Astounding, which featured Russell's "Symbiotica."  And today I make good on that threat!  Through the magic of the indispensable internet archive, let's take a look volume 32 number 2 of John W. Campbell Jr.'s influential magazine.

In his editorial, Campbell talks about changes coming to Astounding--starting with the next issue the magazine will be smaller, but include no ads, and the use of a different printing process will allow the inclusion of photographs in the magazine.  (Looking at the November issue, there really are no ads, and there are nice photos illustrating a story on anti-submarine warfare, but looking at the December issue we see that ads are already creeping back!)   

The first piece of fiction in the October '43 issue is A. E. van Vogt's "The Storm."  I am skipping it today, as I plan on doing a blog post in the future in which I read the fix-up novel The Mixed Men AKA Mission to the Stars and the stories which served as raw material for the novel, of which "The Storm" was one, and compare them.  I conducted just such a project with novels by two of SF's most unique writers and wackiest characters, van Vogt's own The Beast and Barry N. Malzberg's Universe Day, and found it to be fun and enlightening.  

(I'm also skipping Malcolm Jameson's quite long science article on tidal waves and Henry Kuttner's "The Proud Robot," which I read and blogged about back in 2014.)

After "The Storm" comes "The Analytical Laboratory," the column in which reader reactions to stories are tabulated, this time for the August 1943 issue.  Readers voted an installment of the serialized version of C. L. Moore's "Judgment Night" the best story in the August issue--I blogged about an edition of "Judgment Night" in a paperback collection in 2018, giving it a negative review. 


Alright, onto the meat of this blog post, my discussion of stories by Raymond F. Jones, Fredric Brown, and Frank Belknap Long.  

"Fifty Million Monkeys" by Raymond F. Jones 

Here we see Craig and Carlotta reading
 recordings of the minds of the
 members of Team 34 via hypnohelmets
I was pretty fond of Jones's The Cybernetic Brains, but was disappointed with his Syn and thought The Alien was just acceptable.  Besides those novels, I have blogged about Jones's short story "Noise Level," which I enjoyed.  "Fifty Million Monkeys" has never been anthologized or collected, which gives one pause, but let's hope for the best!

It is the future!  The 29th century!  A time so distant that The British Museum is considered a "mythical place!"  Marvel at such wonders as space travel, wristphones, and the game of Chessmath, a type of chess with nearly three hundred pieces!  And Jamieson & Son, a consulting firm whose owners and employees are all top scientists!

Beautiful blue-eyed blonde Carlotta, the third most senior egghead at Jamieson & Son and head of the Psychological Engineering section, reports to Craig Jamieson (he's the "Son" in Jamieson & Son) that all six members of Team 34, some of the firm's top men, are close to cracking up!  Apparently the source of their mental woe is strain from bearing knowledge so horrifying that they sought hypnotherapy to relieve their anxiety, but the therapy failed.

We get a flashback to Craig and Carlotta's first meeting as university students and their early work together.  By the year 2800 science was in trouble because far more knowledge had been collected by the human race than any one human could hold in his brain, and all scientists were now very specialized, their individual interests so specific that they knew little or nothing about the work of other researchers.  Any new breakthrough could only be achieved by very close collaboration, but scientists are selfish individualists reluctant to share credit and work as a group.  Physics student Craig presented this problem to headshrinker-in-training Carlotta and she figured out a personality test of such fine discrimination and such accuracy that it could be used to match up scientists who would feel as close an affinity as family members--or closer!--and thus could work together.  Soon Jamieson & Son had eighty such "brain teams" and businesses around the world had shuttered their own research divisions and contracted with Jamieson & Son to have their brain teams conduct all their research and solve any problems that cropped up.

Back in the present, Craig wheedles out of a reluctant Team 34 just what is bugging them.  It seems that the means of transmitting energy across space a Jamieson & Son brain team developed fifteen years ago and is now ubiquitous (so space ships don't need to carry their own power source, for example) has been causing what we call a negative externality, and energy is now leaking out of our universe into another universe.  When enough energy has leaked, probably within a year or so, both universes, and everybody in them, will cease to exist.  Oops!

"Fifty Million Monkeys" is like 44 pages long and over 30 of them are devoted to Craig and Carlotta's effort to solve the apparently insoluble problem of saving the universe, a problem that has to be kept from the public because it will drive ordinary men insane and cause a social collapse.  Jones tries to instill the story with tension by describing how the universe is gradually becoming warped, so that increasing numbers of star ships find their instruments increasingly unreliable, and by telling us about Craig's stress dreams.

Carlotta uses her tests to find the eighteen scientists who are least likely to crack up upon learning of this threat, as they work on the problem, work which all of them think is futile, she monitors them to make sure they don't go bonkers.  Carlotta, we see, does all the real work while Craig is the idea man, and his latest crazy idea is that somehow generating random strings of characters can help guide them out of this mess--thus the title reference to the hoary old adage about monkeys banging away on typewriters eventually producing the works of Shakespeare. 

The eighteen mentally stable boffins latch on to this brainwave, and machines are developed that produce random mathematical equations and random chemical formulas as well as random strings of letters or words.  Eventually, after much fine tuning, including the construction of a machine that sifts through all the random gibberish to find those strings that make some kind of sense, Jamieson & Son produces whole new systems of math and new technologies that, perhaps, can save the universe and open up new ways to improve life.

There is some foreshadowing that the random machines may be developing some kind of consciousness, and the sense of wonder ending comes when a being of light, the avatar of the laws of randomness, appears.  Craig's machines have allowed this being to come into existence, and its purpose is to save the universe.  That accomplished, the superbeing invites Craig to join it in exploring many universes, universes that, unlike our own chaotic universe, are orderly and peaceful.  Craig is tempted, but then he realizes that one of the apparently random bunches of sentences produced by the random word machine is in fact a warning to not leave our universe--if Craig falls for the temptation of access to universal knowledge he will become a menace to our chaotic universe.  So Craig sticks around in our universe, the random machines are all destroyed, and everybody lives happily ever after.

"Fifty Million Monkeys" is kind of crazy (the whole idea of learning new technologies by sifting through random strings of words or mathematical symbols seems ridiculous), but it is not boring or obvious, so it held my attention.  While Jones's heroes are all scientists, he does focus on the risks associated with the development of new sciences and technologies and the search for knowledge in general.  Also interesting is the theme of psychology--again and again the obstacles Craig and Carlotta have to overcome are thrown up by the psychologies of individuals (including Craig himself, whose ambition threatens out entire universe!) or groups, and our heroes use psychological means to overcome these obstacles.  Jones treats psychology as just another hard science, with immutable laws and precisely measurable variables ("Their congeniality index was well up in the nineties.")  In the world Jones depicts human beings are the building blocks of larger constructions, and superior people like Craig and Carlotta ("the world's greatest living psychologist") construct brain teams out of men the way an architect and a mason might build a bridge out of bricks and I-beams.  Yikes.      

Not great, but certainly acceptable, maybe mildly recommendable.  Looking at the December issue of Astounding, we can see in the Analytical Laboratory column that readers voted "Fifty Million Monkeys" the best story in the October issue, with van Vogt's "The Storm" second. 


 "Paradox Lost" by Fredric Brown

I'll never forget Fredric Brown's story about a man-eating armadillo, which I read in 2014, or his novel about the relationship of a Christ-like rock and a bigoted thug, which I read in 2016.  Good times, good times.  So let's check out "Paradox Lost," which would go on to be the title story of a 1970s Brown collection.


This 12-page story is well-written and so a smooth and pleasant read, but it is a silly gimmick story full of absurdist jokes, the kind of thing that I don't care for.

Shorty McCabe is a college student sitting in a boring Logic class in 1943, watching a fly buzzing about the room; the fly suddenly disappears in midair next to his desk.  Through trial and error experiments, McCabe discovers there is an invisible portal to another universe right there in the class, an arms' length from him!  Circumstances impel him to step through the portal and he finds himself in a world of insanity, in the company of a mad scientist, who insists that in his world anything he wills can happen, because this world is just a creation of his own mind.  The mad scientist has invented a time machine and he and McCabe go back to the Jurassic to hunt dinosaurs with slingshots--no gun necessary, as the only surviving dinosaurs are little ones a foot or two tall.  The time machine also spends time in 1948, and Shorty McCabe indirectly interacts with his future self and in a happy accident sets the stage for a welcome development in his own life.

Well-written and well-constructed, "Paradox Lost" is obviously objectively a better-made piece of work than "Fifty Million Monkeys," but it isn't my kind of story--Brown is the superior wordsmith, but Jones's speculations about psychology interest me while Brown's jokes leave me cold.  So I will call "Paradox Lost" acceptable but admit that other people are likely to rate it more highly.  (Though perhaps not the bulk of World War II-era Astounding readers, who voted it fifth of the stories in this issue.)  I will warn sticklers for scientific accuracy that they will groan at Brown's suggestion that the Jurassic Period was four million years ago, and feminists that they will not be happy about the role in the story played by its female characters. 

"Willie" by Frank Belknap Long   

There is a long history at this blog of me reading stories and novels by Frank Belknap Long and telling you they are not good, but Long is a major figure in the weird community and out of an interest in and allegiance to H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and their associates, I keep plugging way at these Long pieces.  Maybe "Willie" is one of the good ones?  The fact that it was not even listed in the Analytical Laboratory rankings printed in December makes one doubt it is going to be a winner, however. 

"Willie" would reappear in a book that I own, Night Fear, but my copy is currently inaccessible so I'll have to confine myself to reading the version of the 9-page story here in Astounding's October 1943 issue.  It was also included in Centipede Press's 1100-page volume of Long stories, which was published in 2010 with a price tag of $225.00.  Kaboom!


"Willie" begins with a fight between two men who wield stone axes, one a savage with a shaved head, the other a barbarian in a jaguar skin.  The barbarian is the victor, and we learn he is a confused man, his bewildered mind tormented by vague memories of living in a high tech 29th-century city as a "Monitor" as well as memories of being the chief of a barbarian tribe.  He ventures into the city of his memory, but there are no sophisticated citizens there, only robots who ignore him and the tribe members who look to him as their leader in the war with the brutal savages.

The savages attack, and the robots unexpectedly come to the aid of the barbarians--the savages are wiped out.  The story ends as the protagonist's mind clears.  It turns out he is Monitor 236, an inventor, who back in the 29th century built the first robot with real emotions, Willie.  Then he invented a time machine, and on a test run found himself stranded a million years in the future, by which time humanity had fallen into primitivism and the city had been long abandoned.  Travel through time had addled Monitor 236's mind, but he was still superior enough to the natives of this primitive future that a tribe made him their leader.  And Willie, still operational after a million years, recognized his maker and directed the other robots to help him in hos war on the savages.  With the savages exterminated and Monitor 236's brain back in top condition, our hero can lead humanity back to civilization!  

An acceptable filler story, mediocre and inoffensive.

**********

These stories are alright, no big deal.  Should this blog endure, expect to see more Astounding, and more Jones, Brown and Long discussed in future installments.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell

Let's grapple with another of my South Carolina purchases, the 1965 Berkley Medallion paperback edition of Eric Frank Russell's 1955 collection Men, Martians and Machines, loot from my visit to The Book Dispensary in Columbia.  Men, Martians and Machines has been reprinted many times, and is apparently widely considered a classic.  (A 1985 British edition that you can read at the internet archive includes an introduction by George Zebrowski that catalogs the praise Men, Martians and Machines has received.)  So let's check out these stories from the 1940s and 1950s, which, the cover blurbs announce, follow the adventures of the crew of the space ship Marathon in "the outer galaxies."  


"Jay Score" (1941)

I read this tale, which debuted in Astounding along with Robert Heinlein's famed "Universe," in 2016 when I read The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  You can check out the first of my blog posts about The Best of Eric Frank Russell, which includes discussion of "Jay Score," by clicking this link.  Or, for maximum convenience, just read the pasting of the "Jay Score" passages below:

In the 23rd century a space ship gets hit by a small asteroid, and the multiracial crew finds they are hurtling towards the sun!  While the rest of the crew takes cover in the most heavily shielded part of the vessel, expert pilot Jay Score stays in the searing hot cockpit, steering the ship on a one in ten thousand chance course past old Sol.  The ship makes it, but poor Jay is burnt within an inch of his life!  Thankfully, back on Earth he becomes the first ever man to have his brain put in a robot body!

The thing about this competent but basically routine story that will stick out to 21st-century readers is how it addresses the issue of race. Russell uses the story to promote racial harmony and the idea that different people's different abilities can complement each other (he is "celebrating diversity" in today's argot) but the way he does it, focusing on fanciful biological differences between ethnic groups instead of on human equality, would at best be considered "problematic" by today's cultural arbiters, and at worst it would be career suicide.

On the first page of the story we are told that, since white people invented space drives, only white people are ever hired as engineers on space ships--whites "know most about them [rockets] and can nurse them like nobody else."  This doesn't really make much sense; maybe it is an appeal to the idea of "racial memory?"  The special ability Russell assigns to black people is approximately as silly: "All ship's surgeons are black Terrestrials because for some reason none can explain no Negro gets gravity-bends or space nausea."

Anyway, the white engineers, the black doctor, and the crew's tentacled Martians (who need less oxygen than humans and can better stand extremes of heat) all contribute to the ship's and the crew's survival.  Presumably it is significant that hero Jay is "neither black nor white;" whether this means he is biracial or an Asian or Native American is unclear.

Russell's pacing and style are good, and he makes the Martians interesting (they love chess, for one thing--the cover of this collection illustrates "Jay Score") and I have a weakness for stories about space travel, so I'm giving this one a thumbs up.

On rereading "Jay Score" four years later I find it seems I misunderstood the story's twist ending.  I thought Jay Score was a heroic man of indeterminate ethnicity who sacrificed his body to save the ship and his comrades, and that at the end of the story his brain was installed in a robot body.  In fact, for the bulk of the story Russell is just tricking you into thinking Jay Score is a man of superior physical and mental fortitude--the twist ending of "Jay Score" is that the title character was a robot all along, the twentieth of the J-series of robots.  Well, isn't my face red! 

(Am I crazy, or is making the reader think he is reading a tale of great personal sacrifice and of cutting edge medicine and then pulling the rug out from under him kind of lame?)


"Mechanistria"
(1942)

"Jay Score" was set on the interplanetary freighter Upskadaska City, but at the start of "Mechanistria" the entire crew--the narrator (the ship's sergeant-as-arms), the black doctor, the comic relief Martians, Jay Score the robot whom everybody treats like a person, and all the rest--are transferred to the Marathon, a revolution in ship design capable of interstellar travel.  On the Marathon they join a bunch of scientists and government employees and before you know it they are approaching an extrasolar planet.

Not long after landing, the ship is attacked by an army of machines that range from the size of dogs to the size of railway cars, all of them bristling with pincer arms and tentacles.  The narrator and company put up a spirited resistance with energy pistols ("needle-ray guns"), grenades ("one of those eggs known as a pocket A-bomb") and an automatic cannon (an eight-barreled "pom-pom") but all the Terrans are seized and carried off; the Martians manage to escape.

In captivity, the humans and Jay Score meet some lobster-people who can communicate telepathically.  The lobsetermen are natives of this star system, and explain that their water-covered planet is at war with this machine-dominated planet, because the machines, who share a communal intelligence, are mystified by the individualism of flesh-and-blood creatures, and dissect all they can get their hands on in hopes of learning the secret of individuality.  

The Martians rescue their Terran shipmates, an operation facilitated by the fact that one of the rules of the war between the machines and the lobstermen is a prohibition on escape attempts--both lobstermen and machines are taken aback at the Solarian determination to break out of the clink.  The lobstermen don't just refuse to accompany our heroes to freedom, they even upbraid them for their disgraceful behavior!  The Marathon returns to our solar system laden with samples from the world of machines.

I like violent adventure stories and I like the individualism vs collectivism theme, but "Mechanistria" didn't do much for me.  Russell fails to imbue any of the fight scenes or horror scenes with any human feeling, there is no thrill during the fights, no dismay when the narrator comes upon evidence that one of his comrades has been cut to pieces without benefit of anesthesia, no relief when the survivors make their getaway.  One problem is that these Jay Score stories are all written in a jocular, smart-alecky style that keeps you from taking anything seriously.  Another problem is the characters--they are all flat and uninteresting, each equipped with a single wacky personality trait that does nothing to drive the plot but just serves to present opportunities for (weak) comedy--one human who goes unnamed in "Mechanistria" always has his beloved wrench (or, as Russell calls it, "spanner,") with him; one Martian loves to take naps.  Successful stories are often built around the personality and decisions of a compelling character--things happen in The Iliad, Moby Dick and Watamote because of the remarkable psychologies of Achilles, Ahab, and Tomoko Kuroki, psychologies which drive them to make decisions that have tragic consequences.  But in "Mechanistria" the characters' personalities and decisions don't drive the plot, the people are just along for the ride and do not elicit the sympathy or interest of the reader.

The optimistic theme I detected in "Jay Score" of diverse crewmembers' different skills complementing each other seems too have degenerated in "Mechanistria" into a lame depiction of humans as goofballs who need superior beings--the Martians and a robot--to pull their bacon out of the fire.

Barely acceptable.   

"Mechanistra" first appeared in Astounding, where it was adorned with illustrations by William Augstin Kolliker; Kolliker's depiction of the pom-pom appears to be directly based on photos of the 2-pounder anti-aircraft guns mounted on British warships during World War II.  The story has been widely reprinted, including in several German magazines and books.


"Symbiotica" (1943)

"Symbiotica" made its debut in an issue of Astounding full of stories by people we care about (sometimes against our better judgement!) here at MPorcius Fiction Log, like A. E. van Vogt, Raymond F. Jones, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner and Frank Belknap Long.  Of the stories by this gallery of fascinating figures in the issue I have only written about Kuttner's "The Proud Robot," so maybe I should make time to give the October 1943 Astounding a thorough going over.  Well, today we can make a start to such a project with our examination of "Symbiotica."  "Symbiotica" has appeared in such important anthologies as Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas's Adventures in Time and Space and Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg's The Great SF Stories: Volume 5, and I certainly hope I like it as much as did those four editors.  

Ah, as so often happens in life, hopes are dashed.  "Symbiotica" is long (50 pages, over twice as long as "Jay Score") and tedious, with a routine and repetitive plot.  All my criticisms of "Mechanistria" hold for "Symbiotica:" the total lack of interesting characters means the story has no hold on the reader, and Russell's jocular tone and incessant supply of low key jokes undermines the effect of the many scenes of violence and gore.       

The plot:  The Marathon lands on a planet inhabited by primitive green-hued people who have a symbiotic relationship with plants, most prominently huge trees of various sorts.  Irresponsible humans, despite the best efforts of Jay Score the robot, piss off the natives and a fight breaks out.  Ray guns and grenades only barely prove a match for the various plants, who can fling volleys of poison darts at you or knock you out with gas or dissolve you with acid, and we readers are treated to many pages during which the narrator and other boring people are held captive by the aliens.  The narrator does almost nothing besides getting knocked out and getting captured.  The robot and the Martians rescue most of the humans and the ship returns to Earth.

"Symbiotica" feels like a shaggy dog story, a story with no climax in which the characters accomplish nothing.  Barely acceptable.  Maybe Healy and McComas in the 1940s and Asimov and Greenberg over thirty years later chose it for anthologies because it has a little speculative biology in it and they hoped to present SF as a literature that was about science and considered entertainment value of secondary importance in their selections?  

"Mesmerica" (1955)

"Mesmerica" made its debut in this book, Men, Martians and Machines, and has only appeared in one anthology, a German one that reuses Richard Powers' cover of the edition of Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life that I own.  (I blogged about The Star of Life back in 2018, and if you want to read me gush about how much I love Hamilton and Powers just click the link.  TLDR: Hamilton does all the things in The Star of Life that I have been bitching Russell fails to do in these Marathon stories: produce an adventure story that has human drama and features characters who have compelling personalities and whose decisions drive the plot.) 

"Mesmerica" follows the same template as "Mechanistria" and "Symbiotica."  The Marathon lands on a planet, and a fight with the natives erupts, and some Terrans get captured, and Jay Score the robot and the Martians use their special powers to resolve the whole issue and then the Marathon leaves the planet with a sample of the native life.  (Lots of SF is about paradigm shifts or revolutions--The Star of Life by Edmond Hamilton depicts such a radical change--but in Russell's Marathon stories contact with Solarians does not wreak any change on the various natives.)  In this case the natives have mental abilities that allow them to make humans see things that are not there, and to even affect human thinking, making humans squabble among themselves, for example.  "Mesmerica" is probably a little better than the two proceeding stories, as it feels a little shorter and the narrator is more active, but it only rises above them to the level of "acceptable."


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"Barely acceptable" has to be my verdict for this collection as a whole; I don't think I can recommend Men, Martians and Machines to anyone beyond those with some sort of deep interest in Russell's career or World War II-era Astounding.  I certainly can't recommend it to casual readers looking for an entertaining or emotionally moving or intellectually stimulating read.  

If there are people who come to MPorcius Fiction Log looking to be directed to reads that are entertaining and emotionally affecting I can, however, recommend highly another NSFW manga about the difficult emotional lives of Japanese high school girls, the aforementioned saga of anti-hero loner Tomoko Kuroki, WataMote by Nico Tanigawa, the proper title of which is Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!  (Equally commendable is the spinoff Tomomote, which relates some of our heroine's adventures during her middle school years, and also worth checking out is the anthology of stories about Tomoko by other authors--several of them are very funny.)  WataMote is engrossing because it is not only amusing, but because of the tension and ambiguity in the portrait the author crafts of Tomoko and in the emotional responses he elicits from the reader--Tomoko is both victim and villain, and readers, drawn to sympathize with her plight and identify with her unhappiness are also forced to recognize the extent to which her own misbehavior has led her to one humiliating predicament after another; at the same time I felt compelled to deplore her selfishness, her callousness, the way she abuses and exploits others, I could not help but admire Tomoko's insistence on maintaining her independence and individuality, whatever pitfalls such determination lead her to walk right into.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Island Under the Earth by Avram Davidson

Was it indeed what that fool redbeard had said?  Was there indeed truth to all that legendry?  How much of it could be true?  That he now held something in his hand which was so strange, in itself was no proof.

But, what was proof?
Down in South Carolina on my holiday travels I went to a huge 2nd and Charles location and scrutinized the paperback SF shelves.  Among the books I purchased was a somewhat defaced copy of the Ace Science Fiction Special edition of Avram Davidson's 1969 novel The Island Under the Earth.  What's that, you ask?  Why yes, I have read and blogged about several books that appeared as Ace Science Fiction Specials.  Behold this convenient list of links:



Yes, I paid $1.50 for a book upon which some other guy scrawled "SUX"
Besides the unauthorized one-word guerilla art blurb on the front cover, my copy of The Island Under the Earth has long blurbs on the back cover by fantasy icons Fritz Leiber of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser fame and Peter S. Beagle, whom I have never read but who is apparently a big wheel--his famous novel The Last Unicorn was even made into a cartoon voiced by our hero Christopher Lee and that lady from Murder She Wrote.  These gushing billets-doux to Davidson alert us to the fact that this novel is full of traditional fantasy fiction creatures who are half-human, like the harpy, the centaur, the eunuch and the thief.  A note inside the book tells us that The Island Under the Earth was "conceived as the first novel in a trilogy," but I don't think the other two volumes ever appeared.  Let's assess whether or not the failure of volumes 2 and 3 (to be titled The Sixlimbed Folk and The Cap of Grace) to see print is a tragedy to be mourned.

The Island Under the Earth
starts with a brief foreword which is a sort of spoof of academic writing; as he succinctly informs us about the scarce sources of information on the fabled land that is the novel's setting, a scholar complains about other writers' poor writing and plagiarism (hey, everybody does it!)  This foreword's references to unreliable written sources foreshadows what I am taking to be a major theme of The Island Under the Earth: obscurity.  Knowledge, Davidson tells us, is hard to obtain and what is obtained is incomplete and likely erroneous.  Throughout the work characters are always forgetting things, asking questions which are not answered, and trying with limited success to keep records, access records, communicate information, decipher messages and divine the purport of clues.  The narrative proper begins with a little background that lets us know that in this fantasy world there has been feuding between the Hobar clan and centaurs for many generations--it is strongly impressed upon us that the details of how this feud started are in dispute.  (Was Davidson inspired by the famous story of the fight between the Lapiths and Centaurs, an episode immortalized on the Parthenon?)  The final line of the novel turns the book's title on its head, as a character insists that what matters is not an island under the Earth, but one above it.

Davidson doesn't just portray his characters dealing with such issues of limited knowledge, he puts the reader through the same challenges.  Davidson's style here is cold, detached and somewhat obscure.  He uses esoteric words that many readers may not know like "onagers" for asses and "onagerer" for the man who manages them; early on we also get "ashlar," "sternutate" and "besom" (for those scoring at home, these are: a cut stone like those that make up the walls of the Hobar stonehouse (see below); to sneeze; and, a broom.)  Davidson introduces characters and doesn't tell us their names until pages later; the characters keep mentioning "The Cap of Grace" but we readers have no idea what that is until the final third or so of the 180-odd page novel.  The Island Under the Earth has no numbered or titled chapters, there are just a few blank lines between each section.

All that background out of the way, we meet the two most important of the novel's many characters, a sea captain, Stag, and his business partner, the merchant Tabnath Lo.  Lo is married to a Hobar woman, and received as dowry a long-vacant stone house in the country; Stag is renting this odd piece of real estate from Lo for a nominal fee.  On the way to this fixer-upper, Stag's party (Stag, his wife Spahana, his bosun, a priest who traffics in divinations, and a few others) is ambushed by centaurs, and the ass-train with all their supplies is stolen.  When they reach the old Hobar stonehouse they encounter an old and sick centaur; Stag, only half-intentionally, heals the centaur, and the centaur then provides food for the hungry party and even helps reunite them with the lost baggage train.

Proceeding parallel to this Stag plot is a plot that follows Tabnath Lo and a bunch of other characters back in the port city.  Lo has a business rival who is perhaps engineering, and certainly taking advantage of, a change in the local economy--people are no longer purchasing grain retail and making their own baked goods (or as I guess we are all saying now thanks to that British TV show, "bakes") at home, but rather buying them ready-made from a store.  Lo's rival, the tricky eunuch Dellatindilla, has cornered the market on grain and is profiting from this new arrangement, to Lo's detriment.

In his blurb on the back of the book, Leiber mentions Dellatindilla by name, and another character, Zorbinand the Thief, and appropriately so, as they are the most entertaining characters in the book.  The eunuch has two midget assistants, Mote and Atom, who are sort of amusing, and Zorbinand is also a fun character, a man expert not merely at stealing things, but at sexually satisfying women--both skills come in handy in his quest to rob Dellatindilla of some valuable jewels and also in his efforts to keep his nagging wife off his back.  (The sexual relationships in this novel are all uncomfortable in one way or another.)  

Perhaps unfortunately for the reader, these two striking figures are only minor characters, and we spend most of our time with Stag, Tabnath Lo and other characters whose motives and personalities remain mysterious for most of the novel.  As you know, Davidson won not only SF's prestigious Hugo but also the Edgar, an award for mystery writers, and we see in The Island Under the Earth many elements that are reminiscent of detective fiction--at one point somebody throws a spear at Stag from the bushes, and it is many pages later that we learn who threw it.  Throughout the bulk of the novel I found it hard to become emotionally invested in the characters and their struggles because they were so unknowable, making the first two-thirds of the book unsatisfying.

In the final third of The Island Under the Earth there are long flashbacks to the maritime careers of Stag and the bosun and passages about Spahana's life that fill us in on their motives and personalities, as well as a strange dreamy sequence involving Tabnath Lo that reveals the nature of his business-- and personal--relationship with Stag.  These revelations form the meat of the book's climax--they resolve the tensions experienced by the reader, the tensions created by all the mystery Davidson has shrouded his main characters in.  In more conventional fiction the climax generally consists of the characters overcoming obstacles to achieve goals (or coming to terms with their inability to achieve them) but The Island Under the Earth ends without the conventional plot being resolved--we readers have to accept that the pay off of the book is that we now know who Stag, Tabnath Lo and Spahana are and how they feel about each other.  The threads of the conventional adventure plot (will the captives be rescued, who will get the treasure, etc.) are left hanging, perhaps an artifact of the fact that Davidson expected to publish two more books in this setting about these characters. 
      
Inscrutability is the theme of the book, as I have suggested, and perhaps the ultimate expression of this theme is the nature of the setting.  This world Stag and company inhabit can abruptly change, both physically and temporally.  An island once visited by Stag can all of a sudden become part of the mainland, and when Stag crests a hill the day after the centaurs steal his baggage he sees a fight in the distance, and realizes he is witnessing the battle in which he himself participated the day before.  A woman whose children went missing a week ago is reunited with them, but they are years older and she doesn't recognize them.  I am guessing in later volumes Davidson would have provided some kind of explanation for this linked to the repeated (and vague) references to strange phenomena in the sky; here in The Island Under the Earth, though, he does hint that this chaos is a sort of metaphor for the chaos in our own world which is the product of human failings when Dellatindilla the eunuch muses 
"Long ago I heard it read, 'Thus say the geographers: Justice and equity are the sole foundations of the world.'  Do you hear?  Do you hear?  Is it true?  Then the world has no sure foundations--!"
Injustice is a sort of sub rosa theme of the book, with hints that we should see the centaurs as victims of human imperialism and exploitation (there is something of the noble savage about these centaurs), and quite a bit of talk about piracy and slavery; it is also suggested that Tabnath Lo's ultimate goal is political power and that he seeks office not merely to enjoy a sinecure but to make changes, perhaps revolutionary changes.  A more explicit theme, linked to this theme of abuse of power, is the theme of incomplete humanity.  The centaurs and harpies are half human and half beast, and the midgets, eunuch and Lo's assistant--a mute--are truncated or shrunken humans, but shouldn't we see the various thieves and pirates and grasping adventurers as similarly lacking in humanity because they lack compassion?   

(It is perhaps appropriate that a novel that is full of truncated or incomplete people should itself, the sole volume of a projected trilogy, feel truncated and incomplete.)   

It is hard to recommend The Island Under the Earth; while there are plenty of fun little bits along the way it is not a smooth read that you enjoy from start to finish, rather it is a somewhat frustrating and difficult journey, and when it is over you feel more uneasy than satisfied.  Perhaps the novel was meant to introduce you to the characters and setting and set up the conflicts that would be resolved in its two sequels.  I'm glad I read it, but suspect I can only recommend it to serious Davidson fans.

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There are three pages of ads in the back of this edition of The Island Under the Earth.  The first is a list of Ace Specials, a number of which I have blogged about (see list above.)  I have also read but not blogged about Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage, which I recommend, and Piers Anthony and Robert E. Margroff's The Ring, but I read The Ring so long ago I can't remember much about it, save that I found it more serious and less fun than Anthony's popular series books, which are full of the kind of sensationalistic sex and violence that appealed to a young MPorcius.  

The second page of ads lists other Ace SF, including Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump, Jack Vance's Big Planet and Clifford D. Simak's City, all of which I read before this blog made its debut and which I am comfortable recommending and which I think are pretty representative of their authors' bodies of work.  Those superstars of the internet SF community Joachim Boaz and tarbandu have both blogged about Big Planet, Joachim in 2013 and tarbandu in 2017; Joachim also wrote about The Big Jump in 2011.  

Also among the advertized tomes is Across Time by Donald Wollheim (writing as David Grinnell,) which I read and blogged about in 2016; I called it "a disappointment" and explained why it deserved that designation at great length--2000 words!  If the length is scaring you away from clicking the link, let me sweeten the pot by telling you my review includes a gratuitous attack on college professors.  Well, if you don't want to read 2000 words about Donald Wolheim, one of SF's greatest editors, how do you feel about reading 5500 words about one of SF's greatest Canadians, A. E. van Vogt?  In 2014, I reviewed The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. van Vogt, but don't worry, this non-Aristotelian feast is split into four bite-sized chunks: onetwothreefour.  And I didn't just judge whether or not the 12 stories in the volume were good (they are almost all good!) but assessed how "far-out" they were.  Spoiler: "By my reckoning, seven stories are definitely far-out, three are somewhat far-out, and only two are not at all far-out."

The last page of the Ace Special edition of The Island Under the Earth is an ad for three of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books.  Of course I have read these classics of sword-and-sorcery and recommend them, and I have even blogged about two of them, Swords Against Wizardry and Swords in the Mist.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Late September through November Log: W. Somerset Maugham and Herman Melville

I write this from the Carolinas, where I am visiting in-laws and used bookstores and toiling over a hot laptop in quest of financial remuneration.  Since September I have taken on a volume of additional work that has left me little time to read fiction.  But I have managed to find little slivers of time in which to read three more stories by Somerset Maugham and to reread the great American novel, Moby-Dick.  

"The Letter," "Before the Party," and "The Force of Circumstance" by W. Somerset Maugham 

As I documented in my last two blog posts, I really enjoyed the first six stories in East and West, the first volume of The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham, but the next three are a mixed bag.  The basic plots and settings and characters are fine (all are set in Malaya and are about marriages that are in crisis, two feature white men having long term sexual relationships with nonwhite women and two feature women murderers) and there is lots of good stuff about relations between the sexes and relations between British people and the Asians over whom they rule, but two of them, in their execution, left me disappointed.    

"The Letter": Leslie Crosbie is the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaya.  One night Geoff Holland, another plantation owner, comes over to visit and she shoots him dead with a revolver.  She claims that he tried to rape her, and the authorities and the public all believe her, but, there being no witnesses, she has to go on trial for murder.  One reason everybody is on Mrs. Crosbie's side is that it has recently become public knowledge that Holland was living with a Chinese woman, and such an interracial liaison shows bad character.  The Crosbies' lawyer becomes aware of evidence that Leslie was having an affair with Holland and killed him in a jealous rage when she found out he was throwing her over for the Chinese woman.  The lawyer has a duty as an officer of the court to hand over all evidence to the government and the prosecution, but instead he hides the evidence and Mrs. Crosbie is acquitted.    

This story has interesting and valuable stuff about erotic and business relationships between whites and Chinese in Malaya and Singapore (one of the attorneys in the office of Craig's lawyer is a Chinese guy who studied law in England) and of course about people's attitudes about women accused of crimes, but somehow the pacing and the structure or tone or something left me cold.  "The Letter" is far less entertaining than the six Maugham stories I reread earlier this month. 

I may think "The Letter" is inferior Maugham, but it was developed into a play and even made into movies more than once!  Beloved movie reviewer MonsterHunter wrote a hilarious review of the 1940 Bette Davis production back in 2016.

"Before the Party": This is the story of the catastrophic marriage of an unattractive middle-class woman, Millicent, to an important administrator in Malaya, Harold, an alcoholic.  This guy took a trip back to England with the specific goal of finding a wife because the Governor of the colony told him that if he didn't stop getting drunk all the time he'd lose his job, and he should get an English wife because that might steady him; Millicent settles for Harold because no other guy is interested in her.  The story of their rocky marriage is not bad, but Maugham precedes the narrative of what happened to Millicent and Harold in Malaya with a long tedious account of Millicent and her family getting ready for a party back in England eight months after Harold has died and Millicent has returned to Britain.  Before heading out to the party Millicent explains to her family how Harold really died--she has allowed them to believe that he died of a fever, when in fact she murdered him and made it look like suicide!  Millicent's father is a lawyer, and, just like the lawyer in "The Letter," he now has to betray his duty by helping conceal a murder.  I guess the frame with all the stuff with Millicent's family is supposed to be a satire or expose or whatever of how wealthy society people are phonies and hypocrites and care more about appearances than pursuing laudable goals and doing the right thing and so on, but it is boring--the stuff I am interested in is life in a colony and sex and violence, and for me all the scenes set in England just get in the way.

"The Force of Circumstance": This is more like what I hope to get from a Maugham story.  Doris marries Guy, a guy who has lived most of his life in Malaya--since he was eighteen he was in charge of an "outstation," the only white person for miles and miles.  She accompanies him back to the East and they live happily for a few months together in the outstation.  Then she finds out that for ten years before his leave back in England where they met he lived with a Malay woman and even had three kids with her!  Doris is disgusted--will their marriage survive? 

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

This is my third read of my dogeared copy of that immortal work considered by many to be the greatest of American novels and by some the greatest novel in the English language, Moby-Dick.  No doubt you have heard panegyrics to it many times, and these is no point in me telling you it is tremendous, a compelling masterpiece full of adventure, vivid scenes, amusing jokes, philosophical asides, and fun little bits of trivia.  Most of the fiction I have talked about on this here blog has been what we call speculative fiction--science fiction, fantasy, and horror--and what I will suggest is that Moby-Dick is of particular interest to fans of SF.

Firstly, Moby-Dick has been an important influence on some of the more literary SF writers, like Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delany.  Secondly, Moby-Dick has many of the elements and themes we find in SF, like a guy on a quest who has encounters with alien others in the form of both dangerous monsters and intelligent beings of strange foreign cultures.  There is a lot of talk about "world-building" in SF, and in Moby-Dick Melville builds a fascinating and strange world, the whaling ship on its years-long voyage, and the seaside towns from which such ships hail, describing the methods and culture of the diverse group of enterprising men who hunt whales from one end of the Earth to the other.

Moby-Dick also seems an appropriate novel for the current moment--one of the main themes of the book is that pagans are as good (or better!) than Christians and non-whites are as good (or better!) than whites, which today seems to be the primary topic of our public discourse.  Moby-Dick is also full of homoerotic scenes.  This novel, written in the early 1850s, is very woke! 

(At the same time, fans of weird fiction will appreciate the many hints that some or all of the non-white members of the Pequod's crew have occult powers, are in league with the devil, and may be manipulating the monomaniacal Ahab.)

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mid September Log: H. P. Lovecraft, W. Somerset Maugham and Varlan Shalamov--plus NSFW manga recommendations

At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

The week of September 13 I reread H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness from my Corrected Ninth Printing of Arkham House's At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels.  This is a good story, but I have to admit that the story's power was diminished by the fact that I knew everything that was going to happen.  I did not feel that way at all when I reread "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" back in March of 2018--in fact, even though "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" no longer held any surprise for me, my reread of that tale lead me to gush that it was a masterpiece classic deserving of "5 out of 5 unblinking fish eyes."

So, why might I prefer "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" to At the Mountains of Madness?  At the Mountains of Madness feels a little long and tedious, a little cold and clinical, and can be kind of repetitive (e. g., Lovecraft mentions painter Nicholas Roerich again and again, when once would have been sufficient.)  As you probably know if you are reading this, the plot of At the Mountains of Madness follows an Antarctic expedition that discovers a huge city built by aliens (the "Old Ones" or "Elder Things") many millions of years ago and pieces together from sculptures the history of that alien society, which, among other things, created the human race and went to war with Cthulhu and with the Mi-Go, the natives of Pluto.  The story, which is over 100 pages long, spends page after page describing the aliens' biology and architecture and history.  With the exception of the last quarter or so of the tale, the story kind of feels like a technical report, the narrator being pretty detached from what is going on.  "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is much more direct, personal and human--the narrator is in the thick of things, his own life and his own sense of himself at stake.  While At the Mountains of Madness shares many themes with "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--cultural and societal degeneration, subversion and violent revolution, the psychological danger of learning the truth about the universe and our place in it--"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" addresses these themes in a more personal and direct way, and adds themes I find particularly compelling, like weird sex and miscegenation, worries about one's own identity and disappointment in one's self. 

(Perhaps the most interesting distinction between the two stories is how the hideous revolution wrought in Innsmouth results from an American inviting in aliens from overseas, while the revolution that overthrows the Antarctic city of the Elder Ones is the result of the aliens' own genetically engineered slave race rising up against them and supplanting them--might this reflect fears of blacks rising up against whites and/or technology becoming the master of the humans who created it?) 

At the Mountains of Madness is a quite good cosmic horror SF story, but it doesn't thrill and chill like some of Lovecraft's other work--just four out of five star-shaped burial mounds. 

I looked through some of the volumes of Lovecraft's letters I own to see if I could find any fun tidbits about At the Mountains of Madness.  The story was first printed as a serial in Astounding (then edited by F. Orlin Tremaine) and in letters to Duane W. Rimel (February 12 and June 20, 1936) HPL complains at length and with considerable specificity about editorial changes made to the story for magazine publication, but does praise the illustrations for the story; in a January 18, 1936 letter Lovecraft even tells F. Lee Baldwin that, "The chap who drew those monsters must certainly have read the text with care."  Such sentiments are repeated in letters to Robert Bloch (March 14, 1936 and an undated one from June 1936) and to Donald Wollheim (February 7, 1936.)   

"Red," "Honolulu" and "The Pool" by W. Somerset Maugham

I reread three more stories by W. Somerset Maugham from East and West, the first volume of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham.  All three of these tales are about disastrous sexual relationships between white men and Pacific Islanders, and one features a suicide.  Maugham is an expert craftsman, and these stories are all just the right length, pace, and tone, including just the right level of detail to create believable and interesting characters, settings and situations without going overboard and burying you in superfluous verbiage.  Catastrophic love relationships, suicide, and the experiences of people who find themselves in an alien milieu are among my favorite themes, so I am absolutely on board with what Maugham is doing with these stories.   

"Red":  We observe the meeting of two white dudes who have spent the last 25 or 30 years in Samoa, a Swedish philosopher who moved to the Pacific for his health (old books are chock full of peeps who move south for their health) and an obese American sailor.  Through their conversation we learn about their relationships with women, and Maugham reveals to us the terrible truth about love--erotic relationships are tragically asymmetric and even passionately attached couples quickly get sick of each other.  A downer! 

"Honolulu":  This is an above average Maugham story, full of interesting stuff, and I think characteristic of his stories in general, so if you are curious to read one Maugham story to get an idea what he is all about, I think this would be a good one.  Maugham's portrait of Hawaii at the start of the 20th century is pretty interesting, and this story (judged by 2020 standards, as if I would do such a thing) is even more racist and sexist than most Maugham stories, so if you are writing your dissertation on white supremacy and patriarchy in early 20th-century literature penned by male homosexuals, well, here is grist for your woke mill!  Anyway, "Honolulu" is about a cheerful and obese ship captain, Butler, who has gotten in a lot of trouble in his life (like getting drunk so his ship sinks and innocent people are killed) but has managed to maintain a good attitude nonetheless.  Butler tells a story to our narrator (Maugham stories often have elaborate framing devices so that the text consists of a guy repeating with his own additional commentary a story he heard from some other guy) about that time the first mate of the little schooner Butler ended up skippering after his drunken boo-boo fell in love with his (Captain Butler's) girlfriend.  Both the mate (hilariously known as "Bananas") and the girlfriend (known simply as "the girl") are native Hawaiians (Maugham calls them "Kanakas.")  Bananas was a good sailor, so Butler didn't fire him for harassing his girlfriend, he just beat him up.  Immediately after Bananas recovered, Butler, who had never been ill in his life, got some disease no white medico could diagnose and started wasting away.  The girl of course thinks this is black magic employed by the jealous Bananas.  There is a clever twist ending that I had forgotten about and which took me by surprise--it is not a cheap gimmicky surprise, but the kind of surprise that feels real that I probably should have expected.

"The Pool": A Scottish banker takes a job in Samoa because his lungs are bad (see?--I told you.)  He marries a beautiful half-caste girl he sees bathing in a pool.  Because of a multiplicity of cultural differences, their marriage is a disaster, and the banker becomes a violent drunk and his career collapses--things then get worse from there.  Feminists take note: this story depicts a woman who would rather have a strong lover who hits her than a sniveling sensitive man who grovels before her and begs forgiveness for his infractions.  

"A 'Pushover' Job," "In The Night," "Shock Therapy," "In the Bathhouse" and "Carpenters" by Varlan Shalamov (trans. John Glad)

For much of the period 1937-1954, Varlan Shalamov was imprisoned in various labor camps in the region of Siberia known as Kolyma.  After his release he wrote many stories about life in the Gulag, and I read five of them in the last week in an internet archive scan of a 1980 book of selections from Shalamov's six volume work, Kolyma Tales, translated by John Glad.  Glad splits the collection into seven parts, and I read the five stories in the first part, which bears the heading "Survival."  These stories are quite short, the five of them totaling like 30 pages altogether.  All five stories are well-written and are compelling historical documents, but some are like journalistic accounts or fragments, while others have a traditional narrative structure.

"A 'Pushover' Job":  At the start of this story the narrator describes to us the "Siberian dwarf cedar," a tree or shrub that in winter leans close to the ground to protect itself from the cold and wind and in summer becomes erect again.  We are told the tree can be fooled into standing erect in winter by burning a fire near it.  Maybe this tree is a symbol of the people who have so long lived under a tyranny emanating from Moscow or more specifically the prisoners in the Gulag?  Anyway, we learn that the Communist Party's eggheads have the (fallacious) belief that needles of the dwarf cedar, when ingested, can cure scurvy.  Scurvy being a problem among the Gulag prisoners, the administrators of the forced labor camp have the needles processed into a noxious goop and compel all the inmates to choke down a dose of this gunk daily.  Collecting the needles is considered the easiest job in the camp, and our narrator, who is a physical wreck after working in the gold mines that are the ostensible purpose behind the Kolyma forced-labor camp system, is given the job of collecting needles as a little break.  Even the easiest task in the Gulag, the narrator finds, is difficult, dangerous and corrupting.

"In The Night":  At the beginning of the story we meet two prisoners; the scene demonstrates how little food the prisoners are provided.  Earlier in the day a man was buried in a shallow grave, and at night these two men dig up the body and steal the underwear from the corpse--they expect to sell the article for food or tobacco.

"Shock Therapy":  While "A Pushover Job" and "In the Night" are more like anecdotes or vignettes, "Shock Therapy" is a full scale story with characters, a plot that has a beginning, middle and end, and a little humor.  Gulag prisoner Merzlakov is a big man, tall and husky.  He has observed that the meagre rations issued the prisoners are not enough to sustain large men, and that as a result large men like himself die off much more quickly than small men.  He is caught eating food meant for the horses, and the guards beat the crap out of him.  Scared of being sent back to the mines, Merzlakov hides the fact that he has recovered from the beating, remaining bent over 24/7, tricking the authorities and doctors for months into thinking the guards broke his back.  Walking around all bent over, he looks like a gorilla (Merzlakov is compared to different animals several times over the course of the story.)  But when he is sent to a better equipped hospital, staffed by a doctor who is an expert at identifying fakers, our hero's ruse may be unraveled.  

"In the Bathhouse": The prisoners in the forced labor camp are regularly trooped out a bathhouse some distance form the camp, stripped, and given the opportunity to wash while their clothes are put in the "disinfestation chamber."  In journalistic fashion (no characters or plot this time) Shalamov describes the many reasons why men who are filthy from working in a gold mine and are crawling with legions of parasites are not relieved when it is bathhouse day, but instead dread its arrival.

"Carpenters":  Like "Shock Therapy," this has the conventional elements of a piece of fiction.  The driving force of "Carpenters" is the life-threatening cold of Siberia and the prisoners' quest for warmth; one telling detail is that when the prisoners awake in the morning in their barracks, their hair has frozen to their pillows.  When an official comes to a work gang saying he needs some carpenters, the foreman tells him he is out of luck, that this gang is made up of political prisoners, intellectuals--the foreman suggests that the official go to one of the gangs composed of petty criminals.  Enticed by the idea of working in the carpentry shop, which is heated, two of the political prisoners claim to be carpenters, humiliating the foreman and putting themselves in a tough situation--these smarty smarts don't know the first thing about working with wood and axes and saws, and once in the toasty warm shop they learn they are required to make thirty axe handles a day when they don't even know how to make one!

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In September I have also read a bunch more of those politically incorrect and NSFW Japanese comic books about young women suffering (and embracing!) various psychological issues.  The funniest and perhaps most outrageous was Yuugai Shitei Doukyuusei by Kuroha.  Pretty "out there" but presented with absolute seriousness is Takane no Hana wa Midaresaki by Itou Ei.  One that is fun and funny and not terribly outrageous, though like the other two manga I am recommending it questions conventional values (or is it that these manga are documenting current evolutions in conventional values? hmmmm...) is Yoshida Satoru's Hatarkanai Futari.   

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Early September 2020 Log: H. D., Norm Macdonald, and W. Somerset Maugham

Suffering from a cascade of fashionable, undiagnosed and unfalsifiable maladies ranging from writer's block and stage fright to social media fatigue and carpal tunnel syndrome, the MPorcius staff throughout August abstained from tweeting, blogging, and reading fiction.  During this period I read first hand accounts of service in the British Army and RAF during World War II and read the poetry of T. E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, and H. D.; I also, in biographies of T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound and collections of their letters, investigated the relationships of Hulme, Aldington and H. D. with Eliot, Lewis and Pound. 

I was favorably impressed by Hulme's lamentably small body of poetical work, which I felt combined striking images with human feeling and human drama and also exhibited an admirable economy.  We love economy at MPorcius Fiction Log.  I have to confess to being less impressed by the verses of Aldington and H. D.; their poems are competent, but page after page of rehashing topics that have been picked over for two thousand years or longer, like Helen of Troy and Circe, and gushing about the beauty of flowers and trees, gets a little tiresome.  Still, I enjoyed Aldington and H. D.'s poetry more than most of Pound's, which I continue to find difficult and boring.  (Eliot's poetry, seeing as it addresses topics of interest to me, like alienation, deracination, sexual dysfunction, and the search for meaning in our urbanized, globalized world, I find difficult but very rewarding.)

Bid Me to Live by H. D.  

Aldington and H. D. were novelists as well as poets, however, and this brings us to the first subject of this blog post, the blog post that proves that MPorcius Fiction Log is not really most sincerely dead, but merely in a coma--H. D.'s 1960 novel Bid Me to Live.  In the first week of September I finished reading a 1983 edition of the novel published by Black Swan and available at the internet archive; it has a cover photo of H. D. by Man Ray and includes useful afterwords  by Perdita Schaeffer and John Walsh, as well as a drawing of flowers by H. D. herself.

H. D., as you probably already know if you are still reading this, is an American woman born Hilda Doolittle who in her youth dated Ezra Pound and who later, in England, was one of the pioneering Imagist poets that gathered around Pound; it was Pound who conferred on her the distinctive pen name "H. D."  Between 1913 and 1938 H. D. was married to Aldington, though early on the marriage faced such disasters as the miscarriage of their child, Aldington's World War I service and his infidelities, and the two poets were separated for most of the period they were married, though they remained friends (we can see in the correspondence between Aldington and Eliot how Aldington continued to vigorously promote his wife's poetry.)  Bid Me to Live is an autobiographical roman a clef,  an impressionistic account of the collapse of H.D. and Aldington's marriage during World War I, and the beginning of a new phase in H. D.'s life, as she leaves London for the countryside (one theme of H. D.'s and Aldington's poetry is the superiority of the countryside to the city) and is influenced by other men, particularly D. H. Lawrence and composer Cecil Gray.

Bid Me to Live is a very literary novel, full of ambiguity, flashbacks and classical references.  The first line of the novel is a paraphrase of Cicero's "o tempora o mores," and H. D. doesn't mention Cicero by name--as a reader you are expected to be familiar with this famous, practically cliched, phrase.  The first paragraph also name checks Jocasta and Philoctetes.  I got the Cicero allusion, but no doubt the book is full of stealthy classical references I didn't get.

My favorite classical allusion from Bid Me to Live is when Julia (the H. D. character) watches her husband Rafe Ashton (Aldington), on leave from the battlefields of France, walk about the apartment naked, and thinks that in peacetime his body had been a sort of "Greek image," but now, hardened by his war service, he appears to be a "bronze late-Roman image [that] had got out of the wrong department of the Louvre or the British Museum...."  Of course, all the novel's references aren't classical; the title of the novel is from a poem by 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, and the Ashton marriage is compared to that of Punch and Judy (ouch!), while one wonders if Jocasta there in that first para isn't an allusion to psychoanalysis--H. D. was both a friend and patient of Sigmund Freud's.

I think we can break the novel into three main parts.  In the first part Julia is in an apartment in London, and we witness scenes of her there with the various other characters, mostly importantly her husband Rafe while he is on leave from France--during his leaves he brazenly has sex with a woman who is living upstairs, Elsa.  Elsa is a member of their circle of friends of artists, musicians and writers, and these bohemian types spend a lot of time plotting who should sleep with who, including lining up men to have affairs with Julia.  One of the interesting themes of the novel is the idea that people feed each other energy; Elsa is in a relationship with Frederick, AKA Frederico AKA Rico (one of the novels odd little elements is how several characters have multiple, apparently interchangeable names) and even as Elsa sleeps with Rafe, she (Elsa) is seen as the bedrock that anchors Rico so he can go on his various erotic and intellectual expeditions.  Elsa tries to set up Rico and Julia, because she sees Julia as a woman perhaps capable of inspiring Rico to some new sort of writing, and in fact it is Rico who, via letters full of literary critique and life advice, who inspires Julia to write new things and to make a change in her life.  Rico/Frederico/Frederick, incidentally, represents D. H. Lawrence.

In the second phase of the book Julia and another man proposed as a suitable mate for Julia, the composer Vane or Vanio (modeled on Cecil Gray), go out at night in blacked out London to the cinema.  In the third and final phase of the novel Julia moves to the countryside, into an old ramshackle house with Vanio, and spends lots of time wandering around, examining plants and old walls and so on.

In outline this novel sounds pretty good, but reading it it felt long and tedious.  For one thing, it is emotionally flat--our viewpoint character, Julia, seems to be in a kind of daze, stunned and depressed.  This makes sense--Julia recently suffered a miscarriage, she lives in a city subject to German air raids, and her marriage is collapsing and all her clever (and I guess well-meaning?) friends are manipulating her--but it doesn't make for a thrilling narrative.  Julia doesn't seem to have many strong emotions or drive, and doesn't really take initiative--H. D. doesn't portray her as passionately in love with any other characters, or as animated by anger at them or hate for them, or making big decisions; Julia just seems to drift along, a victim of circumstance, fate, and other people.  This is believable, but it is not page-turning stuff.

Much of the word count of Bid Me To Live is taken up with static descriptions of rooms, furniture, items, and plants, lots and lots of plants.  Julia and Rico love plants.  (Maybe these descriptions are supposed to trigger emotions in the reader, and my reception equipment is just too insensitive to read H. D.'s subtle transmissions.)  In the brief middle phase of the book, when Julia and Vanio go to the cinema, H. D. describes the film they watch in great detail.  In some ways this middle section is the most striking part of the novel, as it relates to the war--first comes the walk in the blacked out city, and then, at the theatre and at a restaurant, Julia sees scores of fighting men on leave, and thinks of how so many of them are doomed to death or maiming on the battlefield--from a balcony in the cinema she looks down and sees the legions of khaki-clad men and thinks of the cinema as a sort of charnel house.

It is hard to recommend this novel to a general audience as it is kind of slow and boring, though of course it is worthwhile for people interested in the literary world of which D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound are among the most prominent members.  There is also good stuff for scholars of gender here--for example, an epistolary discussion between Julia and Rico over the ability of women to write from a male point of view.  (This is one of the few times Julia seems to be taking a stand instead of just passively going with the flow.)  I'll definitely read more of H. D.'s poetry and I am interested in her memoirs of Ezra Pound and Sigmund Freud, but as for H. D.'s novels, well, I don't think I'll be cracking another one open anytime soon.     

Based on a True Story: A Memoir by Norm Macdonald

Like a lot of people, I think Norm Macdonald is the best comedian/stand-up comic.  When his novel, Based on a True Story: A Memoir, came out in 2016 it got lots of positive notice, and not just from comedians--I got the impression people were treating it like a real literary novel.  So in the first week of September I finally borrowed a hardcover copy of Based on a True Story: A Memoir from a Maryland public library via contactless pickup--it is OK for people who work at grocery stores and department stores be exposed to coronavirus, but we have to make sure our aristocratic priestly class of oh-so-precious government employees is safe!--and read it.

I can't deny that I was somewhat disappointed in Norm's book, after all the hype it received.  It is not bad, and I did laugh a few times, but some of the jokes are obvious, some are very familiar (e. g., the famous moth joke) and some are tedious.  The interesting thing about the novel is Norm's efforts to achieve literary value, to instill in the book the kind of ambiguity, unreliable narration, foreshadowing and sudden surprise you might find in a book by Nabokov or Proust or somebody like that.  The novel has a main narrative, a sort of adventure/crime story in which Norm and assistant Adam Eget travel cross country, trying to win money via gambling, a perilous which venture that leads to a dangerous expedient--the borrowing of money from a dangerous loan shark.  This caper story is regularly interrupted by flashbacks to Norm's earlier life, as Norm reminisces or relates to Adam Eget stories from his youth and early career.  These accounts of Norm's childhood in rural Canada and of famous episodes in his life--e.g., working at Saturday Night Live or on the film Dirty Work--seem to be based on a kernel of truth, but include outlandish and absurd elements, including horror elements that are sometimes played for laughs (one example: imprisoned after being convicted of a terrible crime, Norm tries to win status in the big house by raping a fellow inmate, only to have this man turns the tables on our hapless hero.)  These things obviously did not happen in real life, but are we expected to believe they happen in the context of the novel?  It soon becomes clear that this novel was (partly at least) written by a ghostwriter who was hired to listen to Norm tell stories of his life and work them into a salable manuscript.  The ghostwriter is a failed literary writer, and he hates Norm, so we have reason to suspect the many episodes of Norm suffering grievously and demonstrating his own incompetence do not reflect "the truth" of the world depicted in the novel, but have been made up out of whole cloth by the bitter and ultimately suicidal ghostwriter. 

Followers of the comedy scene will no doubt find mentions of Sam Kinnison, Dennis Miller, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and other comedy luminaries of interest.  In fact, I suspect that readers will require some familiarity with the work of Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield to "get" the humor behind extended sequences featuring those comedians.  I'm 49, and I assume people my age are pretty familiar with Rickles and Dangerfield, but maybe younger people are not--I recently met a young woman, the manager of a book store, no less, who, when Robinson Crusoe came up, had to admit she had never even heard of Robinson Crusoe.  Oy! 

"Rain," "The Fall of Edward Barnard" and "Mackintosh" by W. Somerset Maugham

On September 9, I reread the first three stories from my copy of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Volume 1: East and West, which I first read years before this blog rose from the depths.  The thirty stories in this 900-page book were all written between 1919 and 1931, Maugham tells us in the introduction.  I find Maugham's well-crafted stories very comfortable and smooth and entertaining, and on a reread I found "Rain," "The Fall of Edward Barnard" and "Mackintosh" all enjoyable.  All three concern Westerners (Americans or Britons) in the South Pacific, and all deal with literal or figurative suicide.  Suicide is a favorite topic here at MPorcius Fiction Log!   

"Rain:"  A devout and energetic missionary is stuck in quarantine with an American prostitute, and he tries to reform her.  Who will win this test of wills? 
"The Fall of Edward Barnard:"  An upper-middle class Chicagoan heads to Tahiti to find out what happened to his best friend, who went to Tahiti two years ago to learn the business with the idea he would return to Chi-town to marry his sweetheart--our dude finds his buddy has gone native!
"Mackintosh:"  Two British guys are administering an island in Samoa.  The second-in-command, a young, skinny, smart sophisticate, hates the old, fat, brutish and ignorant head administrator, but which of them is the better man and the man better suited to the task of maintaining order among the natives and promoting peace and prosperity on the primitive island?   

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For a few weeks there, I really thought MPorcius Fiction Log was kaput, but I find value in keeping a record of my reading and this blog is as convenient a means of keeping such a record as any.  So I guess MPorcius Fiction Log is not licked yet, though I doubt I will be putting as much energy into it as I did during what may come to be seen as MPorcius Fiction Log's "Golden Age."