Sunday, March 28, 2021

1977 SF novellas about the arts by Richard Frede, Charles L. Grant and Barry N. Malzberg

I haven't read anything by Barry Malzberg lately, so when I was poking around the internet archive and came upon an anthology of three novellas Malzberg edited with Edward L. Ferman in 1977, Graven Images, I decided to read the piece Malzberg contributed, "Choral."  (Presumably this novella, like 47 pages in Graven Images, is the basis for the 1978 novel Chorale.)  Then I figured I'd just read the whole thing, you know, see what it was all about.    

Graven Images, Malzberg tells us in the introduction to the anthology, has as its theme the arts.  Malzberg claims that before 1950 or so science fiction was too focused on technology to discuss the arts, and suggests that, while there have been some good SF stories about the arts since then, this anthology is something new, a precedent.

"Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" by Richard Frede

Richard Frede has only four credits at isfdb, and no wikipedia page.  Apparently he wrote a novel about the medical profession that was made into a TV show starring that hero of kaiju movies Nick Adams and sexy sexy Suzy Parker.  In his intro to "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" Malzberg lists Frede's novels (up to 1977, I guess) and says the man has published three mystery novels under a pen name.    

For like 30 or 35 pages of its 42 pages, "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" is a competent conventional mainstream story.  An Air Force colonel on maneuvers flies his jet fighter over a storm front, and finds the colors of the clouds as they filter the light of the setting sun to be quite beautiful.  His wife is rich, so when she hears him talk about it she commissions a landscape painter to paint this image for him.

The painter, Clarence, is our main character.  He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and four-year-old daughter.  He is bored of his wife and often fantasizes of having other women.  The Colonel wants him to fly with him over a storm front at sunset so he can get an idea of what to paint, and we follow Clarence as he spends long days at military bases receiving safety training and then just waiting for his flight with the Colonel.  There is so much detail about the training and the experience of flying in a jet fighter that the story feels like a journalistic account, which maybe it sort of is, as Frede (Malzberg tells us in the intro) flew with a U. S. A. F. officer doing research for a novel, The Pilots.  (The cover blurb of the paperback calls it "A scorching new heart-stopping drama.") 

Anyway, when Clarence is up in the F-106 seated behind the Colonel he accidentally activates his ejector seat.  He lands safely, and goes to a house.  Then the story takes a fantastical turn, as he meets an attractive woman who claims he is a knight who won her heart her years ago but, when she refused to give him her maidenhood, instead had sex with her sister.  After the knight left, the woman put her sister in an ice cave where she froze and still lies, perfectly preserved.  The woman forces Clarence into the cave, where he falls asleep.  When he wakes up he escapes the house and is rescued by an Air Force helicopter responding to the signal from his survival kit.  Clarence has a long beard, and it soon becomes evident, to the amazement of everybody, that Clarence was lost for seven years.  The Air Force looks for the house of the woman, which the chopper pilot saw, but the house has vanished.  Clarence learns his wife has had him declared legally dead, remarried, and moved to California.  The End.  

Acceptable.  The mysterious woman says things that may be allusions to some piece of literature I am not familiar with.  I was totally surprised when Clarence activated the ejector seat due to a boneheaded mistake, which is a plus--I always appreciate when a writer can surprise me without making me feel like I was blindsided, and Clarence's dumb mistake is totally logical.  Even the crazy medieval fairytale scenario he finds himself in is foreshadowed, so it doesn't feel too much like it came out of left field.  

I guess a noteworthy thing about the story is the respect shown to the Air Force personnel; there is nothing cynical or sarcastic about the story's treatment of the U.S. military.  Two nonwhite servicemembers are portrayed in a way that foregrounds the military's openness to diversity. 

This story hasn't been reprinted anywhere. 

"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" by Charles L. Grant  

Grant of course is famous for being the writer of "quiet horror," and this story was reprinted in a 2012 collection actually called Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant.  It also won a Nebula Award, and was the title story of a 1981 collection.  So here, presumably, I have a chance to experience Grant running on all cylinders, as people who know about automobiles say.   

It is the future!  Humans live on the moon and Mars; Philadelphia and New York are just two ends of one colossal metropolis, Philayork.  Gordon Anderson, as a child, fell in love with the theatre and the cinema, and so became an actor.  But the entertainment industry is going through a period of decline and there isn't much work for actors.  As the story begins (after a vague and gushy speech written by Anderson which serves as a kind of prologue) we find Anderson performing in a sort of vignette about surviving a disaster--he is attacked by a robot tiger and nearly drowned in a special effects flood.  Anderson's improvisational antics are being recorded for "dream-tapes for children," a new means of teaching kids life lessons about being brave and having perseverance and so on that doesn't put the kids at any real risk, a sort of short cut to adulthood.  The point of these scenes is, I suppose, to show how directors and "the industry" treat actors like shit--the robot tiger draws blood and the artificial flood almost kills Anderson, and none of the crew seem to care.

Anderson hates directors, and seems to put a lot of blame on them for the poor state of the entertainment industry.  In fact, he lives in fear that the police will catch up to him and he'll be imprisoned for, just a week and a half ago, hunting down and assaulting three directors.  When he hears the news reports about the attacks he is surprised to learn all three of his victims have survived. 

Anderson has two friends, fellow actors, a fat guy Phillip and his attractive girlfriend Helena.  Anderson steals Helena from the fatso, and Anderson and his new inamorata try to figure out the big picture--why aren't people going to the theatre anymore?  One possibility is that plays are all improvised now; they don't have scripts.  In fact, when Helena tells Anderson she has some scripts by Shakespeare, Miller, and Chekov, she talks about them as if they are rare artifacts.  

Phillip figures out Anderson beat up those three producers and contacts the police; Anderson and Helena fight their way through a police cordon and drive out of the megalopolis to live as fugitives in the countryside.  They start a traveling theatre troupe and become popular.  When the police finally catch up to them they are, in a way that struck this reader as unconvincing, pardoned for their crimes, which include shooting a cop with his own weapon.  The ending of the story is supposed to be sad, as Anderson tells us Helena died at age eighty and says he'll always remember her because he has a toy unicorn she gave him which she found in an abandoned house while they were on the run--it is not sad because Anderson and Helena are not interesting or even likable characters, and a toy unicorn is laughably saccharine.    

"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" is cheap, sappy, and sort of tedious; Grant expended too much energy on failed efforts to make the individual sentences feel poetic or literary and too little effort on making us care about the characters and such lame symbols as a toy unicorn or even making clear exactly what was causing the decline in interest in the theatre and what Anderson and Helena, out in the country, did to get people excited about theatre again.

So why did this mediocrity win a Nebula?  Remember, Nebulas are awarded by professional writers; presumably Grant's trying-too-hard prose, his grandiose vision of the importance of writers and his self-pitying and self-aggrandizing depiction of the plight of the creative class struck a chord with the Nebula voters, flattering their self-importance and powerful sense that they don't get the respect they deserve.


"Choral" by Barry N. Malzberg

In the intro to his own novella, Malzberg admits that he enjoys playing the violin far more than he ever has enjoyed any aspect of his career as a writer, and discusses his admiration for Beethoven.  The Ninth, he tells us, is in his opinion the greatest piece of music ever written.

(As an aside, I want to note that some of the plot elements of "Choral" are uncannily similar to those of another 1977 story, which I read in 2016, Carter Scholz's "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs.")  

It is the 23rd century.  In the 22nd century time travel was invented, and a mentally unstable genius, the physicist Karl Kemper, came up with the theory that history was malleable, that the past had been curated by time travelers to create the present.  People of influence and power found this theory persuasive, and a government project--the Department of Reconstruction--was founded to make sure that formative events of the past proceeded as the history books said they did.  The Department trains and sends Travelers, disguised as important personages--for example, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Adolf Hitler--back in time to play out the critical events that created the modern world and ensure they go off as expected, lest the rug be pulled out from under everybody living in the present.

Our protagonist Reuter is one of these Travelers, a relatively young man who has been on a few relatively minor missions as various politicians, but who is now in the middle of a big assignment: Beethoven.  Reuter must make sure Beethoven's monumentally influential works are created in the first place, and that they match the versions known to the 23rd century.  His masters transmit him from Department HQ in Buenos Aires to various critical moments in the life of ol' Ludwig van, points when his career might have gone off course or his work altered.  For example, we see Reuter at a rehearsal in 1808 when a conductor and some musicians object to the first four notes of the Fifth and implore Beethoven to change them--Reuter ferociously overrules their objections.  Between each trip, back in Buenos Aires, Reuter's handlers change his clothes to match the milieu of his next mission and his superiors debrief him.

Malzberg's body work is full of depictions of government agencies, like the space program in his famous SF work and public welfare agencies in his putatively erotic work like Everything Happened to Susan and Horizontal Woman, as institutions that are absolutely inefficient, incompetent and corrupt, and from the very start of "Choral" Mazlberg gives us clues that the Department of Reconstruction is very bad at its job and that its job is unnecessary or even inimical.  Reuter's interactions in the early nineteenth century are absurd, and he commits many blunders, and doesn't even seem up to the job (he doesn't care about music, for example.)  The Department is controversial and has detractors in government and amid the public.  And then there is the fact that the world you and I live in (the one with Thomas Alva Edison) is apparently not the world in which Reuter lives (in which there is an important figure by the name Thomas Alva Guinzaburg.)

Of course, the whole matter of whether these Travelers are "reconstructing" the past in order to preserve the present or are actually creating the past is hopelessly blurred--if the Department sends a man back in time with instructions to play Beethoven as a man with psychological issues, because the history books say he had such issues, isn't it possible, probable, or even certain that the reason that Beethoven is said to have psychological problems is because the man sent back to play him was told to exhibit those problems, or actually suffered from them himself?  This is the kind of time paradox we see often in SF, with people having sex in the past and becoming their own ancestors, for example.

Traveling is a psychologically trying task, and Beethoven, who has a simple personality, is an unsatisfying role for Reuter to play, and his superiors at the Department of Reconstruction in Buenos Aires suspect he is burning out.  Reuter begins to doubt the value, the necessity, of his work, and then Malzberg does something he rarely does--he holds out to us the possibility that the story has a happy ending!  After discussions with the mad physicist Kemper, who died over a century ago, about whether or not we have free will and whether or not life is meaningless, Reuter turns renegade, seizing control of the time travel system and transporting himself wherever he wants and, instead of following the script, doing whatever the hell he wants as Beethoven.  Instead of having an unhappy life Beethoven has a happy life, and all of history and the whole world are changed.  Of course, it is likely this campaign of rebellion is just Reuter's delusion--after all, how could he take over control of the time travel apparatus?    

A pretty good piece of Malzberg.  In particular, all the stuff about Karl Kemper, like how he put all the important stuff in the footnotes and committed suicide by inhaling seventeen thimbles, is fun.  Thumbs up for "Choral;" maybe someday I'll read Chorale.

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The critically acclaimed "A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" appears elsewhere, so it is hard for me to recommend Graven Images to anybody but Malzberg fans (like myself) and Richard Frede fans, if such people actually exist.  (If you are a Richard Frede fan, write the poor guy a wikipedia page!)  

Friday, March 26, 2021

From the August 1958 Fantastic Universe: de Camp, Harrison and Cooper

Let's look at another magazine sitting on the SF magazine shelves here at MPorcius HQ, one in such bad shape I will probably end up reading the scan of the issue at the internet archive for fear of my hard copy crumbling to dust in my hands, the August 1958 issue of Fantastic Universe, which features a cover by Virgil Finlay.  Now, we've already read one story that debuted in this issue, Harlan Ellison's "Back to the Drawing Boards," which I read in 2016 in the Belmont collection From the Land of Fear.  The other three stories in this magazine that are piquing my interest are those by L. Sprague de Camp, Harry Harrison, and Edmund Cooper; let's take a trip to the year Nikita Khruschev took over Communist Russia, Charles DeGaulle took over France, and Gigi took over the silver screen by checking them out!

"Ka the Appalling" by L. Sprague de Camp

I read a bunch of de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias stories years before I started this blog, and found them mediocre, but I am still willing to read the guy--you know, every few years.  "Ka the Appalling," isfdb is telling me, is the seventh of nine stories in the Pusadian series, and would later be reprinted in a few anthologies and de Camp collections.

It seems the Pusadian series is set in one of those Conan-like prehistoric fantasy milieus in which civilizations now forgotten erected big cities and built empires inhabited by wizards and priests and the men who confronted them with swords; Pusadia is the native name for Poseidonis, which is a region of Atlantis.  The theme of this story is that religion is a scam, though told sort of metaphorically--in the world depicted magic and demons are truly real, but gods are merely the product of people's belief in them.  (Fritz Leiber uses the same idea, that gods rely on their worshipers' adherence to maintain their own strength, in his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, in particular 1959's brilliant "Lean Times in Lankhmar.")  

Gezun is a young, tall, strong, good-looking Pusadian whose adventures have brought him to the city of Typhon.  He didn't realize Typhonians consider cats sacred, so when he sat down to eat at a tavern and a cat jumped up and stole his main course, he struck the felonious feline dead with his staff and retrieved his entrée.  So our story begins with Gezun being chased through the labyrinthine Typhonian streets by a murderous lynch mob.  He is rescued via a secret door in an alley by Ugaph; Ugaph is a minor wizard, a thief, and a skeptic who doubts the existence of the gods.  Ugaph blackmails Gezun into becoming his assistant.

Ugaph regularly summons a small demon that looks a little like a fox; the demon knows what goes on in all the temples in Typhon and gives Ugaph advice on what jewels and gold decorations and so forth in the local houses of worship are ripe for theft.  To summon the demon, Ugaph requires copious supplies of bats' blood, and Gezun's primary task is to hunt for bats in the neglected pyramidal tombs of forgotten Typhonian royal dynasties, a labor heretofore underttaken by Ugaph's attractive daughter Ro--Ugaph wants Ro spending her time hunting for a rich husband, not for bats.

Searching the tombs for bats is risky because the tombs are full of traps, and robbing temples obviously carries its own risks, so Gezun and Ugaph come up with a safer scheme for making money--starting their own bogus religion and taking in donations.  

The rest of the story is about how Gezun's lust for Ro, the demon's lust for bat's blood, and Ugaph's lust for money interact and lead to backstabbing, death, and the spectacular rise of the god Ugaph and Gezun make up out of whole cloth, Ka the Appalling.

In contrast to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard, de Camp doesn't write his sword-swinging adventure stories in a romantic, epic, or poetic fashion, with larger than life heroes who can fight off a dozen enemies at once, are driven by powerful passions and shake the foundations of nations.  Instead de Camp strives to make his stories realistic and mildly comic, and maybe a little cynical.  For example, Gezun is not deeply in love with Ro, he is just at the mercy of his hormones, and Ro isn't deeply in love with Gezun--she resists Gezun's ardent advances and after he takes her virginity she cries; Gezun doesn't hear her weeping because he fell asleep after deflowering her.  De Camp describes people's decisions and actions in a rational, business-like manner which feels a little cold and emotionless.

Still, I enjoyed "Ka the Appalling" more than I expected to.  The plot is good and it runs smoothly, like a clock; everything makes sense and there is a minimum of unnecessary verbiage.  So, thumbs up for "Ka the Appalling."

"Arm of the Law" by Harry Harrison

It is the future, in which mankind has colonized the solar system.  Nineport is a tiny little mining town and spaceport on Mars with a corrupt government; organized crime runs the whole town, from the gambling dens and bars that cater to the miners and spaceship crews to the police station, which has a complement of four cops.  The chief and the two beat cops are basically incompetent, but our narrator, the serjeant, was a big city cop on Earth for ten years before he was sent to Mars as punishment and he more or less knows what he is doing.

One day a robot cop arrives and joins the little force.  Chaos and hilarity ensue when the robot insists on enforcing the law, enraging the local organized crime boss, who tries to destroy the robot with a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon.  The robot and our narrator triumph over the criminals and make an honest town out of Nineport.

This story is perhaps a little slight, but it is entertaining and the jokes are actually amusing.  Thumbs up for "Arm of the Law."

"Arm of the Law" would reappear in Harrison's oft-reprinted collection War with the Robots and the 2001 career-spanning collection 50 in 50.

"The Lizard of Woz" by Edmund Cooper

"The Lizard of Woz" was reprinted in the 1963 collection Tomorrow Came and the 1968 collection News From Elsewhere, among other places.  I actually own a copy of the 1969 US edition of News From Elsewhere, and will read "The Lizard of Woz" from it in recognition of the possibility the story was revised for book publication.  "The Lizard of Woz" appears to have been considered a big selling point of the book, it being mentioned on the back cover and the very first page.  These come-ons make clear that "The Lizard of Woz" is a joke story, if the title hadn't already clued you in.


Despite its prominence in the advertising material for the collection, "Lizard of Woz" is a silly filler story.  Ynky (short for Ynkwysytyv) is a lone scout from a powerful intergalactic empire of lizard people that regularly exterminates or enslaves the intelligent species it encounters.  As punishment for trying to seduce a superior's daughter, Ynky has been sent to Earth to assess what should be done to the human race.  First he talks to an American who owns a lonely diner; this guy reads SF magazines and so is psychologically prepared to deal with an alien.  When Ynky lets this Yank know that he is all alone and is going to recommend that the human race be exterminated the Earthman tries to prevent the delivdery of this report by shooting Ynky with a shotgun; Ynky escapes with flesh wounds.

Yhnky proceeds to the USSR where he talks to a minor Communist functionary who manages a lonely train station.  Initially this Bolshie thinks Ynky is a commissar in disguise come to test his loyalty to the socialist project, and so is on his best behavior.  When he realizes Ynky is a real live alien from what he takes to be a capitalist society he cunningly sabotages the lizard's flying saucer.  Forced to crash land on an island in the South China Sea, Ynky meets a female Komodo dragon and falls madly in love, and the Earth lizard kills and eats him.     

"The Lizard of Woz" is not exactly bad, and of course I'm always happy to see somebody slag the Soviet Union and communism, but I consider this sort of story to be a waste of time unless it is very funny, and this piece is just barely entertaining.  The de Camp and Harrison stories we have read today are also meant to be funny, but they are also servicable adventure stories with plots that make sense, and their humor is based more on human personality and less on dumb puns.  Barely acceptable. 

Despite my dim view of this one, I am tentatively planning to read more stories from News From Elsewhere.  Until then, if you want more MPorcius coverage of Edmund Cooper, click these links for my blog posts on novels by Cooper that tackle such topics as race relations and relations between the sexes: 

Gender Genocide

A Far Sunset, Five to Twelve, and The Last Continent  


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Not a bad crop of stories.  Expect to see more discussion of stories by L. Sprague de Camp, Harry Harrison and Edmund Cooper in future installments of MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Weird Tales October 1933: Jack Williamson, Clark Ashton Smith & Frank Belknap Long

Last month we read Edmond Hamilton's "The Vampire Master," a four-part serial that began in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales. Two years ago I read Robert E. Howard's "Pool of the Black One" from the same issue.  And yet this issue contains still more tales that cry out to be read, drawing me to them like a space alien using its uncanny powers to break my will and force me to do its bidding!  Let's check out three more of the stories that are lurking behind one of Margaret Brundage's most mesmerizing covers, those by space opera pioneer Jack Williamson and prominent members of the Lovecraft circle Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long.

"The Plutonian Terror" by Jack Williamson

Forty-two years after its debut, "The Plutonian Terror" was reprinted in The Early Williamson, a book I remember borrowing from the Iowa Public Library soon after I moved to Iowa from Westchester County.  I don't think I read "The Plutonian Terror" back then, though.

Ellis Drew is a big strong engineer, and a genius who came up with all the scientific innovations necessary to build Earth's first spaceship.  A martyr to science, he has foresworn women so he won't be distracted from his scientific destiny!  His companion on mankind's first trip to the Moon is Keening the technician, another martyr to science.  This little guy wears bandages over his face at all times and speaks in a rasp--he explains that his reckless experiments with hard radiation led to his face and throat being burned away!

Our story begins as these two Stakhanovites of the slide rule set are returning to Earth after spending a year exploring lifeless Luna.  They spot an odd thing, maybe an asteroid, maybe a spaceship, crossing their path like 100 miles ahead of them; whatever it is, it looks like a cube a mile across, and it is moving too fast for them to get any closer to it.

Drew and Keening land near the house of a scientist, one of Drew's supporters, Frederic Durand, who has a gorgeous daughter, Tempest.  Before he blasted off for Luna with ol' bandage face, Drew told Tempest, who was keen on marrying him and even wanted to come to the moon with him, that science left no room in his life for women.  While he was on the moon he came to his senses, and now he plans to propose to Tempest as his first act upon returning to this big blue marble.    

But back on Mother Earth our astronauts make a shocking discovery--the Earth has been deserted!  No people are to be found--anywhere!  By charting that cube's course and interpreting other clues Drew and Keening realize that aliens must have kidnapped the entire human race and carried them off to Pluto!  So D & K re-provision their spaceship and take off for Pluto, "black planet...border world....last outpost against night of void cosmos."     

On Pluto, as on Earth, Williamson expends a lot of ink elaborating striking images, trying to set a mood, and I think he succeeds.  Among the mountains and crags that cover the surface of cold black Pluto, D & K spot the mile-wide metal cube in the bottom of a pit that is miles across and scores of miles deep; the bottom of the pit glows with blue radioactive fire.  They guide their little space ship down the shaft and explore on foot, and experience the kind of horror we expect to find in Weird Tales!  Pluto is ruled by the ultimate product of evolution (life arose on Pluto long before it did on Earth), a giant blob of goo that is a huge brain, kept alive by machines.  This mountainous brain has hypnotized and murdered the entire human race, and our heroes discover that the cube is a giant pantry--the bulk of the population of Earth is stacked up on its shelves, doomed to satisfy the brain's cravings for a midnight snack over the next few centuries.  A small proportion of humanity is serving as the brain's robotic zombie army, which D & K have to fight.   

After some yucky horror scenes the adventure plot is resolved by a device similar to that used in H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds--germs brought from dirty filthy Terra enter the brain after Ellis punctures a hole in it, and the brain dies in moments from infection; when it expires, the zombies collapse.  Then comes the amazing, and, I guess, heart-warming, denouement of the psychological plot--there is no Keening!  The short technician is in fact Tempest Durand in disguise!  With the rest of the human race exterminated, these two lovers have the solar system all to themselves!       

A fun gore and horror-oriented space story--thumbs up!  SF fans will find familiar the idea that the pinnacle of evolution is a practically bodiless brain, and may vaguely recall, as I do, that Williamson's classic novel, The Legion of Space, also features returning space adventurers finding Earth's population reduced to a zombie-like state.

We might also consider the possibility that "The Plutonian Terror" could be thought of as a feminist story.  Tempest Durand might be considered a feminist hero--she flouts the wishes of a man to join the crew of humanity's first spaceship, and proves herself an adept technician and handy with a rifle and a revolver.  Of course, a hard-core feminist might tell you that since Miss Durand performed these feats because she was in love with a man she is suffering from false consciousness and "The Plutonian Terror" fails the Bedlam Test and is thus patriarchal propaganda.  Oh, well.   


"The Seed from the Sepulcher" by Clark Ashton Smith

Edmond Hamilton isn't the only guy to take to the pages of speculative fiction magazines to remind us of the fact that plants are dangerous.  In this story, which has appeared in a gazillion anthologies, Clark Ashton Smith passes along that same warning that warms the hearts of the good people who manufacture Roundup. 

Dateline: Venezuela!  James Falmer and Roderick Thone are professional orchid hunters who brave tropical diseases and God-knows what other threats to search Latin American forests for plants to sell.  They had heard of a ruined city on a tributary of the Orinoco where, it was said, that the pit into which the ancients threw their dead was full of gold and silver.  So they and two local guides headed to the purported site of this ruin.  Along the way Thone caught one of those diseases and had to stop to nurse his fever, but Falmer and one of the native guides forged ahead to the ancient city.  But when he got back three days later, the once upbeat and chatty Falmer was a changed man, now sullen and taciturn.  He didn't find any treasure, and he refuses to offer any details of his explorations of the ruin.

The next day while canoeing down the river Falmer has a terrible spastic fit, and after shooting his comrade full of morphine, Thone finds a weird bump on his head.  Falmer briefly recovers and tells the horrific story of his adventure in the ruined city, which was so strange he thought it must have been built by beings from another world!

Falmer discovered the pit, and rappelled down into it, finding at its bottom lots of crumbling bones but no treasure.  Oh, and something else, a sort of thick vine whose roots and branches were all intertwined with the skulls and bones of skeletons, having apparently sprouted within a dead guy's head and sent its roots and branches through dead bodies as they grew.  As Falmer climbed out of the pit a bud or spore or something on the vine burst, spraying a powder into his face.  A frantic Falmer is certain that a monstrous plant is now growing within his own skull!

When the Indian guides get wind of what is wrong with Falmer they abandon the white men, and Thone tries to bring the afflicted man back to civilization himself, but is overcome by a relapse of his fever.  While coming in and out of consciousness over a period of days, Thone observes as the alien plant grows and devours Falmer, a process Smith describes in disgusting detail.  Eerily, a large flower blossoms from the plant, and its petals form a caricature of Falmer's face!  Even when his fever subsides, Thone cannot escape--he finds he is being hypnotized by the alien plant, which has some kind of inhuman intelligence.  Dominated by the plant's will, Thone crawls to it, to have his own body invaded by its roots and stems!

Both "The Seed from the Sepulcher" and Williamson's "The Plutonian Terror" feature aliens who use hypnotic power to break people's wills and control their bodies--these diabolical E.T.s  don't even let their victims rest after they have killed them, but work their dead bodies like puppets after they have slain them.  I guess these stories reflect our fears not only of pain and death, but of losing control of our own minds and bodies, of being mastered by the wills of those whose wills are stronger than our own.  I guess everybody who has ever worked a job or had a spouse can identify with this sort of horror.  

Thumbs up for "The Seed from the Sepulcher!"


"The Black, Dead Thing" by Frank Belknap Long

"The Black, Dead Thing" starts like a mediocre comic piece, with our narrator, some sort of professional or businessman, I suppose, who is on a cruise, making tepid jokes about how he can't really afford a cruise and how much he is suffering from sea sickness.  He recovers from his illness around midnight and goes out on deck, only to suffer a sudden relapse.  He sits down on a deck chair he hadn't expected to find so late at night, only to find it smells horrible and that sitting in it radically alters his consciousness.  The narrator, while in contact with the chair, exists in two dimensions at once, our own dimension in which he is sitting on a deck chair on a cruise liner, and a dimension of horror in which he is sinking through an ocean full of monsters and corpses.

The narrator springs up and alerts the Deck Steward, who explains to him that the ship is haunted; around midnight on the second night of each voyage a monster like a huge eel with a monkey's face appears and pulls out the deck chairs and lays in them.  On one trip a passenger was found to have been murdered by the monster, torn to pieces.  

The Deck Steward helps the stunned narrator get to his stateroom.  In the room the narrator finds a horrifying figure, which, I guess, turns out to be the monster disguised as a dead man wearing the clothes of the passenger who was killed on that earlier voyage. 

The story sort of ends there, with no resolution; what the monster is and why it does what it does is never explained, and the monster is never exorcized or anything.  The cruise ship completes its cruise to Havana, Haiti, Martinique, etc, and the narrator says he couldn't enjoy any of it, so spooked was he by his experience on the second night of the voyage.

I have to give this one a thumbs down.  The tone is all over the place, nothing is resolved, and the monster has no clear character or personality, it just does all kinds of random stuff (it is from another dimension and can provide access to other dimensions, it likes to sit in deck chairs, it kills people for no discernible reason, it can change shape, it terrorizes people for no discernible reason....)

Other people have been more impressed by this story than I have been, and it has been included in five or six anthologies, including anthologies marketed to young people.  Go figure.


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Jack Williamson and Clark Ashton Smith came through for us, but Frank Belknap Long brought an incoherent mess to the table (not for the first time, or the last time.)  More stories from magazines that were old before I was born in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Friday, March 19, 2021

1980 stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Tom Godwin and Charles L. Grant

There was a period during my residence in Ohio when I was seized by some kind of competitive mania or acquisitive impulse and bought lots of old SF magazines at a flea market and on ebay.  Here in the new house I just unpacked an entire box of these magazines, and decided to look into one--the lucky winner was the March 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a "SPECIAL ALL-STAR ISSUE" with a picture of a robot cowboy on the cover.  

This issue includes a hostile review by Algis Budrys of Doris Lessing's Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta--Budrys alleges that it is written in "Bureacratese," that Lessing's science is bad, and that the plot is full of old SF clichés that other SF writers have already worn out.  (In 2015 I wrote about Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into HellThe Fifth Child and Ben, in the World but have yet to read Shikasta or any of the Canopus in Argos books.)  There's a long letter from Sam Moskowitz on the occasion of F&SF's 30th anniversary.  Moskowitz praises F&SF for its never flagging high standards, and tells some engaging stories about his relationship with F&SF's editor from 1949 to '58, Anthony Boucher, and the first time Boucher bought an article from him.  And there's an ad for Michael Bishop's Catacomb Years, which I own but have not read.  (Joachim Boaz loved it.)  So I guess I got my money's worth when I bought this magazine, even before I have read the three included stories I have selected for discussion today, those by Manly Wade Wellman, Tom Godwin and Charles L. Grant.

"What of the Night" by Manly Wade Wellman    

Dale Parr is exploring a mountainous region of the rural American South when his car breaks down on an unpaved road in front of a decrepit house.  He takes shelter from the rain within and falls asleep.  When he wakes up the house is in better shape and he meets a beautiful young woman, a middle-aged scholar, and a shy butler; Parr suspects they are ghosts.  The scholar, who it turns out is studying witchcraft and has a pentagram printed on a table in his well-stocked library, and the woman, who it turns out is a portrait painter, try to charm Parr and trick him into participating in a magical ritual that will trap Parr in the house along with them--they have been trapped there a long long time and are bored and lonely.  The butler, a sort of amateur scientist and inventor, loves the woman and is jealous of the attention she is lavishing on Parr, so he helps Parr escape.  Parr finds a multi-talented clergyman who not only gets his car running again but frees the souls of the three ghosts or revenants or whatever they are from the house.

A competent if somewhat ordinary tale of the supernatural that has a happy ending and endorses conventional Christianity.  "What of the Night" would be reprinted in several places, including the 1987 Wellman collection The Valley So Low and the 1988 anthology Dixie Ghosts.

"Before Willows Ever Walked" by Tom Godwin  

Back in 2014 I wrote a marginally negative review of Godwin's 1958 novel The Survivors AKA Space Prison, and in 2019 judged his 1953 story "The Mother of Invention" acceptable.  Let's see if this piece, which I believe is Godwin's last and has never been reprinted in English, is more to my taste.

"Before Willows Ever Walked" is the story of a cruel legacy hunter.  Derken has made friends with a wretched old drunk, Smith, a man of means who is on his last legs.  Derken puts the dying man up in his house in the desert and tends to him and runs his errands and so forth, and Smith, thinking he has no living relatives, has made Derken sole beneficiary of his will.  But as the story begins, Smith, who has like a week to live, learns his granddaughter Mary did not die in the car crash that killed her mother, as Derken has been telling him.  Smith wants to change his will to include Mary, meaning Derken won't be getting that $500,000 he has been dreaming of while washing Smith's dishes and burning Smith's letters from Mary!

The narrative follows Derken's efforts to secure the money by tricking and murdering Smith.  The fantasy element of the story has to do with Joshua trees.  There are Joshua trees all around Derken's house, and Smith loves Joshua trees, thinks they have feelings and thoughts and are perhaps the remnants of a noble lost race with magic powers, etc.  Derken hates Joshua trees, finding them creepy.  Much of the text of the story is about how the trees become an obstacle to Derken's evil schemes and ultimately foil them through a series of what might appear to outsiders to be strange coincidences.  

This is a competent but unremarkable sort of weird story.  If you read the wikipedia page on Tom Godwin you will see he had a difficult life full of tragedy and alcoholism; presumably the tone and themes of the story reflect his own sad life.  This adds a little interest to "Before Willows Ever Walked," but judged on its intrinsic merits here in the pages of F&SF, it is merely an acceptable eerie story in which the universe metes out justice to a wrongdoer.

"Secrets of the Heart" by Charles L. Grant

Fixture of the horror community Grant's "Secrets of the Heart" would soon reappear in his collection, A Glow of Candles and Other Stories, and, having been nominated for a Nebula, Nebula Award Stories Sixteen

Miriam, our narrator, is a little girl, one of those kids like the brat in Jerome Bixby's famous "It's A Good Life" who has tremendous mental powers and can basically make anything happen.  Having destroyed her parents long ago she lives alone in a house and lures people inside and traps them with her, with the expectation that they will treat her like a princess.  Inevitably, she becomes dissatisfied with their behavior and destroys them.  This story chronicles one such episode; at the end of the story we are presented with the possibility that Miriam is going to leave the house and radically alter the entire world.  

I think this story may be striving to say something about human nature, about how we are all bad--all the characters are broken or criminal and one of the characters, a child molester, says "we all have secrets of the heart" and Miriam, at the end of the story, says to us "being nice all the time can be very, very boring" as if it is some universal truth.  I suppose this makes "Secrets of the Heart" more of a true horror story than are Wellman's and Godwin's stories--in the worlds of "What of the Night" and "Before Willows Ever Walked" there are some good beings out there and mercy and justice exist, but in Grant's world as depicted in this story it is evil all the way down.  "Secrets of the Heart" may also be a satire of the idea monotheistic religions put forward that a being of absolute power could be perfectly good--Miriam is omniscient and omnipotent, but is petty and selfish and casually murderous, as well as psychologically uneasy, rationalizing her atrocities and even considering suicide.

This story is OK, no big deal.

**********

So, all three of these stories are of professional quality, but are unremarkable, doing little that is new or striking.  Oh, well.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Black Colossus," "Rogues in the House," and "The People of the Black Circle" by Robert E. Howard

I felt like reading some Conan stories and started digging through the boxes here in MPorcius Fiction Log's new HQ.  By the third box I'd found my Ballantine Books/Del Rey editions of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (2003) and The Bloody Crown of Conan (2004) edited by Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke.  Let's check out three tales from their "lavishly illustrated" pages, stories of giant snakes, beautiful princesses and diabolical wizards and the barbarian who masters them all by Robert E. Howard that first appeared in Weird Tales, stories I read years ago, long before I started this crazy website of mine.

"Black Colossus" (1933)

This cover, I believe, depicts Yasmela
in a shrine of Mitra, imploring
the god for aid
"Black Colossus" first appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as Hugh B. Cave's "The Crawling Curse" and Clark Ashton Smith's "Genius Loci" and was illustrated by Margaret Brundage, who provided a nude young lady for the cover, and Jayem Wilcox, who contributed a kinetic battle scene inside (trigger warning: horse in distress!)  

"Black Colossus" is made up of four chapters.  Chapter I is great D&D stuff: three thousand years ago northern barbarians sacked the city of Kuthchemes, a colony of Stygians on the river known as Styx where was worshipped Set, the serpent god.  The ruler of Kuthchemes was an evil wizard, Thugra Khotan, and he had himself sealed in an impregnable tomb right before the invaders got to him.  Today, when the river has long since dried up and Kuthchemes has been abandoned for thirty centuries, one of the world's best thieves, Shevatas, comes to the sinister ruin, having learned through long research how to unseal it and how to outfight its ophidian guardian.  

In Chapter II an army of nomads and disaffected Stygians is marching north, an army assembled and led by some mysterious desert prophet whose face is always covered.  We readers know who this mystery man, known as Natohk the Veiled One, must be.  In the path of the Veiled One's army lies the small kingdom of Khoraja, a nation of Kothians who won independence from neighboring Koth some time ago.  Khoraja's king is imprisoned in some other kingdom, so the king's beautiful sister, Princess Yasmela, is acting as regent.  (The politics in these Conan stories can be a little complicated.)  Night after night the Veiled One casts his soul forth from his body to appear above the reclining Yasmela as a phantom that tells her all the things he will do to her luscious body after he has conquered her little country and become Khoraja's sexual harasser in chief!  

"Black Colossus" is of course an adventure story full of sex and violence, but it is also about cultural clashes and cross-cultural pollinations.  "Kothian culture and religion," Howard tells us, "suffered from a subtle admixture of Shemite and Stygian strains...[t]he simple ways of the Hyborians had become modified to a large extent by the sensual, luxurious, yet despotic habits of the East."  Here we see history buff Howard echoing the kind of judgments made of the Greeks by conservative Romans like Cato the Elder, of the Byzantines by the crusaders, and by Victorians of "the Orient."

Howard portrays the Kothians as Westerners who have fallen into decadence from contact with the decadent East and abandoned their sober and sturdy traditions, but offers the possibility that reconnecting with their Western values can rejuvenate them.  One of Yasmela's ladies-in-waiting is a political exile from some other country, one where they have stuck closer to their Hyborian roots.  She has contempt for the cruel gods worshipped by the Kothians, and exhorts Yasmela to call for succor from Mitra, a Hyborian god long neglected by the people of Khoraja.  Mitra, with oracular subtlety, guides the princess of Kharaja to seek the aid of Conan, currently an officer in a mercenary company serving Yasmela.  Trusting in Mitra, and excited to find Conan such a handsome hunk of man-meat, she promotes the Cimmerian to commander of all her armies.  (Yasmela has never seen a Cimmerian before, and if Hyborians are less decadent than Sytgians and Shemites and other Eastern and Southern creeps, the Cimmerians, being from even further north than the Hyborians, are even more capable and competent.)

The most boring part of these Conan stories is the fictional military history stuff, and we get some of that in Chapter III.  I'm interested in military history, but if I wanted to read orders of battle (Khoraja fields 500 knights, 5000 light cavalry, and 500 spearmen, plus 1000 mercenary cavalry and 2000 mercenary infantry) and descriptions of each unit's equipment, I'd read a real history book about the Peninsular War or the Battle of El Alamein or Sir Arthur Harris's quest to bomb Germany to rubble something like that.  I read these Conan stories for the sorcery, monsters, and the blood and guts of one extraordinarily willful man carving his way through a hostile world to pursue his heroic destiny.        

Luckily, Chapter III is mostly about Conan's relationship with Yasmela and how Conan learns the true identity of the Veiled One. 

In Chapter IV we get the order of battle of the Veiled One's army of chariot-riding Stygians and nomads and black Kushites.  Then the battle.  Thugra Khotan's army attacks up a narrow pass, and while the Khorajan foot troops hold the invaders at the top of the pass Conan's cavalry sneaks around and attacks them from behind, breaking them.  In single combat, Conan kills the rebellious Stygian prince who is leading the Stygian contingent of the Veiled One's army.  In the confusion following the rout of the wizard's army and the berserk pursuit of them by Conan's troops, Thugra Khotan, mounted on a demon who has taken the form of a chariot pulled by a monster camel and driven by a monster ape, seizes Yasmela!  (Conan stories often include some kind of ape and some kind of giant snake, and "Black Colossus" offers both.)  Conan grabs a horse and gives chase; at a nearby ruin he rescues the princess moments before she is to be ravished by the 3,000-year old sorcerer.  Yasmela then gives her body to Conan, her hero.

This is a decent Conan story, though I'd maybe rather see more stuff with Thugra Khotan and/or the disaffected Stygian prince and less battlefield stuff.  "Black Colossus" has appeared in a million Conan books, but isn't one of those Howard pieces which has been widely anthologized.  I'm sort of wondering about the title; Conan doesn't have to fight a big black statue or a giant Kushite or anything like that.  Maybe the title refers to the renegade Stygian prince--he is a "dark-skinned giant" who, having lost his weapons and armor and fights Conan with a rock while wearing no more than a loincloth, but he's a pretty minor character.    

Conan the Freebooter is one of the many volumes to feature "Black Colossus"

"Rogues in the House" (1934)

Here's another story that hasn't really been anthologized much, but was included in Christine Campbell Thomson's Not At Night series almost immediately after its appearance in Weird Tales, and again in a 1961 volume.  It's a fun story full of twists and turns I won't trouble to detail here, a story abut treachery and about humanity and civilization--who is truly human, and whom should we admire, the civilized or the primitive?

The story takes place in a city full of corrupt and treacherous people--the entire place is physically and morally rotten, even including a slum called "the Maze" whose narrow streets are obstructed by piles of garbage and deep cesspools in which the unwary may drown.  This is a monarchy, but the true ruler of the city is not the king but Nabonidus the Red Priest, an eminence gris who manipulates the monarch and every other person of influence in town.  When corrupt young aristocrat Murilo gets wind of the fact that Nabonidus is going to have him killed or exiled, Murilo decides to launch a desperate preemptive strike, and goes to the city prison to bribe a guard to release the biggest and toughest of the inmates--Conan the Cimmerian!  In return for his freedom, Conan agrees to go to Nabonidus's house, which is protected by various monstrous sentries and an array of death traps, to slay the Red Priest.

Once free, Conan first gets his revenge on the faithless girlfriend who called the cops on him and then makes his way to the house of Nabonidus.  Due to some plot twists, Conan and Murilo both end up trapped in the secret tunnels under the Red Priest's fortified house.  Down there they bump into a stunned Nabonidus himself!  It seems one of Nabonidus's weird guards is a sort of missing link, an apeman, a member of a savage tribe that is halfway through the process of evolving from apedom to humanity!  This muscular brute, Thak, was acquired by Nabonidus when he was a cub, and for years has torn intruders and other troublemakers limb from limb at Nabonidus's command.  But today Thak rebelled, killing Nabonidus's other protectors and throwing the Red Priest down into his own dungeons!  Thak is more human than the Red Priest realized--not only does Thak have human ambition and the human inclination to betray others, but has figured out how to manipulate all the death traps that ward almost every room and portal of Nabonidus's crazy house. 

Nabonidus, the clergyman who manipulates an entire kingdom for his own greed, Murilo, the noble who sells state secrets to foreign powers, and Conan, the barbaric bandit and pirate, must work together to overcome the apeman Thak and the traps at his disposal.  Maybe the fact that a bunch of patriots who seek to liberate the kingdom from his illegitimate rule chose this very night to assassinate the Red Priest will work in the three desperate men's favor?  Who will live and who will die?  And will these three rogues resist the urge to betray each other? 

This is a good story which has plenty of monsters, violence, and clever traps and devices, and puts forward Howard's idea that civilization is bad and barbarians, savages, and maybe even beasts are more honest, trustworthy and admirable than city folk, including women, priests, and politicians.  Thumbs up!


"The People of the Black Circle" (1934)

This is a longish one that was serialized over three issues of Weird Tales.  Besides the many expected Howard collections, it has been reprinted in one of those anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover, this one a bunch of stories about wizards.

The setting of "The People of the Black Circle" is transparently based on the mountainous border region where Afghanistan, Iran, and India meet (remember, kids, there was no independent nation of Pakistan when Howard was alive.)  Conan is a bandit chief, the leader of a bunch of Afghulis based in Afghulistan in the foot hills of the Himelian mountain range.  (Like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and John Carter, Conan is a white man who goes to foreign places and quickly becomes a top leader among the natives.)

The country Conan's Afghulis are always raiding is called Vendhya.  As the story begins, the king of Vendhya is lying abed, writhing in agony, on the brink of death, the victim of the magic of a cabal of evil sorcerers.  The black magic in this story is well-written and interesting, so I have to commend Asimov, or maybe its Martin H. Greenberg, or maybe its Charles G. Waugh, for selecting this story for that anthology.  The king's sister, Yasmina, whom we'd probably call a princess in the West but whom in Vendhya is called "Devi," resorts to a horrible expedient--she kills His Majesty with her own dagger in order to keep his soul from being implanted by the evil wizards into the body of a night gaunt!  Yasmina, the second princess in a Conan story we are talking about today who becomes ruler of the kingdom when her brother the king gets incapacitated, vows vengeance on the wizards, known as the Black Circle, who have caused the king's death.  These bastards live way up in an isolated castle in the Himelias.  The only person she can think of who is enough of a badass to go after the Black Circle is Conan the bandit leader, so Yasmina hies up to the border to negotiate with the Cimmerian.

But beautiful Yasmina has more problems than she knows: her court has been infiltrated by a disguised member of the Black Circle, a young wizard named Khemsa, and Yasmina's favorite maid-in-waiting, Gitara, has fallen in love with him!  Gitara uses her charms to convince Khemsa to turn renegade, to divorce himself from the Black Circle and try to capture Yasmina himself as the first step to taking over Vendhya and then ruling the world!  (It's the old story: a woman falls in love with you and immediately pushes you to abandon your friends and take all kinds of risks to further your career.)

The Vendhyan border patrol has captured a bunch of Afghuli chiefs loyal to Conan and Yasmina hopes to use them as bargaining chips in her negotiations with the Cimmerian, but the second Conan sees the Devi he kidnaps her to use as a bargaining chip.  Conan is the kind of negotiator who thinks outside the box!  He carries her away to a village of Wazuli hill people friendly to him.  Little does our hero know that Khemsa and Gitara are right behind him--with his magic Khemsa can fly.  Khemsa uses hypnotism and other magics to turn the Wazulis against Conan, and our hero and Yasmina barely escape the Wazulis with their lives.     

Later, after some scenes in which Conan and Yasmina get to know each other a little better, Khemsa directly attacks Conan on a cliffside mountain track.  Four wizards of the Black Circle arrive to interrupt the showdown and dispose of their insubordinate disciple and his inamorata.  Then they flit away, bringing with them the Devi Yasmina!

Conan heads for the mountaintop castle of the Black Circle wizards to rescue Yasmina, receiving aid from unexpected quarters--a dying Khemsa gives him a magic item and some advice, and the Cimmerian is joined by yet another guy who wants to kidnap Yasmina, a spy who has been acting as a sort of liaison between the King of Turan and the Black Circle wizards; he has been hanging around the court of Vendhya masquerading as a prince from Iranistan trying to figure out a way to effect the Turanian king's policy of adding Yasmina to the royal harem and adding Vendhya to the Turanian empire.  

The eighth of "The People of the Black Circle"'s ten chapters is devoted to describing the meeting of that hot property that is in such high demand, Devi Yasmina of Vendhya, with the leader of the wizards of the Black Circle, who says he is going to break her will and make her his slave because she "is fair to look upon."  The wizard casts a spell that causes her to relive all her past lives in a brief moment, sort of an odd thing to do, I thought, but exactly the sort of thing that happens to people in Howard's stories "The Children of the Night" and "The Dark Man."  There is a sort of exploitation element to this, as in so many of her past lives Yasmina was a woman who got whipped or executed or enslaved or raped.  "She suffered all the woes and wrongs and brutalities that man has inflicted on woman throughout the eons; and she endured all the spite and malice of woman for woman."  I guess this sort of experience is meant to humble the Devi, who has spent her entire current life being waited on hand and foot. 

Meanwhile, Conan and his companions of convenience fight their way past magical tricks and traps into the castle.  One by one the soldiers accompanying the Turanian spy get killed; in the climactic battle with the wizards the spy is dramatically slain by sorcery.  Conan, with the help of Khemsa's magical device and magical advice, triumphs over the magicians (whose leader turns into a giant snake) and embraces Yasmina, who has fallen for the irresistible Cimmerian hunk.  

In the final chapter of the story Conan and Yasmina discuss the possibility of marrying their fortunes together, but Yasmina has her duty to the people of Vendhya and is accustomed to civilized life, while Conan has his duty to his Afghuli bandits and his devotion to a life of freedom and adventure.  The Cimmerian reunites with his band, and Yasmina with a unit of Vendhyan cavalry; the two forces work together to defeat a Turanian invasion force (and a final attack by the leader of Black Circle wizards, this time in the form of a vulture) and then Conan and Yasmina part ways.

A good Conan story with particularly interesting magic.  Thumbs up!          


**********

These three stories are all solid sword and sorcery capers, but I'd judge "Black Colossus" as the weakest; despite its strong opening much of it is perfunctory and obvious.  "Rogues in the House" has all those cool traps and devices and does a good job pushing Howard's themes, and is probably my favorite, though "The People of the Black Circle" is stiff competition with all that fun black magic.  

Looking at Sam Moskowitz's article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940" we see that "Black Colossus" was the most popular piece in the June '33 issue, but that "Rogues in the House" lost out to a reprint of an eight-year old A. Merritt story, while the three installments of "The People of the Black Circle" were overshadowed by stories by Seabury Quinn, C. L. Moore (cover story "The Black God's Kiss") and S. Gordon Gurwit.  

No doubt we'll be seeing more of Conan, and more Weird Tales stories, in the future.  Until then, don't put your trust in any priests, politicians or prestidigitators.

Six Books by Theodor Geisel

I never liked Dr. Seuss as a kid.  When I was a kid I loved violence and danger and jokes; my favorite thing was Tom and Jerry--I loved it every time Tom suffered some horrendous injury.  There was no violence or danger or jokes in Dr. Seuss, at least none I could discern as a child.  Dr. Seuss was also so often preachy, telling you to not fight or not chop down a tree or whatever--besides being boring, this seemed ridiculous to me as a kid; sometimes you gotta fight some jerk and sometimes you gotta chop down some tree.  Now, "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" could also be a little preachy, but they had lots of fun characters and skits, funny jokes, and an undertone of danger and violence, what with Oscar the Grouch and the Count and Letterman and Spiderman and so forth.  I also didn't like Dr. Seuss's drawing style, with its characters that all look dumpy, or sleepy, or "cute" in a cloying, irritating way.  Seuss's drawings have no dynamism and convey little emotion, and when they try to elicit emotion from the viewer they come across as manipulative and insincere.

Screenshot from CNN.com

The exception of course is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which a guy demonstrates some emotional intensity and goes on a risky mission, driven to exasperation by the holidays, which I agree are an excruciating hassle.  In the end, the Grinch, like Winston Smith, learns to love Big Brother, and like King Kong, is laid low by society, a horrible lesson to us all.  To me, Dr. Seuss is a one-hit wonder.

Anyway, recently Dr. Seuss has been in the news because the publisher of his books has decided to cease producing six of his titles.  These titles, allegedly, "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong."  When I heard this I thought maybe Dr. Seuss deserved a second look.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1934)

I had this book as a kid and I found it intolerably boring and impossible to read; it is like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in book form, the same boring thing page after page with some slight addition which is supposed to be amusing, I guess.  Anyway, a kid, Marco, has been enjoined by his father to be alert and take in the sights while walking home from school, but the only sight he sees is a horse pulling a cart.  He considers embroidering the account he will offer his father upon returning home (I guess Dad is telecommuting), saying the cart was drawn by an elephant and was accompanied by a magician and so forth, but in the end little Marco pussies out and tells Dad the truth.  "He had won the victory over himself," you might say.  Boring.

Nothing actually happens in this story except that Marco toys with rebellion, with doing the wrong thing (lying) and then just does the right thing; there is no real conflict or journey.  It's like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" with all the drama taken out of it.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street is apparently "hurtful and wrong" because, along with the aforementioned magician, Marco imagines seeing a Chinese man accompanying the cart, carrying along with him a pair of chopsticks.  The story also mentions an Irish cop, and that the elephant is ridden by a "Rajah."  These characters don't do anything interesting, like throwing Muslims in a concentration camp or getting blind drunk or throwing a widow on a bonfire, so I don't know how offensive they could really be, but that is probably just because no character in this story does anything interesting.   

If I Ran the Zoo (1950) 

I don't think we had this one; at least I don't remember it.  In fact, of the six discontinued books, I don't think I've ever looked into five of them until today.

If I Ran the Zoo is a lot like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street--just some brat's flight of fancy--but with even less of a plot, because the brat in this one, McGrew, doesn't even have to resist the temptation to lie.  The whole book is a list of the fictional creatures McGrew would, should he be put in charge of the zoo, catch and put on display after setting free the customary lions and tigers.  Most of these fictional animals look essentially the same and express the same limited emotions; the mammals all have the same skull and same big dumb grin:


The birds all have the same upturned beak.  Lame!  Dr. Seuss just draws the same ugly tedious stuff again and again.  

Having trashed Dr. Seuss's drawings, I guess I'll say that I find Dr. Seuss's rhymes to be equally lame.  Any dolt can take an ordinary English word and then make up a nonsense word that rhymes with it.  It's like cheating!   

If I Ran the Zoo is apparently "hurtful and wrong" because it includes drawings of Africans with rings in their noses and East Asians with those Japanese platform shoes I think are called "geta."  There is also a sort of desert chieftain character with a turban and a curved sword; McGrew hints that he will have one of these chieftains in his zoo, I guess a joke about the naivete of a little boy who thinks he could have a human being in his zoo, a joke that an uncharitable critic could claim is a reference to slavery.

McElligot's Pool (1947)

Marco is back!  And this time it's personal!  Marco, everybody's favorite reformed fabulist and star of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, is fishing in some tiny pond that is full of discarded junk, and when a farmer tells him there are no fish in there Marco fantasizes that maybe McElligot's Pool is connected via a subterranean stream to the ocean, so maybe he'll catch something after all.  Dr. Seuss draws about a million silly fanciful fishes, some based on elementary puns, like a dog fish that, you know, looks like a dog.  

McElligot's Pool is apparently "hurtful and wrong" because there is an anodyne picture of an Eskimo with an igloo and a spear.  I thought some Eskimos actually did live in igloos and hunt with spears, but I also thought some Chinese people actually ate with chopsticks, so what do I know? 

On Beyond Zebra (1955)  

This is the fourth of the six books dumped by the publishers of Theodor Geisel's ouvre that consists of some little boy's absurdist fantasy and drawings of the boring animals that populate the tyke's imaginary world.  I have to say this one is marginally better than its predecessors, however.  For one thing, the book's basic conceit is clever--conventional people may only use the 26 letters of the alphabet we all learned in that prison we call school, but the brat in this story tells us there are letters beyond Z, and helpfully informs us about the animals whose names start with these esoteric characters.  Secondly, some of the fictional letters are well-designed; Nuh, Quan and Yekk have a nice art nouveau curvature to them:

Thirdly, a few of the fantastic animals are a little creepy, eliciting an emotional response in the reader that contrasts with the boredom generated by the creatures in the earlier books.    

On Beyond Zebra is apparently "hurtful and wrong" because there is a drawing of a guy riding a thing like a horned camel.  This illustration is the one for the letter Spazz, and I wonder if maybe the use of the word "spazz" is the real reason for the defenestration of this volume.  

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)  

You won't be surprised to hear that the text of this book is the monologue of some kid indulging in a silly fantasy that gives Dr. Seuss a reason to draw a bunch of limp cartoon animals, mostly birds this time around.           

Peter T. Hooper tells a little girl, Liz, that he recently collected the eggs of strange birds from around the world in order to make his breakfast.  Boring.

Scrambled Eggs Super! is apparently "hurtful and wrong" because there is a drawing of some people in the Arctic in a boat.  This drawing is even more harmless than the one of an Eskimo in McElligot's Pool--there is no igloo and no spears are depicted--it is just a bunch of people in a boat.  My personal theory is that the real reason Scrambled Eggs Super! has been candled and discarded is that Seuss rhymes "frog" with "wog," which he uses as a nonsense word but, like "spazz," sounds like a common insult.

The Cat's Quizzer (1976)

I can't believe I started this blog post bitching that And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street has almost no plot only to now be compelled to report that of the six books by Dr. Seuss I read today And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street had the most plot and character development.

The Cat's Quizzer is just a bunch of questions that are meant to be funny, some based on puns, some meant to provoke creative answers (what would you do if you saw a dinosaur in your backyard?) others directly addressing the reader's experience (what did you eat for dinner last night?) others nonsensical and unanswerable trick questions ("What was George Washington's favorite TV program?")  One of the nonsense questions is what landed this book in trouble: "How old do you have to be to be a Japanese?"

In some ways this is perhaps the best book I'm discussing in this blog post because it is easy to see that reading it to a little kid might be fun if it inspires creative reactions. 

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I wish I had written this blog post five years ago, because putting it up today makes it look like I am kicking a man when he is down, and by trashing Seuss it may appear that I am making common cause with the social justice charlatans, when in fact I like them even less than I like Dr. Seuss.

Tootle

I'd like to defend Dr. Seuss against his detractors, but today's reading, inspired by recent headlines, has not persuaded me to alter my decades-old opinion that Dr. Seuss is lame and boring.  This perhaps raises the question of what children's books I did like as a child.  Richard Scarry is one author who is standing out in my memory.  Then there are the Sesame Street book starring Grover called The Monster at the End of this Book, The Little Engine That Could and Tootle (my Dad was into trains and so there were lots of train books), Scuffy the Tugboat and The Happy Little Whale.  These books all have actual plots in which something happens, actual characters who do something and evolve in some way, and compelling art.

Scuffy

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Social Science Fiction by Harry Harrison, R. A. Lafferty and Raymond F. Jones

One reason I have been reading all those stories from Weird Tales instead of purportedly more "serious" science fiction is that I sort of feel that I have nothing to learn anymore from stories that try to tell you how society functions or should function.  I'm 49 years old and I've read quite a few SF books and I have a long (at least it feels long!) career on the periphery of academia behind me, so I've read my fair share about whether or not religion is a dangerous scam and whether or not the government should have more power over your life and whether or not we have free will and whether history is driven by the actions of impressive individuals or by vast collective forces, and all that stuff, and I've made up my mind about those topics and no short story is going to alter my thinking about these things, things which I am in fact a little sick of hearing about.  I am not sick of sex and violence, though, and thus Weird Tales is still right there at the center of my interest.

That said, let's take a break from the living dead and black magic to read science fiction short stories that are specifically promoted as "casting new light on social problems."  If you type "science fiction anthology" into the internet archive's search field, one of the things that comes up is Above the Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction, published in 1971, edited by college professors Willis E. McNelly and Leon Stover.  According to wikipedia, McNelly was "close friends" with Frank Herbert, and Stover wrote an unpublished biography of Robert A. Heinlein, so these individuals were intimately connected to the SF community.  

Let's take a look at stories from within the pages of McNelly and Stover's book by authors with whom I already have some familiarity: Harry Harrison, R. A. Lafferty, and Raymond F. Jones.   

(But first, I'll provide links to blog posts in which I unburdened myself of my opinions about three stories in Above the Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction which I have already read: "They" by Robert Heinlein (1941)"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" by Harlan Ellison (1968), and "Who Can Replace a Man?" by Brian Aldiss (1958).

"Rescue Operation" by Harry Harrison (1964)

As a youth I really enjoyed Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero, the Stainless Steel Rat books, and the Deathworld books; nowadays that sort of broad satire and sarcastic smartassery appeals to me much less, but when I recently (within the last ten years is recent, right?) read the first two of Harrison's books about an alternate Earth full of dinosaurs in which humans have to fight a race of matriarchal reptile people, West of Eden and Winter in Eden, I quite liked them.  Above the Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction includes two stories by Harrison--let's see how I feel about them. 

"Rescue Operation" is about how rural people are closed-minded religious dopes who should listen to their superiors--the scientists! 

Joze Kukjovic is a nuclear physicist in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; currently he is hanging around in a little seaside town full of superstitious peasants because he loves to dive and explore sunken Roman ships.  Two fishermen come to him one morning when he's drinking his Turkish coffee and tell him that they saw a spaceship crash in the Adriatic and spotted the ejected astronaut in the relatively shallow water!  Kukjovic hurries to the site of the crash and rescues the astronaut--but it's not one of our boys who has the right stuff, and it's not some vodka-swilling Russki--it's a bona fide space alien!

"Rescue Operation" is a sort of traditional SF story in which our hero, a man of science, uses the scientific method and trickery to try to overcome his inferiors--the uneducated Christian villagers--and solve a problem--the problem of keeping the alien alive.  Because of the bungling of the locals, Kukjovic fails, and the alien dies in agony.  Even worse, as the alien is dying it whips a book out of its suit to give to Kujovic, but a local priest, who thinks the alien is a demon, snatches the book and throws it in a fire, destroying this potentially world-shaking source of new knowledge!

The story's themes may be tired, but "Rescue Operation" is well-written and paced and Harrison handles all the hard science stuff in a fun way, so I can recommend it--moderately good standard issue anti-religion pro-science SF.

"Rescue Operation" debuted in Analog and has been reprinted many times in anthologies and Harrison collections.  It appears that Harrison considered it one of his best stories.


"Roommates" by Harry Harrison (1971)

"Roommates" first appeared in Thomas Disch's anthology The Ruins of Earth.  (R. A. Lafferty's "Groaning Hinges of the World," which I read back in 2013, also made its debut there.)  Wikipedia tells me that "Roommates" is a reworking of snippets from Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, a book I have not read and the source material of the famous film Soylent Green.  This is like the opposite of one of SF's standard operating procedures, employed by our heroes A. E. van Vogt and Barry N. Malzberg, in which you take a bunch of short stories and stitch them together to make an episodic novel--here Harrison hacks bits out of a novel to make an episodic short story.

Like "Rescue Operation," "Roommates" has been reprinted in numerous anthologies and Harrison collections.

I lived in beautiful New York City, the unrivaled center of the universe and pinnacle of human achievement, in 1999, and I am here to tell you it was a paradise!  But in this story, printed in the year of my birth, life in the future Big Apple of summer 1999 is a living hell!  There is a heat wave but no air conditioning!  Water isn't pumped into everybody's apartment--instead you have to carry a jerry can outside to get your water ration from the heavily guarded government spigot!  Everybody is gaunt from the food shortage and our main character can only afford to buy two or three razor blades a year!  Oh yeah, and the whales are all dead!  Why is all this happening?  Because of overpopulation!  Families get government handouts proportionate to the number of kids they have and social pressures limit access to birth control (as in "Rescue Operation," Christians are the villain here) and so Mother Earth is collapsing under the weight of a surfeit of homo sapiens.

"Roommates" is split into four little chapters.  The first is "Summer," then comes "Fall," then "Winter," and then (you guessed it) "Spring."  In "Summer" we meet Andy the cop and his septuagenarian roommate Sol, who is a sort of Jewish wiseman character who is smarter than everybody else and voices Harrison's arguments (e.g., he has hooked up a bicycle to four car batteries to power a fridge; he grows his own herbs and distills his own booze; when the U. S. Congress is set to pass legislation that will encourage birth control he says "the Pope will really plotz!")  In "Fall" we meet Shirl, Andy's girlfriend, who has moved in with Andy and Sol, and go with her on her trip to the government spigot; she witnesses a fight between a mother and water thieves.  In "Winter" the city is wracked by riots in which Andy must fight the mobs.  In "Spring" Sol has died and the government moves a welfare queen, her wretched husband and her army of disgusting brats into Andy and Shirl's place, and we have reason to suspect that Shirl is going to leave Andy--she can use her attractive body to earn a more comfortable lifestyle.

The episodic nature of "Roommates," and its focus on its dystopian setting instead of the relationships among the characters (there are long expository passages in "Winter" describing stuff none of the characters witness that feel tedious) mean the story is not very satisfying.  I'll call it acceptable.  


"Slow Tuesday Night" by R. A. Lafferty (1965)

"Slow Tuesday Night" first appeared in Galaxy and has been anthologized many many times, by editors ranging from Judith Merrill and James Gunn to Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg.  It appears in at least one book I own, but said book is interred in one of many cardboard boxes piled up here in the new MPorcius HQ, 100 miles west of my previous domicile, so I'm reading it in the internet archive's scan of Above the Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction, as I am all the stories I am babbling about today.

"Slow Tuesday Night" is a sort of satire of the fast pace of modern life and the perhaps regrettable prominence of ephemeral fads and short-lived, shallow trends in modern cultural life.  The universal application of a simple surgical procedure in everyone's childhood has radically increased average intelligence--everybody thinks much faster and somewhat better than they do in our day, dear reader.  Whereas in the past an entrepreneur might spend years developing an idea, securing funding, then marketing a new product, nowadays this process takes minutes!  Skyscrapers are erected, occupied, abandoned and demolished over the course of hours.  Social interactions have similarly sped up--the main character, a businessman who builds multiple industrial and financial empires in the course of a night, only to see each fall to competition or changing market conditions within hours, marries a woman and she tires of him and divorces him before sunrise--she has married and divorced him in the past in the same way, and will probably do so again in the future.  

An acceptable story.  Interestingly, it doesn't seem to have much of an edge--Lafferty portrays this silly world in which professional careers, love affairs and cultural evolutions that would span a decade or more in the 20th century sprout, blossom and wither in a single day, but he doesn't seem to suggest explicitly that this makes the people of this sped-up future unhappy--many of the people in the story are vapid, but they seem blissfully unaware that their lives are shallow, their accomplishments sterile.    Lafferty isn't judgmental; he observes human foibles with a smile and expects us to make our own conclusions.  (Compare this to the in-your-face tendentiousness and dire warnings of the other three stories we are reading today.)     


"Rat Race" by Raymond F. Jones (1966)

"Rat Race" first appeared in Analog, but hasn't been the hit the other three pieces we read today are.  It has only ever been reprinted here in Above the Human Landscape: An Anthology of Social Science Fiction and in a school textbook edited by Bernard Hollister, You and Science Fiction, which has gone through several editions and which includes J. G. Ballard's famous "Billenium," a story Joachim Boaz, tarbandu and I all blogged about in 2014.  

"Rat Race" is set in one of those utopian futures in which robots and computers do all the work so people have nothing to do and find that a life without goals or obstacles is unfulfilling.  George Sims-Howton is one such unfulfilled man, the kind of guy who could just look data up on the computer network but prefers to wander the physical archives of a library, looking at old books and magazines.  He stumbles upon references to model trains, how popular they were among men and boys like 150 years ago, and conceives a desire to have his own elaborate model railroad, a contagious fascination that has soon spread to his friends.  By feeding old plans they find into the computer that efficiently runs the world economy, they are soon provided with an abundance of engines, cars, track, scale buildings, etc., and enjoying this creative hobby, planning out track layouts and train schedules, much to the consternation of their wives, who think their obsession a sign of insanity.  (Women in this story are presented as so many albatrosses around their husband's necks, each a burden and a drag that inhibits her husband's pursuit of his goals.)

While engrossed in their new hobby these citizens of a world without work or money are happier than they have ever been, but then they go too far.  With the idea that it would be even more fulfilling to build their own trains and accessories than it is to have them delivered readymade from the computer, George orders from the computer stuff like raw metal, a screwdriver, and a lathe.  Then the cold-eyed government men arrive to explain that the means of production must be in the hands of the computer, that private production would result in trade between people and then economic chaos.  George is warned that if he messes up again he will be sent to a "subsistence reservation."   

After the government men leave George reflects:
A man's supreme joy was the joy of building, molding, changing, assembling--creating--with his own two hands and his mind.  And this was the single thing the Abundant Society could not tolerate for fear of coming apart at the seams.  Only a narrow elite, isolated from all other citizens, could be permitted the luxury of creation--of work. 
The story's resolution sees George trying to figure out a way to satisfy men's needs for creative work that won't end up sending him or anybody else to the subsistence reservation and optimistically offers us readers the possibility that George's efforts will lead to a social revolution and a return to a world in which people run their own lives.

My father is a railfan with a pile of dusty old model trains and model train magazines whose wife discouraged him from joining model train clubs, and I am always ready to cheer on attacks on the planned economy, so "Rat Race" easily won my sympathies.  I also think it is pretty well-structured and written.  I'd judge this one moderately good.  The problem with the story, for me, is that the theme is tired--I totally agree with what Jones is trying to say, but I've heard it so many times that it is part of my flesh and blood and so "Rat Race" doesn't offer, to me, any challenge or surprise.  (No doubt commies and feminists will have other gripes with the story.)    


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These are decent stories, and reasonable choices by McNelly and Stover for their anthology of social science fiction, but the Harrison and Jones stories only serve to reinforce my complaint from the start of this blog post--I've already read many SF stories that argue that religion is a dangerous scam, that overpopulation is a problem, and that socialism would crush the human spirit even if it didn't lead to poverty and mass murder, and I have already embraced or rejected these claims, so why do I need to read any more?