Thursday, September 28, 2023

MPorcius returns to the airwaves!

Munchie of the Munchie and The Bearman podcast invited me back to the show, and then contended manfully with technical issues and my penchant for interrupting and talking over people.  Amid the chaos he managed to draw out of me some of what I have learned about the "New Right” by listening to podcasts while running errands and doing housework, and to trigger from me a bitter complaint about Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  Check out the broadcasts at the links below (and yes, a single episode was not enough to contain me!) 

The "New Right" Part I

The "New Right" Part II

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs

At an antique store, my eye was caught by a Dover edition with charming illustrations (somewhat ironically bursting with phallic imagery) by Willy Pogany of an English translation by Alvah C. Bessie of Pierre Louÿs' 1894 The Songs of Bilitis.  I was too cheap to spring for the book, but back home I did read (via the sorcery of the internet archive) translations of Louÿs' little work by Mitchell S. Buck and Mary Hanson Harrison.  The Songs of Bilitis are almost 150 prose poems, each shorter than half a page, that detail the sex life of a woman in Ancient Greece, or at least some 19th-century Frenchman's fantasy of what such a woman's sex life might be like.  The first of the prose poems is about how our heroine masturbates by rubbing her crotch against a tree limb--well, at least I think that is what is going on.

Trans: Mitchell S. Buck 

The poems describe Bilitis' various sexual relationships over the course of her life, including those with the man who fathers her child, but the famous thing about the book (if the cover of the Buck translation is any guide) is its depiction of Bilitis' lesbian affairs; a highlight (in the fifty-third poem) is Bilitis as groom at her wedding to the love of her life.

Buck again

But alas, Bilitis' little wife abandons her and we witness Bilitis' struggles to drown her sadness in the caresses of one girl after another.  Then she becomes a courtesan and a procurer, growing rich selling sex to men and throwing extravagant parties complete with jugglers and dancers at her big house.

from 133, trans. Mary Hanson Harrison

Finally, Bilitis grows old and dies; the last three poems in the book are the inscriptions on her tomb.

Louÿs' book is a pleasant diversion, perhaps valuable to students of literature about homosexuals (this book, though written by a man, was apparently embraced by activist lesbians) and to those interested in literary hoxes--like the guy behind Ossian, Louÿs wrote these little ditties about girls groping each others' breasts and bathing in the nude and shopping for a dildo and so forth and then tried to convince people he was merely translating ancient texts he had discovered.  Hilarious.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Astounding, Feb '42: Hubbard, Moore, Brackett, Jones & Sturgeon

In the early 1940s, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics and the religion of Vinnie Barbarino and that woman from Cheers, published in the leading SF magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding, a series of stories collectively known as The Kilkenny Cats.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we have been reading the Kilkenny Cats series in scans of those old World War II-era magazines, and today we tackle the fifth and final installment, "The Rebels."  As we have followed the adventures of those future revolutionaries betrayed by their erstwhile comrades and exiled to planet Sereon, we have also been reading other stories that appeared in Astounding alongside Hubbard's, stories by people like Manly Wade Wellman, Eric Frank Russell and Ross Rocklynne.  Today we will be doing the same, and we are in for a treat, because "The Rebels" appears in an issue of Campbell seminal magazine full of work by writers of particularly high reputation and importance: Theodore Sturgeon, C. L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett.  There's also a piece by Raymond F. Jones, for whom I have a soft spot, so we've got five stories to deal with today.  This might be a long one!

"The Rebels" by L. Ron Hubbard 

At the end of the fourth Kilkenny Cats story, "The Mutineers," aristocratic naval officer Steve Gailbraith, through skilled (i.e., duplicitous) diplomacy had set the exiles up on a planet of giants.  Since then, six months have passed, and things are not going well for the humans living boring and uncomfortable lives among the giants.  The working class thugs who comprised labor leader Dave Blacker's battalion during the revolution on Earth and were forced to join him in exile have been engaging in petty crime, and as a result the Brobdingnagian natives have been lynching them.  As for Steve, he has become a drunk!  Vicky Stalton, love interest and former top propagandist for the revolution, is broken hearted to see Gailbraith, the hero who saved their lives so many times, reduced to such a state, but none of her pleading or cajoling has managed to get him back on track to fulfilling his destiny, which Vicky and we readers assume is to overthrow the communist dictator, Fagar, who exiled Steve, Vicky, Blacker and the rest after the revolution achieved success.  

This situation is unsustainable, and Blacker tries to cut the Gordian knot by sending a message to Earth and conniving with the Fagar government--Blacker will launch an uprising against the giants that will facilitate a raid on the planet's wealth by Fagar's space navy; in return, Blacker's people will be pardoned and allowed to return to Earth.  As Gailbraith, and we readers, expect, when the Terran government forces arrive they don't just neutralize the remainder of the native defenses, but gather together Blacker and his people and execute them on the spot.  Gailbraith, Stanton, and a handful of the middle-class scientists among the exiles witness this mass murder from hiding and we have a front row seat along with them; one of the particular features of this episode of the Kilkenny Cats is the high volume of eye-popping gore, with Hubbard describing how the giants pull humans limb from limb, for example, and lingering over descriptions of the effect ray guns have on people struck by them.

Fagar's Terrans, then, fall into Gailbraith's trap--our boy Steve has been roused from his stupor by Stanton's feminine wiles, she having inspired jealousy in the man she loves by flirting with Blacker.  Back on an even keel, as he has so often before, Gailbraith preserves the lives of the aristocratic and bourgeois exiles with his knowledge of space navy operations and a fair bit of trickery.  When Fagar's ships take on supplies they unwittingly load water that Steve has spiked with the powerful native alcoholic beverage he has been imbibing--soon the entire fleet is in a comatose state, allowing Steve to seize one of their vessels and disable the rest.  As the story ends, Gailbraith, Stanton and the scientists have an operational space battleship again and Steve's quest to overthrow Fagar--along with his and Vicky's love affair--can proceed.

"The Rebels" isn't bad--I like that the Gailbraith-Stalton relationship moves forward and that there is lots of space naval warfare--but I think it is inferior to its predecessors in the Killkenny Cats series.  I didn't find all that credible the idea that ruthless veteran labor leader and revolutionary Blacker would think he could trust Fagar to keep his end of a deal, the dictator after all having quite recently sent him into an exile meant to kill him after Blacker had helped Fagar win the throne of Earth.  Gailbraith's trick in this one didn't feel as convincing or as fun as some of his earlier plot-resolving schemes, either.  Distractingly, the origin story for Stanton in this one seemed to contradict that in the previous KC story, uninteresting new characters of limited utility are introduced for some reason (a huge "Negro" who acts as a sort of servant to Gailbraith and an earnest young cabin boy type) and I even found some of the sentences here in "The Rebels" puzzlingly opaque.  I also had sort of expected the last KC story to see Gailbraith taking over the Earth or at least overthrowing Fagar, so I was a little disappointed about that.  Maybe Hubbard had planned to continue this series but ran out of steam or was responding to a lack of interest from Campbell or Astounding's readers.  Too bad.

Merely acceptable.  

"There Shall Be Darkness" by C. L. Moore

Catherine L. Moore’s famous Weird Tales stories of Northwest Smith are all about sexy Terran criminal Smith’s dangerous relationships with sexy alien women, and one of the supporting pillars of Moore’s story here in the February 1942 issue of Astounding is a very similar theme, but alongside that facet of the tale are somewhat more "serious" themes related to the politics of imperialism and the supposed cycles of history.  You see, for centuries Earthmen have ruled the solar system, imposing civilization on the natives of the other planets.  But today the Terran Empire is crumbling under the pressure of attack from extrasolar barbarians as well as rebellion in the colonies!

Captain Jamie Douglas is the commander of the last Terran base on Venus.  Douglas is a big wide-shouldered Scotsman, and Moore here in "There Shall Be Darkness" indulges in the romanticizing of Celtic culture and ethnicity we have seen in the work of her husband, Henry Kuttner, as well as the stories of their friend Leigh Brackett, flavoring the story with fragments of Scottish song and intimations that Celts have special powers, that they can gain insight from visions and through dreams and so forth.  Moore's choice of ethnicity for her Terran lead may also be a reflection of the idea that Scotsmen were the vanguard of the British Empire; Moore further reminds us of popular images of martial Scotsmen by having her Venusian natives march into battle to the sound of "skirling" "pipes."

This last Terran base is in a prosperous "Terrestrialanized" city, and living on the base with Douglas is our Venusian lead, his slender beauty of a girlfriend, Quanna; Quanna is perhaps the true main character of "There Shall Be Darkness."  Little does Douglas know that Quanna is in close contact with her brother, Vastari, the ambitious leader of one of Venus’s disparate warring tribes, a man whose ambition is to kick out the Terrans and unite the planet under his own royal rule.  In fact, Quanna has been charged by Vastari with the sacred duty of murdering Douglas with a special ceremonial dagger--Douglas’s name is actually written upon its blade!

In contrast to manly man Douglas, who represents the best of (a now decadent) Earth, the natives of Venus are characterized as effeminate; they are manipulative, inscrutable, sneaky, selfish, and obsessed with fine points of etiquette and ignorant of big abstract ideas--the men are even slender and wear long hair.  At the same time, Venusian society is terribly sexist--among the natives women are second class citizens, generally consigned to harems.  (At times I think Moore is trying to evoke readers' impressions of British soldiers and administrators in Afghanistan or among Arabs--besides the reference to harems there is an ambush in hill country, for example.)  The plot of "There Shall Be Darkness" revolves around Quanna’s clever and underhanded machinations and manipulations, which involve lots of lying, drugging, backstabbing, and passing through secret doors, as she engineers events to achieve her goals, which at times are somewhat mysterious to us readers: is Quanna trying to help the strapping Earthman she apparently loves, or her own wild and beautiful planet and people, or is she just acting out of radical selfishness, putting at risk everything and everybody in her pursuit of her own desires?  The backdrop and foundation for all this action is the theme of cycles of history that reminds us of Robert E. Howard (whom Moore famously admired) and Poul Anderson, the theory that the vigor and expansion of young civilizations is succeeded by decadence and collapse into barbarism.  Terra has lost Mars and its other colonies and as our story begins the rulers of Earth are summoning Douglas and his soldiers back from Venus to help protect Earth from those extrasolar invaders.

Quanna’s elaborate schemes to convince Douglas to take her with him to Earth don’t quite work out, and it is deus ex machina developments—the arrival on Venus of a bunch of those extrasolar barbarian reavers and the manipulations of an alien almost as mysterious and deceptive as Quanna (but more responsible), a Martian merchant resident on Venus—that resolve the plot and offer Quanna and Douglas the opportunity to try and build some kind of life together as well as some kind of enduring civilization on Venus that we might see as a hybrid of Terra and Venus' cultures (perhaps this is Moore telling us that society needs both male and female aspects to prosper.)

"There Shall Be Darkness" is a pretty good story, with numerous strengths as well as elements that will perhaps make it interesting to 21st-century readers.  Moore offers plenty of romantic descriptions of Venus scenery (e. g., mangrove swamps and mountains plagued by rockslides ) and depictions of exotic wildlife (Quanna is a master of flying snakes, Venusian horses and venomous arachnids and employs her knowledge of these creatures in her complex plots.)  In the past I've complained that Moore overdoes all the surreal and romantic description in some of her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories, but the descriptions here in this 1942 tale contribute to the story without overwhelming it.  

There are a lot of feminist/gender studies angles to "There Shall Be Darkness," what with the fact that Moore is herself a woman, the person who drives the story’s plot is a woman who uses stereotypical feminine methods to pursue her stereotypical feminine goals, and that the Venusians are coded female while Douglas the Terran is hypermasculine.  And there are timeless political issues:  When is law and order in fact tyranny, and when is freedom merely anarchy? Should the colonized welcome peace and elevated standards of living if it costs them autonomy?

A solid piece of work, especially if you are interested in depictions of imperialism, gender stereotypes, and ethnicity in SF.  Martin Greenberg included "There Shall Be Darkness" in the 1951 anthology Journey to Infinity (reprinted in German in 1964 as 8 Science Fiction Stories) and in our own century Frederick Krome selected it for inclusion in his anthology Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914-1945, which I guess was marketed to colleges as a text book or something--how many SF anthologies cost $64.95 in paperback?

"The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" by Leigh Brackett

This story, the title of which is so similar to that of the book version of Brackett's 1949 Thrilling Wonder piece "Sea-Kings of Mars," appears in two 21st-century collections I own, Haffner Press's Martian Quest: The Early Brackett and Gollancz's Sea-Kings of Mars, but I don't think I've read it before.  

Brackett's "Sea-Kings of Mars" AKA The Sword of Rhiannon involves a Terran archaeologist on tired old Mars who gets a glimpse via esoteric means of the young and vibrant Mars of a million years ago, and endures the experience of having some other intelligence impinge upon his own mind and try to take over his body.  Here in "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" Brackett presents similar themes.  Max Brandon is a tomb raider guy who illegally uncovers ancient artifacts on the desert planet of Mars to sell to collectors and scientists on the black market; this adventurous behavior apparently wins him lots of girls, but he mostly does it for neither money nor love, but because of his fascination with the mysterious and glorious past of Mars, ancient home of lost races which, apparently, had more advanced technology than today's spacefaring Earth imperialists.

Max is alone and on foot, having been separated from his vehicle and essential supplies by a sandstorm.  Exhausted, he is dragging himself over a barren waste that was once the bed of an ocean which thousands of years ago carried the voluminous maritime trade that flourished in the glory days of old Mars.  He comes upon a wrecked sailing ship, is draw to a sealed cabin, and inside he has the sorts  of visions that C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett seem to think Irish and Scottish people have all the time, even when they aren't hitting the sauce: he sees two striking individuals sit at a table, glaring at each other, one a stern man, the other a beautiful woman of the mythical race of blue-haired people who ruled the Red Planet over forty thousand years ago.  When the vision passes, Max sees that, in fact, it is only the skeletons of two such people sitting at the table in the cabin; the bones of these skeletons crumble to dust when Max seizes some artifacts from the table, among them a flask.  A parched Max drinks from the flask and something amazing happens: the liquid in the vessel is the medium upon which was recorded a duplicate of the consciousness of the long dead Martian scientist and monarch whose final resting place he has disturbed, and now Max must share his body with what amounts to a wizard's soul!

Tobul, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, has vast scientific knowledge as well as an indomitable will, and Max has to do his bidding, marching across the desert that Tobul knew as an ocean to get to Rhiannon, which in this story is the name of the town where Tobul had his HQ back in the day, a town archaeologists and tomb robbers like Max and his rival, Dhu Kar the Venusian, have long been searching for.  Tobul's quest is disrupted when one of Max's girlfriends, rich tomboy Sylvia Eustace, who has been searching for Max in her aircraft, shows up, and it turns out the Earthgirl's body is inhabited by the consciousness of Tobul's deadly rival, that blue-haired woman, Kymra of the superior race of the Prira Cen!

Tobul and Kymra revive the long dormant war for control of Mars waged by their races tens of thousands of years ago, making Max and Sylvia's bodies fight with guns and psychic powers.  Before this struggle can be resolved, Venusian Dhu Kar appears in his space craft and attacks.  Tobul neutralizes this troublemaker, but during the fight Kymra/Sylvia sneaks away to what is left of Rhiannon, a subterranean vault in which reposes a treasure trove of high technology, including weapons so mighty whoever has them can take over Mars with ease.  By the time Max and the ancient hitching a ride in his brain get to the vault, Kymra has already built herself a beautiful new body and she spends the climax of the story naked, manipulating a super weapon.  Kymra and Tobul fight over the super weapon while Max and Sylvia desperately try to keep them from killing either of them or causing an explosion that will wreck half of Mars.  The Martian police arrive and they also get mixed up in the struggle.  Eventually, Max resolves the plot amicably by convincing Tobul and Kymra that they should become lovers and work together to turn arid barren Mars back into a lush sea-covered world.  Wrapping up our happy ending with a bow is the fact that Max decides to stop sleeping around and commit to Sylvia.  

This story is OK.  The climax is too long, and the way random new characters keep popping in to prevent the Kymra vs Tobul fight from reaching a decisive conclusion is a little repetitive and deflating.  Brackett would make up her stories as she went along without any kind of plot outline in mind (see the introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton) and it sort of shows here.  "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" would not be reprinted until the 21st century, presumably because the story is a little weaker than her average, and because Brackett addressed many of its themes and employed many of its components more satisfyingly in "Sea-Kings of Mars" AKA The Sword of Rhiannon.               

"Starting Point" by Raymond F. Jones

People love the idea that history moves in a predictable direction through distinct phases or follows some kind of recurring cycle.  If you went to college you were perhaps exposed to Marxist theories of history, and if you are some kind of history buff maybe you've heard of the Whig view of history or the theories of Oswald Spengler.  We often hear the cliche "he [or she] was ahead of his [or her] time," as if developments in artistic styles and changes in social mores follow a time table.  MPorcius Fiction Log superfans may recall how Anthony Burgess founded his novel The Wanting Seed on a theory of historical cycles, and of course we just read a story by C. L. Moore that had as a major theme the idea that civilizations develop and decay in a predictable fashion.  

In "Starting Point," Raymond F. Jones presents a theory about the interplay of technological innovations and society.  One of the story's main characters, a successful businessman who owns and manages a fleet of rockets, propounds the theory that radical new means of transportation, like the automobile or airplane--and in the present case the space ship--appear suddenly on the scene, and inspire brave pioneer-type men, heroes and geniuses, to great feats of exploitation and further development of the new technology.  Then follows a period of maturity, when the transportation technology is easy to operate and development stagnates because mere technicians who follow their manuals and the training they received in schools are running the machines, not seat-of-your-pants heroes and geniuses. 

The guy who is offering this theory fears the rocket ship has entered the stagnant mature phase too early, only a few decades after the first rockets blasted off for the moon.  Mankind's first generation of space ships are not as safe, fast, and efficient as they could be, because space flight is dominated not by pioneers, but school-trained technicians.  More heroes and geniuses ae required, and he has hatched a scheme to produce some!  He announces a race around the sun that starts in the asteroid belt--his company will provide volunteers with standard atomic rocket motors, and each volunteer will attach these propulsion systems to the asteroid of his choice and race his fellows, and the first to return to his stating point will win the tempting prize.  Presumably such a competition, conducted in such an atmosphere of novelty and risk, will attract risk takers and inspire them to think outside of the box in pursuit of victory.

The other main character of "Starting Point" is our narrator, one of the original rocket pioneers, a space pilot who was injured on a dangerous mission and relegated to teaching astrogation at a technical college.  Many of his students participate in the race, and we watch the race through his eyes as one of his students, a stutterer whom the media treats as comic relief, wins the race via brash unconventional interpretations of the rules and extreme risk taking that none of the other participants, products of a safety-obsessed society who slavishly follow all the conventions they learned in school, would ever consider.  His perilous adventure even cures the young man of his stutter--his speech impediment was a symptom of his own fear, and his nightmarish trip close to the Sun was so harrowing that now he fears nothing!

This is a fun little story that follows the classic science fiction formula of having a guy overcome plot obstacles with his knowledge of science and ability to brazenly trick others.  It also celebrates risk takers and reminds you that much of what such "authorities" as school teachers tell you is likely a load of crap.  Amen!

It looks like "Starting Point" was never reprinted.  We read the deep cuts here at MPorcius Fiction Log!  

"Medusa" by Theodore Sturgeon 

Here we have a tale by the author of the unforgettable "Microcosmic God," "Killdozer!" and "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"  A tale whose focus is abnormal psychology.  And while Jones's "Starting Point" has languished in obscurity, "Medusa" would be reprinted many times in Sturgeon collections, including a French collection for which it served as the title story.

Our narrator is one of the most reliable spacemen in the service, and for three years he has been subjected to a battery of psychological tests and interventions that prove his mental stability is nonpareil--government scientists have done things to him that would drive any other man completely bonkers, and he is still on an enviably even keel.  Finally, the day for which the narrator has been prepared has arrived, and he is mustered onto the eight-man crew of a space ship on a very special mission.  Before take off our hero is told that while the government head shrinkers have been assuring themselves that his sanity is rock solid, they have also been assiduously driving the rest of the crew insane in a very specific way for very specific purposes!

After departure, the spacers open up their sealed orders and learn what their secret mission is--destroying the field that emanates from planet Xantippe and makes space travel in the vicinity of that planet so treacherous.  You see, the Xantippean Field inflicts upon people a total mental breakdown, reducing spacemen to "useless," "drooling," "mindless hulks," which is a real problem because Xantippe's "unpredictable and complex" "cometary orbit" lies between Earth and a bunch of colonies that require shipments from Terra.  

The trip to Xantippe and the final battle against the planet (which turns out to be a giant monster analogous to a Portuguese man-o-war) features lots of uncertainty and numerous psychological breakdowns, but in the end our hero succeeds in his mission to open up the space lanes. 

Sturgeon fills his story with speculative psychology and speculative physics (the workings of the space ship's innovative warp drive and its super particle beam weapon) that probably make no sense whatsoever and certainly use terminology in a way we do no longer (e. g., the narrator says at one point that "a manic depressive is the 'Yes master' type") but are sort of interesting regardless.  Sturgeon's style is good and I liked the story, but I was a little surprised by how straightforward it was--I was expecting more of a twist at the end of "Medusa."    


This is a good issue of Astounding--while it is easy to point out problems with these stories, I enjoyed all five of them (though the Hubbard was a close call.)