Birthday Reviews: Gunn, Sheckley, Smith

One of this week’s stories takes us into one of the most uniquely imaginative space battles ever and even sneakily connects to the other two, which are related stories that ask what it would be like if women really were from “Venus” and how a man could get a perfect woman. I’m going to discuss those together because they make a nice pair.

James Gunn (1923-07-12)

“The Misogynist” (Galaxy, November 1952)

Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16–2005-12-09)

“The Perfect Woman” (Amazing, December 1953-January 1954)

In “The Misogynist,” a naive narrator introduces us to Harry, the “wit” who can tell jokes like no one else. He then repeats a story of Harry’s which conveys his ideas about women and which the narrator thinks tops all his previous jokes.

In “The Perfect Woman,” the year 3000 has arrived. Through the viewpoint of a hungover Mr. Morchek, we learn about the conversation he had the night before with a man who has married a Primitive Woman and learn what a Modern Woman is like as we observe Morchek’s relationship with his own wife.

There are nice twists in both these tales. The naive narrator is utilized well to get to the one in “The Misogynist” while the reader’s initial naivete about the society of the year 3000 is utilized well to get to the one in “The Perfect Woman.” Both are very economical (though “The Misogynist” could have been tightened still more). And they both have several interesting angles. Both would probably be taken as literally misogynistic today and that’s a reasonable interpretation from the internal realities of the stories. However, they can also be taken in the reverse sense, as mocking some men’s desires, expectations, or worldviews. It’s also interesting that, even if interpreted simplistically, it would only serve to show that all sorts of sensibilities could be represented in the “conformist” 1950s while today’s “diversity” has narrowed the conceptual possibilities of the genre. In a way, this would (aptly if taken seriously, and ironically if taken ironically) prove some of the Misogynist’s theorizing correct. But, heavy topical stuff aside, these are well-written and entertaining short stories.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11–1966-08-06)

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (Galaxy, October 1955)

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In the far future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, people have progressed to the point of traveling through space via planoforming, but have encountered malevolent underspace beings who would make this impossible, if not for the telepathic battle teams of human and cat who perceive the enemy as dragons or rats, respectively, and, together, are capable of fighting and usually destroying the beings with light bombs. We learn of this amazing milieu and witness one such battle, as well as the effects of one mind upon another.

It’s hard to grasp that the first section or two-fifths of this story is essentially just an infodump because it’s so bizarre, fascinating, and enlivened with points of emotional connection. Then it moves step-by-step into the assignment of “partners,” the preparations, the combat, and the aftermath, showing excellent structure and control. But the greatest power of this story is its uninhibited imagination.

Links: 2020-07-08

Site News

Featured Futures Mk. II is over nine months old but the regular posting has only been going on for the first six months of this year. That quickly came to mean posting every Monday with book reviews and every Friday with birthday story reviews, while only posting one or two Wednesdays a month with “Links” posts.

I’m 90% certain this will crash and burn but I’m going to try to keep doing all that and post something every Wednesday with, say, extra book reviews and a monthly discussion of whatever TV shows and movies I’ve seen. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, here’s a supersized “Links” post.

Science Fiction

  • Approaching Perimelasma – novelette by Geoffrey A Landis. I wasn’t really thinking about it when I discussed this story in “Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis” but this is online so everyone can check out how great it is for themselves.
  • Campbell and Wilhelm | Adventures Fantastic / Keith Laumer Sends a Message | Futures Past and Present . Despite often covering the same birthday authors, I think this is the first time Featured Futures and Adventures Fantastic/Futures Past and Present have covered the same story as happens here with Campbell’s “Forgetfulness.” Without drawing the connection between them that I drew by covering “The Mile-Long Spaceship,” this post also discusses Wilhelm and some of her other stories. The other post discusses Laumer but I don’t know that Laumer has “fallen into neglect.” These days, with ebooks and most any used book you want to find available at various internet sellers, it’s hard to gauge interest and, either way, everyone goes through spells. After having a lot of work available up to 2012/13 or so, he did have a lull but with Worlds of the Imperium (Dover, 2017), Three by Laumer (Gollancz, 2017), Bolo (Phoenix Pick, 2019), Rogue Bolo (Phoenix Pick, 2020), and even Keith Laumer’s Retief (Library & Archives Canada, 2020), he has five physical books in four years, which beats most living authors. But it is important to emphasize that Laumer was more than just Retief and Bolo, however wonderful those are, and this post does that. (My reviews of stories by these authors were in “Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm“.)
  • Destination Moon: A 70th Anniversary Appreciation. My blog has been kindly described as having “intensely detailed analysis” but is terse compared to this guest post on Centauri Dreams. (Warning for the spoiler-averse: the section “The Film” goes through the whole plot but, even if you skip that, there are four other sections to explore.)
  • Retro Hugos: “The Big and the Little” | Adventures Fantastic. Here’s another view on this story which I reviewed recently. And here’s the tag for all the reviews in the series so far: Retro-Hugos | Adventures Fantastic.

Science

Other

History

1967-alfa-romeo-tipo-33-stradale

The History Blog has been on fire lately.

Foreign Policy

  • The Retrenchment Syndrome | Foreign Affairs. This is a very important article which argues against a naive, pacifist foreign policy. It argues that “[r]etrenchers do not acknowledge that U.S. withdrawal often leaves a vacuum that enemies and adversaries are eager to fill” and, more specifically, that “[d]isengagement from competitions overseas would cede influence to others, such as the Chinese Communist Party, which is already redoubling efforts to promote its authoritarian model.” The article isn’t perfect (the line that the 2019 Syrian withdrawal “complicated” things is comical understatement, though it at least calls it out for the mistake it was) but it’s very good and timely.

Humor

Music

Speaking of… rock and cover!

Continue reading

Review: Dominion, edited by Knight and Ekpeki

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Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Hardcover: Aurelia Leo, 978-1-946024-89-3, $28.99, 300?pp, August 2020 [1]

Fiction:

  • “Trickin” by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  • “Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila
  • “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon (reprint)
  • “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh (reprint)
  • “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “Convergence in Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo
  • “Emily” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu
  • “Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (reprint)
  • “The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene
  • “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi
  • “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman
  • “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Syncretism and intensity–often apocalyptic and horrific intensity–are two words which convey the most striking aspects of this anthology of thirteen stories (ten original) by twelve African or African-American authors. I use syncretism not only in the usual sense of many of the stories containing a blend of religious beliefs, but also in the sense that they contain a blend of science fictional and fantastic elements and worldviews. While the stories might be loosely placed into balanced groupings of four horror, four fantasy, and five science fictional pieces, the fantasy sometimes has a strange tinge of rationalism and quotidian reality akin to Campbell’s Unknown while the science fiction almost always has a massive dose of fantasy and either may also be tinged with horror. Only those pieces which are primarily horror are also nearly exclusively horror.

The most striking of those is the superb and harrowing “The Unclean,” which is told by a woman who waits for judgment before the Tree of Truth next to the corpse of her husband with the present moment (1960 Nigeria) broken up by reflections on the past that brought her here. The powerlessness of this woman in her “matrimonial hell” as she is essentially sold by her parents to another family where she endures ostracism as Other and abuse at the hands of her husband is made vividly real. The husband has basically no redeeming features but is depicted in enough detail to have substance and rise above the level of a cartoon and there is complexity as the woman, who hated the system while miserable in it, primarily due to being unable to conceive a child with her husband, comes to a brief complicit acceptance of it when she does finally conceive and is treated better. But then the situation grows much worse–horribly, nightmarishly worse. It is extremely powerful. Conversely, “Thresher of Men” is a simplistic and tasteless revenge fantasy but “Trickin’” is a more adequate story of a young man being possessed by a vampiric spirit on a post-apocalyptic Halloween and “Sleep Papa, Sleep” moves from an underworld cyberpunk mood (complete with skies of TV static) to horror when the Yoruba man making an illicit deal with a Hausa from the north turns out to be a graverobber who has robbed the wrong grave. The concrete evocation of place, the complex depiction of family, and the (compared to most other stories in this book only) understated depiction of the horror (where the living are arguably even more frightening than the dead) put this on a high level, though how a years-dead corpse could have fresh body parts bothered me throughout the story. [2]

All is not unrelieved darkness however, as the more fantastic stories sometimes depart far enough from horror to reach outright humor. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” and “A Maji Maji Chronicle” are both very enjoyable lighter tales though both have serious subtexts. The former involves a sort of magician attempting to recover one of his stolen magical talismans. During this, he runs into interdimensional bureaucracy and some beings who have turned xenophobic toward humans. His absent-minded overconfidence is rudely checked but he has had the good fortune to meet a hybrid human-alien who has suffered prejudice from the people she lives among but has talents they lack. The latter even more serious tale has a father and son amusingly bicker as they travel back in time to German East Africa (now basically Tanzania) in 1905 where the father attempts to meddle in history to improve a terrible situation yet manages to make it even worse. It’s all a lesson to the son and a wise one about how all of humanity is capable of good or ill in various circumstances. “Emily” is a completely serious sort of prose poem of 200 words with a temporal aspect. Even harder to pigeonhole is “Convergence in Chorus Architecture.” It would seem to be a pure fantasy involving two youngsters struck by lightning and the three babalawos (sorts of mystics) who travel to the spirit world to try to bring them back. However both horror and science fiction break through as a ship of bones is first a premonition and then a reality which carries the people off in a cataclysm that then becomes cosmic and affects other worlds (which can all be taken both literally and symbolically). Initially, the use of terms like “electric” and “steam” in an almost technical sense seemed anachronistic but turned out to fit in with the overall ambiguity. It is too richly written for my taste (though it has wonderful phrases like a “distillate of dream”) but others may especially enjoy that. It is wildly imaginative and does make ethereal magic seem concrete akin to the way James H. Schmitz managed to make psi combat seem tangible.

Oddly, the two stories that seem most related to the Congo are both science fictional and both are very distantly related to it. “Clanfall” is set in a fantastic far future with artificial descendants of humanity fighting for dominance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a satisfying structure or conclusion and reads more like a teaser for something else. “Red_Bati” is actually set on a starship and involves a robotic dog fighting to survive after losing a limb and being consigned to the scrap heap. Even more effective, “A Mastery of German” explores the relationship of an American woman with her father and the company she works for. The father’s interest in both personal and social history and the company’s interest in memory transfer techniques dovetail. I feel like the science fictional aspects are pushed beyond credibility for thematic purposes but it’s interesting and otherwise successful and at least feels like the hardest SF in the anthology. “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” (not to be confused with a similarly titled earlier tale) falls a hair on the SF side just as “Convergence” fell a hair on the fantasy side and, like “The Unclean,” deals with women and society. In this, after an incomplete apocalypse which has left an enclave of mutated people struggling to survive, one woman is expected to bear children but wants something else for herself. When the leader inadvertently calls an invasion down on his people’s heads and exiles himself to the forest of fears, horror again shows its bloody fangs and the necessity for her to reproduce becomes even more vital, yet still she resists. While one might sympathize with her but still start to see her as being selfish by that extreme point, the resolution is both fantastic and realistic in ways (and theologically bold). Even better, and rising to, and possibly beyond, the level of “The Unclean” is “The Satellite Charmer.” This moves through three basic stages in which the young orphan protagonist experiences both good and bad in the context of a childhood given consolation and insulation by his beloved grandmother and girlfriend. It is quite realistic except for the science fictional element of the Chinese mining beam and the fantasy element of an earlier childhood experience which turn out to be related. In the second movement, the way in which joy and pain persist for a time but in a context in which this insulation has been stripped away (before even that sort of joy is also stripped away) is movingly done and the story becomes even more realistic in a sense. Then the third movement suddenly shifts into cosmic gear with horror aspects. There is no simplistic good or evil for this protagonist who moves into an agonizingly complex place of awesome and awful deeds beyond the human level. This has a little bit of everything, from the wonderful but painful relationship of “Ife-Iyoku” to the vast scope of “Convergence” to the horror of several stories. I have no idea how the mining beam is actually supposed to work literally, as opposed to symbolically, and I often complain about stories becoming unhinged and lacking objective correlatives and perhaps that’s true here, too, but I think the correlative is the universe, itself, and it works for me.

Regarding the stories generally, they are clearly of “Africa and the African Diaspora” and some do focus on colonialism (even specific colonial events as in “Maji Maji”) and some address current Chinese neo-colonialism [3] while others deal with the African environment or cultural identity or other issues and, I suspect, people well-versed in African history and events would get much more out of this than otherwise but the stories are in no way exclusively focused on such issues and essentially all work on the general levels of “speculative fiction” so that even someone completely ignorant of all things African should be able to enjoy them (and not be so ignorant afterwards). “The Unclean” and “The Satellite Charmer” are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves but I also enjoyed at least eight of the other eleven on some level or other which is an extraordinary batting average. If you’re squeamish when it comes to horror or are looking only for pure-quill SF, I couldn’t recommend this but if you’re looking for a powerful reading experience of any other sort, I can and do.


[1] This is a review of an advance copy. The final pagination is not certain but the book should be about 110,000 words. It should also include a foreword by Tananarive Due.

[2] It’s worth noting that this story is also written in present tense, which usually bothers me and didn’t help here but that (aside from subsets for specific purposes in a couple of others) this is the only such story in the entire anthology.

[3] It’s good to see this awareness of, and antipathy towards, history repeating and it’s an issue some in the SF community could think about as some try to cash in on the Chinese market and others believe that promoting a totalitarian state is promoting diversity.

Birthday Reviews: Heinlein, May, Wyndham

This week’s tales provide entertainment while also showing the good and bad that can arise when we go out there or when things come here.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-07-07–1988-05-08)

“Columbus Was a Dope” (Startling Stories, May 1947)

A salesman is in a bar celebrating his sale of steel to a professor who wants to build a starship and he, the professor, another salesman, and the bartender get to talking about why people would build a starship. After the professor has left, they also discuss the odds of anyone on the ship surviving. At this point, the subject of Columbus, the explorer who found a New World, comes up and the salesman provides the title which is soon undercut. Without spoiling the specifics, the story ends with clever irony which reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Firefly, when Wash mockingly dismisses something by saying, “That sounds like something out of science fiction!” His wife tells him, “You live in a spaceship, dear.” Not getting her point, he replies, “So?” In a way, this is a minor story for such a major author but it has a very big theme in a small package and demonstrates many of his virtues, such as economically making the far-out and futuristic utterly common-place and believable.

Julian May (1931-07-10–2017-10-17)

“Dune Roller” (Astounding, December 1951)

In her first tale, Julian May takes us to the alien world of Lake Michigan for an adventure I can’t believe wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie. After an introductory scene of a meteor striking the lake long ago, we cut to Dr. Ian Thorne, who is playing in a shore pool, recording the statistics of the various critters therein, when he notices something gleaming attractively. He collects the golden elongated teardrop which sets in motion a chain of events which includes some discovery and some death and destruction. All this is told in a very understated and leisurely way (which includes some effective humor) which exhibits the storytelling confidence of a veteran (though there is a sequence where all the characters are a little too quick on the draw for plausibility). The milieu is made both concrete and vivid but also, as I said, very strange. The main character and his friends (including both a non-scientist and a fellow scientist), as well as his new girlfriend, all have their distinctiveness. Finally, this particular Thing from Another World is effective and memorable. Good stuff.

John Wyndham (1903-07-10–1969-03-11)

“The Asteroids, 2194” (New Worlds #100, November 1960)

Much of this feels like a very mainstream tale with plenty of layers in the narrative onion to peel. A journalist is visiting an island where he meets a man who seems rather odd. By way of explanation, another local tells the story of a freighter captain who collided with a derelict. He discovers three bodies in the other ship but only one is dead. The other two are not yet dead, but in cryogenic suspension, though the revival process is often fatal. And perhaps that’s a good thing for some people. Though the story features multiple characters and settings, it’s about almost none of them but actually about one person who no longer has a place and feels he has lost even more than that. Either way, the colorful and well-told layers have their intrinsic interest (and serve their thematic purpose) and it ultimately gets to its thoughtful point (whether one sympathizes with it or not).

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

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Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 188pp, 1953 [1]

In this second adventure of David Starr, he takes one step further out to the asteroid belt and has awkwardly acquired his nickname of “Lucky” while Earth has suddenly acquired a Terrestrial Empire and even greater enemies than before, with a reborn pirate menace and active meddling by the shadowy Sirians.

The Council of Science thinks Lucky’s brought them a plan to booby-trap a spaceship that the pirates who infest the asteroids will seize and take back to their base, where it will detonate. But it’s actually Lucky’s plan to sneak aboard that ship and be captured by pirates so that that he can infiltrate their organization. When they arrive, they know all about the “trap” and Lucky pretends to be a poor sap who just wanted to stow away to get to them and obviously had no knowledge of the trap. When challenged, Lucky proposes a duel and the pirates agree, picking the style of combat. Lucky finds himself in a fight using “push-guns” (a sort of suit thruster) which he knows nothing about while the meanest pirate, Dingo, is an expert. Nevertheless, the pirate makes a couple of mistakes and Lucky comes out on top. Still suspicious of Lucky, they drop him off at a hermit’s asteroid while they head back to base to check him out further. He and the hermit trade infodumps and the hermit recognizes Lucky as the son of Lawrence Starr. He sees in this a chance to return to civilization with a pardon for his collaboration with the pirates if he can save Lucky and provide information about the pirate operations. He convinces Lucky that the pirates will see through Lucky’s game and they both return to Ceres, where friend Bigman and “parents” Henree and Conway have a joyous reunion.

One thing perplexes Henree and Conway though, and that’s how the pirates could have known about the trap. They decide there must be a spy in the Council of Science who is leaking information but Lucky reveals that he is the spy, though he had his reasons. Then he decides to try again, this time with Bigman playing the pirate infiltrator. Like Lucky, Bigman does some freelancing of his own (no wonder they’re pals) and, like Lucky, he also fails because it turns out the asteroid is lost. For reasons given later, the mystery of the asteroid makes Lucky realize the Sirians and their pirate tools intend to take over the solar system, and quickly. Lucky must go out in his own super-spaceship to pick up Bigman and try to reverse-engineer the location of the hermit’s asteroid. Finding it, Lucky is again captured, Dingo again makes a mistake, Lucky again comes out on top and, among Lucky’s subsequent efforts to prevent the Sirian takeover of the Terrestrial Empire, he must put his ship on an intercept course with another pirate ship which involves flying through (the corona of) the Sun.

And some of what I’ve just told you isn’t really what was going on because, in addition to Asimov having Lucky and Bigman repeatedly trying to trick others and repeatedly having others try to trick them, Asimov is also trying to trick the reader. This isn’t always entirely successful and the plot doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. For instance, the pirates such as Dingo and Anton (the latter of whom, at least, is supposed to be intelligent) repeatedly behave stupidly from self-defeating spite, Lucky is recognized twice in two books despite Councilmen not being publicized (and in the first book his nom de guerre was “Dick Williams” and in this it’s “Bill Williams”), and so on. In addition to the inconsistency of the famous unknown Starr and the things I mentioned in the first paragraph, Earth was dependent on Mars for food in the last book but, in this one, it’s Venusian yeast cultures which figure prominently.

Given that large populations eating yeast is a significant Asimovian motif, its clear that Asimov is erasing what little division there was between “French” and himself, which is confirmed by the use of “hyperatomic motors,” “personal capsules,” “neuronic whips,” and other standard furniture of Asimov’s futures. (Unfortunately, it also repeats a common Asimovian tic of throwing in a named character (such as the “good pirate” Martin Maniu) to serve his brief purpose and then dropping him.) Conversely, all the space battles and other fights made me think that this book was almost to Asimov as the atypical Earthlight was to Arthur C. Clarke.

In terms of hitting the target audience, this may be slightly more juvenile than the first book, as the hazing Lucky endures from the head pirate, Anton, and the “game” (albeit a potentially deadly one) of the push-guns indicate. Also, the style is generally fine but the pirates have strange lapses such as Anton “suavely” explaining to Lucky that pirates call “asteroids” “rocks” and Dingo’s first line being, “Blinking Space, there’s a ripper with a gat here!” [2] Either way, most of its young audience of 1953 probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

For a general audience, Asimov does achieve the neat trick of creating a Foundation milieu which is huge in time and space but feels proportionally smaller than one might expect a galaxy to feel, while creating a Starr milieu in which the Solar System seems quite large. More importantly, the sense of multiple vise grips being applied to the Terrestrial Empire by the pirate and Sirian menaces, coupled with Lucky’s thrilling high-speed burn through the System and the Sun in pursuit of pirates is all very effective. Again, this is surely secondary Asimov but is not without its virtues. Speaking of, its edifying ending may also have aspects of a “message” to young readers (and certainly isn’t how I would have handled it had I been in Lucky’s shoes) but makes for a satisfying conclusion to this installment.


[1] Again, I’m using the Del Rey cover as explained in the David Starr review.

[2] The quote ends with a period in the book but, given that the line is introduced by saying the pirate “yelled,” I changed (corrected?) it to end with an exclamation point.

Birthday Reviews: Taylor

This is a strange week, as I’m in the unusual position of finding only one story to discuss (and one that is unusually recent yet, ironically, also an old review).

Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-07-01)

“Take Us To Your Chief” (Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016)

Lightly revised from 2017-01-30.

I’ll quote the opening of this story to demonstrate how quickly it got to the, um, point that it hooked me.

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately), with an uncommonly fine (and quiet) set of protagonists, and full of the sort of quirky details which often make a story work for me.

Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-631, $0.50, 189pp, 1967 [1]

This second book installment of Professor Jameson’s adventures contains the fourth through sixth magazine installments and, given that the opening and closing stories are novellas rather than novelettes, this is a significantly longer (though still short) book. Incidentally, there is an oddity in the two book titles: in the last volume, we had a world of the double sun and, in this one, we have a sunless world. I guess it all averages out.

In the first tale, we go “Into the Hydrosphere.” The Zoromes discover a planet which appears to consist entirely of water – not just over the surface but through and through. On reaching the surface, they find cities of kelp and make ultimately friendly contact with the native Plekne. However, they meet another race, the Uchke, on much less friendly terms as the Uchke regularly send out raiding parties from parts unknown to enslave the Plekne. It is during a fight with them that Professor Jameson and a companion are hurled into the water. After a desperate struggle to regain the surface despite their metal bodies, they are swallowed by a sea creature. After fighting their way out of the unfortunate animal, they plummet to the bottom. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out that there is a tiny rocky core to the waterworld. Not only that, it is a hollow rocky core with a sort of Pellucidar inside which is the Uchke base. And there are yet more revelations in store as the Zoromes help lead the Plekne below to revolt against the Uchke. Much fighting and many cataclysms ensue.

As in the last Jameson review, I have to make incidental spoilers to the prior story to describe the next (which the third story aptly describes as a “parade of worldly events”). In “Time’s Mausoleum,” the Zoromes find out that the Uchke’s science actually comes from the Qwux who once enslaved them. They succeeded in revolt and the Qwux, being sybarites, are content to be kept in comfort by the Uchke in exchange for their scientific knowledge. So the power of the Uchke is broken by the simple expedient of the Zoromes carrying off the one Qwux who knows anything about space flight. He’s also working on time flight, so to speak. Time travel, as such, is impossible but it is possible to create a machine which can move through space and view that space’s past. The Zoromes are on their way back to Zor but will pass by the Earth again and Jameson excitedly encourages the Qwux to work on his machine. On arriving at Earth, there follows a time-lapse journey through humanity’s past (with a special emphasis on Jameson’s life and death). At the start of this point, we get the priceless line “‘That-that’s me!’ Professor Jameson exclaimed, rustling his tentacles nervously.” It very economically gets at some of the essence of Jameson’s long strange trip. It’s interesting that Stapledon had only had a single hardcover U. S. edition of Last and First Men at the time this was published and I wonder if Jones read it because the future vision culminates in a pulp-man’s Stapledonian look into the past which is our future. It ties in Jones’ “Durna Rangue” series and perhaps other stories, demonstrates that he was remarkably pessimistic about space travel, only giving it to us in the twenty-third century, and that he was only somewhat optimistic about humanity, indicating that humanity was extinct in the solar system after five million years. There follows a fairly arbitrary disaster for the climax of the story.

In the third and title story, the Zoromes encounter a weirdly dim star and, when they think they’re leaving the system after passing all its planets, they encounter another world which is huge but strangely light. They also soon realize it is a rogue planet – the sunless world. Since the Zoromes are always eager to explore, they land. Once on the airless surface, they are attacked by strange headless symmetrical animals. When these are rebuffed, the creatures flee to a cave and the Zoromes follow. Third verse, same as the first. (Or similar.) Once below, they find the world is hollow and, while peering into the internal abyss, the ledge they’re on collapses and they find themselves plunging into it. This time, however, there’s no center at all and they end up on the opposite side. There, they find piles of bones reminiscent of “The Planet of the Double Sun” and meet Ielee of the Ayt of Ome. His people are not slaves to the headless creatures as such, but to their own superstitions. The old, feeble, or criminal Aytons are sacrificed to the creatures and it’s death at the hands of their fellows if they refuse to go. Once again, the Zoromes fight against the creatures and for the Aytons as well as encouraging them to fight for themselves, despite the Zoromes having initially been held prisoner by the Aytons who refused to surrender their superstitions. And, as if this weren’t enough, a rescue party of Zoromes (who had inadvertently driven the creatures into Ayt causing a massive battle) bring word that the rogue planet is going to collide with the third world of the system if the Zoromes’ efforts to disintegrate that world fail. More epic cataclysms ensue.

While Jones obviously respects science in the abstract as a good, intelligent, modern way to go about things (and have great adventures), his concrete notions of it are odd. The idea that removing one being from the interlocking and ever-evolving web of science will forever prevent the Qwux/Uchke from having spaceflight again is naive and the reader will not be able to catalog all the preposterous impossibilities in these stories but will note instead the two times something is scientifically accurate (when Jones has a character note the effects of an absence of atmosphere on light refraction and the one time he seems to associate mass and gravity. On the other hand, having stories about almost brown-dwarf-like stars and rogue planets in 1934 is prescient and his Zoromes anticipate Charles Stross’ interstellar robots (though I think Stross is wrong about that as an absolute requirement).

His style doesn’t seem to change, giving us odd poetry like “the headless inhabitants of the hollow planet,” weird phrases like “opined the buried Professor,” conundrums like “avenged a thousand-fold many times over,” scintillating dialog like “Quiet your fears, 21MM392. It is I, 744U-21, your very good friend,” and inadvertently comical dangers like “The Uchke are coming with their tools! They are about to take our heads apart!”

If these are dealbreakers, these stories are definitely broken. Jones is not a very good writer. However, if you can just get acclimated (swimming around after the shock of diving into these waters has worn off), these really can maintain interest. He is some sort of visionary. The crazy worlds and strange lifeforms, while unmoored from almost any sort of physics or biology, are fascinating, the action (usually) gallops, and the concepts for 1930s America are pretty radical. Like many activists, the Zoromes blunder in to fight for justice with insufficient information and a chance they’re actually doing wrong but, in this ideal world, they are almost always right. Unlike today’s activists, they are moderate. A specific point is made about how they do not intend to wipe out the Uchke, for instance, but only to “remove their menace.” The Uchke themselves, seem to suffer from a sort of battered child syndrome where the abused become abusers. Yet even the Qwux are allowed to go their way and the spaceflight-expert prisoner becomes essentially one of the crew. There is an excessive reliance on physical appearance as an indicator of intelligence but that appearance only has to avoid being brutish – how many arms or legs or whether you’re purple or not has no bearing. What is important is intelligence itself. Jameson observes that one species is “happily unburdened with the theological superstitions and weird practices which the Professor had found were all too common among the less intelligent order of creatures to be found among the worlds of the universe.” He also notes that some creatures’ “intelligence was not sufficiently developed for them to conceive of worlds other than their own. In this, they were not far removed from many people the professor had known during his Earthly life…”

Rather than attacking our science fictional grandfathers for any lapses we think we see in them, I think it’s much more amazing how they were among those who broke the fetters of conventional wisdom and were able to conceive of purple-skinned friends and multi-legged -armed and -eyed machine men adopting people from multiple worlds into their ranks as they zip through the cosmos seeking knowledge and understanding. This deserves respect and honor. While the second tale is a poorly structured mess, the other two are as good (or whatever the word is) as the best in the first volume and all three convey what is ultimately a large-scale broad-minded revelry.


[1] Original publications:

  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Time’s Mausoleum” (Amazing Stories, December 1933)
  • “The Sunless World” (Amazing Stories, December 1934)

Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

Asimov’s Centennial: David Starr, Space Ranger

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David Starr, Space Ranger by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1952 [1]

In 1951, the usually self-represented Asimov was allowing his friend, Frederik Pohl, to be his agent. On March 21, they had lunch with Walter Bradbury of Doubleday. While Asimov isn’t clear who was the instigator (my guess is that Pohl had the idea and had already gotten together with Brad and they planned to tag-team Asimov), the topic of television came up along with the idea that a book which formed the basis of a kids’ series in the relatively new-fangled medium of television might make all three of them rich. This led to a commitment for Asimov to write such a book. Asimov had one qualm, though: he thought everything he’d seen on TV except Your Show of Shows was awful and was worried about being connected to an awful TV show. Brad told him to use a pseudonym and the usually pseudonym-averse Asimov agreed. Modeling it on Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov became “Paul French” to write David Starr, Space Ranger. [2]

David Starr was orphaned by pirates as a small boy and was raised by Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, two friends of David’s father and significant people in the powerful Council of Science. Now an adult and still a bit of a wunderkind, he has himself become a member of the Council of Science and is sent out on his first mission. On Earth, a heavily populated planet dependent on its food supply from other worlds such as Mars, a relatively few people have been seemingly randomly poisoned by Martian food and dying painfully within moments, as David himself witnesses in the opening scene. It seems to be, as Henree says, “a clever and brutal attempt at seizing control of Earth’s economic life and government” which turns out to be clarified as a scheme of blackmail with the leverage being the threat of anything from panic over the food supply to actual starvation.

David travels undercover to Mars as “Dick Williams” and strikes up a friendship with the diminutive but fearless and aggressive John Bigman Jones [3] and becomes enemies with a trio who rule under a farm boss named Makian. Nevertheless, he works his way into that domed farm by pretending to be a man trying to find out how his sister was poisoned and being willing to do any work to support his search. After the story describes his experiences as a “farmboy,” his various conflicts with the trio, and his help from Bigman, it really takes off when Starr learns something about the structure of Mars’ great underground caverns, the deep fissures crisscrossing the surface, and how they are related to each other. He makes the arduous descent down one of these fissures and what happens there is almost van Vogtian. David Starr emerges as “the Space Ranger” and the new superhero is ready to piece together the last details to get the big picture and attempt to deal with it.

One of the things that makes this somewhat atypical Asimov is its aim of becoming a TV series. It was partly inspired by The Lone Ranger (which began as a radio series in 1933 and had already become a TV show in 1949) and most obviously turns the Lone Ranger’s mask into a high-tech multi-purpose gizmo but the story also has similarities to Superman (which began as a 1938 comic book Asimov may or may not have been familiar with and which wasn’t to become a TV series until seven months after this book was published), including somewhat-mild-mannered David Starr never being in the same room with the Space Ranger.

Coupled with this, it was also intended for a young audience like those series. The most obvious signs of this are a less credible and more melodramatic plot than usual, more explicit promotion of the value of science both via the power and importance of the Council of Science and via a few more educational passages (which might be called infodumps) and, of course, the “coming of age” motif (and, perhaps, the complete absence – other than a voice – of female characters). The vocabulary and ideas are not especially “dumbed down,” though or written in a “gee whillikers” sort of way.

Another thing is its superficial isolation from the Asimov books that had been published to this point. There’s nothing overt to tie Paul French to Isaac Asimov (no robots yet, or psychohistory, neuronic whips, and so on). Also, it’s not necessarily written like “center-core” Asimov but neither is it un-Asimovian. Interestingly, The Stars, Like Dust (the science fiction novel Asimov wrote just before this one) is also somewhat atypical despite being an Empire novel. These two books are probably more similar to each other than Stars is to the other Empire books. Rather than pudgy old Schwartz or brain-damaged Rik, Biron Farril and David Starr are both strapping young lads, at least six feet tall and two-fisted, sometimes traveling incognito amidst melodrama.

The plot and some characterization is probably the biggest weakness. Starr and Bigman strike up their friendship when Starr takes Bigman’s side in a conflict with the villainous trio but it might seem more suited to Bigman’s character to take offense at this rather than appreciating it. (I may not be as big as some fellers, but I can fight my own fights!) How Starr is taken right into this important farm is convenient and there is confusion about being offered a job by a scientist on the farm, yet still working at a mess hall job until finally going to work for the scientist. And then there are further conveniences and oddities as the situation is resolved, especially regarding the unheroic way a confession is obtained. Another problem is that Starr often seems to be arrogant and, relative to his unfamiliar environment, ignorant. In a juvenile, it seems like you might want to have a humble protagonist who is willing to learn or have your proud protagonist knocked around a bit until he does what is necessary to learn but Starr comes out on top with his innate superiority and a little help from some friends. The last problem I’ll mention is that this is set near 7,000 A. D. (!) and the Earth is dependent on other worlds like Mars (!) to feed its population of five (!) billion. None of this makes the most sense possible.

One of the biggest virtues of the book is a (for the time) harshly and realistically portrayed Mars [4] which is vividly brought to life through Starr’s experiences on first exiting the dome and then in his compelling descent down the fissure (where Asimov does something he’d only done in very few stories and not yet in books). However obligatory they are, the buddy and superhero elements are also reasonably effective. I feel that Heinlein took his juveniles very seriously and put as much or more effort into them as anything else he did. With this Asimov, I feel like he was trying to do a good job and respect and entertain his audience but it doesn’t feel quite like 100%. The fact that this was written in seven weeks in the middle of two other books with the possible detachment a pseudonym might have given (though he used a pseudonym in fear of what TV would do to his work, not because of the work itself) would tend to corroborate that. I think it’s obviously second-class Asimov but, generally, it’s a pretty good juvenile.


[1] A couple of bibliographical notes:

1. The main U. S. editions of this series were Doubleday (hardcovers), Signet, Fawcett Crest, and Ballantine/Del Rey (all paperbacks). Even though the Doubledays were first and I own the Signets (and an SFBC omnibus), I’m using the Del Reys to illustrate these reviews because, while a bit textually busy, their cover art is by far the best. In fact, the order of editions is also the order of cover quality.

2. Asimov published four books in 1952. One was a collection of Foundation stories from the 1940s but the other three were new. The Currents of Space was begun in December 1950 and not finished until March 30, 1952 before being published near the end of that year. The reason it took as long as it did was because Asimov was also working on a textbook. Meanwhile, he also wrote David Starr, Space Ranger from June 10, 1951 to July 29. It was then published near the beginning of the next year (originally with a colon in the title instead of a comma or dash). So David Starr is Asimov’s fifth published book and Currents is listed as his seventh but David Starr was conceived and begun after Currents.

(I felt like footnoting the footnote at “textbook” and this does get deep into the weeds but I’ll just add that there is an oddity regarding that book (Biochemistry and Human Metabolism). Asimov says he received his copies May 24 and placed a copy “immediately behind my juvenile” (meaning David Starr) on his chronological shelf yet the textbook is listed as #8 as though it came out after not just David Starr but Foundation and Empire and The Currents of Space, as well. There was a second edition after 1954, but that doesn’t explain this. Asimov may mean he shelved his books in the order he received them (which would include advance copies) and perhaps there was a delay in the textbook’s actual publication which is reflected in the numbered list.)

[2] It seems that David Starr was intended to be a one-shot but, when the TV series didn’t happen, Brad encouraged Asimov to write more Starr books. In 1971-72, when the books came out in paperback under Asimov’s own name, it seems like he could have renamed it to Lucky Starr and the Fissures of Mars or Lucky Starr and the Criminals of Mars to better fit the rest of the books, though it would have entailed revising it to include the “Lucky” nickname in the story, as well.

[3] There may be some odd precognition here. This was written in 1951 and, while far from being exactly like Harlan Ellison, Bigman has some similarities with him, both psychologically and physically, even down to Ellison claiming a height of 5’5″ when Asimov insisted he couldn’t be more than 5’2″ which is exactly Bigman’s height. Yet Asimov didn’t meet Ellison until 1953.

[4] The book includes a one-page introduction in which Asimov warns the reader that subsequent science has invalidated this portrayal by proving Mars far harsher still.

Edit (2020-06-15): Corrected the opening sentence to say “1951” instead of “1952.” (Dunno how I did that.)

Edit (2020-06-17): Fixed the error in which I was thinking for a moment that he wrote Starr while also working on Stars when he was in fact working on Currents. Substituted “was writing when he switched to” to “wrote just before” and removed the “1952” from “These two 1952 books” (since Stars was 1951). I stand by the conceptual comparison (which I think is interesting), but got the chronology wrong (and it’s not as precise, thus less interesting).

Birthday Reviews: Leinster, Tall, Williams

This week’s stories (celebrating writers who all happen to be having at least their 112th birthdays) include a man incapable of understanding a Power, a contacted species incapable of speech and a contacting species incapable of telepathy, and a pair of lost explorers incapable of getting themselves back home, but they are more than capable of entertaining readers.

Murray Leinster (1896-06-16–1975-06-08)

“The Power” (Astounding, September 1945)

A professor of Latin has come across some manuscripts, including three related letters which he passes on to another professor. The letters were written in Italy in 1482 by Carolus to a friend and they detail his effort to follow a dead man’s path and summon a demon – a Power – who will provide him with knowledge and power of his own. Despite how it sounds, this is very much science fiction and that’s not the only reversal or transformation, as the initially fearful mortal human comes to a different relationship with the Power which changes yet again, with a couple of varieties of pathos, before an ending with an unusual blend of disgust and hope.

Leinster was the original “Dean of Science Fiction,” who began publishing it in 1919 and has written several top-rank stories of great variety but this is more unusual than most. It’s been well-received but isn’t usually mentioned in the first breath, so is still underrated to me (as is Leinster, himself). The story’s structure is solid and the style through which Carolus’ time and mentality is conveyed is effective, he and his Power come across as genuine beings, their motivations are solid, and their relationship provokes strong and varied emotions. The tale is well-suited to tackling its theme of the constraints of conceptual frameworks which can relate to everything from revolutions in worldviews to being able to read science fiction itself, as with Samuel R. Delany’s notion of reading “protocols.” It’s a rich story, a reasonably short story (with a great last line), and seems like it should be better known. Leinster is actually represented in the SFWA Hall of Fame with “First Contact” and he certainly should be, but I think he could also have been represented by a few others, including this one.

Stephen Tall (1908-06-14–1981-01-15)

“The Invaders” (If, August 1973)

Through the eyestalks of Red Spine, we witness epochal events in the history of the “canceroids.” It starts when a rockfall kills many and they are all fed to the Eater, a mutant crab-like being many, many times the size of his fellows who does nothing but demand to be fed constantly. When he’s fed this time with such largesse, he molts, becoming even bigger. And hungrier. Then some strange little bipedal creatures with pairs of tiny eyes arrive on Red Spine’s homeworld and first contact is complicated by the fact that the canceroids can’t speak and the invaders can’t use telepathy. An unusual period of wary mutual observation follows before the two events of the enlarged Eater and the invaders come together in a transformative way.

This is a fine example in the long line of “alien POV” stories which has an interestingly conceived ecology and social structure with almost Clement-like aliens (in that one of the main things which makes Red Spine, especially, alien is simply un-human logical equanimity). All of this is (pointed and clever) cover for its ethical and economic themes but both levels work. This is part of a series of stories and isn’t the most popular one since “The Bear with the Knot on His Tail” was award-nominated and this one is atypical in the series in that it’s the only one in which we see the crew of the Stardust from an alien point-of-view, but I like this one best of all. Readers don’t have to be torn by indecision, though since both were collected with four others in The Stardust Voyages.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19–1977-05-12)

“Flight of the Dawn Star” (Astounding, March 1938)

Graham and Sarl were exploring in a spaceship near the Sun when something went wrong and they found themselves hurled near a world surrounded by unrecognizable stars. With no hope of return and nothing else to do, they set off to explore this new world. They find a stupendous city which represented an inconceivably advanced civilization in its prime but which is now falling to ruin. This strikes Graham and Sarl as also inconceivable. What could have ended a civilization that could have built such a city? Then the pair find that the planet is inhabited after all, not by gods in the city, but by naked savages in the fields. Other than their nudity and carefree attitudes, they are beings much like the explorers and, it turns out, not so savage after all. They telepathically explain their blissful existence and hope the pair will join them. However the humans of a struggling Earth don’t think they’re cut out for such a life, so one of the natives offers to send them home. Both the native and the explorers have a couple of surprises in store.

This was published in Astounding fairly early in Campbell’s editorial tenure and has a kinship with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” (which I discussed last week), so it’s easy to see why it appealed to him. The writing initially feels awkward or overdone and the science is awkward and underdone, but this variant on Lotus-land ultimately casts a bit of a spell.