Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An old Ace Double: Who Speaks of Conquest? by Lan Wright/The Earth in Peril, edited by Donald Wollheim

Ace Double Reviews, 64: Who Speaks of Conquest?, by Lan Wright/The Earth in Peril, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (#D-205, 1957, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This is anthology week at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, and I had planned to cover an anthology of stories on the subject of marriage from Harper's Magazine in 1905 or so, Their Husband's Wives. But my computer has died, hopefully temporarily, and with it the review I had written. Instead, I turn to a review I wrote quite a while ago, with a Don Wollheim anthology backing a novel by Lan Wright, from 1957.


Lan Wright was a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (1923-2010), who was a regular contributor to the UK SF magazines, mostly E. J. Carnell's (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction Adventures), from 1952 through 1963. As far as I know he never even once appeared in a US magazine. Indeed, he only once appeared in an anthology, a British book edited by Carnell. He did have five novels published in the US, four of them Ace Doubles, the last of these in 1968. I had read a story or two in the magazines, and found them mediocre but with interesting aspects, so I tried this novel. He seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) after the age of 45.

Who Speaks of Conquest? was first published in four parts in New Worlds, April through July, 1956. This book version is about 50,000 words, which is kind of short for a four part serial, so it's possible (I don't know) that the book version is cut.

It's rather a silly novel, setting up a really dumb situation and working that out for most of the book, then trying to rescue some of the stupidity with a little twist right towards the end. By that time, I wasn't buying it! It's one of those ideas that probably would have been OK at about 10,000 words, but that simply doesn't bear the weight of a novel.

The first Terran starship lands at Sirius (why they didn't go to Alpha Centauri first is never explained -- it turns out to be inhabited, so it can't be for lack of planets). There they find a welcoming committee, from an intelligent race that has colonized these planets. They learn that the entire Galaxy is under the rule of the Rihnans, apparently a mostly benign rule, but an unquestioned one. Humans are expected to meekly accept their position. Of course, they don't, and soon an invasion fleet is dispatched from Alpha Centauri. But to the invaders' surprise, the plucky humans decide to fight back, and moreover they have been able to develop some surprisingly good tech, and the humans win.

The Rihnans don't take that lying down, and begin plans for a much bigger fleet to suppress Terra. But the humans have their own ideas, and they decide to take the fight to the rest of the Galaxy before the fight comes to Earth. It turns out that humans are much more ingenious than anyone else (what a surprise!), and so despite lack of numbers it looks like they might win. But the Rihnans do have a special trick up their sleeves.
Luckily the human Captain leading the war effort is able to figure out the Rihnan secret. (Part of which turns out to be telepathy.) He magically becomes telepathic himself, but he is still taken prisoner. And a rescue mission is mounted to the planet he's been taken to, but ... well, why tell the story. The improbable human successes continue, of course, and by the end the Rihnans are swept off their perch. But there is something strange going on ... and as I said some of this implausible human success turns out to have a slightly acceptable explanation. Except it shouldn't have taken 45,000 words of boring easy human successes to get to the twist. And it's not that good of a twist anyway.

The other side of this book is an anthology edited by Don Wollheim, The Earth in Peril. As the title makes clear, it's a selection of stories (6 in all) featuring the Earth in danger of destruction, from alien invasion or natural forces or just by accident. I suppose in a way Who Speaks of Conquest? also fits this theme -- perhaps Wollheim chose his anthology theme to pair with the novel.

Here are the stories:

"Things Pass By", by Murray Leinster (19,500 words) (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Summer 1945)
An overlong story with some annoyingly implausible super science. But the basic situation is kind of cool: a huge fleet of near light speed alien ships is passing through the Solar System, who knows why? The gravitational perturbation of these ships threatens to destroy life on Earth. Fortunately our hero, a scientific maverick, with the help of a beautiful woman, and against the foolish obstructionism of an evull corporation, saves the day.

"Letter from the Stars", by A. E. Van Vogt (2600 words) (Arkham Sampler, Winter 1949)
Also called "Dear Pen Pal". An alien criminal manages to contact a human by letter, supposedly just for correspondence but actually with nefarious aims.

"The Silly Season", by C. M. Kornbluth (5500 words) (F&SF, Fall 1950)
Kornbluth at his most sardonic. A newspaperman investigates mysterious UFO-type manifestations. They seem real, but nothing comes of them. Over a few separate outbreaks, people become convinced they are all fake. Then the aliens REALLY come ...

"The Plant Revolt", by Edmond Hamilton (8700 words) (Weird Tales, April 1930)
One of the least plausible stories I've read. Plants suddenly and rapidly mutate and revolt against humanity, turning into mobile and predatory beings. To do so they need certain rare elements emitted from a single man-made volcano. Which is the key to solving the problem, rather absurdly. Told in a horrible turgid faux-19th century style.

"Mary Anonymous", by Bryce Walton (7400 words) (Planet Stories, Summer 1954)
I read this a few years ago in that issue of Planet and didn't remember it. But actually it's not too bad, which means it's probably Walton's best story. (Walton being one of my least favorite writers of that period.) Mars and Earth have been at war for decades, and Earth has just figured out the weapon to exterminated the Martians. But as they launch it, Mary suddenly rebels, and, as it turns out conditioned by the Martians, destroys the Earth spaceship. It's a surprisingly cynical story -- both Earth and Mars come off as irredeemably evil. Mary is sympathetic but does bad things too. The story ends with a twist revelation about Mary that seemed obvious to me (but then I had read the story before!)

"The Star", by H. G. Wells (4200 words) (The Graphic, Christmas 1897)
Famous story telling in journalistic fashion of a rogue star wandering into the Solar System and nearly destroying Earth. Aspects (such as the speed of the star) don't hold together well, but the cold inevitability of the telling is very effective.

So, a mixed anthology -- two good stories (Wells and Kornbluth), two OK ones (Walton and Van Vogt), and two bad ones (Leinster and Hamilton).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Blue Flower, by Henry van Dyke

Old Bestseller: The Blue Flower, by Henry van Dyke

a review by Rich Horton

This book is a collection of short stories, so it fits nicely enough into this month's anthology theme. And it was the 9th best selling work of fiction on Publishers' Weekly's list for 1902, so it fits this blog's main theme pretty well too.

(It shouldn't, of course, be confused with the much more recent novel The Blue Flower, by the incomparable Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my favorite late 20th Century British novelists; though in each case the title refers to the symbol central to the works of the German Romantic writer Novalis.)

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933) was a Presbyterian minister, and also a Professor of English Literature at his alma mater, Princeton. He was also a friend of Helen Keller, and of Woodrow Wilson (a classmate at Princeton), and served as Ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg during World War I. As a writer, he was noted in particular for his poetry (including the lyrics to "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee", a well-known hymn set to the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) and for his short stories. I'm not sure he ever wrote a novel.

The Blue Flower, as noted, was a major bestseller in 1902, but its most famous story, "The Other Wise Man", had made its impact much earlier, first as a short story called "The Story of the Other Wise Man", in Harper's Magazine for January, 1893; then, significantly expanded, as a slim book also called The Story of the Other Wise Man, first published by Harper and Brothers in 1895. This longer version, now called just "The Other Wise Man", is included in this volume. "The Other Wise Man" is still van Dyke's best known story. It has been made into plays, operas, and at least four American TV adaptations, one as recent as 1985, starring Martin Sheen.

The stories in The Blue Flower are:

"The Blue Flower" (900 words)
"The Source" (4800 words)
"The Mill" (5600 words)
"Spy Rock" (9400 words)
"Wood-Magic" (3500 words)
"The Other Wise Man" (8500 words)
"A Handful of Clay" (900 words)
"The Lost Word" (8800 words)
"The First Christmas-Tree" (7000 words)

Most of the stories (though not all) are on distinctly Christian themes. And, I must add, pretty effectively so -- these are good stories, well-written, sometimes quite original, quite affecting. This is a book that deserved its bestseller status.

While I'm at it, I'll mention the specifics of the particular book I have. It's the 11th printing, from 1909, of the 1902 original. Interestingly, it's not a Harper's book, instead it's from Charles Scribner's Sons. It is copiously illustrated, by several artists: J. R. Weguelin, F. V. DuMond, Arthur Heming, Howard Pyle, and C K. Linson. And the first leaf is signed, in pencil, presumably by the first owners: "from #2 Mission, 12/25/09, Harriett Craven, Lucy Bremer, Wm. Stickwell, Wm. Turner, David Williams." Followed by an addition, in ink: "Oh days of 1909, and priceless are the memories of those days in the service of our blessed Lord. WCM[?]8/28/42". Fascinating to see these inscriptions!

To the stories: "The Blue Flower" is a brief story, based on Novalis' idea of the Blue Flower as a symbol of human aspiration for union with nature. In this piece a boy dreams of a journey through a forest to a pool and eventually to the sight of a blue flower. And that's about it.

"The Source" is much more interesting, told by a traveler, a seeker of the Blue Flower, who comes to a depressing city, once beautiful but now declining. He learns its story: when the city's people visit a certain spring, the Source of its nurturing river, and worship there, the river flows abundantly and people are happy, but when people begin to credit their own efforts for the water, things go poorly. He meets a young woman named Ruamie, who alone credits the Source, and over a short time they begin to reinvigorate the city's habit of worship. But he must leave, for his proper quest is the Blue Flower, while Ruamie stays, for her proper home is in her city. A later return reveals that while Ruamie still worships, the rest of the city has forgotten again. The message is pretty clear, but the story avoids didacticism, and achieves a certain sweetness and clarity.

"The Mill" is a different sort of story. It's about young Martimor, who encounters Sir Lancelot, and decides that he too wants to be a noble Knight and go on a Quest. After learning the ways of knighthood from Lancelot, Martimor sets out on his Quest and stops at a mill, somewhat bothered that he can find no great deeds to commit, for "the world is full of meat and sleepy". He ends up staying at the mill for some time, continually extended, as he rescues the miller's daughter's dog, then strives with the "foul churls", Ignis, Ventus, and Flumen (fire, wind, and water) that menace the mill. Over time he vanquishes Ignis and Ventus and tames Flumen, and wins the love of the miller's daughter, and comes to realize that this has been his proper quest: in essence, to work ably as a miller, and to love a common Maid, and that that is as true knighthood as any Prince fighting wars and winning the hand of a Princess. Again, I thought this a pretty good story, told in an exaggerated prose style, mimicking the high romantic style -- forsoothery, if you will -- that works quite well because the author knows it's all for fun, in essence.

"Spy Rock" is again framed by the narrator's search for the Blue Flower. In his wanderings, this time in New York state, he comes upon the Hilltop School, after meeting the perhaps cynical but intelligent Edward Keene, one of its teachers. He stays at the school for a while, learning more about Edward Keene, and the School's Master, and the other teacher, John Graham, and the Master's daughter, Dorothy. It becomes clear that John Graham and Edward Keene both are in love with Dorothy, and that Dorothy seems to prefer Edward Keene, the more brilliant but less stable of the two men. But Keene doesn't seem to treat Dorothy well, going off on lonely walks without her, seeming to increasingly lose his temper. John Graham is ready to fight him, but the narrator urges an attempt to understand Keene, and Keene finally invites him on his walks, where he takes him to the summit of Spy Rock, where, he thinks, he can see the whole world, and see into the false hearts of men. All this seems kind of interesting, but the resolution falls a bit flat, as it is revealed that Keene's visions are caused by his addiction to a drug (apparently hashish), which eventually kills him.

"Wood-Magic" is another story in pure fable mode. A young man, Luke Dubois, lives in a secluded place in the woods, and he understands the true magic of nature. But he decides he needs to make something of himself, and he takes his boat to the city, and gets a job working for a storekeeper, and does well, to the point his boss offers him a share in the business and the hand of his daughter. But Luke, in something like a dream, wanders back to the river, finds his boat, and returns to the woods ... yet, we find out, that was one half of him, for he returns, and years have passed, and "Luke Woods" is now the sole proprietor of the business, married with children ... There's no real moral here, no argument that Luke Dubois or Luke Woods has taken a better path, just a picture of two parallel lives, it seems.

"The Other Wise Man" comes next. It's about a Persian man of science, who has seen the star in the sky that heralds the coming of a great King. He has arranged to join three other wise men on a journey to Jerusalem to honor the King, but on the way to the rendezvous he meets a dying man, and stops to give him care, eventually surrendering one of the three jewels he planned to give the King to help. Another jewel finances his now solo journey, but by the time he gets to Bethlehem he learns that Mary and Joseph and Jesus have fled to Egypt. He saves one child from Herod's massacre of the innocents, then goes to Egypt, and continues his wandering, helping the poor and sick wherever he goes, but somehow never quite finding Jesus. Finally, 30 some years later, he comes to Jerusalem, having heard that a great teacher has come, and then he hears that this man will be crucified. Perhaps, he thinks, his last jewel can be ransomed to save Jesus' life -- but instead he meets a young woman about to be sold into slavery, and surrenders the jewel to pay her debts instead. And as he does so, there is an earthquake -- the tremor that happened at the moment of Jesus' death -- and a falling piece of stone injures him unto death. As he is dying, he laments never having found the great King he had searched: but then Jesus' voice comes to him, and tells him that he found him indeed, every time he succored one of the least of his brethren, he was helping Jesus. I admit I could guess the plot of this story from the start, but I think it works, it's quite affecting.

"A Handful of Clay" is a fairly inconsequential story, again in fable mode, about a bit of clay and its disappointment at being formed into merely a crude flower pot -- but then its redemption when the flowers turn out to be Easter lilies. Pretty minor stuff.

The last two stories directly concern early Christian history. "The Lost Word" is set in 387 A. D., in Antioch, early in the career of St. John Chrysostom. The story concerns Hermas, a young man who has become one of John Chrysostom's converts, in the process being disowned by his rich, pagan, father. But Hermas becomes disillusioned, and ends up trading one word (the name of Jesus) to a sorceror of sorts (interestingly named Marcion, though I don't think any connection with the much earlier, somewhat Gnostic, Marcion of Sinope is intended). Hermas reconciles with his father on the latter's deathbed, and becomes very wealthy indeed, marries a lovely young woman, and has a fine son, only to be tested again when the son becomes terribly ill. In the end, the story doesn't really convince.

And "The First Christmas Tree" is set in Germany in 722 A. D. It retells a fairly familiar story from the life of St. Boniface, the British missionary to the Germanic tribes. Boniface accepts a young man, a prince, into his company, as he plans a mission to the pagan tribes in Saxony. They travel into the woods, and encounter a group of pagans worshipping around a great oak tree. Boniface challenges the pagans, and ends up taking an axe to the oak tree -- and then, in what seems a miracle, a great wind comes up and blows the tree to bits. Again, this is a fairly minor piece, not really too convincing.

In the end, as I said, I liked the book, especially for "The Other Wise Men", "The Source", and "The Mill", with "Wood-Magic" and "Spy Rock" also fairly enjoyable, and each story at the least quite well written.

Monday, September 12, 2016

An Old SF Anthology: Space Service, edited by Andre Norton

Old Anthology: Space Service, edited by Andre Norton

a review by Rich Horton

I had not known Andre Norton had edited anthologies, but actually she did three in the 1950s for World Publishing. (And a couple later in her life.) These early ones were Space Service (1953), Space Pioneers (1954), and Space Police (1956). All were, it seems, aimed at the YA market.

I found a copy of Space Service at an antique mall on the near South Side of St. Louis, for $6.95. It's ex-lib, with a taped spine, no dj, only fair to good condition otherwise. The value of a really nice copy is illustrated by one I saw at Worldcon: very good to fine condition, with a dust jacket: $110. I've included a not very interesting picture of my copy, but there's a very nice image of the book, complete with Virgil Finlay cover, at the SF Encyclopedia: here.

The book includes the following ten stories:

"Command", by Bernard I. Kahn (9500 words)
"Star-Linked", by H. B. Fyfe (5500 words)
"Chore for a Spaceman", by Walt Sheldon (6900 words)
"The Specter General", by Theodore Cogswell (23,000 words)
"Implode and Peddle", by H. B. Fyfe (12,800 words)
"Steel Brother", by Gordon R. Dickson (10,000 words)
"For the Public", by Bernard I. Kahn (12,500 words)
"Expedition Polychrome", by J. A. Winter (8500 words)
"Return of a Legend", by Raymond Z. Gallun (6000 words)
"That Share of Glory", by C. M. Kornbluth (13,000 words)

A couple of notes about the composition of the TOC: the stories date from 1946 through 1952, and 8 of them are from Astounding. (The Sheldon story is from Thrilling Wonder, and the Gallun from Planet Stories.) This highly skewed ratio seemed normal in Adventures in Time and Space from 1946, but in a 1953 anthology, drawing from years when Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories in particular were much improved, as well as from the first couple of years of Galaxy and F&SF, it seems a bit ASF-heavy. I also note that two authors appear twice each, one of them the very obscure Bernard Kahn, who only published three SF stories (and who was only ever reprinted by Norton), the other the not so obscure but hardly major H. B. Fyfe.

The stories are each briefly introduced, presumably by Norton, and headed by the name and role in the "space service" of the main character. (Some of these seem a bit of a stretch, but some fit quite neatly into the concept of focusing on the individuals who have regular jobs in space, such as "Chore for a Spaceman"'s steward Ben Harlow.)

The anthology is very uneven -- several of the stories are quite weak, but there are some very good ones as well, and one story I hadn't read that really surprised me.

The first story is "Command", by Bernard I. Kahn. Kahn, as noted, is very little known. He published only three SF stories, all in Astounding: the two in this book and "A Pinch of Culture". I couldn't find out for sure who he was, but I suspect (as both stories here turn on medical issues) that he may have been a psychiatrist who was at the University of California San Francisco in the mid-50s. This story concerns Nord Corbett, and his first tour as commander of his own ship. What seems a smooth run turns dangerous when his "air officer" turns out to be a psychopath, and poisons the air supply. Corbett and his doctor have to come up with a solution (which ends up being planting a garden on the ship to generate oxygen). Pretty minor work.

H. B. Fyfe (1918-1997) published a few dozen stories in the SF magazines (mostly Astounding/Analog) between 1940 and 1967. There was one very slight novel, D-99 (1962). Because of the odd resemblance of his name and that of H. Beam Piper, and the fact that both published a lot in Astounding, some people used to wonder if one name was a pseudonym for the other, but of course that was not the case.

"Star-Linked" concerns a communications officer on Phobos, Harry Redkirk. It's a sort of "day in the life" story: one shift for Redkirk, as he arranges calls on Luna, Pluto, and a planet of Wolf 359, as well as a spaceship in transit: he has to work through some minor difficulties, but nothing much happens. The burden of the story is why he's "flying a desk", as it were: it's clear he was a spaceman, but for some reason can't do that any more. The answer is not too surprising -- the story, all in all, is OK work, not trying to be much, but worthwhile in its small scope.

Walt Sheldon (1917-1996) published about three dozen SF stories in the decade 1948-1958, and nothing else in the field but a 1980 novel called The Beast. There's a French Wikipedia page for him that suggests he also wrote in other pulp genres, particularly Westerns, and published a number of non-SF novels. He may also have written mysteries (including an Ellery Queen book), and apparently he wrote a fair amount of war stories and novels. It seems, then, that he was a professional writer who wrote for a variety of genres.

"Chore for a Spaceman" is about Ben Harlow, a steward, a bit discontented with his low-prestige job, who has to deal with a mismatched bunch of passengers during a war between Earth and Jupiter, including a Earth soldier who hates the Jovians and an unpleasant Jovian POW. Then Harlow is left to act decisively when the ship is holed by space debris. Competent but not special work.

Theodore R. Cogswell (1918-1987) is another writer who published just a few dozen stories and no novels (save for a collaborative Star Trek book). But he is remembered fondly, for a couple of major stories (the one reprinted here, "The Specter General", and "The Wall Around the World"), and for his editorship of a really wonderful "fanzine for writers", Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, or PITFCS.

"The Specter General" was his first published story, and remains probably his most famous. It was oen of the novellas selected for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, by vote of the members of SFWA. It's set on a long-forgotten planet, where the remnants of the 427th Light Maintenance Battalion of the Imperial Space Marines have maintained a tradition of educating their children to understand the maintenance manuals that remain, even though the defunct Empire has not returned for centuries. The commander of the battalion maintains the fiction of the Empire by staging a periodic visit from the Inspector General. The action here is driven by the typically energetic young marine, Kurt Dixon, who ends up hiding in a space armor suit and accidentally blasting off into space; and by Commander Krogson of the corrupt successor to the Empire, the Galactic Protectorate, who ends up around Dixon's planet while trying to keep his nose clean among another of the periodic house cleanings in the Protectorate's military. Dixon is rescued by Krogson's ship, and is able to use his maintenance abilities to both help repair their ships, but also threaten them enough to allow Dixon's commanding officer to negotiate a reasonable accommodation between Krogson's force and his own valuable maintenance crew. The story is plenty of fun, despite a fair amount of silliness (the space capabilities of the suit of armor Dixon ends up in being one of the most obviously absurd notions).


Back to Fyfe with "Implode and Peddle". Some of his most popular stories concerned an organization called the Bureau of Special Trading (or, colloquially, the Bureau of Slick Tricks), that used commerce to exert Terran influence. (The ISFDB has the novel, D-99, listed as a Bureau of Slick Tricks story, which is incorrect.) "Implode and Peddle" is a BST story, however, concerning a trader named Tom Ramsay, who has built up a successful business in the Delthigan system, but is worried that the Communistic natives government on the one inhabited planet will start to cause trouble. Then he gets a call from J. Gilber Fuller of BST -- they want him to negotiate a trade deal with the Delthigans -- even if they want weapons and offer mostly trash. What could be up with that? The answer, of course, is that BST will get to sneak in some cheap TV sets, which will advertise the prosperity of Terran planets ... Ramsay resists the whole way, not understanding the plot, and still ends up smelling like a rose, and unconvincingly getting the girl too. Not a great story, but kind of OK fun.

The next writer is of course a major writer, though that may not have been clear when Norton picked this story. "Steel Brother" may have been the first solo Gordon Dickson story to make a lasting impact. It's about a Solar System Frontier Guard, Thomas Jordan. The Frontier Guards man a somewhat implausible series of station at the edge of the Solar System, which each control a phalanx of robot ships that attack the aliens that periodically try to invade. Thomas Jordan has just taken his first command, and he's convinced he's a coward. He's also afraid of the implanted connection to the stored memories of all his predecessors (the "steel brother"): he's heard stories of people losing their identity and being overwhelmed by the memories. So when his first attack comes, he funks it, and almost lets the alien ships through, until he finally allows the "steel brother" to help -- and learns a lesson about, well, comradeship. There's a typically Dicksonian ambition, and a sort of ponderousness, to the story -- which nonetheless didn't really work for me, it seemed strained.

The other Bernard Kahn story is "For the Public", which posits a Moon-based quarantine system, in which heroic doctors enforce quarantine of incoming spaceships that may have been exposed to alien germs. The doctors act "for the public", risking their lives. Dr. David Munroe, who is just about to marry another doctor, is required to take an extra shift as the lead quarantine doctor when another man dies in the service. We see him encounter a couple of dangerous incoming ships: one a poorly run freighter with an obvious washout of a medical officer, and the other a rich man's yacht. When he offends the rich man, the latter pulls strings to get Munroe assigned to investigate a derelict suspected to harbor a mysterious disease. The story is OK if obvious until that point, but then lost me with the silly nature of the terrible disease on the derelict: "energy bacteria", not to mention the miraculous survival of Munroe.

The next story is also by a physician, J. A. Winter, M.D. Winter published just two stories and four articles, all in Astounding between 1948 and 1953. But he is probably much better known for writing the introduction to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the book which launched Scientology; and then for breaking with Hubbard, and publishing the first book critical of Dianetics: A Doctor's Report on Dianetics, in 1951. Winter's two stories seem linked: "Expedition Mercy" (which was anthologized by Groff Conklin) and "Expedition Polychrome" (anthologized twice by Norton). "Expedition Polychrome" features an exploartion team on a new planet, and a sudden medical crisis. Several of the characters are doctors, expecially the nominal protagonist Dr. Edwards, who opens the story opining that there can be no new diseases; and that for example the body could never turn a bright blue. After which a crewman comes back to the ship, having turned a rich aquamarine. The plot is, of course, about the mystery of the color change, and the concomitant oxygen deprivation problems the crewman develops, and the rush to try to save his life. Fortunately, they discover unsuspected intelligent creatures on the planet, who communicate by color, and they are able to hint at a cure. I thought it a pretty silly story.

The last two stories are rather better. Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the mid-50s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. "Return of a Legend" is also set on Mars. A small human research station is the only Earth presence on mostly uninhabitable Mars, but there are stories about one old "wilderness tramp" who survived on the land for a few years. Then a man and his young son show up, and the two end up going native for long stretches. The father dies inevitably, but the boy is never discovered. It is assumed that he must have died, but then he is found. His father's younger sister shows up and tries to make a relationship with him, but the boy misses "real" Mars too much and escapes again, and so his aunt, now married to one of the long time Mars regulars, goes on a trek to try to find him, and they too end up required to find a way to survive on the surface. It's not really that plausible, but Gallun works pretty hard to make it at least a bit believable, and their eventual struggle to make a family and to become "real Martians", even as the research station is abandoned, ends up pretty moving.

And finally there is "That Share of Glory", one of C. M. Kornbluth's better known stories, though a somewhat atypical one. It lacks the bitterness of much of Kornbluth's most famous work -- indeed, it's downright Campbellian. It's about Alen, a novice in a quasi-religious order of linguists. He is assigned to his first mission, to help a somewhat rascally trader deal with the natives of Lyra. Alen does his job fairly well, using his knowledge of languages and customs to help foil some space pirates, and to help with the jewel trade on Lyra; and he also adheres to his Order's pacifism: they have a rule against ever using weapons. Then one of the crew members gets arrested, and it looks like the local authorities will railroad him, especially when Alen uses his knowledge to confound a strict local judge ... The resolution involves Alen realizing that sometimes violence is justified, and that the whole thing was a setup to test him: is he an inflexible prig only fit for low-level jobs in his order, or does he have the imagination to be a more influential member. So: very Campbellian. And pretty enjoyable.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Old Bestseller: Favorite Stories by Famous Writers

Old Bestseller: Favorite Stories by Famous Writers

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another old anthology, for "Anthology Month" here at Strange at Ecbatan, leading up to special anthology week at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books on September 30. This time it's Favorite Stories by Famous Writers, which is actually a collection of stories from Cosmopolitan. In this sense it is arguably a stealth "Best of Cosmopolitan" book, analogous to the the collections that used to be common from SF magazines: the Galaxy Readers, the Analog books, the numerous Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction, nth series books. This book is a bit unique, perhaps, in being not for sale, but only offered with a subscription to the magazine. It was published in 1932, though my copy is from the second edition (1933).

No editor is explicitly credited, though the introduction is by Harry Payne Brennan, editor of Cosmopolitan, which certainly suggests he should get the credit. The introduction notes that these are six stories published in the previous year (presumably 1931) in Cosmopolitan, that represent "an epitome of the magazine". Five writers are well-known and Cosmopolitan regulars, and one is fairly new. I knew of four of the writers, to one degree or another: Louis Bromfield, Fannie Hurst, W. Somerset Maugham, and Kathleen Norris. (Of these, it seems to me that Maugham is the only one to truly retain a reputation and a reasonable readership, though I suppose some might plump for Bromfield.) The other Cosmo regular must have been Peter Kyne, and the newcomer must be Elmer Ransom.

Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) was born in Mansfield, OH. He studied agriculture at Cornell and journalism at Columbia, and served with distinction in the First World War. He became a journalist in New York, and published his first novel in 1924. His third novel, Early Autumn, won the Pulitzer Prize. He spent most of his writing years in France, where he was friends with the (very different) likes of Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. He returned to Ohio as World War II impended, and turned to agriculture (and nonfiction about agriculture). At his experimental farm, Malabar Farm, he did pioneering work in organic farming. Malabar Farm is now an Ohio State Park, and still used for developing agricultural methods. All in all, a pretty significant life. Still, it seems to me his fiction is not much read any more, though I have heard of Early Autumn.

"The Girl Who Knew Everybody" seems a bit in the Edith Wharton mode, though to say so only points out that Bromfield was but a pale imitator. It's about a girl from Indiana, with a certain amount of money, who lives in all the hotels in Europe where the best people go. She's in her late 20s, and about all she does is give parties and go to parties, and she's liked because she's sociable -- and because she has enough money to give parties. And she's not ready to marry, and perhaps getting a little old ... then she meets a young man who falls for her, but ... Well, the arc of the sad story is clear from that point. It's not bad, really, and skillfully done, but it does seem the sort of thing I've read before.

Fannie Hurst (1885-1968) was a tremendously popular writer in her time. Her novel Back Street (1931) is the only one that made Publishers' Weekly's list of bestselling novels of the year, but many other books sold well, and she also wrote many many short stories, which were also very popular. These days her most famous book might be Imitation of Life, because of the Lana Turner movie. (Actually, some 30 movies have been made from Hurst's stories.) She was born in St. Louis, and went to Washington University. She was known in her time for tackling significant social issues, though, to our eyes maybe a bit clumsily. In this she resembled, perhaps, Ellen Glasgow and Kathleen Norris, two other very popular woman writers -- and two other writers sometimes dismissed as "just for women". Jennifer Weiner might have been interested in reading her reviews! Hurst was also notorious for her rather open marriage, in which she and her husband maintained separate residences -- this was called at the time a "Fannie Hurst marriage".

"God Made Little Apples" is a story about marriage -- it opens with Crecelius (Cornelia Crecelius Macalroy), wife of a successful doctor, contemplating her plans to run away to Paris with her younger lover, and to divorce her husband. It's not that she dislikes her (older) husband -- and she's confident he depends absolutely on her to arrange his life. But there's no passion in their marriage! And so ... But then, in the twist conclusion, we see Dr. Macalroy and his young assistant and their plans ... I thought it a somewhat formulaic little piece, though not badly executed.

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is easily the most famous of these "famous writers". His best known novels are The Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage, along with perhaps The Moon and Sixpence; for all that, his short stories are perhaps more highly regarded. He had a varied life: born in France* into a family of lawyers (with a brother who was for a brief time Lord Chancellor), he trained instead to be a doctor, but after the success of his first novel stuck with writing, except during the first World War, in which he was an ambulance driver and later an apparently quite effective intelligence agent. (He claimed he could have "saved Russia" had he got there 6 months earlier. Perhaps an interesting alternate history subject?) A gay man, he seems to have been a bit conflicted about that, and he married once, and had a daughter (leading, towards the end of his life, to a notorious and rather unpleasant legal battle when he tried to disinherit her in favor of his latest lover, claiming she was not his daughter -- he lost the case).

(*Indeed, French was his first language, so he joins the likes of Nabokov, Conrad, and Stoppard as major English writers of the past century who first spoke another language.)

His literary reputation was generally more or less in line with his own estimation: "in the first row of the second raters". His greatest weakness is judged to be his prose, it seems to me. I have myself only read a couple of shorter novels (Cakes and Ale and Up at the Villa) along with a few stories, plus the collection of spy stories, Ashenden. I've enjoyed them all, without ever deciding to take a particularly close look at his other work. "The Right Thing is the Kind Thing" is set in Malaysia. George Moon, a successful but not terribly well-liked colonial official, is retiring. Just before the final dinner in his honor, he receives a visit from Tom Saffary, who organized the dinner but otherwise has been cool to Moon, due to a judgement Moon made against him. But Saffary has another subject to discuss: the death of his close friend, but more importantly, the realization that his wife had been his friend's lover, and was ready to leave him. Saffary wants Moon's advice: should he divorce his wife? The story -- and Moon's own story -- is revealed with much skill, and a fair amount of believable characterization. The prose may be undistinguished, but the structure and burden of the story are nicely done. There may be a touch of patness to the setup, and to the back story, but all in all it's pretty effective.

Like Hurst, and to an extent like Maugham, Kathleen Norris (1880-1966) was an extremely popular writer who was not treated overly kindly by the critics. She has been called the bestselling American woman writer of the 20th Century (a claim I doubt, given the likes of Mary Roberts Rinehart). Also like Hurst, and like similarly popular woman writers such as Ellen Glasgow, she often dealt with social issues. I found the one novel of hers I read enjoyable enough, if clearly not great work.

"Men Are So Dumb" is a straightforward love story. Phyllis Richie is somewhat straight-laced young woman, from a good family, with a decent job, and with no prospects of marriage, at age 26. Her younger co-worker is always going on dates, and though she doesn't approve of her behavior she starts to wonder if she is too stiff ... So she decides to place a personal ad. And, in a somewhat roundabout way, it actually works. It's not a bad story, though not a particularly special or surprising one either.

Peter B. Kyne (1880-1957) was a San Francisco writer, son of a rancher, who wrote mostly about the American West. He was very popular in the first half of the 20th Century, and had many of his stories turned into movies. His novel Kindred of the Dust was the second-bestelling novel of 1920. And by now he seems essentially forgotten. Perhaps his Cappy Ricks stories (and the films made from them) are slightly remembered. But surely, of the 5 "famous writers" in this book, while he certainly qualified in 1932, he's the least remembered now.

"With the Help of Ho Lung" is a Western story. It's told by an old rancher named Dad Tully, about a young man named Johnny McIntosh who hanged a man, and got away with it, with the help of his long time servant Ho Lung, who had raised him like a son after his mother died in childbirth. Johnny grows up, a good student, well-versed in Chinese lore as well as Western lore, and he takes over his father's ranch when his father dies. He falls for a girl in the city, but for one reason or another she marries someone else, a no-good lazy man. And Johnny gives him a job when he needs one, and the man repays him by helping a team of rustlers steal his cattle. So you see where this is going ... It's told in a somewhat annoying rural dialect, peppered with cliche Confucianisms and other Chinese sayings from Ho Lung. The story itself is OK, but I found the whole presentation a bit irritating.

Finally, the writer that I assume Harry Payne Brennan, in his introduction, called "not widely known", is Elmer Ransom. Ransom is still very little known. He seems to have published two collections of short stories: Fishing's Just Luck and The Last Trumpeters; as well as a slim nonfiction book, sketches and descriptions of some birds and animals: The Woodland Book. (He did have one story in the seminal fantasy magazine Unknown Worlds, "The Golden Age" (1942).) I can find very little about him on the web, though one source suggests he was born in 1892 and died in 1942. He was from the South, it seems, and his subjects were hunting, fishing, and life in the wilderness.

"Rack, Son of Ezekiel" is about a big raccoon that the main human character in the story calls "Rack", son of a legendary big raccoon called Ezekiel. It's the story of his battles, over some years, with a wild stray dog called Lupus. It's told mostly from Rack's point of view, though also through the eyes of David Carson, an outdoorsman who loves the same swampland Rack lives in. It's decent enough work, in a mode I don't really take much interest in. It could be accused on anthroporphizing Rack, and I suppose it does, but clearly with the acknowledgement that that's whats going on, that that's just a way to tell Rack's story to humans.

In summary, this is, I think, a fairly representative sampling of mainstream popular short fiction of its era. The stories are mostly decent, though none is a masterwork. I can believe that this fairly represents the best stories from Cosmopolitan in 1931 or so, and as such it doesn't disgrace the magazine.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Old Anthology: 9 Tales of Space and Time, edited by Raymond J. Healy

9 Tales of Space and Time, edited by Raymond J. Healy

a review by Rich Horton

I've decided to make September "Anthology Month". This is really because Patti Abbott plans for September 9th to be devoted to anthologies (and collections) at her excellent every Friday feature Friday's Forgotten Books. I had a few interesting anthologies to cover and I thought, why not do the whole month?

Raymond J. Healy (1907-1997) is primarily remembered within the SF field for his role as co-editor (with J. Francis McComas, one of the founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) of the absolutely seminal 1946 anthology Adventures in Time and Space, with was the first introduction in book form to short SF for many post-War readers. It was reprinted numerous times, including a Modern Library edition in 1957.

(cover by Fred L. Wolff)


Healy edited three other SF anthologies, one more reprint book with McComas, the much shorter and less good More Adventures in Time and Space (1955); and two original anthologies on his own: New Tales of Space and Time (1951) and the book at hand, 9 Tales of Space and Time (1954). (I don't have any idea why the words "time" and "space" are in a different order in the Healy solo anthologies.) Both books are very good, and both seem to have been quite significant at the time, but I don't think they are much remembered. The first book had two major stories, Kris Neville's "Bettyann" and Anthony Boucher's "The Quest for Saint Aquin", as well as contributions from the likes of Asimov and Bradbury. The second book has no story as good as those, but it is still quite interesting.

Healy acknowledges a sub-theme of the anthology in his introduction: several of the stories are by writers much better known as editors (Campbell, McComas, Boucher, Gold, and Healy himself). Most of the stories are reasonably long. The TOC is as follows:

"The Idealists", by John W. Campbell, Jr. (14,000 words)
"Shock Treatment", by J. Francis McComas (11,400 words)
"Genius of the Species", by R. Bretnor (5700 words)
"Overture", by Kris Neville (20,000 words)
"Compound B", by David Harold Fink, M. D. (11,600 words)
"The Chicken or the Egghead", by Frank Fenton (7800 words)
"The Great Devon Mystery", by Raymond J. Healy (8400 words)
"Balaam", by Anthony Boucher (5200 words)
"Man of Parts", by H. L. Gold (5300 words)

John Campbell was of course a significant SF writer of the '30s, publishing some of the most popular "super science" stories, as well as some excellent stories in a much quieter vein as by "Don A. Stuart". But when he took over as editor of Astounding in 1937, he nearly stopped writing. Stories continued to appear for a couple of years, but presumably they were already in the pipeline. Some trunk stories eventually showed up posthumously, but the only stories likely to be new, as far as I can tell, were a novel, The Moon is Hell (1951), and this story, "The Idealists". Three other novellas appeared as a book in 1949, The Incredible Planet, but they look possibly like trunk stories, sequels to his novel The Mightiest Machine (1935) -- likewise, the status (trunk or not) of The Moon is Hell is perhaps in question, but I think there can be little or no doubt that "The Idealists" was written around the time of publication.


"The Idealists" is pure Campbell, a story that reads like something he would have pitched to one of his regulars at Astounding, H. Beam Piper, perhaps, or someone lesser like Everett Cole. An expedition of humans is exploring a planet where the intelligent race is at a medieval tech level, under the autocratic rule of Dukes, who forbid scientific experimentation. The humans have tried to teach some new tech to a clever local man, and the Duke has had him killed, so they try again with the Duke's rather volatile son. The Duke, backed into a corner, as the wisest of the human ship has warned, kills his son as well, and then comes to challenge the humans. At first we are led to feel sympathy for the humans, but it becomes clear that they are acting foolishly, as we are told (lectured) by the Campbell stand in. The ending is a bit dark, and there is a bit of a twist, as a superwise alien race turns out to be involved. It's not bad stuff, very didactic to be sure, but worth reading and making its point, if a bit thuddingly, fairly well.

J. Francis McComas (1911-1978) wrote fairly little fiction, a half dozen pieces between 1943 and 1955 (including one that he and Healy picked for Adventures in Time and Space). "Shock Treatment" is set on a planet that has accidentally been colonized by the survivors of a crashed spaceship. They have tried to set up a rather utopian social system, particularly in the area of penology -- the death penalty is forbidden. This comes under stress when an obvious no-good drug addict kills a respected citizen. The prosecuting lawyer, a rather unpleasant man, argues that this proves that the death penalty is necessary, while the aging Judge and an idealistic young man who acts as the defense lawyer try to defend the values of their society, but the other side organizes a mob to do justice their way. The story turns on foolish escape attempt, and then a stern resolution, in which the idealistic young man is forced to allow the execution to go through, to "teach a lesson", as it were, to the populace. (A lesson about how harmful the death penalty is to society, not about how bad crime is.) It's talky and didactic again, though again the point is made tolerably well. (There are some bad missteps, especially attributing the crime to an implausible and unnecessary drug.)

Reginald Bretnor (1911-1992) was a Russian born writer (born in Siberia, actually) who came to the US in 1920. His name was Alfred Reginald Kahn until after the Second World War. He published a great many mostly humorous stories in the SF magazines and the slicks (his first sale was to Harper's) from the late '40s until his death. He was perhaps best known for his Feghoots, punny flash fiction (well over a hundred examples) mostly published in F&SF as by "Grendel Briarton". His most famous story is also from F&SF, "The Gnurrs Come From the Voodvork Out", the first of a number of stories about Papa Schimmelhorn. He published very little at novel length -- an SF novel, Gilpin's Space (1986) and a Schimmelhorn novel. He was also active critically, mostly as the editor of three anthologies of essays on SF, beginning with Modern Science Fiction (1953).

"Genius of the Species", published as by R. Bretnor, a form of his name he used about half the time, is a comic story set in Russia. They have invented a shield that prevents any animal life (including humans) from entering or leaving the country. A series of foolish 5-year plans by the latest dictator lead inevitably to the creation of super-intelligent cats, who take over the country. It's a reasonably funny light story.

Kris Neville (1925-1980) had one of the interesting disappointing careers in the field. He was a native of St. Louis, long resident in California, who began publishing short fiction in 1949, and quickly made an impact, most notably with "Bettyann" (1951), but also "Hunt the Hunter" (1951) and "The Toy" (1952) among others. By the time of this book he had published some three dozen stories, and then he largely fell silent for close to a decade, returning to publish another couple of dozen stories before his too early death. He also published perhaps a half-dozen novels, the last of which, Run, the Spearmaker, has only been published in Japan, except for an excerpt in the Riverside Quarterly. (It was co-written with his wife Lil, as were other late stories.) The novels were mostly expansions or fixups of earlier stories, and made little impact. There is little question that he could have had a major career. Why didn't he? Barry Malzberg, who collaborated with him on two stories and carried on an extensive correspondence, says that this was partly due to frustrated ambition -- the field, perhaps most of all its editors, were not ready to publish work of the ambition he desired. Another reason could be that he had a very good job, a technical writer and an expert on epoxies, which he seems to have liked and in which he was highly respected. Sometimes we readers forget that much as we want to see promising writers keep at it, there are other, equally rewarding, careers, and it's not our call what a given person chooses to do with their life. (I think of P. J. Plauger sometimes in this context.)

"Overture" is the direct sequel to "Bettyann". (The two stories were combined, presumably with additional material, into a novel in 1970, and another story, "Bettyann's Children", written with Lil Neville, appeared in 1973.) (Obviously, spoilers for "Bettyann" follow.) The story opens with Bettyann, having left the ship in which her alien relatives were planning to take her away, using her shapechanging ability to fly back to her true home, in Southwest Missouri. She must now come to terms with her newly revealed alien abilities, and somehow explain to her parents why she suddenly left Smith College. She becomes obsessed with the idea of making a difference -- perhaps by using her powers to heal people, and she also begins to fall for the much older local doctor. Not much else really happens -- a couple of minor health crises for her, engendered by her expending energy on healing a man with cancer, and her despair when she fails, her young love for the older doctor (and its reciprocation), her relationship with her adoptive parents -- but the story is very nicely told, sweet, well-written.

The next two stories are curiously linked. Apparently David Harold Fink, a psychiatrist who had published a bestselling motivational book, Release From Nervous Tension, suggested the idea of a drug to raise IQ to Frank Fenton. Fenton took the idea in a more satirical direction, so Healy suggested that Fink write a story himself on the subject. The result was "Compound B", in which a rather unpleasant doctor with an even more unpleasant wife invents a drug that raises IQs remarkably, but only in black people. This is Compound A. Unhappy with the notion of benefiting blacks (his wife is particularly racist), they end up on a Pacific Island (where the people are also black, of course), hoping to work on Compound B (for white people) in isolation. But the local leader intervenes, obtains the drug for himself, and things proceed -- to worldwide disaster. (The story is told from a POV centuries in the future.) It's an OK satirical story, told with a broad brush. All such stories, seems to me, were swept away by "Flowers for Algernon" (and later Camp Concentration).

Frank Fenton (1903-1971) was mostly associated with Hollywood, though he also published stories in the slicks and a couple of novels. His only SF credits were stories in the two Healy anthologies, and one other. "The Chicken and the Egghead" is a reasonably amusing, if obvious, satire set in Hollywood. It tells of a screenwriter barely scraping by, perhaps because he is too ambitious and too serious. He has a beautiful but apparently dimwitted girlfriend, to whom he won't commit because (I deduce) that would be shallow. His psychiatrist suggests a cure for his problems -- a drug that will reduce his IQ to average ... which of course allows him to write a bestselling novel aimed at the lowest common denominator market, which becomes a film in which is girlfriend can star ... alas, there are downsides ..., and, anyway, the drug wears off.

The next story is editor Raymond Healy's only story, based on an event he read about in one of Charles Fort's books. "The Great Devon Mystery" concerns the curious appearance of a great many mysterious footprints in the snow in Devon in 1855, never explained. In this story, the explanation revolves around Sir Humphrey Muffin and his would-be mistress, the lovely but lowborn tavern owner Queenie Broadaxe, not to mention a great detective and a Venusian. Healy stated that he intended the story to be something of a romp, but it's not really successful that way, though it holds the interest acceptably.

Besides "Overture", the best story in the book is by F&SF editor Anthony Boucher (real name William Anthony Parker White (1911-1968)). Boucher wrote a fair number of short stories, was a significant reviewer both as by Boucher and "H. H. Holmes". He was the first translator of Borges to English. "Balaam", like "The Quest for Saint Aquin", is on a religious theme. Rabbit Chaim Acosta and Father Aloysius Malloy are on Mars, considering the question of "What is a Man?", as they prepare to meet an alien -- the Army wants them to curse the alien, to beef up their men's morale, but the two men, especially Acosta, question whether belligerence and curses are the right way to greet another intelligent creature. The story ends ambiguously, possibly tragically, and quite effectively.

Finally, there's a story from Galaxy editor H. L. Gold. "Man of Parts" is a fairly silly piece about a human who crashlands on another planet, and can only be saved by having his brain and the few parts of his body that survived grafted to the body of a dead alien. Follows a reasonably funny plot about his conflicting instincts, as both alien and man, with a kind of silly twist ending. An OK piece, but nothing special.

In the final analysis, this is a nice enough anthology, never less than competent, but though the best stories are quite good, it's never great.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Old Bestseller: Stamboul Nights, by H. G. Dwight

Old Bestseller: Stamboul Nights, by H. G. Dwight

a review by Rich Horton

Undoubtedly this was not a best seller, but it sold well enough to have, I deduce, at least three editions -- at any rate, the copyright page says 1916 and 1922, and my edition is from 1926. There is an introduction by John Macy, presumably written for the second edition, that rather gushes about the book and the author, declaring "Stamboul Nights is on the way to becoming a classic." But I don't think that has happened -- indeed the book seems close to forgotten. Dwight was, however, very well reviewed in his time, and considered a fairly significant writer of short fiction. One reason for his diminished reputation may be that Dwight wasn't terribly prolific: he wrote one more collection of apparently quite similar stories, a couple of travel books, on Constantinople (i.e. Stamboul) and Persia. And some books on art: Dwight became assistant director of the Frick collection later in his life.

Harrison Griswold Dwight was born in Constantinople in 1875. He was educated in Turkey, and went to college in the U. S. (Amherst), then became a diplomat, serving for example at the peace conferences following the first World War. His stories appeared in the major magazine of the early 20th Century, and indeed I found a couple of letters from Willa Cather in which she seems ready to buy a couple of his stories for McClure's (where she was editor), and asking for revisions. In the end only one of the stories in this book appeared first in McClure’s ("Mill Valley", called "The Valley of the Mills" in Cather’s letters: apparently her request to "sharpen the point" of "Mortmain" was either ignored or not done to her satisfaction) -- others appeared in the Atlantic, Scribner’s, Appleton’s, the English Review, Harper’s, and Putnam’s (with one original to this book) -- all fairly prominent magazines of the day. Dwight’s introduction does say that each story has been revised for the book publication.

This book includes 14 stories:

"The Leopard of the Sea" (5000 words)
"Mortmain" (7500 words)
"Mehimish" (3500 words)
"The Glass House" (6800 words)
"The House of the Giraffe" (10,500 words)
"The Golden Javelin" (5300 words)
"His Beatitude" (5700 words)
"The Place of Martyrs" (3700 words)
"Under the Arch" (4200 words)
"For the Faith" (6400 words)
"Mill Valley" (4400 words)
"The Regicide" (5300 words)
"The River of the Moon" (6500 words)
"In the Pasha's Garden" (7300 words)

The stories are all set in and around Constantinople, presumably late in the 19th Century or early in the 20th. They are all told by a mostly uninvolved narrator, an obvious stand in for the author. The stories are told in a leisurely manner, with a hint of a sly smile often peeking out behind the narrator’s mask. His attitude towards the Turks and Arabs and Armenians he depicts is sympathetic and broadly approving -- that said, though born and raised in Constantinople, Dwight was a Westerner, so his slant must be viewed as that of an outsider. I suppose it’s possible that a certain flavor of Orientalism has contributed to the book’s current obscurity.

To briefly describe each piece: "The Leopard of the Sea" is an amusing tale of the troubled journey to Yemen of an old steamship called Leopard of the Sea, framed as the narrator’s encounter with a local man while he tries to set up for a photograph. "Mortmain" is about an American missionary building a chapel, the grounds of which are said to contain a treasure of the Armenian church, buried since 1453: an Armenian man wants the missionary to at least split the proceeds with him. "Mehmish" is about an old man, a faithful doorkeeper, looking for a new position after getting out of prison for manslaughter. "The Glass House" is about the history of a strange house formerly owned by a rich patisserie proprietor and his wife. "The House of the Giraffe" is about a truly nasty Pasha, who finally meets his deserved fate when a governmental change is forced. "The Golden Javelin" is about the narrator’s pretty cousin, who surprised her family be marrying an older man, a missionary, and her sad fate and the title objet d’art.

"His Beatitude" is a rather funny caper story, about an old man who is suddenly recruited as the next Patriarch of the Armenian church in Constantinople -- for unexpected reasons. "The Place of Martyrs" is about the doomed affair of an Orthodox boy with an Armenian girl. "Under the Arch" is another story of thwarted young love, this time by a young Anatolian for a prostitute. "For the Faith" is about a missionary and his involvement with a North African man who offers to sell bibles for him -- and what the man was really doing. "Mill Valley" concerns the narrator’s visit to a country village, and a night of drinking, and the shocking result.  "The Regicide" is the least Stamboulian story: the narrator meets an American couple on an ocean liner, and hears their story of their time as diplomats in Basra, and of the wife’s clumsy attempts at promoting morality among the locals. "The River of the Moon" is about an old gun, and a very valuable necklace, and the narrator’s unfortunate mixing up with a criminal act. Finally, "In the Pasha’s Garden" tells of an old Pasha, and his younger French wife, and a conversation they have while the Pasha suspects (or does not?) that she has hidden a lover in the room before he came by.

My favorites, I think, are "In the Pasha's Garden", "The Golden Javelin", "The Leopard of the Sea", and perhaps "The House of the Giraffe".

All these stories, as I suggest, have a bit of humor behind them -- rather fatalistic, though. They are quite nicely written in a distinctly early 20th Century style. It's noticeable that most of the pieces depict sad, sometimes tragic, often criminal, events, but with very light touch. I enjoyed the book -- Dwight was a fine writer, if in the final analysis not quite prolific enough, perhaps not serious enough, to compel significant latter day attention.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Quick Look at MidAmericon II

Quick Look at MidAmericon II

by Rich Horton

Mary Ann and I have just got back from Kansas City where we attended MidAmericon II, the 2016 World Science Fiction Convention. Last year I published a fairly long look at our trip to Spokane for Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon. I'm not sure I'll write something as long this year, but if I do it will take a little time.

So, a quick look: first, I really enjoyed myself. I always do, really. The best part is conversations, meeting people I haven't yet met and seeing old friends. Any list I make will leave out important people, but off the top of my head, I was able to meet Jonathan Strahan in person for the first time, and we had several excellent talks. I also met Kate Baker, Ken Schreyer, Marty Massoglia, Bo Bolander, Andy Dudak, Jason Sanford, Sarah Frost, James Cambias, Heather Shaw, Sunil Patel, Carrie Vaughn, Daryl Gregory, Caroline Yoachim, Steve Pantazis, Martin Shoemaker, Ron Yaniv, Rosemary Kirstein, Jacob Weisberg, Gord Sellar, Rich Larsen, Christopher Kastensmidt, and Jonathan Eller. And of course I saw a lot of folks I've met before: John O'Neill, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Charlie Finlay, Sean Wallace, Neil Clarke, Liza Groen Trombi, Kij Johnson, Christopher McKitterick, Gary Wolfe, Sheila Williams, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Ann Leckie, Gregory Benford, Michelle Sagara West, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, John Joseph Adams, Mark Olson, Jo Walton, Joe Karpierz, Charlie Jane Anders, Steven Silver, Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Jeremy Tolbert, E. Lily Yu, Adam-Troy Castro, Judy Castro, Travis Creason, Francesca Myman, Andrew Porter ... I know I'm shamefully forgetting a lot of people! But that's what's really great about Worldcon.

Regrets? I have a few. Well, maybe just a couple: one, for a variety of complex reasons, we didn't have as good a food week as we might have hoped. Most of this was time constraints. Mary Ann and I have both been to KC a lot, and so we think we know our way around it a bit ... in the end the only two really good eating experiences were at a couple of restaurants we're fairly familiar with: Genghis Khan, the first Mongolian barbecue I ever tried (back in about 1998 at my first ConQuesT), and Fiorella's Jack Stack, one of the great KC (traditional) barbecue joints. (This time I tried their Crown Prime beef rib for the first time, and it was truly wonderful.) Second, we didn't go to the Hugo Losers party. I didn't have a formal invitation, and I got a bit shy -- but as I understand it, most everyone was welcome, at least eventually. It would have been wonderful to see John O'Neill get his special Alfie for Black Gate (and to bask a bit in the reflected glory, because of course I'm part of Black Gate too!)

Hugos? The regular Hugos went pretty much exactly as I expected. I guess I didn't have a good idea what would win the Novel -- I've only read Ancillary Mercy so far, and I enjoyed it -- but by all accounts (including Ann Leckie's) the actual winner, N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, is wonderful, and it's certainly on my To Read list. The novella winner, Nnedi Okorafor's "Binti", was the one I expected. It wasn't my personal choice, but it's a worthy winner. I do still wish, of course, that great stories by Greg Egan, C. S. E. Cooney, and Carter Scholz had made the short list, but alas it was not to be. I would have been thrilled with either of the two plausible novelette winners: Brooke Bolander's "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" or the actual winner, Hao Jingfang's "Folding Beijing". Those were really a tossup to me -- so no complaints here! And the only worthy story on the short story ballot won, Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures, Please". I won't discuss the rest of the ballot, except to say that in general the winners were good choices, to the extent I was familiar with them.

The Retro-Hugos? Again, predictable. Novel went to Slan -- perhaps not the best novel of 1940, but a good bet for the one that would have actually won! Novella and novelette went to Heinlein stories ("If This Goes On" and "The Roads Must Roll"). Reasonable choices, I guess. The disaster category was Short Story, where Isaac Asimov's "Robbie" -- which technically should have been called "Strange Playfellow"! -- took the award. It's just not a very good story, and it only won because it was the first of his robot stories. Also possibly the least! The best story on the shortlist, by about 20 parsecs, was Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", one of the greatest of 20th Century stories. If you want to argue that no voter in 1941 would have read the Borges story, which has appeared only in Spanish, and as far as I know, only in Argentina, well, fine. Very few voters in 1941 would have picked "Strange Playfellow" (none would have picked "Robbie", because it didn't have that title yet) -- and no one would likely have realized it would be famous as the first of a famous series. The better choice if that was your algorithm was Heinlein's "Requiem". Ah well, that's just to repeat the obvious: the Retro Hugos really truly do not work.

Programming? I had three panels myself. The best, I thought, was the last, Transcending the Genre, a Sunday panel, with Rosemary Kirstein, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Tom Easton, and Jennie Goloboy. We essentially discussed the increasing acceptance of SF (and some SF writers) in the literary world. Which is a shallow way to put it. I think we handled it pretty well, covering attitudes on both sides of the fence, marketing, history, the reasons there might be differences, etc. One other panel concerned the Small Press, which also featured Jason Sizemore of Apex; Ron Yaniv, an Israeli editor/publisher (and his insights on the market is Israel were very interesting); Katherine Wynter, and Jamie Lackey. And the third panel was Reviewing the Reviewers, with Michelle West and Gary Wolfe. Alas, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro was not able to be there due to a detached retina -- get better quickly, Alvaro. I really missed the chance to talk to Alvaro again. Michelle and Gary and I have done pretty much this exact panel before, and I think we covered it well, but, yes, it was familiar stuff.

Other programming? I attended a lot of panels. To the point that I got panel fatigue at points. I also did a few Kaffeeklatsches and Literary Beers. I find these very fun. I did them with Jo Walton, Kij Johnson, Gary Wolfe, and Jim Cambias. Good discussions every time.

Controversy? Well, yes. I was at the notorious "State of Short Fiction" panel, moderated (immoderated?) by Dave Truesdale. Dave is an old friend, and I owe him a lot, for bringing me into the fanzine field by letting me review for Tangent (the print version!) back in the '90s. But Dave really went off the rails on this one. Leaving aside the substance of what Dave said -- which can certainly be disputed -- his presentation was deliberately offensive, and that's a problem in itself. And obviously counterproductive. From my selfish point of view, the worse offense was that Dave hijacked a panel that I thought would be very interesting, and turned it into an argument/discussion about his particular current hobbyhorse. We heard essentially nothing about the state of short fiction today. We did have some discussion -- and Sheila Williams and Jonathan Strahan in particular (with good contributions from Gordon van Gelder and Neil Clarke) did try to address the substance of Dave's complaints.

As for Dave's expulsion from the convention, I have no direct knowledge of the circumstances. But I have been told -- at second hand -- that there were issues beyond just the reading of the manifesto at the panel. If that was all that happened, it could have -- should have -- been dealt with in a less extreme manner than a ban. But we don't know what else was involved, and I think everyone should withhold further comment not knowing any background.

Business Meeting? Mary Ann attended the bulk of the four day session. I attended what I could, given my other responsibilities. The basic results: the YA "not-a-Hugo" and the Best Series Hugo were approved (subject to ratification at next year's Worldcon). The 5% rule was eliminated, thank God! EPH was passed. My opinion on EPH has changed. I somewhat unconvincedly voted for it last year. But this year, after seeing analysis based on the last few years of nominating data (and eventually on this year's data (thanks to Dave McCarty for absolutely yeoman all-nighter work crunching the numbers!)) that showed that a) EPH has a rather small positive effect on the final ballots (not zero, but small); and b) it seems to actually potentially enhance small-scale slate voting (i.e., perhaps, a single author trying to get his friends to nominate him); combined with the fairly opaque nature of the algorithm; and a fourth effect, perhaps a selfish one: EPH tends to reduce the power of nominators -- like me, yes, I admit -- who actually read a substantial portion of the works eligible in a given year (in some categories). I frankly don't think that the vote of a person who has read just a few things and liked two of them should be privileged over someone (let's call him Rich H for short) who might have read a couple thousand stories and liked five. But even aside that admittedly selfish whine, I think the other problems with EPH mean it's a bad idea. 4/6 also passed, modifed to 5/6. Why not 5/8? Or 5/10? But that's water under the bridge. 5/6 is an improvement, but a very small one.

And finally, Trivia? As ever, I participated in the Trivia for Chocolate contest, run by Mark Olson, Jim Mann, and Steven Silver. And, as ever, I had the second highest Chocolate count -- I've been to 3 Worldcons, and had the second most chocolates each time. This time was, admittedly, a bit different -- there was a tie for first (26 pieces) and I was technically third (25). I blame Dr. Who. :) My Dr. Who episode count remains at 1/2. Not that I have anything against it, I'm just not really a TV guy. (And hey, I get it -- Dems da Berries! But there sure were a lot of Dr. Who questions!)