Thursday, October 20, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Visits of Elizabeth, by Elinor Glyn

Old Bestseller: The Visits of Elizabeth, by Elinor Glyn

a review by Rich Horton
Here’s a true Old Bestseller again. The Visits of Elizabeth was the 6th bestselling novel of 1901, according to Publishers’ Weekly. The writer, Elinor Glyn, had an interesting life. She was born on the island of Jersey in 1864 (making her a subject of the Queen but not precisely a citizen of the United Kingdom – indeed, as the Channel Islands were part of the Duchy of Normandy they like to refer to the Queen as their Duke, not their Queen), but she moved to her mother’s native Canada after her father died when she was an infant. They returned to Jersey when Elinor was 8. She married Clayton Glyn when she was 28, and had two daughters, but the marriage was soon in trouble, and Elinor had numerous affairs.

The Visits of Elizabeth was her first novel. With her later novels she developed a reputation for scandal: her novels often featured extramarital sex, and more erotic detail than common at that time, and her notorious personal life no doubt added some spice to her reputation as a writer. Given her husband’s spendthrift ways, their rocky marriage, and her own doubtless expensive tastes, she continued to write prolifically for the money. Three Weeks was perhaps her most famous book, about the romance of a Balkan Princess with a much younger man. She also wrote the story “It” (1927) – Clara Bow starred in the movie version and became known as “the It Girl”. During the 1920s Glyn moved to Hollywood and was a very prominent screenwriter. She returned to England in 1929 and died in London in 1943.

The Visits of Elizabeth, first published in 1900 (though some of the sections were previously published in The World, beginning I think in about 1898), is a bit more innocent on the surface than many of Glyn’s later books (though a lot is implied to be going on behind the scenes – but Elizabeth is innocent of all this intrigue, to comic effect). It is a novel in correspondence, comprising a series of letters from 17-year old Elizabeth to her mother as she visits a series of relatives in England and France. (There was a 1909 sequel, Elizabeth Visits America, in which the now married Elizabeth writes to her mother during a trip to the colonies.)

Elizabeth is well-born, wealthy though not titled, naturally somewhat snobbish but in an innocent fashion, and evidently very pretty. The book opens with her visiting Nazeby Hall, for a cricket party. One of the cricketers is the Marquis of Valmond, who takes to Elizabeth right away, even though his mistress, a Mrs. Smith, is also of the party. Elizabeth is offended and slaps him, and we can guess where that might lead eventually. The bulk of her letter is taken up with observations about her fellow guests that aren’t quite catty because of her lack of malice, her willingness to praise when due, and her funniness. She also remarks on some behavior that she regards naively but the reader knows is her fellow guests either engaging in sexual intrigue or making fools of themselves or both simultaneously.

This pattern is repeated throughout the book – she visits a relative or acquaintance, she remarks on how dull or pleasant the place is, she notices people sneaking around and remarks on their doings with innocence, men, some married, some not, fall in love with her, and try to steal kisses or set up trysts, and occasionally even propose marriage … It somehow avoids ever seeming too repetitive (though it is repetitive a bit) … the foibles of the various characters are generally different each to each.

An extended part of her travels are in France, where she manages to facilitate her plain cousin’s marriage, mainly by rejecting the suit of the man her Godmother intends to marry the cousin. There are plenty of observations about the differences between French and English mores. Finally Elizabeth returns to England, and, of course, eventually true love …

This isn’t a great book, by any means, but it’s fairly fun, often quite funny, and stays on the sweet side of satire. There is, by the by, some presumably fairly accurate depiction of the habits of life of the very rich, and about their physical environs. Elizabeth stays nice, and noticeably comes down (mostly) on the side of a social-climbing Jewish woman, as opposed to the snobbish but only too happy to sponge folks who make nasty and anti-Semitic remarks. Elizabeth’s naivete never seems stupidity, nor does it seem a put on. Not bad stuff at all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Another not so old Non-Bestseller: The Living End, by Stanley Elkin

Another not so old Non-Bestseller: The Living End, by Stanley Elkin

a review by Rich Horton

Let's transition out of Anthology month with a sort of quasi-collection: a triptych of closely related stories that together make up a book, not quite of novel length. Stanley Elkin's The Living End comprises three stories, originally published in American Review, Antaeus, and TriQuarterly, as "The Conventional Wisdom", "The Bottom Line", and "The State of the Art". The titles themselves are sort of linked: they are quite conventional idiomatic phrases concerning something similar: an ordinary, quotidian, belief or situation. The stories are of a length, 10,000 words or a bit more, so the whole book is novella length, maybe 32,000 words. This also continues my habit of encountering a significant writer by reading a pretty short book.

I had some interest in Stanley Elkin because of some slight similarities in our biographies. Very slight, really. Elkin, though born in Brooklyn, grew up in Chicago, and I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Elkin went to the University of Illinois, as I did, about a quarter-century later. And Elkin moved to St. Louis after school, and lived the rest of his life there, as a Professor at Washington University. I also moved to St. Louis after school, and have lived there ever since (though I'm not a Professor). He wrote ten novels and a few collections of stories and novellas, plus a number of essays. He suffered from multiple sclerosis. He was a very well-regarded writer critically, though he never sold all that well. He won two National Book Critics' Circle awards for Best Novel. He died in 1995, aged 65.

The Living End
opens with Ellerbee, the owner of a liquor store in Minneapolis, worrying about his two employees who have just been shot at his store. He vows to hlep their families, and indeed does so in exemplary fashion, against the wishes of his wife. He even fends off the offers of sex from the wife of one of the men. And he is resistant to his wife's belief that the criminals must be black men. He's quite the virtuous man -- in an uncynical fashion. And all this does him little good when the criminals (mobsters) return to his store and kill him. Somehow Ellerbee ends up in Hell (after a visit to Heaven which he finds underwhelming, more of a theme park.) Ellerbee's lot in Hell is, well, eternal suffering, but his will is unbowed, he continues to rebel against the capricious God who placed him there.

Ellerbee encounters some people he knows in Hell, particularly Ladlehaus, one of his murderers. The second section concerns first him, as he ends up by mistake returned to life, sort of: he goes back to his body, but his body is still buried. In this form he can do nothing but complain, and eventually torment one Quiz, the groundskeeper at a high school football stadium built over Ladlehaus' grave. Quiz becomes the focus, and his concerns about the boys who play in his bailiwick -- and then he dies as well, of an unexpected heart attack.

The final section, eventually, focusses on God himself, as well as his Son and frustated Joseph and the Virgin Mary and her motherly affection for one of Quiz' young boys, who himself unfairly ended up dead and in Heaven. The burden, in the end, is why God is who he is, and why he, not really so much on purpose, torments so many.

The novella is, as may be clear, fundamentally comic, if rather blackly so. And it's quite funny at times. It is not ever really convincing theologically -- Elkin's heart is clearly not in it in that sense. (Elkin was Jewish, and the God depicted here is mostly the Christian God (with nods to other traditions), and anyway he really just seems to be going through the motions in his satirical treatment of the deity.) What distinguishes this book is Elkin's prose, which is quite comically extravagant. I enjoyed reading it -- at some level, though, I confess I was more interested in Ellerbee's life story than in the concluding 2 and half sections set mostly in the afterlife -- though there was much of interest there, mostly, as I note, prosodically.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Old Anthology: Their Husband's Wives, edited by William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden

Old Bestseller: Their Husbands' Wives, edited by William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden

a review by Rich Horton

This is the book I originally planned on covering last week for "Anthology Week" at Friday's Forgotten Books, but my computer troubles intervened. I was able to get to the hard drive from the messed up computer (the problem seems to be the video card), and I resurrected this review, which I wrote several weeks ago.

Here's another anthology that might be considered a sort of "stealth" "Best of" collection from a single magazine, in this case Harper's. Indeed it is subtitled "Harper's Novelettes", though the stories are pretty short for what we'd consider "novelettes" these days. It's not a pure "Best of" collection, as it has a theme: Marriage, and marriage mostly focusing on women. It does feature stories mostly from a single year (1905, with three from the same issue). The book itself appeared in 1906. It seems actually to be part of a series of at least 8 books, all subtitled "Harper's Novelettes", on different themes (other titles include Quaint Courtships and Southern Lights and Shadows), all published in 1906/1907.

Henry Mills Alden (1836-1919) was Editor of Harper's for a remarkable 50 years, from 1869 until his death. William Dean Howells was his near exact contemporary, born a year later and died a year later. He was an editor with Harper's rival (then and now), the Atlantic Monthly, and later with Harper's. He was better known, of course, as a novelist, indeed a doctrinaire realist novelist. Probably The Rise of Silas Lapham remains his best-known work. Howells is responsible for the very brief introduction.

The six stories are:

"Eve's Diary", by Mark Twain (5000 words) (Harper's, December 1905)
"Covered Embers", by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (8900 words) (Harper's, August 1905)
"Life's Accolade", by Abby Meguire Roach (5100 words) (Harper's, September 1905)
"The Bond", by Emery Pottle (4300 words) (Harper's, July 1904)
"The Eyes of Affection", by George Hibbard (3600 words) (Harper's, August 1905)
"The Marriage Question", by Grace Ellery Channing (8900 words) (Harper's, August 1905)

Mark Twain's story is actually part of a diptych, along with "Extracts from Adam's Diary", which appeared in Harper's for April 1901. They have often since been published together, including once again in Harper's in 1999. It's an amusing, and sometimes touching, comic retelling of the beginning of Genesis from Eve's point of view, and makes much of the differences in attitude between Adam and Eve, and Adam's grumpiness, and Eve's innocence. Supposedly Twain based Eve on his wife Livy, and Adam on himself.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was a significant early feminist, noted for advocating for financial independence for women, clothing reform (she advocating burning corsets), and for jobs outside the home. She was born Mary Gray Phelps, but asked to change her name after her mother's death when she was very young. I don't know if the name change became official, but she did use it as her pseudonym. She published a story as young as 13, and was very prolific in novels, short stories, and nonfiction throughout her life.

"Covered Embers" opens with a noted lawyer welcoming a new client: a countrified man (though somewhat prosperous) who wants a divorce. The lawyer wonders why? Has his wife been unfaithful? Has he? The man is shocked -- how can the lawyer insult his wife so! It turns out the problem is really that they just don't get along anymore, and the deeper problem is that their cherished daughter had died some years before. And now they -- mutually -- want a divorce, but divorces aren't so easy to obtain. Over the length of the story, as we expect, and with the lawyer's help (for some of his own personal reasons) they are subtly chivvied to rediscover their love. It's a rather nice story, really, funny in places, using dialect effectively, a bit sentimental of course, but effective.

Abby Meguire Roach was a Kentucky writer (her papers are at the University of Louisville). Her dates are given as 1884-1964 on the U of L page about her papers, but I found a reference in a book called Library of Southern Literature: Biography, published in 1907, that suggested she was born in 1876, and married in 1899. The earlier date seems plausible to me. Either way, she was quite long lived, and as late as 1957 published a short memoir of the "Authors Club of Louisville". I don't know of any novels by her -- the only book I can find is a short story collection called Some Successful Marriages (1906), which includes the story at hand.

"Life's Accolade" is a fairly simple romance, in which Frieda Channing, long cold to suitors, realizes she is in love with her friend Mr. Channing as they deal with a storm in a sailboat. After marriage and a child, however, things seem stale, and it takes a second, more difficult, pregnancy, and Channing's care for her, to bring her back to happiness. There's not much more to it than that: a fairly straightforward morality tale, about the propriety of married love and faithfulness, and working at it ... but it's nicely done, and makes it point well enough.

Emery Pottle is an interesting case. His full name was Gilbert Emery Bensley Pottle (1975-1945). He was perhaps best known, later in his life, as an actor, stage name Gilbert Emery. His roles seem mostly to have been fairly minor. IMDB suggests his most famous movies were A Farewell to Arms (starring Gary Cooper), That Hamilton Woman (based on the affair of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton, starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier), and Dracula's Daughter (starring no one I'd heard of). Before becoming an actor in his 40s, he was a writer, of short fiction, poems, and novels, using the names Emery Pottle and Gilbert Emery. He wrote a play, "The Hero", about World War I (he fought with the AEF), in 1920, and that may have led to his acting career.

"The Bond" tells of the marriage of the beautiful and upper class Frances to Richard Keppel, who is well off but comes of more countrified stock. They are happy together until the question of Keppel relatives comes up -- he remains devoted to his mother and sisters, but he seems afraid of Frances' reaction to them, and indeed she seems to be a bit put off by their cruder manners. Things come to a head when Keppel goes by himself to Thanksgiving at his old home, and his mother gives him wise advice -- his place is with his wife. Of course, his wife has done some thinking too ... A fairly simple story painting a fairly simple moral. Like "Life's Accolade", it doesn't do much new or surprising in its short space, but it does what is does well enough.

George Hibbard is the most obscure of these writers -- I can find nothing about him. There are perhaps four notable George Hibbards -- a St. Louis art collector, a Boston mayor, a Canadian businessman and politician, and a contemporary golf instructor. None of these seems to be our man. Further digging finds a reference (from The Writer, "A Monthly Magazine for Literary Workers", August 1911) to a Buffalo lawyer who also wrote "prettygirl-handsomeman" fiction -- I suspect that's this guy!

Hibbard's story, "The Eyes of Affection", is about Isabelle Halcomb, who has been happily enough married to Jack Halcomb for some years. An old flame, Dick Graham, ends up staying at a nearby house, and she runs into him again, of course, and starts to wonder -- what if she had married him instead? He seems a well made and successful man. Did she make a mistake? But even though she feels her life with Jack is a bit humdrum after all these years, she is brought to realize that what she has with him is real, and better than worrying over past flames.

Finally, Grace Ellery Channing is a pretty intriguing figure. She was born in Providence, RI, in 1862, but moved to Southern California in the 1880s for her health (successfully). She became an editor with The Land of Sunshine, a magazine that advocated life in Southern California, including such things as spending time in the sun, and a Mediterranean diet, and wine. Her grandfather was the founder of the American Unitarian Church and her father was an inventor. She was a lifelong friend, and occasional collaborator, with the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and, curiously, married Gilman's husband, Charles Stetson, after he and Gilman divorced. (Wikipedia says Gilman and Channing, who remained friends, raised Gilman and Stetson's child -- I wonder if that's a typo?) Channing Stetson was a war correspondent in France during World War I. She died in 1937.

"'The Marriage Question'" is perhaps the most overtly feminist story here, and it's not very feminist in today's terms. Richard Satterlee is somehow a bit discontented with his wife, again named Isabel, and he starts to take an interest in his hard-working secretary. He fantasizes about asking her to dinner. Then his wife shows up, unexpectedly, at his office. She realizes that Miss Clarke has a relationship with her husband that she doesn't share (though she suspects no impropriety, and indeed Miss Clarke is guiltless) ... and she makes a plan. She suggests that Miss Clarke, who perhaps needs a rest anyway, take a few weeks off, with pay, and instead she'll do the secretarial work. What follows is a bit of a revelation to Isabel -- she has some learning to do -- but even more of one for Richard, who learns that there is more to his wife than he had credited. The end result is a renewed marriage, and a closer collaboration. (And Isabel will continue to be his secretary/partner ...)

In all, not a bad collection of stories, on a distinctly circumscribed theme: each story is about marriage, more specifically about women's roles in marriage, and each quite resoundingly supports the institution of marriage, and fairly traditional roles, but usually with a message for each partner: that they need to pay attention to their spouse's needs. Simplistic, I suppose, but sensible enough.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

a review by Rich Horton

The 2015 Hugos were famously corrupted by a slate of nominations sponsored primarily by Vox Day, called the Rabid Puppies. The eventual winner for Best Novel was a decent book, The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu; but it was clear to me there were better books out there. But what books might those be? To be honest, the extended nomination ballot wasn't tremendously inspiring. There were good books there: Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy (actually on the short list), Jo Walton's My Real Children, Charles Gannon's Trial By Fire, Andy Weir's The Martian, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation. And numerous books I haven't read. But in all honesty, while all these books are fine, none struck me as obvious no doubt about it Hugo winners.

Where to go? How about outside the traditional genre writers? Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a book I have just read, prompted by the praise of Mark Tiedemann, and by the fact it was selected for the book club Mark runs at Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis. Mandel (a Canadian who lives in New York) has written three other novels, which seem to be mysteries of some sort, with literary chops. Station Eleven was her breakout, and it's sure enough Science Fiction. It was also a National Book Award finalist, and a bestseller. And it's a heck of a novel.

It opens in Toronto, roughly the present day (maybe slightly in the future). King Lear is being performed, starring Arthur Leander, once a major movie star but now slightly on the decline. In the middle of Act IV he has a heart attack, and dies onstage. Jeevan Chaudhury, training to be a paramedic, leaps on stage to try to save him, with no effect. Kirsten Raymonde is an 8 year old girl playing Cordelia as a child, and Jeevan ends up trying to comfort her. And in the ensuing hours, it becomes clear that a terrible disease, called the Georgian Flu, has reached Toronto, and indeed the rest of the world, and some 99% of the human population will die in the next few weeks.

The rest of the novel is anchored twenty years in the future, when Kirsten is a member of an acting/musical troupe in Michigan called the Traveling Symphony. (For some reason I was reminded of John Barth's Floating Opera.) They traverse a circuit of villages in the post-apocalyptic society that has succeeded the plague, performing Shakespeare and classical music. Kirsten's motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is "Survival is insufficient". It seems that the world, after a few years of scary chaos, has settled into a fairly peaceful subsistence economy, and that the Traveling Symphony is a welcome reminder of the glories of human achievement. Kirsten, who barely remembers her pre-plague life, treasures a few things from that time, mostly gossip magazines concerning Arthur Leander, and a privately printed comic book Arthur gave her, Station Eleven, written by someone signed only "M. C.".

The novel also focusses on the past: the life of Arthur and his three ex-wives prior to the Collapse. The most important of these women is Miranda Carroll, an art student who grew up on the same island as Arthur, Delano Island, off the coast of British Columbia. She was Arthur's first wife, and made a career as a shipping executive after they divorced, but her avocation was drawing the comic book Station Eleven. Arthur's second wife, the actress Elizabeth Colton, is important only in that she bore him his only son, Tyler. The other important person in Arthur's life is his best friend, Clark.

It becomes important (in a fairly coincidental fashion) that Kirsten, Tyler, Clark, and Jeevan are among the very few survivors of the Georgian Flu. When the Traveling Symphony comes to St. Deborah by the Water and finds it under the sway of a scary man called the Prophet, their existence is in danger, as the Prophet tries to claim one of them as his next wife (of several). They escape, but his people follow them. They make their way towards Severn City and its airport, which turns out to be where Clark fortuitously escaped to, while trying to go to Arthur's funeral. We can easily guess who the Prophet must be, and the main action of the story points toward a confrontation between the evil Prophet and the Traveling Symphony, which represents the hope of humaneness and art in this fraught future.

But that aspect, though important, isn't what gives this novel wings. The wings come from Station Eleven's affirmation of the importance of art, and of simple human goodness, in even a post-apocalyptic future. I have seen complaints that the novel is too optimistic -- surely, these critics seem to suggest, people are more evil than that. I admit to a certain disgust at such cynicism. Yes, there are plenty of bad people in the worlds -- the leaders of ISIS serve as an easy example, and I'm sure you can think of others -- but there are plenty of good people as well, and there is a lot of beauty. Some of this beauty, in this book, is represented in Miranda's comic book Station Eleven, and I first felt enraptured when the comic book was first described. There is enough darkness here to satisfy me, but in the end I was taken by the belief that if only a few of us survive, the bulk would form a hopeful society, and would fight to survive, and not only that, to find what might be "sufficient" beyond mere survival.

I think this is clearly the best SF novel I read from 2014. (Though William Gibson's The Peripheral is also very good!). It's worth noting that in SF terms it's not adventurous -- none of the ideas here would surprise a 1950s reader. The virtues here are not audacious SF ideation -- and I don't want to dismiss such virtues. But sometimes excellent writing, and characterization, and sound realization of a familiar idea, are entirely sufficient.

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.

(Cover by Meltzoff)
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.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
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.