Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Significant Early Ace Double: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp

Ace Double Reviews, 62: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp (#D-61, 1954, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This early Ace Double stands as one of the better pairings in the series' history. Both authors are SFWA Grand Masters. Both books are fine work, and very characteristic of the author. Neither story is quite a classic, and as such the book stands just shy of the very best Doubles (a couple of suggestions for the best: Conan the Conqueror/The Sword of Rhiannon; and, if one allows a "recombination", the late repackaging of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle).

Ring Around the Sun is a Complete and Unabridged reprint (or so Ace claims -- there were times when the cover said Complete and Unabridged but the contents were definitely cut) of a 1953 Simon and Schuster hardcover, which was serialized beginning in December 1952 in Galaxy. It is about 75,000 words (one of the longest Ace Double halves). Cosmic Manhunt is called an "Ace Original", but it is a very lightly revised reprinting if De Camp's 1949 Astounding serial "The Queen of Zamba". It is about 50,000 words long.

Clifford Simak's first SF stories were more or less standard (but well regarded) pre-Campbell pulp adventures -- Isaac Asimov liked his first, "World of the Red Sun", enough to retell it aloud to his elementary school friends. (Asimov later wrote a harshly critical letter to Astounding about one of Simak's first stories for John Campbell, and Simak replied asking for advice on how to improve. Asimov abashedly reread the story and decided he was wrong and Simak was right.) He stopped writing for several years in the 30s, only to be lured back by John Campbell. Simak, with Williamson, Leinster, and a few others, was able to make the transition from 30s pulp to the more serious science fiction Campbell wanted. Simak made his biggest impression over the next decade with the series of stories that became his fixup novel City, which won the International Fantasy Award in 1953. He published two of the earlier Galaxy serials: "Time Quarry" (book title: Time and Again), which appeared in the first three issues of Galaxy (October through November 1950) and Ring Around the Sun. (He also had a novel published as a "Galaxy Novel" in 1951: Empire, a very little known book, based on the same John Campbell novella ("All") that Robert Heinlein turned into Sixth Column.)

Ring Around the Sun is an intriguing effort that I don't think quite comes off. The hero is Jay Vickers, a writer living in upstate New York. He lives alone, with apparently just one friend, a tastefully named old man named Horton Flanders. His agent is a lovely woman named Ann Carter, but her evident interest in him is hopeless: Jay can't forget his love for Kathleen Preston, a rich neighbor girl in his home town (presumably located in Southwestern Wisconsin, where Simak routinely set stories) who was sent away by her parents to keep her from poverty-stricken Jay's attention. Jay feels different in other ways: there is the memory of an enchanted valley he visited with Kathleen, and of a strange place he went to as a boy, by the agency of an old top.

Jay is called to New York to meet with a man who wants him to write an exposé of some new products that have been showing up. These are things like a razor blade that never wears out, a light bulb that never burns out, and, most radically, a car that will run forever: the Forever car. George Crawford represents an industry group that is afraid of the effect of these products on the world's economy, and he wants Jay to write articles about the danger. But Jay distrusts Crawford and refuses. Then his friend Horton Flanders disappears, and suddenly people seem suspicious of Jay himself. And of anyone involved with the Forever car and the other new products. It seems that there are "supermen" among us, and that Jay may be one of those who doesn't recognize his talents. Jay escapes a potential lynching and heads for his hometown to try to unravel the mysteries of his birth and upbringing, and of the enchanted valley he once visited.

The story gets a little stranger from there. It seems that there are not just supermen but androids involved. And parallel worlds -- possibly available for colonization. And messages from the stars. And multiple copies of the same individual. Horton Flanders is in on the whole thing. George Crawford's industry group is engaged in fomenting a war if that's what it takes to stop the incursion of these miracle products and to stop the subjugation of "normal" people by supermen. Ann Carter may be a superwoman herself. And, indeed, the destinies of Flanders, Vickers, Carter, and Crawford seem all to be most curiously intertwined.

This is a very imaginative and pretty thoughtful and ambitious story. Still, I don't think Simak quite brings off what he's trying. Vickers is a thinnish character, and his relationship with Ann Carter is thinner still. Simak's ideas, and his moral, are interesting, but not quite developed as well as I'd have liked. The conclusion is just a bit rapid. (Interestingly, he reused some of these ideas (not all!) in a later novelette, "Carbon Copy" (Galaxy, December 1957).)

Finally, I note that the novel is blurbed "Easily the best Science Fiction novel so far in 1953" -- New York Herald Tribune. I don't know when it appeared in 1953 (in book form), but that's a striking comment given that books published that year included The Demolished Man, Fahrenheit 451, Childhood's End, More Than Human, The Paradox Men, The Sword of Rhiannon, Second Foundation, and The Space Merchants. (This doesn't include serials from 1953 such as "The Caves of Steel" and "Mission of Gravity" that became books a year later.) 1953 was truly an annus mirabilis for the SF field, and Ring Around the Sun is a worthy supporting player among the long list of great work from that year.

Cosmic Manhunt, as I mentioned, is a slight revision of L. Sprague de Camp's 1949 serial "The Queen of Zamba". According to de Camp's foreword to a later reprint, the only change was in the name of the hero's sidekick. The Chinese name Chuen from the serial became Yano (Japanese, or more specifically Okinawan) in the Ace edition, due to Don Wollheim's concern that Chinese people were unpopular as a result of the Korean War. Otherwise the stories are identical as far as I can tell. The book was reprinted by itself by Ace in 1966, the title changed again, to A Planet Called Krishna. And it was reprinted in 1977, restored to the original text and title, in an Asimov's Choice paperback (from Davis Publications), with the Krishna novelette "Perpetual Motion" appended.

I believe this is the first of de Camp's Krishna novels. Quite a few followed, all with a Z place name in the title: The Hand of Zei (1951), The Virgin of Zesh (1953), The Tower of Zanid (1958), The Hostage of Zir (1977), The Bones of Zora (1983) and The Swords of Zinjaban (1991). These last two were co-written with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp. (There is also a book called The Search for Zei which I assume is a retitling of The Hand of Zei. (It turns out that some editions split The Hand of Zei into two parts, with The Search for Zei being the other part.) The Krishna novels are the main part of his Viagens Interplanetarias series, which includes a number of other stories and the novel Rogue Queen (1951). The most recognizable gimmicks of the series are that the future Earth is dominated by Brazil, hence the lingua franca is Portuguese, and that space travel is restricted to light speed. De Camp claimed this was to keep the books SF: to violate relativity would make them fantasy. Maybe so, but the silly biology of the Krishna books seems equally fantastical.

In The Queen of Zamba (a title much to be preferred to Cosmic Manhunt in my view), private investigator Victor Hasselborg is hired by a rich man to track down his daughter, who has run off with an ineligible rogue. Hasselborg agrees to the job, then finds himself obligated to travel to Krishna, where the couple has apparently decamped (pun intended). Worse, he falls in love with the bad guy's abandoned wife, but she'll have to wait 9 years or so for him to return. (Krishna appears to be at Alpha Centauri or perhaps Barnard's Star, based on travel time.)

On Krishna, Hasselborg disguises himself as a Krishnan portrait painter. He follows the trail of the two lovers to one kingdom, where he meets the King (or Dour) and is rapidly slapped in jail. Before long he is fighting a duel for his life with the Dour. He escapes to another town, and falls in with the local high priest, also arranging to paint the Emperor's portrait. Unfortunately, the nubile (and oviparous) niece of the high priest takes a liking to him, and when he needs help the price is marriage. Meanwhile he runs into K. Yano (or Chuen), a ship companion who seems to be an Earth agent. They realize they are after the same people -- in Yano's case, because the bad guy is suspected of running guns to Krishna, with the object of making himself the planetary ruler. He has already taken over the island kingdom of Zamba (at last, the title becomes clear!). It is up to Hasselborg and Yano to foil the plot, and then resolve their conflicting requirements re the villains. (And in Hasselborg's case, worry about whether if he brings her husband to justice, his beloved will stay married to him, or ...)

It's certainly a pleasant adventure romp, with plenty of color and light-hearted humor. As SF, it's not really all that inspiring -- it could easily enough have been recast as historical fiction. Victor Hasselborg is enjoyable to follow, though his mixture of competence and what seems at times pasted on foibles and diffidence is not quite convincing. His romance is not too exciting -- the girl behind offstage for almost the entire book. Fun, worth your time, not an enduring classic.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

Old Besteller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

a review by Rich Horton

This book was not a major bestseller, but it seems to have been well-known back in the day, and to have been fairly popular. It is subtitled "A Romance of Early Canada", which sort of fits the occasional Canadiana subset of this series of reviews, though Samuel Merwin was an American (born in Chicago (actually in Evanston, and educated at Northwestern, which is also in Evanston), but eventually based in New Jersey).

Indeed one reason for my interest in this book was the name of the author. Sam Merwin, Jr., was the best editor (by general consensus) in the history of the sister science fiction magazines Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as an SF writer himself; and I wondered if this Samuel Merwin was related. And indeed, the author of The Road to Frontenac (and a number of other novels and plays) was Sam Merwin, Jr.'s father. The elder man was born in 1874 and died in 1936. Besides novels and plays he served as an editor of SUCCESS magazine ... in his son's case, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

The Road to Frontenac was Merwin's first solo novel, though he had previously published a couple of novels with his frequent collaborator Henry Kitchell Webster. It was published in 1901 by Doubleday, Page; and it also appears to have been serialized in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. My edition is a later reprint, part of a series published by P. F. Collier, collectively called American Classical Romances. Most of the books in that series are fairly obscure, though it does include Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp, and books I recognized by the likes of F. Hopkinson Smith, Amelia Barr, Robert W. Chambers, and Paul Leicester Ford. I don't know for sure when this edition came out -- perhaps the '20s? My copy is illustrated by E. Blumenschein.
(Illustration by E. Blumenschein)

The story is set in 1687, right in the middle of the "Beaver Wars" between New France and the Iroquois nations. It opens with the hero, Captain Menard, watching a group of Indians being taken off to be galley slaves. This is an actual historical incident, in which the French governor tricked a group of 50 Iroquois chiefs to meet with his people, then captured them. Menard, it is clear, is disgusted by this action, and is convinced it will lead to nothing but trouble. It is part and parcel of his overall contempt for the Governor, Denonville.

However, as a loyal French soldier, he must follow orders. And his next order is to go to Frontenac (present day Kingston, Ontario) and somehow convince the Iroquois nations (excepting the Senecas) to stay out of the fight when the New French forces attack the Senecas, who have been stealing furs from French traders. To complicate things further, he is also to escort Valerie St. Denis, a young woman, to her cousin in Frontenac. He will be accompanied by a couple of canoemen, and by one soldier -- he chooses the young Lieutenant Danton -- and by one priest, Father Claude de Casson.

The journey starts well enough. Lieutenant Danton seems smitten with Valerie St. Denis (called "the maid" throughout), and she is happy enough to spend time with him. They both begin to learn the Iroquois language. Father Claude, an aspiring artist, shows Captain Menard his portrait of the Iroquois Christian Catherine Outasouren. (I don't know if she was an historical personage.) Danton shows his immaturity, and has to be chastised by Menard, and a time comes when he apparently makes advances to the maid, and is rebuffed. Then disaster strikes, and the band is captured by a group of Onondagas.

It soon becomes clear that the leader of this group, the Long Arrow, is the brother of one of the men taken to be a galley slave, and that he is planning to revenge himself on Menard. His plans are complicated by Menard's own status -- he spent years living with the Onondagas. He is called the Big Buffalo. (I am forced to wonder if the range of the Buffalo (or more correctly, American Bison) extended to Eastern Canada in this period.) The four survivors -- Menard, Father Claude, Danton, and the maid -- are imprisoned, awaiting a planned torture of Menard. Against orders, Danton tries to escape, with an Indian woman, and the two are caught and scalped. And Menard is forced to try desperately to save Father Claude and Valerie, and if possible to use his influence, from this position of weakness, the Iroquois to stay out of the battle with the Senecas. His only hope is to last until the leader of the local Iroquois, the Big Throat, arrives.

The other complicating factor is that, in close proximity with Valerie St. Denis, he falls in love with her. But part of his plan is to offer her cousin, Captain La Grange, to the Iroquois as a scapegoat -- he is apparently a drunk and a bad soldier, and was the true villain (along with the Governor) in the treacherous capture of the galley slaves. His personal position become worse when he realizes that Valerie has been promised to La Grange, her cousin, as his wife.

The core of the story is the time spent imprisoned in the Onondaga village, culminating in a dramatic council meeting, in which sanity appears to reign ... except that more treachery awaits. But of course, after much danger, our heroes win through, only to hear news of an ambiguous New French victory over the Seneca, and to be rebuffed when Menard insists on punishment for La Grange. The day is saved by one of Menard's Indian allies, leading to s somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, including of course success for Menard's suit.

Despite a slightly muffed ending, I thought it a fairly exciting and interesting novel. Its historical details seem mostly pretty correct, though while Menard's efforts in the novels, and real events in history, led to temporary success for New France, the Iroquois soon were resisting more energetically, and the eventual solution involved removing Denonville and having Frontenac return, after he finds the 13 surviving Iroquois chiefs who had been enslaved and returns them to their people.

More problematic historically and culturally, I am sure, is the treatment of the Iroquois, and the depiction of their society. I get the sense that Merwin made a fairly earnest attempt at an accurate and fairly respectful depiction of their society, for all that. Even so, there is a distinct hint of condescension, if coupled with a definite acknowledgement that New France was often profoundly in the wrong in their treatment of the Indians. I don't really know how accurate Merwin's account truly is, to be sure. For popular fiction of its time, it seems like a pretty honest effort, but I dare say it falls short on several grounds.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Another Obscure Ace Double: Stepsons of Terra, by Robert Silverberg/A Man Called Destiny, by Lan Wright

Ace Double Reviews, 107: Stepsons of Terra, by Robert Silverberg/A Man Called Destiny, by Lan Wright (#D-311, 1958, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've written about Ace Doubles by both of these writers before. Indeed, I've written about quite of few of Robert Silverberg's Ace Doubles, and perhaps I'll go on and read all his early novels and write about them. (Undeniably these novels, dating from say 1955 through 1963, are less accomplished than his later work, especially the remarkable decade from 1965 through 1975 or so, but the early work is still of some interest, and always competent and entertaining.)
(cover by Ed Emshwiller)

I'm going to assume readers need little information about Silverberg -- born in 1935, began publishing SF in 1954, first novel in 1955, multiple Hugos and Nebulas, SFWA Grand Master, even in mostly retirement now he is currently on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work (Traveler of Worlds, a collection of conversations with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro). Lan Wright is much less known, so here's what I wrote about him in a previous post: 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. He seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) after the age of 45.

Silverberg's Stepsons of Terra opens with a somewhat familiar situation: Baird Ewing, a representative of a colony planet, threatened by invading aliens, comes to Earth to ask for help. Ewing is disgusted to learn that Earth has become completely decadent, and is unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to offer any help. He does make contact with a representative of Earth's oldest Colony, Sirius IV, and realizes that they seem much more vigorous. But while Sirius seems more aggressive that Earth, it's soon clear that no help will come from that direction.

Ewing also encounters a group of scholars who seem to have at least some interest in him. He agrees to meet with them -- they wish to learn from him at any rate. They also warn him about the Sirians -- dangerous people, they say -- while Ewing receives an anonymous note urging him to have nothing to do with the scholars.

As time goes on, things twist further. Ewing learns that the Sirians are well advanced on a plan to completely take control of Earth. There is a clumsy attempt by a Sirian woman to seduce him. And he learns to his surprise that the Earth scholars have hit on something quite remarkable -- the secret to time travel.

The rest of the story is a convoluted tale of multiple time loops, and Ewing commandeers the Sirian machine and goes back in time, creating several copies of himself, some of which are doomed to noble suicides to undo paradoxes. He is tortured and then mysteriously rescued and in the end, is able to lead both the resistance to Sirius and the battle against the invading aliens.

(cover by Ed Emshwiller)
It's decent pulpy adventure. I'm not sure the logic of the time travel really holds up well, but then, when does it ever? Minor work, sure, but more evidence that Silverberg, even when just turning the crank, was always professional enough to entertain.

I should add that Stepsons of Terra was first published in the April 1958 issue of Science Fiction Adventures, under the title "Shadow on the Stars". That text seems likely the same text as that of the Ace Double version. The magazine had an Ed Emshwiller cover that I've already reproduced on this blog-- it was used again as the cover of the 1963 Lancer paperback Great Science Fiction Adventures, an anthology of novellas from that magazine, which I previously discussed here.

Lan Wright's A Man Called Destiny concerns a man named Richard Argyle, who is stranded on remote Jones Planet as one of the engineers for a small spaceship. He meets a man named Spiros, who tells him that his wife (Argyle's) who had left him years earlier is dead, and that the leader of the company that employed her when she died wants to meet with him, and to offer him a job. This company, Dellora, is one of several companies that control Galactic trade.

When Argyle gets to Rigel Five, he looks up Spiros, only to learn that he has been murdered -- in a way only explainable if a man teleported in to kill him and left the same way. Argyle establishes a relationship with the lawman investigating the murder, and then heads to Dellora Planet to try to meet with the company's leader

(cover by Ed Valigursky)
Things begin to get complicated ... Argyle meets with Pietro Dellora on his private satellite, and they hit it off, but before you know it, Dellora has been killed as well. And Argyle has heard hints of some potential involvement of Preacher Judd, the new leader of Earth. Argyle is something of a suspect in the murder of Dellora, but he is finally able to head to Earth to try to learn more about Judd. And, eventually to learn more about himself.

The story turns, really, on two conflicts -- that of normal humans with people with superpowers, including Teleportation; and secondly between the Trading companies that want to control the Galaxy, and Earth. And Judd, no surprise, begins to learn that he too has special powers -- as did his murdered wife, and, of course, as does Judd.

It's all pretty implausible, and full of wish fulfillment. That said, it reads OK -- I was most interested in what would happen next, even if I couldn't believe much of it. And I'd say the book could have been cut by 10,000 words easily ... A very minor effort.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Old Besteller: The Leopard Woman, by Stewart Edward White

Old Besteller: The Leopard Woman, by Stewart Edward White

a review by Rich Horton

Stewart Edward White (1873-1946) was a very popular American writer in the early decades of the 20th Century. Only one of his books made the Publishers' Weekly list of ten bestselling novels of its year: The Silent Places was 10th in 1904; but he was generally successful. He was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt's, who admired both his literary prowess and his shooting. White was an avid outdoorsman, a hunter, camper, and canoer. Most of his books (fiction as well as travel) were set in the American West, in the wilderness, and were packed with detail based on his own experience or his interviews with fur traders and the like. Then, around 1920, his wife Betty began to (she said) receive messages from spirits; and the two published a number of books about those messages until Betty died in 1939. White then claimed to have received further messages from Betty in the afterlife, and wrote at least one more book based on them.

In the context of most of his oeuvre, then, The Leopard Woman is an outlier. It is set in Central Africa, in the early days of World War I. It does still reflect his interest in hunting and his knowledged of the subject. It is also, not surprisingly, quite racist in its depiction of the natives of Central Africa. The view expressed in this book is not vicious, nor hostile, but rather extremely condescending. There's really no getting around that -- and there's little doubt the view of African tribesman as portrayed here is quite consistent with that of the general American (and European) public at that time -- but it remains distasteful to contemporary sensibilities.

The Leopard Woman was published by Doubleday, Page & Company in 1916. It is illustrated, rather nicely, by W. H. D. Koerner. My copy appears to be a First Edition, in good condition, no dust jacket. It was made into a silent film in 1920, starring Louise Glaum and House Peters. There are apparently letters between Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway discussing a possible talking version that would have been scripted by Hemingway and starred Cooper, but obviously that came to naught.

The novel opens with a safari on the march. The leader is an Englishman named Culbertson, but called Kingozi. We learn of the structure and discipline of the safari team: his trusted delegates, Cazi Moto and Simba, Culbertson's reputation as a very knowledgeable man and a great shot. Soon they unexpectedly encounter another safari, and Kingozi forms a low opinion of this group -- it seems less disciplined, and it's hard to understand what they are doing. To his surpise, he learns that it is led, if somewhat incompetently, by a European woman, who is called "the Leopard Woman".

Out of a sense of both obligation and curiousity, Kingozi ends up joining the other safari -- it's clear they don't know where to find water properly, etc. And he is soon somewhat bewitched by the very beautiful Leopard Woman. But he has a responsibility -- not quite clear to us -- and he remains tied to that, even as he is tempted to make love to the Leopard Woman (especially when she arranges a scene where she displays herself in a light shift with the moon behind her -- apparently Kingozi can barely resist such a sight).

There follow some adventures -- a charging rhinoceros, for instance -- and some intrigue, as Kingozi and the Leopard Woman, who are clearly at some sort of cross purposes, jockey for control of the travel sequence. When it becomes clear that Kingozi will prevail, and continue his journey to meet a great and influential chief, the Leopard Woman has one of her lackeys attempt to murder him. He escapes, but one of his men is killed, and continues -- when he is suddenly struck blind. To make things worse, when he asks the Leopard Woman to identify the medicine he happens to carry that will cure him, she refuses -- and indeed breaks the vial. But Kingozi perseveres, well aware that his rival, the German Winkleman, is also making his way to meet this chief -- and alliance may be important to the progress of the War. Fortunately, Kingozi has assigned a couple of his most trusted men to use a magic bone (a fossil) to distract Winkleman (who is a scientist).

There are a couple of tiny twists to come, but the conclusion is mostly straightforward, culminating, of course, in a resolution of the relationship between Kingozi and the Leopard Woman -- or, that is, Culbertson and the Countess Miklos. It's not a great book, but it is pretty entertaining on balance. And White's descriptions of the safari, and the techniques behind the march and the camp and the hunt, and of the Central African landscape, really ring true. White tells all this in a very knowing tone -- and as I know nothing of the subject I trust that he got it right. (He did write at least one straightforward travel book about Africa.) I don't know that  this book will ever really be revived, but, except for its casual (though not hostile) racism (which may indeed, and understandably, be sufficient bar to enjoyment for many readers), it's not a bad adventure novel.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Forgotten non-Bestseller: Castle Garac, by Nichoias Monsarrat

Old non-Besteller: Castle Garac, by Nicholas Monsarrat

a review by Rich Horton

Castle Garac actually was not a bestseller, but the author, Nicholas Monsarrat, was known for one major bestseller, The Cruel Sea (1951), which was the 6th bestselling novel in the US in 1951 according to Publishers' Weekly. (That was a time for naval novels of the Second World War: the second bestselling novel that year was The Caine Mutiny. And for that matter the bestselling novel of 1951 was From Here to Eternity, which is about the Army, not the Navy, but which is set at Pearl Harbor, so surely involves some naval matters.) The Cruel Sea was perhaps my father's favorite novel (though he also used to mention Run Silent, Run Deep, another WWII Naval novel.) (My father was in the Army in Korea, for what that's worth.)

Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) was an English writer and also a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, who served with distinction in the Second World War, and was later a diplomat. He wrote his first novels in the '30s, but become much better known for his sea stories, beginning during the War. He became a full time writer in 1959. Several of his novels were well-regarded at the time, but only The Cruel Sea seems much remembered any more.

Castle Garac dates to 1955. My copy is an American first, from Knopf. Though the book didn't seem to be reviewed well, it had a Book of the Month Club edition and numerous later paperbacks, so it probably sold OK. It looked interesting to me as potentially in Alastair MacLean territory -- and it brushes against that -- but from another angle it has Gothic aspects, though it's told from the POV of the male lead. Comparing the original hardcover dust jacket with a later paperback shows the paperback marketers chose to emphasize -- indeed, greatly exaggerate -- the gothic aspects.

The novel opens with said male lead, Tom Welles, in Nice, France. He's a youngish ex-journalist, who moved to France to write his first novel. The novel is finished, and he's sent it to his agent, and he waits every day for a response. Meanwhile he's almost out of money. One breakfast he decides to steal a roll of bread from another diner, who seems ready to leave the bread. Suddenly the man (who is named Ehrenhardt) returns, and engages Tom in conversation -- but not because he noticed the theft. He wants to offer him a job.

The job involves looking for a castle in the area, potentially, it seems, to shoot a film of some sort. The castle found, the next task will be to find an appropriate young woman, Tom supposes perhaps to star in the picture. If that's what it is. The job also involves interacting with Mr. Ehrenhardt's beautiful wife, who makes a point of repeatedly attempting to seduce Tom. All this goes along well enough -- Tom has enough money to survive, and rather more, after Mrs. Ehrenhardt stakes him some money at a casino, and insists Tom keep half the rather unexpected winning he realizes. But Tom feels a bit uneasy -- there is something funny about the Ehrenhardts.

Finding an appropriate castle turns out not to be too difficult, but finding just the right woman is much harder. Tom is all but ready to give up, and gets drunk in despair, when he chance meets a girl in a park, tending a child. He gathers she is a nanny for an American couple, and that also she is an orphan -- an important detail to the Ehrenhardts. He decides he must offer her the job -- it could mean some money for her. But then he decides (surprise! surprise!) that he is falling in love with her (her name is Angele), and he regrets introducing her to the now very sinister seeming Ehrenhardts. But Angèle disappears, as do the Ehrenhardts, leaving Tom a note informing him that his services are no longer required. Oh, and Tom gets a letter from his agent -- it seems that not only has his novel sold, a movie producer is interested. Tom will be well off -- able to support a wife. But the girl he loves is gone!

Naturally Tom figures she might be at the castle (though the Ehrenhardts claim to have abandoned their plans for it). And what follows is the gothic part -- mysterious castle, girl in distress (though not really that much, it turns out!), gypsies, a mysterious stranger, and a tangle story of a rich French noble family who were all killed by Nazis ... or were they?

I thought there was some promise to all this, but the book ends up, in my view, a couple of twists, and a couple action scenes, short of the proper thriller/gothic requirements. And the Ehrenhardts, though a bit shady, are not really dangerous or violent -- and the whole scheme is not really all that sinister or dangerous. And it ends up failing for a reason out of left field. I was all unconvinced by Tom's good fortune as a first novelist -- the view of the writing life was almost as unrealistic as that on the newspaper comic Funky Winkerbean (Les Moore is one of the stupidest portrayals of a so-called writer I have ever seen). I did like the romance between Tom and Angele, though more or less by default. All in all, this is a very slight novel, and frankly well worth being forgotten. It seems perhaps Monsarrat was trying something different from his sea story niche (and from his earlier novels, which were realistic social novels, apparently) -- and good for him for trying, but it doesn't really work.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Fairly Obscure Ace Double: Space Captain by Murray Leinster/The Mad Metropolis by Philip E. High

Ace Double Reviews, 106: Space Captain, by Murray Leinster/The Mad Metropolis, by Philip E. High (#M-135, 1966, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Gray Morrow)
Here's another fairly obscure Ace Double, distinguished mostly by the presence of one of SF's Old Masters: Murray Leinster, called the Dean of Science Fiction. "Murray Leinster" was a pen name for William Fitzgerald Jenkins (1896-1975). Jenkins was a true professional writer, working in numerous fields. His first story appeared in H. L. Mencken's The Smart Set in 1916, when he was only 19. His first SF story, "The Runaway Skyscraper", appeared in Argosy in 1919. He wrote regularly for Astounding and Analog, beginning in 1930, with his last appearance in Analog coming in 1966. (He retired from writing at about that time: his last non tie-in novel appeared in 1967, his last short story in 1968.) Most of his SF was as by "Murray Leinster", though some was as by "William Fitzgerald" and a few as by "Will F. Jenkins". His romance novels were as by Louisa Carter Lee, and his Westerns and Mysteries as "Will F. Jenkins". He also wrote for radio, television, and the movies. And he was an inventor, most notably of the front projection system used in special effects composite photography. He also won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 1955 for "Exploration Team". In all, quite a remarkable career.
(Cover by Jack Gaughan)

The other writer in this pair, Philip E. High, had a reasonably interesting career himself. He lived from 1914 to 2006. His primary job was as a bus driver. He wrote 14 novels and a number of short stories, mostly for British publications, between 1955 and about 1980, with a number of additional short stories showing up in later years, in publications devoted to venerable UK SF writers.

Murray Leinster, to me, was in his latter years a dependable producer of enjoyable but undistinguished SF, mostly somewhat adventure-oriented. That said, he wrote some truly significant stories earlier in his career, most notably "Sidewise in Time", an influential alternate history story; "A Logic Named Joe", which famously foreshadowed something like the Internet; and "First Contact". The novel at hand, Space Captain, fits in the "enjoyable but undistinguished" category.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
It was first published in the October and December issues of Amazing, the second and third to be published by Sol Cohen and edited by Joseph Ross (after Ziff-Davis sold Amazing and Fantastic, and Cele Lalli stayed with Ziff_Davis (wisely, no doubt).) Thus I wonder if the story was bought by Lalli or by Ross -- I suspect the latter (though I suspect as well that possibly such stories as Cordwainer Smith's "On the Sand Planet" (December) and the Robert Young and Keith Laumer stories from August were Lalli acquisitions). The serial version was called "Killer Ship", and Amazing, as was their habit, acknowledged the forthcoming book version, and its new title. The copyright page for Space Captain claims that the magazine version was shorter, but I made a cursory comparison of the two versions and I think the serial was actually a bit longer. The differences are mostly rather minor editorial changes, with a few extra sentences here and there.

The protagonist is a certain Captain Trent. Much is made of his ancestry -- he is descended from a series of English ship captains (as well as some spaceship captains and explorers), and many of his actions in this book are compared to his ancestors' heroism with sailing ships. Trent is hired by a group of merchants who have been losing money because of the activities of a group of pirates in a rather isolated area of the Galaxy. His new ship, the Yarrow, will be augmented by a special weapon, which will be controlled by its inventor, an engineer named McHinney. But, Trent tells the merchants, he doesn't hold with gadgets. Nonetheless, he is compelled to take McHinney and his new weapon.

The rest of the novel, then, is a somewhat episodic account of Trent's various encounters with the pirates -- usually preceded by the spectacular failure of McHinney's weapon, after which Trent does things the way he wanted too. In one case he rescues the daughter of an influential politician, and he starts to feel responsible for her. And she seems quite interested in him. That changes Trent's emotional involvement when the politician, assuming the pirate problem has been solved, lets his daughter travel again. So Trent (all along claiming to be a gruff unsentimental ship captain) heads out on a final mission to finally take on the pirates at their planetary base, and once and for all eliminate them.

It's all, well, what you expect. The love story is perfunctory, really, but it has its cute aspects. The science doesn't really bear close inspection. The plot details, and the battles, are pretty implausible. Certainly this is not Leinster at anything close to his best. He's enough of a pro that I still kind of enjoyed the story -- but it's pretty minor work, no doubt.

Philip E. High's stories had a tendency to be very weird, and to be a bit shoddily constructed. I think that applies to The Mad Metropolis. It opens with Stephen Cook, a Prole in an overcrowded future, being pushed out of his home building to the street. Streets, it seems, are near certain death for the unprepared, and Cook, in terror, is nearly a plaything of an upper class woman ready to torment him with psychic weapons -- until he is rescued by the Metropolis' private police force, the Nonpol. He is soon released, with almost no money, after an investigation hints that his intelligence is higher than a Prole's should be.

Things spiral from there, in a somewhat Van Vogtian fashion. We soon learn that Stephen Cook is a superman whose intelligence has been artificially restrained. Cook is soon involved in a multi-sided battle for the fate of the world. It involves Mayor Tearling of his home city, and other politicians just trying to maintain the status quo, as one side; the Nonpols as another side; a group of super intelligent people called Oracles; and, perhaps most importantly, a computer (called Mother) that has been taking over the world in "With Folded Hands" fashion -- keeping people safe from themselves to an excessive degree. Oh, and the mob too. And a love interest for Cook.

It's quite a strange and overwrought book. There are some neat ideas, such as the hypnads that mediate everyone's access to their senses, such that a decrepit city can appear glorious, and such that most people look beautiful. There is also a sense of moral ambiguity -- Cook, for example, is brought to realize that his super powers are being manipulated in potentially dangerous ways. But on the whole the story is really just too much of a mess to work. High could be interesting -- though he was never exactly good -- but I think this book rates as one of his lesser efforts.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Old Bestseller: Sweet William, by Marguerite Bouvet

Old Besteller: Sweet William, by Marguerite Bouvet

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a return to a subtheme of this series -- popular books for children. As with most children's books it didn't appear on any bestseller lists (and indeed there weren't any such lists when this book was published in 1891). It appears to have been quite popular, however.

Despite her name, and the fact that Sweet William (as with many of her books) is set in France, Marguerite Bouvet was an American. That said, she was of French ancestry (both her parents came from distinguished French families, but they lost their fortune in the Civil War), and she was born in New Orleans, and she spent about 7 years of her childhood in France, living with her grandparents after her father's death. So she came by her interest in things French honestly enough! She was born in 1865 and died in 1915.

She spent some time as a French teacher, but turned to writing. Most or all of her books were for children. Sweet William was one of her earliest books, published in 1891, by the Chicago firm A. C. McClurg. It was illustrated by Helen and Margaret Armstrong, a pair of sisters who were significant women illustrators of the time. (I like the illustrations quite a bit.) My copy has pasted-in labels on the inside front cover, reading: "To Stephney Roller on her 7th Birthday, From Pearl Sling[?]".

Sweet William is the story of a little boy who grows up isolated in a tower of the castle at Mont Saint Michel (called Mount Saint Michael in the book). William is put there by the evil Duke William. It seems Duke William of Normandy (not THE William of Normandy), a cruel man, went off to war alongside his much more popular brother. Both left pregnant young wives at home. William killed his brother on the field (even though both were fighting for France). On coming home, he found that both women had had their children, but William's wife died in childbirth. Furious, he orders the little son of his brother locked up in the tower. His own daughter is raised in the castle, but fortunately the cruel Duke is away most of the time, and in addition his sister-in-law is exiled back to her family.

Despite his isolation, young William, soon called Sweet William, grows up a virtuous and happy child. His only companions are his nurse and an elderly manservant. Aged 6 or 7 or so, he spies his cousin Constance going off to hunt on her beloved horse -- and she sees him in the tower. Soon she has inveigled her servants to allow her to visit the tower, and she and William become close.

Things continue in that vein for a while, with the cruel Duke away most of the time. The only person he is nice to is his daughter. But eventually something must give. The Duke takes Constance to a joust in a far away town, and in the process she attracts the attention of a handsome young man. (The attention is made to seem almost sexual -- although Constance at this time is perhaps 9 or so, making this all a bit creepy.) The young man, a Count, manages to talk to Constance, and learn something of her family, and of the mysterious cousin hidden away in a tower. But the Count has a secret of his own -- a lost sister who married a nobleman from Normandy. And the Count recognizes something of his sister in little Constance ...

You can probably guess the secret revelation. Which to be honest I found a bit anti-climactic, a bit disappointing. Of course the Duke is brought to a shocking revelation of his own injustice ... though his villainy has always been apparent, and (as the book makes clear) his eventual sort of repentance does him little credit. It is clear the William and Constance (though only 9 or so! and first cousins!) will marry (when they get older) and that Sweet William will become rightful Duke of Normandy in good time.

The book is unrealistic, the plot a bit silly, and there is plenty of sanctimoniousness throughout. And the characters, especially the children, especially Sweet William, don't really make sense. Despite all that, it held my attention through its relatively short length (perhaps 36,000 words), and I can imagine it had some popularity at some time. I don't think it particularly worthy of revival, but I don't regret the time spent reading it.