Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ace Doubles: Our Man in Space, by Bruce W. Ronald/Ultimatum in 2050 A. D., by Jack Sharkey

Ace Double Reviews, 92: Our Man in Space, by Bruce W. Ronald/Ultimatum in 2050 A. D., by Jack Sharkey (#M-117, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Ace Doubles again. Most of the previous Ace Double reviews I've done feature books I've chosen because I had at least some interest in one of the writers. This one was a lot more random -- basically, it was inexpensive and it was available at a dealer's table at a recent convention (can't remember which -- Sasquan, Archon, or Windycon). I had never heard of Bruce Ronald, and while I know Jack Sharkey's name well, from any number of stories in early 60s magazines, he's never been a particular favorite of mine. I actually have another (the only other) Sharkey novel, The Secret Martians, as part of an Ace Double I bought for a more usual reason: the other side is by one of my favorites, John Brunner. I'll get around to reviewing it eventually.

Bruce W. Ronald was an advertising man, born in 1931 in Dublin, Ohio, and still alive as far as I (or the Science Fiction Encylopedia) know. He published only this one novel, and no further stories; but he did write the book for a musical, in collaboration with Claire Strauch and the well-known SF/historical writer John Jakes. This was Dracula Baby!, in 1970. (The SFE says that Ronald was also an actor.)

So it turns out Jack Sharkey had another slight connection with Bruce Ronald: he became a playwright and one of his plays was called Dracula, the Musical?, which on the face of it sounds like it might resemble Dracula Baby! in more ways than having an unexpected punctuation mark at the end of the title. Sharkey wrote four short novels, three of them (including Ultimatum in 2050 A. D.) serialized in Cele Goldsmith's magazines, Amazing/Fantastic. He published about 60 stories in the field, almost all between 1959 and 1965. It may be that Goldsmith/Lalli's departure as editor influenced Sharkey's decision to switch fields -- she bought the great bulk of his stories. (She published no fewer than a dozen of his stories in 1959 alone!) His most famous story might be "Multum in Parvo", from Gent in 1959, and reprinted in Judith Merril's Fifth Annual Year's Best SF. He also wrote an Addams Family tie-in novel.

Our Man in Space is a very minor work of SF, but for much of its length it's amusing enough, before a somewhat too extended ending. It's about an actor, Bill Brown, who is hired as a spy for Earth, because of his acting skill and his resemblance to an Earth diplomat, Harry Gordon, who has been killed. Brown's job is to impersonate Gordon, and to travel to Troll, where Harry Gordon has been hired by the officials of Troll to find out when overpopulation pressures will cause Earth to explode. It seems that the Council of 16, a group of local planets, has refused new Galactic member Earth the right to colonize any planets.

Brown goes to Troll, on the way meeting a beautiful Galactic woman. (It seems that most of the planets in the Council of 16 have nearly fully human residents -- certainly sex is possible between these species.) On Troll he manages to complete his assignment, and also to make time with the beautiful Galactic, who eventually dumps him ... and Bill finds out as well that his superiors have betrayed him, and he will be killed. He escapes and kills a few Trollians, before sneaking onto a spaceship and heading for Grendid, a monarchy that it turns out is the leader of the aliens who are voting against Earth's pleas for colonization rights. On Grendid he again eludes attempts on his life, and again makes time with beautiful aliens, including a spy from a Matriarchy world, and against all odds he finds a way to save the King of Grendid from an assassination attempt, which should improve Earth's odds in the upcoming vote. But then we witness the Council of 16's deliberations, and more treachery is in store, from multiple planets, and it's up to Bill Brown to implausibly save the day again. And by the way meet up again with the first beautiful Galactic woman, for a passionate but all too brief reunion.

OK, this is really silly stuff. It doesn't make sense on any level at all -- scientific, political, plot plausibility, sociology, characterization. But it isn't really trying, and for a while it's pretty good fun, though it does wear out its welcome rather. (There are a few seeming nods to Heinlein -- the basic plot bears some points of resemblance with Double Star, and one character is called the local "Citizen of the Galaxy", and a character reminded me just slightly of Star, Empress of the Twenty Worlds ...)

As for Ultimatum in 2050 A.D., in the end it may be even sillier. It was first published in Amazing, in the June and July 1963 issues, under the title The Programmed People. Surprisingly, it has been reprinted recently, in 2010, as part of a Double Novel from an outfit called Armchair Fiction. (The other novel is Slaves of the Crystal Brain, by "William Carter Sawtelle" (a pseudonym for Roger Phillips Graham, who usually published as Rog Phillips).) The Armchair Fiction Double Novels seem to consciously imitate Ace Doubles (for example, with a similar color scheme), and also to concentrate on works at the pulpier end of the spectrum. The cover art for the Armchair Fiction edition of The Programmed People is the same as used for the June 1963 Amazing, by Ed Emshwiller, and not to my mind one of his better efforts. (Belatedly, I'll add that the covers for the Ace Double at hand are by John Schoenherr (for the Sharkey novel) and Ed Valigursky (for the Ronald novel).)

Anyway, Ultimatum in 2050 A. D. is set in the title year in "the Hive", a sort of arcology, a huge building in which 10,000,000 people live. Life is apparently good there, except for the strict rules about "readjustment", whereby one can be sent to the hospital for such things as voting the wrong way, not voting at all, or minor injuries. Lloyd Bodger is a normal young man, engaged to Grace Horton (nice name that!), occasionally in trouble for missing a vote or two ... despite being the son of the Secondary Speakster, the number two man of the Hive. One night he almost misses a vote, until a girl gives him her place in line. Shortly later it becomes clear that the girl is wanted for treason ... and against his better instincts, Lloyd decides to help her. Before long he finds himself embroiled in a resistance movement against the rulers of the Hive ... the girl, Andra, and her fellow conspirators Bob Lennick and Frank Shawn, make such crazy claims as that "Readjustment" simply means incineration -- to keep the population at the maximum 10,000,000.

So it goes for the first half of the book -- some frantic running around as Lloyd and Andra and the unwillingly roped in Grace try to avoid detection by Lloyd's father and his boss, the Prime Speakster Fredric Stanton. There is some treachery, some narrow escapes, and some loopy but almost fun ideas like the "Goons", robots that enforce the Hive's rules, and "Ultrablack", a scientifically implausible induced absolute darkness. There's a bit of sexual tension -- Andra seems a real potential rival for Grace, who loves Lloyd but who Lloyd seems unsatisfied with.

Then I think Sharkey got bored, or wrote himself into a corner, or something. The second half of the novel begins with a long piece of pure exposition, explaining in the most politically and scientifically absurd ways how the election of 1972 (only a decade or so after the novel was written!) led swiftly to the creation of the Hive, and to the establishment of it quasi-religious ruling structure and strict rules. After that there is the denouement, which never surprises except by the silliness of the action and resolution. I won't give away what happens, though, as I said, it's not really surprising at all. In the end quite a weak story.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne, by William J. Locke

Old Bestsellers: The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne, by William J. Locke

a review by Rich Horton

Returning again to the very center of my vision for this blog, books that were huge bestsellers sometime in (mostly) the first half of the past century. William J. Locke was an immensely successful popular writer in the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century, with novels in the Publishers' Weekly lists of ten bestselling novels of the year for 1909, 1910, 1014, 1915, and 1916. The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne didn't make that list, but it was his first major success, appearing in 1905 when the author was 42 and had been publishing for over a decade.

Locke was born in 1863 in Barbados, to English parents. He was raised mostly in England and in Trinidad. He attended Cambridge, studying Mathematics, despite his dislike for the subject, which he called "that utterly futile and inhuman subject". He became a schoolmaster, though apparently he was not happy in that profession. His first novel, At the Gate of Samaria, appeared in 1894. Despite his extreme popularity in this life, I feel fairly confident in declaring him nearly forgotten, but perhaps not entirely: one of his short stories was made into a film as recently as 2004, Ladies in Lavender, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. (The book at hand, The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne, was made into at least three films, two silents and one talkie, the latter in 1935 starring Ian Hunter and Lupe Velez.)

The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne opens with the title character announcing his intention to recount the history of his "extraordinary adventure" mostly by transcribing his diaries. He begins by telling of the seventh anniversary of his "release from captivity" -- that is, the time when he was able to resign his hated position as a schoolteacher of mathematics, due to the death of most of his relatives, at which time he became a baronet, now Sir Marcus Ordeyne, and inherited a modest fortune. Since then Ordeyne his lived a quiet and well-ordered life, working on a scholarly book about the history of Renaissance morals, contributing occasional articles to scholarly publications, and visiting his mistress Judith Mainwaring. (Whether his and Judith's relationship is sexual is a question politely dodged by the book, though on balance I suppose it is.) Occasionally he is importuned by his relatives to marry, in order that the title can be passed on to future generations, but he sees no benefit in such an action.

All this changes one day when he stumbles across a very young woman, Carlotta, weeping in a London park. It seems she has been abandoned by the young man she ran away with ... from Alexandretta, in Syria, where she was the stepdaughter of a Turkish official, her English mother's second husband. Her Turkish stepfather meant to marry her to an unpleasant old man, so she ran off with a foolish English man. And now she has nowhere to go.

Marcus, seeing no alternative, takes her home. But soon he is at a loss as to what to do with her. He cannot take her to his relatives -- too much scandal. Judith wants nothing to do with her -- indeed, she is quite jealous. But Marcus' butler and his French cook quite take to Carlotta, and before long the story is looking rather like its near contemporary, George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion. Carlotta is taking instruction from a governess sort ... but she is also declaring her intention to marry "Seer Marcous", as she calls Ordeyne. But Marcus is not convinced the girl even has a soul -- and anyway, he has no intention of ever marrying. Besides, there's Judith.

Things come rather to a head when Carlotta's stepfather shows up in London ... and other complications ensure. There is for example Marcus' friend, and former student, Pasquale, who all of a sudden seems rather more interested in Carlotta than is appropriate. And of course there is the question of Judith Mainwaring, who has been conveniently away in Paris for a while. Various questions need an answer: Does Carlotta really love Marcus? Can she love anyone? Why have Judith and Marcus never married? What is Judith's dark secret? And where does Pasquale fit in? And is Carlotta's stepfather a real threat?

All is worked out, in the end, more or less as one might have guessed from the start, but not without some tragedy, and some true maturation, not just for Carlotta, who is clearly and understandably immature, but for Marcus, and for that matter for Judith. The ending is not a surprise, then, but the route to it is interesting enough, and fairly effectively deals with some knotty issues, most importantly perhaps Marcus' treatment of Judith. (Though there is a whiff of convenience about the way some things work out.)

I really quite enjoyed the novel, though with obvious reservations. One of these is the blatant Orientalism of the portrayal of Carlotta's stepfather, and of the way she was brought up. The other reservation is one that applies to many popular novels -- the generally happy ending is facilitated in great part by some pretty fortuitous events. But those aside, it's a fun read. The main character's voice is ironic and amusing. The moral issues at the heart of things are resolved with some acknowledgement of their force. And, yes, I like Sir Marcus and Carlotta, and I rooted for them.

(I'll add a small personal note -- this is the novel I was reading as I sat vigil at my father's deathbed. I can only place one other work in a similar context -- I was reading Wallace Stevens' long poem "The Comedian as the Letter C" in the hospital while my wife was in labor with my daughter.)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Alice Blythe Somewhere in England, by Martha Trent

Old Bestsellers: Alice Blythe Somewhere in England, by Martha Trent

a review by Rich Horton

A little while ago a I wrote about a "boy's book", The Space Pioneers,  part of a series of books written under a house pseudonym, for which the actual writer is difficult to determine. How about a "girl's book", part of a series written under a house pseudonym (probably), the actual writer of which is perhaps impossible to determine?

Well, why not? Alice Blythe Somewhere in England is one of a set of 6 books published in 1918/1919 by the Goldsmith Publishing Company of Cleveland, OH; and also by Barse & Hopkins of New York. The copyright is held by Barse & Hopkins, so I don't know how Goldmith got involved, though my copy has their logo. Goldsmith do appear to have been occupied publishing a number of series of books for girls.

The series of which Alice Blythe is part of is collectively called the "Somewhere in" series. The books are, in order, Helen Carey Somewhere in America, Marieken De Bruin Somewhere in Belgium, Valerie Duval Somewhere in France, Alice Blythe Somewhere in England, Lucia Rudini Somewhere in Italy, and Phoebe Marshall Somewhere in Canada. They are all linked to an extent -- for example, Alice Blythe's brother meets Marieken (and seems to fall in love, but as she is just 14 they will have to wait), and Alice becomes good friends with Helen Carey.

It is not at all clear who "Martha Trent" actually was. Most likely the books were written by an employee (or a few) of Barse & Hopkins, probably from a centrally produced series outline (though inconsistencies between volumes did crop up). The books have gotten a certain mild amount of attention in latter years, generally from historians looking at World War I stories and propaganda.

So what about the book itself? Alice Blythe is a teenaged girl (perhaps 16) living with her "aunts" (actually I think more distant relatives) in rural England in about 1917. Her parents are busy in London as a doctor and nurse. Her brother is at the front. Her "cousin" Peter has joined the Royal Flying Corps, and is just itching to go to France, but has only just reached the age where he can go.

Alice is described in very tomboyish -- indeed almost androgynous -- terms, and that seems to have been a general theme throughout this series. And she has boyish (for that time) talents and interests: she is a good driver, Peter has taught her to fly a plane, and she is a terrible knitter. When Peter at last departs for France, Alice determines that she must contribute to the war effort as well, and after a small contribution on the home front (denouncing a pacifist), she heads to London to convince her parents to let her go to Belgium.

Once there she starts to serve in a hospital, though not as a nurse (remember, no "feminine" skills) -- rather as a sort of janitor. There she meets the American girl Helen Carey. But her instinct for adventure, and her driving skills, get her involved with a crashed aeroplane, its pilot, a secret message, and eventually a German spy. Of course she saves the day, more or less, and by the by meets Marieken de Bruin, her brother, and Peter. And gets sent back to England as a reward.

I think my tone sounds a bit more snarky than the book really deserves. Don't get me wrong, it's no great shakes, and terribly implausible. But it's a swift read, and on its terms enjoyable enough. I suspect it served its market well enough, back in the day. I mentioned the Tom Corbett books above -- I have to say that, taken in context, this book is better done, less offensive to the intellect, than the Tom Corbett book I read. Which is faint praise to be sure, but there you are.

(I should briefly note as well that it is illustrated, by Chas. L. Wrenn, and pleasantly enough.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eulogy for my Father

This one is particularly personal, and perhaps only of interest to family and friends. This is the prepared text (with modest revisions) of the eulogy I delivered for my father, John Richard ("Dick") Horton, (3/7/1931- 12/11-2015). My contributions here are modest -- this was written by all of his living children (there are six of us: myself, Jim, Bill, Paul, Ann, and Patrick) in concert, and the voice is not mine, but that of all of us in amalgam.

It is said that St. Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.”

Here’s all you need to know about my Dad. Back when we were living in the house on Tupelo, a knock came on the door late at night. He could have cursed at the noise, ignored the knock and gone back to sleep. But he didn’t. He answered the door, and welcomed into our home … a panicked, rough looking young man. The man stood there bleeding from his arm and begging for assistance. So Dad administered first aid, gave him something to drink and gave him a ride home. After returning home, Dad called the police. Turns out, there was an attempted robbery down the street, where the man had cut his arm breaking a window. We’ll never know if Dad’s compassion and trust turned this man’s life around, but it certainly had an impact on those of us who heard the story. Dad saw God everywhere, and Jesus in everyone.

Now I ask you, if this is how he treated a criminal, imagine what he would do for his friends! Before you answer that question, you need to understand what it took to be his friend. And the answer is … nothing. He never met a stranger, as they say. I remember driving down the street with him on more than one occasion, and watching as he waved at a passerby. “Who was that?” I would ask. “I don’t have any idea” he would say. Going to church, the hardware store or anywhere else with him was a lengthy affair as he knew everyone and would spend time afterward talking, while we were anxious to get home and play.

If you’ve read his obituary, you already know the specifics, the impressive litany of a life of service. To his country, first of all, as he served honorably in Korea. To his company – at Argonne Lab where he worked for more than 30 years. To his community, wherever he went. To his church. And of course to Mom and us kids – to whom he provided the kind of idyllic upbringing and family life that seem all too rare these days, but which are certainly never easy, no matter what generation you represent. That takes work, and talent, and love – all of which he had in spades. 
It dawned on me that I had not appreciated how much of a leader he was. President of this, founding member of that, on the board of something else. There were so many things he did for the community and he never asked for credit. As we looked through his papers, we found myriad letters of appreciation, several begging that he not leave some position that, typically, he had been asked to assume - as his contributions were irreplaceable.

One post he could have easily avoiding taking was in the army. He was in college, and virtually guaranteed not to be drafted. But then he did something strange. He knew if he stayed in college he wasn’t going to get drafted. And his mother wasn’t going to let him enlist. So he dropped out of school to ensure he would be drafted. He went to Korea and served with distinction. Being at war is no picnic, obviously. Yet he loved it. I think what he loved was the camaraderie. The friendships with his brothers in arms. And the knowledge that he was fulfilling his duty.

After coming home, he completed his degree, and found and married the love of his life, our dear Mom; they started a family and settled in Naperville, where they have lived ever since.

The other day, my brother found a letter of recommendation that his former boss sent to a prospective new employer. It read, in part, “John Horton was one of the finest men I ever had the pleasure of working with. I know of no man that I could recommend more highly than John. He is the clean living type of young man that would be a credit to your [company].”

Now how many referral letters like that do you see these days?

I will remember all the little things my father did. He was all of us boys’ first baseball coach. There was a baseball team photo displayed at the visitation yesterday, where Dad was dressed in the standard baseball manager’s uniform of creased slacks and wing-tipped shoes. You don’t always appreciate it when you’re a kid, but he obviously had hurried straight from work to the baseball field so he wouldn’t miss practice. He and Mom made it to every one of our games and with 6 children that took a lot of time; somehow, one thing he always had for us was the most precious commodity we possess – time.

One of his daughters-in-law told of his insistence on taking her to a medical appointment, and waiting there with her for four hours, so my brother wouldn’t have to take off work. This was the sort of thing he did all the time. Because he loved spending time with his family, and he always thought of helping others whenever he could.

I’ll remember his unique laugh that built up silently inside him until he shook with furious effort, trying to keep from exploding. And a twinkle in his eye that let you know he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was, one might say, merry.

I think the thing that brought him the most happiness was “doing life” with our Mom. He felt so much joy doing things for her and making her happy, and often bragged about her behind her back. He enjoyed her company more than anyone else’s. We find comfort today knowing that he died while they were out, enjoying life together, and that Mom and all of his children were with him in the hospital at the very end.

He leaves behind our dear mother, his loving wife of 57 years; six grown children – among you here today; four daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, and fourteen grandchildren – who are perhaps his proudest legacy. (He enjoyed nothing so much as visiting his grandkids, going to a school play, an athletic event or a graduation.) And of course all of you, a small sample of his endless circle of friends.

I know he will now get to finally meet again his beloved daughter Peggy, who preceded him in death by forty-eight years and to whom he has prayed every day since. And he will at long last be in the one place where everyone and everything is as friendly and welcoming as he has always been.

St. Peter at the pearly gates will surely not need my advice. But were I asked, I would say to him, “I know of no man that I could recommend more highly than John. He is the clean living type of young man that would be a credit to Heaven.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Ace Double: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson

Ace Double Reviews, 10: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson (#G-574, 1966, $0.50)

by Rich Horton

Ace Doubles have a fairly declassé image. One doesn't tend to look for all time classics or Hugo candidates among them. Though as previous reviews in this series have shown, there were first rate novels and novellas published as Ace Double halves, such as Jack Vance's Hugo winner "The Dragon Masters". (That was, however, a reprint.) But even so, seeing that Ursula K. Le Guin's first novel was an Ace Double came as a mild surprise to me, some time back when I encountered this pairing. Since then I've realized that that wasn't really that rare, for example, Samuel R. Delany also had early novels published as Ace Doubles, as did many other great writers.

 Rocannon's World is about 44,000 words long. It was expanded from a 7700 word story, "Dowry of the Angyar", which was in the September 1964 Amazing. This story appears unchanged as the prologue to Rocannon's World (called here "The Necklace"), and it has latterly been reprinted by itself under Le Guin's preferred title, "Semley's Necklace".

If Ursula Le Guin is a mild surprise as an Ace Double author (her second novel, Planet of Exile, was also an Ace Double half), so too might be Avram Davidson. Though it should be noted that Davidson's early novels were fairly routine, rather pulpish, not terribly characteristic of his best work. The Kar-Chee Reign is a 49,000 word novel, a prequel to his 1965 Ace novel (not an Ace Double half!) Rogue Dragon. Rogue Dragon itself was nominated for a Nebula Award, but The Kar-Chee Reign, a lesser work, to my mind, was not. The two novels were reprinted together in 1979, in a volume bannered "Ace Double", but not a true Ace Double. That is, it was not published in dos-a-dos format, and not part of a regular series. Rather, Ace essentially put out a few single author "omnibus" editions of two novels at about that time, and called them Ace Doubles in a nod to their past. (I have another such book pairing A. Bertram Chandler's Into the Alternate Universe and Contraband From Otherspace.)

In retrospect, Rocannon's World is a curious novel. It is a "Hainish" novel, thus fitting into Le Guin's main "future history", but it doesn't seem wholly consistent with novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. What it mainly is is a fantasy novel with SF trappings. Except for the prose, which is excellent as one might expect from Le Guin, it feels strikingly pulpish. The plot and feel would not have been out of place in an early 50s issue of Planet Stories. Perhaps the influence of Leigh Brackett or Andre Norton can be detected. The ultimate effect is mixed -- the plot is just not terribly plausible in places, and some of the setting and trappings are a bit old hat. But as I said the prose is fine, and the romantic and melancholy overtones are extremely effective.

Fomalhaut II is a planet which has only been lightly explored by the League of All Words (in later novels, the Ekumen). The League does not even know how many intelligent races live there -- three for sure, but perhaps two more. One non-humanoid race is not even encountered in the book. The main races are the Liuar (basically "humans"); and the now split Gdemiar (Clayfolk -- dwarf-analogues) and Fiia (elf-analogues). The League has been promoting the advancement of the Gdemiar to an industrial society, and extracting taxes from them and the Liuar, but after the ethnologist Rocannon encounters Semley (an aristocrat of the Liuar) in the prologue, he decides the world is not well enough understood, and he mounts an expedition to study it. But disaster strikes -- an enemy race is there as well, and they find and destroy Rocannon's spaceship, marooning him with none of his equipment.

He then must travel, with the help of Semley's grandson and a small band of locals, to the mysterious Southwest continent where the enemy is located, hoping to find an ansible and call for help. Their journey, mostly on rather unlikely flying "horses", or windsteeds, is full of adventure -- they encounter various different sorts of outlaws, and danger from the weather, and a scary quasi-intelligent race, and finally an unconvincing "Old One" who grants Rocannon special powers, helping him finally accomplish his mission. All this is entertaining but as I have said faintly pulpish and not very plausible. But the final resolution is achingly bittersweet, deeply romantic and very melancholy. Certainly a novel worth reading, though of course Le Guin has done much better things.

I haven't read The Kar-Chee Reign in some little time, so the following summary may be a bit lacking. It is set far in the future. Humans have colonized other stars, and have forgotten Earth. Earth itself is, as Davidson puts it "flat, empty, weary and bare". A few humans remain, apparently living a low-tech style of life. Then the insectlike aliens the Kar-Chee come, to mine the Earth for its remaining metals, with the help of huge beasts called Dragons by the humans. The Kar-Chee hardly care about humans, displacing them without much thought or worry. Humans have come to cower away from the Kar-Chee, avoiding them in hopes of escaping notice.

The Rowan family lives in fair comfort on an isolated island that the Kar-Chee have not yet reached. When the aliens finally do come, certain of the locals seem to have forgotten the policy of avoiding them at all costs, and a series of attacks are mounted. These attacks meet with initial success, but then the Kar-Chee are irritated, and reprisals occur. But a group led by one Liam decides to continue to take the fight to the Kar-Chee. It will not be a great surprise that they are eventually successful, and Liam becomes a celebrated hero. The Kar-Chee depart, but they leave some of the Dragons behind (setting up Rogue Dragon, set some time further in the future). There is also an indication that contact with the human-colonized worlds will resume, and that Earth itself will be revitalized.

It's far from a great novel, and it's far from Davidson at anything like his best. Still, I do recall enjoying it, though I thought the action in general routine (and sometimes confused), and much of the setup a bit silly. The prose shows only hints of pure Davidson.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Old Bestsellers: The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

a review by Rich Horton

For some reason the name of this novel has stuck in my head for a long time without me knowing anything about it. The reason is that James Blish used "Theron Ware" as the name of the sorcerer in his novel Black Easter. (I also have a friend named Theron, but that is by the by.) Undoubtedly Blish's choice of name was purposeful (after all, he named the good monks in his novel after SF writers). At any rate, when I ran across  a copy of this book at an estate sale I decided I had to read it.

It was something of a bestseller when it first appeared in 1896, at least for a novel of decided literary ambition. However it seems to have faded from wide attention in the decades after its release (perhaps partly due to its author's untimely death only two years later), only to be eventually restored to a position as a "minor classic" of American literature, of the most determinedly realistic form, in an era devoted to realism.

Harold Frederic (originally Frederick) had an interesting life. He was born in 1856 in Upstate New York (where his best-regarded books, including this one, were set). His father died in an accident when he was 18 months old. He became a journalist, and at a young age was the editor of papers first in Utica, then in the state capitol, Albany. He supported Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, for the Governorship, despite the Republican-leaning tendencies of his readers, a stance that eventually cost him his job. But the friendship of by then President Cleveland served him well when he moved to England to become the London correspondent for the New York Times. He spent the rest of his life in England. He had married in 1877, and had five children with his wife, but the marriage foundered after the move to England, and he set up house with his mistress, another American, Kate Lyon, and they had three more children. Alas, Lyon was a Christian Scientist (it's not clear if Frederic agreed -- he was born a Presbyterian, raised Methodist, and was generally skeptical of religion) -- and after Frederic suffered a stroke she refused medical treatment for him and he died in 1898.

Frederic was a journalist until his death, but beginning in 1887 he began publishing fiction with the novel Seth's Brother's Wife, and eventually he wrote 10 novels and a number of short stories. His work seems to have been generally well-received at the time. The Damnation of Theron Ware (called Illumination in England) was even then surely his best-regarded novel, and it is the only one of his novels to survive in any real sense today.

The novel opens in about 1880 with the annual Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a gathering at which new assignments for ministers are made. Young Theron Ware makes the biggest sensation with an impressive sermon, but instead of the prosperous placement he expects, he is sent to the somewhat struggling church in Octavius, somewhere in Upstate New York. We soon learn that Theron and his pretty and vivacious wife Alice got into a bit of money trouble in their previous posting, and soon they learn that the trustees of the church in Octavius are a rather miserly bunch.

Theron's early months in Octavius are a bit of a struggle, thus. Along the way he makes the acquaintance of the local Catholic priest, Father Forbes, and his crotchety friend Dr. Ledsmar, and perhaps most significantly, Celia Madden, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town. All these people introduce Theron to a rather more skeptical view of religion than any he has yet encountered. Theron's faith is rather swiftly threatened. And Theron is inappropriately attracted to Celia. Suddenly Alice seems less attractive to him than she had -- and her various acquaintances in Octavius take on a suspicious tone.

The troubled Methodist Church takes the step of hiring a couple of people to conduct a sort of revival service that turns into an attempt to force the church members to contribute additional money -- enough to settle the Church's mortgage and to give Theron a much-needed raise. The two people involved -- Brother and Sister Soulsby, a middle-aged couple, probably not techically married, former actors -- are among the most intriguing characters in the book, Sister Soulsby in particular. She is pragmatic and mostly good hearted, if a bit cynical, and it seems Theron might be saved. But he snatches defeat from the jaws of a sort of victory -- unable to regain his faith, unable to cynically pretend faith and keep his job, and fatally attracted to the beautiful, sensual, and artistic Celia.

The novel rather overtly sets up a conflict between what one might call small town "American" ways (and religion), and more cosmopolitan (Celia says "Greek"), more decadent even, ways (and religion), and also, in the person of Dr. Ledsmar, a more scientific view. And it doesn't necessarily insist on a right answer (though Theron Ware's inconstancy is surely wrong): Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar, Celia Madden, even Sister Soulsby (in some ways the "best" person in the novel, unless that's Alice Ware), all have obvious shortcomings.

It's by no means a perfect novel. Except for Theron Ware, and perhaps Sister Soulsby, none of the characters quite ring true. In particular, Celia Madden seems a construct created to lure Theron to his damnation -- acting at times (as do Father Forbes and Dr. Ledsmar) in a quite unmotivatedly malicious fashion. Alice Ware is far more sympathetic, but again her portrayal seems to vary depending on the requirements of the plot. But Theron Ware comes through quite perfectly -- a man who shines in a limited orbit and is revealed as quite inadequate outside of his native scope -- a selfish man, sometimes needlessly cruel, not very intelligent but only too convinced of his gifts -- and yet plausibly a man we are disposed to sympathize with at the opening, and even, really, at the end. I would say The Damnation of Theron Ware deserves its current reputation -- a "minor classic", undeniably a period piece, but a period piece that is worthy of examination, of continued reading.

(Oh, and by the way, just for the record, the Wikipedia entry for The Damnation of Theron Ware is pretty terrible.)

I'll note one more thing, having nothing to do with the novel, but illustrating an occasional feature of buying used books. This book, a Rinehart trade paperback from about 1960, was evidently owned by a student at Washington University (St. Louis' great private university). And this student (probably a woman based on the handwriting), didn't like the book, and especially didn't like Wash U. The marginal notes are often things like "I hate W. U." or "I hate this course!". Amusing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ace Doubles: Conan the Conqueror, by Robert E. Howard/The Sword of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett

Ace Double Reviews, 30: Conan the Conqueror, by Robert E. Howard/The Sword of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett (#D-36, 1953, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

It's Thanksgiving so I don't have time to write something new, so I'm posting something I wrote a while back, about one of the most famous Ace Doubles ever. Doesn't really qualify as "Forgotten", I suppose, especially not the Howard. I sometimes worry that the star of the great Leigh Brackett is dimming just a bit, though.

This is one of the very earliest Ace Doubles, from the first year any were published, 1953. It is also one of the most significant -- both novels are classics, both very important to the history of the field and both also still very enjoyable reading. The novels resemble each other in being classifiable as "Sword and Sorcery" (though I don't believe the term was coined for another decade or so). Indeed, Conan the Conqueror is surely one of the earliest exemplars of genre Sword and Sorcery -- in its way nearly as influential as Tolkien on its particular subgenre of Fantasy. The Sword of Rhiannon is nominally Science Fiction, and is set on Mars, but it is quite as Fantastical, quite as brimming with swords and with sorcery, as anything. And it is my feeling that Brackett, among her other virtues, was one of the purest conduits for Lord Dunsany's influence.

Conan the Conqueror is very long for an Ace Double, the longest I've seen at some 74,000 words. It is a reprint of a 1950 Gnome Press edition. The original story was published as "The Hour of the Dragon", a 5-part serial in Weird Tales, from December 1935 through March 1936. (The story is often dated 1935. including on the copyright page of this Ace Double, but the technical publication date should be 1936, as that is when the complete story was first available.) I have not seen the Weird Tales version (and I'm not likely to): I assume that it is substantially the same as this later version. (The Ace Double claims to be "Complete and Unabridged", but that may only mean relative to the 1950 hardcover.)

As the story begins Conan has been King of Aquilonia, a country of the ancient past of Earth, for some years, having risen from his origins as a Cimmerian barbarian and later a pirate to take over the country from a corrupt royal family. The deposed heir, Valerius, is plotting with the King of neighboring Nemedia, with a powerful Baron, and with a sorcerer to use a jewel called the Heart of Ahriman to raise to life a 3000-years dead mummy named Xaltotun, who was a powerful high priest in the evil kingdom of Acheron. With Xaltotun's help they will use black magic to vanquish Conan's army, and install Valerius on the Aquilonian throne, making Aquilonia a puppet of Nemedia.

And so indeed it goes. But Conan miraculously escapes death while his army is routed. Xaltotun has uses for him and takes him to Nemedia, but due in part to the lack of mutual trust between the various plotters, and in part to the help of a beautiful slave named Zenobia, Conan escapes and returns to Aquilonia. There he learns that despite the hatred engendered by Valerius's misrule, his people are too cowed by the threat of Xaltotun's sorcery to rise up. Fortunately, he learns that the Heart of Ahriman has again been stolen from Xaltotun, and that if he can claim it, his allies will be able to counteract Xaltotun's magic. So he sets off on a dangerous journey following the thief who has the jewel. Things aren't quite so simple, however, and Conan must track several changes of "ownership" of the Heart, as well as fighting off various attempts on his life. Eventually he makes his way to Stygia, and an encounter with another revenant mummy ...

I had never read Robert E. Howard before. He is really very much as advertised. The story is absolutely jam-packed with action, much very excitingly told. My plot summary above misses many twists and turns and fights -- the story does not go very long without some sword, knife or ax-work. The prose is vigorous but unrefined and at times silly (comparison with Brackett's prose is instructive -- both are pulpy and energetic, but Brackett achieves beauty at times -- Howard is often stimulating at the prose level but never beautiful). The plot is certainly coincidence-driven, but still holds the interest. The magic is of minor interest, not really very original. The worldbuilding is Xena-like: there is a mishmash of influences: for example, Aquilonia is faux-Roman, Stygia is faux-Egyptian. There are many sword-and-sorcery clichés here, such as the perhaps obligatory time spent as a galley slave (which shows up in The Sword of Rhiannon as well), but very likely Howard was originating some of these clichés, not stealing them.

It is what it is, most certainly with the faults of its pulp genre, but very successful on its own terms. Conan, I would say, earned his status in the field, and his many reprintings.

The Sword of Rhiannon is about 50,000 words. It is a reprint (apparently identical or nearly so) of "Sea Kings of Mars", published in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

This is probably the most famous of Brackett's Martian stories, and justly so. It is different from her Eric John Stark stories (such as those paired in the Ace Double People of the Talisman/The Secret of Sinharat) in that it is predominantly set in the distant Martian past, when the planet was verdant and its seas were full. It still manages to evoke the sense of ancient mystery, and the sense of something wonderful now lost, that is so central to the other stories.

Matt Carse is a 35-year old archaeologist and thief, born on Earth but living on Mars from the age of 5. He encounters a true Martian thief in the old city of Jekkara, who shows him a great treasure, the Sword of Rhiannon, the Cursed One. Long ago Rhiannon, one of the human but very powerful Quiru, had sinned by giving forbidden technology to the serpent-like Dhuvians. For his crime he was imprisoned in a tomb while the rest of the Quiru left Mars for greater things. Carse realizes that the other thief must have found the entirety of Rhiannon's tomb, and eager for more riches he forces the other to take him there. But Carse is betrayed, and he ends up pushed into a mysterious black sphere, from which he emerges into a different Mars.

Hardly believing what has happened to him, he is soon imprisoned by the agents of Sark and their warrior princess Ywain. He and a chance-met fat thief named Boghaz are sentenced to be galley slaves on Ywain's ship. But Ywain recognizes his sword, and she and the sinister Dhuvian accompanying her soon try to extract the secret of Rhiannon's tomb from Carse. Only something unique about Carse -- his Earth heritage? or perhaps the dark voice clutching at the back of his brain? -- allows him to resist, and eventually lead a mutiny. Carse is able to lead his fellow slaves back to the Sea Kings, free rivals to the empire of Sark. But even there, he is not trusted. The lovely Emer, who consorts much with the Sky people and Sea people of Mars, senses something sinister in Carse. And when his offer to reveal the location of Rhiannon's tomb leads to disaster, only a desperate strike by Carse can save the people of Mars from the oppression of the Dhuvians. And Carse must still confront his fears of the presence lurking in his brain ...

It is really wonderful pulp Sword and Sorcery, pitch perfect, beautifully written, twistily plotted. The resolution is deeply romantic, with a shadow of true sadness. Yes, the plot itself depends on some coincidence, and some implausible action -- but so goes the form. The characters are two-dimensional, but highly colored -- if it is hard to believe in Ywain, and her combination of villainy and bravery and loveliness, or Carse's bluntness and untrained heroism and crude sexiness, still we like to make ourselves believe. And the prose -- purely within the pulp tradition, but using that tradition to produce real beauty: "Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.", or "Now, over the bones of Mars, Carse could see the living flesh that had clothed it once in splendor, the tall trees and the rich earth, and he would never forget. He looked out across the dead sea-bottom and knew that all the years of his life he would hear the booming roll of surf on the shores of a spectral ocean." Mariner stole that from us, I suppose, and Kim Stanley Robinson showed a differently beautiful Mars -- but I will always love Brackett's Mars, the purest SFnal Mars of all.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Space Pioneers (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure), by Carey Rockwell

Old Bestsellers: The Space Pioneers (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure), by Carey Rockwell

a review by Rich Horton

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, was one of the first Science Fiction TV shows, running from 1950 to 1955 variously on all four of the TV networks then operating in the US. (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Dumont.) It has often been assumed to be based, if loosely, on Robert Heinlein's juvenile novel Space Cadet, but it appears that the series was instead based on a comic strip developed by Joseph Lawrence Greene but never published. Heinlein was paid in order to forestall any questions about copying his work, it appears.

There were a total of 8 novels published by Grosset and Dunlap (and a couple of picture books as well). The plots were apparently taken from either the TV series, the short lived radio show (from 1952), or the comic strip. The books were bylined "Carey Rockwell", certainly a pseudonym. The actual author has not been identified. It seems likely that Joseph Lawrence Greene (NOT to be confused with the later SF writer Joseph Green) had a hand in at least developing the plots -- I suspect another writer or writers did the actual novelizations. Richard Jessup, who apparently wrote for the TV show, has been suggested as one candidate. (The copyright in my edition is attributed to Rockhill Radio.)

It has occurred to me that I should perhaps be a little circumspect in reviewing juvenile novels of a certain age -- possibly the flaws I see as a 56 year old man in 2015 are the sort of things an eager 10 year old reader in 1953 (or in 2015 for that matter) might simply not notice. So I apologize for what I am going to say about this book -- but I do have to add, I have read other juvenile SF novels from the same era, not all of them by Robert Heinlein, and they were a lot better. And the problems with this book are not just with the science, but with the plot as well. (The characters, dialogue, and prose are none of them anything worthy praising, but probably do fall within the normal (low end of normal) for books for young readers.)

So, anyway -- this novel is in contention for the worst book I have ever read. It's worse than Roy Rockwood's Through Space to Mars (though it's a close thing, and this book is less racially offensive). It's just appalling.

Willy Ley, by the way, is listed as Science Consultant. I can only assume he was not actually "consulted", or if he was, he was ignored. (Which, as I have heard from other "Science Consultants" for media projects, such as John Scalzi, is not at all rare, to this day.)

The Space Pioneers is the fourth Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure. My edition is a possible first (there is no way to tell). It's illustrated by Louis Glanzman (decently enough). As the novel opens, Tom and his friends Roger Manning (radioman extraordinaire) and Astro (rather slow but big Venusian with a talent for atomic engines) are still just Space Cadets, not full members of the Solar Guard, despite apparent previous successes. So naturally, when a project is started to colonize a planet of Wolf 359 (named Roald), the three of them are assigned to vet the prospective colonists. Seriously? You want to choose 1000 colonists for a brand new colony and you choose them based on the decisions of three adolescents? (Well, I suppose maybe they are around 20.) In the process they reject a few candidates, and they are surprised when the prospective Governor, Christopher Hardy, overrules them in a few cases, particularly the slimy Paul Vidac, whom Hardy chooses as Lieutenant Governor.

The Cadets are chosen to lead the way to Wolf 359 in their ship, the Polaris. The convoy includes 1000 ships, which seems odd as there are only 1000 male colonists plus their families. On the way there are more strange happenings, particularly the failure of their messages to their mentor, Captain Steve Strong, to ever reach him. Hardy and Vidac become ever more tyrannical, taking actions such as charging the colonists for their food on the trip, against a share of their homesteads.

Once they reach Wolf 359, or that is the planet Roald, there is a disaster: some strange effect plays hob with the electronics on the ships. Only Tom's heroics, after Vidac, the dastardly coward, loses his cool, save the Polaris. 400 of the 1000 ships crash (though apparently with no loss of life). Naturally only a heretofore undiscovered seam of pure uranium could have caused this! The colony is quickly established -- for example, the "atmosphere plants" go up in three days. (Everyone can breathe OK before this, mind you.) But Vidac and Hardy continue their evil ways, charging the colonists even more. The irascible but brilliant Professor Sykes is assigned to find the uranium, while Vidac, realizing that the three Space Cadets are onto him, plots to frame them for Sykes' murder.

And so on. The plot is just absurdly silly throughout, and then the ending is botched, occurring largely offstage: after all the work to set up the villains, the climactic foiling of them, and their arrest, is all but elided. The attitudes towards women are purely as chauvinistic as you would expect for a grossly cliche version of the 1950s (though there is a brief mention of a beautiful astrophysicist, Dr. Joan Dale, who was a apparently a significant character in the TV show). Different races are simply ignored (to be fair, one might suppose, if one wanted, that the mostly undescribed minor characters represent the full panoply of humanity, but that is certainly not shown).

And the science. Oh my gosh. The uranium stuff. The space travel -- apparently it takes about 4 days (at speed) to go 8 light years, with no mention of hyperspace. (It took a lot longer for the whole colony convoy to get there, to be sure.) The asteroid dodging. The math -- apparently Wolf 359 is 50 billion miles away, which is only off by three orders of magnitude. (It's actually some 46 trillion miles away -- a bit less than 8 light years. 50 billion miles won't even get you to the Oort Cloud.) And lots more. This is really dreadful stuff, and executed with obvious contempt for the readership. It's possible, I am sure, that the TV shows were able to kind of slough over some of this stuff, to make it less obviously dumb. And it's likely that had I encountered these books age 10 or so I'd have missed much of the silliness, though I'm damn sure I'd have recognized that these weren't anywhere near as good as, say, Andre Norton, or Alan E. Nourse, or for gosh sakes Danny Dunn!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Marietta: A Maid of Venice, by F. Marion Crawford

Old Bestsellers: Marietta: A Maid of Venice, by F. Marion Crawford

a review by Rich Horton

Another really nice discovery in the ranks of hoary old bestsellers. Francis Marion Crawford was an American novelist, born in 1854 to Thomas Crawford and Louisa Cutler Ward. His father was a sculptor, and his mother's sister was Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". His sister Mary was also a novelist, writing as Mrs. Hugh Fraser. Both Mary and Francis were born in Italy and spent much of their lives abroad (Mary's husband was a British diplomat). Francis, after spending time in India and Germany, settled permanently in Italy in 1883. By this time he was a successful novelist (his first novel, Mr. Isaacs, set in India, was a big seller in 1882). Crawford continued to publish an extraordinary number of novels for the rest of his relatively short life (he died in 1909). His novels were set in many places, but in the final analysis he is best known for his books set in Italy, especially the Saricenesca series. (One of these novels, interestingly, was called Corleone: A Tale of Sicily, and has been called the first major treatment of the Mafia in literature.) Crawford also published a number of well-received shorter supernatural stories, of which by far the most famous is "The Upper Berth" (1885), considered one of the great ghost stories of all time. (I read it when it was reprinted in Weird Tales in 2004.)

Marietta is one of his Italian historical novels, though not part of his major series, and apparently not one of the best remembered. It was published in 1901, and my copy seems to be part of the fifth printing (February 1902), by which time 38,000 copies had been printed. The publisher is Macmillan.

For all that it doesn't seem to stand in the first rank of his works, I really enjoyed this novel. It is unabashedly a romance, in the old sense (and new). The characters are engaging and interesting but not quite fully realized. The plot is a bit implausible, at times faintly (though not dreadfully) melodramatic. But it moves rapidly, is quite nicely written (in rather an old-fashioned style), and there are a couple of moments of real power and beauty.

It is based, a bit loosely, on a true story: the establishment of the Ballarin family of glassmakers in Murano, Italy, in the 15th Century. Zorzi (or "George") Ballarin was an apprentice of the great glassmaker Angelo Beroviero, and it is widely believed that he stole his master's secrets (originated by Paolo Godi) and set up shop on his own, while also marrying Beroviero's daughter Marietta. A descendant of Zorzi Ballarin, Giuliano Ballarin, is even now a renowned Murano glassmaker. The novel tells the story of Zorzi and Marietta, focusing on their love story, and suggesting that Zorzi did nothing so crass as stealing his master's secrets.

Murano is an island very close to Venice (nowadays technically part of Venice), where the already famous glass shops were moved because of the risk of fire. As it happens, I had heard of Murano (and not just because I used to own a Nissan Murano): there is a brief episode in Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series involving Murano and its glassworks, set a few years before the action of this novel. So much we learn from historical novels!

The novel is set in late 1470. Zorzi is a young Dalmatian, an apprentice to Angelo Beroviero. As a Dalmatian, he is forbidden to actually make glass, but he has worked with Angelo for years, first as just a laborer, but Angelo trusts him, and he has learned the trade, indeed in some ways surpassing his master. Angelo appreciates him because he is a true artist, unlike Angelo's sons, who are only interested in the money they can make. Angelo has a beautiful daughter, Marietta, whom he has indulged to the extent that she too understands the artistry of glass. She and Zorzi have fallen in love, though neither believes the other shares their feelings. And Angelo has plans for Marietta: he wants to marry her to Jacopo Contarini, the son of one of Venice's ruling Council of Ten. He enlists Zorzi to take a message to Jacopo, arranging an encounter between he and Marietta, so both can assess the other.

In the process Zorzi stumbles on a secret meeting hosted by Jacopo, plotting, rather sillily, revolution. Zorzi is forced to pledge his loyalty to Jacopo and his fellow conspirators (otherwise, they will kill him). This pledge, to Zorzi's mind, means forsaking all hope of any future with Marietta, as she is, in his mind, pledged to Jacopo. But Jacopo is a weak and venal man, who has purchased a slave woman from Georgia, Alisa. Alisa and her true lover, the Greek sailor Aristarchi, plot to steal any money Jacopo makes, which will mostly be Marietta's dowry.

This sets in motion the plot, which is propelled by Angelo's son Giovanni discovering that Zorzi is actually a skilled glassmaker, which is against the laws of Venice (as he is a foreigner). Giovanni insists that Zorzi be arrested, while trying to steal his father's secrets once Zorzi is out of the way. Thus Zorzi faces exile, but Marietta works to save him, at risk of ruining her own reputation. Happily (and implausibly) ... well, no fair revealing the resolution, though it's hardly a surprise.

The conclusion is perhaps a bit overhasty, and has aspects of deus ex machina. And there is no denying that the novel is "of its time" in its view of the nature and natural relationships of men and women (even as Marietta is portrayed as something of a feminist, in 15th Century terms anyway). But the book is just lots of fun. It's easy to root for Marietta and Zorzi, and to like gruff Angelo and the servants Nella and Pasquale, and to hate Jacopo and Giovanni, and to queasily admire Alisa and Aristarchi. And, as I said, there are passages of real power, particularly one towards the middle when we see Zorzi creating true beauty in glass. (Some of the depiction of the process of glassmaking is quite well done as well.)

A pure entertainment -- and Crawford in fact published a book defending his approach to the novel -- that is, his philosophy that entertainment comes first. And quite an effective entertainment.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ace Doubles: The Plot Against Earth, by "Calvin M.Knox" (Robert Silverberg)/Recruit for Andromeda, by Milton Lesser

Ace Double Reviews, 91: The Plot Against Earth, by "Calvin M.Knox" (Robert Silverberg)/Recruit for Andromeda, by "Milton Lesser" (Steven Marlowe (Milton Lesser)) (#D-358, 1959, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Ace Doubles again. This one features two writers working under pseudonyms, though in rather different ways. Robert Silverberg, in his most prolific period, often used a variety of pseudonyms and house names, the most common being his "Protestant" pseudonym, "Calvin M. Knox". Milton Lesser, on the other hand, was the writer's birth name. He began publishing SF in 1950, at the age of 22. He changed his name legally to Stephen Marlowe in 1956, a name he had first used as a pseudonym in 1951. Eventually he turned primarily to mysteries, mostly published under the Marlowe name. He continued to publish a great deal of SF until 1960, mostly under the names "C. H. Thames", "Darius John Granger", and "Adam Chase", in addition to Milton Lesser. His total output in the 1950s in SF was over a hundred short stories and about a half-dozen novels. After 1960 he wrote mostly crime fiction. He was never all that highly regarded in SF, but his mysteries gained some notice, as did some fictionalized biographies of Christopher Columbus and others. He died in 2008.

Recruit for Andromeda is rather a mess of a novel, haring off in a few different directions to no particular ultimate result. It opens presenting an idea reminiscent of that in Silverberg's The Seed of Earth, reviewed here recently: a lottery to select people for mandatory space travel. We meet Kit Temple and his girlfriend Stephanie -- it's Kit's last year of eligibility. Noone has ever returned from the "trip to Nowhere" (including Kit's brother): but Kit is chosen as well. We also meet Alaric Arkalion, Jr., a rich man who hires a mysterious Mr. Smith to impersonate his son Alaric III and take his place on the trip. And we meet a Russian woman, Sophia Petrovich, who volunteers for the lottery, even though women are not subject to it, in order to escape her drab life.

Kit soon leaves (after one night of passion with Stephanie), and during his training he makes friends with the fake Alaric Arkalion III, even while realizing there is something odd about him. Sophia, meanwhile, is taken to Jupiter, for special Soviet training that will make her a superwoman (due to Jupiter's gravity). All then head to Mars, and then the mysterious trip to "Nowhere", via some sort of matter transmitter. On this planet they find a somewhat flourishing planet, full of aliens of all sorts of species, and they learn that the whole shebang his hosted by an ancient race, nearly extinct, that wishes to choose the most worthy possible race to succeed them. Kit meets his brother again, who has become the leader of the Earth city on Nowhere. And soon they learn that the aliens wish to choose an Earth representative from among the two human factions: American and Soviet, and that they must be recent arrivals, so Kit and Sophia are assigned to battle it out for human supremacy. Meanwhile, back home, Stephanie is campaigning for women to be allowed to follow their loved ones on the "trip to Nowhere" ... but will Kit still be waiting for her, especially after he gets to know the beautiful and capable Sophia? ... and there is another twist or two waiting. In some 35,000 words.

It reads like three or four short story ideas mashed together, and not all that successfully. The prose is competent, and one or two of the numerous SF ideas introduced are kind of cool (the rest are just silly) ... but on the whole, this is a pretty bad book.

Stephen Marlowe was prolific, but Robert Silverberg was far more prolific in the mid to late '50s. He also left the field, more or less, in the early '60s, turning mostly to nonfiction, but returned towards the middle of the decade with some much more impressive work, a remarkable series of novels and shorter works that garnered numerous award nominations and awards, and eventually led to his highly deserved designation as a Grand Master of SF. As good as his best work is, his early work was much less so -- yardgoods, one might say, though almost always quite competent and entertaining yardgoods. In this company, The Plot Against Earth is typical, and indeed not really early Silverberg at early Silverberg's best.

The hero is Lloyd Catton, an Earthman who has been sent to Morilar, home of the Interworld Commission on Crime, ostensibly to join a pan-Species investigation of the illicit traffic in hypnojewels. Catton's real mission is to ferret out the presumed plot by the three leading humanoid species, the Morilaru, Skorg, and Arennadilak, against the upstart Terrans. Catton, using time-honored human private eye methods, quickly tracks down a major center of hypnojewel smuggling. He also encounters the daughter of the Terran Ambassador, who confesses she wants to run away with her lover, a Morilaru man, and can Catton check this Morilaru out? Of course he turns out to be one of the hypnojewel smugglers, but the girl has eloped before he can warn her.

Catton arranges to follow leads gleaned from the smugglers to Skorg, where at least some hypnojewel activity originates. But his ship is sabotaged, and he and a small group of various aliens are marooned and must trek to the nearest rescue beacon. But his surprise reappearance destabilizes things, and he is able to follow further leads to a planet of chlorine breathers, and by the by rescue the ambassador's daughter ... More private eye methods (i.e. beating up people and making lucky guesses) lead Catton to the real villain of the piece ... not much of a surprise.

Silverberg being Silverberg -- never less than a pro -- this crackles along well enough. But it's not much of a novel, really, either as SF or as a crime novel. It is, indeed, yardgoods, and must stand as one of the least of Silverberg's many novels.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Count's Millions, by Émile Gaboriau

Old Bestsellers: The Count's Millions, by Émile Gaboriau

a brief review by Rich Horton

This is, I think, one of the happier and more unexpected discoveries I've made prowling book sales and antique stores for forgotten old books. I found this volume at the annual charity book sale at West County Mall in St. Louis County, the Greater St. Louis Book Fair. I had never heard of the author, but the book looked potentially interesting.

My edition is from Scribner's, published in 1913. Good condition, no DJ. Illustrated by John Sloan. Inscribed on the flyleaf "Dan R. Bissell, Jr., Xmas 1913".

I looked into Émile Gaboriau and found that he was actually a rather well known French writer in the middle of the 19th Century. He was born in 1832, died in 1873. He started publishing novels no later than 1861, and made a splash in 1866 with L'Affaire Lerouge, his first novel to feature Monsieur Lecoq, a detective. Gaboriau wrote several more novels about Lecoq, who was a very popular character, perhaps the most popular detective character prior to Sherlock Holmes. He died (of apoplexy, oddly enough the same way a major character in the novel at hand dies) aged only 40, but according to Wikipedia his novels kept appearing until at least 1881, leading me to suspect that perhaps the Lecoq series was continued by another writer. The Count's Millions appeared in 1870. (It is not a detective novel.)

The story opens with the rather unpleasant servants of the Count de Chalusse awaiting their master's return, one night in the 1860s. (Dates are given as 186-.) But a cabdriver comes to the house, announcing that his passenger has had a fit ... he is brought into the house, still alive, but in much distress. A doctor is summoned who can do little, and the vigil begins, attended by his ward, the beautiful 18 year old Marguerite, and by the grasping set of servants.

We quickly learn that Marguerite is a mysterious girl -- she only showed up a couple of years previously, and most assume she is the Count's illegitimate daughter but there is no proof. And a whole raft of people are soon snooping around, most interested in somehow getting their hands on the Count's "millions". There is the Marquis de Valorsay, a scoundrel who has squandered his money and needs to marry a rich heiress. There is Isidore Fortunat, a rascally businessman who has been helping Valorsay keep up the pretense of solvency while he tries to persuade Chalusse to let him marry Marguerite. There is the General de Fondege, who wants Marguerite for his son. The servants want their share of the estate. Much depends on whether or not the Count survives -- for there is no will, and if Marguerite is not shown to actually be his daughter, she will get nothing -- a blow to Valorsay, and indeed to Fortunat, who hatches a back up scheme: perhaps he can find Chalusse's long-estranged sister and represent her in an attempt to receive what would be her rightful inheritance.

Finally we are introduced to an industrious young lawyer, Pascal Ferailleur. Unlike everyone else we've met (save Marguerite), he seems a genuinely good person: a hard worker, raised by a mother who was cheated of her husband's money after his untimely death, Pascal has become a fairly successful lawyer. But he makes a terrible mistake: he accompanies a friend to a gambling house run by the beautiful middle-aged Lia d'Argelès, where he has a run of luck. But suddenly he is accused of cheating ... and there seems to be proof. Of course, as we have already gathered, Pascal's "friend" was actually a scoundrel hired by Valorsay to ruin him by planting evidence of cheating. And why? That's easy to guess -- Pascal has fallen in love with a young woman, none other than Marguerite, and the Marquis must get him out of the way.

And so it continues, with continued recomplications. We learn of Marguerite's difficult life before the Count found her and took her in. We learn of the reason for the Count's break with his sister: she had a foolish love affair, eloped, and was abandoned. We meet a vile couple running a little grocery, who turn out to have had a previous connection with the Count. Pascal plans to go into hiding while trying to recover his good name. Marguerite rejects the advances of the likes of Valorsay, with only a kindly magistrate to help her. The Count's money has somehow disappeared. And more, and more.

Much of the story is told through the point of view of peripheral characters: the scheming Fortunat, his surprisingly honest assistant Victor Chupin, the Count's servants, especially the slimy housekeeper Madame Leon, the Marquis de Valorsay, and so on. Gaboriau's attitude is throughout quite cynical. He gives details of a variety of marginally legal money-making enterprises. It's not a comedy -- it's a romantic thriller of sorts -- but it is often kind of funny.

And then the end of the book approaches, and it becomes clear that there is no way to resolve all the tangled threads of the plot, and ... the last page announces: "The conclusion of this exciting narrative will be found in the volume called Baron Trigault's Vengeance."

Well, I shouldn't complain -- in the novel was in fact published in two volumes. The full title was La Vie Infernale, with the two parts called Pascal et Margeurite and Lia d'Argelès. I'm not sure why the English titles for the two volumes became The Count's Millions and Baron Trigault's Vengeance. (Though the first chapter is headed "Pascal and Margeurite" in my book -- I thought it just a chapter title but then no other chapters had titles.) I do want to know what happened -- who Marguerite really is, and more about the Count's sister, and how Pascal redeems himself (if indeed he does) ... So I've already ordered the sequel. That's not to overpraise the book -- it's very melodramatic, as should be obvious, and coincidence rules. And the characters are only two-dimensional, but as I said still quite amusing. It's popular fiction of its time -- but pretty good popular fiction of its time.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Forgotten Ace Double: Warlord of Kor, by Terry Carr/The Star Wasps, by Robert Moore Williams

Ace Double Reviews, 90: Warlord of Kor, by Terry Carr/The Star Wasps, by Robert Moore Williams (#F-177, 1963, 40 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Okay, here's another Ace Double. This one qualifies as pretty forgotten, and mostly for good reasons. (Though the covers are, as far as I can tell, by Jack Gaughan, a pretty significant artist.) But it does feature a major major SF figure, Terry Carr. Carr is not widely known as a writer, but he was a hugely significant editor of Science Fiction. He was born in Oregon in 1937, and died terribly young in 1987. He was first a major fanwriter and editor, winning a Hugo for Best Fanzine in 1959 (for Fanac, coedited with Ron Ellik), and another for Best Fanwriter in 1973. He became an editor for Ace Books in the early 1960s, where he was especially known for coediting the World's Best Science Fiction series with Don Wollheim (the most important Best of the Year anthology of its time, the few years following the decline and eventual demise of Judith Merril's iconic series), and for creating the first series of Ace Specials, paperback original novels that included great work such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. He left Ace in about 1971 to go freelance. He continued editing a Best of the Year anthology, for Ballantine/Del Rey, which was, in my perception, the leading such book when I was first buying SF books. He also edited one of the all time great original anthology series, Universe, which ran from 1971 to his death in 1987. In the 1980s he revived the Ace Specials, and published first novels by William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick, and Howard Waldrop among others. He won Best Editor Hugos in 1985 and 1987.

Oh, and while he didn't write a whole lot of fiction, some of it was very good, including an admired novel (Cirque (1977)), and such stories as "Hop-friend" (1962), "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" (1968) and "They Live on Levels" (1973). But what of his first two novels? He seems to have mostly repudiated those, both of which were Ace Doubles. One was a collaboration with Ted White, under the name Norman Edwards: Invasion from 2500 (1964). And the other was the book at hand, Warlord of Kor.

In all honesty, Warlord of Kor isn't all that bad, though it's not all that great either. It's pretty short (about 34,000 words), and it's pretty rushed in places. The writing is competent but nowhere special. But the central idea is pretty effective, and the characters are tolerably well done. The working out is only OK. As a first novel, it strikes me as nothing to be ashamed of.

The protagonist is Lee Rynarson, something of an archaeologist who is studying the only intelligent race humans have ever found in their expansion through the Galaxy (or perhaps multiple galaxies). These are the Hirlagi, sort of a horse/dinosaur mix on Hirlaj. There are only 26 Hirlaji surviving -- they seem a tired an decadent race. They have a long racial memory, and Rynarson, in talking with one of them, hears stories of a warlord in the distant past, who united much of the planet, only to decide, after "communing" with the mysterious god Kor, that the Hirlaji must abandon not just war but science.

The situation on Hirlaj is complicated by a local strongman who wants to be named governor of this planet of the "Edge" of human exploration. In addition, there are the relics of the "Outsiders", an ancient race of aliens who have disappeared. Rynarson realizes after some time that the old Hirlaji temples he sees in their memories (once he gains telepathic contact with this mostly telepathic race) resemble Outsider ruins. The other major characters are Mara, the love interest, and an eccentric Earthman who preaches a religion he doesn't believe.

It's all resolved in an overly violent conclusion, revealing the true nature of the god Kor (easily guessed), and hints of the fate of the Outsiders, as well as a resolution to the putative governor's ambitions. As I said, the novel as a whole is nothing special, but it's not terrible either. Nothing I'd recommend making a special effort to find, but a reasonable first effort.

Robert Moore Williams was never for me really a name to conjure with, though I gather his Jongor series of Tarzan derivatives got some notice, and he did receive some praise as well for his early fiction, particularly "Robots Return", from Astounding in 1938, which was included in the all but definitive early SF anthology Adventures in Time and Space. He was born in Farmington, MO (not too terribly far from where I live) in 1907, and died in 1977. He began publishing in the pulps in 1937, and published stories and novels fairly regularly until the early '70s. I don't think he was ever regarded as much beyond a hack, though I'd say the two Ace Doubles I've read by him reveal a writer of some mild ambition and imagination, but not enough talent to make that work.

The Star Wasps (a title I suspect was conferred by Don Wollheim -- the words are never used in the novel) is about 45,000 words long. It's set in a corporately regimented Denver in 2470. The world's economy is controlled by Erasmus Glock, owner of Super Corporation. His childhood acquaintance, John Derek (later the husband of Bo! -- not!) is the leader of a resistance movement, urging people to strive for freedom. As the book opens, Derek turns a corporate flunky, in the process gaining the attention of Glock. He also meets and immediately falls in love with Jennie Fargo.

However, things are complicated by the presence of the "viral", alien electricity creatures who have been unwittingly attracted to Earth by the experiments of a physicist, Joseph Cotter. Glock has been using the viral as some sort of spies, but he loses control of them. The plot follows John Derek and his crew of freed criminals as they try to foment a revolution, but then realize that the viral might be the greater danger. Joseph Cotter and Jennie Fargo end up on the Moon, researching a solution to the viral problem, while John Derek confronts Erasmus Glock with his criminal shortcomings; and things come to a head as the evil blue viral begin killing people indiscriminately. Can Joseph Cotter disover a countermeasure? Can Erasmus Glock be brought to see the error of his ways? Will John Derek and Jennie Fargo get together?

It's a confused and silly mess of a novel. And it's a rampantly sexist novel as well, with a number of passages celebrating a woman's natural desire to be dominated (and cook for) a strong man. But Williams was really, at heart, an ambitious and idealist writer, and there are passages here that show him trying really hard to hit poetic heights, and to make serious philosophic points. Alas, he simply didn't have the talent to pull it off. A curious case.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Another not so old Non-Besteller: Norwood, by Charles Portis

Another not so old Non-Besteller: Norwood, by Charles Portis

a review by Rich Horton

This blog is aimed first at books from, let's say, at least a half-century ago which were bestsellers, and also, sometimes, at books that have been "neglected" or "forgotten". I remember mentioning somewhere that one of the writers who is sometimes called "neglected" is Charles Portis, when he really isn't. In fact, for a writer with only five novels to his credit, the last of them published almost a quarter-century ago, Portis gets a pretty fair share of attention. To be sure, that's mostly because of one book -- True Grit -- and the two (both excellent) movies made from it. And the likes of Roy Blount, Jr. and Ron Rosenbaum did yeoman work, back in the day, to keep Portis in people's minds when few people remembered anything but the John Wayne movie. All that said, by now, all five of his novels are in print (from Overlook Press), and he is certainly on the general literary radar. (Which makes it a bit of a shame that he seems to be retired ... I don't know of anything new he's done this millennium, actually.)

Portis was born in 1933, and is still alive. He grew up in Arkansas, fought in the Korean War, and got his degree in Journalism from the University of Arkansas, then worked on papers in Arkansas and New York, before turning to fiction. Norwood was his first novel, published in 1966. It was followed by True Grit in 1968, which was made into the famous John Wayne movie in 1969. Norwood was filmed, much less successfully, in 1970, starring the other two featured actors from True Grit, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. (Obviously, the wrong two actors to choose!) The movie also featured Joe Namath, of all people, and radically altered the novel's plot.

The novel opens with Norwood Pratt getting his discharge from the Army, around 1960, because his father has died and his sister can't be trusted on her own. Norwood comes home to Ralph, Texas (on the Arkansas border), obsessing a bit over the $70 his friend Joe William Reese still owes him. He goes to work at a gas station, and soon has to deal with an annoying and idle man that his sister marries. Norwood himself dreams of becoming a country music star. He runs into a man named Grady Fring, who has his hands in a number of different money-making pies. Fring hires him to drive a couple of cars (one towing the other) to New York ... and to take a young woman with him.

This doesn't go too well, and Norwood ends up in New York with neither the cars nor the woman, and he begins to make his way back home by bus. He runs into some interesting folks on the way, including a chicken, a British midget, and a pretty girl named Rita Lee. Norwood hooks up with Rita, particularly once her supposed fiance deserts her, and Norwood pays a visit to Joe William Reese to retrieve his $70, before saying farewell to the midget and returning, with Rita Lee, to Ralph.

And that's about all there is to the plot -- which tells you damn little about the novel. It's a road novel (obviously enough). (So too is Portis' The Dog of the South, and, if you think about, even True Grit. I haven't read Portis' other novels, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos.) The delights of the novel -- which are considerable -- lay in the voices of the many characters we encounter, and in the depiction of a certain side of American life. It's a very funny novel. Norwood is an intriguing character -- something of an innocent but not entirely so -- indeed also something of a rascal. The people he encounters are likewise rascals, with their innocent sides (mostly -- perhaps not so much Grady Fring). The book is short, probably just as long as it needed to be, and it doesn't come to any conclusions, because there's no need for conclusions. I liked it just fine, though it's not the masterwork that True Grit is, to my mind. But Portis is indeed a writer who deserves our notice.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nabokov's First Two English-language Novels: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister

Nabokov's First Two English-language Novels: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister

a brief review by Rich Horton

These are two novels, the first two in English* by the incomparably Vladimir Nabokov, that can hardly be called "forgotten" -- Nabokov's stature is such that none of his novels are remotely forgotten. However, these novels are less known than his later novels, and even less known than his major Russian novels such as The Gift, Glory, and The Defense. And they certainly weren't bestsellers -- it was not until Lolita that Nabokov had a commercial success.

(*Though there are some that suggest that Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov's 1938 translation of the 1932 Russian novel Camera Obscura, is sufficiently revised so as to count as a "new" novel in its English version. (Nabokov was motivated in part by his disdain for the first English translation.))

(And, yes, you can tell when I'm not quite ready to write about my latest "Old Bestseller"!)

Nabokov, of course, was born in Russia, in 1899, to a wealthy family from the liberal side of the nobility. After the Revolution, the Nabokovs moved to Western Europe. Vladimir took a degree at Cambridge, but the family settled in Berlin, where his father was murdered in 1922, ironically by a Russian monarchist. Vladimir began writing fiction and poetry in the emigre community, under the name V. Sirin. He married Jewish woman, Vera Slonim, and after Hitler's rise they were eventually forced to leave Germany, first for France, then, in 1940, for the US. (Nabokov's brother Sergey, however, an outspoken opponent of Hitler, and a homosexual, died in a concentration camp.)

In the United States Nabokov taught at Wellesley and Cornell (among his students was Ruth Bader Ginsburg). After the financial success of Lolita, he moved to Switzerland, where he died in 1977. I have read all his English language novels and many of his Russian novels and stories (in translation, to be sure), and he has long been a favorite writer of mine. All his "big four" novels, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, and Ada; are remarkable -- I confess a fondness among them for the shortest, Pnin, both the funniest and the saddest of his novels.

Vladimir Nabokov's first English language novel was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). He wrote it in Paris, and it is indeed set to some extent in that city. It concerns a Russian novelist who wrote in English. The novelist has just died (in 1936), and his brother is going through his papers and becomes obsessed with learning the truth about his life, and in particular his tortured final love affair. The story follows both "Knight's" life from his birth in Russia in 1899, his parents' divorce and his father's remarriage to his brother's mother, his father's death as a result of a duel defending Sebastian's mother's honor, his school years in Russia, then his University years at Cambridge, and the composition of his five books. He has two significant affairs -- a happy one with a nice English woman; followed by an apparently stormy one with a mysterious woman. The novel's structure is roughly chronological in this sense, and also in following the brother's investigations, as he tries to interview various people from Sebastian's past, and especially as he tracks down the mysterious lover.

In part Nabokov seems to be satirizing literary criticism and biography, especially through descriptions of an opportunistic book written by a former literary secretary of Knight's, but also through the brother's loving descriptions of each of Knight's rather odd novels. But he's also interested in the mysteries of identity presented by "Knight" (never given a real last name), by his brother (given only the initial "V"), and by the various different women who might be the mystery lover who ruined Knight's life. At the end, as the brother rushes to Knight's deathbed, he curiously seems to become Knight himself. A striking and beautifully written book, though not to me as engaging or satisfying as such later novels as Pnin and Pale Fire.

His first novel written in the US, and his second in English, was Bend Sinister (1947). Like one of his later Russian-language novels, Invitation to a Beheading, it is explicitly political, in a way generally foreign to Nabokov. (Indeed, to write a "political" novel was rather against Nabokov's usual artistic philosophy, and in his 1963 Introduction to this novel, he takes pains to point out that the focus of the novel is the main character's relationship with his son, not the repressive political conditions which drive the novel's plot.) Bend Sinister opens with the death of Olga Krug, beloved wife of philosopher Adam Krug. Krug is left with an 8-year old boy, David, in a country torn by a revolution led by an oafish schoolmate of Krug's, Paduk, called the Toad by his fellows at school. The new regime attempts to gain Krug's support, offering both the carrot of a University presidentship and the stick of veiled threats conveyed by the arrest, over time, of many of Krug's friends. The brutal climax comes when the new regime, almost by accident, realizes that the only lever that will work on Krug is threats to his son, then, due, apparently, to grotesque incompetence, manages to fumble away that lever.

The novel is (one is tempted to say "of course") beautifully written. Passage after passage is lushly quotable, featuring Nabokov's elegant long sentences, lovely imagery, and complexly constructed metaphors; as well as his love of puns, repeated symbols, and humour. The characters are well-portrayed also -- Krug, of course, and his friends such as Ember and Maximov, as well as villains such as the Widmerpoolish dictator Paduk and the sluttish maid Mariette. The novel, though ultimately quite tragic, is filled with comic scenes, such as the arrest of Ember, and comic set-pieces, such as the refugee hiding in a broken elevator. As Nabokov asserted, the relationship between Adam Krug and his son is the fulcrum on which the novel turns, and it is from that the novel gains its emotional power. But much of the novel is taken up with rather broad satire of totalitarian communism. The version portrayed here is of course an exaggeration of the true horror that so affected Nabokov's life, but it still has bite. The central philosophy of the new regime is not Marxism per se, but something called "Ekwilism", which resembles the philosophy satirized in Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" -- it is the duty of every citizen to be equal to every other, and thus great achievement is unworthy. (It is not to be missed that Paduk was a failure and a pariah at school.) All this is bitterly funny, but almost unfortunate, in that it is so over the top in places that it can be rejected as unfair to the Soviet system which it seems clearly aimed at. That's really beside the point, however -- taken for itself, Bend Sinister is beautifully written, often very funny, and ultimately wrenching and tragic.