Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

A Little Known SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

a review by Rich Horton

Not long ago I read a Raymond Z. Gallun story from the early '50s, and found it better than I had expected. So when I saw this obscure 1961 paperback for cheap, I figured I might as well give it a try. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the early '40s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. After 1954, only a few novels came out until the '80s, when a few short stories (possibly written much earlier) appeared. His last novel was Bioblast (1985). The Science Fiction Encyclopedia suggests The Eden Cycle (1974) may be his best -- The Planet Strappers is dismissed as "more routine". Ah well.

The book opens in purest YA hard SF mode, with a group of college-age kids trying to make their way into space. It seems that most of the trick is to acquire a space bubble, or "bubb", which is what it sounds like -- not much bigger than person-sized, a bubble based on a super-plastic, with plenty of air production capacity, in which someone can survive for a pretty significant time in empty space. The group includes a diverse(-ish) mix -- one woman, a rich kid, a handicapped kid, a couple of football star twins, a delinquent, a couple more, plus the eventual viewpoint character, Frank Nelsen, the straight-arrow honest type. This first part goes on for 50 pages or so, pretty effectively, as the "bunch" (their name) navigates such issues as making the "bubbs", learning how to use them, passing the required space fitness tests, raising the needed money, and so on. The girl member drops out, realizing the the regular Space organization is desperate for women, and another guy washes out for lack of psychological fitness, and one member has to deal with his mother who won't let him go.

Finally they head into space, and things get a bit stranger from that point. Frank ends up in a terrible situation on the Moon with a murderous fraud. One of the dropouts ends up a stowaway, causing even more trouble. Eileen, the girl member of the Bunch, becomes fairly successful, as what seems to be a Madam, though the book is too YA-oriented to go into detail about that.

The book continues, becoming something of a travelogue through the Solar System. Frank's goal ends up to be establishment of a free space-based set of habitats, based on the "bubbs", and in the end to make a home that the girl back home he's sweet on can come to. But he must deal with a lot of problems on the way there, most importantly the issue of space pirates ... a group which seems to include the one washout from the original "Bunch" who had stowed away. One of the other members becomes a legendary explorer, eventually heading to the Outer Planets solo in a bubble. There are deaths among the bunch, and failures, but by the end we see a portrait of the establishment of a new frontier.

This is a real mixed bag. To be honest, a lot of the scientific details are pretty ridiculous -- though perhaps not by the standards of 1961. The plot is kind of random, kind of disorganized, after a decent start. The characters are pure cliche. But for all that, I liked a lot of it, though parts of it were kind of boring, or too silly to follow. It's easy to see why this novel is essentially forgotten -- but it's also easy to see why Gallun, for all his shortcomings as a writer, remained able to sell his work for a pretty long time.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A little-known Ace Double: Time Thieves, by Dean R. Koontz/Against Arcturus, by Susan K. Putney

Ace Double Reviews, 101: Time Thieves, by Dean R. Koontz/Against Arcturus, by Susan K. Putney (#00990, 1972, 95 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the latest Ace Doubles, appearing about a year before the program ended. Don Wollheim and Terry Carr had both left Ace a year earlier. Fred Pohl was editor until June 1972, about when Time Thieves/Against Arcturus appeared, so presumably he acquired these novels.


(cover by David Plourde)
This book pairs an early novel by a writer who has since built a pretty major career with the only novel by a very obscure writer. Both novels have aspects of interest but are fairly flawed. The copy-editing is noticeably poor (especially in the Koontz novel): while Ace's editing and production standard had never been great, I did feel this was worse than in preceding years, and I wonder if the company's turmoil at the time was a factor (Ace had just been acquired by Grosset and Dunlap).

(Cover by Mart?)
One other production mishap, I'm pretty certain, involves the covers. They seem to have been switched. That is, while neither cover illustration is particularly representative of a scene in either novel, the one for Time Thieves seems to fit Against Arcturus reasonably well (hot human spy, large humanoid aliens, spaceships with laser-type weapons); while the one for Against Arcturus could, at a bit of a stretch, work for Time Thieves. (The art could, I suppose, have been random stuff that was just slapped on the books.) The artists are hard to figure out: the cover for Time Thieves is signed Plourde, apparently David Plourde. The other sided is signed Mart, I suspected possibly truncated from Martin. I don't know who that could be, and for that matter I know nothing about David Plourde.

Time Thieves was a fairly early Dean Koontz novel, his first (Star Quest) having appeared in 1968. He worked steadily in a number of genres for the first decade or so of his career, under numerous pseudonyms, before hitting it big with such novels as Whispers, in 1980. Most of his work since then has been suspense thrillers, many of them bestsellers.

Time Thieves opens with Pete Mullion waking from a strange dream while sitting in his car in his garage. He assumes he has just driven home from his cabin in the woods, and he goes into the house, and realizes he doesn't remember anything for some undetermined time. And then his wife comes in and yells at him for abandoning her for 12 days.

He begins to try to tackle the mystery -- asking the police what's going on, going back to the cabin, visiting a motel he apparently stayed at. There is another period of amnesia, and sighting of mysterious people. Eventually he directly encounters one of the strange people -- who turns out to be a robot.

Pete and his wife are deep in the mystery by now. Pete begins to realize he is developing telepathic abilities. And the robots keep insisting that he give himself up -- for his own good. Also, they sinisterly promise not to hurt him. And his telepathic ability allows him to sense the minds of the robots -- and to realize they are controlled by another mind, apparently belonging to an alien.

The novel resolves with a chase scene or two, a kidnapping, and then finally a talk between Pete and the aliens, whereby their true motives are revealed. And Pete makes his own decision ...

The book is well-told at the plot level -- it moves quickly, holds the interest, has some interesting ideas. I thought the resolution -- the aliens' motivations -- a bit lame. And the prose is inconsistent at best -- there are some real howlers. (Some of this may be laid at the hands of Ace's terrible copyediting.)

Against Arcturus is a stranger book. We begin on the planet Berbidron. A couple of natives (who call themselves Sarbr) see an Earth ship landing, and when they approach, they get shot. Those two leave, and a few more aliens investigate (including one called intriguingly "Arlem the Actor (soon to be Arlem the Traitor)". They instantly learn the human language (Latin), and quickly agree with the human proposal that they become civilized. Within 5 years they have built several cities, and have become involved in a dispute over the control of their planet: the first visitors were from the Earth-New Eden Alliance, but it has been taken over by the apparently more authoritarian human colony of one of Arcturus' planets.

This first section is told in an engaging fashion, resembling to a small degree writers like Ursula Le Guin and Eleanor Arnason, using journals, giving hints of the Sarbr society. It seems we are on the route to, perhaps, an anthropological bit of SF, where the human invaders will eventually get their comeuppance as they (and we, the readers) learn the true nature of the Sarbr. And, in a way, that's what happens. But we get there in a different way. And much of the aim of the book seems somewhat satirical -- making fun of human civilization partly by having the Sarbr who happen to be interested in it playact a version of it.

Most of the rest of the story is told by Beth Goodrich, a woman from New Eden who is recruited, somewhat despite her misgivings, to come to Berbidron and try to foment a rebellion against the Arcturans, who now control the cities on Berbidron. Beth, apparently, has experience at this -- she has spent time protesting the government on New Eden. She also has a vaguely telepathic/empathic ability (which she calls sympathy) -- she can understand the thoughts and feelings of humans, and even animals (such as her pet squirrels) and, it turns out, trees. But not the Sarbr. She ends up joining the Berbidron Liberation Front, where she meets the aforementioned Arlem the Traitor (so-called because he is actually working for the Arcturans).

She ends up bouncing around the planet, noticing but mostly ignoring hints that the nature of things on Berbidron is quite different than the humans seem to think, and getting herself killed. And resurrected, with a new name. Eventually the real plans of the Arcturans are revealed, which are pretty awful, and it becomes urgent to actually stop them. (Before that it seemed like a game, which is really the way the Sarbr seem to approach it.) Finally Beth (or, that is, Natasha) and some of her Sarbr friends make a journey to a desolate part of the planet, and she finally learns the truth about the Sarbr -- and, more importantly, about humanity.

Some of all this is kind of silly, though interesting. Some is fairly funny. Some is just busy. The science, as well as the timeline, really doesn't make much sense, but maybe that doesn't matter much. I thought it on balance an intriguing but not really successful effort, and I'm surprised the writer never did much else. She did write a graphic novel about Spiderman, which was published with illustrations by Berni Wrightson. And there is at least one short story (or perhaps a novel excerpt) available online (apparently posted by the author, some time ago). And not much else seems to be generally known.

I asked for help from a group of experts on the field that I hang out with, and Art Lortie came through wonderfully. He found that Susan K. Putney was born in 1951, in Iowa, once ran for Congress in Nebraska as a Libertarian, once owned a comic book store, lived in Phoenix for a while, and now lives in my own state, Missouri.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Old Bestseller: Tides, by Ada and Julian Street

Old Bestseller: Tides, by Ada and Julian Street

a review by Rich Horton



Julian Street (1879-1940) was a novelist, art and drama critic, and oenophile. He was born in Chicago, went to college in Canada, and moved to New York at the turn of the century, working for the New York Mail. He moved to Princeton in the ‘20s, and a library at the university is named for him. He married Ada Hilt in 1900, and she collaborated on the novel at hand, Tides, but not on any of his other works, but as she died in 1926, the same year Tides was published, it’s hard to say if she’d have done any more writing.

Street wrote several novels but was probably better known for his short fiction (twice he won an O. Henry Award); and for his nonfiction and criticism. His writing on wine and French cooking led to his being given the Chevalier’s Cross of the French Legion of Honor. He wrote travel books, a profile of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, a play in collaboration with Booth Tarkington. And after all that, he might be remembered best for the line he wrote, as an art critic, about Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, calling it “an explosion in a shingle factory”.



Tides appears to have first appeared in the magazine Red Book. My edition, a first (no dj, in indifferent shape), came from Doubleday and Page. It’s signed in pencil “Margaret Richardson Dec 25th 1926”, so it seems perhaps to have been a Christmas present. The book wasn't a major bestseller, and indeed Julian Street never had a book on Publishers' Weekly's yearly top ten list, but I gather that he was a reasonably successful writer in his day.

It opens in 1884 with a man named Luke Holden visiting a real estate man named W. J. Shire. They end up discussing Holden’s neighborhood, Oakland, near the lakefront on the South Side of Chicago. Holden is married with a young daughter, but soon he is expressing unseemly interest in Shire’s vulgar but pretty daughter. And Shire is planning to move to Oakland, and to try to promote it as a fashionable neighborhood (so that he can make money selling real estate there). (Oakland is a real neighborhood, still identified as such today, though I think it would be fair to say it's not currently "fashionable".)

All this is not pleasing to Luke Holden’s neighbor, old Zenas Wheelock, one of Chicago’s original settlers. Zenas likes the countrified nature of Oakland in 1884, and Shire’s plans will lead to a loss of privacy, and the gain of a lot of the wrong sort of people. Zenas has a grandson, Alan, a fine young man despite his disappointment in Alan’s father, a weak and ineffectual man only interested in buying first editions. 

The story ends up being about two parallel subjects: fist, the life stories of Alan Wheelock and Luke Holden’s daughter Blanche; and the way that these two virtuous and worthy people, who it is clear love each other, mess up things so they can never be together. And second, the way Chicago becomes a major city (mostly, it seems, to its overall detriment, at least from the authors’ point of view). The first thread follows their education in a small local school, Blanche’s unfortunate home life, blighted by her father’s affair with Florence Shire, followed by his wife’s death and then his marriage to Florence, a terrible stepmother to Blanche. Luke Holden suffers financial reverses as well. Alan becomes a well-respected businessman, but somehow he and Blanche miss connections and she runs off with a dissolute would-be writer, while he marries a pleasant but weak and somewhat vulgar local girl. Their lives go separate ways, but each ends up quite unhappy in their marriages, though ultimately at least somewhat successful otherwise.

Meanwhile, in Chicago we see first the political rivalry between supporters of Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, then the burgeoning development in Oakland (including, gasp!, apartment houses), then the Columbian Exposition, and the “good” neighborhoods moving to the North Side. Some of this is played out through Zenas Wheelock’s memories and principles: his experiences in Chicago when it was purely a frontier, his despair over the fate of his previous neighborhood, especially when his old house becomes a whorehouse, his personal honesty and the way that allows people like Holden and Shire to take advantage of him as they work to cheapen their neighborhood. By the end there are complaints about the foolish young folks in the ‘20s …

As you can gather, probably, the book is ragingly classist. There are plenty of swipes at other ethnicities too, particularly the Irish and Germans. (Black people are treated with some condescension but generally regarded as good people … and Zenas Wheelock is a rock-ribbed Republican partly, perhaps mostly, because Abe Lincoln freed the slaves.) For all that, it was fitfully enjoyable. There are boring stretches, to be sure, and lots of ad hominem sort of attitudes, or conveniently bad behavior by the wrong sorts of people which proves the authors’ points. But there’s also a certain honesty in showing its two heroes making real mistakes and messing up their lives – though not to the point of real tragedy either. And the details about Chicago late in the 19th Century ring true, and I found them interesting (partly because I grew up in the Chicago area).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Forgotten Ace Double: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb

Ace Double Reviews, 100: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb (#H-40, 1968, 60 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is the 100th Ace Double review I've done. I started these on the wonderful old Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written back in the early 2000s. I retain an interest in Ace Doubles for an intersection of reasons ... the feeling that they give room for an awkward story length (25000 to 45000 words, say); the fact that they provided space for new writers to get published; the sometimes goofy subject matter; the fact that they could be a home for unpretentious adventure SF; and their uncommon format. But it must also be said that a lot of the stories published as Ace Doubles were downright crappy. And indeed this review, the 100th, perhaps appropriately features a couple of awfully weak short novels.

(Cover by George Ziel)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
That said, the writers were both English veterans -- and, indeed, generally competent if uninspired producers of acceptable SF adventure. E. C. Tubb (1919-2010) is by far best known for his Dumarest of Terra novels, which began in Ace Doubles in 1967, migrated to DAW when Donald Wollheim moved there, and concluded with a novel first published in French. But he was very prolific, publishing well over a hundred novels and even more short stories beginning in the UK SF magazines in the early '50s. Besides the Dumarest novels he was somewhat known in the early '70 for the Cap Kennedy books, written for DAW as by "Gregory Kern".

John Rackham's real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). He also began publishing in the early '50s, though much less prolifically. He ended up producing something north of 20 novels as well as a fair amount of shorter work, under both the Rackham and Phillifent names.

I've enjoyed novels by both writers in the past -- as I say above, they were generally competent writers -- certainly of the second rank, but not unreadable. And in that context, this particular pair of stories is quite disappointing. Really, this represents kind of the low point of what Ace Doubles could be -- not even redeemed by the notion that it might have served as a way to give a young writer a start on a career that might develop.

Rackham's Alien Sea is the longer novel, at something close to 65,000 words. (Tubb's C.O.D. Mars is just over 40,000 words long.) Alien Sea opens in space, with a severely damaged spaceship struggling to make its way around the sun back to their planet, Roggan. They make it, and find that no one survives -- an atomic war has caused almost all the land on the watery planet to be sunk ... the crew of this ship, and a few survivors of their rival nation, must cooperate to rebuild some semblance of civilization.

Then things jump forward a couple of thousand years, as Dennis Dillard approaches the planet Hydra. He's a professional "feeler", who has his emotions recorded to be used in a future entertainment in which people get to "feel" the emotions of the characters. Hydra is a water world that Earth has started to exploit, in tentative cooperation with their enemies the Venusians, who are the descendants of Earth politicians exiled decades before. Dillard arranges a chance to meet the Venusians -- the emotions of encountering them seems like a good opportunity for recording. He also gets to visit the research station run by a former professor he hates, and in the process gets involved with a woman secret agent of sorts; and of course he visits the pleasure city on Hydra.

Some strange stuff happens, and Dillard ends up much more involved with the Venusians than he had planned -- something very strange is going on. Not to mention he forges an empathic connection with a beautiful Venusian woman. And soon they learn that the strangeness is a true alien race -- and the reader, of course, knows right away that these aliens are the descendants of the Roggan crew we met at the beginnning the book -- and the planet Hydra is really Roggan.

It all turns on Dillard and his new lady love forging greater cooperation between the Venusians and Earth -- and establishing a reason for the Roggans to abandon their nefarious plans and agree to cooperate in a mutually beneficial fashion with both Earth and Venus. Oh, and there's the absurd invention Dillard's former professor has made ... There are actually some potentially interesting ideas in this book, but there's too much stuff that just doesn't make much sense; and the book is too long, too boring for long stretches.

Tubb's C.O.D. Mars opens with a detective, Slade, taking a job: to smuggle three surviving explorers returned from Proxima Centauri to Mars -- he'll be paid Cash on Delivery, hence the title. These explorers, it turns out, are in quarantine, in Earth orbit, supposedly because of the threat of an alien virus. The focus then shifts to Ed Taylor, an employee of Slade's, who is trapped in a loveless marriage, with a wife who won't have sex with him, and dreams of escaping to one of the space colonies with a hot young woman. Taylor ends up in trouble -- seduced and drugged by a pretty woman, and forced to take a risky job ... which turns out to be Slade's trick: he needs someone to pilot the ship he'll send to rescue the explorers.

For a while here, things seemed kind of interesting, and decently told in Tubb's noirish and cynical style. Then we get introduced to the woman doctor running the quarantine, and to the actual explorers, and before long we learn that the quarantine is for a good reason -- they really have been taken over by a sort of semi-intelligent slime mold from Proxima Centauri.

Before long, Taylor's rescue attempt has gotten him infected as well. Slade is trying to play the criminal Martians against Earth's UN authorities, for his own profit of course. Taylor survives the virus/slime mold, and unconvincingly he and the doctor fall in love, and she infects herself ... Everybody heads for the asteroid belt, where the slime molds/explorers try to take over an asteroid and propagate themselves by heading back to Earth, while Taylor and the Doctor, who have become superhuman via symbiosis with the Proxima slime mold, head to the stars. And Slade is left desperatly looking for an angle which will make him lots of money ...

As you can guess, I didn't think much of this. It really reeks of being written quickly to fill a slot, with no really coherent ideas behind it, just a bunch of cliche notions slapped together until they seemed enough to propel a plot for 40,000 words. At least it reads fairly quickly, but it's a pretty weak novel. Tubb remains worth a look -- though not requiring a look -- for his Dumarest books; but C.O.D. Mars is pretty sad stuff.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Siege of the Seven Suitors, by Meredith Nicholson

Old Bestseller: The Siege of the Seven Suitors, by Meredith Nicholson

a review by Rich Horton

This was a totally random, and quite delightful, discovery, in an antique store. I had never heard of Meredith Nicholson, but the title seemed intriguing, so I bought the book. And -- on reading it I was pleased throughout. It's a very lighthearted romantic romp -- not a deathless masterpiece by any means, but just a great deal of fun. My edition, quite possibly a first, is from Houghton Mifflin, October 1910, with color illustrations by C. Coles Phillips (for the cover and facing the title page), and interior pen and ink illustrations by Reginald Birch.

(cover illustration by C. Coles Phillips)
So then I looked up Nicholson and found, a bit to my surprise, that he truly was a successful writer in his day, if completely forgotten now. Three of his novels made the Publishers' Weekly list of top ten bestsellers of their year, though not The Siege of the Seven Suitors.

Meredith Nicholson was born in 1866 in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and moved to Indianapolis in 1872. He became a journalist at age 18, turning to a business venture in Denver in 1898. His first novel appeared in 1903, and his writing career continued for a quarter century. Towards the end of his life he turned actively to politics, as a Democrat, serving one term as an Indianapolis City Councilman, then serving as a diplomat in South America during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. He was married twice, and had four children. He died in 1947.

Nicholson was one of a group of fairly prominent Indiana writers in the early 20th Century, including also Booth Tarkington, George Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, and perhaps one might add Charles Major. (And he was published by the Indianapolis firm Bowen-Merrill (later Bobbs-Merrill).) None of those writers maintain much of a reputation (though Tarkington and Riley, at least, are still names one recognizes). (One other Indiana writer of that time does still remain somewhat well known, though his star too seems in decline: Theodore Dreiser.) Nicholson was, in most of his work, very much an Indiana partisan -- his stories were usually set in Indiana, and his non-fiction often centered directly on Hoosier themes. His most famous novel (for a fairly minimal value of "famous") might be The House of a Thousand Candles (1904), which was filmed in 1936.

And I would have guessed none of this from The Siege of the Seven Suitors, which is set in New York City and nearby suburbs (and which was published in 1910 by Houghton Mifflin). It seems very much of a piece with other early 20th Century novels of high society in the city ... much frothier, to be sure, than say Edith Wharton or even F. Hopkinson Smith. But still centrally concerned with the romantic and business affairs of the upper class in the big city. (And for that matter the brief introduction is addressed from Mackinac Island (in Michigan), by Nicholson, presumably to the Governor of Michigan ... though it has nothing to do with the book at hand.)

Arnold Ames Jr., a failed architect who has become an expert in chimney repairs, is the narrator, and we meet him dining in his club with his old friend Hartley Wiggins when he mentions his visit to the Asolando Tea Room. Wiggins interrogates him about the cashier -- it appears they are all pretty young women of good social standing -- and otherwise acts evasive. Soon after, another member informs Ames that Wiggins has fallen in love with Cecelia Hollister, after meeting her in the Asolando. Ames, intrigued, returns to the Asolando, and happens to eat with a charming woman in her 60s, who flaunts her eccentricity -- and also insists that Ames visit her house in the country to work on the chimneys. Ames learns that this woman is Octavia Hollister, who has two nieces, Cecelia and the oddly named Hezekiah.
(illustration by C. Coles Phillips)

Ames, under the spell of the elder Miss Hollister's character, hies himself down to her place, where he is accepted as a guest. The chimney's appear to be in perfect working order -- and after all the house was designed by his good friend Pepperton -- and he wonders what he's doing there. He does meet Cecelia, who is every bit as beautiful and nice as advertised. He stumbles across a brief tryst between Cecelia and Hartley Wiggins, which suggests that she cares for him but doesn't want him to propose. And soon after, Ames is introduced to several other young men staying in the area, each of whom is in love with Cecelia. The group of men gather at Miss Hollister's house each evening, for conversation with Cecelia and, seemingly, evaluation by Octavia. And each evening the chimney mysterious acts up -- though Ames can find nothing wrong with it. It is suggested that the ghost of a British soldier of the Revolutionary Era is haunting the house. Ames' next crucial meeting is with Hezekiah, a lovely young woman who seems to have a full share of her Aunt's eccentric ways (Cecelia is more conventional). Hezekiah tells Ames that she and her (and Cecelia's) father have been banned from Aunt Octavia's house until Cecelia has been engaged to one of her suitors.

So there are a few mysteries: what is causing the chimney to occasionally act up -- could it really be a ghost? What are Octavia's intentions regarding Cecelia -- who seems to care for Hartley Wiggins but to be constrained to marry whoever Octavia -- by whatever arcane means -- decides is the right choice? What are Hezekiah's intentions, as she leads Ames on several merry chases. Ames makes enemies of most of Cecelia's suitors (they seem jealous of his status as an actual houseguest), and he also annoys his assistant, who is left in New York to handle the chimney business while Ames dawdles at Miss Hollister's. Mix in the pies Octavia is required to bake as a condition for keeping the house, the question of Hartley's unfortunate Tory ancestry, Bassford Hollister and his daughter Cecelia fencing on the roof, Cecelia's disappearing silver notebook, and at least two apparent ghosts who interfere with Ames' investigations ... It's really quite a delightful (if fairly silly) concoction. I enjoyed it a great deal: it runs along until it threatens to wear out its welcome, then things are wrapped up rapidly (and not too plausibly, but who really cares?)

This is, certainly, a minor work, and dated, and it may not appeal much to many contemporary readers. I don't think Nicholson really deserves a significant revival, nor is he likely to get one. But at least he succeeded, here, in entertaining the reader, the first goal, one hopes, of most writers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Old Bestseller: Washington Square, by Henry James

Old Bestseller: Washington Square, by Henry James

a review by Rich Horton

Again, this probably wasn't originally a bestseller, though that term was not well defined in 1881 when the first book edition of Washington Square appeared. But it has certainly sold a lot of copies over time!

I had been meaning to finally try Henry James for a little while, and I had even started The Aspern Papers but I manage to misplace my copy. I wanted to start with something short, and early, as by most accounts those are the more accessible books in James' oeuvre. James (1843-1916) published his first novel, Watch and Ward, in 1870. Roderick Hudson, in 1875, seems to be his earliest novel to retain a significant reputation, and the first really major works appeared a bit later: Daisy Miller and The Europeans in 1878, The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. James lived in Europe (mostly England) from 1875, though he seems to me centrally an American writer. Comparisons with his good friend, the much younger Edith Wharton, are easy to advance -- she too lived in Europe (France) for much of her life, but was quite essentially an American writer.

Washington Square was first published in 1880, serialized in Cornhill Magazine in England and Harper's in the US. It was published in book form in 1881 by Harper and Brothers. It remains one of his most popular novels with general readers, largely because of its relative accessibility (I think) -- it is very well written, but in a much less convoluted style than late James, it is quite funny (though not exactly a comic novel), and it is fairly short. (It is not, however, a novella (by my definition), even though it is often called one -- at some 65,000 words it's a respectable size for a novel, if on the short side.) It has also been well treated by the movies. A successful stage version, The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, ran on Broadway in 1947, and a movie version of the play was made in 1949 by William Wyler, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson. Much more recently, in 1997, a movie was made based directly on the novel, directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, and Maggie Smith. This later version is not so well regarded as the 1949 The Heiress, but it seems to have been decently done. Both versions seem moderately faithful to James' novel.

James himself disliked the novel in later years, and refused to include it in the New York Edition of his books.

But I, like many contemporary readers, liked it a lot. It's the story of Catherine Sloper, the daughter of a very rich and successful New York doctor, Austin Sloper. Dr. Sloper's wife died shortly after Catherine was born, and their only son also died as an infant. Dr. Sloper's foolish widowed sister lives with him, and she is charged with Catherine's education. Catherine's mother was a beautiful and intelligent woman, and perhaps for that reason, Dr. Sloper, though in most ways a dutiful enough father, never seems to take to Catherine -- he regards her as plain and dull. It's hard to be certain how much of that is Dr. Sloper's opinion, tarnished by unfair comparison with his dead wife, perhaps. That said, the narrator's third person omniscient voice seems to endorse, at least to some degree, this view of Catherine. But for all that she is a very honest person, and virtuous, and loving -- and by the end shows some real steel.

It is true that Catherine receives little attention from the men in her high society. By the time of the main action of the book (about 1846) she is twenty-one. At an engagement party for her cousin she meets a "beautiful" man, a distant cousin of her cousin's fiance. Morris Townsend is several years older than him, regarded as gifted, but somehow unable to find a job. He's back from some time spent overseas, apparently. And he pays distinct attention to her -- something she's not used to. Before long she is in love, and he says he is as well.

Dr. Sloper, however, is convinced that Townsend is a fortune hunter, and a lazy man who will never make anything of himself. After one meeting with Townsend, he's convinced he has his measure, and he sets himself against a marriage between him and Catherine. His lever is his fortune -- while Catherine will have $10,000 a year from her mother's estate, she stand to inherit twice that again from her father.

Over a period of several months things continue in this light. Catherine is firmly convinced that she loves Morris. She is just as sure that her father will remain unbending. Her Aunt Lavinia, a very silly and irresponsible woman, decides that she will be the fulcrum of a great love story, and dangerously abets Morris's attempts to see Catherine against her father's wishes. The thing is, we know all along that Dr. Sloper's estimate of Morris' character and intentions is exactly correct -- but Dr. Sloper, though basically in the right regarding Morris, puts himself so completely in the wrong in his approach to his daughter -- and in his lack of respect for her -- that he possibly cements her resolve. On the other hand, she proves to be a person of great character and resolve anyway -- perhaps she would have been fixed regardless, despite her inability to see through Morris Townsend.

After a trip to Europe proves insufficient to make Catherine forget Morris, things come to a head. Catherine is ready -- though unhappy -- to defy her father and marry Morris. Surely her $10,000 a year (equivalent to perhaps $200,000 today) will be sufficient for a comfortable existence, and, anyway, Morris has found a position. (Or so he says.) But Morris proves oddly reluctant to set a date, and finally throws her over.

And despite her final realization that Morris Townsend is thoroughly unworthy, Catherine never wavers. She refuses to promise her father that she will never marry him, even though she has no intention of ever doing so. And Dr. Sloper is sufficiently stubborn to hold to his vow to disinherit her. And she goes on to be a spinster her whole life -- despite, eventually, several proposals, one at least from a very worthy man. This can be read as a sad ending -- or it can be read as a woman of character standing her ground and living her own life to the extent that her talents -- and her social situation -- allow.

Most readers seem to view Dr. Sloper as the villain of the piece, but to me, despite his flaws and his clear misapprehension of his daughter's strengths, I sympathized with him. Morris Townsend -- and Aunt Lavinia -- seem more truly contemptible characters. All the characters -- but most particularly Catherine Sloper and her father -- are excellent portrayed. The prose is very fine, and as I said not so involved, not so fussy, as the prose (so I understand) of James' later works. And the novel is really quite gently, and sadly, funny. I liked it a good bit.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Another Old Ace Double: The Sun Smasher, by Edmond Hamilton/Starhaven, by “Ivar Jorgenson” (Robert Silverberg)

Ace Double Reviews, 99: The Sun Smasher, by Edmond Hamilton/Starhaven, by “Ivar Jorgenson” (Robert Silverberg) (#D351, 1959, 35 cents)

A review by Rich Horton


(cover by Ed Emshsiller)
This is a pair of Ace Doubles by two pretty big names in the field. Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) of course was an early legend of the field, mostly for his Space Opera, though he was also associated with Weird Tales, where his first story appeared. He wrote most of the Captain Future stories, and was a regular writer for DC Comics. And of course he was married to the great Leigh Brackett. Ivar Jorgenson is not necessarily so well known, until you realize that, in the case of this novel, he was Robert Silverberg, one of SF’s Grand Masters. (Jorgenson was a house name, but Silverberg used it quite often -- indeed, I asked him about his use of the Jorgenson name, and he explained this history in fascinating detail, given below.)
(cover by Ed Valigursky)

Each of these novels was published earlier in a single issue of a magazine, possibly (especially in the case of the Jorgenson novel) in shorter versions. The Sun Smasher appeared as “Starman Come Home” in the September 1954 Universe Science Fiction, while Starhaven appeared as “Thunder Over Starhaven” in Science Fiction Adventures for October 1957. (I suspect the Hamilton novel, which is the shorter of the two at about 30,000 words, probably is the same version as appeared in the magazine, but the “Jorgenson” story, some 40,000 words long or more, is expanded, as Silverberg discusses below.)

The covers of the magazine editions of these stories are something of a real delight, so I've reproduced them here. Thanks to bibliographer extraordinaire Phil Stephenson-Payne, and his exceptional site Galactic Central, for these images.

(cover by Barry Waldman)
I said Hamilton was best known for his Space Opera, and indeed he was nicknamed “The World Wrecker”. So The Sun Smasher seems a very appropriate title! And indeed it is Space Opera, though arranged to come to a slightly more thoughtful (if a bit too easily guessed) resolution than many such stories.

Neil Banning is a reasonably ordinary man working in New York City when he decides, on a whim, to visit his home town in Nebraska. But he is shocked when no one there remembers him or his parents, and his childhood home is gone – seemingly was never there. He is arrested, then rescued from jail by a man name Rolf who claims that Neil’s real name is Kyle Valkar, and he is the last remaining member of the line of Valkars, who ruled the Old Empire 90,000 years before. Earth is a forgotten world, and Rolf tells him that a villainous scientist of the usurping New Empire erased his memory and dumped him there. Soon Neil – or Kyle, though Neil refuses to believe Rolf’s story – is on his way to the ancient world where his family’s capitol had been.

Rolf’s plan is to kidnap Thoranya, the Empress, and to use her as a hostage to make the scientist Jommor restore Neil’s memory. Then Neil – or Kyle – will remember where to find “The Hammer”, a secret weapon which will allow him – and a small band of loyalists led by Rolf – to retake the throne.
(cover by Malcolm H. Smith)
The reader – and indeed Neil/Kyle – will have questions over who is really the good guy in this scenario. Indeed, the New Empire seems to be a fairly benign polity. And there are hints that Kyle’s past with Thoranya was marred by misbehavior on his part. And what is the Hammer anyway? And, 90000 years? Really? Anyway, the story proceeds as we might expect, if a little too rapidly, with Neil/Kyle returning to his home world, being accepted by the Valkar’s loyal spiderlike servant creatures, capturing an Empire ship and successfully kidnapping the beautiful red-haired Thoranya, leading to Neil regaining his memories. The Hammer is just what we guessed it might be (aided, to be sure, by the title of the novel and the cover illustration), and Kyle – or is he still Neil in part? – is driven to a crisis of conscience.

There are some good bits here, and some nice pieces of high-poetic pulp imagery, and the central issues is worthwhile to consider if a bit obvious. But the story is either too short (one never gets any sense of the real relationship between Thoranya, Jommor, and Kyle Valkar, or their history), or too long (a shorter story just focused on the central morality issue might have worked).

Starhaven is one of Robert Silverberg’s earliest novels. It was one of a rush of short novels that appeared between about 1957 and 1960, as part of his early prolific period, before his first “retirement” and later return with much more interesting and mature work. Silverberg’s early stories are reliably competent work, smoothly written, efficiently plotted, and often at least attempting to engage with interesting ideas, though usually a bit too rapidly and somewhat superficially. You can see him improving story by story, I think … and this book, as one of his earliest, is also one of his lesser novels.

I mentioned that I had asked Robert Silverberg about his use of the "Ivar Jorgenson" pseudonym, and about the history of "Thunder Over Starhaven"/Starhaven. His response is a fascinating look at some of the field's history. I’ll quote him at length, because I think this is all really cool stuff.


“Paul Fairman was the original Ivar Jorgensen, and note the spelling of the name, the Danish form ending in "-sen."  Fairman was a journeyman writer with no particular interest in SF, who did mainly western stories for the Ziff-Davis pulps.  When Howard Browne, a mystery writer who also had no particular interest in SF, replaced Ray Palmer as editor of the Z-D SF magazines in 1949, Fairman began to contribute stories to those as well.  In the summer of 1951 he had a novel in Z-D's Fantastic Adventures under the byline of "Ivar Jorgensen," quite a strong story, as I recall, and that issue ran a biography of Jorgensen, discussing his Scandinavian background and including a sketch of him as a slab-jawed two-fisted type (who looked nothing like Fairman.)  Fairman continued to contribute Jorgensen stories to Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures for a couple of years, then did a short stint as founding editor of If, and around 1955 came back to Ziff-Davis, where he eventually succeeded Browne as editor of the SF mags.

“In 1956 Bill Hamling, a former Z-D editor who had declined to follow Z-D from Chicago to New York and instead had begun his own SF magazines, decided to shift those magazines to the Ziff-Davis formula of pulp action fiction written to order by a small staff of pros.  Edmond Hamilton and Dwight V. Swain were the kingpins if this staff, and Randall Garrett and I, who were already part of Browne's Ziff-Davis stable, were hired to contribute 50,000 words a month of short fiction.  Hamling stuck whatever pseudonyms he felt like on these stories, mainly old Ziff-Davis house names, and in the mistaken notion that Jorgensen was a house name put that byline on some of our stuff, in one case spelling the byline "-sen" on the contents page and "-son" on the story itself.

Also in 1956 Larry T. Shaw, who was editing the excellent new magazine Infinity, launched a space-opera magazine called Science Fiction Adventures, with stories modeled after the old  Planet Stories.  There would be two novellas per issue plus a few short stories.  Though he was open to free-lance submissions, and bought some novellas by Jim Blish, Harry Harrison, and John Brunner, the bulk of the magazine was staff-written by the ubiquitous me.  I had at least one long story in almost every issue, sometimes more.


“When Shaw's Science Fiction Adventures had been going for a year or so, he decided to vary the two-novella formula by putting out an issue that contained one 40,000-word story, and commissioned me to write it.  I gave him “Shadow on the Stars”, later published by Ace as Stepsons of Terra.  "Thunder Over Starhaven", however, was one of the shorter novellas (28,000 words).  I thought that Ivar Jorgensen was a house name that anybody could use, and stuck that byline on it.  Shaw used the "-son" spelling.  At this point Paul Fairman, who had already voiced his annoyance at Hamling's appropriation of what had been his exclusive penname, complained more strongly, both to Shaw and to me.  But the damage was done -- Jorgensen/Jorgenson no longer could be considered Fairman's property alone.

“During those prolific years I was also writing space-opera novels for Don Wollheim's Ace Books. Since "Thunder Over Starhaven" struck me as pretty much the same sort of thing I had been writing for him, I fattened it up and submitted it to him.  To my surprise Wollheim rejected it.  I don't think I ever knew why; it was the only book of mine he ever turned down.  The only other plausible markets then were Ballantine and Doubleday, neither of which would be interested in space opera, and so I salvaged the project by selling it to bottom-feeder Avalon Books, edited by my friend Bob Lowndes, for an advance of $350.  (Ace then paid $1000.)  He called it simply Starhaven and published it as by Ivar Jorgenson.  Avalon then amazed me by turning around and selling reprint rights to....Don Wollheim. Again, I never understood what had happened here, since he had rejected the book only a year before, but in the course of this fast shuffle I lost $150, Avalon keeping fifty percent of Ace's thousand bucks, netting me $500 plus the $350 Avalon advance.

“I never wrote as Jorgensen again.  Fairman did, and had three or four paperbacks published under that name, which are occasionally proffered to me for autographs at worldcons.  I don't sign them.”

[Back to my review.]
Johnny Mantell is a former armaments engineer who, frustrated by the failure of his company to support his ambitious designs, lost his job and turned to drink, and ended up a beachcomber living a subsistence life on a tourist planet. One day a tourist accuses him of stealing some jewelry, and one thing leads to another and the tourist ends up dead, and Johnny is on the run. He heads for Starhaven, an armored planet where criminals are welcome, and the Space Patrol is not.

Once there he meets the leader of Starhaven, Ben Thurdan, who rules as a somewhat benevolent tyrant, with only two rules: expect to be treated the way you treat others, and always obey Ben Thurdan. He is also intrigued by Myra Butler, Thurdan’s secretary and perhaps girlfriend. Johnny is happy to be back doing productive work, but he is not sure how he feels about Ben’s rule, especially when Ben kills a man who challenges him. But what can he do? He’s a wanted man in the rest of space. And this is a pleasant place, especially when you consider the alluring Myra.

Complications include his mysterious flashbacks which seem to suggest his memories may not be quite reliable – did something happen when he was psychprobed by Ben’s people? And is Ben’s rule really the best thing for Starhaven? And then Myra hints that some people have a different idea …
There is a twist or two on the way, and the twists are nicely handled. The political speculation isn’t really as effective, though. The scientific background is pretty silly, and Starhaven as a physical object doesn’t make much sense. It’s definitely a pretty minor piece of Silverberg’s oeuvre … but, as I’ve come to expect even from his earliest stuff, acceptable entertainment, competent work.


(And my next Ace Double review will be my 100th!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Another Old SF Collection: Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam, Jr.



Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam, Jr.

This time I’m looking at another obscure collection of Science Fiction stories. This book, as its title makes abundantly clear, was aimed at young readers. It is one of two collections of stories, and several novels, that Richard M. Elam, Jr., published in the 1950s and 1960s. He had a long life: born in 1920 in Richmond, VA, died in 2013, age 92, in Dallas, TX; was educated at William and Mary University and at Arizona State; and served in the Army Air Corp in the Second World War.


Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories was first published in 1952 by the Lantern Press, and reissued in 1954 by Grosset & Dunlap as part of The Teen-Age Library. There were later editions, possibly in paperback, from Lantern Press. There are a number of black and white illustrations by Charles H. Geer. The book contains an introduction by Captain Burr Lawson, “Trail to the Stars”, which discusses the near term prospects of space exploration, reasonably sensibly though with just a bit too much optimism (I can say with hindsight). The stories are:

“What Time is It?” (6400 words)
“The Strange Men” (3200 words)
“Project Ocean Floor” (4000 words)
“Lunar Trap” (10300 words)
“Red Sands” (3700 words)
“The Iron Moon” (5500 words)
“Venusway” (3700 words)
“By Jupiter” (3600 words)
“Sol’s Little Brother” (3200 words)
“The Day the Flag Fell” (2700 words)
“Hands Across the Deep” (4300 words)

At least one of the stories (“Lunar Trap”) and I suspect a few more, were originally published in Boy’s Life.

Six stories in the middle, from “Lunar Trap” through “Sol’s Little Brother”, cover much of the career of Rob Allison. In the first story, he is part of an expedition to the Moon, despite the objections of the expedition’s leader, his much older brother Grant. The elder Allison is pretty hard on the younger one, and partly as punishment, Rob is left behind when the bulk of the expedition investigates a Lunar geyser … giving him the opportunity for heroism when a moonquake traps the explorers. A similar template applies to some of the other stories: Rob, making his way in the space service, is in trouble after a minor mistake, and partly as a result is in position for a more major heroic act. The Allison stories form a sort of Solar System mini-travelogue, with trips to the Moon, Mars, an artificial satellite, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury. The scientific details are a mix of OK for their time (things like dinosaurs on Venus – silly now, but perhaps not ridiculous in 1952) and downright silly and wrong. There’s a subplot in a couple of the stories involving a slightly older and very resentful fellow space cadet. 

The other stories are something of a piece. “What Time is It?” involves a couple of very young boys (they seemed perhaps 12 but maybe Elam meant for them to be in high school) accidentally going on a trip in a local inventor’s Time Machine: they visit the Pleistocene, the near past with Native Americans, and the near future before returning. “The Strange Men” is about three boys who happen across an alien spaceship and some malevolent aliens. “Project Ocean Floor” is one of the lesser stories, a kind of nothing piece about exploring the depths in a bathyscaphe-like vessel. “The Day the Flag Fell” is set on an asteroid used unconvincingly as a monitor station to keep the world peace, and an effort by a nasty national power to destroy the UN station on the asteroid and so take over the world, foiled by the heroism of a young soldier who has been suspected of treason (because his stepfather is a traitor.) And finally “Hands Across the Deep” concerns a mission to Proxima Centauri, where humans discover peaceful advanced aliens with mind powers but little tech, who threaten to kill them until they can cure a sick young Proxima native. 

This is a pretty weak set of stories overall, even in the context of early 50s Juvenile SF. The science is dodgy, the plots are at best rudimentary, the writing is uninspiring. Not good at all, though who knows, maybe I’d have felt differently if I encountered them at age 10.