The Other Nineteenth Century, by Avram Davidson
a review by Rich Horton
A little while ago, for Avram Davidson's birthday, I posted a "review" I had done of this book for my blog, almost two decades ago. It was a carelessly tossed-off piece, arguably OK for a blog post (though still wrongheaded as I have found!), but I never should have reposted it.
I got some criticism, gentle and very fair. And I thought, "Rereading Avram Davidson is never a bad thing! Why not reread the book!" And so I have.
Anyway, to the burden of my new review. The Other Nineteenth Century was the third Davidson collection in four years to come from St. Martins or Tor, after The Avram Davidson Treasury and The Investigations of Avram Davidson, so in a sense it was picking through leftovers, especially as all three books mostly skirted his two acclaimed short story series, the Eszterhazy and Limekiller stories. (This book does include a later and rather short Eszterhazy piece, and one story that appeared in the Treasury.) But the richness of Davidson's catalogue is thus revealed -- even with that constraint, and with the thematic constraint of choosing pieces that at least vaguely suggest the 19th Century, the book is worthwhile throughout, and includes a few pieces that stand among his very best stories.
For example, "Dragon Skin Drum", which I prefer to his slightly better known story of post-War China, "Dagon". "Dragon Skin Drum" is told from the viewpoint of an earnest and naive soldier, who visits a restaurant in the Forbidden City in the company of his more rough-edged friend, Gunnery Sergeant Jackson. Howard tries out his knowledge of Chinese, and tries to understand the local guides/interpreters he must hire, and puts up with Jackson's crudeness, and hears the story of the title drum ... and we learn a bit about these two characters (Jackson not surprisingly the savvier), and about this particular time, right as Mao is marching.
Also, "The Montavarde Camera", a really effective biter bit piece about a man who buys a camera from one of those mysterious little shops you can never find again. The camera has a sinister background -- people whose pictures are taken tend to die soon. And the man has a nagging wife ... We see where this is going, and it gets there just right.
Certainly among the best of Davidson's late stories is "El Vilvoy de las Islas". Many have noticed that his style grew more mannered, more prolix, late in his life. Sometimes this habit was taken to excess, but sometimes it worked, as here. The narrator seems to be the author himself, on a trip through South America. Feeling too tired to continue, he stops in a country called Ereguay, and eventually hears the story of "El Vilvoy" -- a young man from the Islas Encantadas, who, visiting the mainland, saves a woman from an attack, and becomes a sensation for a while. It eventuates that he and his family, on a nearly deserted small isle, live a simple life ... but there are mysteries. And so Davidson wanders through various newspaper accounts, oral stories, and so on, letting us piece together the story of the "Wild Boy".
"What Strange Stars and Skies" has been a favorite of mine for a long time -- telling of a Dame Philippa, who does charity work in the slums of London, and when ministering to the poor near a sailor's house, encounters a very curious press gang. The last line is wonderful.
I first encountered "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" in this book, and it delighted and moved me -- it's about a Quaker couple, the wife hardworking and only just tolerant of her husband's dreams ... one of which is to see the elephant that a traveling showman advertises. In the end, the husband does get to see ... well, if not an elephant something quite wonderful anyway, it seems to me.
I don't perhaps have time to discuss every story. Many turn on portraying a reasonably well known historical incident, or set of characters, from a slant -- and letting the reader figure out what's really going on. Davidson also delights in Alternate History, such as "O Brave Old World!", about the radically different history of America had Frederick of Hanover survived and moved to the Colonies; or "Pebble in Time" (with Cynthia Goldstone) in which a Mormon travels back in time to witness Brigham Young reaching the Salt Lake and unexpectedly changes history, leading to a different 1960s in San Francisco (though concluding with a labored pun that doesn't land as easily now as it might have when first published.) The stories are a mix of historical fiction, mystery, and SF/F, from a very wide range of sources. The editors and a couple more people contribute short afterwords, rather a mixed bag -- some add intriguing detail (including, in one case, Davidson's editorial interaction with Robert P. Mills), others, alas, rather clumsily step on the subtle point Davidson is reaching for.
Finally I need to address a quite odd posthumous collaboration that closes the book, "Mickelrede", put together by Michael Swanwick from a set of notes that Davidson left for an unfinished novel begun in the early '60s. In my previous review, I was very dismissive of the story, which I really failed to understand. Honestly, I'm ashamed, because actually it's not that difficult to follow. It helps somewhat to get the context right -- now I can see that the notes really do look like they might plausibly have become a novel very much in the mode Davidson was using for his earliest short novels, such as Masters of the Maze. The novel involves a contemporary academic thrust into another world (possibly the future) to serve in some sort of combat games, and also to deal with the Green King and the holy Mickelrede, a sacred object that seems to be a slide rule. There is a woman involved, of course, and Swanwick advances some alternate plot points, such as changing the slide rule to a Difference Engine, and the woman to Ada Lovelace. Davidson's novels, at this point in his career, were not his best work, and I can imagine well enough the novel which might have resulted, which would have been enjoyable but not great (sort of a better written Ken Bulmer, for those who remember Bulmer) -- the possibility of a later true collaboration between Swanwick and Davidson, incorporating Swanwick's ideas, is intriguing but likely would not have been the best use of either authors talents -- though who knows? The prose in this fragment seems more Swanwick than Davidson, but that's hardly a complaint, and there certainly are hints of Davidson as well.