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.