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.