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 stands 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.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Old non-Bestseller: Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton

Old non-Bestseller: Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton

a review by Rich Horton

OK, this wasn't really a bestseller. And it's not -- anymore -- a Forgotten Book, either, though I suppose it was perhaps kind of forgotten for some time. I was put on to it by a brief mention in one of my favorite book blogs, Furrowed Middlebrow; but, as Scott mentions there, it has been recently celebrated in quite a few book blogs, starting perhaps with Stuck in a Book. To the point that I feel in danger of cliche by mentioning it in MY book blog.

Apparently, nobody knows for sure who Diana Tutton was. Wikipedia suggests a woman born with a triple-barreled name: Diana Cicely Godfrey-Faussett-Osborne, whose married name was Tutton. But apparently there's not further information -- there is a plaintive request somewhere for the copyright holder for Guard Your Daughters. Tutton wrote three novels: Guard Your Daughters was the first, in 1953, followed by Mamma in 1955 and The Young Ones in 1959. The latter two seem edgier -- Mamma is about an older woman's affair with her son-in-law, and The Young Ones is about incest. Guard Your Daughters has a serious undertone, mostly towards the end, but it's mostly rather bouncy and eccentric. It is inevitably compared to I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, which I read and enjoyed greatly several years ago, though to me, while the similarities are obvious enough, the overall feel is different.

Like everyone else, it seems, I have the 1954 edition from the Reprint Society. (The first edition came out from Chatto and Windus.) I was not able to find a picture of the first edition, so here's the Reprint Society cover.

The narrator is Morgan Harvey, a 19 year old girl living in a 17th Century house in rural England. She is the third of five sisters. The eldest, Pandora, has recently married. Next is Thisbe, an aspiring poet. Morgan plays the piano. Cressida is 18, and much more conventional than her sisters: she's the best cook, and the only one overly concerned with propriety and with how everyone else sees them. And Teresa is 15, with no education but what she has learned from wide reading of obscure books such as The Courtier, a 16th Century Italian book by Baldassare Castiglione.

The girls live an almost isolated life. Their father is a very successful mystery writer, and their mother is apparently mentally frail, unable to go out in public, nor to tolerate much company. They are almost never allowed visitors, especially not young men, nor do they travel. But their life is quite happy, it seems, despite some privations caused by a certain care they take with money (despite their father's success) and, perhaps, by wartime or postwar rationing. They tiptoe around their mother's moods, but otherwise quite enjoy themselves, their interests, and their own company. But they do wish they might occasionally meet a young man ... (The obligatory reference to Pride and Prejudice is indeed made.)

So the story is driven, to a small extent, by what happens when they fortuitously encounter a couple of different men: first Gregory, whose car happens to break down in front of the Harvey house; and later Patrick, a writer, who shows some interest in Mr. Harvey ... which ends up being a problem. Morgan seems to take a proprietary interest in Gregory, and eventually Thisbe in Patrick -- but Mr. Harvey takes against both, for different reasons, and Mrs. Harvey is upset by almost anyone's presence.

So it seems perhaps to be a story about how the Harvey girls find husbands -- Pride and Prejudice, indeed! But that doesn't really eventuate. The center of the story is the Harvey family. There is an ongoing thread of interest, for the reader, in finding out what's really wrong with Mrs. Harvey. And there is constant delight in the interactions of the girls: in their witty exchanges, in their delight in their constricted life, in their evident love for each other. There is also a darker side: they really are unfairly hemmed in by their parents' rules; and they can also be a bit mean, a bit petty, particularly to Cressida, but also to some of their neighbors.

The story bounces along quite enjoyably. Morgan's voice is refreshing and open; there are any number of silly and funny incidents: Teresa's aborted French lesson; Morgan and Thisbe at Patrick's posh cousins' party; improvised poetry sessions; improvised dinners for guests. The resolution, however, is a bit darker: provoked by a family crisis that drives Mrs. Harvey over the edge, and for a time the story threatens to curdle. The upshot is not a tragedy, though, but a perhaps long overdue realization that the Harvey situation is not healthy, and that for the sake of not just the girls but the parents radical changes need to be made. The outcome is a bit bittersweet, but sensible.

This is, finally, a very fun novel, leavened by some real honesty, and by an understanding that the frothy exterior present for the first 2/3 or so of the book is not sustainable: indeed, artificial. We don't really know how things will turn out in the long term for the Harvey's, though probably mostly OK. (And, after all, their problems are decidedly "first world problems".) It is, really, a book that I think deserves its recent bump in reputation.