Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another Obscure Ace Double: The Green Queen, by Margaret St. Clair/Three Thousand Years, by Thomas Calvert McClary

Ace Double Reviews, 109: The Green Queen, by Margaret St. Clair/Three Thousand Years, by Thomas Calvert McClary (#D-176, 1956, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another Ace Double featuring a Margaret St. Clair novel, the third such I have read. The flip side is the only Ace Double by Thomas Calvert McClary. There is one more St. Clair Ace Double to come, which might be more expensive, as it's backed with a Philip Dick title. (Indeed, the cheapest copy of Agent of the Unknown/The World Jones Made is about $16 at AbeBooks.)

I wrote before about Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) as follows: "she was one of the more noticeable early women writers of SF, but somehow her profile was a bit lower than those of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton. Perhaps it was simply that those writers did just a bit more, and were just a bit better (taken as a whole) than her, but it does seem that she's not quite as well remembered as perhaps she deserves. One contributing factor is that she wrote some of her very best stories pseudonymously, as "Idris Seabright". 20 or so of her 50+ short stories were as by Seabright, including some of the very best (such as "Short in the Chest" and "An Egg a Month from All Over"). She also wrote 8 novels (four of them published as Ace Double halves). Her career in SF stretched from 1946 to 1981. Her husband, Eric St. Clair, was also a writer (of children's books), and the two became Wiccans more or less when the Wiccan movement started."

I noted at that time that it seemed to me based on the two I had read by then that her novels were significantly weaker than her short fiction, and The Green Queen does nothing to change that impression. John Clute is kinder than I am in his Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on St. Clair, and he does make her first novel (Agent of the Unknown) sound quite interesting. He also notes that St. Clair's work tends to exhibit "a singularly claustrophobic pessimism", and that is true, I think. The problem is that the interesting ideas and the refusal to bow to conventional pulp-era ideas about problem solving and heroic resolution are obscured by the occasional silliness of the plotting and of the scientific notions.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

The Green Queen was originally published as "Mistress of Viridis" in the March 1955 issue of Universe. I haven't seen that version: it may be the same as the Ace Double, but I suspect the book version is somewhat expanded. The story is narrated to a Terran scientist by a man named Bonnar, as the planet Viridis is in a state of chaos.

Bonnar is a maskmaker, but the masks are obsolete. And the barrier between the city where the human colonists live and the radioactive surface of the planet is down. What are the masks? They seem to be a way to make their wearers see something different than the true world they live in. These are widely used to pacify the "Lowers", who live miserable short lives in the under parts of the City. Bonnar's latest mask had been in support of a myth of the Green Queen, who would find a special tree and, well, save the world. This seems to have had unusual power among the lowers.

(Cover by Virgil Finlay)
The ruling cabal hatches a plan to create a "Green Queen" to help better control the restless Lowers. And the woman they choose is Leaf, who happens to be, for a time, Bonnar's lover. He is ordered to break up with her, and he does ... and she does, under secret urging, begin to believe she is the Green Queen. But, strangely, her powers seem to be real. And she becomes increasingly popular. This is too much for the rulers -- and for Bonnar, who is insanely jealous of Leaf. They create a rival Queen, using a much less intelligent woman and some tech to imitate her powers.

There is a fair amount of political maneuvering, and a trip to the strangely abandoned human cities on the unprotected surface of the planet, and plots and counterplots, leading to a curious climax in which Leaf orders the city's barrier struck down, and flies to the "tree" that the prophecies said the Queen must visit -- and the true secret of the original Queen of Viridis is revealed. There is a ton of potential here, really, but I don't think St. Clair's execution quite matched the ideas. A strong rewrite, and I think this could have been pretty good, but as it is, it's kind of a mess.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
But, not as much of a mess as Thomas Calvert McClary's Three Thousand Years. This was originally serialized (with an exclamation point in the title) in Astounding very early in John Campbell's editorial tenure, in the April through June 1938 issues. Indeed, this was the first serial published solely in Campbell's issues.  I do wonder if the novel was not actually purchased by Campbell's predecessor, F. Orlin Tremaine, who had purchased McClary's previous novel, Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot, which was in Astounding in 1934. (That said, Campbell certainly bought McClary's third and last novel in the field, The Tommyknocker, which was serialized in Unknown in 1940.)

Thomas Calvert McClary (1909-1972) wrote primarily Westerns, but he did publish those three novels and several short stories (many as by Calvin Peregoy) in the SF magazines, the latest story appearing in 1958. Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot had book publication in 1944 from Bart House, and the book version of Three Thousand Years was published by Fantasy Press in 1954, with this Ace Double version following two years later. The book is definitely revised from the serial, as a few mentions of the events of the Second World War are made.

(Cover by Howard V. Brown)
The story is ostensibly recorded by a huge computer invented by a scientist named Simon Gamble. It tells of the rivalry between Gamble and his boss, a ruthless businessman name Vincent Drega. Gamble believes all problems can be solved with science, and he has invented magic foods and clothes and metals and atomic power. Drega has suppressed these inventions because he believes they will ruin the economy, and that man can't live properly without the motivation of money. Both are aware that the world is in danger of imminent war, which will be terrible because of the horrible weapons that have been created.

The viewpoint character for the bulk of the story is a newspaperman named Lucky Flagherty. His girlfriend, the Lovelorn columnist, is named of all things Lulu Belle. Lucky has sold a story warning of the upcoming war -- and riots have ensued, when, all of a sudden, he comes to new consciousness, naked, filthy, with long hair and fingernails. What can have happened? Soon it is clear that some 3000 years have passed -- Simon Gamble, trying to avert world catastrophe, had put everyone in suspended animation.

Most people die (the suspension was only supposed to last a few decades, but Gamble miscalculated), but there are plenty of survivors. Lucky, along with Lulu Belle and his editor and others, ends up joining a group led vigorously by Drega. They begin to reestablish a society, under Drega's rule. Apparently all iron (but not other metal) has been destroyed by Gamble's efforts, but with the help of some elephants, and some fishing, things begin to improve, and they fight off the cannibals ... and then Gamble returns, with his carefully preserved magic tech. He offers these wonders to all who will accept living under his technocratic lead.

Drega refuses, and he sets up his colony in New Jersey, while Gamble stays in Manhattan. There are other groups of survivors throughout the world. Gamble is able to feed and cloth his people, but he runs into trouble. For one thing, he is unable to trade with the other groups because he has no concept of money. For another thing, his tech is based on an entire industrial base, and he finds it very hard to build that from scratch. And, finally, it turns out people really don't adapt well to a life of pure ease. So Drega emerges triumphant in the end.

That makes it seem like a philosophical novel -- which it is, to a great extent, if a very simplistic one, and one in which the author's finger is rather heavily on the scales. But that aspect is harmed, not just by the deck-stacking, but by the silliness of the scientific concepts, and by the crudeness of the prose, and of the characters. (And by the absurd sexism.) I was really very bored, and often very annoyed. This is a pretty awful novel.


  1. "Perhaps it was simply that those writers did just a bit more, and were just a bit better (taken as a whole) than her, but it does seem that she's not quite as well remembered as perhaps she deserves." I agree, still, with the final clause in that sentence, and still strenuously disagree with the rest of the sentence...thinking as I do that St. Clair is on par with Brackett and Moore, and rather better than Norton.

  2. I still have to say I rank Brackett and Moore ahead of St. Clair, though I haven't read, say, Agent of the Unknown. Norton -- sure -- Norton was not as good a writer but she was much more prolific, and more influential, at least on young readers.

  3. I think St. Clair's influence might've been stronger than you think...she was a feminist voice writing in fantasy, sf, horror and crime fiction at least in her career, and even her "entertainments" (to borrow Greene's phrase) are imbued with that sensibility and an often haunting effect...not a resonance I get off Norton much, even her adult work. Brackett's work, too, is more diverse than she's often given credit for, and I think she would've been very much more condescended to if she hadn't had her screenwriting career...St. Clair was publishing Oona and Jik stories in the Thrilling Group magazines when Brackett was still the dominant and best writer in PLANET...and both are too often disregarded...ah, well...I will not make any case for her novels, since I still need to read my copies of those I have, but I don't prize novels ahead of short fiction, either, and never have understood why anyone would.

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