Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of L. Sprague de Camp

For the third straight day I can commemorate the birth of a major Golden Age SF writer (or just post Golden Age, I suppose, in the case of Poul Anderson.) Two days ago it was Anderson, yesterday Frederik Pohl, and today L. Sprague de Camp. All three were named Grand Masters by the SFWA. Here then is a shorter than usual compendium of things I've written about L. Sprague de Camp's short fiction, in this case all from the 1950s.

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1951

(Cover by Bob Pepper)
But first, the best known writer and best known story in this issue, L. Sprague de Camp's "The Continent Makers". It's listed by the magazine as a "Complete Novel", which was often a gross exaggeration in pulps of this day, but it should be said that some of the pulps, the Standard Group notable among them, really did publish full length novels in single issues, up to 60,000 words. "The Continent Makers" is a bit shy of the Hugo and Nebula definition of "Novel" (40,000 words), but it's plenty long enough that it might have been published alone in book form, or as an Ace Double half. However, it was instead chosen as the title story of a collection of Viagens Interplanetarias stories first published in 1953, and perhaps for that reason, it's never seemed to me to get as much notice as some de Camp's other work in that series.

Lyon Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) was one of the great SF writers of the "Modern Science Fiction" period -- that is, of John Campbell's birthing, as it were. He was named a Grand Master in 1979. De Camp actually first appeared in Astounding in September 1937, the last issue before Campbell took over, but he quickly became popular working for Campbell, in both Astounding and Unknown, often in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt. His most famous collaborations with Pratt were the Harold Shea "Incomplete Enchanter" stories, and in fact the first two of those are among this years Retro-Hugo nominees. De Camp wrote several extended series -- the Shea stories, the Gavagan's Bar tales, and many more, but his most extended and arguably most popular series is a future history called Viagens Interplanetarias, set in a future dominated by the Brazilians, where Earth has ventured to a number of nearby star systems using only slower than light travel. De Camp wrote in this series to the very end of his career: his second to last novel, The Venom Trees of Sunga (1992) is a Viagens Interplanetarias story.

Many of his VI stories concerned the planet Krishna. The natives are egg-laying and have antennae, but otherwise are remarkably human appearing and in fact most of the stories concern at some level sexual attraction between humans and Krishnans. Krishna's technology is a couple of centuries behind Earth's, and politically they are divided into a variety of often warring states with differing political philosophies -- a lot like Earth, that is, except that by the time of de Camp's stories there is a fairly strong world government.

"The Continent Makers" is sort of a Krishna story, in that two of the main characters are from Krishna, but they are visiting Earth. They are Jeru-Bhetiru and her fiance, Varnipaz bad-Savarum, who is studying Earth law in order to help him in his role as essentially Attorney General for a small nation on Krishna. The main human character is physicist Gordon Graham, who is asked to escort Jeru-Bhetiru, or "Betty", around town while her fiance is away. Graham, of course, falls for the beautiful and habitually underdressed (by Earth standards) Betty immediately, and she seems to return the attraction, which is embarrassing when Varnipaz turns up. All is fine, though, as the Krishnans explain that marriage is purely a practical arrangement, having nothing to do with love, and anyway humans and Krishnans aren't interfertile so where's the harm?

This is really side issue to the main action, which begins more or less immediately with an attack on Graham. He and an unexpected ally, a World Federation cop, fight off the attack and Graham soon learns that the whole things has to do with a plot involving a project Graham has been assisting. There is a plan to set off some bombs under the ocean, causing a release of sufficient magma to form a new continent. This will help with the population on Earth (I shudder to think of the ecological consequences if such a thing could actually be done!), but it seems that the real estate laws (as Varnipaz is happy to explain) mean that the timing of the formation of the new continent is critical. A couple of alien races and some greedy humans have plans to profit by starting the process early. Graham and the cop, along with the brave Krishnans, run around for awhile figuring all this out, then go sailing off to an island at the center of the planned new continent, to foil the bad guys. It's all a bit strained, but that's not the point. It's a pretty fun romp most of the way, with lots of off the cuff grace notes like the "Churchillian Society", which attempts to prove that George Bernard Shaw could not possibly have written the plays attributed to him -- the real author must have been Winston Churchill.

Universe, December 1953

There are nine stories, two of them novelettes. First up is L. Sprague de Camp's "The Hungry Hercynian" (9500 words), the second of four stories he published about Gezun, a sort of comic version of Conan. This story is about a beautiful slave girl who is desired by three individuals (or maybe four): Lord Noish, who has promised her to the title Hercynian sorcerer in payment for help in eliminating a political rival, Derezong, an aging sorcerer who simply wants a biddable concubine, and of course Gezun (the Gadairan), a powerful but perhaps not exactly brilliant young man. Derezong buys her fair and square, but Gezun chivalrously frees her -- only to find that she might not value freedom and his vigorous young charms as much as she enjoys Derezong's less urgent desires and his comfortable home. Meanwhile Noish has a more sinister fate planned. It's pleasant light comedy, nothing special.

Future #28

The last story is a long short story, "Cornzan the Mighty" by L. Sprague de Camp, at 7500 words something that would surely have been labeled a novelette in most of Lowndes' publications. It's a humorous and cynical take on TV production. In this story the actors take a drug that makes them susceptible to suggestion, and they are imprinted to believe that they are really their characters. The "hero" is a writer, in love with the leading lady, who gets in trouble when an artificially enhanced snake threatens to kill some of the production crew after the lead actor mistakenly gets imprinted with Macbeth instead of the Tarzan-like character he's supposed to be. Hilarity ensues, followed by a cynical ending. Minor stuff, but well enough done -- de Camp at less than middle range, but still professional.

Galaxy, July 1955

The other novelet is L. Sprague de Camp's "Property of Venus" (7000 words), a fairly silly but mildly amusing story about a trio of avid gardeners who unwisely buy some seeds smuggled in from Venus. Of course, the Venerian plants have some unexpected properties. Again, minor.

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