My life in outer space

Archive for March, 2014

Tales of Science and Sorcery – Clark Ashton Smith (1964)

Tales of Science and Sorcery

‘GHOULISH TALES OF WEIRD FANTASY AND SHEER HORROR BY THE MASTER OF THE MACABRE

‘A universe of remote and paralysing fright – jungles of poisonous and iridescent blossoms on the moons of Saturn, evil and grotesque temples in forgotten elder world and dark morasses of spotted death-fungi in spectral countries beyond earth’s rim. Who else has seen such gorgeous luxuriant and feverishly distorted visions and lived to tell the tale?’ – HP Lovecraft’
The Blurb to the Panther 1976 edition

Although this collection was published in 1964, the earliest stories date from 1932, and cover a period of nearly thirty years. Sadly, there are no poisonous and iridescent blossoms on the moons of Saturn, though there is – in ‘The Seed From the Sepulcher’ and ‘The Tomb-Spawn’ – a forgotten evil and grotesque temple.
The stories comprise of :-
‘Master of the Asteroid’ (1932)
‘The Seed from the Sepulcher’ (1933)
‘The Root of Ampoi’ (1949)
‘The Immortals of Mercury’ (1932)
‘Murder in the Fourth Dimension’ (1930)
‘Seedling of Mars’ aka ‘The Planet Entity’ (1931)
‘The Maker of Gargoyles’ (1932)
‘The Great God Awto’ (1939)
‘Mother of Toads’ (1938)
‘The Tomb-Spawn’ (1934)
‘Schizoid Creator’ (1953)
‘Symposium of The Gorgon’ (1958)
‘The Theft of The Thirty-nine Girdles’ aka ‘The Power of Hyperborea’ (1958)
‘Morthylla’ (1953)

This is a very mixed bag, combining Smith’s early SF (of which ‘The Immortals of Mercury’ is the best example here) with his Lovecraft-esque horror (‘Seed from the Sepulchre’ and ‘The Tomb-Spawn’) as well as his ‘Averoigne’ fantasies of medieval France (‘Mother of Toads’ and ‘The Maker of Gargoyles’)
The pieces sit uneasily with each other, not only because of the difference in genre but the difference in quality. A lot of these are not by any means Smith’s best work, and are seen out of context of larger bodies of work set in the same fictional universe, such as his ‘Zothique’ ‘Averoigne’ and ‘Hyperborea’ sequences, which are represented here in isolated low-grade segments.
‘Seed from the Sepulchre’ is probably the best story in this collection, published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1933.


Message from The Eocene – Margaret St Clair (1964)

eocene

‘Was Earth ready for knowledge from the stars?

LEGACY OF A LOST RACE
His name was Tharg, but he was not of any life form we know today. He lived so long ago that the planet Earth had not yet shaped itself. Lava seas roiled and churned, volcanoes spouted and grew, and heavy clouds hung in the hydrogen atmosphere, leaving the planet’s surface dark and dangerous.

On that world Tharg met his death, or something very much like it. He became a disembodied, totally nonphysical intelligence, cut off from all contact with the life he had known. He ‘slept’ for hundreds of millions of years, unconnected with the world, unthinking, hardly existing.

But then he began to awake – for there was a new life on Earth, creatures called ‘human,’ and Tharg, knowing an ancient promise from the stars, had to tell them of it. But… how?

Margaret St. Clair has had her stories published in such leading magazines as Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Esquire etc, and a good many of them have found their way into anthologies here and abroad. As often as not, she is likely to be using the pseudonym of Idris Seabright for a by-line.
A resident of Richmond, California, she is the wife of the well-known writer of children’s stories, Eric St. Clair. Typical of science fiction personalities, she lists a great many interests among her hobbies, and includes among them such varieties as sports cars, amateur astronomy, cooking, classical antiquity, gem cutting, and mandolin playing.’

Blurb from the 1964 M-105 Ace Doubles edition.

Eons before life emerged on Earth, the Vaeeans, an inimical alien race, took members of an intelligent race from their home planet and left them on Earth to fend for themselves.
Tharg has been charged with the task of transporting an important package across the planet. This is an ellipsoid which contains an important book. Tharg, finding himself pursued by the Vaeeans, opens the capsule and reads some of the book.
He is then captured and interrogated. The book it seems is a work of philosophical and mental enlightenment. The Vaeeans aim to destroy it but Tharg manages to grab the ellipsoid and throw it into a volcano before he himself dies.
As it turns out, Tharg does not die, but remains as an incorporeal entity. Meanwhile the Vaeeans set up an unmanned base on Pluto which contains a deflective device designed to prevent any more ‘books’ entering the system.
Tharg remains bound to the planet until, millions of years later, a new intelligent race emerges; humans.
Tharg makes it his mission to make contact with them so that they may find the book and release him.
In 19th Century America, he centres himself around a large house owned by The Proctors, a Quaker family, but his efforts at communication only give rise to the house being labelled as ‘haunted by an evil spirit’. Much later, he finds himself attuned to a young lady with special ESP gifts and manages to plant a message in her mind, since the book is buried very near a mine where her fiance is working.
The book is discovered but its long confinement has left it prone to oxidisation and it spontaneously combusts once the capsule is opened.
Tharg’s last chance is to outwit the machine which the Vaeeans left on Pluto, since the human race is receiving mental signals that the books will soon be delivered to Earth.
Tharg realises that by diffusing his consciousness through the world he can confuse the machine and temporarily turn it off.
It’s in some ways a very odd novel and its three sections do not sit easily together. We never learn why the Vaeeans brought Tharg’s people to Earth, or where the books are coming from.
There are obvious pseudoreligious elements, as when Tharg sacrifices his soul (essentially) for the good of the world and is then (with a somewhat weak scientific explanation) resurrected in a second body.
The books will apparently bring some kind of enlightenment to the world, so they stand as a kind of religious revelation, like the tablets being brought down from the mountain. (NB The original ellipsoid was indeed buried inside a mountain)
It is interesting to compare this with Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’ which also has humanity led to a point of transcendence and contains its own religious iconography but from very different motives, and in an effort to debunk standard religious beliefs rather than provide obscure metaphors.
St Clair, one imagines, would be a Christian, but it seems that she is a Wiccan, so one may need to look into Wiccan practices to get any mileage from the religious metaphors.


Now Begins Tomorrow – Damon Knight (Ed) (1963)

Now Begins Tomorrow

This fascinating paperback presents the first printed stories from some of the most famous names in the genre. The majority of them appeared in John W Campbell’s ‘Astounding ‘ with the exception of the Merrill & Aldiss stories which were published in ‘Space Science Fiction’ and ‘Nebula Science Fiction’ respectively.
Knight has arranged the stories chronologically so that we see not only the chosen author’s first published story but also a rough overview of the development of the SF short form (in particular the Astounding story) and the growing level of depth and sophistication over almost twenty years. Unsurprisingly, there is only one woman represented, since the sexism which was immanent within the publishing houses and the literary texts themselves did not begin to break down until the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties, at least in the US.
Many of the stories feature no females at all, and of those that do, they appear as only minor characters, such as Mrs Garfinkle in ‘The Isolinguals’ or the doomed young wife in ‘Life Line’.

‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937)
‘The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938)
‘Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939)
‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939)
‘Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939)
‘Loophole’ – Arthur C Clarke (Astounding 1946)
‘Tomorrow’s Children’ – Poul Anderson (Astounding 1947)
‘That Only A Mother’ – Judith Merrill (Astounding 1948)
‘Walk To The World’ – Algys Budris (Space Science Fiction 1952)
‘T’ – Brian Aldiss (Nebula Science Fiction 1956)

‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937) is a compact and humourous tale of an outbreak of genetic race memory. The people of New York are unaccountably struck with a strange malaise in that they begin to be possessed by the memories of their ancestors. An engineering officer of the XXXIInd legion of Rome finds himself in the body of a fruit vendor, a package dispatcher becomes a sergeant in Cromwell’s army, Mrs Garfinkle – a new York native, suddenly starts talking in the language of the ancient Goths, and the numbers of the affected are rising dramatically.
The logical thing happens of course in that people from the same era who speak the same language begin to band together into gangs of isolinguals.
Professor Lindsley and his son-in-law Pierre solve the mystery, which turns out to be a dastardly scheme by an extreme right-wing would-be dictator, which, in 1937 would have been a bit of a topical element.

The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938) is a pastoral, somewhat romantic tale redolent of the work of Clifford D Simak who published stories based on a similar premise in Astounding which were fixed up as ‘City’.
Men have surgically and biologically modified dogs, increasing their intelligence and awareness, but shortly afterwards have destroyed themselves with war and biological weaponry.
Hungor Beowulf XIV sets out to collect the dogs together and they embark on a quest to find any men that remain. The last human, who is fighting off the plague with the help of longevity drugs, is discovered and leads the dogs to Africa where they find similarly engineered apes who become the hands of the dogs and ultimately, the dogs hope, will replace Man as their masters.

Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939) is probably Van Vogt’s best-known short story and is often touted as the original inspiration behind ‘Alien’.
On the barren single planet of a star nine-hundred light years from its nearest neighbour, an Earth scientific expedition is discovered by one of the last remnants of an intelligent race, the Coeurl.
The Coeurl – desperate for the scarce and life-giving phosphorus which it drains from its victims – pretends to be harmless, but betrays itself as an intelligent being.
The most interesting aspect of this story is the discussion between the scientists in which they pool their expertise in order to deduce the nature of the beast.
By logical deduction (the rational man of logic is a frequent protagonist in Van Vogt novels) they deduce that the creature is not a descendant of the builders of the abandoned city, but one of its former residents, and therefore highly intelligent and practically immortal.
The story was later revised and expanded in order to comprise the first few chapters of Van Vogt’s fix-up novel ‘Voyage of The Space Beagle’. The rather inhuman ending of the original story, in which the crew plan to return and exterminate the Coeurl race is amended to a decision where the creatures are left to their own fate, presumably to die out from lack of essential phosphorus. It was not, however, a humane decision as much as one which presumably allowed the ship to continue its journey to other worlds unimpeded.

In ‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939) Heinlein grasps the opportunity to take a side-swipe at the scientific community who refuse to believe that Dr Pinero has developed a process by which he can measure a man’s lifeline, i.e. the length of his existence in the temporal dimension, and thus predict the date of his death. Heinlein explores the logical extrapolation of this, in that insurance companies, whose existence depends on statistical probabilities of mortality rather than certainties, would go out of business.
The actual science or mechanics of the process in unimportant, and indeed, Pinero refuses to discuss the nature of his invention. The notion forces one to ask oneself questions, such as ‘Do you really want to know the exact date and time of your death?’

Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939) is a slight but humourous tale in which mentalities who can perceive and manipulate wavelengths begin to interfere with experimental colour TV transmissions. Although the story, seen from our perspective in an age where Colour TV is a reality, seems somewhat dated, the characterisation and dialogue is excellent and even today says a lot about the attitude of Americans regarding what they find acceptable for broadcast.

Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Loophole’ (Astounding 1946) is an interesting example of a story written in the form of communications between individuals, in this case between High Level Martian officials, concerned as to Humanity’s recent developments in atomic power.
Unusually for Clarke, the solution is one of decisive military action which destroys the Martian civilisation threatening the Earth and seems at odds with his later, more pacifist work.
Another example of this literary technique (with a much cleverer twist ending) is AE Van Vogt’s ‘Dear Pen Pal’

Poul Anderson’s ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ (Astounding 1947) is the first of two consecutive stories which reflects America’s then paranoia of the consequences of Nuclear war and the ethics of dealing with Human Mutation. It is interesting to contrast this story – which is a male-perspective overview of the possible future of society as a whole – with the following story by Judith Merrill which focuses on one woman’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth in a world suffering from radiation poisoning, although both stories pose the question of whether mutation affects the integrity of the Human Race.

Judith Merrill’s ‘That Only A Mother’ (Astounding 1948) gives us a very personal and moving account of a mother’s story from late pregnancy (in a time of atomic radiation) through to childbirth and beyond, interspersed with correspondence to her husband, on active service in the Armed Services.
The daughter is a prodigy and learns to talk at an early age but it is only when the father eventually arrives home on leave that the true state of affairs is discovered.
It is refreshing to finally see a female perspective, and indeed a main female character, and particularly within the pages of ‘Astounding’.
Interestingly, Merrill seems to imply that fathers would not be so accepting of their mutant children as Anderson suggests, rather optimistically, in his tale.

Walk To The World – Algis Budrys (Space Science Fiction 1952) is another pastoral tale, this time of wanderlust, told by a the son of a retired Space Captain, now running a farm on a colony world.
It’s notable for its vivid and detailed descriptions of the characters involved, and though superficially a simple tale, is actually a fairly complex portrait of a man’s relationship with his wife, his son and his home as well as ultimately questioning the American way of doing things. It’s a subtle piece, well-written and again redolent of the work of Simak.

Brian Aldiss’ ‘T’ (Nebula Science Fiction 1956) is, surprisingly, rather weak in its premise, although very creatively constructed and well-written.
The denizens of another galaxy have seen Man spread out to colonise our own galaxy and now are invading theirs, so they create a fleet of twelve ships containing genetically-engineered beings (composed of merely an arm and a simple brain) which are sent off on a path back through Time and Space to destroy Earth before Man has even evolved.
Due to an elementary error on the part of the aliens, the wrong planet is destroyed and Earth is left to evolve as destined.
Although simplistic, the concept of the ships and their guiding hands are creatively and ingeniously conceived and described and foretell some of the brilliance and originality of Aldiss’ later work.


Rebels of The Red Planet – Charles L Fontenay (1961)

Rebels of the Red Planet

‘Dark Kensington had been dead for twenty-five years. It was a fact; everyone knew it. Then suddenly he reappeared, youthful, brilliant, ready to take over the Phoenix, the rebel group that worked to overthrow the tyranny that gripped the settlers on Mars.
The Phoenix had been destroyed not once, not twice, but three times! But this time the resurrected Dark had new plans, plans which involved dangerous experiments in mutation and psionics.
And now the rebels realized they were in double jeopardy. Not only from the government’s desperate hatred of their movement, but also from the growing possibility that the new breed of mutated monsters would get out of hand and bring terrors never before known to man.” (Summary from Project Gutenberg text)

This is a sadly under-rated novel, based on a Mars, which although colonised for some time, is in the grip of the Mars Corporation who control imports to sell to the dome-bound colonists. A revolutionary group, The Phoenix, attempted to break their monopoly some years back, both by genetically engineering humans to adapt to the Martian climate, and developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.
One of the Leaders, Dark Kensington, disappeared, while ‘Goat’ Hennessey, the scientist in charge of genetic engineering, was captured by Mars Corp. and now works for them.
Twenty-five years later, Dark Kensington appears to have returned, looking no older, and being pursued by Martian Government Agent S. Newell Eli, and the Terran agent, Maya Cara Nome.
Somewhat noir-ish in tone, the deceptively short novel rushes along at a breakneck pace, combining such disparate elements as Revolutionary groups based in a Martian barber’s shop, an ancient Martian race very reminiscent of the Bleakmen of Dick’s ‘Martian Time Slip’, suave revolutionaries, telekinesis, romance, breakneck chases across the Martian desert and strange human mutations.


The 100th Millennium – John Brunner (1959)

100thmil

‘THEY SEARCHED THE PAST TO ESCAPE THE FUTURE

THE MAN WHO CRIED “DOOMSDAY!”

There was a new star in the sky – another sun heading directly for the Solar System on a collision orbit. It meant the end of the world!

Creohan, who made the discovery, realized that in a few short years the oceans would boil, the forests and cities would be engulfed in flame, and life would be scorched from the surface of the world. But Creohan also knew that somewhere among the accumulated lore of 100,000 years of civilization ther e would be the scientific knowledge that would even turn a star aside.

But find that knowledge turned out to be a nightmare. For none of the decadent people of THE 100TH MILLENNIUM would listen to him. And Creohan realised that this time the saving of the world was entirely up to himself alone!

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Creohan knew that the past would provide the answers to the future

Chalyth found friends at the bottom of the sea

Madal loved security more than she loved life.

Hoo existed to provide food to a deserted city

Vance got himself hopelessly lost just a few miles from home.

Paro-Mni managed to be discontented with the perfect society’

Blurb from the D-362 1959 Ace doubles edition

In a style very reminiscent of Vance, with echoes of Brian Aldiss, Brunner takes us to a far future of decadent humanity whose sole aim is to live in a past era of their choosing via the dreams of the History machines.
Creohan, the main protagonist, aimed initially to be a Historian also, but discovered, almost by accident, a sun heading toward the Solar System, which would destroy our sun and the Earth three hundred years hence.
Finding only apathy in his own city he sets out with a female companion, Chalyth, to find the residents of the other cities and rouse the populace to start working toward deflecting the sun.
The style and dialogue is, as I have said, very Vance-esque.
Creohan encounters several other characters including a paranoid race of tiny humans and an intelligent dolphin creature before he reaches his goal at a mountain, where the history of humanity and perhaps its future is revealed.
In this world people can grow houses from seeds and the streets are lit at night by genetically engineered birds with glowing feathers.
There seems to have been a fashion – which can’t be solely due to Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ tales, for depicting Far Future earths as places where decadent humans comport themselves with pure pleasure, unwilling to try and discover anything new since all that was new has long been discovered.
Of course, there was a suggestion of this in Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ and in some of the ‘Zothique’ tales of Clark Ashton Smith, but the concept appears to have blossomed in the late 50s, through to the 70s and intermittently beyond. Apart from ‘The Dying Earth’, Moorcock’s ‘Dancers At The End of Time’, M John Harrison’ ‘Viriconium’ tales, Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Kane’ novels and Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ are just a handful of examples.
This lacks many of the baroque attributes of the other titles and at heart is merely a quest tale with a simple structure, but there are flashes of ingenuity and signs certainly of what a good writer Brunner was destined to become.


A Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson (1958)

A Stir of Echoes

‘Tom Wallace lived an ordinary life, until a chance event awakened psychic abilities he never knew he possessed. Now he’s hearing the private thoughts of the people around him – and learning shocking secrets he never wanted to know. But as Tom’s existence becomes a waking nightmare, greater jolts are in store when he becomes the unwilling recipient of a compelling message from beyond the grave!’

Blurb from the 2000 Boxtree paperback edition.

Matheson has been unusually fortunate with his novels since several have been picked up for film dramatisation including ‘the Shrinking Man’ and ‘I am Legend’ twice, as well as ‘Duel’, which set Stephen Spielberg up as a credible director.
This rather low-key piece from 1958 has, as I am informed by the cover, ‘inspired’ a movie at the turn of this century starring Kevin Bacon, but which seems to have passed us by here in the UK, although there appears to be a Stir of Echoes 2..
Anyhoo, Tom Wallace (who becomes Tom Witzky in the film, unaccountably) is a regular young husband of the late Nineteen Fifties, renting a house for his pregnant wife Ann and baby son. One night, with all his neighbours round, his wife’s young brother Phil demonstrates his skills as a hypnotist and puts Tom under. The neighbours are duly impressed by Tom’s behaviour under hypnosis and he returns to full awareness with apparently no ill-effects.
Later however Tom awakens in the night with his mind racing with random thoughts and sees the figure of a woman in his living room.
Subsequently he begins picking up emotions and surface thoughts from his friends and neighbours and is shocked by what he discovers beneath the superficial apparently moral exterior of the street in which he lives.
As with ‘The Shrinking Man’ the central figure discovers a fundamental change in himself which he cannot reverse, one which has an increasingly detrimental effect on his relationship with his wife.
With the exception of Frank, his neighbour and work colleague, it is the women in his life who turn monstrous. Frank, who abuses his wife both verbally and with his extramarital behaviour, is a visible monster for all to see, but with the women it is a shocking truth to be unveiled.
Another neighbour, Elsie, bullies her husband and harbours lecherous thoughts for Tom. Tom’s landlord’s wife, Mrs Santos, is also a woman who seems to be in control in her relationship.
Frank’s wife Elizabeth loses her baby and Tom is besieged by her fantasies of tearing the child from Tom’s wife’s womb, and placing it in her own. There is also a teenage babysitter, Dorothy, from whose mind Tom got bleak images of despair and abandonment.
Ann seems alone in not having any horrors to be discovered although Tom’s aberrant behaviour leads her to believe that he is going mad.
Then there is Helen Driscoll, the dead woman who haunts his house. She is his landlord’s sister-in-law who used to live in Tom’s house but has ‘gone back east’ leaving only a note.
It may or may not be significant that at one point Tom’s young son Richard is possessed by the spirit of Helen Driscoll who speaks through the boy to her terrified brother-in-law. Is it also significant that the baby Tom’s wife is carrying is a girl?
It transpires ultimately that that Helen Driscoll, like Elsie, was a predatory female, carrying on an affair not only with her sister’s husband, but with Frank.
It’s a decent enough novel, but not in the same league as ‘I am Legend’ or ‘The Shrinking Man’ although it does make an interesting psychological study. It would also be of interest to those studying Matheson’s structures and characterisation and his exploration of gender issues, or indeed students of gender issues in the Nineteen Fifties since, in historical context, the minds of these women as a literary device would have been far more shocking at the time.


The Chrysalids – John Wyndham (1955)

The Chrysalids

‘The Chrysalids is the story of a world in which genetic mutations – in plant, animal, and human life – are continually occurring, and when they do they are rooted out and destroyed as Offences and Abominations – whether they are a field of mutant corn, a calf with two heads, or a human child. The anguish this causes to the families which live in terror of deviation and in a small area surrounded by the Wild Country where the chances of breeding true is less than fifty percent, and the Fringes and Badlands beyond where the chances are far less; is described by John Wyndham in a manner all the more frightening for being so realistic and credible.’

Blurb from the 1961 paperback Penguin edition.

John Wyndham wrote a particular brand of British Science Fiction which became so popular that his work is often not marketed with what the Literary establishment term to the derogatory label of Science Fiction. Wyndham was at one time (and may still be) part of the British English Literature syllabus. Over a relatively short period he produced a handful of novels which were to become classics of British, and indeed World SF.
Unusually for Wyndham ‘The Chrysalids’ is set not in Wyndham’s usual UK rural setting of the Nineteen Fifties, but in an apocalyptic Labrador of the far future.
The setting however, seems oddly British in terms of social structure and terminology.
Typically for Wyndham the action takes place over a number of years and begins in the village of Waknuk. We see the village through the recollections of David Strorm, son of the religiously fanatic self-styled leader of the community.
Waknuk is a relatively untouched oasis in what we understand is a world otherwise devastated by nuclear warfare.
A form of Christianity has evolved in response to the prevalence of mutation and deviation in plants, animals and humans. Anything which deviates from the norm is deemed to be an abomination and is ruthlessly weeded out.
However, David discovers that the young daughter of a neighbour is herself a deviant, having six toes instead of the ‘normal’ five and David, it transpires, has a secret of his own in that he and seven others in the community are telepaths, a fact they very quickly learn to keep a secret from their fanatical friends and family.
Perhaps unintentionally, as Van Vogt did with ‘Slan‘, Wyndham has created an almost perfect allegory of the homosexual experience within a small community. The comparison becomes particularly poignant when the eight telepaths reach the age when they are expected to find marriage partners. One of them, Ann, decides that she is going to suppress her ‘talent’ and marry a non-telepath, much to the dismay of the others who are all convinced that she cannot deny her true nature.
At one point David himself, in an act which many Gay people remember from their teenage years, prays to God to change him, to make him ‘normal’ like everyone else.
It is unlikely however, that Wyndham intended the parallel, although the aspects of xenophobia and culturally instilled and endorsed prejudice are terrifyingly realistic.
In comparison with the two other ‘classic’ Wyndham novels ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ one sees in all three Wyndham’s fascination with the fundamental basics of Nature; red in tooth and claw. In each novel Humanity finds itself at war with another species, or perhaps, one could argue, the savage forces of Nature. Wyndham seems never too concerned with the war itself as much as with the effects of the battles on the protagonists. ‘The Day of The Triffids’ shows formerly genial Britons throwing aside the veneer of civilised behaviour and cheerfully adopting polygamy and slave labour camps in order to save the species.
‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ gives us an average British rural community forced to kill its own adopted children.
None of the novels permit any possibility of compromise or co-existence. In this novel, humans are battling both Nature and change. The older generation resent social change as much as they resent the ‘mutational’ changes to their vegetables and livestock.
Eventually the telepaths are rescued by an advanced group of their own kind from New Zealand, but the moral code of their society is as bad, if not worse, than that of the restrictive religious regime since they have no compunctions about killing the humans who have been pursuing the escaping telepaths. They see non-telepathic humanity as a burnt-out species, doomed to extinction, who are better off being painlessly eradicated.


The Sword of Rhiannon – Leigh Brackett (1953)

The Sword of Rhiannon

‘Matt Carse entered the ancient, lost tomb an itinerant explorer… he emerged a million years before as a god.

Thrust into the chaos of Time, he was stranded in the midst of a forgotten war for the domination of Mars. But it was a struggle in which he was destined to play a great part, for Carse found himself possessed by the god older than legend – the Cursed One of Mars, dark Rhiannon.

Blurb to the 1980 Ace paperback edition’

‘LEIGH BRACKETT has always said that her stories about Mars had their inspiration in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels. I have no doubt that this true, for nearly all of us can remember the first impact of those wonderful romances. However, from the haunting concept of a dying world of silent cities, she took off on her own and her obsession with Celtic mythology and legend shows very clearly in her interplanetary tales.

She has been writing science fiction for a long time now, since 1939, and also since 1944 she has been in and out of the Hollywood scene writing for moving pictures. Her first major screen assignment was to collaborate with William Faulkner on the script of the Humphrey Bogart film, ‘The Big Sleep’.

In science fiction, she owed most to the late Henry Kuttner, who was friend and advisor when she was trying to get started. He once spoke of her incurable romanticism. It still persists, and she maintains that when the first astronauts land on Mars they will find dead cities, fierce riders and wicked, beautiful queens… just as in this book.

EDMOND HAMILTON’ foreword to the Ace paperback edition.

This short but enjoyable novel is heavily influenced by Burroughs. I suspect that even the name of the hero, Carse, is a tribute to Burroughs, since heroes on Mars and Venus respectively were Carter and Carson
In an undetermined future. Matt Carse is a resident of Mars, living in a settlement based around the ruins of the ancient city of Jekkara.
One night he is followed by an unscrupulous contact bearing an ancient sword, who claims to have found the tomb of Rhiannon, the Accursed One. He leads Carse to the tomb and after an argument about how to divide the spoils, Carse is pushed into a strange sphere of darkness within the tomb and when he emerges finds himself on a Mars of a million years earlier, with oceans and lush green vegetation.
Brackett was, as Hamilton point out, a Hollywood screenwriter as well as a novelist and most famous for collaborating on ‘The Big Sleep’. ‘The Sword of Rhiannon’, particularly the cleverly plotted denouement, is structured very much like a movie in the Joseph Campbell ‘Mythic Structure’ sense.
The hero, seen at first in his own environment is forced (willingly or not) on to a quest, where he encounters allies, makes enemies, is tested and finally has to face and defeat his enemy before returning home.
This novel fits the mythic structure almost perfectly. He is also provided with a Mentor/comic sidekick in the form of Boghaz, an unscrupulous (but ultimately loyal) vagabond who initially saves Carse from the mob only in order to try and discover the location of Rhiannon’s tomb.
Interestingly, the Mentor archetype/role might well be assigned to Rhiannon himself who, it transpires, has possessed Carse and turns out to be not so accursed a baddie after all.
The characterisation is one-dimensional, but this is a work which never pretends to be anything other than it is.
Some may find it odd however that Brackett, being a female writer, should choose to portray Ywain, Princess of Sark, so sketchily, and not really develop her relationship with Carse.
Cinematically, Ywain would be the archetypal man-hating femme-fatale. On her first encounter with Carse he is a galley-slave on her ship and she orders him whipped. Carse later takes her captive, during which time there is a struggle in which he hits her across the face with the hilt of his sword.

‘Carse had only to strike again. But it seemed that with that effort something had gone out of him. He saw her mouth open to voice an angry shout for aid and he struck her across the face with his hilt reversed, so that she slid stunned to the deck, her cheek laid open’
p 57

Shortly afterwards, he kisses her…

‘Her lips parted as she strained for breath, and Carse suddenly set his own lips against them.
There was no love, no tenderness in that kiss, it was a gesture of male contempt, brutal and full of hate. Yet for one strange moment then her sharp teeth had met in his lower lip and his mouth was full of blood and she was laughing.
‘You barbarian swine,’ she whispered. ‘Now my brand is on you.’
p 69

By the end of the novel they are in love and return to Carse’s future Mars together.
In terms of the Mythic Quest, Ywain is also ‘the prize’, the trophy which Carse wins to take home as his reward for defeating the evil reptilian Dhuvians (albeit with the aid of ‘Mentor’ Rhiannon).
To be fair to Brackett, she was working in two fields where females were rare and particularly in terms of screenwriting, where male superiors had creative control of her work. To a certain extent this was also true of publishers.
In retrospect it seems incredible that female writers of SF at the time ever got published at all.


The Weapon Shops of Isher – AE van Vogt (1951)

The Weapon Shops Of Isher

‘In the year 4784, the Universe is contained within the empire of Isher ruled by the Empress Innelda.

‘Dedicated to pleasure, Innelda’s dictatorship has driven Isher to the brink of cosmic disaster. For against her stand the impregnable Weapon Shops, their immortal leader Robert Hedrock and a man from the 20th century with terrifying power.’

Blurb from the 1974 New English Library paperback edition

Van Vogt had a definite talent for writing narratives which had that David Lynch quality of abstracted weirdness; elements which didn’t really belong but seemed to fit nevertheless.
Here we are in the year 4784 AD. Humanity is under the control of the Empress Illenda, a young girl in charge of an Empire which covers Earth, Mars and Venus. However, an organisation exists independently of the Empress’ control; the Weapon Shops. The shops appear at random and offer extraordinary personally-attuned weapons which can only be used defensively and which will leap into the hand when needed. the shops all sport a 3D display sign which reads:-

FINE WEAPONS
THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS
IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE

The Weapon Shops are engaged in an ongoing battle with the Empress’ authorities who are seeking to shut them down.
Part of The Weapon Shops’ plan (masterminded by an immortal human named Robert Hedrock) is to send a man through time as a kind of temporal counterweight to a vast building which is swinging back and forward in time and destined to appear beside the Empress’ home at a certain point, where it will explode.
The luckless human is McAllister, a reporter who entered a Weapon Shop in ‘Middle City’.
He was taken to the far future, ‘charged’ with the energy picked up by travelling through time in such a manner, and was sent on his pendulum journey to the far past.
Meanwhile in 4784 AD, the Weapon Shop scientists have discovered Cayle Clark, a young man with an exceptionally high ‘callidity’ rating (van Vogt is vague about what callidity actually is, although we get the idea that it’s Very Important), and have assigned Lucy, a female Weapons Shop agent, to make his acquaintance and keep an eye on him.
Cayle discovers he has a talent for gambling but after getting too greedy, is held by the gambling house and sent to a ‘House of Illusion’ where men become slave playthings for female clients in a virtual reality environment.
The House is consequently raided and Cayle ends up on Mars.
This seems to be the point where Cayle’s callidity kicks in. he manages to return to Earth where he enrols in The Empire’s armed forces and gains access to the time-swinging building-bomb of the Weapon Shops.
He hitches a lift back in time and helps ‘himself’ to amass a fortune, an action which forces the Empress to halt her war against the Weapon Shops for fear of a similar incident wrecking the financial stability of the Empire. This explanation, it has to be said, does not bear close examination.
The familiar van Vogt hallmarks are here; the giant building, the logical alpha male (Robert Hedrock), the feudalistic society existing alongside fantastic technology, the esoteric organisation operating inside exoteric society, the young man with superior powers.
One can almost pick out the elements which Philip K Dick (self-confessedly influenced by Van Vogt) employed in his own work. The Shops themselves are almost a pure Dickism; incongruous elements appearing in a normal suburban setting, in this case a Weapon Shop with a Dick-esque cheesy cheerful sign with slogan which can be viewed from all angles without distortion, a slogan which of course echoes the American constitution on the right to bear arms.


Seetee Ship – Jack Williamson (1943)

Seetee Ship
‘Late In The 22nd Century

The great Cataclysmic Drift of Seetee – antimatter menaces the universe. Yet certain sky wanderers, reckless men of vision, dare to harness seetee’s unlimited powers for creation.

Rich Drake, celestial pioneer, spurred by his love for highborn lady of space, uncovers seetee’s awesome secret, battles the imperial forces of the mighty Mandate and endures a staggering War of Time.’

Blurb from the 1979 Jove omnibus paperback edition.

Rich Drake returns from Earth to the asteroid Pallas with his newly-earned Spatial Engineering degree, Rich is the son of Jim Drake, who for some time has been experimenting with CT (seetee), contraterrene or anti-matter. In Williamson’s future it is discovered that space is full of seetee matter. A special Seetee Patrol has been set up to map the seetee distribution and ensure that normal matter (including normal space traffic) does not come into contact with it and unleash the awesome destructive power and consequent radiation.
After Rich saves Karen Hood (daughter of the High Commissioner of Interplanet, a corporate concern which more or less controls Earth) he is recruited by Interplanet to help with their own research into creating a seetee bedplate, the elusive grail which will allow matter and anti-matter to be joined, and so control the energy of seetee which will provide free unlimited power for the entire Solar civilisation.
Interplanet’s interests are less philanthropic. As the main supplier of power from uranium and other dwindling sources they would want to suppress any free power supplies, but would be interested in the creation of seetee bombs.
Then Drake senior and his partner, Rob McGee, discover a seetee asteroid with unusual properties. Rich receives an odd message from Captain McGee telling him to be ready to be picked up at the space port, a message which McGee, when he arrives, denies sending.
Captain Anders of Interplanet, has intercepted the message, sent from the region of the anomalous asteroid, and both parties set out for the area to uncover the mystery.
What follows is a convoluted time-paradox tale in which an ancient seetee ship is found composed of terrene and contraterrene matter, which may provide the secret to creating a functioning seetee ‘bedplate’.
This is a vast improvement on Williamson’s earlier work, particularly since he has this time given due consideration to practical matters of gravitation and atmosphere. Asteroids, for instance, are made habitable by the use of ‘paragravity generators’ which produce localised Earth gravity conditions with some interesting effects and consequences.
It is also interesting that Williamson – in the middle of World War II, has written what is effectively an anti-war and particularly anti-militaristic novel.
The Martians, who are a very minor aspect of this book, are Nazis, and we learn in passing that Mars culture is an Aryan Reich. For readers of the time this must have been a topical and perhaps chilling aspect, and the very subtlety of its use renders it all the more effective.
Williamson must also be applauded for the inclusion of a female character who does rather more than scream and stand about waiting to be rescued. Anne O’Banion is a feisty female engineer/pilot who eventually thaws the heart of the Interplanet Captain, Paul Anders.
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