“The Letters of Cold Fire”

Yes, postings here have been sparse lately. That should change in the next couple of weeks.

However, I did manage to read last week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones discussion group.

Review: “The Letters of Cold Fire”, Manly Wade Wellman, 1934.

The story starts and takes place entirely in New York City with one Roderick Thorne showing up at a dump of an apartment building to ask about one Cavet Leslie whom he is told is sick and visited daily by a doctor. The landlord refuses to let Thorne see him. 

So, Thorne sneaks back into the apartment building right away. We get some nice, if brief, background on the slums of New York City dating back to the warring gangs of the mid-19th century and the Civil War era draft riots. 

Thorne finds Leslie in a bed, and his opening line is: “You were Cavet Leslie.  . . . Try to remember.” Leslie says he’s forbidden to remember anything but his “lessons”. Thorne gives his name. Leslie certainly knows it. He says it will “be great in hell.” 

Thorne tells him he’s come for Leslie’s book. “It’s worth both our lives, and more.”  Leslie keeps protesting against his name being used. Thorne tells Leslie he knows he has the book. Leslie studied at the Deep School. Everybody who finished the school got the book. “Few finish”, says Leslie, “Many begin, few finish.” 

Thorne reminds him the School was underground, in a place with no light. Light destroys what was taught. “Once there, the scholar remains until he has been taught, or – goes away into the dark.” Thorne knows the book has “letters of cold fire”. Leslie confirms that. They can only be read in the dark. Once a day a trapdoor opened in the Deep School, “and a hand shaggy with dark hair thrusts in food.” Leslie was at the School for seven years. 

Thorne again demands the book. It’s in the room somewhere, he knows. “How do you know?”, asks Leslie. Thorne says it’s his business to know. 

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The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I read a novel translated by Brian Stableford, I had to get a Stableford novel off the shelf.

Review: The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford, 1981. 

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The review of this book on the Brian Stableford website suggests that it is a science fictional working out of ideas from Plato’s The Republic. Tanagar society has three classes, and Stableford combines Plato’s ideas with William Sheldon’s theory of personality determined by body type. Intellectuals are passionless, thin, ascetic, and supposedly not given to emotion. Pragmatists, also not given to much emotion except at chosen times when they “jeckle”, are strivers, rightfully regarding themselves as the only ones who can get things done between the other two classes’ indecision and indiscipline. They are medium-framed, Sheldon’s mesomorphic body type. Hedonists are fat and emotional. 

The novel also partakes of some common themes of science fiction from the 1970s and 1980s: biofeedback, skills obtained through memory implants, nuclear holocaust, and resource depletion on Earth.

Our castaways are those who just couldn’t fit in to Tanagar society. That was the planet settled by a generation starship fled Earth before a nuclear war broke out. The Tanagarians put them in cold sleep.

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Three Soldiers

In keeping with my usual method of associational reading, I decided to read this literary World War One novel.

Review: Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos, 1921

I was rather disappointed with this novel. 

I’m an admirer of Dos Passos’ later USA Trilogy, but his modernistic style wasn’t fully developed yet when he wrote this novel though we do get a lot of snatches of music and a story allotted to several viewpoint characters. There’s also little of his experience as an ambulance driver in World War One. Indeed, there’s not that much actual combat in this novel at all.

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Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

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“The Lusitania Waits”

Well, this week’s discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing, was a story I nominated.

I almost feel like I should apologize, but the group seemed to like it better than I did it. I nominated it, of course, because it is a piece of fantastical fiction set during World War One.

Review: “The Lusitania Waits”, Alfred Noyes, 1918. 

Alfred Noyes is not a name generally associated with weird fiction, but he did write some ghost stories. However, he was a popular poet, his most famous work being “The Highwayman”.

Our story starts out with three old skippers, all in their seventies and retired for five years, meeting, as usual, at the White Horse Inn. Sure, the war has given them something to talk about, but Captain Kendrick, now a parish councilor, likes to talk about the newest edition of the Gazette, a weekly newspaper run by Macpherson.

Commenting on Macpherson, Kendrick remarks,

‘There’s a rumor that he’s a freethinker. He says that Christianity has been proved a failure by the war.’

This was the story’s high point for me: a contemporary example that World War One weakened European Christianity.

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