The Best of Murray Leinster

While I work on a review of a World War One history book, the pulp series continues.

Raw Feed (1999): The Best of Murray Leinster, ed. John J. Pierce, 1978.Best of Murray Leinster

The Dean of Science Fiction”, John J. Pierce — Besides being a brief summation of the stories in this collection, this introduction talks about Leinster’s themes and career. It also relates some surprising information about Leinster. His first story (a fantasy) was written in 1919 (no date for his last work is given – he died in 1975). He converted to Catholicism, and it relates information I knew already – Leinster’s career as an inventor of the optical Jenkins Systems used as a rear projection system in movies and tv. [Leinster actual name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins.] Leinster also emphasized rationality and was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas.

Sidewise in Time” — This story is the original reason I bought this collection. It’s generally credited as being the first parallel universe story, and it holds up very will since its publication in 1934. Later on this type of story was rationalized with, as in Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Here Leinster introduces some twists on the notion that many later writers didn’t. First, his plot does not simply have a character or characters leave their own timeline willingly or unwillingly. Leinster introduces the notion of a tile-work Earth where each bounded area enters a different parallel universe than its neighbors do. One world has a strong Viking presence, another has China settling North America, another universe still has dinosaurs, in another the Roman Empire still endures, and in another the South won the Civil War. Leinster’s main character is a mathematician, Professor Minott, who is the only person who knows a cosmological upheaval, which eventually thrusts a quarter of the Earth’s surface into other universes, is about to take place. But he tells no one. He hopes to use the event to become more than just a mathematics instructor in an obscure community college. He wants to find a universe where his knowledge and technology can make him king – and husband of one of his students. His attempts to do this are fascinating as are the alternating sections showing what happens to some when their homes are suddenly bounded by other universes. Eventually, the students Minott tricks into joining him on his adventure (and they don’t follow him willingly for long) leave him except for a female student with a crush on him. The universe settles down, but the story ends with not all the tiles returning to their proper timelines. This is the first example of a parallel universe story and still holds up well. Leinster puts forth many intriguing alternate histories and works out or hints at the implications of his idea, and I liked the notion of a man who seeks to use such a cataclysm to gain respect and power. It’s a very human idea.

Proxima Centauri” — This is, in its notion of sentient vegetable men, a pulpy story in conception, but Leinster carries it off well, and there are several elements which make it a sophisticated sf tale, especially one published in 1935. Leinster takes some trouble to describe the construction of an artificial ecosystem in his interstellar ship. That, the inclusion of crews’ families to facilitate morale, and a mutiny from the psychological effects of a seven year voyage to the next star were all, I suspect, novel in 1935. Leinster does a credible job rationalizing, via atomic physics, his starship drive but it’s still unworkable. The vegetable men of Proxima Centauri seem brutal, but Leinster cuts them some slack by rightly pointing out that that aliens made of precious metals would probably be met the same way by Earth men, and he tries to construct a biological rationale (which doesn’t really work but it’s the attempt that makes it sf) whereby these mobile plants need animal flesh to live and how it excites them (they’re destroyed just about all animal life on their world). Actually, they’ve learned to live on vegetable matter but instinctually still crave animal products. This may also be one of the first sf stories to introduce an alternative to a fire and metal technology: the Centaurians mold protoplasm to their ends. I liked the human commander, at story’s end, contriving to get all the Centaurians to return to their home world to eat their Earth trophies and celebrate a new source of animal matter. Then he blows the planet up with a sabotaged starship engine. Continue reading

Slan

While I work on new stuff, I’ll continue with some pulp related material.

I have never been real keen on the smug “gosh, we are special” attitude of too many science fiction fans. This is the archetypal text for that: “Fans are slans” as the saying went.

I don’t know how popular this novel still is. I did come across a co-worker in the mid-1980s who said this was her favorite novel.

Kevin J. Anderson wrote a sequel, Slan Hunter, in 2007.

Raw Feed (1991): Slan, A. E. van Vogt, 1946, 1951.Slan

I expected to like this book since I’ve liked the van Vogt short stories I’ve read. I did not like it. In fact, I found its 176 pages a tedious read.

I suppose part of it may have been its pulpiness, but I’ve read pulp I’ve liked. I like baroque plots, so I don’t think I objected to the idea of back stage manipulations and twists and turns per se. But I don’t think van Vogt handled it well. His idiosyncratic method of 800 word scenes was usually obvious and kind of fun to look for. But too much was left for the end-chapter revelations instead of being revealed piecemeal like more conventional mystery/suspense plots. Van Vogt’s 800 word method may prevent that.

The return, at end, of the allegedly dead Kathleen Layton Gray caught me by surprise, I must admit though it’s very typical for sf of the period (must end with that marriage). [In retrospect, this seems an overgeneralization.]  I’ll even admit Kier Gray, world dictator, turning out to be a slan caught me by surprise; van Vogt effectively defused my suspicions of this in the middle of the novel. Continue reading

Earth’s Last Citadel

Well, there has been a fair uptick in traffic hear lately from a crowd interested in pulp, so I thought I’d get something out from the archives that might make them to stick around.

Frankly, though, this blog isn’t very tightly focused on any one type of book.

Still, it’s always nice to have more readers so maybe some of the new viewers will stick around.

One of my uncompleted reading projects is to read all 50 titles in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction by Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin from 1979. This title was listed.

Raw Feed (1992): Earth’s Last Citadel, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, 1943.Earth's Last Citadel

I didn’t care for this novel all that much. I suppose Baird Searles included it on his list of classic sf novels because it’s pulpy and probably one of the earliest far future science-as-magic stories.

While I didn’t find the novel particularly entertaining, it was critically interesting.

First, the menacing Alien from beyond time — first and last of his kind on Earth, feeder on mental energy (a vampire of sorts) is reminiscent of a Lovecraftian horror. He is a Light-Wearer. The good Light-Wearers created, from human stock, the Carcasillans and protected them (and expected worship from them) from the bad Light-Wearers like the Alien. This lends a biblical flavor to the book.

This book is interesting as a midway point in the far-future sub-genre of sf. Continue reading

City of Endless Night

Review: City of Endless Night, Milo Hastings, 1920.City of Endless Night

Yes, I was walking in Utopia, a nightmare at the end of man’s long dream – Utopia – Black Utopia – City of Endless Night – diabolically compounded of the three elements of civilization in which the Germans had always been supreme – imperialism, science and socialism.

It’s the year 2151. The German state, after sweeping through Eurasia and the Middle East in the Second World War which began in 1988, has been pushed back to the Armoured City of Berlin. The Ray, a weapon that calcifies bones, keeps the armies of the World State at bay. Aerial bombing cannot harm the vast underground fortress, the Black Utopia, which holds 300 million Germans.

But one man, Lyman de Forrest, a student of German culture and language from Chicago, penetrates its upper depths, impersonates one of its chemists, and learns its secrets. But should he destroy it with his knowledge? Or attempt to bring it into the larger family of the World State?

Hastings’ novel is an astonishing novel on several levels. Continue reading

Nighteyes

I’ll continue with the Garfield Reeves-Stevens series.

This one also came to my attention via an Ed Bryant review in Locus.

Raw Feed (1990): Nighteyes, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1989.Nighteyes

Reeves-Stevens does a competent job of synthesizing ufology and alien abduction accounts into a plot of future humans snatching humans to save them from genetic stagnation and some of us from death in a mysterious apocalypse that seems to be an alien invasion (only a band of humans in New Zealand survives). It is the vagueness of this future war and apocalypse that is annoying.

The second letdown in the novel is that the subject matter of alien abduction is such a well-worked vein that even Reeves-Stevens’ skill can not bring it completely to life. The created mythology of ufo snatch raids is a synthesis of ideas about ufos, ideas largely known already. The novelty is gone. Reeves-Stevens brings the body of speculations to life, but it’s a weak life.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Bloodshift

I’m writing up a long post (on a very interesting dystopia from 1920 if you must know), so you get old stuff.

I wouldn’t have picked this one up if I hadn’t seen a favorable review of it by the late Ed Bryant in Locus.

Raw Feed (1990): Bloodshift, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1990.Bloodshift

It must be said this book has almost no characterization or, in the case of hitman Granger Helman, we have the clichéd hitman with a heart of gold who fell into his job by accident and rationalized his acts by assuring himself he’s just killing scum — which he probably is. There is also the obligatory romance between vampiress Adrienne and Helman.

But where else can you find a conspiracy of vampires, a secret cadre of ruthless Jesuits, and renegade vampires? I loved this book.

Reeves-Stevens exhibits a keen understanding of science and the world of espionage. His plot of several organizations working at cross-purposes for the same goals because they don’t communicate seemed very plausible for government, especially in its intelligence apparatus. I liked a lot of the plot twists and ideas: the Mafia using their own mortuaries as both legitimate fronts to launder money but also handy crematoriums; the Conclave inculcating psychosomatic superstition into Christianity hence the common vampire superstitions regarding holy water and the cross; the society of vampires where prospective members are kept around as food so the Conclave does not make a mark in the outside world by hunting; a centuries old cadre of ruthless, fanatical Jesuits dedicated to fighting a secret war with the vampirical Conclave; references to a banking scandal in Martinique and the murder of Pope Clement XIV; sunlamps and rocket launching missiles used on that final, great assault on the vampire stronghold; Helman finding out — in a sinking, depressing revelation — that he did not have to worry about the Conclave blackmailing him over his murders since they were all done with the tacit approval of the U.S. government; CIA front companies so successful they contribute a major portion of the agency’s funding; and the last, the neatest, the coolest plot twist of all — the Nevada Project whose side job it is to quell the real truth about cancer: that it’s an accelerating mutation in mankind which will kill most of them off except for the mutant vampire yber who are the next stage in human evolution.

Reeves-Stevens comes perilously close to doubletalk when he speaks of the m-virus being incapable of being contracted through the lungs after it’s already been contracted but that it still can, after the bloodshift of the title, be picked up by cellular receptors in the trachea and intestinal tract. (Perhaps I missed something.) Continue reading

Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories

My brief series on Sam Moskowitz’s Science Fiction in Old San Francisco series concludes.

This one takes a look at the work of Robert Duncan Milne.

Raw Feed (1998): Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1980.Science Fiction in Old San Francisco

“Introduction”, Sam Moskowitz — Basically a recapitulation of Milne’s career from the first volume in this series.

Into the Sun” — I know for sure this isn’t the first disaster story of sf or proto-sf. Mary Shelly’s The Last Man was earlier, and there may be earlier disaster or post-apocalypse stories [for instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion from 1839]. Still, this is one of the first, and I suspect it was the first in a long line of sf writers trashing their hometown though Milne was actually a Scotch immigrant, but he was writing in a San Francisco venue for a San Francisco audience. The story roughly prefigures Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” with the Earth’s rotation slowly bringing disaster. In Niven’s story, it was the heat of a sun gone nova. In Milne’s story, the sun flares up due to a comet hitting it. Milne’s science was logical. You can fault him for actually envisioning a mere comet causing a disastrous solar flare or the relatively simple atmospheric dynamics (simple but violent), but I’m not sure that Milne wasn’t using the best astronomical and meteorological understanding of his day. You can argue with the atmosphere heating up enough to melt metal too. Still, this is definitely an sf story with solid science and an early exploration of a popular sf theme.

Plucked From the Burning” — A sequel to Milne’s “Into the Sun”, this story isn’t as good. The narrator of the earlier story survived and landed in Tibet where the story starts. There are detailed descriptions of a devastated San Francisco (even more disaster porn for the local readers than in the first story) and China. These scenes reminded me of the latter parts of H. G. Wells’ later The War of the Worlds. That similarity was heightened when the narrator leads an expedition from Tibet to San Francisco (I wonder if this was the first story to feature a wide ranging tour of a trashed out world) and finds a couple of miners, spared from the cataclysmic heat of the first story, digging for gold in the ruins of Frisco. They reminded me of Wells’ mad artilleryman in The War of the Worlds. The story ends with a very brief (the last two paragraphs, basically) description of the utopia (without laws or religion) formed by the Tibetan monks who rescued him. It seems implausibly tacked on. Continue reading

Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: History of the Movement from 1854 to 1890

Sam Moskowitz showed up in some of my reading lately, so I thought I’d post reviews of a couple of his books I mentioned in passing in my Bitter Bierce series.
While I’m a bit leery of a book that mentions the Black Hills of North Dakota and Rod Steiger’s The Twilight Zone, this was still an interesting book. I took away a few things from it.

First, further information on the role that newspaper hoaxes played in early American sf or proto-sf.

Second, that there really was a community of San Francisco writers who published in numerous San Francisco publications and mostly set their stories, not surprisingly, in Frisco. The constant referrals to each others’ works shows a clear beginning of the genre awareness necessary to say that sf existed as an “invitation to form” then. There was also a generous helping of foreign sf and fantasy, including Jules Verne, published in these same magazines and newspapers. I found it interesting that many writers, foreign and American, referenced to Edgar Allan Poe as the father of the new genre that was to become sf. He certainly inspired Verne if not Wells. Poe, as a writer (and I never noticed this point) created stories of the fantastic without the supernatural. Poe, under the “invitation to form” definition of sf, may have a pretty strong claim to founding sf.

The Frisco writers may have influenced Wells since their work was sometimes reprinted over seas. William C. Morrow may have been the inspiration for the idea and eponymous character of Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Moskowitz’s main emphasis is on the career of Robert Duncan Milne, a Scottish-American (a very well-educated remittance man and drunk) who, from 1881 to about 1899, has a very good claim to being the world’s first full time sf writer.

Continue reading

Winter Tide; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Having read Emry’s The Litany of Earth, I was curious and trepidatious about reading this one when Amazon Vine offered a review copy.

The trepidation turned out to be justified.

(An alternate perspective, though agreeing on the slow pacing, is at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.)

Review: Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys, 2017.Winter Tide

For a book full of talk about blood, this novel is remarkably bloodless.

There’s blood drawn for magic spells. There’s the blood narrator Aphra Marsh sees in the “interior sea” of the bodies of those she communes with her in the Aeonist rites. There’s the blood of wounds.

What there isn’t is the blood of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. This book doesn’t just eviscerate the Mythos. It bleeds out the paranoia and wonder of Lovecraft’s stories to present a tepid story with a checklist of characters unsurprisingly and resolutely, right down to a concluding insinuation of one character’s lesbianism, drawn from Social Justice Casting.

Set a year-and-a-half after the events of Emrys’ The Litany of Earth, Aphra is approached by Spector, an agent of the United States government, concerned that Soviets will gain access to magical secrets. He recruits Aphra to help him stop possible Soviet use of magical techniques in the fraught Cold War year of 1948. Continue reading

A Window into Time

Review: A Window Into Time, Peter F. Hamilton, 2016.Window Into Time

I stayed in the flat by myself for the rest of the week and watched the shows I wanted—old stuff like Stargate and House, MD, which was great. I like House; he’s smarter than everyone else, and he’s not scared to show it. I’m going to act like that when I’m older.

Julian Costello Proctor is an aspergy, obsessive, thirteen years old, and the kind of bright kid who could tell you the “brace position” on an airplane isn’t there to protect you. It’s to protect your skull so the airlines can identify your body. He’s also naïve and believes everything on the Internet.

He’s also the narrator of Hamilton’s surprisingly charming novella. Hamilton frequently does family stories, but this is his most condensed, and the one we can most identify with because of its contemporary setting and characters who aren’t the superrich.

Julian has a perfect memory which is why the worst day of his life isn’t going to go away. It’s his thirteenth birthday, his divorced dad is marrying a new woman only nine years older than Julian and Julian’s not invited to the wedding, and Julian’s mother dies after slipping on some birthday cake frosting Julian spilled on the floor.

Julian is packed off for a bit with Uncle Gordon, the only relative who realizes that, yes, Julian really does remember everything. Gordon, trained as a physicist but who spent many years touring with rock bands as their sound engineer, now scrapes by selling audio accessories.

It’s after Julian has a weird experience of recalling a memory not his own — Is it time travel? Reincarnation? Some strange ability Julian shares with his ex-pat paternal grandfather in Spain? – that Gordon brings up Haldane’s famous remark about the universe being queerer than we can imagine.

Julian finds out he’s getting memories of one Michael Finsen, a man living in the Docklands of London. And Julian begins to fear that Finsen has a threat in his future, a threat Julian has to stop.

The thriller plot is well done, but side-by-side with it is the maturing of Julian. By sharing the memory and experiences of adult Michael, Julian gains some understanding about adult life and its emotions and concerns, what’s true and what isn’t, the ideas of romantic love and sacrifice, and that the world isn’t simply a division of the smart and stupid. It’s not a complete understanding, but maybe he wouldn’t even have that without his odd experience.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.