Friday, August 11, 2017

"Classic" books reviewed on this blog

I am personally interested in where I've gone with this blog. It began as a place for me to review a particular set of books -- bestsellers (mostly forgotten) from the early part of the 20th Century. And that remains its major focus. But I've also included a lot of reviews of a long time interest of mine: Ace Doubles. And I've also snuck in some reviews of books that really weren't bestsellers, and are often more recent (including some very recent novels, many SF), and some reviews of out and out classics (that may or may not have been bestsellers). Finally, I've covered some SF newsy subjects: convention reports, for one, and analyses of the Hugo (and Nebula) award ballots.

So, mainly for my satisfaction, I've organized the posts to date in a variety of categories, that I will summarize in a few posts.

The first category is what I'm calling Classics. I stretch this category quite a bit, to include works by major writers that might not quite be "classics", and ambitious literary works that haven't really become "classics". I ended up being surprised, and rather pleased, at how many of my posts fit this category (37 total) -- and it should be said that I have used this blog as opportunity to goad me into reading some books I have meant to read for some time. (Coming soon (soon as in perhaps a couple of months): a post  on Middlemarch.)

(Each of the titles is a link to the original post.)

Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray;

Tremor of Intent, by Anthony Burgess;

Casuals of the Sea, by William McFee;

The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster;

Washington Square, by Henry James;

Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton;

The Living End, by Stanley Elkin;

Lord Malquist and Mister Moon, by Tom Stoppard;

The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin;

Party Going, by Henry Green;

The Man Who Got Away, by Sumner Locke Elliott;

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton;

Major stories by Edith Wharton: "Roman Fever", "Xingu", "The Eyes", "Autre Temps ..." and "The Long Run", "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic;

Norwood, by Charles Portis;

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister, by Vladimir Nabokov;

The Floating Opera, by John Barth;

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa;

Tempest-Tost, by Robertson Davies;

The New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson;

A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather;

Engine Summer, by John Crowley;

A God and His Gifts, by Ivy Compton-Burnett;

A Diversity of Creatures, by Rudyard Kipling;

The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter de Vries;

Finnley Wren, by Philip Wylie;

Collected Short Fiction, by Kingsley Amis;

Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor;

Venusberg, by Anthony Powell;

Heyday, by W. M. Spackman;

Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany;

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson;

The Queen Pedauque, by Anatole France;

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley;

Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge;

Portrait of Jennie and One More Spring, by Robert Nathan;

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Old Besteller: The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Old Besteller: The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

a review by Rich Horton

This will be one of my longer reviews -- I apologize, but to quote Pascal, I didn't have the time (or, really, the energy) to make it shorter.

Was this 1852 book a bestseller? I don't know -- and I don't know of any lists kept for that period -- but I suspect it sold quite well -- Thackeray was a very successful writer, and very well known and widely celebrated in his day.

These days Thackery is of course still widely read, and remembered as one of the greatest of the Victorian novelists. But I would say that most of his reputation nowadays, at least superficially, is centered on one novel: Vanity Fair. One other novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is reasonably well-remembered because it was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick. But his own favorite among his novels, and a critical favorite as well, at least during the 19th Century, was Henry Esmond. (For example, Anthony Trollope called it "the greatest novel in the English language".)

I decided to read it on almost a whim. I had picked up an old Modern Library reprint of it some time ago. (It's almost a Centenary reprint -- my edition is from 1950.) Cleaning up my bookshelves recently I happened across it, and wondered if I should read it, but then decided to pass -- I figured I didn't have time to tackle such a long book -- it's in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, over 600 pages in my copy. That same day, Gregory Feeley mentioned Thackeray in a Facebook post, and I mentioned by the by that I had just glanced at Esmond but put it back. Greg urged me to go ahead and read it. And I thought, I've read a lot of pretty trivial books recently as part of this Old Bestseller series -- why not read something with real heft? I am very happy I did.

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India in 1811 -- his father was a secretary for the British East India company. William came to England in 1815 after his father's death. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He spent the next several years more or less wasting his time -- some travel, some apparently desultory studies of law and art, failed attempts at starting two newspapers. His family had money, but Thackery lost some of it by his own efforts and more after a couple of Indian banks failed. So upon his marriage in 1836 he had to support his family, and he turned to writing. He wrote for various magazines (Fraser's and Punch among them), doing reviews, satirical sketches, and some travel writing. He published a couple of novels (Catherine and Barry Lyndon) before becoming famous with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1848. He and his wife had three daughters. One died in infancy. The eldest, Anna Isabella, became a well known novelist in her own right. The youngest married the famous critic Leslie Stephen. After the birth of their third child, Thackeray's wife succumbed to depression, and eventually had to be committed to an asylum. Thackeray died quite young, in 1863. (Indeed his wife, still insane, outlived him by over 30 years.)

Besides the novels already mentioned, in his lifetime Thackeray published Pendennis (1848-1850), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-1859), and The Adventures of Philip (1862). The Virginians is a sequel to Henry Esmond, concerning Esmond's two grandsons, who fought on opposite sides in the Revolutionary War. He also wrote a shorter satirical fantasy, The Rose and the Ring, a lesser known pseudonymous Christmas novel, Mrs. Perkins' Ball, and numerous other books: satire, travel writing, parodies, etc.

As the dates of some of the novels mentioned above might suggest, many of Thackeray's novels were published first as serials, and (like Dickens) he often wrote them in parallel with their publication. He felt that this was harmful to their artistic unity, and one reason for his preference for Henry Esmond among his own works was that he wrote it entirely before publication. I don't think it was serialized before book publication (though I could be wrong). Indeed, the original book version was set in a typeface from the 1740s (complete with "s"s that looked like "f"s), the ostensible period of composition of Esmond's "memoirs". The full title of the novel is The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne. Written by Himself.

The novel was published in three volumes (as common at that time), and the three books are well-divided so as to cover neatly separated parts of Esmond's life (his youth first, his military career second, and his love affair with his cousin, along with his efforts to establish James, the Old Pretender, as Queen Anne's heir, in the third book). The novel opens with an introduction, "The Esmonds of Virginia", ostensibly written by Henry's daughter in 1778, some years after Esmond's death. It is a neat bit of introduction -- telling us how the story will end, offering much praise to Esmond, and even settling a score or two with the half-sister of Henry's daughter, one of the most important characters in the novel.

Then we move to Esmond's own account. His story begins (after a short look at his family history) with a momentous day in 1690 -- the arrival at the Esmond estate of Castlewood of its new Lord, the Fourth Viscount Castlewood. The Third Viscount has just died. Henry, now about 12, has been living there for a few years after he, the illegitimate son of the Viscount, was retrieved from his first guardians. Henry is a quiet, somewhat po-faced, and studious boy. He soon meets the Countess and her young daughter Beatrix. Lady Castlewood is only 19, though she has two children. Beatrix is perhaps 3 or 4. Lady Castlewood is beautiful and very kind, and insists that Henry stay with them, and be raised as another son of the family. Henry immediately forms a close and loyal attachment to her. Up to this point Henry has been raised Catholic, under the influence, mostly, of the scheming Jesuit Father Holt, an associate of the Third Viscount, who used the Viscount's money and influence as best he could to resist the ascension of William and Mary to the throne, and subsequently to plot for the return of the exiled King James II. (And, indeed, Henry's father's death happened at the Battle of Boyne, the final defeat of James II.) In succeeding years, Henry is converted to Protestantism, but remains a loyal Jacobite and Tory, though mostly not a very active one. Indeed, throughout the book, Thackeray (a Whig himself) rather has his cake and eats it too -- portraying in Henry Esmond a man who supports the Jacobite side for reasons of family loyalty (and to some extent principle), but who constantly acknowledges the superior qualities of William IV and later George I to their rivals such as James II and the Old Pretender, called by some James III. Likewise Esmond is very complimentary to many of his Whig rivals.

Henry's young career, then, is portrayed -- his earlier education by Father Holt, then his first years with the new Viscount, his wife and children -- and Henry's attempts to help educate the younger chldren. Henry finally is given enough money to go to Cambridge -- the plan is that he will become a clergyman and get the living at Castlewood. In the mean time we are shown the deterioration of the marriage of Lord and Lady Castlewood. I thought this one of the best parts of the book -- it seemed emotionally real, and believable, and only too familiar, as well as something of a commentary on the treatment of women in that society.

The critical episode that concludes the first segment of the book -- and also concludes Henry's college career -- is the murder by the despicable Lord Mohun (an historical figure apparently quite as bad a person as portrayed by Thackeray) of Lord Castlewood. Henry acts as Lord Castlewood's second, and is sent to prison (duelling was illegal). Mohun, meanwhile, is convicted of murder and then essentially pardoned because he is a member of the House of Lords.

The second part, then, is primarily focussed on Henry's military career, which is on the whole fairly successful. Henry fights, over a number of years, in the War of the Spanish Succession. The key General for England in this war was the Duke of Marlborough, and Esmond's rather harsh portrayal of Marlborough is one of the controversial elements of the novel. In Esmond's view (and perhaps Thackeray's?) Marlborough was a brilliant military man but cynical and opportunist and unwilling to allow any credit to go to anyone but him (or those who could go him political good). Esmond also is quite honest and regretful of the terrible toll of war on the civilian populations in the way. That particular war, despite a great deal of English success on the battlefield, ended in sort of a dispiriting draw, which seems appropriate to the themes of the novel.

This part also discusses Henry's friendship with Richard Steele (of Addison and Steele), whom he meets first when Steele is in the Army, and later becomes close to while Steele and Addison are writing the Spectator. Addison is given some play as well. Esmond also makes a critical discovery -- in fact, he is not a bastard -- his father had married Henry's mother before Henry was born, though the then abandoned her, and she left the baby with his first guardians and entered a nunnery. Henry makes the noble decision not to contest his inheritance -- in great part because of his love for the Lady Castlewood and her children, Beatrix and Frank, who is now the Fifth Viscount Castlewood. And, indeed, Henry and Frank spend a great deal of time together in the Army, and Frank ends up marrying a Belgian woman.

Finally the third section primarily deals with two aspects: Henry's rather one-sided love affair with his cousin Beatrix, and Henry's involvement with a plot to have the so-styled James III come to England as Queen Anne is dying, hoping that she will name him her heir. It is really no spoiler to say that neither affair comes to a successful end from Henry's point of view -- except that from another point of view -- the older Henry's, for one! -- both affairs end in very much the way they should have. It is historical fact, of course, that Anne was succeeded by George I of Hanover -- and Esmond points out at length his opinion that George was by far the better man, and better King, than James would have been. Henry is a Tory, but Thackeray was a Whig, and Thackeray has his main character, despite his nominal Toryism, promote the Whig side at almost every chance. Henry's political views, and his Jacobitism, are seen as purely the result of family loyalty -- his personal inclinations are clearly for the Whigs, and for William and Mary, Anne, and the Hanovers.

As for his affair with Beatrix, this is one of the most wonderful aspects of this book. Henry is enchanted with her from the moment he sees her as a woman, instead of as his young girl cousin. And Beatrix never seems to see him as anything but her loyal and rather dour cousin -- the boy who tried to teach her Latin and other subjects when she was a child, the rather prudish and overserious adult. But over many years she remains Henry's object of desire -- even as he knows that she will not make anyone happy. Beatrix herself has several serious -- and rich -- suitors, eventually settling on the Duke of Hamilton, a much older man and a widower. Yet this too comes to grief at the hands of the evil Lord Mohun (another actual historical incident). But after all this, Henry -- exiled to America after his part in the plot to put James III on the throne -- marries Beatrix' mother, and Henry's quasi-stepmother, the Dowager Countess of Castlewood, and they live happily for many years in Virginia.

That's rather a strange resolution (though it's something we know from the beginning of the novel, as it is revealed in the introduction). It has been clear for a long time that Rachel is in love with Henry -- Henry's own feelings are less clear. Surely he loves Rachel, but much of that love seems more as that of a son. And surely Rachel is the better woman. Yet -- even this is ambiguous. For our source on this is Henry himself -- and indeed our source on Beatrix' worthiness as Henry's object of desire is in great part her mother -- whose motives are in question. And, indeed, Beatrix' rejection of Henry is perhaps not so clear -- there is a significant scene in which she complains to Henry that he keeps trying to prove himself worthy of her love, when perhaps what she really wanted was a man who wouldn't take no for an answer. The whole question of the truth of this triangle is one of the fascinating and strange aspects of this novel.

At any rate, as must be clear, I loved this book. I haven't discussed the prose much -- but it is, to my taste, magnificent. It is Victorian prose, of course -- the sentences are long and complex, but perfectly structured. As such it may not be to the taste of many modern readers, but for me it works beautifully. The characters, too, including the historical personages, come entirely to life. The incidents are fascinating, sometimes hard to believe. The Henry/Beatrix affair is emotionally wholly believable, and the relationship between Henry and his eventual wife, Rachel, is quite strange but also rings true to me -- and is quite moving. My description is perhaps too prosy and has too much plot summary -- though much more happens than I mention! And, as with most great novels, there is a fair amount of comedy as well. I recommend it very highly.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A neglected recent SF novel: In the Hall of the Martian King, by John Barnes

Not so Old but sadly all but forgotten: In the Hall of the Martian King, by John Barnes

a review by Rich Horton

I have really enjoyed almost everything I've read by John Barnes (born 1957, so two years older than me, and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis). Barnes seems to me an example of a really good SF writer who for one reason or another has never quite hit it big. Which isn't to say he hasn't got some positive notice -- he's had a couple or three Nebula and Hugo nominations, and he's certainly a well-known SF writer. I first really noticed him (though I'd been reading him already) with the novelette that became the opening of his Thousand Cultures series, "Canso de Fis de Jovent". That's a beautiful story of a society on another planet explicitly based on the Occitan culture (Oc in Occitan as in the "Langue D'Oc", the Romance language spoken in Southern France and in Catalonia, similar to Catalan and French -- the beautiful folk songs collected by Jacque Canteloube as Chants Des Auvergne are in Auvergnois, one of hte Langue D'Oc dialects). The novels in the series chronicle what happens to the Thousand Cultures of human-coloinized space when they are forcibly united after the invention of the "springer" (matter transmitter). But I digress. I liked those books a lot. My favorite Barnes novel, however, is The Sky So Big and Black, a heartbreaking a terribly scary story set on Mars -- in my opinion one of the best SF novels of this millennium, and one of the most unjustly ignored. He's also written some tremendous short fiction -- the best of which may be a remarkable time travel story, "Things Undone".

Another of his projects was a series of (at least at first) YA novels set in a fascinatingly crowded 36th Century Solar System. The series looked like it was planned to continue for several books, maybe to end up as sort of a travelogue of that System, but it stopped at the third book, not really coming to an overall resolution. Still, the books are a lot of fun, and I wish he'd been able to continue them.

This is the review I did in 2003 for SF Site of the third (and last) novel in the series, written while I still though there would be more books in it.

Here is the third novel in John Barnes's ongoing chronicle of the life and times of Jak Jinnaka, a young man in a widely inhabited 36th Century Solar System. The previous two novels are The Duke of Uranium (2002) and A Princess of the Aerie (2003). The first book seemed, in many ways, an hommage to the Heinlein juveniles, with explicit echoes of Starship Troopers, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel. But as Jak grows older, the series has grown darker, more cynical, and decidedly less appropriate for a Young Adult audience. The stories remain great fun, though, at times a romp, at times something more serious -- certainly a set of books I will keep searching out. [Or would have, had the series continued.]

Jak is a citizen of the Hive, a huge space habitat at the Earth/Sun L5 point. In the previous books, we have followed his career as a part-time secret agent, and somewhat of a celebrity, due to his involvement in a couple of high-profile adventures. As this book opens, he has graduated from the Hive's Public Service Academy, and taken a job as Vice Procurator of the Hive's base on the Martian moon Deimos. At the same time he is secretly an agent of Hive Intelligence. His life is further complicated by his continued conditioned lust for his former girlfriend, the sadistic Princess Shyf of Greenworld, a nation of the Aerie (at the Earth/Sun L4 point). All he wants is to be cured of this conditioning, and to get a more exciting job. But his bosses at Hive Intel have a use for him in his present state and position.

The crisis driving the main action of In the Hall of the Martian King is the discovery of a lifelog of Paj Nakasen, the originator of the "Wager", a quasi-religious set of principles that lies at the heart of 36th Century human society. This lifelog was discovered at an archaeological dig in one of many tiny Martian nations. The Hive wants this document, and further, Hive Intelligence wants it separately from the more public Hive. Greenworld wants it, and Princess Shyf is flying to Mars, hoping to use her hold on Jak to gain possession. The Martian King who nominally owns the lifelog wants proper compensation. And there are other players. To make Jak's life harder still, he is ordered to obtain the document for Hive Intel, but to deflect the credit to Clarbo Waynong, a particularly stupid member of a highly placed Hive family. And he must balance the personal and professional desires of his old friend Dujuv, a roving Consul for the Hive on Mars; his Uncle and guardian Sib, who is coming to Mars for his 200th birthday celebration; and the great-great-granddaughter of his current boss on Deimos, who has been seconded to him to gain work experience.

All this leads to an amusing series of comedies of errors, as various attempts are made to obtain (by fair means or foul) the lifelog. Much of the book is rather funny, and much is quite exciting. Barnes gives us an impressive set-piece or two while the McGuffin is tussled over. But it's not all funny -- there is serious speculation about the proper organization of society, and there is some wrenching tragedy as well. Princess Shyf is a truly vicious character, and her involvement is hardly uplifting. Good people die. And the information in the lifelog itself turns out to have potentially catastrophic repercussions for Jak's society.

As with all the novels in this series, the wheels-within-wheels of the plot are almost exhausting, and not quite believable. But Jak is an interesting and ambiguous character, well worth reading about. The action of the books is quite enjoyable, even if not always what it seems on the surface. Barnes tackles some interesting ideas, though I think he stacks the decks of his arguments on occasion. The background details of the social order, the technological underpinning, and the varied cultures of the 36th Century Solar System are just delightfully presented. I'm really enjoying these novels.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Old Non-Bestseller: Tremor of Intent, by Anthony Burgess

Old Non-Bestseller: Tremor of Intent, by Anthony Burgess

a review by Rich Horton

Anthony Burgess (full name John Anthony Burgess Wilson) was one of the major English writers of the 20th Century. These days he is best known for A Clockwork Orange, but many of his other novels are very well-regarded, such as those of the Enderby Quartet. Much of his work was in the comic and/or satirical mode. Certainly the novel at hand, Tremor of Intent, is distinctly funny, and very much a satire.

Burgess was born in 1917 and died in 1993. His family was Catholic. His mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Burgess was educated at Catholic schools and then at the Victoria University of Manchester (now simply the University of Manchester). He served in the Army in the Second World War, then became a teacher, eventually joining the Colonial Service and teaching in Malaysia and Brunei. He wrote his first novels in Malaysia in the mid-50s. When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1959 he was invalided out of the servce, returned to England, and set about writing as many novels as he could, to leave some money for his family after his soon-expected death. This seems to have established his career as a writer. (Burgess, it should be said, sometimes disputed that account.)  In addition to his writing, he was an accomplished and fairly prolific composer. Once his writing made him financially successful, he spent much of his life outside of England as a tax exile, living in Italy, France, the US, and eventually mostly in Monaco.

I have previously read only A Clockwork Orange, and that a very long time ago. I thought it time to try some more of his novels, and my decision as to which one was made when I happened across a paperback copy of his spy novel Tremor of Intent at an estate sale. Burgess was notably sympathetic to genre fiction, and he was a fan of spy novels -- for instance, I have an edition of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale with a very approving introduction by him. (That noted, Tremor of Intent is rather a send up of the James Bond side of the spy novel category.) It was first published in 1966. My edition is the Ballantine paperback, from 1967, and it declares on the back "Soon to be a major motion picture". No such picture eventuated. (Burgess also wrote a screenplay for The Spy Who Loved Me, though it was not used. He wrote several other screenplays that were produced, of which the most prominent is probably the Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth.) As the title of this review implies, I don't think Tremor of Intent was true bestseller, but it seems to have sold reasonably well, and also to have been well-received critically.

The protagonist of the book is Denis Hillier, a British spy. As the book opens, he is beginning his last mission -- to retrieve a physicist named Roper who has defected to the Soviet Union. Roper, it turns out, was a fellow schoolboy at the Catholic school Hillier attended (presumably a school very much like Burgess's), and the two were close. The first section of the book is presented as Hillier's progress report to his superior, not intended to be delivered, and it includes an extended memoir of his acquaintance with Roper, at first in school, then after the War, when he meets Roper's wife, whom he met while "cleaning up" in Germany after the War, including liberating a camp. It turns out that she is a prostitute, and probably an East German spy to boot. Hillier forcibly separates them (having his way with the wife in the process -- Hillier, as he puts it, suffers from two diseases: gluttony and satyriasis). This section as a whole portrays Roper as a fairly good scientist who is otherwise a serial true believer -- first in the Church, then in reaction to the Church, particularly eventually turning to Socialism.

The second section concerns Hillier's time on the ship taking him to the Crimea, where he will meet Roper at a scientific conference. This for one thing gives him the opportunity for indulging his diseases -- it is a luxury cruise after all, to satisfy the gluttony, and he meets two objects of lust -- a beautiful mysterious Indian woman named Devi, and a lovely girl, Clara, perhaps 16, who seems obsessed with losing her virginity. Other characters include Devi's companion, one Theodorescu, a somewhat sinister stateless man who reveals that his work is finding information and selling it to the highest bidder. He is more than willing (being a pederast) to have Devi seduce Hillier to help him obtain the information Hillier surely has. We also meet Clara's precocious younger brother, who seems to know everything that's going on, and a very funny and very competent -- perhaps too competent -- ship steward. Clara and her brother are worried about their father's health, and their fate should he die, as their unsympathetic and unfaithful new stepmother surely hopes.

The final section brings us to Russia, and to the climax of numerous plans. Hillier consummates his relationship with Clara -- he is threatened by the sinister Theodorescu -- he makes his way to the conference amongst an amusingly incompetent set of Russian officials -- he encounters Roper and learns his latest obsession (he hates England because Queen Elizabeth had one of his Catholic ancestors executed) -- and he learns the true reason for Roper's defection, as well as the truth behind numerous other aspects of the whole situation. The final scene reveals Hillier's entirely appropriate eventual apotheosis.

This is all deeply satirical, in a very cynical fashion. Certainly both the English and Russians, especially their intelligence branches, are portrayed as utterly amoral, and fairly incompetent. It is important to note that it does not really try to be either a realist spy novel (like John le Carre's work) or a spy adventure (like Ian Fleming's work), and if you look for either you will be disappointed. Burgess portrayed himself as a Jacobean royalist (much like the title character of another novel I just read, Henry Esmond!), and he works some aspects of that belief set into the book. It is very funny as well, even when grotesque things happen. There are somewhat over the top sendups of Bondian spy heroics, and absurd portrayals of official incompetence, and a parade of somewhat outre characters who fascinate in their obssessiveness and immorality (Hillier most certainly included), and yet who never quite lose the reader's sympathy, except perhaps for a couple of characters Burgess seems to truly disapprove of (Theodorescu and also Clara's mother). I thought it thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well-written, and despite its purposefully unrealistic aspects, I thought it a fairly serious novel behind the play and the cynicism.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Significant Early Ace Double: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp

Ace Double Reviews, 62: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp (#D-61, 1954, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This early Ace Double stands as one of the better pairings in the series' history. Both authors are SFWA Grand Masters. Both books are fine work, and very characteristic of the author. Neither story is quite a classic, and as such the book stands just shy of the very best Doubles (a couple of suggestions for the best: Conan the Conqueror/The Sword of Rhiannon; and, if one allows a "recombination", the late repackaging of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle).

Ring Around the Sun is a Complete and Unabridged reprint (or so Ace claims -- there were times when the cover said Complete and Unabridged but the contents were definitely cut) of a 1953 Simon and Schuster hardcover, which was serialized beginning in December 1952 in Galaxy. It is about 75,000 words (one of the longest Ace Double halves). Cosmic Manhunt is called an "Ace Original", but it is a very lightly revised reprinting if De Camp's 1949 Astounding serial "The Queen of Zamba". It is about 50,000 words long.


Clifford Simak's first SF stories were more or less standard (but well regarded) pre-Campbell pulp adventures -- Isaac Asimov liked his first, "World of the Red Sun", enough to retell it aloud to his elementary school friends. (Asimov later wrote a harshly critical letter to Astounding about one of Simak's first stories for John Campbell, and Simak replied asking for advice on how to improve. Asimov abashedly reread the story and decided he was wrong and Simak was right.) He stopped writing for several years in the 30s, only to be lured back by John Campbell. Simak, with Williamson, Leinster, and a few others, was able to make the transition from 30s pulp to the more serious science fiction Campbell wanted. Simak made his biggest impression over the next decade with the series of stories that became his fixup novel City, which won the International Fantasy Award in 1953. He published two of the earlier Galaxy serials: "Time Quarry" (book title: Time and Again), which appeared in the first three issues of Galaxy (October through November 1950) and Ring Around the Sun. (He also had a novel published as a "Galaxy Novel" in 1951: Empire, a very little known book, based on the same John Campbell novella ("All") that Robert Heinlein turned into Sixth Column.)

Ring Around the Sun is an intriguing effort that I don't think quite comes off. The hero is Jay Vickers, a writer living in upstate New York. He lives alone, with apparently just one friend, a tastefully named old man named Horton Flanders. His agent is a lovely woman named Ann Carter, but her evident interest in him is hopeless: Jay can't forget his love for Kathleen Preston, a rich neighbor girl in his home town (presumably located in Southwestern Wisconsin, where Simak routinely set stories) who was sent away by her parents to keep her from poverty-stricken Jay's attention. Jay feels different in other ways: there is the memory of an enchanted valley he visited with Kathleen, and of a strange place he went to as a boy, by the agency of an old top.

Jay is called to New York to meet with a man who wants him to write an exposé of some new products that have been showing up. These are things like a razor blade that never wears out, a light bulb that never burns out, and, most radically, a car that will run forever: the Forever car. George Crawford represents an industry group that is afraid of the effect of these products on the world's economy, and he wants Jay to write articles about the danger. But Jay distrusts Crawford and refuses. Then his friend Horton Flanders disappears, and suddenly people seem suspicious of Jay himself. And of anyone involved with the Forever car and the other new products. It seems that there are "supermen" among us, and that Jay may be one of those who doesn't recognize his talents. Jay escapes a potential lynching and heads for his hometown to try to unravel the mysteries of his birth and upbringing, and of the enchanted valley he once visited.

The story gets a little stranger from there. It seems that there are not just supermen but androids involved. And parallel worlds -- possibly available for colonization. And messages from the stars. And multiple copies of the same individual. Horton Flanders is in on the whole thing. George Crawford's industry group is engaged in fomenting a war if that's what it takes to stop the incursion of these miracle products and to stop the subjugation of "normal" people by supermen. Ann Carter may be a superwoman herself. And, indeed, the destinies of Flanders, Vickers, Carter, and Crawford seem all to be most curiously intertwined.

This is a very imaginative and pretty thoughtful and ambitious story. Still, I don't think Simak quite brings off what he's trying. Vickers is a thinnish character, and his relationship with Ann Carter is thinner still. Simak's ideas, and his moral, are interesting, but not quite developed as well as I'd have liked. The conclusion is just a bit rapid. (Interestingly, he reused some of these ideas (not all!) in a later novelette, "Carbon Copy" (Galaxy, December 1957).)

Finally, I note that the novel is blurbed "Easily the best Science Fiction novel so far in 1953" -- New York Herald Tribune. I don't know when it appeared in 1953 (in book form), but that's a striking comment given that books published that year included The Demolished Man, Fahrenheit 451, Childhood's End, More Than Human, The Paradox Men, The Sword of Rhiannon, Second Foundation, and The Space Merchants. (This doesn't include serials from 1953 such as "The Caves of Steel" and "Mission of Gravity" that became books a year later.) 1953 was truly an annus mirabilis for the SF field, and Ring Around the Sun is a worthy supporting player among the long list of great work from that year.

Cosmic Manhunt, as I mentioned, is a slight revision of L. Sprague de Camp's 1949 serial "The Queen of Zamba". According to de Camp's foreword to a later reprint, the only change was in the name of the hero's sidekick. The Chinese name Chuen from the serial became Yano (Japanese, or more specifically Okinawan) in the Ace edition, due to Don Wollheim's concern that Chinese people were unpopular as a result of the Korean War. Otherwise the stories are identical as far as I can tell. The book was reprinted by itself by Ace in 1966, the title changed again, to A Planet Called Krishna. And it was reprinted in 1977, restored to the original text and title, in an Asimov's Choice paperback (from Davis Publications), with the Krishna novelette "Perpetual Motion" appended.

I believe this is the first of de Camp's Krishna novels. Quite a few followed, all with a Z place name in the title: The Hand of Zei (1951), The Virgin of Zesh (1953), The Tower of Zanid (1958), The Hostage of Zir (1977), The Bones of Zora (1983) and The Swords of Zinjaban (1991). These last two were co-written with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp. (There is also a book called The Search for Zei which I assume is a retitling of The Hand of Zei. (It turns out that some editions split The Hand of Zei into two parts, with The Search for Zei being the other part.) The Krishna novels are the main part of his Viagens Interplanetarias series, which includes a number of other stories and the novel Rogue Queen (1951). The most recognizable gimmicks of the series are that the future Earth is dominated by Brazil, hence the lingua franca is Portuguese, and that space travel is restricted to light speed. De Camp claimed this was to keep the books SF: to violate relativity would make them fantasy. Maybe so, but the silly biology of the Krishna books seems equally fantastical.

In The Queen of Zamba (a title much to be preferred to Cosmic Manhunt in my view), private investigator Victor Hasselborg is hired by a rich man to track down his daughter, who has run off with an ineligible rogue. Hasselborg agrees to the job, then finds himself obligated to travel to Krishna, where the couple has apparently decamped (pun intended). Worse, he falls in love with the bad guy's abandoned wife, but she'll have to wait 9 years or so for him to return. (Krishna appears to be at Alpha Centauri or perhaps Barnard's Star, based on travel time.)

On Krishna, Hasselborg disguises himself as a Krishnan portrait painter. He follows the trail of the two lovers to one kingdom, where he meets the King (or Dour) and is rapidly slapped in jail. Before long he is fighting a duel for his life with the Dour. He escapes to another town, and falls in with the local high priest, also arranging to paint the Emperor's portrait. Unfortunately, the nubile (and oviparous) niece of the high priest takes a liking to him, and when he needs help the price is marriage. Meanwhile he runs into K. Yano (or Chuen), a ship companion who seems to be an Earth agent. They realize they are after the same people -- in Yano's case, because the bad guy is suspected of running guns to Krishna, with the object of making himself the planetary ruler. He has already taken over the island kingdom of Zamba (at last, the title becomes clear!). It is up to Hasselborg and Yano to foil the plot, and then resolve their conflicting requirements re the villains. (And in Hasselborg's case, worry about whether if he brings her husband to justice, his beloved will stay married to him, or ...)

It's certainly a pleasant adventure romp, with plenty of color and light-hearted humor. As SF, it's not really all that inspiring -- it could easily enough have been recast as historical fiction. Victor Hasselborg is enjoyable to follow, though his mixture of competence and what seems at times pasted on foibles and diffidence is not quite convincing. His romance is not too exciting -- the girl behind offstage for almost the entire book. Fun, worth your time, not an enduring classic.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

Old Besteller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

a review by Rich Horton

This book was not a major bestseller, but it seems to have been well-known back in the day, and to have been fairly popular. It is subtitled "A Romance of Early Canada", which sort of fits the occasional Canadiana subset of this series of reviews, though Samuel Merwin was an American (born in Chicago (actually in Evanston, and educated at Northwestern, which is also in Evanston), but eventually based in New Jersey).

Indeed one reason for my interest in this book was the name of the author. Sam Merwin, Jr., was the best editor (by general consensus) in the history of the sister science fiction magazines Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as an SF writer himself; and I wondered if this Samuel Merwin was related. And indeed, the author of The Road to Frontenac (and a number of other novels and plays) was Sam Merwin, Jr.'s father. The elder man was born in 1874 and died in 1936. Besides novels and plays he served as an editor of SUCCESS magazine ... in his son's case, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

The Road to Frontenac was Merwin's first solo novel, though he had previously published a couple of novels with his frequent collaborator Henry Kitchell Webster. It was published in 1901 by Doubleday, Page; and it also appears to have been serialized in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. My edition is a later reprint, part of a series published by P. F. Collier, collectively called American Classical Romances. Most of the books in that series are fairly obscure, though it does include Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp, and books I recognized by the likes of F. Hopkinson Smith, Amelia Barr, Robert W. Chambers, and Paul Leicester Ford. I don't know for sure when this edition came out -- perhaps the '20s? My copy is illustrated by E. Blumenschein.
(Illustration by E. Blumenschein)

The story is set in 1687, right in the middle of the "Beaver Wars" between New France and the Iroquois nations. It opens with the hero, Captain Menard, watching a group of Indians being taken off to be galley slaves. This is an actual historical incident, in which the French governor tricked a group of 50 Iroquois chiefs to meet with his people, then captured them. Menard, it is clear, is disgusted by this action, and is convinced it will lead to nothing but trouble. It is part and parcel of his overall contempt for the Governor, Denonville.

However, as a loyal French soldier, he must follow orders. And his next order is to go to Frontenac (present day Kingston, Ontario) and somehow convince the Iroquois nations (excepting the Senecas) to stay out of the fight when the New French forces attack the Senecas, who have been stealing furs from French traders. To complicate things further, he is also to escort Valerie St. Denis, a young woman, to her cousin in Frontenac. He will be accompanied by a couple of canoemen, and by one soldier -- he chooses the young Lieutenant Danton -- and by one priest, Father Claude de Casson.

The journey starts well enough. Lieutenant Danton seems smitten with Valerie St. Denis (called "the maid" throughout), and she is happy enough to spend time with him. They both begin to learn the Iroquois language. Father Claude, an aspiring artist, shows Captain Menard his portrait of the Iroquois Christian Catherine Outasouren. (I don't know if she was an historical personage.) Danton shows his immaturity, and has to be chastised by Menard, and a time comes when he apparently makes advances to the maid, and is rebuffed. Then disaster strikes, and the band is captured by a group of Onondagas.

It soon becomes clear that the leader of this group, the Long Arrow, is the brother of one of the men taken to be a galley slave, and that he is planning to revenge himself on Menard. His plans are complicated by Menard's own status -- he spent years living with the Onondagas. He is called the Big Buffalo. (I am forced to wonder if the range of the Buffalo (or more correctly, American Bison) extended to Eastern Canada in this period.) The four survivors -- Menard, Father Claude, Danton, and the maid -- are imprisoned, awaiting a planned torture of Menard. Against orders, Danton tries to escape, with an Indian woman, and the two are caught and scalped. And Menard is forced to try desperately to save Father Claude and Valerie, and if possible to use his influence, from this position of weakness, the Iroquois to stay out of the battle with the Senecas. His only hope is to last until the leader of the local Iroquois, the Big Throat, arrives.

The other complicating factor is that, in close proximity with Valerie St. Denis, he falls in love with her. But part of his plan is to offer her cousin, Captain La Grange, to the Iroquois as a scapegoat -- he is apparently a drunk and a bad soldier, and was the true villain (along with the Governor) in the treacherous capture of the galley slaves. His personal position become worse when he realizes that Valerie has been promised to La Grange, her cousin, as his wife.

The core of the story is the time spent imprisoned in the Onondaga village, culminating in a dramatic council meeting, in which sanity appears to reign ... except that more treachery awaits. But of course, after much danger, our heroes win through, only to hear news of an ambiguous New French victory over the Seneca, and to be rebuffed when Menard insists on punishment for La Grange. The day is saved by one of Menard's Indian allies, leading to s somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, including of course success for Menard's suit.

Despite a slightly muffed ending, I thought it a fairly exciting and interesting novel. Its historical details seem mostly pretty correct, though while Menard's efforts in the novels, and real events in history, led to temporary success for New France, the Iroquois soon were resisting more energetically, and the eventual solution involved removing Denonville and having Frontenac return, after he finds the 13 surviving Iroquois chiefs who had been enslaved and returns them to their people.

More problematic historically and culturally, I am sure, is the treatment of the Iroquois, and the depiction of their society. I get the sense that Merwin made a fairly earnest attempt at an accurate and fairly respectful depiction of their society, for all that. Even so, there is a distinct hint of condescension, if coupled with a definite acknowledgement that New France was often profoundly in the wrong in their treatment of the Indians. I don't really know how accurate Merwin's account truly is, to be sure. For popular fiction of its time, it seems like a pretty honest effort, but I dare say it falls short on several grounds.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Another Obscure Ace Double: Stepsons of Terra, by Robert Silverberg/A Man Called Destiny, by Lan Wright

Ace Double Reviews, 107: Stepsons of Terra, by Robert Silverberg/A Man Called Destiny, by Lan Wright (#D-311, 1958, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've written about Ace Doubles by both of these writers before. Indeed, I've written about quite of few of Robert Silverberg's Ace Doubles, and perhaps I'll go on and read all his early novels and write about them. (Undeniably these novels, dating from say 1955 through 1963, are less accomplished than his later work, especially the remarkable decade from 1965 through 1975 or so, but the early work is still of some interest, and always competent and entertaining.)
(cover by Ed Emshwiller)


I'm going to assume readers need little information about Silverberg -- born in 1935, began publishing SF in 1954, first novel in 1955, multiple Hugos and Nebulas, SFWA Grand Master, even in mostly retirement now he is currently on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work (Traveler of Worlds, a collection of conversations with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro). Lan Wright is much less known, so here's what I wrote about him in a previous post: Lan Wright was a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (1923-2010), who was a regular contributor to the UK SF magazines, mostly E. J. Carnell's (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction Adventures), from 1952 through 1963. As far as I know he never even once appeared in a US magazine. Indeed, he only once appeared in an anthology, a British book edited by Carnell. He did have five novels published in the US, four of them Ace Doubles, the last of these in 1968. He seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) after the age of 45.

Silverberg's Stepsons of Terra opens with a somewhat familiar situation: Baird Ewing, a representative of a colony planet, threatened by invading aliens, comes to Earth to ask for help. Ewing is disgusted to learn that Earth has become completely decadent, and is unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to offer any help. He does make contact with a representative of Earth's oldest Colony, Sirius IV, and realizes that they seem much more vigorous. But while Sirius seems more aggressive that Earth, it's soon clear that no help will come from that direction.

Ewing also encounters a group of scholars who seem to have at least some interest in him. He agrees to meet with them -- they wish to learn from him at any rate. They also warn him about the Sirians -- dangerous people, they say -- while Ewing receives an anonymous note urging him to have nothing to do with the scholars.

As time goes on, things twist further. Ewing learns that the Sirians are well advanced on a plan to completely take control of Earth. There is a clumsy attempt by a Sirian woman to seduce him. And he learns to his surprise that the Earth scholars have hit on something quite remarkable -- the secret to time travel.

The rest of the story is a convoluted tale of multiple time loops, and Ewing commandeers the Sirian machine and goes back in time, creating several copies of himself, some of which are doomed to noble suicides to undo paradoxes. He is tortured and then mysteriously rescued and in the end, is able to lead both the resistance to Sirius and the battle against the invading aliens.

(cover by Ed Emshwiller)
It's decent pulpy adventure. I'm not sure the logic of the time travel really holds up well, but then, when does it ever? Minor work, sure, but more evidence that Silverberg, even when just turning the crank, was always professional enough to entertain.

I should add that Stepsons of Terra was first published in the April 1958 issue of Science Fiction Adventures, under the title "Shadow on the Stars". That text seems likely the same text as that of the Ace Double version. The magazine had an Ed Emshwiller cover that I've already reproduced on this blog-- it was used again as the cover of the 1963 Lancer paperback Great Science Fiction Adventures, an anthology of novellas from that magazine, which I previously discussed here.

Lan Wright's A Man Called Destiny concerns a man named Richard Argyle, who is stranded on remote Jones Planet as one of the engineers for a small spaceship. He meets a man named Spiros, who tells him that his wife (Argyle's) who had left him years earlier is dead, and that the leader of the company that employed her when she died wants to meet with him, and to offer him a job. This company, Dellora, is one of several companies that control Galactic trade.

When Argyle gets to Rigel Five, he looks up Spiros, only to learn that he has been murdered -- in a way only explainable if a man teleported in to kill him and left the same way. Argyle establishes a relationship with the lawman investigating the murder, and then heads to Dellora Planet to try to meet with the company's leader

(cover by Ed Valigursky)
Things begin to get complicated ... Argyle meets with Pietro Dellora on his private satellite, and they hit it off, but before you know it, Dellora has been killed as well. And Argyle has heard hints of some potential involvement of Preacher Judd, the new leader of Earth. Argyle is something of a suspect in the murder of Dellora, but he is finally able to head to Earth to try to learn more about Judd. And, eventually to learn more about himself.

The story turns, really, on two conflicts -- that of normal humans with people with superpowers, including Teleportation; and secondly between the Trading companies that want to control the Galaxy, and Earth. And Judd, no surprise, begins to learn that he too has special powers -- as did his murdered wife, and, of course, as does Judd.

It's all pretty implausible, and full of wish fulfillment. That said, it reads OK -- I was most interested in what would happen next, even if I couldn't believe much of it. And I'd say the book could have been cut by 10,000 words easily ... A very minor effort.