Thursday, October 19, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: Mr. Fortune's Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Old Bestseller Review: Mr. Fortune's Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

a review by Rich Horton

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a British novelist and poet who often wrote fantastical stories -- most significantly perhaps in her very late collection Kingdoms of Elfin (1977). I think I saw a story or two of her in anthologies edited by Terri Windling. She was a notable Lesbian writer (or perhaps bisexual, as she did have at least one significant relationship with a man), living with the poet Valentine Ackland from 1930 until Ackland's death in 1969; and her novels often feature characters of ambiguous sexuality. That is surely the case with the novel at hand, Mr. Fortune's Maggot.

Warner's father, George Townsend Warner, was a housemaster at Harrow School, and indeed the school's prize in History is named after him. Warner was an expert on Church music, one of the editors of Tudor Church Music. She spent some time in the Communist Party, then became disillusioned (as, one would like to think, who couldn't?), but remained politically involved from the Left.

I don't know that Warner ever had a major bestseller, but at least her first, and still best-known, novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), sold very well. Mr. Fortune's Maggot was her second novel, published in 1927. My copy is the second printing of the first edition. Much of her work had as a theme a rejection of Christianity, though, based on Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the Christianity being rejected is a conventional and unthinking version. The book is quite short, something shy of 50,000 words.

Mr. Fortune is a curious case -- he spent most of his adult life as a clerk for a bank. Finally finding a vocation -- and a fortuitous inheritance -- he attended seminary (or "training college") and upon ordination went to an archipelago in the Pacific as a missionary. Alas, his skills were quickly noticed, and he spent years managing the mission's finances. Finally he insisted upon a more active missionary role, and went to the isolated island of Fanua.

On Fanua he makes a single convert, an adolescent boy named Lueli. He finds the rest of the island's inhabitants not terribly interested in his preaching. They find their life easy, and their habit of each having a personal god, or idol, has worked just fine for them. Mr. Fortune and Lueli live together, in a hut somewhat isolated from the primary village.

This relationship has rather obvious homoerotic aspects, though Mr. Fortune seems mostly unaware of them. He is rather obviously a gay man who is closeted even to himself. It's made clear that his past relationships with women were tepid and obligatory, and his love for Lueli, and Lueli's for him, is made obvious, though it is never consummated. Mr. Fortune continues to attempt to convert Lueli to a full commmitment to Christianity, but with little success. And after a crisis -- an earthquake and volcanic eruption -- Mr. Fortune realizes the error of his ways, and loses his faith. More importantly, to him, Lueli has lost not his faith, such as it was, but his will to live. Most of the rest of the novel concerns Mr. Fortune's efforts to restore Lueli's will.

The novel proceeds then to a fairly obvious resolution. The ending is rather bittersweet, though unavoidable. I have to say, on balance, that I really wasn't all that impressed. The Christianity that Mr. Fortune rejects is a rather weak version of Christianity. And Mr. Fortune, though very believable as a character, is in the end not terribly interesting. Neither, really, is Lueli. There are some intriguing characters among the other islanders, but they get short shrift. Mr. Fortune's Maggot is a short book, with some nice passages, and I'm not sorry I read it, but it seems quite a minor effort to me.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

a review by Rich Horton

Vercors was the pseudonym adopted by French artist and engraver Jean Bruller (1902-1991) for his writing during the French Resistance to German occupation in World War II. Bruller had been invalided out of the French Army prior to the war, then quickly injured when he returned to action, so he turned to writing an inspirational novella, The Silence of the Sea (1942). His work was published by a clandestine press he cofounded, Les Éditions de Minuit -- which was dangerous in itself: his editor for the press was executed by the Nazis. He also served as a messenger for the Resistance.

After the war he continued writing fiction, and continued to publish as Vercors. He published in the neighborhood of 20 books, with a fair amount of success. His name is known to SF fans with some knowledge of the field's history primarily for his 1961 novel Sylva, which became the first work originally published in a foreign language to be on the Hugo shortlist, in 1963 (for the 1962 English translation.) (To this day the only other novels nominated for a Hugo that were first published in another language are Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem (which won) and Death's End (jokes about the prose in L. Ron Hubbard's Black Genesis notwithstanding).) Vercors wrote other SF novels besides Sylva, including Colères (The Insurgents), and You Shall Know Them.

You Shall Know Them was originally published in 1952 as Les Animaux Dénaturés. The English translation appeared in 1956. As with most of Vercors books, the translation was done by his wife, Ruth Barisse. The English version also appeared under the titles The Murder of the Missing Link (a rather literal representation of the main point of the novel) and Borderline, which also pretty well represents the ideas of the novel. You Shall Know Them, however (from Matthew 7:16) is a much subtler and more serious title. To add yet one more title, the book was made into a 1970 film, Skullduggery, starring Burt Reynolds. (Mark Tiedemann has seen the film, and says it's better than you'd expect, though Reynolds complained that the director ruined a pretty good script.)

You Shall Know Them is a distinctly philosophical novel, with a satirical edge, and some very interesting ideas. It is marred by some quite racist passages, even though its central message is mostly anti-racist. The novel also is centrally concerned with anthropology, particularly the ancestors of modern humans, and as such its science is terribly out of date. That said, I think Bruller gets the science as of 1952 pretty much correct. Alas, he mentions Piltdown Man -- a hoax that was exposed only in 1953!

The book opens with a shocking scene -- a doctor is called to a man's home, where he is shown the corpse of a newborn child. The man tells the doctor that he has killed the child with strychnine, and insists that he verify the death, and call the police. The doctor notices some strange features to the child -- apelike features -- but he writes the death certificate, and calls the police.

We flash back a couple of years, to the romance of the murderer of the newborn child, a journalist named Douglas Templemore, and a writer named Frances Doran. They meet cute, and soon are spending a great deal of time together. (This is in London -- and indeed England is the main setting of the novel (with a significant side trip to Papua New Guinea), despite the author being French.) They convince themselves they are just friends -- they are both too sensible to fall in love -- until Douglas decides to accompany his anthropologist friends the Greames to New Guinea. (Mrs. Greame, significantly, is a girl he grew up with who surprised everyone by marrying a much older man instead of Douglas.) At this time Frances and Douglas abandon pretence and admit they are in love, though now they must wait a year or so until Douglas returns.

They are in New Guinea to investigate some intriguing hominid bones a colleague has found. But they find something much more fascinating -- living hominids, which they eventually call Paranthropus, or "Tropi" for short. These have a language, though very simple, and they make tools (hand axes), and they bury their dead. Over time, indeed, they are portrayed as very nearly straddling any plausible line between "human" and "animal". (To be sure, it is acknowledged that any such line is hard to place.)

The story gets out, of course, and then it turns out that the area the Tropis live in is owned by an Australian mining concern. The mines are played out, but the CEO has another plan -- use the Tropis as very cheap labor, to corner the market for finished Australian wool. After all, by law, his company owns these "animals" outright. Douglas and his company are appalled, and they try to get the Tropis declared legally human. But this seems legally difficult. The next plan is to artificially inseminate some of the Tropi females with human sperm -- all Douglas', as it turns out -- which leads to several live births. But this is not conclusive either -- for what about mules? (Or many other cross-species hybrids.) Douglas' last chance attempt is what we saw at the opening -- to murder one of his children, and confess, so that the legal system will convict him of murder, implying that the Tropis must be human.

This leads to an extended trial, presided over by a wise judge. Numerous arguments are advanced on both sides, all converging on the notion that the Tropis are on the exact dividing line between humans and animals. (Indeed, it is suggested, some Tropis are on one side, some on the other.) This is where the book advances some pretty offensive notions -- suggesting that there is an hierarchy of human races, some of which are more nearly animal than others. (The book is ardently opposed to different treatment of the so-called "lesser races" to be sure, but the distinctions are still quite blithely advanced.) On the personal side, all this is quite wrenching to Frances in particular, who has married Douglas finally, and who supports him despite some misgivings. (Douglas' affair with Mrs. Greame is an issue as well!)

The resolution involves some legal hair-splitting, and a fairly logical resolution to the issue of Douglas' murder charge. (It was the solution I had come up with myself.) Frances' reaction to the whole thing is pretty well portrayed.

It's a pretty interesting novel. The philosophical arguments are intriguing, a mix of wrongheadedness (in my view) with some interesting dilemmas. (Certainly these are the kind of arguments that (understandably, really) drive many people to vegetarianism.) There is a strong satirical side to the depiction of the wider public's reaction to the whole affair. The characters are well-done too. I liked it, and I think it still deserves attention, albeit as rather a period piece.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Old Bestseller: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Old Bestseller Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

a review by Rich Horton

I suppose one doesn't think of a novel like Middlemarch as a "bestseller", but in fact it sold very well when it first appeared (if perhaps not as well as Eliot had hoped). And of course it has sold steadily ever since. This was before there was any formal bestseller list, but make no mistake, authors were well aware of their general sales figures, and usually pretty involved in them.

That doesn't really matter any more, to be sure. Middlemarch was fairly well received critically, at first, and praised by writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (the latter with some reservations). Still, it wasn't until the 1940s that its reputation began to expand -- to the point that it is often called the greatest novel in English. My feeling is that at the very top level there is no way to choose a "greatest" novel from any number of candidates -- but, without question, Middlemarch is a very great novel and deserves to be in the conversation.

"George Eliot", as most people know, was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). She used the pseudonym in order to ensure that her work was treated seriously, and perhaps also to separate it from her critical work under her own name. She wrote seven novels, as well as shorter stories and some poetry. Her poetry seems to have been well regarded at the time but I must say I wasn't even aware she had done much in that field, so it doesn't seem to have survived all that well. Her personal life was also scandalous -- she lived with the married philosopher George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death -- and that may have been another reason to separate her writing name from her own name, though the pseudonym seems to have been pretty open for a long time.

I myself had only read a few of her shorter works -- the shortish novel Silas Marner, and two shorter stories, "Brother Jacob" and "The Lifted Veil". I enjoyed them all and expected to proceed eventually to a more major novel, but it took me a while to get around to it. Indeed, I acquired copies, over time, of Romola, Daniel Deronda, and Felix Holt the Radical ... but soon it became clear that Middlemarch was the appropriate choice.

I will note, by the way, that the edition I ended up buying, a Barnes and Noble Classics trade paperback, is quite poorly done. It appears to have been OCR'd from another edition, and there are numerous typical OCR typos: for example, "my clearest" instead of "my dearest". The binding is also, not surprising, a bit inadequate for a book so large. There is some additional editorial material: an introduction by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, endnotes by Megan McDaniel, a selection of roughly contemporaneous extracts from reviews and other writing about the book. These are all decently enough done if nothing special. My fault, to be sure, for being lured by the very low price (only $5) -- I would suggest a sort of Gresham's Law of book editions might apply ("Bad [editions] drive out good").

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published 1872 in eight parts -- an unusual choice (three volumes was the more normal format) occasioned by its length -- it is about 330,000 words long, some 800 pages in my edition. The eight parts are of roughly similar length, about 40,000 words apiece. Eliot composed in between 1869 and 1871, beginning with two separate projects: "Miss Brooke" and "Middlemarch", but she realized that the two pieces would work better together.

The novel intertwines the stories of a great variety of characters. Miss Brooke is Dorothea, the most important character, a young woman of good if not aristocratic family. She and her sister Celia are being raised by her rather dithering uncle Arthur Brooke. Dorothea, a beautiful, pious, and intelligent woman, is courted by the neighboring baronet, Sir James Chettam, but her serious cast of mind and desire to do scholarly work leads her to the terribly inappropriate choice of Mr. Casaubon, a much older clergyman engaged in a lifelong attempt at finding the "key to all mythologies". (Celia ends up marrying Sir James.) The story of Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, and Mr. Casaubon's impoverished cousin Will Ladislaw, is one of the two central threads; and turns much on Dorothea's anguished realization that Casaubon is a hopeless failure and a terrible husband, and on Will's feelings for Dorothea, which she is too virtuous to notice, though Mr. Casaubon notices enough to alter his will in an odious way.

The other thread concerns a new and idealistic physician, Tertius Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch to start a practice and, he hopes, to engage in significant research, for he has modern ideas about medicine. Lydgate, who is of very good family but who has little money, falls for the very pretty and very shallow Rosamond Vincy, daughter of the town's mayor. Their thread follows their courtship and marriage, and how the financial stress due to Rosamond's demands and Lydgate's weakness poisons their marriage, and leads Lydgate into a faintly compromising relationship with Mr. Bulstrode, the religiously fanatical local banker.

Other significant threads twine around these stories. One concerns Bulstrode's checkered past, and his horror of having that past revealed, which leads him to the moral equivalent of murder, a death which will also stain Lydgate's reputation. Another thread involves Rosamond's brother Fred, a rather irresolute young man who has been unsuccessfully studying to be a minister, a profession for which he has no aptitude. Fred is in love with the plain, intelligent, and very upright Mary Garth, who is acting as companion to a much older relative, the very rich Peter Featherstone, who, it is supposed, will leave Fred a significant bequest on his impending death.

One more thread concerns Dorothea's uncle, Mr. Brooke, and his unfortunate decision to stand for Parliament as a Whig, in support of the proposed Reform Bill. Mr. Brooke is perhaps the funniest character in the book, which while not a comedy is often quite witty. Mr. Brooke stand for improved treatment of tenants by landlords, apparently unaware that he is regarded as an awful landlord. (One of Dorothea's passions is better housing for tenant farmers, and she goes to the extent of making architectural designs for new cottages. Sir James is willing to entertain her ideas, but Mr. Brooke seems to see no need.)

There are a great many more characters: the very honest and financially impractical Caleb Garth, (Mary's father): in essence a civil engineer; the clever if rather mean Mrs. Cadwallader (the rector's wife, and another funny character); the highly intelligent clergyman Camden Farebrother, hopelessly in love with Mary Garth but compelled by his principles to help Fred court her; Mr. Featherstone's varied pack of money-grubbing relatives; and many more less significant individuals.

All these stories weave in and out of the novel, intersecting nicely. Various deaths drive the plot, as well as a couple of intrigues involving wills. A key if somewhat understated theme is the place of women in this society and their limited opportunities for agency and power. Dorothea is by far the strongest character in the novel -- a bit of a Mary Sue perhaps: beautiful and virtuous and intelligent and (as Greg Feeley pointed out to me) "ardent"; but she (apparently happily) accepts a fate as wife and mother and behind the scenes helpmeet to her eventual husband, who, though a good enough man is quite a bit less impressive than her. (And she would have happily done the same for Mr. Casaubon had he the grace to accept.) Somewhat similarly Mary Garth is smarter and more energetic than Fred Vincy. The case in which the man is stronger still has ambiguities, for while Rosamond is selfish and and obstinate and sneaky, and Lydgate is truly intelligent, even perhaps brilliant, how much of her character is formed by lack of opportunity, and emphasis on her beauty as her prime asset; which how much of their difficulties are caused by Lydgate's own moral failures?

The story is tremendously moving by the end; though there are really no earth-shattering tragedies -- nothing like the ending of, say, The Mill on the Floss. Indeed, looked at one way, all the major characters have fairly happy endings. (To a rather lesser extent in the case of Lydgate, to be sure.) But events seem trending in a much worse way as the climax approaches, and I found the critical quiet last meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond to be stunning, and it had me in tears. The characters, as I have suggested, are beautifully drawn -- the minor characters ring true in their brief appearances, voices all sharply realized, and the major characters are portrayed with particular convincing exactitude.

And the prose -- I found it quite lovely. This is Victorian prose, long sentences and long paragraphs. But all elegant, and logical, and carefully balanced. The third person omniscient narrative voice is every present, very smart, indeed, I would say, very wise. This indeed becomes right away one of my favorite novels of all time.

Perhaps some extended quotes will be a good way to finish.

Casaubon on his attempts to have feelings for Dorothea: "Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion."

(Indeed, I do wonder whether Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon ever had sexual relations.)

On Mary Garth: "Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required."

Will Ladislaw and his friend the German painter Adolf Naumann encounter Dorothea in Rome: "They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble; a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish gray drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor."

Ladislaw on Dorothea: "Whatever else she might be, she was not disagreeable. She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling. She was an angel beguiled. It would be a unique delight to wait and watch for the melodious fragments in which her heart and soul came forth so directly and ingenuously. The Æolian harp again came into his mind."

Caleb Garth's philosophy: "Caleb Garth often shook his head in meditation on the value, the indispensable might of that myriad-headed, myriad-handed labor by which the social body is fed, clothed, and housed. It had laid hold of his imagination in boyhood. the echoes of the great hammer where roof or keel were a-making, the signal-shouts of the workmen, the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine, were a sublime music to him; the felling and lading of timber, and the huge trunk vibrating star-like in the distance along the highway, the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in warehouses, the precision and variety of muscular effort wherever exact work had to be turned out, -- all these sights of his youth had acted on him as poetry without the aid of the poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology."

There are many more, and I know I have not found again some of the very best passages.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Forgotten SF Anthology: New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

James Blish (1921-1975) was one of the most important writers (A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, "Common Time", "Surface Tension", "Beep", and many more) and critics (The Issue at Hand, significant work on James Branch Cabell) in SF's history. However, his footprint as an editor was much lighter: the only issue of Vanguard Science Fiction magazine (June 1958), and two reprint anthologies: Nebula Award Stories 5 and the book at hand, New Dreams This Morning.
(Cover by Richard Powers)

New Dreams This Morning is a very slim book -- only about 50,000 words worth of stories. Blish's introduction discusses the state of SF, and its growing self-consciousness as a (his words) "literary movement". After discussing the growing seriousness of critical attention to SF, and of the literary ambition of its writers, he suggests that one aspect of SF considering itself a serious literature is an interest in art per se -- especially, in this case, an interest in art from an SFnal perspective. Which is what the stories collected here do -- look at the future of art -- new art forms, or the survival of older art into the future, or the way conditions in the future will affect art or the perception of the value of art.

The stories are:

"Dreaming is a Private Thing", by Isaac Asimov (6100 words) (F&SF, December 1955)

This is one of Asimov's better known stories, and, I think, one of his best. The new art here is dreaming -- creating dreams that can be recorded for other people to experience. The story doesn't really turn on plot -- it examines dreaming as art, and its affect on a couple of talented dreamers -- a young boy just showing the ability, and a highly admired professional. He also considerd pornographic dreams, and low quality dreams, and their commercial effects. It's a smart and believable story.

"A Work of Art", by James Blish (6500 words) (Science Fiction Stories, July 1956, as "Art Work")

I think this is the best story in the book, except possibly for Knight's. It's about a resurrected Richard Strauss, and about his attempts to compose something new after his resurrection. Blish portrays Strauss plausibly, and gets in some licks at future music -- as well as at his fellow SF writers, with this little passage: "By far the largest body of work being produced fell into a category called, misleadingly, science-music. The term reflected nothing but the titles of the work, which dealt with space flight, time travel, or other subjects of a romantic or an unlikely nature. There was nothing in the least scientific about the music, which consisted of a melange of cliches ..." At any rate, Strauss's efforts come to nothing satisfying, as the work he produces is but an imitation of his work while first alive ... and at the premiere of his new piece we learn what  real "work of art", and  real artist, is here portrayed.

"The Dark Night of the Soul", by James Blish (5900 words) (Galaxy, August 1956, as "The Genius Heap")

Odd that Blish chose two of his own stories. This one is less well-known than "A Work of Art", despite having appeared in a more prominent magazine. It's about a group of artists in the future who have been taken to a colony on Callisto, where they in general act up. The thesis seems to be that artists are disruptive, and perhaps it is best to keep them away from the bulk of the population. I have to say I was quite unconvinced on numerous grounds.

"Portrait of the Artist", by Harry Harrison (3500 words) (F&SF, November 1964)

This is a fairly straightforward story of a comic book artist who is being replaced by a machine that can do the drawing automatically. Seemed a little, well, over-programmed to me.

"The Country of the Kind", by Damon Knight (5300 words) (F&SF, February 1956)

A classic story, certainly one of Knight's best, one of those anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. The narrator is a murderer, and his punishment is a terrible smell that alerts everyone to his presence, and a conditioning that knocks him unconscious when he has violent impulses. He's also an artist, and he's convinced, and tries to convince as many people as he can, that the freedom to act violently and the freedom to create art are linked. I don't really believe that, but the story sells its point powerfully.

"With These Hands", by C. M. Kornbluth (6800 words) (Galaxy, December 1951)

Another story about a true artist facing replacement by less expensive machines. In this case Halvorsen ekes out a living by teaching, very occasionally selling something, and by the patronage of women who seem to hero worship him to some extent. In the dark conclusion, he finds this insupportable, and flees to a dangerous place to admire a true work of art, even if it means his life. Pretty good work.

"A Master of Babylon", by Edgar Pangborn (10,700 words) (Galaxy, November 1954, as "The Music Master of Babylon")

One of Pangborn's better known early stories, though not a story I've really taken to on a couple of readings. Brian Van Anda, a great pianist, is perhaps the only person to survive in flooded New York. He lives alone, of course, and every so often tries to play a great sonata to his satisfaction. Then he encounters a young, nearly savage, couple, who stay with him for a brief time, and ask him to marry them -- they are just civilized enough -- under the influence of the late leader of their colony -- to want their relationship sanction. But -- at least in Van Anda's eyes -- they are not civilized enough to appreciate his music.

"A Man of Talent", by Robert Silverberg (5300 words) (Future Science Fiction #31, Winter 1956-1957, as "The Man With Talent", this version much revised)

(Future's editor, Robert A. W. Lowndes, lumped this story with Blish's "Art-Work", which he had published just a couple of months earlier in Future's sister magazine Science Fiction Stories, in the blurb.) This is a somewhat sardonic tale of a poet on Earth in the 28th century, who has become convinced that decadent Earth is no place for a man of his talent. His one volume of poems received slightly puzzled praise, and he's published nothing since, so he emigrates to Rigel Seven, a colony planet, with the idea that a new environment might spur his creativity, and a less jaded audience might appreciate him. But instead he finds that the vigorous inhabitants of the planet all fancy themselves multi-talented -- artists, singers, and of course craftsmen and farmers and so on. But what they feel they really need is -- a knowledgeable audience. And that is all our protagonist can be to them. Amusing work. Silverberg rewrote the story for this appearance, and I compared it with the original magazine version. The two stories are the same as far as plot and message are concerned -- Silverberg just improved the prose, added a few paragraphs (perhaps up to 500 or so words), generally, I suppose, brought it up to the higher standards he had for his work by this time.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller, image courtesy of Phil Stephenson-Payne's Galactic Central site)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Obscure SF novels reviewed on this blog

My latest organizing post covers relatively few of my posts -- these are SF novels that have fallen into obscurity (or never got out of it!). I'll sneak in an anthology or two as well. I mean to distinguish these from a) my Ace Double reviews, which certainly include a lot of obscure SF novels!; and b) the various fairly recent and not necessarily really obscure SF novels that I've mentioned, things like Station Eleven and Engine Summer and my recent summary review of four 2017 books.

So, the "obscure" SF novels (and an anthology or three) are:

New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish;

Recalled to Life, by Robert Silverberg;

Point Ultimate, by Jerry Sohl;

The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner;

The Time-Lockers, by Wallace West;

The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun;

9 Tales of Space and Time, edited by Raymond J. Healy;

The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson;

Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw;

Times Without Number, by John Brunner;

D-99, by H. B. Fyfe;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Octangle, by Emanie Sachs

Old Bestseller Review: The Octangle, by Emanie Sachs

a review by Rich Horton

I find "old bestsellers" in lots of places, though most often in antique stores and estate sales. And I choose them based mostly on whether or not the specific book seems potentially interesting. So it was with this book, by someone I had never heard of. And when the book is by someone I've not heard of, sometimes the most interesting story is that of the author -- not of the book she wrote.

So I think it is with Emanie Sachs. I found The Octangle, her 1930 novel, for $1.50 at an antique store, and it seemed worth a try. This was a writer I had certainly never heard of. When I went looking for more information, I found no Wikipedia entry, but I did find something better: a paper that had been presented at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in 2008 entitled Rebel With a Cause: Emanie Nahm Sachs Arling Phillips, by WKU librarian Nancy Disher Baird.

It seems Emanie Nahm was born in 1893 and raised in Bowling Green, hence the university's interest in her. Her father was a rather distinguished lawyer and banker. Her parents disapproved of her tomboyish ways, and also of her desire to be a writer. But after dropping out of college in 1913 she moved to New York and began writing for the Times. In 1917 she married Walter Sachs, of the family that by then owned Goldman Sachs, the investment bank. (Goldman had been forced out due to his pro-German sentiment.) They had one child, but the marriage was unhappy.

Emanie took writing classes at Columbia and was soon publishing short stories. Her first novel, Talk, appeared in 1924, set in a fictional town obviously based on Bowling Green. It sold quite well, according to Baird, and was compared to Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Red Damask, about a Jewish family in New York, came out two years later and was also successful, earning more comparisons to Lewis and praise from Edna Ferber. In 1928 she published The Terrible Siren, a biography of the suffragist Victoria Woodhull. Her last book was The Octangle, in 1930. Baird calls it "rather insipid", a judgement with which I agree. She also claims that the publisher (Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith) went bankrupt just about then, killing the novel's distribution. (Indeed, first editions, even without dust jacket, are fairly pricy ($40 or so), making my $1.50 look like a bargain.) (There was a British edition in 1932.)

After this, Emanie's life took some bad turns -- the death of her mother, and illness, messed her up for some time. In 1937 Walter Sachs divorced her to marry an actress. Emanie took the name Arling at this time, and later on, after some apparently unhappy affairs, married August Phillips in 1963. She continued writing, mostly working on a history of Kentucky, but published nothing more. She also painted. She died in 1981.

So -- a fairly interesting and privileged life. And some early literary success. But I would say Emanie Sachs is essentially entirely forgotten today. What then of The Octangle?

To begin with, it's a very slim book, only about 25,000 words long. It is a murder mystery of sorts, though the mystery is not very mysterious, and the real focus of the novel is on the title "Octangle", a group of 8 rather shallow rich New Yorkers. The book opens with one of the eight, Linda Carter (probably the most wonderful woman in the book) being murdered by an unidentified man who was apparently enraged to witness her dallying with her lover. Immediately follows a description of a dinner party given by Horace and Adele Morley, attended by four other members of the Octangle. Two of them are unmarried: Chloe Vincent and Bryan Emmett. The other two are Jeffrey and Muriel Deene. Linda Carter, of course, cannot attend, as she is dead. And Rodney Carter is in no mood to socialize. This chapter and the chapters that follow piece by piece delineate the various characters: Muriel is beautiful but unlikeable and not very interested in sex. Jeffrey is an author (of books about murder!), and he was Linda's lover. Chloe is fairly clever, and an artist, and has sworn off men after a terrible relationship. Bryan is a successful man in finance, with a tendency to go on swooning crushes over women, but not to date them. Horace and Adele are contented and smug. Rodney is a very good looking man, and a sucessful architect, but a bit of a bore, and he married Linda because she wasn't very good looking and she was socially eligible -- after he had fallen in love with a beautiful lower class blonde.

And as for Linda, she was a dull and plain girl from Kentucky who, after she married Rodney and had a couple of children, started to blossom, taking a couple of lovers, and turning to music. And then she was killed, in her music studio right after she had made love with Jeffrey.

Spoilers will follow -- I don't think they are terribly important, but by all means skip this paragraph if you want to read the book and care about spoilers. Suffice it to say that the solution is a bit overprogrammed, and a bit classist, and a bit implausible.

The obvious suspects are Muriel (because of anger at her affair with Jeffrey, and murder by hire -- she was on an ocean liner when the murder happened), Jeffrey (last person to have seen her, perhaps a crime of passion), and Rodney (anger at her affair with Jeffrey). But none of them really seem likely. And then we hear Bryan Emmett's real story -- he was a poor boy from Kentucky, with an abusive father, and a mother he loved until his father beat the virtue out of her. His father was a thief as well, and taught his son how to get away with it. And so Bryan (born with a different name), steals a stake from another man, runs off to Cincinnati and begins to make a name for himself, moves to New York -- where he encounters Linda Terrill, one of the rich Kentucky girls he used to envy in his boyhood. At first he adores her, associsating her with his mother, but when he learns of her affair with Jeffrey, he feels revulsion and anger ... Chloe figures this out (not quite in that detail), and Bryan, in the cynical conclusion, sneers at her and assures her that no one will believe her crazy story. The book assumes that he's right, and that Chloe will say nothing and he'll get away scot-free.