To give Piers Anthony some credit, I’m sure he’s written something good, given he’s been writing continuously for about 60 years now; you know the thing about stopped clocks. With that said I can’t bring myself to read a great deal of Anthony. The last time (actually it was also the first time) I had read Anthony was his 1972 short story “In the Barn,” which was a few years ago and which put me off from reading more Anthony for that span of time. I hear Macroscope is supposed to be good…
Part 2 was published in the August 1968 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. I can’t tell if it’s in-print or not, but used paperback copies are easy to find. For the morbidly curious, the whole trilogy (all three novels being mercifully short) can be found easily as an omnibus. Why someone would want this is beyond me.
As you know I didn’t like Part 1, but I’ll admit Part 2 is an improvement—partly because it’s much shorter. Not much happens and there’s a lot for me to talk about, so this review will be just as succinct. Last time on Dragon Ball Z we had Sol enter the battle circle in an effort to recruit Bog, a big dumb brute who has impressive stamina and is real mean with the club. The match ends in a draw and Bog chooses to not join Sol’s tribe; he simply likes to fight people in the circle for the fun of it. Bog is dumber than a bag of hammers but he’s still the most relatable character in the novel. Sos will run into Bog much later (in the installment) after a time-skip and it’ll be the most enjoyable sequence in Part 2. Did I say “enjoyable”…?
Why yes, Part 2 is, surprisingly, not constant pain and suffering; this is due largely to the absence of Sola, who does not reappear until towards the end (regrettably but inevitably) of this installment. Indeed women are mostly absent from the narrative at this point, which is great because Anthony is about as good at writing women as John F. Kennedy was at staying faithful to his wife. The trio that defined Part 1 has dispersed, with Sos reaching the end of his one-year “contract” with Sol and splitting off from the tribe. To do what? Not really sure. He comes to a crazy-run hospital and has a chat with one Dr. Jones, who by all appearances is a normal modern-day doctor. We find out that Sol was an orphan and that he is in fact a eunuch, not that these fact change anything profoundly. It’s here that Sos also finally gets the bright idea to take on a new weapon, and you can guess what it is.
Sos, previously weaponless and bitchless, decides to adopt the rope as his new weapon; it’s not conventional but it functions similarly to the whip, which Dr. Jones points out as a viable offensive tool. “That day Sos gained a weapon—but it was five months before he felt proficient enough with it to undertake the trail again.” That’s right, we get another time-skip! The pacing in this installment is a little too fast if anything, to the point where I struggle to get invested in what’s happening; there’s so little time to get attached to characters and action. The speed at which Anthony pushes the plot forward reminds me, as someone who’s written fanfiction (don’t ask for what) in his time, of competent but underwritten adventure fanfiction you’d find on AO3. The wish-fulfillment element doesn’t help.
Dr. Jones brings up something I had thought of before but which the world of the novel seemingly did not have an answer for, which is the fact that even in the sword family there are many distinct types of sword that require different technique and levels of physicality. Someone who kicks ass with a broadsword may not be so effective with a rapier. Thus Sos uses this loophole to adopt such a niche tool as the rope for his new weapon. What if someone were to use a shield as their weapon of choice? Random thought. The shield is known mainly for defense but it could also serve as a gnarly weapon in a pinch, especially depending on the materials of the shield. I wanna be more interested in the mechanics of the novel’s world-building than I actually am, saying this as a bit of a Dark Souls fan. I’m just saying if combat is the focal point of your story, whether it be literature or a video game, you should put more thought and energy into making that compelling.
There Be Spoilers Here
Eventually Sos runs into Bog again and they have their own match, mainly to test Sos’s proficiency with his set of rope; it’s another draw! Then Bog watches cartoons on a TV set; this is the best part of the installment. Then we’re finally reunited with Sol and Sola… sort of. Sola had gotten pregnant with Sos’s kid at the end of Part 1, and well, it’s been over a year since that happened. It’s a baby girl and her name is Soli. Cute. One problem: even though Sol is perfectly fin with Sos taking Sola as his wife (he’s actually quite happy to get cucked like that), he wants to keep Soli. Admirable that Sol wants to raise a child as a single parents, and it’s not even technically his, but the question is: who does Soli belong to, her mom or her “legal” dad? I feel like this whole situation would be solved with polygamy, what with Sos and Sol respecting each other a great deal and certainly the three of them would agree to share. But oh well, we need drama…
What’s to become of the baby? Will Sos and Sol’s friendship end over this dilemma? Should we care? Stay tuned to find out!
Henry Kuttner is probably one of the more tragically undervalued writers from the so-called Golden Age of SF. He and his wife C. L. Moore were “co-winners” of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. The SF Encyclopedia calls him “a journeyman of genius.” He started in 1936 as a denizen of Weird Tales, as one of the younger members in the Lovecraft Circle, though his early horror seems to take more after Robert E. Howard than Lovecraft, and by the early 1940s he had matured into one of the funniest and most reliable writers contributing regularly to Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown. Kuttner’s years-long collaboration with Moore was so seamless and fruitful that a) people can only make educated guesses as to who wrote what, and b) Moore’s own immense talent would have the doubly tragic effect of undermining Kuttner’s own talent in historical accounts. Kuttner dying prematurely in 1958 (only a month apart from another comedian of the field, C. M. Kornbluth), before he could’ve possibly returned to writing (he was busy getting his Master’s degree) may have also contributed to modern recollections of him being rather foggy.
The reality is that Kuttner’s razor-sharp wit and pessimistic sense of humor, plus a social awareness uncommon in his peers at the time, made him a major precursor to certain SF writerss in the generation following him, including Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and yes, a mature C. M. Kornbluth. He even had a massive influence on Ray Bradbury, even though the two writers have little in common in terms of worldview. Kuttner, who submitted to every publication under the sun, serves as an unintentional landmark in that his death coincided with a profound shrinking of the SFF magazine market towards the end of the ’50s. He continues to be missed.
First published in the October 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. “Exit the Professsor” is listed on ISFDB as a collaboration with Moore, but frankly I find this hard to believe; it was initially published under Kuttner’s name alone, was collected in Kuttner-specific collections (including Ballantine’s The Best of Henry Kuttner), but more importantly, it reads like a Kuttner story from start to finish. Anyway, if you want reprints then go for the aforementioned Ballantine volume (I wanna start collecting those at some point, they’re very collectable) and the most essential volume of them all, Two-Handed Engine: The Selected Stories of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Has been anthologized weirdly little.
I hope you like eccentric families, because we’ve got one for the ages here. The Hogbens are what you might imagine to be a stereotypical Appalachian (my girlfriend, a Kentucky native, informs me it’s pronounced App-uh-lach-an) family, the Hogbens, who are very redneck-y… only there’s something weird about all of them. We’ve got Saunk, our narrator, the eldest child of the family; Little Sam, the baby of the group, who has two heads and is supposed to be to telepathic; Paw, the dad, who, either because he chooses to or because he doesn’t know how to turn back, is always invisible; Maw, the mom, who… I actually don’t remember what’s weird about her; Uncle Les, who’s able to FLY on command; and Grandpaw, who speaks pseudo-Shakespearean and who is old enough to have known Roger Bacon—making him at least 700 years old. So yeah, they’re mutants.
The story kicks into gear because the Hogbens have a strange contraption, a “shotgun-gadget” that actually kills a few member of a rival family, though by the Hogbens’ own admission they don’t know how the dingus works. The family has been making a ruckess with this contraption and with people alleging strange things coming from that area, so it’s only a matter of time before a scientist gets involved: Galbraith, the titular professor. As Galbraith explains, “Our foundation is studying eugenics, and we’ve got some reports about you. They sound unbelievable.” When someone says they’re studying eugenics it’s usually a red flag; but Galbraith is here because the Hogbens are suspected (rightly) of being natural mutants, having sustained their genes for centuries now and having kept low-key by living in a rural area.
Given what I said before about Grandpaw it shouldn’t be surprising that the Hogbens’ legacy can be traced back very easily to the UK—hell, not just the UK but the British isles of the Middle Ages. One nitpick I do have is that while it makes sense to hide in a part of the world with few people if one is trying to hide one’s mustations, I’m not sure if rural Kentucky is the best choice. Anyway, Galbraith is curious and also devious enough that once he’s gotten hold of the Hogbens he all but holds them hostage, forcing one of them to either travel to New York with him to be studied or to have a science team come to their place. The Hogbens’ secret must be kept and Saunk is not above committing a little (more) murder, but Grandpaw says that there will be no more killing from this household—not that killing Galbraith would probably help the family in the long run.
What do, then?
Before I get to spoilers (there’s really not a lot to cover), I wanna talk about one thing that may prove a roadblock for some people reading this story, which is how Saunk is a redneck and that he’s the one narrating, which means the story’s action is conveyed with a pho-net-ick ack-sent, like an off-brand rendition of one of Faulkner’s more backwoods-y characters. It’s very readable, mind you; you get used to the accent quickly enough. There is, of course, the question of whether a diehard Californian like Kuttner will render a rural dialogue a) accurately, and b) with sensitivity: the answer to both is probably no. I would take more issue with this if “Exit the Professor” was a more serious story, but it’s not; it is quite mindfully a pure comedy that, had the science-fictional element been changed to fantasy, would’ve fit right at home in Unknown. Indeed it’s the story’s harking back to Kuttner’s comedic fantasies in Unknown that gives me a soft spot for it.
One last thing: there are a lot of great lines here. Saunk is a funny narrator, less because he’s trying to be funny and more because he happens to say funny things at times. When Galbraith sees the shotgun-gadget he pesters Saunk with questions, and, having little idea as to how the thing works, Saunk is very curt about it. “It puts holes in things,” he says at one point. What a lad. The brevity is what makes it funny.
There Be Spoilers Here
So they can’t kill Galbraith, lest they upset Grandpaw, and Saunk can’t go to New York for risk of exposing the family; so what now. Saunk is a bright boy, though, and he comes up with a scheme involving the shotgun-gadget. See, the shotgun-gadget doesn’t just put holes in things. Saunk uses the professor’s curiosity against him by having him mess with the dingus, aiming at a weather-cock “to be safe,” which actually results in a whole lot of toothaches in the village. “I guess half the people in town had gold fillings in their teeth.” There’s a town hall meeting, with people threatening to lynch the professor for his meddling with the shotgun-gadget, but of course, instead of helping the professor out of his problem, the hogbens decide to make it WORSE. This all reads like an epic prank gone wrong.
The dingus removes people’s gold fillings—and also false teeth. And glass eyes. And the chairs in the town hall. And people’s clothes. Kuttner seems of the belief that naked people in public are funny; a wise man he is. So you’ve got a bunch of naked hillbillies chasing after the professor wanting to tar and feather his ass, which leaves him only one option: the Hogbens. The solution the Hogbens have in mind is… a bit odd; don’t think we’re given a scientific explanation for it. Somehow they shrink the professor down to a very small size and keep him stuck in a bottle. “Sometimes we take out the bottle we keep him in and study him.” I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a ship-in-a-bottle scenario (which would be pretty cool, you have to admit) or if they just keep the professor in there and treat him like a doll. I like the climax but I’ll admit I’m not as big on the ending itself, which is abrupt.
Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy snappy jokess in your SF and how much you can tolerate stereotypes for the sake of humor, but for what it’s worth I’d say the Hogbens come out pretty well.
A Step Farther Out
I specifically picked “Exit the Professor” as something that looks lightweight and entertaining before I continue to suffer through Sos the Rope, and that’s what I got! At the same time this shows Kuttner on his own (contrary to what ISFDB tells you) and on his best behavior, channeling some of the whacky humor he’d proven a master of in the early ’40s, with a somewhat plausible science-fictional premise to boot. Unless you’re Appalachian and are easily offended then the hijinks of the story should not offend. This is short and quite chuckle-worthy, to the point where I could just quote several little echanges that caught me off guard—though that wouldn’t help anyone. Of the Kuttner stories I’ve reviewed thus far this one is my favorite. It’s like comfort food: it’s not challenging but it makes you feel good.
Ladies and gentlemen? I love monster movies. I know, it’s not very classy or literate to say so, but I love movies about monsters—big and small. I love Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, the blob, the werewolf, the creature from the black lagoon, the shape-shifting alien of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and of course the many creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen. Among those movie monsters are the dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles which roamed the earth long before man came along—real-life monsters that were ultimately animals, trying to live their lives like the elephants and giraffes of today. Jurassic Park was probably the first monster movie I ever saw, and as such it was my first dose of what would turn out to be a lifelong addiction. Jurassic Park hit theaters in June 1993, and even now its effects, mostly practical contrary to its place as an innovator in CGI, are mostly seamless and dazzling.
Since now is the time of the film’s 30th anniversary, I figured it’s time to put a couple prehistoric-themed stories on the roster, a short story and novella which predate Jurassic Park but which hopefully will evoke a similar sense of wonder and amazement for Earth’s distant past. Aside from that we’ll be continuing a serial we had started last month, and we have a reliable workhorse in Henry Kuttner returning to the site once again. There is not a whole lot else to say, frankly—except for one thing.
As a young and earnest fan I was stoked to appear as a guest on my first SFF podcast, which actually was uploaded earlier today. I wanna thank Seth over at Hugos There Podcast for giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself to discuss a certain obscure and scoffed-at book that I would be unable to review for my own site. I believe I also mentioned a second podcast I’d be guesting on, which sadly was a bust, but depending on when it’ll be rescheduled (I’m really hoping it will be that and not simply trashed for good) it may be uploaded by the end of June.
Now it’s time for the stories!
For the serials:
Sos the Rope by Piers Anthony. Serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July to September 1968. I’m still stunned that we’re covering Piers Anthony—because of his reputation, but also because he was not much of a magazine contributor. Strange as it may sound, however, Anthony wrote much of his early fiction for the ‘zines, with his second novel, Sos the Rope, being written for a contest and first seeing print in F&SF. Anthony was already a Hugo nominee by then, though everyone I know loathes Chthon, the nominee in question.
The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner. Serialized in Amazing Stories, October to December 1973. Brunner was one of the most prolific SF writers of the era, in no small part because he wrote full-time and he had bills to pay. While he wrote a handful of classic novels, most famously Stand on Zanzibar, he seemingly wrote three times as many novels that were much shorter and less demanding than his major ones, The Stone That Never Came Down being one of those minor novels. I picked it because I liked the title.
For the novellas:
“Time Safari” by David Drake. From the August 1981 issue of Destinies. I’ve said this before, but for the purposes of my site I’m counting Destinies and its ilk as magazines; don’t @ me about this. All I really know about Drake is that he’s a Baen regular as author and editor, being one of many military SF authors to write for Jim Baen and later become a mainstay at Baen Books. “Time Safari” itself ia apparently part of a series, but given that these were published out of order I think it’s safe to assume this is functionally a standalone work.
“The Oceans Are Wide” by Frank M. Robinson. From the April 1954 issue of Science Stories. I know little about Robinson, but what I do know has my attention firmly held. Like a lot of SF authors of his generation Robinson got started around 1950, during the height of the SFF magazine boom, and wrote a good deal of his SF in the ’50s. More importantly, Robinson was one of the first unequivocally queer SF writers, even being associated with Harvey Milk and later being inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.
For the short stories:
“Exit the Professor” by Henry Kuttner. From the October 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. ISFDB lists this as a collaboration with C. L. Moore, but with all due respect I doubt that very much. Kuttner has the rare misfortune of being overshadowed by his equally (many would say more) talented wife, apparently to the point where Kuttner made jokes about Moore secretly writing stories attributed to him. True, he’s not as refined as Moore, but Kuttner’s humor and pessimism make him prescient, never mind that he was seriously prolific.
“The Wings of a Bat” by Pauline Ashwell. From the May 1966 issue of Analog Science Fiction. Ashwell is an author I’ve discovered recently in large part thanks to the anthology Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963) and its related fanzine Galactic Journey. Sadly Ashwell did not write a lot; “The Wings of a Bat” was her first story in six years and would be her last for 16. Equally peculiar is that she wrote exclusively for Astounding/Analog, being loyal to John W. Campbell and later Stanley Schmidt. This one has pterosaurs I think…
Enjoy the serials while you can, because in July we’ll be going without them again. I have a certain idea in mind that may or may not pan out. Hopefully June will not see any dents in my schedule like last month.
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a “complete” novel here, and unlike last time this one is actually complete. Today’s novel, Big Planet, is a rare case where the magazine version of the novel serves as the basis for the definitive text, as opposed to the first book publication. I’m not even sure what Jack Vance’s first novel would be. Wikipedia says Vance’s juvenile novel Vandals of the Void was his first, but this was published after the magazine versions of Big Planet, Slaves of the Klau (magazine version titled Planet of the Damned) and The Five Gold Bands; and then there’s The Dying Earth, which may or may not count as a novel (I personally don’t count it). Thing is, Vance wrote a lot, especially from the ’50s through the ’70s. If you read enough Vance you pick up on certain pet themes of his and certain quirks (we might say limitations) which can grate on one’s sensibilities. I like Vance because he’s convenient to mine for review material.
But Vance is arguably the most important American SFF writer of the 20th century that the fewest people have read; his most famous work, The Dying Earth, has fewer than 10,000 ratings on Goodreads as of this writing. To put this in perspective, The Shadow of the Torturer, the first part of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (ya know, that science-fantasy series nerds will tell you is criminally overlooked) has more than double the ratings. Wolfe fans ought to read Vance at some point, since the former clearly owes a debt to the latter; but this also applies to fans of tabletop RPGs, whose mechanics (particularly those of Dungeons & Dragons) take after Vance’s depiction of magic in the Dying Earth series. Especially for his fantasy, Vance has left a distinct mark on genre fiction in the latter half of the 20th century, although not many people are aware it’s his mark.
Big Planet is science fiction from start to end, though, and unlike The Dying Earth it did not inspire a future trend; rather, what makes Big Planet unique for its time is its dedication to mixing planetary adventure with scientific plausibility, with a strong dash of anthropology. This is a novel where the setting is the main character—that while we find out little to nothing about the human characters propelling the action, we do get many passages in which Vance fleshes out the many locales and societies on Big Planet (for that’s the planet’s name). Because this is a fairly episodic novel, without any real subplots, I won’t be doing a point-by-point rundown but instead will focus on the novel’s ambitions and flaws as an experiment—for it’s certainly an interesting novel, though not a perfect one.
First published in the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories, which is on the Archive. Whereas Startling Stories tended to publish borderline novellas and abridged or easly versions of full novels, Big Planet appears complete here at about 60,000 words, and for a quarter-century (according to Wikipedia) this would be the best version of the novel you could find. The first several paperback editions, including the Avon edition in 1957, were abridged in some way, so keep that in mind if you’re into collecting vintage editions. Nowaodays, though, you can find a complete and in-print version of Big Planet easily, with the Spatterlight Press paperback being your best bet. The Spatterlight Presss edition also comes with an enlightening introduction by Michael Moorcock as he admires both Vance and Big Planet while recognizing the novel’s unusual place in Vance’s oeuvre.
We start with a ship that’s heading for Big Planet, a ship containing a commission team from Earth who are supposed to get info on a certain rascal named Charley Lysidder and bring him to justice. Why? Because Lysidder is becoming the biggest warlord on Big Planet, which is a high benchmark because Big Planet is filled with warlords and slave traders. The commission team is headed by Glystra, who will be our protagonist (he doesn’t seem like it in the first couple pages, but watch out), followed by Cloyville, Bishop, Pianza, and some redshirts. We spend about a minute on the ship before everything goes to hell; there’s a spy aboard. The skipper and first mate get their throats cut and the ship crash lands on Big Planet, 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave, basically an embassy and the only safe space for Earthmen. “To land anywhere on Big Planet except Earth Enclave meant tragedy, debacle, cataclysm.” Never mind literally halfway around the world. It turns out that Big Planet bears its name for a good reason.
We get casualties before we’ve even landed on the planet and there are more once we do, including the ship’s stewards and a nun who did not have any lines up to this point and whose body is not even recovered. (Be sure to put a pin in that last part.) It’s bad enough that Glystra and the survivors landed on the other side of the planet, but also they have no means of getting to Earth Enclave in a timely fashion; a trip, assuming they make it, will take weeks. The reason for this is that not only is there no electricity for Big Planet tech, there’s very little metal—to such an extent that metal is measured by the ounce. Big Planet has a wide diameter (yeah, duh), but it manages to have about the same gravity as Earth by virtue of being very poor in metals. Indeed the locals who discover the crashed ship waste no time in tearing it apart for scraps as the materials alone would make them rich.
There are no spaceships or cars on Big Planet—also no birds, for some reason. You’ll have to hoof it, or find a wagon or some alternate means of transport that doesn’t require metal or electricity. This is all pretty near, by the way. Vance goes out of his way to explain why Big Planet is an Earth-like setting, complete with gravity that doesn’t crush the human characters, by explaining that in some ways it is like Earth—only it lacks metals. The energy weapons Glystra and others carry are valuable because they’re powerful and accurate (there’s something called an ion-shine, which I don’t even know what the fuck that’s supposed to look like so I just think of it as a raygun), but they can also be traded for precious resources and information if need be simply becausse of the rarity of the materials. Importing metal to Big Planet is illegal (or rather the Earth federation has enforced a metal embargo on Big Planet) probably so as to not upset the balance—hence one of the reasons why Glystra wants to take Lysidder to Earth authorities.
There’s one other thing: the people on Big Planet don’t fuck around. Glystra and his team will come across bandits, cannibals, despots, and if they’re really unlucky, Republicans. For both better and worse, Big Planet is a sandbox wherein damn near anything is possible so long as you don’t need 20th century technology (or shit, even 19th century technology) to achieve your goals. Any pre-industrial system of government would be possible here. We don’t read about socialist collective farms, but it’s not hard to imagine those existing—successfully—on Big Planet. The whole thing has a whiff of pastoralism about it, not so much in the Clifford D. Simak tradition but in how Vance seems to think that people, if left to their own devices, will gravitate towards feudalism or agrarianism. If you read enough Vance you’ll get the impression that he a) hates cities, and b) is consistently wary about organized religion, which is curious for classic SF.
Oh, one more thing…
The team gets a recruit in the form of Nancy, a Big Planet native who apparently has nothing better to do with her time than accompany a bunch of soldiers and bureaucrats on what amounts to a suicide mission. Nancy is not this woman’s proper name but for the sake of my sanity, and because every other character calls her Nancy henceforth, I’m calling her that. She’s the token woman of the group, which sounds… a bit dubious. I guess it’s better than nothing, but don’t go to Nancy looking for a layered character with a rich interior life, because she will only disappoint you. Then again, Glystra is the most developed character here and that’s by virtue of being the guy who gets to call the shots; if he was in the position of say, Corbus (the ship’s chief engineer, now Glystra’s right-hand man) or Bishop then we would find out basically nothing about him.
Nancy joining the team is inexplicable, and even Glystra can’t help but notice this—though it doesn’t occur to him that Nancy knows something he doesn’t. It could also be that Nancy is attractive and Glystra is too busy getting bricked up in the middle of the mission to think about how this may not be a random encounter for long. Get this:
Something was out of place. Would a girl choose such a precarious life from pure wanderlust? Of course. Big Planet was not Earth; human psychology was unpredictable. And yet—he searched her face, was it a personal matter? Infatuation? She colored.
Is he projecting? Is he dense? Maybe.
Going back through my notes, it’s striking me how many characters show up and how many of them I’ve already forgotten about. There are episodes early in the novel that aren’t exactly Shakespearean; this could be explained by the team being a little overcrowded at first, although it does get whittled down as the novel progresses. Who the hell is Darrot? I don’t remember anything him except that he was on the ship, and then he gets killed off unceremoniously, “his dead face turned up.” There are run-ins with bandits and a very odd scheme involving river monsters that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, only being able to surmise that it involves locals being tricked into thinking that these beasts are carnivorous. We meet so many people in the first half of the novel that it almost becomes like a joke. “If [Glystra] set about righting the wrongs of everyone they met, they would never arrive at Earth Enclave.” I guess this is a price one has to pay with an episodic structure, because it’s like we’re on a riverboat at a theme park and we’re watching all the sights on the river’s edges but we’re not allowed to wallow in them.
Something I noticed about Big Planet that makes it stick out from most Vance I’ve read is that it lacks the affected language of Vance’s Dying Earth stories—indeed, much of his work in the ’60s onward. This is not merely the result of Big Planet being an early work, because The Dying Earth precedes it and that “””novel””” has some of the most purple prose you’ll find in American fantasy fiction. No, it’s more, I suspect, that Big Planet was written with magazine publication in mind; and yes this was still early in Vance’s career, before he had garnered a reputation as one of genre fiction’s most baroque practitioners. Vance’s tendency to adorn his prose with fancy vocabulary and have his characters in a rather mannered fashion, lacking verisimilitude, can turn some readers off, so those same people might find the straightforward (to the point of curtness at times) language of Big Planet to be refreshing; personally I don’t like or dislike it.
It’s here that we reach the cutoff point, though, because about halfway through the novel we get to the best part and Vance’s purest bit of invention for the novel. We’ve come across a few villages and groups of scoundrels up to this point, but we have not encountered a city—which is where Kirstendale comes in, for the precious few chapters we spend there.
There Be Spoilers Here
The team comes across a trolley service that makes travel a bit less painful, though it’s still no match for cars back on Earth. It’s here that we enter the most memorable location in the novel: the decadent city of Kirstendale. The midpoint and indeed much of the back end of the novel is concerned with Kirstendale, either as a setting or as a carrot on a string for Our Heroes™ since it represents the height of culture and luxury on Big Planet—which naturally means it has a few caveats. Compared to what has been dealt with up to now, though, Kirstendale is a paradise. “It was the largest and most elaborate settlement the Earthmen had seen on Big Planet, but it was never a city which might have existed on Earth.” It’s no wonder that Cloyville decides to stay behind in Kirstendale once the team gets moving again.
The class system in Kirstendale is pretty weird; it’s hard to describe. Not only is metal a precious material here (as expected), but the city and its environs are barren as far as animals fit to be eaten goes. Meat is a luxury that has to be imported, and in a pre-industrial world, without planes or even steamships, you can guess how expensive bringing in meat would be. As such Kirsters (as they’re called) are generally vegetarian, although it’s implied that they will resort to eating bugs if they see it fit. Prestigue in the city is also pretty much entirely performative, in that it’s not your family line or even how much money you have that detemines your status as much as how you carry yourself, such that someone can act as both master and servant in the span of a single day depending on what clothes they’re wearing. As far as I can tell Vance was a conservative, but his playing with class barriers—poking fun at the tenuousness of class division—must’ve tickled Moorcock’s pickle. This is the most entertaining and inventive section of the novel.
If you read enough of this novel you may be wondering where that bastard Lysidder is. Like where he at? The fuck? The man does not even appear, let alone have a line of dialogue, until the final stretch the novel. Glystra meeting Lysidder face to face is one of those moments, like Charles Marlowe meeting Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where the man has been shrowded in so much mystery as to become a mythological figure. This is made more stark by the fact that once we do get to Lysidder, Corbus and Nancy are the only fellow travelers in the party left—and Nancy turns out to have been working for Lysidder the whole time. Wow, the woman who’s been acting a little suspicious for dozens of pages is the spy! Indeed she was disguised as a nun at the beginning of the book, hence her secrecy and the fact that we never saw the body; she had faked her death, only to take on the role of a simple Big Planet girl once the team sets out.
Glystra takes it easy on Nancy because she’s a woman her partnership with Lysidder is framed as abusive… or so she says. Glystra and Corbus come up with a different plan for Lysidder and his henchmen, which on a reread surprised me more than it must’ve initially. Having hijacked Lysidder’s “air-car,” Glystra decides to drop the scoundrel off in the middle of nowhere, far out enough where going back to his hideout would probably be suicide—but technically it would be possible to survive in this new environment. “If you stay here, you’ll probably have to work for a living—the worst punishment I could devise,” Glystra tells Lysidder half-jokingly, and that’s the last we see of the novel’s villain. It’s not all a loss for Lysidder, though; if his final argument with Glystra is to make the case that forcing Big Planet under Earth rule would be a mistake then the villain wins, because Glystra and Corbus end up not going to Earth Enclave after all.
Precious commissions to Earth Enclave are said to have never returned, mostly probably because they meet a grisly end, but there’s the implication that those who survive don’t come back because they find Big Planet to be a sort of Eden—a garden untarnished by industrialism and imperialism. With the resources they already have, Glystra and Corbus would be rich enough to become landowners, maybe even return to Kirstendale and catch up with Cloyville, and ultimately they decide that’s better than to have Big Planet become yet another satellite for Earth. Sure, conditions are rough, and even at its most decadent it’s not a place for the weak, but Vance seems to be telling us that maybe it really is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. A bit of an unconventional happy ending, but I like it.
A Step Farther Out
So there you have it. In some ways Big Planet is a simple novel; it reads almost like an escort mission in a video game, which if you play your fair share of games doesn’t sound like a good time. True enough it does threaten to get monotonous at times, partly because of the characters being little more rounded than cardboard and coming and going through the narrative as they please, but it also shows Vance refining his craft as a novelist. Its best parts, which could almost work as short stories in themselves, read like episodes in a larger narrative, though this is not a fix-up like The Eyes of the Overworld, the first real novel in the Dying Earth series. In hindsight the episodes blur together with the exception of the first stretch, the episode in Kirstendale, and the finale, which admittedly is a pretty good finale by Vance standards. This is an early work that shows Vance trying to write a conventional adventure SF novel of the period and failing to the degree, which makes it more memorable than some of its peers.
Given the intricacies of what we do see of Big Planet, this is the kind of setting that could serve as venue for a trilogy of novels, each one over 500 pages long; but because Vance came from a generation of SFF writers who believed in not wasting the reader’s time, we’re left with two slim novels. We did eventually get an indirect followup with Showboat World in 1975, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t share anything with its predecessor other than the planet itself—which is just as well. Vance loves exploring settings, but for better or worse he’s not much of a plotter, which would explain why I struggled to recall what happened in Big Planet prior to this reread. No doubt I’ll forget again, but I’ll remember Kirstendale.
Piers Anthony is a totally uncontroversial and universally beloved author whose genre fiction, often aimed at a younger audience, has inspired generations of readers with wholesome Christian values. Whereas some fantasy authors are content to rely on gore and fanservice to boost sales, Anthony, in the more than half-century that he’s been active, would surely never stoop so low as to pander to a horny and passively misogynistic base of teen boys with boobs as the carrot at the end of the stick!
I cannot keep doing this.
Look, I know that for people of a certain age (i.e., people old enough to have bought Titanic on VHS), Anthony may or may not have been a part of their formative years as young impressionable readers—ya know, when they were not old enough to have acquired taste yet. With that said I have to wonder how promising a guy can be whose books have such lovely titles as Roc and a Hard Place (very funny, Piers) and The Color of Her Panties (I feel dirty just for typing this one). And then there’s the one ecounter I had with Anthony prior to all this, which was “In the Barn,” his story for Again, Dangerous Visions, one of the most disgusting pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. I’ve read Blood Meridian and American Psycho, and I will gladly take those (which are, after all, pretty great novels) over “In the Barn.” When something is compared to “In the Barn” it should serve as your cue to run in the opposite direction. Not a great first impression.
Sos the Rope was Anthony’s second novel, and by this point he was a Hugo finalist for his first novel, Chthon, which everyone I know loathes; well somebody must’ve liked it. I try to be the optimist, but assuming the quality doesn’t change then Sos the Rope looks to be the first bad serial I’ve covered for this site, which I get was inevitable; there are more bad serials than good. Oh, but how bad can it be? It’s not as bad as “In the Barn,” but…
Part 1 was published in the July 1968 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. I advise against downloading this one as for some reason the PDF compression messes up this particular issue pretty badly; so I went and used the print copy I already had! Although, as if to warn me of what I was in for, the front cover nearly completely tore off and had to be taped together. There is a somewhat recent paperback edition from Planet Stories (not the magazine), but if you’re feeling brave and wanna read the whole Battle Circle trilogy, you can! There’s an omnibus containing all three novels (which are mercifully short) and while out of print it can be found used for pretty cheap. If you daaaaare.
We start with the most confusing of dynamics, in which two men have the same name—Sol—and fight over who gets to keep the name. We have Sol the sword and Sol of all weapons, with the latter proving to be the more skilled warrior and robbing the first Sol of his name and weapon. Let’s retrace our steps a bit. In this far future, adult males in this part of the world base their livelihoods on their ability to beat others in what are called battle circles, “heart of the world’s culture.” The rules are simple: whoever gets thrown outside the circle loses. There are many reasons for these fights and indeed they mirror somewhat the duels noblemen would have in olden times, although from what I can gather fights in the battle circle tend to not be fatal. A man has his name, which apparently he can change in much the way we change shoes (put a pin in this one), and his weapon of choice, which becomes part of his name. Thus, if your weapon is the sword (never mind if it’s a short sword, long sword, etc.), your name might be Sol the sword; or in the case of the Sol who wins the fight at the story’s opening, you’re a jack of all trades who goes by Sol of all weapons.
I have too many questions, but we’ll get to some of those.
Sol, because he’s such a nice guy, not only gives the former Sol a new name but also recruits him to be his right-hand man, despite being weaponless temporarily. Sol wants to build an empire, recruiting dozens of men over a span of months to form a tribe that in time will hopefully form a new civilization; the criterion for recruits is trial by combat. The former Sol is now Sos, and the two men are quickly joined by a woman residing at the hostel they fought at, who “marries” Sol and takes on his status as well as the name of Sola, the “a” at the end denoting her as Sol’s property. There isn’t even a ceremony for a marriage; only a bracelet is required, and it can be removed presumably with the husband’s consent at any time.
Before I go on a rant about how marriage works and how women are treated in the world of the novel, I do wanna give Anthony a point for bending genres here a bit—in the spirit of Jack Vance of all people. Reading the opening stretch, you may think that Sos the Rope is a fantasy novel not too removed from the likes of Vance and Robert E. Howard, but like Vance at times it soon reveals itself to be science fiction masquerading as fantasy, the setting being a post-apocalyptic America a good century after some vague nuclear holocaust. Mankind has devolved back to the stone age, with the only spots of civilization (as far as we know) being hostels that are scattered throughout the land and which are run by “the crazies,” people who somehow are able to remember (probably by way of an oral or written tradition) what the beforetimes were like; but these people keep themselves apart from the nomads who roam the landscape alone or in small groups. The nomads themselves are good survivors but not much skilled otherwise.
Anyway, Sola iss clearly hitched to Sol for his status as future emperor and not because she magically thinks he’s a nice guy; the two do not even seem to like each other much as people, never mind as partners. Sos is frustrated by this, in part because he’s very obviously horny over Sola but is unable to bed her because to bed another man’s wife would be dishonorable. “Could sex mean so much?” A funny question! Actually I have a few questions of my own, such as: If all it takes to change partners is a changing of bracelets then how come Sos doesn’t ask Sol if they could switch up every now and again? It’s not like there’s a signed contract for the marriage. Come to think of it, given the tribal nature of so much of humanity, how come there’s no plural marriage? We have something of a love triangle here (really a lust triangle, since no reasonable person can suppose any of the three parties are in love with each other) whose tension could be resolved by Sos and Sol agreeing to share Sola—with her consent, of course. Why does Sola agree to marry Sol now and not much later when he has proven himself as a leader more? I assume this is so that she doesn’t look like even more of an opportunist than she already does, which still does not help much.
A few more questions not strictly related to the interpersonal conflict of the novel but which I think are worth asking, such as: So women, when hitched, take the names of their husbands and simply add a letter to the end. What if there was same-sex marriage? What if two men got married? Would their names change? There seems to be a pattern that all the adult males have monosyllables for names. What if two women got married? This one is doubly vexing because as far as I can make out, women literally do not have names in the world of the novel if they’re not hitched to some guy. How does that work? How would anything in the legal realm get done here? How would there be a transference of property without names or even agreement in writing? Is there such a thing as property aside from what people are able to carry on their backs? The answer to that last one is probably “no.” No wonder civilization is in ruins, without the concept of property outside the micro scale (for the socialists in the crowd who are wondering, there does not seem to be an overarching government that would allocate land) and with the vast majority of the populace being illiterate.
The misogynistic implications—no, never mind, I wouldn’t even say implications—simply the misogyny deeply embedded in the novel is impossible for me to get around, even as someone who tends to be apologetic with misogynistic writing in old SFF. I know sexism is a problem that has to be called out as such, but I also understand that people from different places and times are often writing under different personal and economic circumstances than what someone reading in [CURRENT YEAR] would have personal context for. The rampant woman-hating in Anthony’s novel is not something I can excuse because not only does it badly skew our understanding of one of the main characters but it also contributes to some incredibly sloppy worldbuilding, such that the novel is built on a shaky foundation of misogyny. Sola is the most rounded character of the trio, even more than Sos (ya know, the protagonist), but she also acts as the malicious temptress who repeatedly and not so subtly tries coaxing Sos into doing something that he’ll most likely regret.
A pet peeve I have with modern reviewers is when they seem to think that a female character being physically active in a narrative must mean then that said female character is well-written. With all due respect to these people, because some of them really are astute critics, this is a lousy line of thinking when it comes to character writing. Sola lacks even a hint of interior life; her goals are all external in that they’re physical, which are a) to one day rule an empire as Sol’s wife/property, and b) to get her pussy licked. Sadly (for both Sola and the reader) these two goals are mutually exclusive, for a reason I have the misfortune of knowing. It’s time to get into spoilers, but I do wanna make one more criticism that may not be as much of a deal-breaker for some people: the action is somewhat boring. I don’t know what Anthony’s status as a writer of action scenes is, but whenever there’s a battle circle fight (and there are a few in the back end of Part 1), my eyes glaze over. Our Heroes™ also have run-ins with creatures of the wasteland such as killer shrews (yeah) and poisonous white moths that are little better to read about. Still better than some of the dialogue, which threatened to kill me.
Okay, enough fucking around, let’s get to spoilers.
There Be Spoilers Here
Particularly I wanna talk about a section in the middle when Sol is out of commission, having been bitten by one of the aforementioned white moths and with Sos having to carry him. It’s here, when the trio are in the badlands (later to serve as a training ground for men in Sol’s tribe), that the sexual tension between Sos and Sola reaches painful levels. A question that had been simmering in our minds (both mine and Sos’s) is why Sola and Sol agree to stay together despite being like oil and water; at first Sos thinks it’s that they’re dynamite in the sack, but it turns out there would not even be a fizzle in their bed. Undressing an unconscious Sol at one point, Sos and Sola discover to their horror that something is wrong with Sol’s junk. “Sol would never be a father. No wonder he sought success in his own lifetime. There would be no sons to follow him.” There’s the implication that Sol is a eunich, although I like to think his cock just looks really funny. In a show of mercy Anthony refrains from describing Sol’s deformity in detail; he also spares us of having to read the inevitable sex scene between Sos and Sola (the latter all but blackmailing the former into it), although that probably has more to do with editorial precaution than Anthony’s own.
For a time Sos is basically the one running the show, and after the trio’s encounter with the shrews (but why shrews) they start recruiting men deemed able enough to join the tribe. Like I said, trial by combat. Sos is intelligent and physically attractive enough to catch the eye of several women (who, being unmarried, are nameless), but turns them down because he is still weaponless; he also has his eyes set on Sola still, in spite of his better judgment. “Possession of a woman was the other half of manhood,” (ech) and clearly Sos’s lack of a weapon would be a metaphor for his lack of manhood (as in his dick). I do appreciate the irony of Sos being quite capable as both a fighter and lover despite being weaponless while Sol, the warrior who can do well with any weapon, is impotent; it’s a shame that this is buried under a shit-colored pile of male chauvinism and treating women as things to be owned. Why Sos has not started training with a new weapon I don’t know. We know that Sos will at some point apparently take on rope (huh) as his new weapon of choice, going by the novel’s title. I assume we’ll get more answers in the next installment, but something tells me thosse answered will be unsatisfying, not to mention there are simply too many holes in the worldbuilding for the ship to not sink.
James White was one of the more successful British SF authors who did not (as far as I can tell) partake in New Wave antics in the ’60s. His loose Sector General series started in the ’50s and remained steadfast as a conventionally written setting for hospital dramas IN SPAAAAAAAACE, and his novel that I’ve reviewed, All Judgment Fled, is, excepting a couple passages (there’s a bit toward the end of Part 3 that references LSD), a pretty vanilla affair—which is not to say it’s boring. On the contrary, White is clearly a writer who considers the logical implications of his narratives, which naturally then snowball into ethical implications; he also has a sarcastic whit which at no point rang as irritating to mine ears. While my feelings on the novel are a bit mixed I do look forward to future adventures with White, especially since he’s one of those prolific magazine contributors and therefore someone (like Poul Anderson and Jack Vance) I fall back on for emergencies.
Part 3 was published in the February 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. I’m not usually a fan of If‘s cover art, but the Bodé covers (we got too few of them, sadly) are very well done and eye-catching, including this one. As for book publication we only have a few editions to work with, for a novel that’s over half a century old, but you can find used copies cheap.
Before I get into the installment itself, I wanna talk a bit about what the past week has been like for me. If you’re reading this it means it’s May 22nd and by extention this post is two days late. I set deadlines for myself with these but I found out the hard way that there was just no doing this post on-time. I didn’t even finish reading Part 3 until the night of the 21st. Last week round this time I guested on a certain podcast, which went well and which you can expect to see at the beginning of June, probably back-to-back with my review forecast; that was not the hard part. No, the irony is that going on vacation can make it very hard to do things you normally do in your spare time. I had requested time off work and flew to Chicago (from Newark) on Friday, and only got back Monday. I was there to visit a couple friends I very rarely get the chance to hang out with in person; as such, combined with the brief time window I’d given myself, we crunched a week’s worth of fun times into three days. It was a good time, needless to say, but I also got precious little time to work on this site, hence the delay.
Now that I’ve said that, it’s time to finish this damn serial.
Last time we were with the boys, the mission had gone to hell. Morrison got killed by a Type Two, a tentacled creature with a giant horn and without any capacity to reason with the explorers. As violence has broken out on the Ship, a mysterious object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, the higher-ups at Prometheus Control have been chastising McCullough (the audience surrogate) and company for their lack of professionalism. The Twos are hostile to the point of seeing the humans as food, which results in much of Part 3 being an all-out skirmish between the explorers and a horde of Twos, making for an extended action sequence that admittedly sort of struggled to hold my interest. A weakness of mine as a reader is that my eyes tend to glaze over when it comes to action, whith it being too easy for me to lose track of who’s dealing with what and who’s still alive and who has bitten the big bazooka. The action in Part 3 is especially confusing, partly (I suspect) deliberately and also because White refuses to give us a clear picture of the ship’s interior. The illustrations do a lot of leg work.
The most egregious example of White’s confusing laying out of action happens at the very beginning, wherein we’re told via narration that Drew has died—somehow. I wondered if I had missed something at the end of the previous installment, made worse because the recap section makes no mention of it—but no, Drew is not dead, he’s actually fine. The logic seems to be that in the heat of battle McCullough thinks Drew is dead, but this turns out to be a false alarm; the third-person narration sharing McCullough’s confusion is a hard pill to swallow, however. A similar case happens toward the end when (not getting into specifics here, because spoilers) a character has apparently died and the narration does not tell us this explicitly (unless I missed something, which is possible) until after the fact. Did he die offscreen? What happened? I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ve discovered by now that the Ship is, or was, operated in all likelihood by a very small crew, and that the Twos wandering about looking for scraps are either non-sentient or driven (by something) to insanity. We never get a clear answer as to the nature of the Twos, but we do know that they’re an active threat to the explorers. Drew’s maddened call for extermination of the Twos (which is supposed to inform us that the explorers have basically reached rock bottom) does not come off as too unreasonable. Regardless, the mission has degenerated to such an extent that Prometheus Control and the explorers are all but no longer on speaking terms—a relationship that is about to get even rockier, if you can believe it.
McCullough sums it up nicely:
He realized suddenly that although he was terribly afraid for his own immediate safety he was furiously angry about the things they had done and were doing on the Ship. From the very beginning they had no control of the situation. It had been a stupid if well-intentioned muddle. And while they had changed their minds several times when new data became available they had not really used their brains. They had been panicked into things. They had not allowed themselves time to think. And when threatened with danger they thought only of survival.
The higher-ups at one point bring in a woman on the speaker to calm the men and reassure them with an incoming supply drop, but this doesn’t work too well. Keep in mind that said woman, whose name we never learn and who is called “Tokyo Rose” at one point (I get the reference, but it’s also a cute bit of symbolism with how the woman’s reassuring voice functions as and is acknowledged as basically propaganda), is the only female character in the novel; and she’s not really a character at that. From here on it’s all a war of nerves, of the explorers fighting off Twos while trying not to have total mental breakdowns. We do get some relief in the form of a new alien species with the Threes, which are like a cross between a snake and a teddy bear; I know that sounds like a weird combination. The Threes appear to be friendly, but are still not the intelligent alien(s) running the Ship that the explorers are looking for. This is the longest installment, so be prepared for a big third-act blowout and the summit of the conflict.
All Judgment Fled is technically a Big Dumb Object™ story, but that’s desceptive given how close-quarters the novel’s scale is. From start to finish we’re stuck with two small ships from the Prometheus Project and the Ship, which while nearly half a mile long is not spacious like the interior of, say, Rama. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between White’s novel and Arthur C. Clarke’s undying classic, which depending on your worldview may or may not be favorable. If you’re looking for gosh-wow moments that provoke your inner child (what Rendezvous with Rama does in spades) then you’ll have no such luck with White’s novel. The setting is cramped, paranoid, claustrophobic, verging on inner space rather than outer with how much we’re stuck with the flawed humanity of the characters, but this is still a hard-headed old-school SF tale at the end of the day. McCullough, our lead, never becomes fully human in that his conscience never wanders from the physical problem at hand for long, but the novel still deals with the ethical equations of first contact more than some of its ilk.
It’s respectable is what I’m saying, if also cagey.
There Be Spoilers Here
After losing Drew (for real this time) and Berryman we finally get to have a “chat” with the alien that’s really running the Ship, and it looks—interesting. Another thing I gotta give White credit for is that we do not get any humanoid aliens here, with the different types vaguely resembling Earth animals but having nothing that could be mistaken for human. (I bring this up just so we can rest easy that none of the explorers go chasing lustily after some blue-skinned space babe.) The intelligent—and benevolent, wow how lucky—alien running the Ship is itself nightmarish in appearance to our battered explorers, “a great, fat, caterpillar, an LSD nightmare with too many eyes and mouths in all the wrong places.” Still the two species are able to communicate through visuals, since obviously verbal communication will do nothing, and ultimately we get a sort of cultural exchange.
Since half the human crew is dead there’s now few enough people to accommodate the reduced number of space suits, along with one of the P-ships no longer working. Which is all rather… convenient? If also morbid. I don’t totally buy the happy ending here, but then maybe White is not the kind of writer to totally fuck his characters over. J. G. Ballard would fuck shit up with this premise, which makes me wonder what this novel would’ve been like had it been a more ruthless deconstruction of first contact narratives—a premise that’s started here but not completely fulfilled.
A Step Farther Out
I know a couple people who prefer this over Rendezvous with Rama, and I can see the argument for it even though I ultimately have to disagree, because in some ways All Judgment Fled is the anti-Rama. Whereas the explorers in Clarker’s novel are always up against some tangible external problem that can be solved fine with bruce force or swiftness of speed, the conflict in White’s novel comes largely from the fact that the people heading the Prometheus Project failed to consider the possibility of interacting with alien lifeforms, not to mention explorers who might not be the most rational people; yet All Judgment Fled also feels incomplete somehow, whereas Rama is undoubtedly the complete package. This is a short novel, coming in at no more than 55,000 words, and truth be told it could’ve been 5,000 words longer, much of that devoted to scenery and character moments. The characters are not the flattest, but it can be easy to confuse some of them; half of them lack clearly defined roles but also nuance. White also has this thing for not describing places in any great detail, which made the action-heavy back end of the novel read as too abstract for my tastes.
Planet Stories is a pretty interesting magazine whose contents I ought to give the deep-dive treatment one of these days, since a) it was one of the few SFF magazines in the ’40s to have a distinct personality of its own, and b) it encapsulates pulp science fiction at its most charming. It is a charming publication, with garish action-packed covers (perfecting the brass bra, I wanna add), probably the liveliest letters column in the field at the time, and, despite its juvenile exterior, being home to some excellent writers. Poul Anderson started his Dominic Flandry series here. Ray Bradbury contributed a few entries in what would later form The Martian Chronicles. Philip K. Dick’s first published story appeared here. But the author to define the magazine’s image was undoubtedly Leigh Brackett, whose planetary romances often made the cover, though she was generally keen on publishing in the adventure-leaning magazines like Startling Stories.
Brackett made her first couple sales to Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction, but she quickly looked elsewhere for her fiction, even if these magazines paid less. Nowadays Brackett is most known for the pretty good but uncharacteristic novel The Long Tomorrow, as well as her fairly successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter—for collaborating with Howard Hawks and, at the end of her life, writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Because Brackett got final screenwriting credit, she won a Hugo when the film won for Best Dramatic Presentation; she had been dead for three years when this happened. But for much of her time in our field, she acted as the heir apparent to Edgar Rice Burroughs, albeit being easily more downbeat and sophisticated than Burroughs. The star of today’s story, Eric John Stark, an Earthman raised on Mercury, owes a good deal to John Carter and Tarzan, with a strong hint of Conan the Barbarian.
First published in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, which is on the Archive. More importantly, because “Enchantress of Venus” fell out of copyright and someone took note of this, it’s free and perfectly legal, being available on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats, link here. For print we have more options still, this being one of Brackett’s more reprinted works of short fiction. The most relevant to me would have to be The Best of Leigh Brackett, part of the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series—edited and with an introduction by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. Brackett did the same for Hamilton’s Best Of collection. Aww.
A bit of exposition before we get to the story proper, since the mechanics of Venus as depicted in the story are a little odd, especially for modern readers. In contrast with the red desert world of Mars, as in the preceding and proceeding Stark stories, the Venus in “Enchantress of Venus” is about as swampy as you can imagine—with gas so thick that it can actually buoy ships. Specifically the area where the action is set, so called the Red Sea, is what we might now call a dead sea in that it’s not filled with water; it is, however, filled to the brim with red gases. “It was not water. It was gaseous, dense enough to float the buoyant hulls of the metal ships, and it burned perpetually with its deep inner fires.” It is indeed possible to breathe at the bottom of the Red Sea, which will be important to keep in mind for later. I say all this now because I was quite confused at first myself.
Stark has come to Venus in search of a friend, but it doesn’t take long for him to acquire yet one more problem in the form of the captain of the ship he’s taken to Shuruun, the pirate-infested port town. The captain, Malthor, is perhaps one of these pirates in disguise, hoping to knock Stark unconscious or worse—a hint Stark picks up in time to fight back, scarring Malthor, before jumping ship. In Shuruun he again narrowly escapes getting his shit kicked in, partly because he’s musclebound enough to be played by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and partly because, under strenuous circumstances, his upbringing by native Mercurians kicks in and he’s able to go beast mode. Something we find out quickly enough in this series is that Stark rather strongly takes after Tarzan, being half-man and half-beast, born to Earth people but raised in a savage culture. Stark is a barbarian in the sense that he is halfway between a civilized man and an animal.
While in Shuruun, Stark meets up with Larrabee, a fellow Earthman in exile, one who has been gone so long that people of Earth have since thought him dead. “He had never met Larrabee, but he remembered the pictures of him that had flashed across space on police bands.” The two get along as fellow expats, but Larrabee is about to leave the narrative for a long so it’ll be easy to forget about him. More of immediate importance is that we also run into Malthor’s daughter, Zareth, who going by descriptions of her also has to be of high school age. (I’m somewhat baffled by Brackett’s decision to have the third-person narrator linger on Zareth’s barely pubescent physique. I would expect such a decision from Marion Zimmer Bradley, but not Brackett.) Zareth admits upfront to being an agent of Malthor, who will beat her if she doesn’t do her job of luring Stark into a trap, but even so she refuses to go through with it, instead urging Stark to get out of Shuruun.
There are two female characters of importance here (I guess there’s a third, but she doesn’t do much), with Zareth as the first. Something I’ve noticed about Brackett’s writing is that it would be easy, if we were to apply whiteout to author bylines, to assume that the Stark stories were written by a pretty masculine if also gloomy man, given the role women play here. Not to say Brackett indulges in some internal misogyny, but it’s more how the women exist in relation to the male lead. Zareth is an innocent, almost angelic figure whose beauty (problematically described though it is) is to be taken in an ultimately platonic context; we can infer that while Stark respects Zareth, he is not enough of a pedophile too virtuous, despite his savagery, to see her as anything more than a good friend.
We’re told, however, of a series of islands in the Red Sea, about the “Lost Ones,” people who are spirited away and never to be seen again—about a castle where a band of slave-drivers called the Lhari lives. So naturally Stark goes there! What could possibly go wrong? It’s here that we’re finally introduced to our villains, the Lhari: a family of incestuous thieves and warlords who have taken people as slaves for the purpose of finding something at the bottom of the Red Sea. There are several members, but the big players are Varra, the titular enchantress (also a falconer); Egil, a mad warrior and Varra’s cousin, who also happens to be madly in lust with said cousin (wooo); Treon, a disabled man who is treated by his family as a moron but who is clearly not that, on top of being clairvoyant (ya know, the token good member of the family); and Arel, the matriarch of the family, a demented old woman who is basically a witch.
(Some femme fatales would put on an outward appearance of benevolence, but Varra is surprisingly upfront about being a bad bitch who only wants Stark for his muscles; he is apparently quite… breedable. I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to put that. In fairness to Varra, her choices are some other slave or to give Egil a pity fuck, which she’s not inclined to do. Needless to say Stark is not looking forward to being Varra’s sex slave. If I recall correctly the titular villainess of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” also treats Stark as a sperm bank with arms and legs, which makes me wonder if there’s some femme-dom fetish-pandering at work here.)
In better news, in being held captive by the Lhari, Stark does finally meet Helvi, the friend he came to Venus looking for in the first place. Helvi has survived as a slave so far, but his brother, who “had broken tabu and looked for refuge in Shuruun,” was not so lucky. “A man cannot live too long under the sea,” Helvi says. They have to get out of here, but ideally before that they ought to figure out what the Lhari are excavating the bottom of the sea for and put a stop to them while they’re at it. You may notice we’re knee-deep in the novella and there’s been shockingly little action up to this point; we’ll get to that, but this is a story heavy on both atmosphere and dialogue, and the Lhari are quite chatty for being so inbred that their family tree looks more akin to a stump. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
There Be Spoilers Here
Varra offers Stark to kill Egil and the other members of the family, barring Treon (whom Varra dumbly sees as no threat) and Arel (who’s pretty old and decrepit already), in exchange for Stark’s freedom and being able to raw-dog Varra every other night as co-ruler of Shuruun. This all sounds like a good deal, if not for the fact that Varra is clearly untrustworthy and is as likely to stick a knife in Stark’s back. Stark ultimately refuses, in a reasonable move which indicates he’s at least of average intelligence; some others of his ilk are more easily bamboozled. Unfortunately Stark has made multiple enemies at this point, with even Malthor rearing his head again so that Stark and him can have a rematch. Apparently Zareth, having been beaten (again) for not betraying Stark, has led Malthor to the bottom of the sea. No matter. Malthor goes down easily enough.
Egil, who had been eyeing Stark this whole time, nearly gets him with a crossbow, only for Zareth to do that ’90s action movie trope of jumping in front of the bolt to save Stark, sacrificing herself in the process. I was expecting some deus ex machina to kick in so that Zareth could be saved, but no, she dies the real death. In fairness, Egil’s death is worse, with Treon even looking on casually, “as though he had seen it all before and was not surprised.” Stark and Treon agree to have Zareth buried in her proper place, and the snowball of vengeance has now thoroughly been set in motion. The back end of “Enchantress of Venus” is a bit of bloodbath. A war between the slaves and slave-drivers breaks out with the slaves narrowly winning, “Nearly half the slaves were dead, and the rest wounded.” The Lhari are worse off. Treon kills Varra (a death so sudden that it’s actually easy to miss), but not before she mortally wounds him, while the rest die in battle. Treon, being the token good member of the family, is the only one to get a proper farewell from Stark; Our Hero™ seems just glad to be rid of Varra.
The Lhari have been wiped out, but more importantly the dark secret they’ve been trying to uncover (I won’t go into details, but I will say it reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) has been rendered such that nobody can make use of it anymore. It’s not hard to take an allegorical reading from all this, with the dark secret that ought not to be used by anyone standing in for (perhaps) the invention of the atomic bomb. There was a good deal of science fiction written about atomic power and the possibility of nuclear weapons in the year’s leading up to World War II, but following that war SF writers became deeply wary about the tangible reality of living in a world that could be torn asunder by said nuclear weapons—previously hypothetical but now known. “Enchantress of Venus,” like some of Brackett’s other later fiction, is filled with such wariness. Stark rescues Helvi and frees the slaves, but at a steep cost. Despite its action and generous doses of testosterone, this is not an adventure yarn that would make the reader feel like a jolly good badass vicariously.
A Step Farther Out
I was originally gonna tackle the first Eric John Stark story for this site, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” but I found that a) I was not yet accustomed enough to Brackett’s swashbuckling style to make total sense of it, and b) “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” was such a straightforward adventure narrative that I struggled to think of things to say about it. Not as much of an issue with “Enchantress of Venus,” in part because it’s so much slower than its predecessor, but it’s also a good deal bleaker. Given the episodic nature of the series it’s expected that Stark will end up pretty much where he started, but in this case it means a whole lot of death, including a few characters we’ve actually come to care about. When the action finally ramps up towards the end it comes almost as a relief, given the oppressive foggy atmosphere and wholly unlikable villains. Brackett’s science-fantasy outlook still reads as partly foreign to me (if you care about scientific plausibility then you will not survive), but look, I’m willing to forgive something if the tone is the right amount of melancholy.
Contains spoilers for “Flowers for Algernon,” a story that’s over half a century old and which a lot of people have read already.
Act III Scene 1 of Hamlet has what must be the most famous soliloquy in the English language, although it’s so lengthy that only teachers and trained actors can recite all of it; but that doesn’t matter because anyone who’s had at least a high school English education knows parts of it. You know the one. “To be or not to be…” We’re about knee-deep in the play at this point; there’s no going back. Hamlet has already gotten word from his ghost dad (whose presence we’re supposed to take at face value) that his uncle Claudius had indeed murdered Hamlet’s father and taken his place on the throne deliberately. This is not long before the play-within-a-play that serves as Hamlet‘s third-act climactic event. Really there should be no reason for this play to be longer than three acts, but Shakespeare is gonna keep us seated for much, much longer. As we all know, Hamlet may be the slowest avenger in the history of English fiction; he really TAKES HIS TIME.
And yet where would we be without that soliloquy? The strange part is that from a strictly plot-relevant standpoint there’s no reason for it to be in the play: Hamlet contemplates suicide and ultimately chooses to keep going. Why stop like this? Actually there are a lot of soliloquys and conversations in Hamlet that do nothing to push the plot forward, but “To be or not to be…” is the most famous example; more importantly, it offers a key to figuring out what the hell all this is about. Rereading it, I’m inclined to quote a specific passage here, which has to do with today’s topic. And why not? It’s such a wonderful bit of poetry. Get this:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action. […]
Hamlet would avenge his father sooner if he wasn’t so burdened with conscience. The very ability to contemplate his actions, to such an extent that he struggles to act. Hamlet’s chief flaw, as we understand it, is that he dooms about half the cast by acting either too late or not at all; and when he does put his foot down it’s pretty much always for the worse. Action is the enemy. Or is it thought? You may not know this, but it’s pretty hard to convey a character’s thoughts, divorced from their actions, on the stage. Theatre is not a medium that naturally lends itself to introspection; if a character thinks about something they have to say so out loud—quite loud, for the sake of the people in the back row. Shakespeare also knew that people think basically nonstop, even if it’s about the most banal nonsense, hence why Hamlet, a famously introspective character whose every thought pours from his maw, has easily the most lines of any Shakespeare character.
Yet there’s nothing more human: the burden of conscience.
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for the stage, but the chances of it being meant to be performed in its entirety are not high. Only the foolhardy try to perform Hamlet unabridged, with Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation being more of a gimmick than an act of faithfulness to the text. Wow, all four exhausting hours! At the same time it’s much more digestible if read to oneself, with the ideal cast being a single performer: the reader. Even its length supports this notion that we’re supposed to wallow in Hamlet’s flawed humanity by ourselves, in our mind’s voice, which you have to admit is remarkable. Aside from being a natural-born poet, Shakespeare did something that was probably thought to be impossible for the stage, in how he explored the zones and textures of human thought. Many people wrotes plots like Shakespeare, and even better than Shakespeare (the man borrowed quite a few of his plots and even then he wasn’t an inventive plotter with his “original” stories), but the characters are something else.
Despite being first performed circa 1600, we would not see the heights of human consciousness in Hamlet even remotely reached in magazine SF in the genre’s early days. Even when John W. Campbell came along, with his preoccupation with the potential of the human mind (yadda yadda psi powers yadda yadda), there was still a conspicuous lack of writing about human thought as opposed to action. Consider this: the typical Campbellian SF story is a problem story. There’s a problem, due to technology or human error or something else, and the (it’s always human) protagonists must find a material, practical solution. A cult manifests among conveyer belt workers in Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” and this problem must be solved practically. Two spacefaring races meet unexpectedly in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and they must find a way to avoid blowing each other to smithereens. Isaac Asimov’s robot stories are largely concerned with testing the Three Laws of robotics. In Fredric Brown’s “Arena,” a human and an alien warrior must battle to death for the fate of humanity.
A common criticism of so-called Golden Age SF I’ve seen from people my age (i.e., in the 18-to-30 brackett) is that characters in these stories are almost always made of cardboard. The characters to serve a problem narrative, in which the author will demonstrate possible future tech or, more interestingly, moral dilemmas that may arise from future developments. These are stories that are fundamentally rooted in action, which is to say they exclude thought that does not contribute to propelling said action. The logical conclusion of this school of genre storytelling comes in the form of Hal Clement—who, make no mistake, is quite good at what he does. Clement characters are, at their core, totally sane, reasonable people who, if we’re given a window into their thought processes, will generally only consider problems and solutions. Probably why a lot of people bounce off Clement: his “human” characters are little more than abstractions. Not very Shakespearean!
Sure, the best of these stories are memorable and entertaining, but thre’s also not a warm human heart beating at their cores—with exceptions. Even then, with the rise of Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the ’50s, presenting a more liberal and humane side to SF, stories published in the magazines were still, at least without the shackles of Campbell this time, problem narratives that fed on action. You won’t exactly see the SF equivalent of a John Cheever story in Galaxy. There are examples sprinkled here and there, but we would have to wait until 1959 to witness what would, up to that point, be the single finest example of thought-driven—character-driven—science fiction, and that’s the short story version of “Flowers for Algernon,” in the April 1959 issue of F&SF. Daniel Keyes had originally written “Flowers for Algernon” for H. L. Gold over at Galaxy, but after Keyes refused to give the story a happy ending, Gold turned it down—in what has to be one of the biggest editorial mistakes in magazine SF history. Robert P. Mills of F&SF then picked it up and it won a Hugo.
There are a few stories I’ve read several times before that I refuse to cover for this site in a review, and “Flowers for Algernon” is one of them. What more can I say about it? Only that it’s one of the most perfectly crafted and emotionally resonant works of modern fiction, inside or outside of the genre, and that its lasting popularity is a testament to its humanity. I could give a couple gripes that don’t really mean anything—namely that the science-fictional aspect is clearly implausible and that our understanding of people with mental disabilities has grown considerably since the time of Keyes writing the short story; but really, I’d be wasting my time. Both the short story and novel are award winners and undying classics in the field, with the novel alone selling over 5 million copies with no sign of its star power waning; it’s even been enshrined with a Library of America edition. Most “classics” in the field don’t get this treatment.
We all know the basic “plot,” with Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who consents to partake in an experiment that may revolutionize the capacity for human thought—the other test subject being the white lab mouse Algernon, who himself has become abnormally intelligent due to the treatment. Charlie’s own arc is pretty much a full circle, with him starting as a man of below-average intelligence who gradually soars to intellectual heights previously only dreamt of—only to plummet to Earth in the end when the treatment reverses itself. One man gains and then loses his immense capacity to think, and this in itself is the tragedy. The world is not in danger. No significant portion of the human race is in danger. There is no grand “problem” to be solved. Charlie tries to make good with his time but at some point he realizes there really is nothing to be done about averting his fate. All he can do is think, and ya know, try not to ruin the relationships he’s formed with some people in the meantime.
“Flowers for Algernon” (I’m using quotation marks because I’m primarily referring to the short story version) does not give us a complicated narrative; there’s a reason it works as both a short story and a 300-page novel. Stuff happens, but there is surprisingly little action. Charlie does not do a whole lot, especially in the short story version. The story’s maleability with its plot beats is intentional—as is a journal being used to frame everything. There’s nothing more personal, more given to introspection, than someone’s journal/diary, on top of the inherent intimacy of a first-person narrative. “Flowers for Algernon” would not work so well, nor would we be able to relate to Charlie so much, if it was all told with bird’s-eye-view third-person narration; we can’t afford to be that detached from what we’re reading. Charlie Gordon would not be one of the most beloved protagonists in SF history if we weren’t able to read his every written hope and dream—and nightmare. This was it: character-driven SF.
Not that Keyes has Shakespeare’s knack for the language (I’m not sure who does), but he does tap into the same source that the bard’s most rounded characters came from. It wasn’t the very first example, but “Flowers for Algernon” became a phenomenon damn near overnight in no small part because it gave genre readers something in so perfectly crystalized a form that they previously may have only found in the most psychologically adept of “literary” fiction: a human character who feels human. We get a character who is not constantly on the move, but someone who often stops and thinks about where he is and why he’s here. When Algernon dies near the end, we feel sad because Algernon is a cute little mouse who never did anything wrong, but we also empathize with Charlie and his grief—which would not hit us with such force if Charlie was a Campbellian protagonist, someone who was not burdened with conscience.
In her review of the novel (June 1966, F&SF), Judith Merril says the following, as she sums up the story’s appeal so well:
The impact of the original story rested primarily in the author’s extraordinary—perhaps unique—success in conveying an identifiable-and-identifiable-with subjective portrait of a subnormal intelligence. Charlie Gordon was a moron, and he was also a man; the reader could accept him as a fellow-human, share his fears and hopes and desperate needs. ([Theodore] Sturgeon has occasionally come close to accomplishing the same thing for me, but never so completely; offhand, I cannot think of another writer who has even come near it.)
Indeed Sturgeon was arguably the closest precursor to what Keyes tried with “Flowers for Algernon,” but, much as I also love Sturgeon, none of his characters (at least in his short fiction) are as deeply drawn as Charlie Gordon; and of course the Sturgeon who wrote “Microcosmic God” kept more in line with Campbellian logic than the Sturgeon who wrote “The Other Celia” and “A Saucer of Loneliness.” Keyes, who apparently had said all he wanted to say within the confines of science fiction, wrote very little SF following his masterpiece—not a full stop like what happened with Walter M. Miller in the wake of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but the effect was more or less the same. Keyes’s importance to the field rests on one short story and its novel expansion, but these set a new standard for SF storytelling that we’ve been taking for granted ever since. We still have big-picture extravaganzas that bet their money on a Sense of Wonder™, but these have been exceptions rather than the rule in recent years.
Now it’s hard to accept science fiction that’s anything less than human.
James White was most popular in his time for the Sector General series, about a giant hospital station in space where conflicts comes not from epic space battles but doctors dealing with bizarre alien biology. White wanted to become a doctor but financial concerns at the time prevented this, although frankly I would’ve just assumed he was a doctor, going by what I’ve read of All Judgment Fled so far. I’m very curious about exploring White more, given his fascination with non-violent causes for conflict, and how violence isn’t treated as a solution but a catalyst for bigger problems.
Part 2 was published in the January 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. Bad news is All Judgment Fled has not been given many paperback editions; good news is the few editions we have go for cheap used.
Now that we’re on the Ship, it’s time to do some exploring! The men of P-One (Drew, Morrison, and Hollis) and P-Two (McCullough, Walters, and Berryman) are officially stuck together, with the two small ships being now conjoined near the Ship to make moving between the two easy. Last time we hung out with the boys, Walters narrowly survived an encounter with one of the starfish aliens (now called a Type Two), and his suit is now basically unusable. This is a bit of a problem. For the men the suits are like a second layer of skin that, if removed, would greatly increase the risk of death, even though they don’t need the suits in the Prometheus ships; on the Ship it’s a different story. And apparently the aliens are hostile!
On top of all this, the men also have to deal with an increasingly cranky Prometheus Command, the top brass back home who are relaying the men’s actions back to Earth, with millions people (at least a billion, actually) tuning their radios to hear about what happens next. There’s a bit of meta hijinks going on here since McCullough is made all too vividly aware that the men’s sense of privacy has been eroded, that nearly their every move and word is being judged by a vast unseen audience—although unbeknownst to the characters that audience also encompasses readers. We’re given a better idea as to the relationship between the explorers and the rest of mankind, with this lop-sided arrangement that’s probably not good for the explorers’ mental health. Hollis was already on the verge of a breakdown in Part 1, but that turns out to be the least of the men’s problems.
Then there’s the question of the aliens’ intelligence. Frankly there’s no way to be sure. Somebody must’ve been intelligent enough to have built the ship, but the aliens that are actually onboard are unlikely to have been the culprits. The Type Two, for instance, is almost certainly non-sentient, but even then there’s no guarantee about that. Maybe up to now there’s just been failure to communicate. There are also at least two types of alien (as in, aliens that cannot be of the same species) that are on the Ship, and likely there’s a third species waiting for Our Heroes™ down the road. Still, despite the close encounters with aliens, the question as to who built the Ship remains perfectly unanswered—and yet conceivably it has to be something of at least the same intelligence as humans, and more likely of greater intelligence. White understands that in the highly unlikely event of first contact the aliens in question would be akin to angels—or an amoeba.
Their idea was simply that any piece of machinery beyond a certain degree of complexity—from a car or light airplane up to and including spaceships half a mile long—required an enormous amount of prior design work, planning and tooling long before the first simple parts and sub-assemblies became three-dimensional metal on someone’s workbench. The number of general assembly and detail drawings, material specification charts, wiring diagrams and so on for a vessel of this size must have been mind-staggering, and the purpose of all this paperwork was simply to instruct people of average intelligence in the manufacture and fitting together the parts of this gigantic three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Speaking of first contact, Murray Leinster doesn’t quite get namedropped, but he gets the next best thing: a not very subtle hint directed his way. At one point McCullough, evidently a science fiction fan, thinks about “the old-time author responsible for a story called First Contact.” We also get a reference to another classic Leinster story, “The Ethical Equations,” and both these stories are indeed very much relevant to the current situation. White’s fannish side comes to the surface here, but at the same time it makes sense for the explorers to have been made at least somewhat familiar with classic science fiction, since SF would be the only even remotely useful reference point for their mission. I could fault White for a couple things, but over and over I find his logical outlook admirable; he takes something that with most writers would get pushed under the rug with some handwavium and he guides it along to a logical conclusion. There are no easy answers.
Part 2 does suffer a bit from what we might call Middle Installment Syndrome, in which the middle entry of a trilogy has to contend with not having a beginning or a conclusion, but making do as a big gelatinous second act. Why do people remember The Two Towers less than Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King? Well, what happens in The Two Towers? We’re introduced to Gollum properly, that’s gotta be worth something; and we get the Battle of Helm’s Deep, often the most cited action set piece in the trilogy—yet going by IMDB and Letterboxd scores people aren’t quite as fond of The Two Towers as its siblings. Middle Installment Syndrome. I’ve come to realize that this also applies to novel serials, although I probably wouldn’t feel the “gelatinous second act” thing as much if I was reading All Judgment Fled as a single unit. Still, it’s short enough to not drag much.
There Be Spoilers Here
Things really go to shit in the second half of Part 2. The explorers kill a Type Two in another encounter, which is more or less accidental but which starts a snowball of paranoia and calls for violence among the men. As I supposed should be expected with White, violence is treated as something to be prevented as much as possible, since it will not solve issues but instead cause a snowball effect of greater violence. Command is not happy with how things are turning out, since at the outset this was supposed to be a mission that would unite mankind, rather than cause people to splinter on, for example, the treatment of alien lifeforms. “But now that the meeting had degenerated into violence, had become literally a blow-by-blow affair, the idea had backfired.” This culminates in the first fatality among the explorers, with Morrison, one of the most experienced men on the team, getting brutally killed by a Type Two. Even though we don’t get to know any of these men (except for McCullough) too much as individuals, Morrison’s death still works as a point of no return for the venture.
For better or worse, the men can only move forward.
After Morrison’s body is tucked away, the men keep searching through the big corridors of the Ship, coming upon rooms of different kinds, although McCullough seems to be the only one keeping his eye on the prize at this point. Most disconcerting is a room that almost resembles something humans would use—like a bedroom or a drawing-room. “A lab animal would not require a furnished room. Which meant that there were intelligent extraterrestrials on the Ship.” Maybe the Type Twos aren’t sentient, but somebody here sure is. And just as it looks like the men are about to hit a big clue as to the aliens’ nature, the Ship has started moving—away from the Prometheus ships. The Ship, which hitherto had been orbiting freely, is now moving on its own again. Well gosh darn it!
A Step Farther Out
It’s enjoyable, but there’s also something missing about it that I can’t put my finger on. It could be that there are too many characters that can be thought of as “nondescript white guy,” with only a couple standing out. That can’t be it, though. The characters in Rendezvous with Rama are made of cardboard, but that doesn’t bother me. I think it may be that White, unlike Clarke, is not concerned with evoking a Sense of Wonder™, which no doubt contributes to Rama remaining popular after half a century. White obviously has different goals from Clarke, which so far he’s been meeting admirably; it’s just that if you’re expecting a first contact narrative that’ll leave you breathless you’ll be disappointed. White does, however, have a special talent for making me think about the situation these characters are in—about logistical problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but also the deep moral quandary that would come about in the event of first contact with a spacefaring alien race. Looking forward to how White’s gonna end this!
With most authors I’ve covered they’re either new to me or I don’t know enough about them to get really nostalgic and defensive about their work; unfortunately I won’t have that vantage point with Philip K. Dick. Spoilers in advance, but it’ll be virtually impossible for me to pretend to be objective about Dick, who has been for a good decade one of my top five favorite authors—inside or outside of genre fiction. I had read “classic” science fiction before but Dick was the one who turned me into an addict. You could say I like Dick a lot. From his debut in 1952 to his untimely death in 1982, Dick pushed the boundaries of what was possible in SF writing, evolving over three decades into someone who still remains a unique voice in the field—despite all the folks who owe a debt to him. He’s also, perhaps not incidentally, a perennial favorite for academics and fanboys with degrees in the growing department of science fiction studies.
Before he became one of the field’s top novelists, though, Dick started out as one of the best and most prolific of short story writers; in what was in hindsight a short time span (most of his short fiction was published before 1960), Dick sold dozens of short stories a year during his peak, with something like thirty short stories being published in 1953 alone. I don’t think even Robert Sheckley wrote this much in a single year. Yes, 1953 was a boom year for Dick, and today’s story, “Second Variety,” might be the most famous to come out of that batch, garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novelette and coming close to winning—only losing to James Blish’s “Earthman, Come Home.” Truth be told, I always found the Blish story hard to digest without prior knowledge of his Cities in Flight series, whereas Dick’s story very much works on its own terms.
First published in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If I was to go through every time this story has been collected and anthologized we’d be here all day, so I’ll restrict myself to reprints that are in print, since even then you have several options. First, if you want a free and accessible version that’s not a legal grey area, good news, somehow “Second Variety” fell out of copyright a while ago and now you can read it perfectly legit on Project Gutenberg, link here. I do recommend reading a copy that doesn’t include interior illustrations, as while the ones by Alex Ebel for the magazine publication (and on Gutenberg) are nice, they also allude to the two biggest twists in the narrative. For book reprints the best choices would be Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, The Philip K. Dick Reader, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. As for myself I also have The World Treasury of Science Fiction, a typical David G. Hartwell anthology in that it is fucking massive; proceed with caution.
Earth is fucked. The Cold War between the Americans and Soviets has long since gone hot and pretty much the whole planet has been rendered unhabitable. The American government, now in exile, has retreated to Earth’s moon. How they managed to build a moon base is beyond me. Meanwhile nearly the whole human population has either died or gone off-planet. “All but the troops.” Even the military is no longer organized, “a few thousand here, a platoon there,” with the only thing giving the soldiers a sense of cohesion being comms with the moon base. We start in one of the bunkers that are surely scattered throughout the scarred landscape, with Major Hendricks as our protagonist—a disciplined but otherwise unexceptional man who will prove to be our eyes and ears for the hell we’ll witness.
A Russian troop runs across the battlefield with a message (unbeknownst to the Americans) before getting killed and torn apart by a pack of claws—little robots that have enough agility and raw steel to slash a man’s throat. The Americans wear badges that prevent the claws from going after them, as they should, considering the claws will go after anything that’s organic; even the rats that populate the trenches and holes of the ruined earth sometimes get caught up a claw’s blades. The Russian’s message reads that the Russian encampment is looking to make peace with the Americans, a call for a cease fire that naturally the Americans are skeptical about. One soldier needs to head over to the Russian base to agree to peace. Simple enough. Hendricks volunteers and the plot, such as it starts, is a simple point-A-to-point-B mission, assuming the claws never mistake Hendricks for the enemy and assuming the Russians don’t get themselves killed by then…
The Americans were losing the war, and badly; thus a super-weapon was needed to push back the enemy, and in this case the Americans got the bright idea to build the claws. Now the claws aren’t just killer robots: these are robots that are not only rabidly bloodthirsty but also granted enough cognitive capacity to be able to reproduce themselves, in that they’re able to run their own factories where they can build and program more claws, independent of human input. Since the top brass couldn’t figure out a way to program faction loyalty into the claws (an RPG, after all, cannot know anything about nationalism), they’re designed to go after anything that moves, making them not-too-picky killers.
Hendricks leaves, but en route to his destination he comes across a boy with a teddy bear who has apparently been surviving on his own. So, the boy is named David and he has a teddy bear. Did Brian Aldiss take inspiration from “Second Variety” when writing “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” or is this one of those weird coincidences? Anyway, Hendricks takes the boy under his wing until they’re stopped by a pack of what appear to be Russian soldiers, who at first seem to take aim at Hendricks—only to shoot David, blowing him to metal pieces and revealing him to have been a claw in disguise. Hendricks has unwittingly almost let a claw into the bunker with him, having mistaken the robot for a human. It wass a good job too; other than some strange behavior that can be explained by the fact that people become unhinged when put in isolation, the claw convinced the jaded military man that it was a real boy for a time. The blurring of the line between the real and fraudulent is a theme Dick will return to many times over his career, and while “Second Variety” was not even the first example of this, it was, along with “Colony,” an effective use of the theme to invoke horror.
Speaking of which, I did say that I’d prefer you read a version that doesn’t come with illustrations, but I’ll allow the first of Ebel’s interiors, which gives away David being a claw but which I think still properly conveys the eeriness of the claws starting to replicate humanity. This is a reminder that much of what Dick wrote can be classified as horror, even though Dick is never talked about as a horror author—probably because, in the hierarchy of genres, horror, for Dick, always came second to science fiction. The two genres have had a symbiotic relationship since the days of Mary Shelley, but that’s a lecture for another time. Like I said, Ebel’s work is good.
Hendricks meets up with a small group of survivors—some Soviet troops who have been cut off from headquarters. The implication, of course, is that there’s no longer any headquarters to get in touch with. The survivors are Rudi, Klaus, and Tasso, the last of these being a young woman whose relationship with the others is unclear. It’s here, in temporary safety (but are we really safe), where we get a further explanation of the claws, including the humanoid varieties, of which “David” is one. Variety I (mind the Roman numberals) is the Wounded Soldier, Variety III is the David, but nobody’s yet found what Variety II would be—hence the title. The idea behind the varieties seems to be not just extermination but infiltration, with claws posing as humans so as to make real humans let their guard down. Apparently the varieties were not the Americans’ idea…
The claws are evolving; not only can they make more of themselves but they’re producing new models, with the varieties even being immune to the badges the American troops wear. Nobody is safe anymore. “It makes me wonder,” says Hendricks, “if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.” It’s possible for a David or a Wounded Soldier to trick an American bunker into being let in, which does not bode well for Hendricks when he eventually has to get back to HQ. Ah, but as long as the claws don’t get to the moon base…! Not to spoil things, but if you’re looking for an optimistic take on mankind’s future you make wanna look elsewhere is all I’m saying.
A lot happens in “Second Variety,” which at first glance, going by page count, looks like a novella, but with a lot of scene breaks and short punchy bits of dialogue it turns out to be not as long as it looks. Still, this is a long novelette at 15,000 words, and Dick demonstrates his mastery of economical writing by keeping the pace of the narrative at a pop-pop-pop rhythm, only giving us a single lengthy infodump towards the beginning before letting short bursts of action and dialogue speak for themselves. It’s still a long story, but given how much Dick crams in here it’s a lot of bang for one’s buck. We spend enough time in the bunker with the survivors in the story’s midpoint that we’re lulled into a sense of security—which proves to be very false indeed. Everything goes to SHIT after this point, let’s see how.
There Be Spoilers Here
The party starts to dwindle. Klaus kills Rudi on the suspicion that Rudi is a claw—or so Klaus claims. Turns out, judging from the organic remains, Rudie was not a claw, but the damage has already been done. Personally I would take this as a huge red flag with regards to Klaus, but for the time being he has plausible deniability. SURPRISE, Klaus is a claw too, only stopped from killing Hendricks as well thanks to an EMP bomb that Tasso carries, which would only really be useful against claws. You’d think this would absolve her of being a claw herself, but there’s one little problem with that: Tasso is the second variety. More successfully than David and even Klaus, Tasso manages to trick Hendricks into thinking she’s human until it’s too late to stop her. I wanna point out that this is not as much of a shock if you’re reading the magazine version or on Gutenberg, where we get an illustration showing a woman-shaped robot well before the reveal, but I also have to admit that the foreknowledge of Tasso’s nature does little to lessen the impact.
Not that Dick’s stories tend to have happy endings, but “Second Variety” has to have one of the bleakest. Hendricks has just unwittingly let a claw take a ship to the moon base where the last of the American faction will probably get annihilated. As he’s fending off an army of claws and bleeding out he reflects back on the anti-claw bomb Tasso used on Klaus, and we get one of the most haunting final lines in a ’50s SF story: “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” A charitable reading of the ending is that the claws may destroy each other, having rid themselves of humanity at last, but Dick may also be implying that the end, for better or worse, is not yet. There will be no clear end to the destruction. There are quite a few post-apocalypse narratives that sprouted following the end of World War II, but unlike those other stories, wherein the fighting has more or less stopped at least, humanity being in too much a state of disarray to make matters worse, the ruined world of “Second Variety” continues to degrade itself, with machines simply continuing humanity’s “work.”
A Step Farther Out
Admittedly part of the fun of reading “Second Variety” is understanding the historical context behind it, because this is a Cold War story from start to finish. I actually watched Screamers, which is loosely based on this, the other day, and it just didn’t have the same punch—in part because it lacked the background of Cold War paranoia. In fairness to the filmmakers, Screamers came out in 1995; the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years prior. Sure, the claws are creepy, but the overall creepiness in the short story is greatly amplified by the constant uncertainty of things. We managed to stop the real Cold War from going hot, but in the ’50s it must’ve been easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, resulting in one of Dick’s bleakest narratives. And I’m here for it! Of Dick’s short stories, “Second Variety” is one of the most memorable that I’ve read; I suspect it didn’t find its way into any of the major magazines because a) Dick was too prolific at this point, and b) the story was too dark, at a time when editors—even the more liberal ones—preferred happy endings. Really it was their loss.