It’s the first day of April… and I don’t have a prank in mind.
I’m just gonna do what I do with every one of these forecast blogs, which is to give you a quick update on things and then list off what I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. Hope you did your taxes well in advance and aren’t scrambling now! If you’re a filthy American, that is.
Anyway, the biggest thing to happen to this blog recently has been the opportunity to get interviewed by German warrior queen and Hugo winner Cora Buhlert (link here), which naturally gave me the warm fuzzies. This is a relatively young blog, but already I feel I’ve made major progress with it, and it’s been a reliable excuse for discovering new (to me) authors and returning to old favorites. My goal with this site has been to indulge my own quirky and admittedly retro-leaning love of genre fiction, with a literary if also highly colloquial bent, and on that front it’s been a success. Honestly there are too few active fanzines in the field right now, with a good number of them being one-man shows like myself, and goddamnit we deserve to get more notice among industry regulars.
Now, where was I?
Right. It’s been what, four months since I covered a so-called complete novel? And uhh, we still haven’t gotten there yet: April is thirty days, not 31. Sad. Just one more month, I promise. In the meantime we have a serial, two novellas, and two short stories. Admittedly we have more familiar faces in the lineup than I would normally prefer, but given my schedule as of late I’ve made an exception for myself. Let’s see what we have.
For the serial:
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. Published in New Worlds, July to October 1967. Disch is one of those American authors who appeared regularly in New Worlds during the height of the New Wave era, alongside Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. This is a four-part serial, but don’t be fooled! From what I can tell each installment is pretty short, which adds up because the novel in book form is like 180 pages. Short, but potent—or so I’ve heard. I’ve read a few short works from Disch before but this will be my first novel of his.
For the novellas:
“Forgiveness Day” by Ursula K. Le Guin. From the November 1994 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella, and winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. I hate to say this as someone who likes Le Guin a lot, but I’ve yet to read the linked collection Four Ways to Forgiveness—thought apparently now it’s titled Five Ways to Forgiveness (they found another one). Three of the stories in this collection were published in Asimov’s in fairly close succession, with “Forgiveness Day” being the first.
“Memorare” by Gene Wolfe. From the April 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This is one of those F&SF special author issues. Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella. Wolfe made his first SFF sale in 1951, but he didn’t start writing regularly until the mid-’60s, where from then on he became one of the field’s most distinguished authors. He’s most famous for The Book of the New Sun and the fix-up novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but Wolfe did not shy away from short fiction, with “Memorare” as but one example.
For the short stories:
“The Big Night” by Henry Kuttner. From the June 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. I covered C. L. Moore again last month, so I figure I ought to do Kuttner the same. The two are often treated as a package deal, forming like Voltron under their own names as well as a variety of pseudonyms, especially for the high-paying Astounding Science Fiction. Kuttner also appeared in several magazines apart from Moore. Take “The Big Night,” for example, which Kuttner had published under the pseudonym Hudson Hastings.
“The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” by George R. R. Martin. From the May 1976 issue of Fantastic. Martin has spent the past few decades so entrenched as a fantasist that it’s easy to forget there was a time when he mostly wrote science fiction instead, and that it was fantasy which was reserved for once in a blue moon. In 1976 you had two fantasy magazines: F&SF and Fantastic, and the latter paid worse. But Martin was good buddies with Ted White, Fantastic‘s editor, and this saw the publication of Martin’s first “pure” fantasy.
That’s it, that’s all I have. I take way too long to come up with these forecasts. I actually wrote this about a week ago; you’re only reading it now. Funny how time works. And as for those adventures in time and space…
While not the first author to write what we’d call hard SF, Hal Clement, more than any other, codified this particular mode of writing. Making his debut in 1942 when he was still in his teens, not to mention an undergraduate, Clement helped introduce a degree of science-fictional hardness that previously was rarely seen, and was not considered part of some greater collective effort to put the science in science fiction. It’s about as hard-headed as you can get, and yet there’s also an undeniable joy in Clement’s writing—more specifically how eager he is to build and explore eccentric planets and alien races. He was not the first planet builder, but he was arguably the best of his generation to do this. Mission of Gravity and other stories set in that continuity alone would’ve cemented his legacy, but Clement kept writing reliably (if not prolifically) until his death in 2003.
Needle was Clement’s debut novel; while he had been active in the field for half a dozen years at this point, he would’ve only been about 26 when he wrote it. It was the first in a series of rapid-fire novels for Clement, being followed in only a few years by Iceworld and his most famous work, Mission of Gravity. A criticism (positive or negative) often made about Clement is that he seems far more invested in making rounded characters out of his aliens than his humans, and this certainly remains the case with Needle. Despite involving a teen boy as his partner in crime-solving, the hero and the character most worthy of our empathy is a four-pound blob that can barely get around on his own.
Part 2 was published in the June 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Did you know that Needle was up for the Retro Hugo for Best Novel of 1950, but was withdrawn on the grounds that it was first published (albeit in abridged form) the previous year? Anyway, your best bet at finding the book version outside of used bookshops is to pick up the omnibus The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter, which contains Iceworld and Close to Critical.
We had spent the back end of Part 1 off the island and on the mainland, where Bob goes to school, but now we’re back home. Bob’s father had apparently called him to return home early; up to this point we had not gotten a single word out of the father, but now he’s gonna be an actual cjharacter alongside Bob’s mother, though let’s not make a mistake here and act like these are complex characters.
If Part 1 showed Clement in his element, the concluding installment forces him to write about the thing he’s the least interested in: other people. Not that Bob was a Shakespearean figure before this, but it’s when we’re introduced to the father and more of Bob’s friends that we realize that the island setting might be even more isolated than previously thought. While the friendship between Bob and the Hunter feels earned enough, this is the only character relationship in the novel to feel even close to organic—not that there’s much in the way of competition. Much of the interest here comes from the Hunter’s paternalistic relationship with his host, the latter being just old enough to understand the mechanics of the situation but still too immature to probably act responsibly on his own. The Hunter’s role as a parental figure has deepened, made more profound by the fact that Bob’s parents are pretty relaxed folks.
This is especially true when it comes to injuries, and doubly so now that Bob is aware that he has an alien that can heal wounds up to a point onboard. Take the following, for example:
The alien, unlike his host, was able to see one good point in connection with the mishap; it might cure the boy of the unfortunate tendency he had been developing, of leaving the care of his body to the Hunter. The latter said nothing of the sort, of course—it might have been taken amiss, as Bob lay awake that night trying to keep as much of himself as possible out of contact with the sheets. He had not been so careless for years, and was inclined to blame it on his coming home at such an odd time. The Hunter did not dispute the matter. He could not have eliminated the pain without the risk of permanent damage to Bob’s sensory nerves, and probably would not have done so anyway.
Truth be told there’s not much more to say here without getting into spoilers, since this is the installment where we finally find out where the hell the fugitive could be hiding. To Clement’s credit he clearly did his homework and he’s putting a great deal of effort into making the mystery challenging from a scientific angle. There’s no easy fix for the Hunter finding the fugitive and even communicating with Bob proves a challenge, although not to put too find a point on it, but the reveal still comes too easily. Again, I wanna be fair here since crossing SF with mystery was all but unheard of at this point in the former’s history and Clement was sailing waters that basically had not been charted. I don’t blame him either for the very matter-of-fact prose style, which is typical of Clement but also goes a long way to give the proceedings a sense of realisim; if it seems too stoic and inelegant that’s still preferrable over being unnecessarily overblown.
There Be Spoilers Here
After trying and failing to find the culprit among Bob’s friends, the Hunter ends up finding the culprit much closer to home—literally. After some rather odd remarks from Bob’s dad, the Hunter deduces correctly that the father, unbeknownst to himself, has become the host for the fugitive. This makes sense considering it would’ve been easiest for the fugitive to enter someone’s body while they’re unconscious, and the chances of getting the father to be fine with being host for a four-pound alien blob would be low. Is it convenient that the person containing the fugitive happens to live under the same roof as Our Heroes™? Absolutely, but there’s a lot of potential for having a parental figure (unknowingly) assist the villain—potential which sadly, though not unexpectedly, Clement fails to exploit.
Needle is a novel that starts off quite interesting and becomes marginally less so by the climax, and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that Astounding, while being the top SF magazine of the day, also had a puritanical streak, with stories being made squeaky clean for publication on the off chance there profanity in the manuscript. While Clement’s novel is deeply concerned with biology, the sexual side of the equation goes unacknowledged, with the result being that any attempt at a Freudian analysis would hit a road block. Because Bob gets to act like a perfectly rational (i.e., too rational) human being and because he and his dad don’t seem to have a strenuous relationship, there’s potential for drama with the latter being host to villain that goes unrealized.
It’s also totally possible that, had even the censors not kept an eye on him, Clement would’ve still gone the totally pragmatic route and put out a novel concerned with the surface mechanics of its scenario but not the very obvious psycho-sexual material at hand. Had this been written by Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard, the basic plot beats remaining the same, we would’ve gotten a radically different novel.
Anyway, Bob and the Hunter naturally find an ingenious solution to getting the fugitive to come out of the father’s body and kill him and all is well at the end, with Bob agreeing to keep Hunter as his symbiote since the latter, by his own admission, can’t leave Earth. Killing the fugitive rather than arresting him sounds a bit cruel, but then arresting is not an option when you’re lightyears from home and thus you can’t bring the criminal to any prison belonging to your race. Something I like about the one scene we get of the fugitive talking is that much is implied in his dialogue with the Hunter but there are gaps in their history that are left deliberately unfilled. We knew already that the fugitive is not to be trusted, but it’s only here that we get it from the horse’s mouth, with the fugitive admitting to having betrayed previous hosts for personal gain.
Clement intelligently hints at a whole alien civilization while only letting us see two of its inhabitants, letting us imagine for ourselves what this society of aliens biologically wholly different from humans (they’re technically viruses, going by the definition Clement gives us) might look like. It’s a shame then that he does not care as much about making the human setting come to life, despite the novelty of a tropical SF story from this era.
A Step Farther Out
I would say I was disappointed, but I did have my expectations in check. I’m tempted to say that the lack of development with the human characters was due to length, but this is par for the course with Clement: his aliens are always more interesting than his humans. Whereas someone like Philip K. Dick would’ve taken this premise in a darker direction, diving more into psychological intrigue, Clement is content to use the reveal simply as a convenient out for Our Hero™, sadly neglecting how thematically ripe the material is. We still get a curious mashup of cold-blooded science fiction and a detective looking for a malevolent blob that doesn’t wanna be found. I haven’t read too many mysteries in my time, but I tend to find the first half—the setup—more gripping than the payoff, which might just be the nature of the genre. Not that the conclusion to a mystery being a letdown is too big a mark against this short novel or any of its ilk; it’s just that the mystery is often so much better than the mystery being solved.
There’s been an ongoing debate over the decades as to hard SF’s place in the context of SF literature, and even the basic question of what hard SF is. Now, I’m just a lay reader; I don’t have a degree in the hard sciences. I took a chemistry course in college that I’ve basically forgotten everything about. I do, however, feel confident in giving a succinct and easily understandable definition for hard SF that will hopefully mellow the conversation: hard SF is Hal Clement. Now remembered as a writer (he also did painting on the side), Clement was a trained astronomer and chemist who seemed eager (to the point of obsession) to convey his love for the wonders of the natural world to the rest of us mortals. Most famously with Mission of Gravity but palpable in so much of his work is this sense of a clockmaker or a sculptor who never tires of the delicate mechanics of his craft. Clement was what we might call a planet builder, and he was one of the best.
Clement’s career is also one of the longest of any SF author, although except for a bright period in the ’50s he was never too prolific. He debuted with the short story “Proof” in 1942, written when he was still a teenager, and his final SF work, the novel Noise, was published in 2003—the year of his death. From beginning to end he kept the faith, demonstrating that it was possible to extract artistry from the intricacies of physics and chemistry. More than any other figure (despite some being more popular), Hal Clement is the grand architect of hard SF. Our understanding of hard SF as fiction which puts roughly equal emphasis on both science and fiction goes back to Clement. To crib a line from James Nicholl, in his Tor.com article on the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series, “Current exoplanet research suggests that we are living in a Hal Clement universe.”
Part 1 was published in the May 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. A word of warning: a scanning error on a specific page it’s page 26 renders a handful of words therein illegible, which left me feeling cheated slightly. Apparently this same scan is on Luminist, which means that, as far as I know, there’s no scan of this issue available online that does not have this problem. Anyway, from what I understand the serial version of Needle is arguably novella-length; Clement would expand Needle for book publication, although I can’t imagine he could’ve added that much material. Used paperback editions are not hard to find, although if you want something in print and a little fancy then go with The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule & Typewriter, which collects Needle along with Iceworld and Close to Critical.
We start with a spaceship chase that quickly becomes earthbound. An alien police officer known only as the Hunter is after a fugitive, a member of his own species, when both ships crash land on Earth—and on a rather specific part of Earth, too. The Hunter is a blob-like semi-liquid alien that’s also, technically, a parasite, albeit a symbiotic one; the Hunter survives the crash but his alien host does not. Upon leaving the ship the Hunter finds himself in our ocean, not too far from shore, which is where we get the inspiration for both the cover and the first interior, involving an unlucky hammerhead shark that mistakes the Hunter for food. The Hunter at first tries taking on the shark as a host, finding a) the shark is a predator who is trying (unsuccessfully) to devour him, and b) the shark is of markedly low intelligence (apparently the symbiotes are used to taking sentient beings as hosts), the Hunter thinks it best and only fair game to leave the shark for dead once he’s able to get it to beach itself.
A few things immediately stood out to me. The narrative is third-person and sort of omniscient, but also totally from the Hunter’s perspective. The decision to make the hero of the story both an alien and non-humanoid must’ve also been a rare decision in those days, especially in the pages of Astounding; but don’t worry, there’s still some human chauvinism thrown in once the Hunter acquires his human host—more on that later. Another is the tropical setting. I don’t think we’re ever told specifically where this is set, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Hawaii, in the late ’40s when Hawaii was a US territory but not a state yet. This would also be taking place presumably a few years after the end of World War II, although the war never gets brought up directly. Finally, as is often noted when people review this novel, this is, if not the first then one of the first attempts to wed science fiction with a good old-fashioned mystery.
A common criticism (or at least it used to be a criticism) of SF-mystery is that the author can pull anything out of their ass in order for the mystery to be solved conveniently, not to mention that in a futuristic setting there would be a wide arsenal of tools the protagonist can use to solve the mystery. At least with for the latter Needle presents no such issue; while the Hunter is an alien, he has to make due with what was then modern Earth technology and the cooperation of a human who, on top of being a teenager, might not be keen on letting an alien slime ball inhabit his body. The Hunter and the fugitive are also on about the same playing field since they’re both symbiotes who both crashed in the same area, and both ideally want a host of high intelligence and mobility, in which case humans would be the only good option. Of course, finding someone who could be inhabiting any given body would be like finding a needle in a haystack (hence the title, very clever), and even with the small island setting the Hunter has potentially dozens if not hundreds of people who could be hosts for the fugitive.
You may be thinking to yourself: “Wait, an alien policeman goes after another alien that has crash landed in Hawaii, a place conveniently surrounded by water, and the latter alien is able to blend in with the local population?” No, this is not Lilo & Stitch, this is something totally different.
Now, about that human host. The Hunter comes upon a bunch of teen boys hanging out on the beach, and one of them, Robert Kinnaird (Bob for short), is taking a nap while the others are distracted. What happens next is… interesting. The Hunter makes it clear both to us and later to Bob that a symbiote much prefers to take another’s body with the host’s knowledge and consent (there are indeed benefits to having a four-pound blob inside you, as we’ll see), but since the Hunter knows nothing of the local language and has enough common sense to figure that the boy would probably not just let him come inside (there should be a better way to phrase this), he takes the sneaky option. I don’t think Clement intended this, but the body horror potential of this whole ordeal is quite big. Take the following passage, in which the Hunter creeps into Bob’s body unbeknownst to the latter:
The boy was sound asleep, and remained so. The alien organism flowed smoothly along the bones and tendons in his foot and ankle; up within the muscle sheaths of calf and thigh; switched to the outer wall of the femoral artery and the tubelets within the structure of the thigh bones; around points, and along still other blood vessels. It filtered through the peritoneum without causing the least damage; and slowly the whole four pounds of matter accumulated in the abdominal cavity, not only without harming the boy in the least but without even disturbing his slumber. And there, for a few minutes, the Hunter rested.
Ech. This was meant for teenagers? Right, Needle is technically a juvenile, although as is often the case with juvenile SF from this period (see also Robert Heinlein’s juveniles) I struggle to believe it was aimed at such a young readership. Not that the prose is hard to get through. Clement’s style is… well, it’s not poetic; actually it’s the opposite of poetic. When people say they have a hard time getting into hard SF, especially the classics, because of the inelegance of the prose, they’re thinking of some variation on what Clement was doing, and to be fair he can be occasionally clunky, but I think far more often it works. The mix of the third-person narration and the Hunter’s running inner monologue reads almost like a script for a nature documentary, albeit one that David Attenborough would be pleased to narrate. Clement writes about the Hunter as if intelligent symbiotes from another planet were as real as hippos and alligators, something that always draws me to his writing even though the human characters, by comparison, feel like little more than abstractions.
Also unusually for a mystery, the Hunter does not immediately take advantage of Bob in order to find his adversary; actually he spends several months simply trying to understand human culture as filtered through Bob’s day-to-day life, along with making sure the boy doesn’t hurt himself too bad. A symbiote can, to some extent, heal the host’s body, but the importan thing for the Hunter is to make sure Bob stays mobile, so that when they finally do reach an understanding they’ll be able to venture out and see what they can do about the fugitive, who no doubt has similar plans. The curious result of the Hunter looking after Bob is that the former almost serves as a parental figure (mind you that we don’t even hear about Bob’s father until towards the end of Part 1), although it’d be more accurate to say he becomes Bob’s guardian angel. If Bob gets a bad cut then the Hunter can speed up the healing process, or at least quarantine the injury. But of course eventually Our Hero™ will have to make himself known to his human partner more directly, which concerns the back end of Part 1.
There Be Spoilers Here
The Hunter can do some things that would give Bob the impression of something being off about himself; he could make Bob trip balls mess with Bob’s vision and make it seem like he’s hallucinating, forming letters in the air in front of him. He could do things with Bob’s body that would certainly be unusual, unless there was a far-out explanation, like say, someone not strictly human being in contact with him. But the Hunter is, ultimately, little more than a lump of jelly who can’t even pick up a pencil without the host’s imput. He at least has used his time in Bob’s body to understand enough English (he becomes oddly fluent in it in five months, but that’s still more plausible than Frankenstein’s monster becoming a Shakespearean actor after eavesdropping on some random people), but not enough to understand the limits of the human physique. There’s only so much he can do.
One night the Hunter sneaks out of Bob (I don’t know if Clement understood the implications of what he was writing) and manages to write a note for him when he wakes up. Up to this point Bob was vaguely aware that something odd has been going on with him, and it’s not puberty—no matter how tempting it is to try to make that connection. While the revelation of Bob being in contact (and rather intimate roommates) with a symbiote can feel abrupt, at least by modern standards (no doubt Needle would be at least 300 pages long if written today), it’s not sudden. We have in fact, for most of Part 1, been building up to this moment—the moment when Our Alien Hero™ and his human partner make contact.
Bob wakes up to find this at his desk:
“Bob,” the note began—the Hunter did not yet fully realize that certain occasions call for more formal means of address—“these words apologize for the disturbance I caused you last night. I must speak to you; the twitching of muscles and catching of your voice were my attempts. I have not space here to tell who and where I am; but I can always hear you speak. If you are willing for me to try again, just say so. I will use the method you request; I can, if you relax, work your muscles as I did last night, or if you will look steadily at some fairly evenly illuminated object I can make shadow pictures in your own eyes. I will do anything else within my power to prove my words to you; but you must make the suggestions for such proofs. This is terribly important to both of us. Please let me try again.”
Bob, despite being a teenager, adjusts quickly enough to the fact that he can communicate with an alien that also happens to be living inside him. A little implausible? Maybe. Clement seems to go out of his way to prevent any chance of getting an allegorical or Freudian reading from the text, although some things seep through despite his best efforts. Bob is a good American high schooler who plays football in the fall while keeping an eye on his grades, and in typical Clement fashion as far as his human characters go Bob is perhaps too rational. No matter. Most of Part 1, and by extension about half the damn novel in its serial form, has been preoccupied with the Hunter getting his bearings straight rather than going after the fugitive, but now that the Hunter and his human have “found” each other, the game is now truly afoot. Still, how will they even hope to find that other symbiote, who after all can be hiding damn near anywhere? Stay tuned…
A Step Farther Out
This is… oddly cozy? There’s a mystery, sure, and a criminal to be captured, but the majority of Part 1 is just the Hunter trying to make sense of his surroundings and adjust accordingly’ in the process we find out a good deal about the biology of these blob-like aliens, and while we don’t find out much about their culture we do get to know how the Hunter and others like him interact (at least ideally) with their hosts. I’m of course thinking of Dax from Deep Space 9, who is also a symbiote, although the Hunter presumably can’t pass along memories between hosts. Bob is not exactly a unique character, being a pretty average teenage boy, but it’s how the Hunter tries to communicate with him (or even make himself known in the first place) that generates interest. I won’t be surprised if Clement ends up taking the easy way out with regards to how the hell the Hunter will be able to find the fugitive, but I’m willing to forgive that if he keeps up this level of intrigue and pseudo-documentary atmosphere. Despite taking place on Earth and evidently being aimed at a younger readership, I’m pretty stoked about this mixture of mystery and hard SF.
We’re at the point where I probably don’t have to introduce Robert E. Howard to you, but I’ll do it anyway; or rather I’ll elaborate on what makes Howard special. Fantasy is a very old genre, but it’s much less so as practiced by American authors, at least if we’re talking fantasy as separated from horror. It doesn’t help that historically the magazine market hasn’t been very kind towards fantasy, but for a stretch Weird Tales was the most famous and most prolific outlet for American fantasy, and it was where Howard published much of his most famous work. Of course Howard was looking for several outlets at the same time, since he was such a massively productive writer, whether it be his fantasy, his horror, or hell, his stories about boxing. Oddly enough, though, he was basically absent from the then-growing science fiction scene, and one has to wonder if he would have eventually moved into SF had he lived longer.
Howard’s life was tragically short, and yet he wrote more in the span of a decade than most authors (especially today) write in fifty years. His tales of Conan the Barbarian alone take up several volumes, despite the fact that he was only able to write one Conan novel with The Hour of the Dragon. Conan is, of course, the godfather of sword-and-sorcery heroes, despite not even being Howard’s first such character. Conan is really more of an icon than a character with traits people recognize, whether it’s his very loose film depiction via Arnold Schwarzenegger or the more faithful paintings done by Frank Frazetta. As depicted in the original Howard stories, Conan shows himself to be quite different from people’s assumptions.
Part 3 was published in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tlaes, which is on the Archive. Because Howard has been dead for almost 90 years at this point, pretty much all of his work is in the public domain, including The People of the Black Circle, which you can read in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. If you want a book copy, you have plenty of options; the Conan stories have been perpetually in print (albeit subject to some editing fuckery early on) for the past several decades.
Sadly there’s not a whole lot for me to say about the conclusion to this gripping novella; not the story’s fault really, it’s more that I’m not a very good reader and even worse when it comes to action. Howard has a sixth sense for writing action and suspense, although given how much there is of it in the third installment you might start to get the impression that Howard is grasping at straws, or rather ways in which he can challenge his nigh-invincible anti-hero.
To recap, Conan has teamed up with fellow gun for hire Kerim Shah to rescue Yasmina from the Black Seers of Yimsha, with help from some redshirts under Kerim Shah’s leadership. Kerim Shah and the Black Seers were originally working for the same country but the latter went rogue and snatched up Yasmina for their own ends. A bit of a disappointment, albeit an inevitable one, with this installment is that Yasmina is absent for much of it; she’s too busy being a damsel. I bring this up because Yasmina is almost as good a Conan woman as Bêlit from “Queen of the Black Coast,” which if I remember right was my first Conan story. I may have set up an unfair precedent with that one. Howard wrote “Queen of the Black Coast” and The People of the Black Circle close to each other, and I get the impression that at this point in his career he got pretty good at writing women who have personalities and agency. Bêlit has the advantage of being a criminal, the titular queen of the black coast, while Yasmina is filthy royalty (no truce with queens), but nobody’s perfect.
Conan, now armed with the magic girdle Khemsa had given him in the last installment, proves to be very valuable; arguably it’s the only reason he’s able to get out of this conflict alive. Something I’ve noted before and which I still like is that the enemy Conan faces off with in this story is objectively way more powerful than him, and even Conan admits that defeating the Seers for good is basically impossible. The key objective then is not to beat the Seers so much as to rescue Yasmina and get the hell out of there as fast as possible—which, naturally, involves facing off with the Seers and their underlings to some capacity. I don’t feel like recounting every detail of that journey, since it’s one long action sequence and I’m tired, but I do feel like pointing out a few things, such as…
Howard seems to be of the belief that when in doubt, throw a big aggressive animal at the protagonist. Not even an animal that’s all that fantastical, just take a normal animal and make it the size of a car. One of the first enemies Conan fights in this installment is a really big dog. How exciting. We also get giant magical snakes later on, which are at least marginally more exciting because of how Conan has to defeat them; it involves balls. I’m also pretty sure these snakes inspired this memorable interior, courtesy of Hugh Rankin. I can easily imagine Conan stories, especially this one, being adapted into an adventure flick in the ’50s or ’60s with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, although I doubt the gore would be replicated.
Speaking of gore, I was wondering, at the end of the last installment, if Conan and Kerim Shah would fight the Seers together and then have an epic duel in the aftermath, or if there would be a betrayal beforehand; turns out I was wrong about both. The master of the Seers, who last we checked was subjecting Yasmina to some pretty far-out torture, doesn’t care too much about Conan and Kerim Shah invading his private space—not because he doesn’t mind them but because he sees them as little more than petulant flies. While Conan was able to deal with the underlings and the giant snakes at the cost of a few redshirts, this forthcoming battle won’t be as easy. Actually it’s a battle that Conan hopes not to win outright so much as to incapacitate the master long enough to rescue Yasmina.
A barbarian would have absolutely no chance against such a high-level wizard—not even a certified badass like Conan, were it not for that magic girdle. Indeed the gift from Khemsa had saved him before; the aforementioned big dog went after the redshirts but ignored Conan for reasons he did not understand at first. No doubt the girdle has symbolic value: Khemsa used it to good effect when protecting Gitara, his girlfriend, while Conan is using it to help him in rescuing Yasmina. Is it quaint that we’re supposed to believe Conan and Yasmina love each other despite having known each other for less than a week and being mostly on the run during that short time? Maybe, but what’s a good old-fashioned adventure yarn without some high-spirited romance? Even for a super-macho guy like Conan.
There Be Spoilers Here
I was gonna discuss Kerim Shah’s death in the previous section, but realized a) it really is a spoiler, and b) I should probably hold off on talking about it. I just say that because it’s pretty gnarly; it’s the most memorable part of the novella’s concluding installment. The Conan series is not averse to gore at all, but even by its standards this man goes out in a gruesome fashion. When Conan and Kerim Shah confront the master of the Seers the creepy guy YANKS KERIM SHAH’S HEART OUT OF HIS BODY. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world, too. Since Kerim Shah isn’t protected by any kind of magic, well, honestly he probably should’ve seen that coming. Even so, Howard’s talent for describing visceral action kicks into high gear and the result is almost mesmerizing with how grotesque it is.
Observe in all its glory:
He held out his hand as if to receive something, and the Turanian cried out sharply like a man in mortal agony. He reeled drunkenly, and then, with a splintering of bones, a rending of flesh and muscle and a snapping of mail-links, his breast burst outward with a shower of blood, and through the ghastly aperture something red and dripping shot through air into the Master’s outstretched hand, as a bit of steel leaps to the magnet. The Turanian slumped to the floor and lay motionless, and the Master laughed and hurled the object to fall before Conan’s feet—a still-quivering human heart.
Anyway, Conan manages to “defeat” the master, nab Yasmina, and get the hell out of Yimsha, although by Conan’s own admission his defeat of the master is by no means permanent; it’s mighty hard to kill such a powerful wizard. But wait, we’re not quite out of the woods yet! In the previous installment Conan’s henchmen, by way of misunderstanding, thought he had betrayed them, so now we have to tie up that loose end with one last battle where Conan makes it clear that he was loyal to his homies the whole time. We also get what is implied to be the final appearance of the master of the Seers, in the form of a big bird (not to be confused with Big Bird), because, like I said, when in doubt just take an animal and super-size it.
The ending sees Conan and Yasmina parting ways, as is to be expected. Yasmina is the love interest of the week, and as is custom she must either die or be unable to “tame” the Cimmerian. I’m not sure if this story takes place before or after “Queen of the Black Coast,” but probably after. Bêlit was, as far as I can tell, the closest Conan had to a true love, which due to tragic circumstances was not to be. Yasmina is in many ways a worthy partner, but as queen of Vendhya she has an obligation to her people—an obligation that Conan refuses to take part in; wisely he chooses his nomadic lifestyle over being forced into becoming something he’s not in the name of love. This all reminds me of the back end of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, albeit more concise and without those weird Heinlein-isms.
Now I’m just thinking about what the field would look like had Howard and Heinlein crossed paths, since they’re both such unique personalities and have such odd views of how man ought to interact with the society around him. Mind you that Heinlein started out as a quirky New Deal Democrat and only later became the quirky right-libertarian we recognize him as, and meanwhile Howard’s political outlook is… harder to parse. At least in the Conan stories, however, his sympathy for barbarism (or rather his definition of barbarism, which involves being quasi-civilized) is easy enough to understand. Conan’s capacity to stay a free individual and keep himself outside the confines of normal society is what makes him such a noble figure despite his penchant for criminal activities, at least for Howard. So ends yet another adventure for the Cimmerian.
A Step Farther Out
I’m conflicted about the length of this thing. It could’ve been streamlined and shortened, but also it could’ve been expanded to novel length so that we get more character development. The scale Howard invokes here is enough to fill a modern fantasy novel (so like 600 pages), but he’s content to give us a novella that would fill 90 to a hundred pages. I might still prefer “Queen of the Black Coast” if we’re talking Conan, but it’s hard to fault The People of the Black Circle for its heightened ambition. Also, while there is some old-timey misogyny at play, Howard proves once again that he was pretty ahead of his time with regards to writing female characters. The relationship between Conan and Yasmina is a bit rushed but both parties are assertive types with their own agendas, and while Conan clearly has an upper hand physically they’re mostly shown to be equal partners. This is also one of the longest of the original Conan stories (albeit still a novella), so now I’m curious as to what the sole Conan novel (that Howard wrote) looks like.
Looking back on it, many of the most important figures in fantasy are British. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and of course we have William Shakespeare, whose fantastical plays (namely The Tempest) are essential to our understanding of the genre, even down to the language we use. As far as American fantasists go, though, few are more important (or more American) than Robert E. Howard, whose life was tragically short but who managed to produce a truly alarming amount of work in that short time. Across a near-endless supply of short fiction and poetry he ventured between low fantasy, horror, and the western, sometimes mixing the three to produce stories that were more invigorating than those written by his fellows. He was arguably the first literary swordsman, although he would probably prefer the position of “barbarian poet.”
Howard ran several series during his brief career, and Conan the Cimmerian was easily the most popular of the bunch, at least with hindsight; it, more than anything else, gave Howard a life after death as scord and sorcery’s key founder. While not Howard’s first sword-and-sorcery hero (or rather anti-hero), Conan was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy regarding man’s relationship with civilization.
Part 2 of The People of the Black Circle was published in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. You can also read the whole novella (the individual installments are pretty short, totaling about 30,000 words) on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. Because this is a Conan story, and one of the more famous ones, you won’t have a hard time finding it at all, be it online or in print.
Picking up where we left off, Conan and Yamina are on the run yet again after Conan is accused of murdering an ally of his—an act actually committed by Kemsha, the wizard who, along with his girlfriend Gitara (she has a name now), turned his back on the Black Seers of Yimsha and is now trying to take Yasmina as ransom of his own. Part 1 saw us starting out in the Hyborian equivalent of India, and now we’ve moved towards the equivalent of the Himalayan mountains. You start filling in the blanks once you realize these locales are based on real places.
The romantic/sexual tension between Conan and Yasmina continues to grow when the former proposes that the latter ought to take on the clothes of a local girl so as to disguise herself; after all, at least three parties are looking for her. Conan trades with a local girl and gives her a gold coin for her troubles, although perhaps wisely he sees her running off in the buff rather than giving her Yasmina’s clothes, since if the girl were found with those clothes she could be tortured and, worse yet, Our Heroes™ could be found out. It’s a bit of a comedic scene and it provides some relief after what amounted to a prolonged chase sequence in the first installment. It’s also here that Yasmina’s attraction to Conan is written more overtly, and it turns out such attraction may not be one-sided: when Conan gives her the new robes he beckons her to change out of his sight—an unusually chivalric and modest move for the barbarian.
A little gripe to shove in here before we get to the big action set piece of this installment. I’ve said before that Howard tends to use the same words to describe things when a perfectly fine alternative doesn’t present itself immediately, like Howard is in a mad dash to get the words out and has to go with what comes to mind first. For example, I feel like there has to be a better word to describe an attractive woman’s spine than “supple.” Actually Howard throws the word “supple” at several body parts, and it only works occasionally. This is a small price to pay for writing that is, far more often than not, narratively adept. Howard, on top of having a superhuman work ethic, also had a sixth sense for plotting, both in sustaining narrative momentum and also coming up with twists and turns that’ll hold the reader’s attention.
Speaking of which, here’s one now!
Kemsha and Gitara catch up with Conan and Yasmina, quite miraculously considering Kemsha got damn near run over by Conan’s horse at the end of the previous installment, but their reunion is short-lived when the big (i.e., the true) villains of the story make their first in-person appearance. Four of the Black Seers appear out of a dark cloud, above Our Heroes™ and well out of reach, and while we were led to believe the Black Seers meant business before, this is the first time we get to see them.
Howard doesn’t miss here:
The crimson cloud balanced like a spinning top for an instant, whirling in a dazzling sheen on its point. Then without warning it was gone, vanished as a bubble vanishes when burst. There on the ledge stood four men. It was miraculous, incredible, impossible, yet it was true. They were not ghosts or phantoms. They were four tall men, with shaven, vulture-like heads, and black robes that hid their feet. Their hands were concealed by their wide sleeves. They stood in silence, their naked heads nodding slightly in unison. They were facing Khemsa, but behind them Conan felt his own blood turning to ice in his veins. Rising, he backed stealthily away, until he felt the stallion’s shoulder trembling against his back, and the Devi crept into the shelter of his arm. There was no word spoken. Silence hung like a stifling pall.
The Seers are mainly here to get at the one who betrayed them. On the one hand, fair, but also despite being a villain we’ve come to sympathize with Kemsha. Howard has a gift for creating characters who are, if not totally rounded, at least recognizably human; while we haven’t spent that much time with Kemsha and his girl we understand their motives. Surprisingly, Gitara is not a Lady Macbeth figure who bullies Kemsha into taking power so that she can rule vicariously through him; she genuinely cares for him, and he cares for her, which is a connection that is ultimately held to be true, even if what comes next is tragic.
I hate to bring up another blocky quote like this, but I had to copy down some of the confrontation between Kemsha and the Seers as told from Yasmina’s perspective. The wizards have a bit of a Dragon Ball Z standoff, and despite facing off against four wizards more powerful than him, Kemsha is able to hold his ground. We knew he was more powerful than he appeared from he was able to do in Part 1, but this battle of wills is easily the greatest test of Kemsha’s strength, both as a wizard and as a human being. Yasmina, however, being far from a brainless damsel, figures out how Kemsha does not immediately succumb to the Seers, and how he probably is only able to do this with Gitara by his side.
The answer, simply is love.
The reason was the girl that he clutched with the strength of his despair. She was like an anchor to his staggering soul, battered by the waves of those psychic emanations. His weakness was now his strength. His love for the girl, violent and evil though it might be, was yet a tie that bound him to the rest of humanity, providing an earthly leverage for his will, a chain that his inhuman enemies could not break; at least not break through Khemsa.
Unfortunately something has to give. The Seers, similarly to Yasmina, pick up on Kemsha’s love for Gitara as his shield and proceed to use it against him. Redirecting their efforts at Gitara, she unfortunately is not able to withstand their efforts and is thus guided off the mountain’s edge, taking Kemsha with her to their apparent deaths. Again, despite being villains, their downfall is framed as tragic, and such framing works as we feel their loss. With their biggest opponent (who isn’t Conan) out of the way, the Seers snatch up Yasmina and take her to their lair, with Conan getting the fuck away just by the skin of his teeth. If you’ve read a few entries in this series before then you know Conan ain’t scared of shit, except… well, maybe these creepy bald guys. Admittedly a barbarian, while he can punch and slice his way out of most trouble, would probably get ass-blasted by some high-level wizards.
The People of the Black Circle is a later Conan story and it definitely feels like a later entry, on top of being the longest written up to that point. Conan has loved and lost before, and faced off with some pretty scummy bad guys, but the Black Seers actually make the guy retreat and think hard about how he can get his girl back. Of course it’s a hard conflict to spoil since we know in advance that Conan will come out on top somehow, but it’s more a question of how many people have to die for the bad guys to get taken down. Speaking of which, there’s a character who only appeared for a second in Part 1 who makes a big reappearance here, and his crossing paths with Conan may well lead to quite the final battle with the Seers…
There Be Spoilers Here
There is one player I’ve not mentioned till now, and that’s Kerim Shah. He was allies with Kemsha in Part 1 for like five seconds before the latter decided to go rogue, but now that Kemsha is dead (well, not quite yet) it’s up to Kerim Shah to rescuse Yasmina (and by “rescue” we mean capture her for his own ends) with or without Conan’s help. Since Our Hero™ is at his lowest point towards the end of this installment and since all his allies are now either dead or think him a traitor (his own Afghuli henchmen, having thought he killed the glorified redshit from Part 1, are now after him as well), he might do well to enter a temporary truce with Kerim Shah.
The two thus join forces.
What I find entertaining about this arrangement is that Kerim Shah makes no secret of wanting to take Yasmina as ransom; he states clearly that he and Conan have different goals in mind, and that even if they were to defeat the Seers they would still fight over Yasmina. They team up anyway. Kerim Shah might be a mercenary and a bit of a shithead, but he’s nothign compared to the creepy bald guys who spend the final scene of Part 2 subjecting Yasmina to some rather esoteric torture. Hero versus villain? Yawn. Hero teaming up with Villain B to take down Villain A? Now that’s more interesting. Of course what separates Conan from Kerim Shah is that he’s not a dog for bureaucracy and he actually seems to care for Yasmina. Again, Conan is really an anti-hero; he’s the guy we root for because the people he faces off with are always much worse than him.
Oh, and one last thing…
Gitara has fallen to her death, sadly, but for better or worse Kemsha’s death was not as swift. Conan finds Kemsha barely alive, apparently little more than a pile of broken bones, but luckily Kemsha lives long enough to give Conan his magical… girdle? Yeah, I guess you’d call it that. Conan is not a magician at all, but even a tool handed down from a skilled wizard will certainly help him in his inevitable confrontation with the Seers. Then Kemsha finally dies, sort of in a state of grace, broken but not destroyed, his humanity preserved. We actually get a spectrum of villainy with this story, from irredeemably bad (the Seers), to bad pragmatic and cool (Kerim Shah), to kinda bad but also kinda good (Kemsha). Howard has a way with bringing characters to life with relatively few words.
A Step Farther Out
Thing about Conan stories is that, like any other episodic series with a recurring protagonist, we know Conan will get out of this ordeal fine; the question is how and at what cost. Conan is wearing plot armor, but they must’ve run out of stock at the plot armor store because nobody else has it. People are dropping like FLIES! And yet the good news is that the plot is funneling into what looks to be an exciting climax. Will Yasmina make it out okay? Will Conan and Kerim Shah keep to their truce or will there be BETRAYAL? Most importantly, how the FUCK do people run around half-naked or just totally naked fine when we’re in the mountains? I’m pretty it’d be chilly at that elevation. Anyway, stay tuned.
Robert E. Howard is one of the most important practitioners of fantasy in the genre’s history, and this is impressive when you consider not only how young he was when he died but how much he wrote in that short time. He debuted in 1924 and wrote at a truly terrifying rate until his death by gunshot wound in 1936, with a slew of completed works and outlines in his wake. Among the authors who frequented Weird Tales in the ’20s and ’30s, Howard had to be one of the five most popular contributors to that magazine, not to mention one of the most prolific. Whether it was fantasy, horror, or the Western (though, oddly, not science fiction), Howard did it all, and with a zeal that few could match. Whereas others authors had maybe major series under their belt, Howard had several, and one of these would come to define a subgenre: Conan the Cimmerian, more popularly known as Conan the Barbarian.
Conan is the single most famous sword-and-sorcery character of all time, and he wasn’t even Howard’s first attempt at creating such a figure (see Kull the Conqueror); rather he was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy on man’s relationship with civilization. Hailing from a distant alternate past where sorcery and devilish creatures reign, Conan is both a classic anti-hero and Howard’s ideal man: a nomad, a man who doesn’t take orders, a man who can fight his way out of anything, and yet a man who is articulate and thoughtful despite his brawn. “The People of the Black Circle” was the longest Conan adventure published up to that point; the series had been going on for two years and would only last two more under Howard’s watch, ending with his suicide, until the scavengers came…
Part 1 was published in the September 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. I do believe this is also the first story I’ve covered that’s on Project Gutenberg! That’s right, you have no excuse to not read this, unless you just don’t feel like it. And since it’s a Conan story, and one of the big ones at that, you won’t have a hard time finding it in print at all. With that said, the go-to choice would be The Bloody Crown of Conan from Random House Worlds. They put out a series of Howard collections and this is just one of several Conan collections, never mind Howard’s other work. I actually have the paperback for his horror fiction, and if that one is anything to go by these paperbacks are sturdy, thick, and heavy. Like physically heavy. Your wrists are gonna be sore after a while.
Of the Conan stories I’ve read (this is like the fourth or fifth one), this one has easily the best opening scene in my opinion. We start in the kingdom of Vendhya, the in-universe equivalent of India, where the king is on his deathbed and his sister the Devi Yasmina is by his side. However, the king is not dying via natural causes; rather he’s been cursed, by the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha, presumably the people of the black circle. The king, whose soul is bound to eternal damnation by the curse if something doesn’t kill him before it can take him, begs Yasmina to take his life and save his soul, as he’s too physically weak to do it himself. In tears, but know what she has to do, Yasmina kills her brother’s body but saves his soul.
It’s a tense and delightfully macabre opener, but more importantly it’s an effective establishing moment for Yasmina, the heroine of the story and arguably the true protagonist. This is not your typical “screaming wench” of old-timey fantasy—this is a woman who, though she may get emotional, will take action and will not take shit from anyone. Her establishing scene is so good that I can forgive the fact that Howard can’t help but mention her mammariesmommy milkerstitties breasts a couple times. The king’s death begins the plot, the ball only really gets rolling because Yasmina vows to avenge her brother and take on the Black Seers. This will, of course, be a massive and dangerous undertaking since the Black Seers are a league of incredibly powerful wizards, capable of cutting down a man from halfway around the globe. To take down these sorcerers will require cunning, might, and the will of an unstoppable man. Hmm…
Across the series we see Conan in a variety of occupations, from mercenary to pirate to bandit and generally anything that’s not all too reputable. Here we get word of him as the leader of a band of marauders, although he remains offscreen for a bit. Yasmina speaks with Chunder Shan, the governor of one of Vendhya’s provinces, about finding a man who may be able to enact her revenge. The good news is that Conan’s men have been captured recently and are waiting for execution, which makes them ample ransom material for Conan to join Yasmina; the bad news is that this news will undoubtedly piss off Conan, and Conan is not a man to piss off. I don’t see how this could possibly go wrong for Yasmina or the governor.
A couple scenes go by and you may notice that Conan has not shown up yet. This is not unusual for series. These stories are episodic in nature, with perspective characters usually not being Conan, but rather people with their own self-contained plotlines, never to appear again by virtue of dying or by simply never running into Conan a second time. The perspective shifts around here quite a bit, impressively so considering how short this installment is (about 10,000 words, if even that, the norm for Weird Tales serials), but ultimately Yasmina is the closest we have to a lead figure and it sure as hell is her story. None of this is a problem, since Howard has an almost supernatural ability to draw the reader’s attention, even when you’re unsure if he has everything worked out in advance.
I mean really, Afghulistan is Afghanistan? Iranistan is Iran? Who writes this shit? At least Vendhya for India is slightly more clever.
Anyway, a lot of misconceptions fly around because of how Conan’s been interpreted in other media, and admittedly I still get taken back a bit when reading one of the original Howard stories. I love Arnie and all, but his version of Conan barely fucking resembles the guy except maybe physically, and only if you’re staring through an empty beer bottle. Conan has become popularly thought of as a big dumb Germanic dude who barely talks, but in the Howard stories he’s a surprisingly articulate but still strong and nimble Celt; that last part is a bit of self insert hijinks considering Howard’s own Irish background. But no, Conan is not just dumb muscle, although to call him an anti-hero almost feels like a stretch; he comes off good because the people he faces off with are orders of magnitude worse.
We actually get a physical description of Conan when he decides to cut out the middle man and pay the governor an unscheduled and rather direct visit. You can see with your mind’s eye where Frank Frazetta’s legendary paintings of the man might have come from.
The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.
Things quickly get more complicated. Yasmina comes in and catches Conan and the governor in a behind-locked-doors conversation, and being a perfectly reasonable man Conan snatches up Yasmina and jumps the nearest goddamn window like it’s no big deal. Ah, the tables have turned! Yasmina, having offered Conan’s men as ransom, is now ranson herself, and in the arms of a man who will not be fucked with. He’s kinda cute, though. To make matters stickier Yasmina’s servant (who I don’t think is named in Part 1) runs off with plans of her own, conspiring with her boy toy Khemsa (who happens to be a wizard) to turn against the Black Seers and go after Yasmina themselves. Khemsa is an interesting character, and we’ll get back to him in a minute, but to complicate things even more we have Kerim Shah, a formiddable mercenary who was formerly in league with Khemsa but, upon overhearing the lovers’ plotting, seeks to strike out on his own.
At this point we have at least three factions with their eyes on the Devi, each for their own purposes, and honestly reminds me a bit of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though obviously this is not a comedy. It is quite a fun time, though. In record time we’re introduced to an ensemble cast, on top of the sheer badassery of Conan himself, plus an exotic location, plus a MacGuffin of sorts, plus a sizable dose of intrigue. It’s a multi-threaded chase that’s maybe a bit overstuffed, but again, it’s consistently enthralling. Howard was not a refined writer, but somehow he found the energy himself to not only write with alarming speed but to convey that speed into the writing itself; the ffect is a wee bit intoxicating.
There Be Spoilers Here
Conan sometimes gets a love interest of the week; sometimes this translates to some woman who just needs rescuing and whom Conan will abandon as soon as she’s out of danger. To her credit, Yasmina is far from a nameless damsel, partly because, while normally a woman in her position would be captured by the villain of the week, Conan is the one doing the capturing here. Despite their circumstances, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where their relationship is heading, especially once Yasmina starts putting on the tsundere “it’s not like I like you or anything” act deep into Part 1. What makes the budding relationship fun to read is that both of these characters are tops—that is to say, they’re both dominant types. Conan won’t take any of Yasmina’s shit and Yasmina conversely won’t take any of Conan’s; at most she’ll keep quiet as a pragmatic decision.
And of course Howard can’t help but describe in loving detail how physically well-toned both parties are. Look, I’m bisexual, I’ll take it.
Just as curious is the subplot with Khemsa, a wizard and underling of the Black Seers who goes rogue and who may be more powerful than he would seem. There’s a bit of Orientalism at play here, with Khemsa sometimes being referred to as “a man in a green turban”—ya know, to remind the reader that he’s From the East™. Some racism at play, no doubt, but it’s not that bad unless you’re at the age where you don’t know where babies come from yet. What makes Khemsa interesting is that he’s a villain for sure, but he’s also doing this for good pussy out of love, and he’s also clearly not the biggest threat, though we do get hints of how terrible his power can be. A glorified redshirt who knew Conan from a previous adventure feels the wrong end of a wizard-conjured spider. Still, he’s one player in a much grander scheme who hopes to become something much greater than just a mook; you could say he’s the rare mook who gains self-awareness and takes matters into his own hands, and damn his masters.
Unlike the other Conan stories I’ve read, this one has a distinctly “exotic” set of locales, encompassing central Asia and the Middle East. again there’s some racism at play, what with Howard repeatedly comparing Conan’s handsome (albeit deeply tanned) whiteness with the rest of the cast, which to Howard’s credit this is a mostly POC cast, including the love interest. Howard’s writing on race and gender can be messy, not helped by the tragic fact that he died so young, but unlike Lovecraft, whose depictions of non-white folks (or hell, non-WASPs) are almost always cringe-worthy and whose representation of women in his fiction is next to zero, at least Howard tries. This was 1934, and SFF writers (with a few exceptions) even two decades later struggled to write women and non-white characters as inclusively.
A Step Farther Out
There are maybe one too many plot threads going on, considering how short it is, but this is a train with no brakes on it and I just bought a ticket. Howard, even when he’s phoning it in, knows how to move a plot forward at breakneak speed and intensiity, and “The People of the Black Circle” is pretty far from him phoning it in. We get an expertly crafted opening scene and Conan’s not even in that, and while it does take a bit for him to show up, that’s by no means a bad thing as we’re given more time to know the supporting cast. The action starts right from the first page and it basically doesn’t stop, with gambit being piled on top of gambit and with characters plotting behind each other’s backs. Speaking of characters, some leading ladies in Conan stories are just there to be captured and then rescued, but Yasmina is much more thoroughly characterized than the norm, and one more example of how Howard is actually able to like, write women. Crazy to think about, I know. Howard’s ability to balance narrative momentum and characterization continues to astound me.
As author, editor, and fandom personality, Robert Silverberg is indispensable. It’d be very hard to make sense of SF’s transition from the pre-New Wave ’60s to the debauchery of the New Wave without taking Silverberg’s talent and influence into account. His original anthology series New Dimensions published seminal works by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr., and in the late ’60s and early ’70s Silverberg wrote an almost superhuman sequence of novels that would be enough for most authors’ whole careers. He won a Nebula with A Time of Changes (which I’ll no doubt review eventually) and his 1972 novel Dying Inside is easily one of the ten best SF novels of the ’70s; the fact that it didn’t win a Hugo and/or a Nebula is scandalous. The Tower of Glass (minus the definite article in book form) is from this sequence of novels, and how does it hold up with the admittedly stiff competition upon finishing? Let’s see…
Part 3 was published in the June 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If you want it in book form it’s not hard to fine used online at all. As for the serial, I do wanna warn you that it is unusually long compared to the previous installments; indeed it might take up damn near half the novel, which I made the mistake of trying to get through basically in one sitting. The wonky pacing might’ve skewed my opinion on the third act of this novel is all I’m saying.
The drama with Cassandra Nucleus, the android Leon spaulding had mistakingly killed at the end of the previous installment, is resolved without much fanfare: Krug signs a contract to reimburse the company that owned Cassandra, and the civil suit is dropped. Hell, Krug can afford it. For Krug, the biggest thorns in his side have seemingly been taken care of and he can return to focusing on the tower, which at this point he might care more about than his own son. Not that anyone can blame Krug, really; his son Manuel is a bit of a chump.
Something that gradually and undeniably becomes a problem with this last installment is that Silverberg a) gives into his need to be edgy a little too much, and b) feels the need to end the novel on a BANG despite so much of it being a low-key character-focused drama. I was intrigued up to this point despite there being very little in the way of action, but Silverberg is about to ramp things way up—and not necessarily for the better. His side gig as a writer of erotica also rears its ugly head with quite literally any scene involving Lilith Meson, Manuel’s android mistress and SPOILERS! part of a con to make him become a human spokesperson for android equality. Lilith and Thor Watchman have been scheming to make Manuel a player for their team, with Lilith actually having feelings for Watchman and not Manuel. Or maybe she has feelings for neither. It’s hard to figure what her deal is.
There’s a lengthy (it feels longer than it is) sequence where Lilith dresses Manuel up as an alpha android (that’s right, Manuel, presumably a white man, technically parades around in redface) and he gets a taste of what it’s like to live as an android. The experience is more than a little traumatizing. On top of the dozen other things going on in this novel, Silverberg digs deeper into the caste system among androids, between the alphas, betas, and gammas, with gammas being the least intelligent and most expendable. We travel though a gamma ghetto and it’s all rather grotesque—and yet somehow it also feels of little consequence. It’s during this sequence that Silverberg introduces yet more things, including a drug that slows down one’s sense of time and which a lot of gammas are hopelessly addicted to. Don’t think about it too hard, it doesn’t really come up again.
We get multiple sex scenes with Lilith here, which on the one hand must’ve surely struck magazine readers in 1970 as transgressive, but the problem is that they really aren’t necessary, and also, to be a little more blunt, Silverberg’s not very good at the writing porn thing. If I have to read about “breasts” (that specific word) in my SFF ever again for the next week I’m going to [YASS] myself. Silverberg is excellent at writing about the male psyche but far less convincing when trying to capture “the woman’s angle,” which is where things get ugly. Either you accept it or you don’t. Silverberg at his best is able to make you forget about his limitations and instead make you think the same things he’s thinking about, namely stuff involving identity, religion, existentialism, the works. Silverberg in erotica mode is nothing I want, though, although like I said it must’ve been more eye-catching at the time.
Anyway, as for Krug we still have at least three issues: the tower, the prospect of getting granchildren out of Manuel and Clissa, and lastly this weird little subplot that I could’ve sworn was not introduced in previous parts involving a spaceship. On top of building the tower to communicate with the mysterious alien signal coming from that distant star, Krug is also sending what almost amounts to a generation ship full of androids in that direction, although given the nature of space travel and time dilation he would not live to see the passengers arrive at their destination. The move feels like desperation on Krug’s part, but also on Silverberg’s; it’s like Silverberg added this thread at the last minute for the sake of getting the ending he wants. I’m not even sure what the androids onboard are supposed to do when they eventually get to where the signal’s coming from.
It’s not all bad. Even taking the awkward sex talk into account, anything with Thor Watchman is destined to be at least readable. His newfound religious weariness from the end of Part 2 continues to ferment, and on top of that his relationship with Lilith, which up to this point had been professional, takes a much more intimate turn. The result is a love triangle that will naturally end with one of the players getting kicked out at the end, but who and how are questions yet to be answered. You may be wondering: How does Clissa figure into this? She doesn’t, really. Oh, I’ll get to her in spoilers, but I’ll just say for now that what Silverberg does with her—a character who’s been sadly underutilized for most of the novel—is objectionable.
If I sound unusually bitter with this final installment it could be that it’s easily longer than the previous ones, and also is much busier than the others. What was merely bubbling at the surface before is now bursting and making a mess everywhere, and it’s like Silverberg realized he created about five different subplots and has to resolve all of them in a novel that, in its book form, only clocks in at about 200 pages. Something I tend to like about pre-1980 SF novels is their brevity, how even if you don’t like what you’re reading you won’t be reading it for long, but The Tower of Glass is one of those rare good novels from the period that really could’ve been improved by expansion. Even an extra 40 or 50 pages, or in other words if this was a four-part serial instead of three parts, would’ve done it favors. Silverberg fits too many concepts into too small a space, and ultimately his economy of wordage works against him.
We’ve got an almost comically tall glass tower with a tachyon beam, teleportation, ego-swapping, a caste system of androids, a family drama, a love triangle, and a Darwinian nightmare future that’s more hinted at than actually shown. YA GOT ALL THAT? Okay, time to jump to the explosive climax, which I certainly have some thoughts about.
There Be Spoilers Here
He had considered it before, but Krug finally agrees to do a shunting session with Watchman, his top android. What could go wrong? Everything. The ego-swapping reveals not only Watchman’s con with Manuel but, more importantly, Krug’s disdain for being treated as a god. Which you can’t say is unexpected. Up to this point we’ve been unsure as to how “good” a person Krug is, but the climax certainly does not help his case, which makes his fate all the more curious.
Watchman’s faith, which had been on uncertain ground before, is now shattered, and as an alpha—not just an alpha but one heading the building of the glass tower—he has authority when he announces publicly that Krug is a false god. The result is utter disaster. Androids leave their posts, go on strike, and some even kill their human overseers. A worldwide revolt of androids begins, and Krug’s empire collapses in what seems like a matter of hours. Stretching one’s suspension of disbelief a bit here, but okay. Point being, everything goes to hell. Watchman sabotages the tower and overrides its various safety measures, causing it to collapse. Manuel barely escapes an angry android mob with Clissa getting fridged in an unnervingly unceremonious fashion. Right, so about that…
The women in The Tower of Glass really draw the short stick. Lilith loses Watchman at the end, with Manuel a nervous wreck, and Clissa gets apparently raped and butchered by androids offscreen. This is not it, chief. For one, I seriously find it hard to believe that androids would go after a human woman like this, but also, given the parallels Silverberg has drawn between the fight for android equality and the real-world civil rights movement for BIPOC quaulity (which was still very much going on when the novel was being writtne, mind you), this does not look good from an allegorical standpoint. Also, it’s a waste of character. Clissa’s outspoken sympathy for androids comes to naught, something even Manuel himself points out. Why introduce a character with this viewpoint if you’re going to not only barely use her but give her so shitty an exit? Againt this is like Silverberg was running out of time on the novel.
Going back to the spaceship that was only recently introduced, Krug uses it to escape the android rebellion, but also to cut out the middle man and travel to the distant planet himself. Again I’m not sure what he hopes to accomplish when he gets there, but then it might still be preferable to staying on what is quickly becoming a hellworld. We don’t know if the androids really will take over or if the humans will be able to fight back, but it doesn’t look good. In the span of about 20 pages The Tower of Glass goes from being a domestic, if intense, drama to being a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions. On an allegorical level it mostly works (as a religious and Freudian allegory, that is) but in execution it feels weirdly rushed and tactless by Silverberg’s standards. Surely he had considered a better way to tie all these subplots together, but deadlines might’ve forced him to compromise.
A Step Farther Out
Silverberg really let me down on this one, man. With reviewing serials I’ve found that the final installment will either make or break the whole thing, the latter more often being the case, and The Tower of Glass is sadly not an exception. There are sparks of that late ’60s and early ’70s Silverberg brilliance here, but I guess the saying is true: it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Comparing it to as refined a masterpiece as Dying Inside is almost unfair, one because of that novel’s quality, but its simplicity. Both novels are short, only about 200 pages, but Dying Inside is so much more focused and yet so much more intense, never mind more elegant in its usages of the tools at its disposal. I can see how readers were impressed enough by The Tower of Glass at the time that it got a Hugo nomination, although I probably would’ve voted for Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero that year. If you want a sample of what New Wave SF was like then you could do worse than The Tower of Glass, but it’s not even Silverberg’s best novel (or even probably his third best) attempt at this particular mode of writing.
Are we halfway through the first month of the year already? Aw geez, that means I gotta write something. I always have a few editorial ideas swimming around, but the question is always: When should I write these? A topic can be timeless, or it could benefit from being discussed at just the right moment. The right person in the right place can make all the difference, and the same goes for articles, even ones I’m not getting paid for. It’s January 15, 2023, which means two things: it’s a Sunday, and it’s also Robert Silverberg’s 88th birthday. Hopefully we can get a dozen more out of him.
I don’t consider myself a big Silverberg fan, at least not yet, but I do see his place as a constant in SF history as indispensable. I can’t think of anyone alive now aside from maybe Samuel R. Delany whom I would like to sit down with and interview for an hour more than Silverberg, for the simple reason that Silverberg has a nigh-endless supply of stories to tell—not stories as in fiction, mind you, but life stories, stories within SF fandom, stories about all the times he got rejected by editors and, naturally, the subsequent acceptances. This is a man who traded words with John W. Campbell, Anthony Boucher, H. L. Gold, Frederik Pohl, Ben Bova, etc., and lived to tell the tale. This man has attended every Hugo ceremony since its inception in 1953, since he was just old enough to be able to attend the Hugos, and that alone would make his memory a precious thing to back up on some hypothetical external hard drive for people’s memories, which are essentially their beings anyway.
And speaking of 1953…
I have a lot of anthologies on my shelves. I’m young and amateur, but still I think I have a good number. One of those is Silverberg’s Science Fiction: 101, which is a curious mixture of fiction anthology, writing advice, and memoir. I don’t think it’s in print anymore, sadly, but I do recommend finding a copy, as, regardless of how one may feel about Silverberg as a person, the fiction selected is of quite a high standard—some certified classics with a few deeper cuts thrown into the equation. Something I couldn’t help but notice, though, even if Silverberg didn’t bring it up himself, is that focus on ’50s SF in the anthology, and more specifically on a certain year. Of the thirteen stories included, five are from 1953, which one might think to be a little much, especially given that there are only two stories from the ’40s (C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” and Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain”). Yet 1953 is undoubtedly framed as a Big Year™ for Silverberg, which makes sense; he was just then starting to write SF in earnest, having lurked around long enough as a fan and now readying to make his mark on the field.
Science Fiction: 101 shows off short SF that meant a lot to Silverberg personally, mostly stuff published during a period in his life when he was making the jump from fan to professional. The slant towards 1953, however, only hints at just how prolific and remarkably high in quality that year was for a lot of people active in the field then. On multiple fronts, the field was rolling ahead at full speed, with the growing accessibility of paperbacks meeting halfway with a magazine market which was at the very height of a bubble—a bubble that, mind you, was about to burst, but in the moment it was at a point of critical mass, which meant a diverse market for writers who otherwise might struggle to get published in Astounding or Galaxy. In the US along there were well over a dozen SF magazines active in ’53, including Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Future Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly, Worlds of If, Universe Science Fiction, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet Stories, Space Science Fiction, and frankly almost too many more to count. We would not see this saturated an SF magazine market again until, well, now, but I’ll come back to that at the end.
There was something for everyone. If you wanted “literary” thinking man’s SF then Galaxy and F&SF scratched that itch tremendously; if you’re stubborn and like to read macho SF about psi powers then Astounding has your back; if you’re into planetary romance and generally adventure SF then there are a few options; if you like certain authors but wish you could buy even more of what they’re selling, then good news, those authors have probably sold to more magazines than you existed. And of course, if you’re one of those few sad fantasy readers in that weird point in time that’s post-Chronicles of Narnia but pre-Lord of the Rings then you’ll be pleased to know there’s a new fantasy magazine on the market: Beyond Fantasy Fiction, helmed by Galaxy‘s own H. L. Gold. And if that’s not enough, especially if you’re an avid book reader, the paperback market for SF is opening up big time, and that door will only open wider.
1953 was a great year to be Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, and quite a few others. Dick and Sheckley had debuted the previous year, but 1953 saw these one-man writing factories pull out all the stops; you could probably make a top 10 list of your favorite Robert Sheckley stories from 1953 alone. It was also the year that Arthur C. Clarke, who had appeared from time to time in the American market previously, made his first big splash with American readers here, not just with the publication of Childhood’s End but also a slew of short stories that are still highly regarded, the most famous being “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Poul Anderson, who had been active for some years but had not made much impact, invoked F&SF‘s first serial with Three Hearts and Three Lions, forcing editors Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas to backpedal on their “no serials” policy.
When it came time for Hugo voters back in 2004 to partake in the Retro Hugos, all the aforementioned authors got at least one nomination, not to mention others getting in as well. I understand that the Retro Hugos are a controversial topic (Worldcon doesn’t even do them anymore, at least for now), but I find the idea admirable, and at the very least we get some deep cuts that deserve to be rediscovered on top of the usual suspects. The “1954” Retro Hugos, covering the best stuff to come out of 1953, might have, across all its fiction categories, the strongest of any Retro Hugo lineup. You’re probably thinking, “Voters are biased, they always pick either already-famous works or minor works by famous authors,” and that is basically true. For one I’m pretty sure the people who gave Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man” the Retro Hugo for Best Short Story were thinking about the justly famous Twilight Zone adaptation and had not actually read Knight’s story; if they did they would deem it as minor. I’m also pretty sure Ray Bradbury was not the best fan writer of 1938, just call it a hunch.
What makes the 1954 Retro Hugos different, however, is that the shortlists (never mind the winners) for fiction, regardless of category, are all but unimpeachable. Let’s take Best Novel as an example, because this really is a golden set of nominees. We have Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, and the winner with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While not my personal favorite, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most famous novels in all of SF; people continue to read it, it’s still being discussed quite actively, and it’s even taught in schools; it’s a stone-cold classic of the field and its win is deserved. With that said, you could literally pick any of these other novels and you wouldn’t really be wrong to do so. The Caves of Steel is arguably Asimov’s single best novel; Childhood’s End is a career highlight for Clarke, not to mention one of his most influential; More Than Human sees Sturgeon in rare good form as a novelist; and even the most obscure of the bunch, Mission of Gravity (Clement is one of those authors begging to be rediscovered), is a foundational example of hard SF.
All killer, no filler. You can’t say that with the Best Novel shortlist for any other Retro Hugo year, either because of nominees that are justly forgotten or because of nominees that don’t hold up to modern scrutiny. Yet the near-uniform excellence of the nominees here, as the best of 1953, tells me that it was a very good year indeed. A lot of people were active in the field at the time, but just as importantly, a lot of those people were producing damn good work that still holds up. There was filler, and there was retrograde SF that would’ve been considered old-timey in fashion even in 1953, but there was also so much treasure from so many different voices that the sheer level of quantity and quality is hard to ignore. It was even a good time to be a lady author, what with women like C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Margaret St. Clair, Andre Norton, Judith Merril, and others who have been sadly forgotten producing good work; we would not see this many women contributing to SF again until at least the ’70s.
Now, I admit, I have a ’50s bias. When I started reading short SF in earnest some years ago I mostly stuck to the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, with that middle decade especially getting attention. I have a real soft spot for SF from the ’50s, but not because it’s idyllic or puritanical or old-fashioned—it’s because the SF of that period is often not any of those things. The first serial I reviewed for my site was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, a sleazy novel about cold-blooded murder, prostitution, incest, and generally the dark side of a world where telepaths are the top 1%. A little more intense than what you’d expect for a novel published in 1952, and yet when the inaugural Hugos were held the following year Bester’s novel was honored with the first Hugo for Best Novel. Clearly writers and readers alike (at least enough of them) were daring enough in 1953 to think that a novel about the aforementioned cold-blooded murder, prostitution, incest, etc., was not only welcomed in SF spaces but could be considered a great work of literature. People seventy years ago were not as naïve as we like to pretend.
But that was, after all, seventy years ago, and of course 1953 is not the best year in SF history; there really cannot be a “best year” for a genre lauded for its capacity to change and adapt over time. The best year for SF hopefully has not happened yet. Yet certainly 1953 is emblematic of a specific point in time for the genre’s history, a time when the magazine market was booming, book publishing was on the rise, and we even get a few major “sci-fi” films that would help determine the genre’s cinematic power for the coming decade; more specifically I’m thinking of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The War of the Worlds, by no means perfect movies but ones which set a standard for the genre on the silver screen. The variety of voices writing SF in 1953 would also not be outdone for many years, and if we’re talking about short SF alone, we would not see such diversity again until the current era, what with several online magazines publishing works by people who would not have been heard even in that wonderland of ’53, whether because of their race, sexual orientation, or political leanings.
The future should always look better, and if it doesn’t then we should try to make sure that it does. There’ve been think pieces and discussions recently about the need for utopian SF, and why not? SF writers aren’t supposed to predict the future, but it’s possible to offer a blueprint for how people might be able to make a world wherein future generations will want to live. First, however, you need SF that’s thriving with quality works by quality people, and you can’t have that if the market has narrowed, where only so many outlets can only take so many voices. I shudder to think of a time when short SF has been basically locked out of discussion by virtue of so few short stories being published, which is why it’s such a good thing that the market is doing very well right now, and why such a level of diversity that we now see is to be treasured. If 1953 for SF represents anything it’s the same thing that 2023 for SF ought to represent: the promise of a good future.
Robert Silverberg retired from writing fiction in 2015, but who can blame him? His output is so prolific and far-reaching that he wrote enough for at least three people; few things make the folks at ISFDB sweat more than organizing Silverberg’s bibliography, with his short fiction tracking quite literally in the hundreds, a good portion of it under several pseudonyms. Silverberg won a special Hugo in 1957 as a promising new writer (he began a few years earlier, but the dam only break in ’56) when he was barely out of his teens, and by the time he turned 25 he had a whole career’s worth of fiction under his belt. It was only after a short hiatus in the ’60s, though, that Silverberg started producing the work he is now most acclaimed for, including but not limited to a a rapid-fire series of novels written between 1967 and 1972, although only 1971’s A Time of Changes won a major SFF award. He won three Nebulas for his short fiction, however, including one for the mythical and emotionally stunning novella “Born with the Dead.”
The Tower of Glass (or just Tower of Glass as it’s known in book form) is one of those novels that was written at a time when Silverberg could almost do no wrong, and so far that level of quality has been met. Part 1 introduced quite a few characters and a lot of intrigue, yet it didn’t feel overstuffed; Silverberg forgoes long descriptions of places and people’s bodies in favor of getting to the meat of the matter and making it all very readable. Now, calling something “readable” feel like faint praise, because really most writing in a language you’re fluent in is “readable,” but Silverberg has a vigorousness that’s hard to match and which often makes his writing intoxicating. How well does Part 2 hold up? Stay tuned.
Part 2 was published in the May 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Galaxy was in a bit of a rough state at this point, after Frederik Pohl stepped down as editor, but it was a pretty good time to be Robert Silverberg in the magazine; he had no less than four of his novels serialized in Galaxy between 1969 and 1972, and generally the serials that ran in the magazine during this period are more impressive than the short fiction. As with honestly too much of Silverberg’s output your best bet, if you want a book copy, is to look in the secondhand market, with the bright side being that used copies of Silverberg books are not hard to find.
I actually don’t have that much to say about Part 2, which with egards to any work of fiction can mean one of two things: either it’s really good in a way that is almost self-evident, not requiring a great deal of analysis, or it’s such a piece of shit that I don’t care to discuss it much. Part 2 falls into the former category, which probably wasn’t clear before. My gripes with the first installment has been all but removed, at least for now, on account of Silverberg focusing on certain characters and pushing others to the sidelines, at least for the moment.
For one, the female characters whom I felt before to be somewhat lacking in characterization play little to no part in this installment, which I guess is a fine enough solution. Lilith only appears in the final scene, and I don’t think Clissa even makes an appearance, let alone has a line of dialogue. We do get a new female character in the form of another android, Cassandra Nucleus, but she’s only in one scene, and as I’ll explain soon it seems that Silverberg thought her much more useful than alive. The result is that Part 2 is closer to being a sausage fest, which would be more of an issue if the male main characters weren’t so engrossing.
We still have our three-man band of Simeon Krug, his son Manuel, and Thor Watchman, although Watchman gets a good deal more screentime (pagetime?) than his human co-leads. It’s with Watchman that the novel zeros in on its themes, namely those of religion and racial equality; the religious understones in the first installment have now become overt, and Silverberg borders on sermonizing here, but thankfully he is quite the capable sermonizer. Ironic, I know. The glass tower that serves as the primary background for the novel has taken on a transcendent tinge, not just in its sheer size (its projected height is stupidly high), but its ambition, with astronomer Niccolo Vargas at one point calling it “the first cathedral of the galactic age.” Unbeknownst to Vargas, and even Krug, there’s an actual cathedral hidden away near the construction site—only this one is secret, and made for androids.
I said in my review of the first installment that Watchman is, if anything, overzealous in his loyalty to Krug; he sees him as a godlike figure. It’s only now, though, that we come to understand just how Watchman feels about Krug, the man, the idea of the man, as God made flesh for androids. Religious zeal, and the struggle to protect that faith, is the backbone of the conflict for Part 2, and it looks like it will boil over into the concluding installment. Very interesting. Everyone is being tried here in different ways: Krug, with his dream of making contact with an alien race; Manuel, with his conflict of interests as a very well-to-do human man who is hopelessly in love with an android; and Watchman, an android who is torn between his loyalty to his creator and his loyalty to his race.
An aside, but it took me a while to realize androids’ “last names” are often occupations. Thor Watchman, Siegfried Fileclerk, Lilith Meson (as in the particle), and Cassandra Nucleus. (Most likely androids are named either after occupations or having to do with physics. There’s another android, for instance, whose last name is Quark.) It’s as if androids are names after their capacity to do work—as if that’s the extent of their worth in the eyes of humans.
We also get a new gadget in this installment, whose application is yet to be seen, which is shunting. By some process that Silverberg doesn’t care to explain much (nor should he), shunting is basically ego-swapping, wherein two people can quite literally swap perspectives and walk around in each other’s bodies for a bit. A shunt room, where the action happens, sounds like one of those things that rich people use when they get bored, although there’s a hint it might be used to help the strained relationship between Krug and Manuel. Krug considers shunting with his son for a moment, but rejects it on the grounds that it would feel wrong, and in fairness to him the Freudian implications of such a device would be nigh-endless. Lucky for the both of them (or maybe not), there’s a much bigger problem that will soon arise and give Krug, at best, a major headache.
You see, the aforementioned android cathedral was built in secret, and not even Krug knows that his own androids worship him. The result of android religion being made public could be disastrous; therefore, presumably any measure necessary must be taken to avoid this becoming known to the human public. When Leon Spaulding, Krug’s private secretary and local test tube baby, comes close to finding out about the secret cathedral, the androids mislead him by saying Krug is in danger, which Spaulding naturally reacts to. What happens next is something that neither side could’ve predicted, and which will cause a great deal of pain for both of them.
There Be Spoilers Here
Krug gets confronted by two members of the AEP—the Android Equality Party. We have Siegfried Fileclerk and Cassandra Nucleus, the latter of whom will be dead in just a minute. I do have a question first, though: If androids are property then how do they hold political positions? Obviously their potential for upward movement would be limited, but it seems like if an android is able to be some congressman’s secretary then the likelihood of politicians becoming sympathetic to android rights would be very high. Actually there’s the unspoken question of how slave labor have become normalized once again in Western society, but given the awful things that have happened in recent years maybe it’s not that far-fetched. What’s important is that Krug is not happy to see these people; he even takes some issue with them calling themselves “synthetic persons.”
There’s some debate as to what exactly Krug thinks of androids (it doesn’t look good, mind you), but tragedy strikes before we can get a clear answer on that. Spaulding, under the impression that the androids are assassins, kills Cassandra Nucleus with a “needler” (yes, I’m thinking of the Halo games, although apparently a needler is not an uncommon name for a weapon in old-timey SF) while she’s only a foot or two away from Krug. The action is a real security hazard, but the real cause for drama is that Cassandra and Siegfried are not assassins, not to mention they’re property, which means Cassandra is damaged property. The court case with the company that owns Cassandra will no doubt empty Krug’s wallet a touch. The fallout among the androids proves more painful, though.
The highlight of Part 2 has to be the lengthy political discussion Watchman has with Siegfried after Cassandra’s death. Silverberg wrote this novel in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death and there’s this sense that he’s responding to what was then the unwinding of the civil rights movement, although curiously his characters do not mention said movement; they do bring up the American Civil War, and even the treatment of first-generation Christians in ancient Rome. Watchman is a pseudo-Christian who thinks his faith in Krug, his ability to withstand punishment, will help lead to android equality (how much Watchman actually believes in android equality is left ambiguous) while Siegfried is more proactive. It’s a political debate, but it’s also a religious one, which leaves Watchman with some questions about Krug’s character, along with his own faith.
His faith had not wavered before Fileclerk’s brusque pragmatic arguments but for a few moments, while they were thrusting and parrying beside the body of Cassandra Nucleus, Watchman had felt the touch of despair’s wings brushing his cheeks. Fileclerk had struck at a vulnerable place: Krug’s attitude toward the slaying of the alpha. Krug had seemed so unmoved by it! True, he had looked annoyed—but was it merely the expense, the nuisance of a suit, that bothered him? Watchman had riposted with the proper metaphysical statements, yet he was disturbed. Why had Krug not seemed lessened by the killing? Where was the sense of grace? Where was the hope of redemption? Where was the mercy of the Maker?
The installment ends with Manuel and his buddies getting word that an android had been killed by accident, with Krug involved. How could this escalate? We’ll just have to wait and see.
A Step Farther Out
The plot thickens.
My enjoyment of this novel goes up with each chapter; it gets better as it goes along. I’ve adapted myself to reading novels in serial format, more or less, but even by my standards this was a breeze. I got through about fifty magazine pages (or 75 book pages, to make a guess) in two sittings, and I got through most of it in the second sitting. Silverberg can write. He’s not exactly a poet, but he has the superhuman ability to get you wrapped up in his world when he’s on the ball, and The Tower of Glass (unless it fumbles in the third installment) is definitely Silverberg on the ball. He does the Philip K. Dick thing where he jumps around between different characters’ perspectives and puts us inside their heads so that we empathize if not necessarily sympathize with them, no matter how detestable their actions might be. Could he fuck it up at the end? Maybe. But I don’t think he will.
It’s hard to introduce Robert Silverberg for the simple reason that there’s so much that can be said and we have only so much time. Silverberg has been a staple of SF fandom for the past seven decades; he was writing letters to the magazines when he was a teenager and he has attended every Hugo ceremony since the inaugural one in 1953. While he announced his retirement from writing fiction back in 2015, he continues to be an active in other ways, and indeed his fiction alone would mark him as one of the field’s most prolific voices. Silverberg started as a startlingly productive, if also generally unexceptional, writer in the ’50s before taking a few years off and returning markedly improved. As both an author and editor (his original anthology series New Dimensions was a big deal in the ’70s) he helped usher in the New Wave, championing daring writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. Whereas a lot of great writers start resting on their laurels by the time they turn, say, forty, Silverberg continued to produce some great fiction and commentary well into the ’80s, a period which hosts some of my favorite works of his.
The Tower of Glass (I don’t know why they got rid of the definite article for the book publication) came out during a particularly hot time for Silverberg, who was literally getting Nebula nominations (invluding four wins!) every year from 1968 to 1973 across multiple categories. The Tower of Glass itself was a Hugo and Nebula nominee, losing both to Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I’ve read Dying Inside, which is one of my favorite SF novels as of late, and The Man in the Maze, which I liked well enough, so I’m curious if The Tower of Glass will be another certified banger or if it’s “just” good.
Part 1 was published in the April 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. You’d think getting Hugo and Nebula nominations would give The Tower of Glass more time on bookstore shelves, but you’d be mistaken. If you wanna read the book version then you’re probably best off finding a used copy online, since Silverberg paperbacks are cheap and conversely really hard to find in bookstores. Silverberg took a few hiatuses throughout his career, on at least one occasion because his disillusioned with the SF market and the fact that his books kept falling out of print, and it’s not hard to see why he’d feel that way. You could get an ebook version, but it’s from Open Road Media (cursed be their name) so I’d prefert not to; the good news is that we did recently get a paperback edition, this one from ReAnimus Press. But still, finding new editions of Silverberg’s novels is not the best time in the world.
Simeon Krug (what a name) is an aging entrepreneur, the patriarch of an empire, and perhaps the single most important human currently living. Krug’s current top-priority project is a glass tower being constructed in the Canadian tundra, considered the closest to an ideal location for what would be the most advanced communication tower on the planet despite the harsh weather. Much like the ancient pyramids, the glass tower is being built by hundreds of workers, living off next to nothing, but whereas the pharaohs would have used slave labor, Krug uses a somewhat different method: androids of his own design.
The world of The Glass Tower is one in which humanoid life is split into three castes: the natural born, i.e., those just like us, then there’s the ectogenes, essentially test tube babies, people who are still biologically human but who were grown outside of the uterus, and then there are the androids, the synthetic humanoids. The androids themselves are split into three groups, those being the alphas, betas, and gammas, with the alphas being the most intelligent, most privileged, and rarest of the lot. An alpha android would serve as Krug’s second in command, and indeed we get that with Thor Watchman (what a name), an alpha who oversees the construction of the glass tower and who, we’ll come to find, may be the enigmatic member of the cast thus far.
The third point of the triangle, as far as the POV characters are concerned, is Manuel Krug, Simeon’s son, a married man who regardless is treated as a playboy and a layabout, but who nonetheless is the heir to the Krug name. We don’t get much from Manuel early on, but in the spoilers section I’ll get to his side of the story. Part 1 is a revolving door of perspectives, broken up into subplots going from Simeon to Watchman to Manuel, a revolving door which does not exactly move the “plot” forward but which does, with each successive point of view, add a great deal to both the character-centered drama slowly developing and especially the world in which these characters live. While we don’t get ray guns and flying cars, we do get some profound differences between our world and the world of the novel, not the least of these being teleportation which has rendered borders all but obsolete, not to mention the creation of a race of humanoids who are physically stronger than humans on average and who will work for super-cheap.
The androids are a whole can of worms, so I’ll wait a bit to get into them and how they see Krug, their creator, because it’s… well, it sure is something.
Silverberg seems to understand that the characters and what they mean to each other are more important than plot beats, since we come to find that at least on the face of it, not much happens in The Tower of Glass. What keeps us guessing, and keeps us reading, is Silverberg’s character work, which is mostly thorough and inventive, and for our convenience we even get what amounts to a roll call of supporting characters, some of whom are not important in Part 1 but who may figure into events later on.
Clissa, the wife of Manuel Krug,
Quenelle, a woman younger than Manuel, who is his father’s current companion.
Leon Spaulding, Krug’s private secretary, an ectogene.
Niccolo Vargas, at whose observatory in Antarctica the first faint signals from an extrasolar civilization were detected.
Justin Maledetlo, the architect of Krug’s tower.
Senator Henry Fearon of Wyoming, a leading Witherer.
Thomas Buckleman of the Chase/Krug banking group.
A Witherer, for your information, is someone in favor of the dissolving of government; I feel like there’s another word we’d use to describe that political view, but hell, let Silverberg have his fictional political parties. It’s not a totally irrational view either, since teleportation (the use of “transmats”) makes it all too easy to travel between countries, and what good are governments if the very borders of these countries are undermined to the point of being ignored?
And yes, the transmat works much the same way as a teleporter in Star Trek: you get ripped apart on one end and then put back together on the other. You die and then are reborn every time. “The transmat field ripped a man’s body into subatomic units so swiftly that no neural system could possibly register the pain and the restoration to life came with equal speed.” I never cease to find this method of teleportation amusing.
The tachyon particle had been “invented” only a couple years prior to the writing of the novel, and you can tell Silverberg (no doubt he was far from the only SF writer who did this) was eager to jump on this newfangled toy, as the glass tower is set to use a tachyon beam which will reach out into space farther and faster than any previous communication device. SF writers are always keeping an eye out for new inventions, discoveries, and trends in the realm of science. Think about all those stories from the ’70s that treat black holes like they’re the latest big-budget video game release. The technology plays a distant second to the religious and personal implications of the glass tower, however, as Krug and his team of astronomers (there is seemingly no one Krug cannot buy) are dead set on making contact with what is apparently a distant planet—a planet which, given its circumstances, is highly unlikely to support life, and yet the team had gotten a signal from that planet which implies a fellow sentient race in the universe.
Simeon Krug is your typical Silverberg protagonist to an extent in that he’s balding, he feels old regardless of his objective age, he’s highly intelligent yet deeply melancholy, something of a male chauvinist, and rather inexplicably he has no issue with picking up the ladies. This is not as much of a criticism as it sounds; if Silverberg’s protagonists are modeled after himself to some degree or other, which happens often enough, then they’re not flattering self-portraits except for the conspicuous gets-with-the-ladies angle (which is certainly worthy of criticism). Authors like to project at least a little bit of themselves into their characters, especially their leads, and if Silverberg gets away with projecting himself repeatedly like this it’s because the projections are so earnest and the emotions ring so true.
While Simeon reaches out for the unreachable in what feels like a religious voyage, however, Thor Watchman and his android fellows are already having their own religious experiences…
There Be Spoilers Here
When we get to Watchman’s subplot it’s easy to think that despite his outward loyalty to Krug, Watchman is secretly conspiring with those who want total equality for androids; actually the opposite turns out to be true, in that he might be a little too loyal to Krug. He’s against emancipation for androids basically on religious grounds, because the androids (not all, but apparently a lot of them) quite literally treat Krug as a godlike figure. In a way this makes sense, considering Krug invented the androids and oversees the factories that make them, which is certainly a science-fictional difference androids have from real-world slaves. The fervor of it is creepy on its own, but the notion that Watchman and likeminded androids are happy as slaves is even creepier, not, I suspect, that Silverberg thinks androids, should they come about in the real world someday, are fit to be manual laborers for life. I will say, however, that had this been written by Isaac Asimov we would probably get a different angle on the Krug worship thing.
The Tower of Glass is set a few hundred years from now, and the world has changed quite a bit—not entirely for the better. Actually it’s kind of a Darwinian nightmare, and even Silverberg’s narration calls it Darwinian at one point, leading me to believe we’re not supposed to see this future world as something to aspire to; this is a good thing, because hoo boy. The introduction of a race of advanced yet obedient workers who can be built and made to work for cheap has resulted in the obliteration of the working class, both in cheap human labor being made obsolete and also the physical population being dwindled. You might be thinking, “Well, maybe working class people reproduce less on account of the need for cheap labor being lowered.” There’s that, but there’s also some top-down eugenics (a form akin to China’s one-child policy) involved, which gives me the heebie jeebies.
The human population has slowed in its growth to such an extent that it has actually gone down worldwide, which I suppose is more believable than the population reaching, say, twenty billion in two centuries. Overpopulation is thus not a concern. We actually do see such population dwindling in certain parts of our world, which Silverberg posits could happen on a worldwide scale should advanced machinery replace human labor; not saying it’s a correct “prediction,” but it’s logical enough. The real point of conflict in-story, then, is whether androids should be considered people with all the human rights involved. Manuel and Clissa are in favor of android emanicpation, although only the latter is outspoken about this and the two for some reason do not bond over this shared sympathy. Of course this could be because Manuel has an ulterior motive for wanting androids to be recognized as on par with humans: he beds one on the side.
The back end of Part 1 focuses on Manuel and his conflicting emotions regarding androids, along with his position as the man who will run his old man’s company someday—a position he doesn’t want. A tour of an android factory, seeing first-hand how the sausage is made so to speak, sends Manuel into an existential crisis, not least because he is quite passionate about Lilith, an adroid who, like Thor Watchman, is an alpha. (Yes I get that she’s called Lilith, how very clever, Mr. Silverberg.) Manuel loves Lilith more than Clissa but after the factory tour cannot get over the fact that Lilith, despite her personality and intelligence, is made of synthetic materials. Ironically Lilith comes off as more “human” than Clissa, despite the latter being perfectly sympathetic, on account of Lilith being characterized more vividly, and I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable drama with this love triangle. We get hints of a showdown but Silverberg is keeping things only fizzling with a sure hand, and I mean that in a good way.
A Step Farther Out
The first installment of The Tower of Glass is a curious one for sure, not least because, unlike a lot of serial installments, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger or a point of peril for the characters. So far the plot has actually been kind of lax, but what’s interesting is that I very much look forward to what happens in the next installment, despite the relaxed pacing so far. Silverberg weaves a few subplots together here, and fittingly he also crams in a good deal of worldbuilding and thematic juiciness so that there is always something to read into, even when nothing “important” is happening on the page. We have what is ostensibly a religious narrative in which someone likens himself to God, or at least a prophet, and this person is trying to make contact with what might be sentient life from a distant planet. We also get a caste system, racism, loneliness, yearning, and other things typical of Silverberg from his late ’60s to early ’70s period. Silverberg repeats himself a bit with these elements, yes, but The Tower of Glass, like his best work from this period, is all but unmatched in its ambition and intensity.
Of course we do have a caveat or two. If you’re expecting well-drawn female characters then you’ll probably be disappointed. Lilith comes close, and in the rest of the novel we might come to understand her more, but right now none of the (admittedly few) women featured are as psychologically realized as their male counterparts. Not that I should have to remind you that an old-timey SF story from more than half a century ago is not great with female representation, but it’s frustrating with Silverberg especially because he knows better—it’s just that for some reason, at this relatively early point in his career, he chose not to. A small price unless that sort of thing really bothers you, I just wanted to point that out, because otherwise this installment gets high marks from me.