John Hertz Reviews
Table of Contents
The Best from "Fantasy and Science Fiction", 13th Series
The Best from “Fantasy and Science Fiction” (1964), Avram Davidson ed., 13th Series. Reviewed by John Hertz, July 2008.
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
“We are all of us one-of-a-kind writers, really, but Avram was more one-of-a-kind than most,” said Robert Silverberg in The Avram Davidson Treasury. Like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, like R.A. Lafferty, like Gerard Manley Hopkins outside our field, Davidson was both fine and distinctive.
As an author he could be simple or complex. What could be simpler than his short story “The Golem”? He could be recondite — the word “recondite” may itself be recondite, alas — but he did not speak only to the love of learning; take “The Affair at Lahore Cantonment”, which won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in which the Kipling reference is brilliant for whoever sees it, while everyone else is still hospitably served.
He was a kind of miracle, as shows in his short wonderful term editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He kept up his own writing, he followed Alfred Bester as the F&SF book reviewer, and he brought out others’ marvels.
Behold this anthology.
He received these suitably thirteen stories; the history of literature is full of things that were sent but not received. Perhaps he improved them; the public record rightly does not say, and although some of the authors are alive, and I know some of them, I have not asked. He selected them. He saw and provided achievement other than his own.
Here is Jack Vance’s “Green Magic”, a candidate for his best though he widely excelled before and since; it was fifteen years later the title story of a collection. Here is Ray Nelson’s first story to be anthologized, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, a strange look at freedom from the man who fifteen years earlier invented the propeller beanie.
Many stories here are strange looks at freedom. Shall we say that was in the air then? Why not? It may be in the air now. How can art not be of its time? The best will also be of our time. That how I can’t tell you. But we can try to appreciate it.
Here is Richard McKenna’s “Hunter, Come Home”. If his best in our field may be “Casey Agonistes”, a rival is “Hunter”, his most stfnal — our old adjective (pronounced “STEF-nal”), a relic of the word Hugo Gernsback wanted, scientifiction. The science is biology. “Hunter” was the cover story for the March 1963 F&SF, with the Mordinmen and the fate of Midori Blake well illustrated by Ed Emshwiller, who did more covers for F&SF than anyone else. Those who know the story will like my calling it a rival.
Here is Davidson’s own “What Strange Stars and Skies”, also later to entitle a collection. It is less simple and less fantastic than his “Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?” but it is as poetic and just. His wonderful women! He shows them vivid and victorious, smart and strong, quiet and quirky, which fifteen years after his death we note he does not neglect.
Zenna Henderson published seventeen stories about the People, who looked so much like Earth folk that when their planet succumbed to a natural disaster, and their ships fled through interstellar space, and some landed on our world, they could fit in — or almost, see “Pottage”. Not until the ninth, “Deluge” here, are we told of the escape. Henderson’s gift is to sail at the edge of sweetness. One false tack and she would be saccharine. She isn’t. When Priscilla & Mark Olson of the New England S-F Association’s NESFA Press edited the 1995 collection Ingathering, Priscilla in her introduction called these “stories of us at our best, as we hope to be, and where (with work and with luck) we may be in some future.”
Arrangement too is an art. Davidson begins with “The Golden Brick” by P.M. Hubbard, ends with “Deluge”. Before “Hunter” is “Treaty in Tartessos” by Karen Anderson; after, “McNamara’s Fish” by Ron Goulart. Nor do the comic and tragic simply alternate; before “Strange” comes “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” by Bester, which is, at least, both. There are resonances. The sea keeps coming in. It has a silent part in “Treaty”. Ships go away at the end of “Brick” and “Deluge” — leaving us with what different kinds of happiness!
Let us take in some of the voices.
He explored much of the green realm, finding so much beauty that he feared his brain might burst…. Nourishment came in a thousand different forms: from pink eggs which burst into a hot sweet gas, suffusing his entire body; from passing through a rain of stinging metal crystals; from simple contemplation of the proper symbol. Homesickness for Earth waxed and waned.
“Miss Blake, young Craig has clearly been your dupe, as you insist he has,” Barim said…. “Invent a motive, then. Say you hate Mordin. Say you hate me.”
“I hate no one. I’m sorry for you.”
“I’ll give you a reason!” Miss Ames jumped to her feet…. “Your reckless, irresponsible use of translocation endangers us all! Accept defeat and go home!”
She helped Barim recover his composure. He smiled…. “We neither accept defeat nor fear death. We require no tears of anyone.”
It was darker inside the tent than out, despite the luxury of three lamps burning at once. “I hope you’ve dined well? May I offer you something?” Kynthides asked politely, with considerable misgivings. The centaur probably wouldn’t know what to do with a barley loaf, and as for wine — well, there wasn’t a drop within five miles of camp. Or there had better not be.
Each of these speakers is wrong, as it happens, but their authors do not make them cheap. The first, Howard Fain, is transported by learning, but not enough. We are left to realize he never thinks what good he might do others. Barim the Huntmaster is not smug. We may dislike the ways of Planet Mordin, but the courage of the Mordinmen has truth. The centaur too may be more noble than his opponent. With Vance’s strange poetry we have nourishment in a thousand forms. With McKenna’s drama of strength and ignorance we have human pathos that makes the scientific method, mistakenly applied as it is, our protagonist. With Anderson’s horse story we have corroborative detail to give artistic verisimilitude.
Short fiction has been called the peak of s-f writing. Mike Resnick gave the novelette a moving tribute on Hugo Awards Night at Chicon VI, the 2000 World Science Fiction Convention. Four of these thirteen are novelettes, Bester, Davidson, Henderson, McKenna; the rest are short stories. Focus can achieve much in little. Shakespeare’s plays run three hours, Dickens’ novels run eight hundred pages; but Shakespeare also wrote sonnets, before Dickens was Austen, and in Japanese the highest form of writing for a thousand years was the 31-syllable waka, which finally, not short enough, gave birth to the 17-syllable haiku. The Roman orator Cicero said, “Please forgive me for writing such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
Michelangelo when asked how he sculpted said, “I get a block of marble and chip away anything that doesn’t look like a Madonna and Child.” This jest has truth. It presupposes not only his vision but his focus. In our field A.J. Budrys said, “Always ask yourself: Why are they telling me this?“
“Peggy and Peter Go to the Moon” by Don White is even shorter than “Eight” or “Treaty”. Everything about it is right, although everyone in it is wrong, really wrong. Nanny helps Peter on with his new red mittens. He is nineteen. Peggy is wearing her mink-collared gold lamé party frock, the one she hadn’t worn since Rosemary Jane’s party celebrating the defection of her father to the Russians. Cook has come (not “the cook”, they’re British) with sandwiches, and a nice Thermos of hot Bonox and rum. Off they go from their father Professor Love’s secret rocket range, the little Loves. Off go Professor and ex-nanny. His last words are cream.
The Best of Xero
The Best of “Xero” by Patricia & Richard Lupoff (2004), Tachyon Publications
Reviewed by LASFS Member John Hertz, October 2004.
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Emerald City; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
Patricia & Richard Lupoff’s Xero won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. Now Tachyon Publications of San Francisco has brought out The Best of “Xero” in hard covers, illustrated, a labor of love. I ran the Fanzine Lounge at the 2004 Worldcon, and made sure to put a copy on display. It’s a fine piece of work, which I commend to you.
In the s-f community we’ve published amateur magazines, by and for each other, since before the first World Science Fiction Convention (1939). In the 1940s we adopted the late Russell Chauvenet’s word “fanzine”. In the 1950s we established the Hugo Awards, including Best Fanzine along with Best Short Story, Best Professional Artist, and the rest. Fan activity is one of our bright sparks. Likewise fans and pros mixing it up.
I now come to a matter which has caused me a semi-sleepless afternoon, vide-licit Steve Stills’ [Avram Davidson, here quoted from the letter column, knew the artist was Steve Stiles, and how to spell videlicet—JH] vertical cartoon strip by name “Lin Carter’s Fantastic Bunny Rabbit” (it will never catch on with the syndicates, Lin & Steve): Why are rabbits called bunny? Bulwinckle [Bulfinch’s Mythology + Bullwinkle the Moose of Jay Ward’s cartoons—JH] says of this only, “A pet or familiar name for rabbits, conies, or squirrels.” That’s a big help. If anyone can tell me why rabbits are called bunny I’ll tell him why cats are called pussy.
Davidson, Carter, and Stiles all contributed to Xero; Stiles, who in 2004 was on the Best Fanartist ballot, then drew with a stylus on mimeograph stencils, the technology of the day. Pat & Dick Lupoff typed stencils in their Manhattan apartment, printed them on a machine in Noreen & Larry Shaw’s basement, collated by hand, and lugged the results to s-f cons or stuffed them in mailboxes. The machine had not been given by Damon Knight, A.J. Budrys explained in a letter after a while, but lent. Eventually drawings could be scanned by electro-stencil, a higher tech. Colored ink joined colored paper, sometimes wildly colored. Xero could be spectacular.
Knight later founded the Science Fiction Writers of America; he and Budrys were each later Writer Guest of Honor at a Worldcon. James Blish won two Retrospective Hugos in 2004; in Xero he reviewed Budrys’ Rogue Moon (not reprinted by Tachyon), and Kingsley Amis’ New Maps of Hell. You’ll also see Anthony Boucher, Harlan Ellison, Ethel Lindsay, Fred Pohl, Rick Sneary, Bob Tucker as “Hoy Ping Pong”, Harry Warner — fans and pros mixing it up. Roger Ebert, later a movie critic, contributed poetry, often free-style, or formal and funny in his fanziner’s version of Browning’s “Last Duchess”:
I print for you disgusts me; the thud
Is of your fanzine dully falling.
Earlier in 2004, I happened to be at dinner with Ann Monn, Tachyon’s layout artist and typographer on the Best of “Xero” project. She, editor Jacob Weisman, and the Lupoffs were all striving at it. One problem was selection. Another was the giving of some context to a cuisine whose meat was freely salted with in-jokes. A third, kin to both, was the treatment of graphics.
You might not recognize her wizardry without seeing the originals. The letter column was “Epistolary Intercourse”, edited by Pat; for one issue it was illustrated by an abstract face in red and blue, which Monn reproduced in black & white somehow. The original of the Eddie Jones cover included in Best of “Xero” was orange and blood-red. Less dramatic, but probably still harder, were the stylus drawings, like Andy Reiss’ “Harlan Ellison Playing Skittles”. Bhob Stewart (yes, with an “h”), who became art editor for Xero, with everything from caricature to montage, is well represented. Then there’s where to put what, and the sizes, and the shapes. I’m impressed.
Did I mention comic books?
They were a thread through Xero from beginning to end. Roy Thomas, later editor-in-chief at Marvel, wrote of Bulletman, Captain Midnight, and other Fawcett folk; Don Thompson, later of the Comic Buyers Guide, wrote of the Spectre and Doctor Fate. The book jacket is Larry Ivie’s “New Rendering of the Old ‘Atom'”, also done in gold on the cover. Walter Breen applauded the combination of “comic books and genuine intellectuality” (not reprinted); F.M. Busby, whose Cry of the Nameless won Best Fanzine in 1960 — another of us active both as fan and pro — wrote, “The idea of a sophisticated sercon [“serious and constructive”] fandom centered around comic books just naturally breaks me up” (not reprinted). You be the judge.
Doctor Fate and the Spectre were, of course, too super to last, even in an age of flamboyant comic book superheroes. But … nowhere in science fiction, even in the cosmic settings of Doc Smith’s Lensmen series … do you find such lavish backdrops for the action. Even fantasy can’t match them…. it is a new, startling and, for a time, fascinating thing to find stories in which there are no limits, where every card is wild.
Fanzines roar along today, on paper, on the Web, or both. Some folk who wrote letters to Xero have also had letters in my fanzine. It’s bracing to realize how science fiction, and fandom, have been around long enough that we can cultivate a sense of the classic, of what was done before our own time which we find to hold interest, even nourishment, for us whose times are changed.
The City and the Stars
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, (1956), Reviewed by John Hertz, December 2006.
Reprinted from the amateur publication Challenger; copyright remains with the author. Used by permission.
What is a classic? Can we have any in science fiction? I’ve suggested we can if we make a book, or a painting, or whatever may be s-f, which outlives its own time: in which merit appears even after times have changed, after the currents which may have buoyed up an artwork have passed.
The City and the Stars has been continuously in print for fifty years. The current Gollancz edition has 256 pages, a nice mathematical fillip. In a 2000 introduction Sir Arthur, as he that year became, called it his best-loved work.
It is a work of marvels great and small. As it opens, our hero Alvin is on a far future Earth; the city of Diaspar has been a billion years in the form we meet, a fraction of its age. This immortal city, so encompassing, so big, we rightly suspect is a fraction of this book. There are stars. The story is told so well in so few words as to be another marvel. Clarke never quotes Quantity of labor has nothing to do with art; he does quote No machine may have any moving parts.
Diaspar was the great port city of Earth. Humankind long traveled among the stars — and drew back. That was given up. Advanced science made Diaspar self-sufficient and eternal. The human span became a thousand years, at the end of which by a kind of reincarnation one would dissolve, to return millennia later; a rich and happy life. Alvin questions it. Indeed he keeps asking the next question.
Machines in Diaspar do much that men and women do not care to. The machines are routinely commanded by thought. People in Diaspar cannot read one another’s minds. Perhaps they could once, but if so that was given up too, long ago. A great deal has been forgotten in Diaspar. Why not? And outside the oceans have dried, the Moon has gone, and the face of the Earth is sand.
This is a Bildungsroman — one of those unfortunate technical terms long parted from its root meaning, like novel; a story of the growth and maturation of its protagonist. Clarke, the good jeweler, keeps us more with the pearls than the string. They gleam softly. Only the whole is dazzling, as we see how they are graded and matched.
One of my own maxims, I fear, is Behind the received wisdom is the received iconoclasm. I’ve adventured with folk who were non-conformists like everybody else. That is a theme of this book, if it is fair to say a good book has themes, which I doubt. Alvin meets Khedron the Jester, an office which has been held by others and by Khedron earlier from time to time. He unsettles things. To do this he must know a lot, and get at the hidden ways of Diaspar. His jests may be terrifying, but that is allowed. Alvin learns from him, and frightens him. Khedron has lived through many millions of years. Alvin is twenty years old.
Alvin visits the Tomb of Yarlan Zey, near-legendary founder of Diaspar. Everyone knows the Tomb, it is in the middle of the central park. With Khedron’s help Alvin finds the enigmatic instruction Stand where the statue gazes, and remember, Diaspar was not always thus. That was the opening of my senior-year research paper in law school. I called The City and the Stars a novel of triumph and fabrication. I was unsure whether to start with a science fiction novel, but a professor persuaded me to leave it in. For Alvin this thought is really the beginning of the adventure. He has left his parents, his tutor, and a woman who loved him, behind.
Some of Alvin’s discoveries are like a door, some are like a dawn. Theodore Sturgeon, to whom I alluded above, liked to remind us “Science fiction is knowledge fiction”; science comes from the Latin word for knowledge. Alvin is a remarkable scientist. He exercises the ability to observe and to compute. There are computing machines in this book — the Central Computer of Diaspar is quite wonderful; other reviewers have noted that, just as Clarke thought up geosynchronous satellites before anyone could build them, he thought up distributed computing before anyone could build it — a meeting between the Central Computer and a lesser strange computer is also wonderful — but I mean the human ability. Alvin thinks — I am not quoting him — These data do not align. What else is there? Where might it be? He does not think, but Clarke does and is alert to it every moment, Why has nobody asked before?
With the other greatnesses in this story there is, eventually, a great religious figure, a galactic teacher. We are invited to a low regard for him. That may be the reality of religion, but like everything in an artwork it must be viewed in the setting the artist has given. Vladimir Nabokov said, “An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth.” Who admired this teacher? Do we apply Alvin’s own method? As with much else in the story Clarke achieves a consummate and subtle treatment of a recurring theme.
All Alvin’s answers are waiting for him to find. Something is unearthed which itself raises a new possibility. If you know the book you will recognize Chapter 17, but Clarke makes moments for themselves and as images. Alvin goes on to follow knowledge, undistracted by threat or promise, uncontent with unreasonable comfort. “At every stage he might have turned aside with unseeing eyes” — I quote his thought now — “any man might have found the path his footsteps had traced”; if no others, fourteen like him in a billion years, whose steps stopped before they swung and soared. Here is a sample of Clarke’s subtle poetry: “Nothing is more terrible than movement where no movement should ever be again.” We are watching the desert. The single last word of that sentence is not only a sound of fear, but a resonant in this book of history.
To find all he can Alvin travels far. What do the vintners buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell? What truth — in an artwork, a fiction — is stranger than fiction — which its wise men and their yet more complacent guardians so permanently maintained? If To bring home the wealth of the Indies, you must carry the wealth of the Indies with you, he does not quite have it, so he does not quite get it, but enough. He learns to make friends, and they help. The great goes with the small, and the small with the great, humility with hugeness. As one story ends, another may begin, and a note that rang in fear may sound in hope, but as the author promised this is his last word on the immortal city of Diaspar, in the long twilight of Earth.
A Connecticut Yankee
A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court by Mark Twain (1889). Reviewed by LASFS Member John Hertz, June 2009.
Six years before Wells’ Time Machine (1895) this story, operated by time travel but barely exploring it, is placed in the theater of Aristocracy and the Common Man, like The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), and perhaps Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
It has inspired a dozen versions in film, on stage and television, one a Rodgers & Hart musical (with “Thou Swell”), others featuring Will Rogers, Bing Crosby, Bugs Bunny, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Our protagonist Hank Morgan, the Yankee, is so severe against “those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship” (ch. 28) that his book is often made out to be an attack on them. Perhaps. But let us consider it as science fiction.
“Why ‘but’?” you ask. “Isn’t science fiction social satire?” Perhaps.
There is a framing story. Its narrator, who at the end of the book proves to be Mark Twain, tours Warwick Castle and meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger is more interesting than the tour guide. After a surprising remark he is gone. That evening he knocks on the narrator’s door at the Warwick Arms. He is welcomed with a pipe, a chair, a hot whisky — a few whiskies — in hopes of a tale. After the fourth he begins, “I am an American.” After the day at the Castle this is another surprising remark. The stranger goes on awhile, finds himself drowsy, and takes us to a manuscript called, perhaps by our first narrator, The Tale of the Lost Land, which at the end of the book the first narrator has just finished.
That inner story, whose title is not at all insignificant, and points to Twain’s pioneering treatment of what is now a well-known s-f device, is the story of Hank Morgan and his years with King Arthur — Hank Morgan, born in 19th Century Hartford, and King Arthur, ruling in 6th Century Camelot.
Today’s s-f readers presented with time travel are used to explanation. In science fiction we expect to hear about a machine, or some principle of physics; in fantasy, magic or some mystical idea; on the unclear border, perhaps both, or ambiguity, as in Tim Powers’ Three Days to Never, or Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars whose author believes time travel is fantasy but whose characters don’t know that and think they’re in science fiction.
This is not Twain’s chosen subject, and he is far too masterly to dwell on inessentials. The first words we get from Morgan are on the second page.
“You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about transposition of epochs — and bodies?”
I said I had not heard of it. He was so little interested … that he did not notice whether I made him an answer or not.
Four pages later we are told barely of his travel away: struck on the head in a fight, he falls comatose, to wake an hour’s walk from Camelot. Four hundred forty-four pages later we are told barely of his return: stabbed in a fight, amid rampant disease he falls comatose; we are not given his moment of awakening.
Nor is the book history. When Morgan first wakes he meets a knight armored in plate of a millennium later. When Morgan rises to power he makes use of a solar eclipse for which he happens to have the exact date, but there was no solar eclipse in 528. Throughout he rails against domination by the Roman Catholic Church, which first made an Archbishop of Canterbury in 597, first baptized an English king — of Kent, not England — in 601, and first employed the Interdict, Morgan’s doom, in the 9th Century.
We do not need to know Twain’s previous achievements to be sure this is no slovenry. Every step shows us what we are in for.
At the start we learn two essentials about Morgan:
My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse-doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade … to make everything: guns … boilers, engines…. it didn’t make any difference what….
I became head superintendant…. full of fight…. with a couple of thousand rough men under one, one has plenty of that sort of amusement. I had, anyway. At last I met my match, and I got my dose. It was during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars.
and as he wonders what and where he has come to:
if it was still the nineteenth century and I was among lunatics and couldn’t get away, I would presently boss that asylum or know the reason why; and if … it really was the sixth century … I would boss the whole country inside of three months [ch. 2].
He is no tyrant; he is as benevolent as he is feisty and slangy. In his capacity and character are the seeds of his triumph and tragedy.
He does not start as an antagonist. But the first words he gets upon awakening are “Fair sir, will ye just? Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for —” and, when Morgan retorts “What are you giving me? Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you,” the knight charges, Morgan flies up a tree, and the knight takes him prisoner.
By the 21st Century we have innumerable First Contact stories.
Twain mostly sustains the main characters we know from Malory’s superb Death of Arthur: Arthur, Lancelot, Guenevere, Kay who captures Morgan. Twain makes Merlin a charlatan, but shrewd and vital enough to be potent. We can be sure Twain knows Malory, not only because Twain quotes him, but because Twain wields him: his poetry and drama are the tools of this book.
Among Twain’s achievements in Yankee, the people we meet are so painted that we see how they could be what we find they are.
By the 21st Century we also have what we call Clarke’s Law, although Sir Arthur Clarke formulated more, Sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic. That is the matter of this book, before Clarke, before (speaking of Niven) The Flying Sorcerers, and a host of others. Morgan finds that the people who without inspection imprison him, and would execute him, are in dread of magic, perhaps because they are poor at inspection, so he seizes his technology and stands as a magician.
The 19th Century performer Robert-Houdin said A [stage] magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. Twain grasps this and shows Morgan doing it. That is some of the entertainment of this book. I may never forget the appearance of the Constantinople Bagpipers’ Association, with proper complementary details, in the Valley of Holiness (ch. 23).
We love Morgan for his impatience with pretension. We love Amyas le Poulet too, a flippant page whom Morgan finds like-minded, calls “Clarence”, befriends, trains, and is almost succeeded by. Merlin is the figure of pretension. Twain knows that neither of these characters is enough to balance Morgan; this must be the King, who is thus seen, at first glance, noble, benign, and pure (ch. 3), then shown generous and faithful (ch. 6), then found hidebound (ch. 25) — a grave flaw to the likes of Morgan — then revealed wise (ch. 27) — then at the smallpox hut, in Morgan’s own words, sublimely great (ch. 29). Thus Morgan and the King are in the title.
Tragedy needs sympathy. Morgan finds 6th Century England not only credulous and primitive but unjust and in pain. He determines to right these wrongs. During four hundred pages of adventure, hair-raising, comical, or both, he is, off-stage, building workshops, schools, factories. At last Twain brings Morgan to the top and Morgan can throw aside the curtain. Three years later he has slavery abolished, taxation equalized, and the telegraph, telephone, railroad, phonograph, typewriter, sewing machine introduced. But we are almost at the end of the book. What is going to happen?
If Hank Morgan were like Dorothy Gale in The Emerald City of Oz he could stay in this fairyland — or if Twain were writing what Frank Baum wrote. Instead it all crashes. The land is lost.
We have seen Morgan, the alien with advanced technology, arrive in a benighted world and try to enlighten it. He seems to succeed. Since the world is our past, and our 6th Century did not become the 19th, and Twain does not choose to write an alternative history in which it did and so stayed, the success must collapse. Twain says nothing of what we now call the time-traveler’s paradox; he has bigger fish to fry.
Morgan is gotten out of England. While he is gone, various bad elements of human nature arise, a quarrel flares into war, the King is killed, and the Church shuts down everything with an Interdict — including Morgan — as he learns when he comes home to darkness fallen — it is his home by then — and Clarence tells him Church agents had lured him away. Fifty young men stand by him. Thirty thousand knights attack. High technology destroys them. Disease from their corpses destroys the rest. Morgan’s manuscript journal returns with him, as his 19th Century clothes went with him to Camelot.
At the beginning of the end Clarence asks, “Did you think you had educated the superstition out of those people? You may unthink it” (ch. 42). Is this a despondent book? That would be a disaster, not a tragedy. Also the remark is made by a character in fiction, revealing his viewpoint, not necessarily ours.
What kind of teacher is Morgan?
He must be good to have set up all that technology. In his first four years (ch. 10) he has a thousand trained men and fifty brilliant experts; at his height later, surely more. Since Twain puts thousands of men to death so that we see this was not good enough, how was it lacking?
Twain has Morgan tell us.
Inherited ideas are a curious thing…. I had mine, and the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have a long contract on his hands [ch. 8].
Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in this world. It transmits itself like physical form and feature; and for a man, in those days, to have had an idea that his ancestors hadn’t had, would have brought him under suspicion of being illegitimate [ch. 22].
True? Perhaps. But we are in a novel, not a treatise in epistemology; this is a character speaking; and it is, repeated, his confession. The grapes are sour; he could not get them. Yet these are the very grapes at which he set himself.
Great as Morgan is — and he is heroic, or no tragedy — he makes himself the opponent of what he would change, not the ally of the people he wants to improve; he is a fighter, not a lover; and who joins him?
Practicality is the particular care of the s-f author. If the characters and their world are wholly alien, how shall we understand? Not for nothing are there so often youths who must learn as they grow, ignorant or even slow companions who must be explained to. Twain, sending a man from his own day into a distant past, writes a science fiction story from the viewpoint of the alien.
It would be too much to call this a story of an unreliable narrator. Twain’s own love of humankind is great enough that he can satirize his hero. So far his tale is timeless.
Retrieved from the Internet Archives (originally published June 2009 at “Collecting Science Fiction Books”; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
The Draco Tavern
The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven (2006), Reviewed by John Hertz, May 2007.
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Emerald City; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
Niven is short. Brief. With his brush he touches-in bright colored points. We see the people and the landscape. He has an eye for the telling detail.
The Draco Tavern is two dozen stories, the most recent from 2006, the earliest from the 1970s, some anthologized before.
In the near future — “say two years from whenever you’re reading any given story,” offers his introduction — star-traveling aliens take up orbit round the Moon, and set up a spaceport in Siberia. Rick Schumann builds an interspecies tavern. (Incidentally, it rhymes with “wacko”; I’ve heard Niven say it.)
Now and then humans arrive. Look at Alan Webber:
Some customers wear a slack and gaping grin the whole time they’re here, like everything they see is new and different. He wore that grin as if sketched by a drunken artist with a shaky hand. “Offered me a wish.”
Even if I don’t quote a word more, you know what kind of story this is, don’t you?
Niven gives good alien names. Schumann the human meets a Joker, recognizing the Batman reference: tall, spindly, with dead-white skin, a triangular manlike face and a permanent grin, voice like someone dancing on a bagful of walnuts. There are also Warblers, Low Jumbos, and the Wayward Child.
Some aliens don’t take names in our language. This one, being tested by a female to see if he’s worth mating with, is a Pazensh; he explains accepting help with the test:
If I can trust a companion, it speaks for my intelligence. If I choose one who will mock me, or a fool who will lead me astray, that speaks too.
Niven is a comedian. I’m not sure whether that comes with deftness. Shakespeare is a comedian, and Nabokov, and Issa — I use the literary present tense, their work is alive, like any classic. Sometimes Niven makes you laugh. Sometimes in a tense moment you have enough breath to smile. Here’s Schumann:
We must be a common thing to the Chirpsithra. A civilization is only beginning to learn the structure of the universe, when interstellar liners appear and alien intelligences blurt out all the undiscovered secrets.
The Chirps have been civilized, capable of space travel, for billions of years. They run the liners. We only meet the officers — almost — who are all female.
One piece in the collection was a Masquerade entry at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention. Decades ago the Masquerade was a costume party. Since the late 1960s it’s been an on-stage competition, with lights and sound, judges, a big audience. I’ve judged them. Marvels appear.
For the 1984 entry “One Night at the Draco Tavern” costumer Kathy Sanders built a dozen Niven creatures, some not seen in the Draco Tavern world but Niven wrote the script. He put himself in as a helpless “Larry” who never quite understood what was going on. A four-foot-high telepathic monster from Niven’s first novel controlled Schumann and got Niven’s drink. They won Most Humorous, Master class.
Another story was first published in Playboy. Niven’s work is a big tent.
Here’s a Gray Mourner:
We think the Old Mind almost stopped manufacturing new elements, long ago, and we think we know why. It would have become the dominant natural force in the universe. Nothing interesting could happen after that.
Three-fifths into the book Niven has this creature ask, “Have you ever wondered if there are entities older than Chirpsithra?” The Old Mind may have been alive for ten billion years. Sometimes it converges. The Gray Mourner ship, Chimes in Harmony, is going to look. Don’t let me forget to mention the Arthur Clarke joke.
A lesser author would have quit “The Convergence of the Old Mind” at the climax — it’s quite good enough — and left off the last four paragraphs. Niven put them in. They’re worth it, they tell a lot about Rick Schumann, and you’ll need them a hundred pages later.
Along the way another creature says something surprising and Niven has Schumann tell us the word sat in my head like a time bomb. Of course it did. That’s almost the end of a story too. Now and then Niven waves at us as we go by. He’s a big-hearted man and a good host. Some of us who know him in person have been party guests in his house. He treats his readers likewise.
You can hear, and sometimes you can buy, peculiar nightmares in the Draco Tavern.
Nightmares for guests? Well, a barkeep does ask, “What’ll you have?” We want tales and meetings in a tavern. Niven serves them. Fiction writers do interesting things with reality. Nabokov used to say that calling a story true is an insult to truth and to story. The Chirpsithra could be the greatest liars in the universe, and how would we ever know? There’s Niven waving again.
The time bomb and the nightmares are in “Storm Front”. It isn’t the only storm, or the only front — or the only contagion, I mention in case you’ve read Draco Tavern already and are here to see how I manage, a time-honored motive for following a review. The book is wonderfully integrated, a feat in itself when you consider the making.
The visitor rolled in like a big lamp, a five-foot-tall sphere glowing yellow-white…. That glow must be riding-lights, I thought…. the refugee gestured at the nova in Earth’s sky.
The gesture is with a tendril of light.
The Chirp was amused. She asked me, “Did you think the steady weather in your star was an accident?”
Schumann has more to ask in return.
But the Chirpsithra officer and her fiery refugee had gone off to another table.
There’s plenty of depth in these stories. That can be done in few words. An artist chooses. Perhaps I may say they’re sweet like Irish coffee, richness you drink through, touched with sour and bitter, a jolt to change your viewpoint.
And the opening story is called “The Subject is Closed”. He’s a comedian.
Infinite Worlds, by Vincent Di Fate (1997), Reviewed by LASFS Member John Hertz, November 2008.
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
One of the panel discussions I could not attend at Denvention III, the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention, third in Denver, was “Twenty Essential Books of the Past Twenty Years”. I sent a note to the moderator suggesting Infinite Worlds. She answered “I see what you mean.”
For this spectacular survey of s-f art, coffee-table size, 9×12 inches, 320 pages, the selecting of images (and getting permissions) is astounding even to think of; there are nearly seven hundred, most in color, the rest monochrome, as they originally appeared.
The main parts are a hundred-page historical perspective, and a two-hundred-page examination of a hundred leading artists, one at a time. There is a foreword by Ray Bradbury, an introduction by Di Fate, and just after the first part a study of how a Stanley Meltzoff picture influenced three others, one of which is by Di Fate, one of which is the Paul Lehr picture on the front cover. If you are historically minded you will be pleased to find the editorial director was W. John Campbell.
You may know the fame of Meltzoff — Lehr — W. John Campbell and John W. Campbell, Jr. — Bradbury — or Di Fate. Maybe not. Fame is relative in this wide wide world. The best work has something for the expert and for the novice.
Di Fate was the man for this book. He was Artist Guest of Honor at the 1992 Worldcon, which started it; he won the Chesley Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association of S-F Artists just after, in 1998. He had won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist in 1979. He had commissions from International Business Machines, the National Geographic Society, and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration of the United States Government; he chaired the Permanent Collection Committee of the Museum of American Illustration; he was consulted by Universal and 20th Century Fox and United Artists; he was an Adjunct Professor at the State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where he taught the history of illustration, and s-f art.
I recount these things to show, not how Di Fate was approved — what do you care what other people think? — but his breadth and reach. Note in particular his conjoined activity in the worlds of making, teaching, commerce, and museums. Talking about art is itself an art. He had the talent for the task, and by 1997 his thirty-year career had been like a refiner’s fire.
In its history Infinite Worlds names the right artist at the right moment. It makes the right point with the right picture, there and in the one-by-one review. Its words are right. Novices, you are in good hands; experts, see how exactly Di Fate applauds.
The masterful brush of Chesley Bonestell speaks to us with such commanding authority that it doesn’t occur to us to question what our eyes behold…. essential in validating the use of astronomical art as an alternative to the garish and meretricious…. no matter how focused Bonestell was on scientific fidelity, his paintings were never less than works of illustrative art.
I can remember studying Kelly Freas’ work for long hours — his superlative draftsmanship and exquisite design sense, his exceptional use of color and his superb mastery of black & white techniques…. bold, facile pen strokes … meticulous rendering of images on scratchboard…. a sentimentality and a gestalt that make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Richard Powers’ surreal and largely abstract images…. opened the floodgates to using a greater diversity of styles…. raised the aesthetic standards of the field…. might well be the most prolific illustrator…. Although one is powerless to know with certainty what the shapes represent, they capture the spirit and mood of SF.
Illustrator was always Kelly Freas’ word. In our field, to the elusive demands of realism upon any fiction, we couple the elusive demands of unrealism. Our authors meet both, and our illustrators meet the result. Certainly they are artists.
When technical knowledge is helpful Di Fate brings it.
Widely recognized as one of the most exquisite black & white drawings ever done for the genre, this work on scratchboard [by Virgil Finlay] illustrates Wilson Tucker’s classic tale of immortality, The Time Masters (1954). Careful observation … reveals that the woman’s face in the foreground is drawn on the board in a series of crosshatches, while the background textures and details are scratched out of the ink in finely etched stipples (dots) and undulating lines.
The intense drama created by light and composition in John Schoenherr’s work reveals an aesthetic sophistication…. the art for “Goblin Night”, one of his best Analog cover paintings, uses values [degrees of lightness and darkness] to great effect. The bold, triangular silhouette of the animal contrasted against the starry night sky is most dramatic…. an early step by the artist toward brightening his palette.
Michael Whelan’s art is character-based, intensely rendered, and beautifully colored…. His careful manipulation of values and … analogous color schemes [all principal colors having one component in common] are highly effective in creating mood…. often uses airbrush … fastidious in bringing every aspect … to a high level of finish.
There are famous pictures here; to name only six by artists I have not yet mentioned, Frank R. Paul’s magazine cover for The War of the Worlds, Edd Cartier’s magazine interior for “The Crossroads”, Hubert Rogers’ magazine cover for “New Foundations”, the Hildebrandt brothers’ poster for Star Wars, Diane & Leo Dillon’s cover for the Caedmon Records Foundation and Empire, Ron Walotsky’s book cover for Temporary Agency. They were made to illustrate s-f stories; they are here to illustrate the story of s-f.
To this extent, in fairness to Di Fate, we must realize his book is backwards. The contents of Infinite Worlds are aesthetically successful, characteristic (or interestingly uncharacteristic), striking — pictures in themselves worth looking at, with less regard for their publisher or for what they illustrate. That is the reverse of what the men and women who made them had as their task. I do not propose it as a fault; I consider it an achievement.
So is the beauty of his book.
Three Days to Never
Three Days to Never by Tim Powers (2006), Reviewed by John Hertz, March 2007.
In the 17th Century we thought drama should be governed by three unities, of place, time, and action. A hundred years later we were already wondering how valid they were as laws, but as guides they could strengthen focus in the theater, a main virtue there.
The novel rose, with its huge sweep; eventually s-f, with its measureless extension of the seemingly possible and even impossible. Today we are less likely to think a rule will be a help than a tyranny. But imaginative artists find use in disregarded tools. In Three Days to Never it is remarkable how far the unities are observed, particularly considering its huge sweep, its measureless extension.
The place is Greater Los Angeles, a neighborhood today, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Hollywood, Palm Springs. People arrive, or their predecessors did, so there are reflections, or repercussions, of Germany — Switzerland — Israel — and a ranging universe so vast and strange the characters think of it as a freeway to their local lives, or God.
The time is 1987: three days of it: hence the title — with a look at 1967 — the days of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein — Pope Innocent III — Moses — and a man from 2006 who can’t stand the crude technology.
The actors are a preteen girl and her father who teaches literature — and her great-grandmother — and her uncle — and two teams trying to undo place, time, and action, one from the Israeli intelligence service, one vast and strange.
The focus of these forces keeps this story strong. Powers has set us at their nexus, holds us there. The careful painting of their operation, almost prosaic in the midst of poetry, almost mundane in the midst of the mystic, keeps this world weird. He makes it shock and shimmer. Its spine is his imagination. Its sinew is his understanding. He is unafraid of good or evil, of comedy or crime.
C.S. Lewis is whom I remember for the one-strange rule. An ordinary person, he said, meeting extraordinary things, or an extraordinary person meeting ordinary things. It’s a good rule; it can be a help and not a tyranny; it can strengthen focus. Look how well it has been used in s-f, by which I include both science fiction and fantasy. Indeed Three Days is both.
Daphne Marrity is the first person in the book we meet by name. The first we see of her is ordinary, or as ordinary as any twelve-year-old girl with an observant mind and a quick wit. She worries about things an adult wouldn’t. She is with her father as they look round her great-grandmother’s house in Pasadena. Later, much later, we understand what had just been happening when they arrived.
Such is investigation. As you start looking there are mysteries. If you keep looking, especially if you don’t panic, reasons begin to appear. Daphne’s uncle Bennett is a panicker. This is not quite why we dislike him. Powers carefully invites us to suppose he is a bad guy. He is that, though we meet worse, much worse. Powers also invites us to suppose this is why Bennett is jumpy. The invitations Powers gives us are good.
Investigation is the through-line of Three Days. Formal detective stories are hard in s-f; the author, bringing us unfamiliar worlds, must work twice teaching us what is incongruous. But investigation — we learn as the characters do, our wonder is theirs — is one of our classic forms. It is one of the resonances of science fiction. If the post-modernist sensibility is, as Bob Dylan sang, “Nothing is revealed,” that is not true of a Powers story. The strange may however stand revealed as stranger.
At Westercon LIV, the 2001 West Coast Science Fantasy Conference — not only have I said s-f here, but over fifty years we’ve hedged our bets by sometimes saying science fantasy — Mike Glyer was Fan Guest of Honor, Powers was Writer Guest of Honor. Glyer interviewed Powers. Lest Powers close the circuit by interviewing Glyer, which as any Powers fan would fear might have had unimaginable consequences, I interviewed him, but that’s another story. Powers said, “Some people write books with a message. Brush your teeth. I hate that.”
There are no sermons in Three Days. The characters are what they are, and do what they do. Powers knows Show ’em, don’t tell ’em. We have never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we cannot meet them. But we believe that if we did, they would be as he portrays. Such is the art of fiction.
If I talked about balance in this book you might think it static. I could take you there; it is, at crucial points, outside time and space. But I mean a sense of event, of weight in motion. Powers’ characters grope and hurl and hurtle. But he, the architect, has poised them — no — he, the choreographer, directs them. Or, if he merely gets out of the way, his instincts are sound. There is economy in Three Days, a breathtaking achievement when things seem fearfully complicated, as, outside time and space, they may.
Rules get exceptions, and counter-rules. A counter to one strange I remember as the derg rule. In Robert Sheckley’s classic story “Protection”, a man by an extraordinary contact hears a validusian derg, a creature able to perceive dangers and warn how to avoid them. The man gradually realizes that his involvement with the derg is drawing in extraordinary dangers. Powers knows this too. Characters who grow involved with the extraordinary are colored by it. There is a reason why, in Three Days, two men row a boat on Echo Park Lagoon with a collection of mechanical toy animals, some of which they must keep winding up as they talk of allegiance and death.
Shakespeare is a theme in Three Days, mainly his great play The Tempest. An illegitimate daughter of Einstein calls her father Prospero. He tries to drown his book. The parallel is not close, but there are reflections. Shakespeare is the poet of love. In The Tempest, as elsewhere, are people who seek power hatefully, people who seek freedom in slavery, people who will not repent, and people who are redeemed. There are no sermons in Shakespeare. He never says, but he shows, that love is not in the nature of imposition; it can be community. With these lights Three Days searches. It shines. It is the novel of the year.
A Treasury of Great Science Fiction
A Treasury of Great Science Fiction Groff Conklin ed. (1948), Reviewed by LASFS Member John Hertz 2007.
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
Groff Conklin (1904-1968) was one of our best anthologists, and Treasury, his second, was one of his best anthologies. I’m here to talk about the original hardback Crown edition, 517 pages, thirty stories; under the same title Berkley reprinted eight in a 1957 paperback. Crown sold Treasury at $3.50 when gasoline was 26¢ a gallon. That’s history for you.
Great and famous stories are in this Treasury. Three are from the spectacular partnership of Henry Kuttner & Catherine Moore, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” under their pen name Lewis Padgett, “No Woman Born” as by Moore, “Vintage Season” as by Lawrence O’Donnell. “Woman” Conklin called “scintillating … the C.L. Moore masterpiece” in his introduction. “Season”, the only story included of its length, was voted Best Novella of All Time in the 1999 Locus magazine poll. “Borogoves” has just (March 2007) inspired a Tim Hutton movie.
By Arthur Clarke are “Loophole” and “Rescue Party”, both good, “Rescue” a gem. By Robert Heinlein, “It’s Great to be Back”, one of those he made so understandable to people with no special love of s-f that it ran in The Saturday Evening Post. “With Folded Hands” may be the best thing Jack Williamson ever wrote. “The Ethical Equations” by Murray Leinster, well-crafted like so much by that master artisan, touches in passing a notion Heinlein built a future history on. “Flight of the Dawn Star” by Robert Williams, published in John Campbell’s Astounding, compares wonderfully with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” published (as by Don Stuart) there a year earlier.
Three more of my favorites have lacked the applause of further anthologizing, “Children of the Betsy B” by Malcolm Jameson, that too-rare achievement, an s-f comedy; “Tools” by Clifford Simak, a fine study by an otherwise celebrated writer, and “The Embassy” by Donald Wollheim (as by Martin Pearson), another comedy, which did appear in a 1952 Frederik Pohl volume.
What makes an s-f classic? I’ve been discussing this in the s-f community. I propose that a classic is an artwork which survives its time; one which, after the currents which may have buoyed it have changed, can be seen to hold merit. In s-f particularly, changing times affect the currents of prediction and, if I may say so, preachment. I suggest they are subsidiary. Decades after the Treasury stories were written, a few look false through the lens of science, a few through the lens of politics. But falsehood has an extraordinary meaning in fiction.
The 20th Century writer Vladimir Nabokov said, “An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth.” He was talking about why Jane Austen was not “dated”; no more is Shakespeare — or Lady Murasaki — or Sophocles. The great artworks of another culture inspire us to study it; in the proverb, To bring home the wealth of the Indies you must carry the wealth of the Indies with you.
Below the peaks of greatness we can have what Marty Helgesen, a well-known fan in New York, calls useful fun. The Treasury stories were written before I was born; of their day I am no deep student; they carry no nostalgia for me; the best of them are delicious for their own sake, and although this is quite sufficient, to enjoy it now that we are different broadens the mind.
To stay with Nabokov a little further — I am quoting his Lectures on Literature, given in his Cornell University days and posthumously published (incidentally, s-f lovers, they include Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) — “Read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations…. read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art.”
Ordinary touches in “It’s Great to be Back” hone the extraordinary. Mr. & Mrs. MacRae, returning from Luna City in the Moon, staying at a Manhattan hotel, breakfast on orange juice, coffee, eggs, and toast. To order, Mr. MacRae faces the telephone and shouts at it, “Service!” — and while he is shaving, a delivery cupboard buzzes. I’ll quote. “Breakfast over, he put down his paper and said, ‘Can you pull your nose out of that magazine?’ ‘Glad to. The darn thing is too big and heavy to hold.’” The MacRaes had forgotten what pounds weigh on Earth. They had likewise forgotten, which is the thrust of the tale, what seeing far horizons meant.
The title of “Tools” is a joke, and the end is a joke although it’s gallows humor. The giant evil corporation is only a pawn of the author, who was writing something better than social satire — as with Dickens, the social satire is flimsy, redeemed by the author’s soaring vision. So is the wise old psychologist. Not for nothing is he named Steele. Not for nothing is he resilient, yet finally snapped under torsion. He is the hero, but not the protagonist; he triumphs in tragedy (unlike “Vintage Season”); he out-thinks everyone, perhaps. Of all the moments in the book one of the finest is the last gesture of his cigar.
For L.A.con IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention in 2006 (fourth in the Los Angeles area produced by the same people or their successors; the first was in 1972), as a member of the program subcommittee I set panel discussions of four Classics of S-F, a panel each. One of the four was “No Woman Born”. In Progress Report 4 and on the con Website <www.laconiv.org> I wrote, “This masterly novelette explores beauty and attraction with almost inhuman resonance. It probably could not have been written by a man or in any other genre.”
Look how Moore reveals each viewpoint, the show-business manager outgoing enough for his career, the planetwide star performer persevering enough for hers. Of the imaginary science Moore gives only what the characters perceive; or for the scientist, carefully made the fulcrum but not the protagonist or narrator, what he naturally remarks to the others. By the guiding rule of our field, it is what people do with the science that makes the story. At the emotional climax, prepared by the narrative climax, Maltzer asks “You do admit it, then?” Deirdre demands “Do you still think of me as delicate?” Who has learned? Who is protecting whom — in the world of 1948? Or today. Wow!
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870), Reviewed by John Hertz, August 2007.
Who is the hero of this book? Professor Aronnax? Captain Nemo? Ned Land? Conseil?
It is a classic of science fiction. Full of wonders, it presents them as within reach of science, as precisely for that reason wonderful. It turns on its science. The operation of that science is a story of people.
It is set in the years 1866-68, i.e. before the date of publication, not the fictional future but the past — and for the original readers, recent. For us this is a technique more expected in mainstream literature, where it is employed, as Verne employs it, to provide a sense of realism.
Aronnax, a French scientist, has been in Nevada collecting specimens, animal, vegetable, and mineral; he also knows the sea; he has practiced medicine; he is what was then called a naturalist. And Conseil is his manservant. We are plunged into the 19th Century.
The story opens with reports of something harming ocean traffic. Maybe it is a sea creature. The reports are not very believable — to the characters. We are plunged into the substance of science fiction.
The reports grow. The United States Navy sends a frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, to hunt down the sea creature, if the creature exists. Aronnax is invited along. Ned Land is a French-Canadian harpoonist engaged by the frigate captain to complete his armament.
Land’s sharp eyes spot the creature. The frigate shells it, in our wonderful language where shelling peas is removing shells from them, and shelling a target is firing shells at it. Aronnax falls overboard, Conseil dives after his master, they find Land in the water, and the creature proves to be the submarine vessel Nautilus. Nemo is its captain.
People in 1870 who could read French — or English, the first translation was in 1872 — would know Nemo as Latin for No one. When we meet him that is the only name he gives for himself. He remains a mystery.
Not at all incidentally Abraham Lincoln is one of his heroes. By Chapter 7 of the first half the ship Lincoln is gone and we do not see her again. By Chapter 8 of the second half we see an etching of the man Lincoln on a wall of Nemo’s room. This is a subtle as well as a dramatic book.
The three companions are passengers of the Nautilus while it cruises 20,000 leagues — if you will, 8,000 miles — under the sea. The ship runs by electricity. Let us pause for a moment at that.
This was science fiction when written. It did not seem impossible, but had not been accomplished. By World War I submarine vessels, all too real, indeed used electric power, and submarine was a noun. But s-f is not in the business of predictions, neither glorified if something in it comes to pass, nor ruined if history goes some other way.
Captain Nemo designed and constructed his Nautilus. He had parts manufactured round the world; built from them in secret; then renounced the land to become a lord of the ocean. He brought with him his library of twelve thousand books, his collection of paintings by the masters, his pipe-organ and musical scores. Aronnax dines with him in a room of ebony, porcelain, and glass, or alone in an ample cabin Nemo has given. Nemo’s own cabin is severe, no comfort, only necessities.
Outside, captain and crew walk the ocean floor in pressure suits, breathing compressed air, gathering food and fabric from fish, farm, and forest, hunting with electric guns. Inside, a study holds display cases of specimens Nemo has collected himself, surpassing any museum in Europe. Aronnax, our narrator, is fascinated.
Aronnax, Conseil, and Land have the freedom of the ship. Sometimes for days Nemo does not appear. His crew, at least twenty, variously European by their looks, are even more scarce. Otherwise he is a generous host. His conversation is thoughtful and knowledgeable.
The four are well named. Nemo we noted. Land yearns for escape to solid ground — a seaman by profession, among many sly jokes. Aronnax is a peacemaker, like the first Aron (as French spell it), Moses’ brother in the Bible. Conseil is such a traditionalist he always addresses his master in the third person (another note of the 19th Century), e.g. “Whatever master pleases” — to the annoyance of his master; so much for counsel.
One famous joke is in a scene of attempted escape. Land has a scheme to seize the ship’s dinghy. Aronnax dresses warmly for the surface of the sea. He runs into Nemo, who says only “Ah, monsieur, I was looking for you,” and engages him in historical talk — foiling the scheme — not at all incidentally revealing a key to Nemo’s character at just this moment — and without a word of how he takes Aronnax’ obvious costume.
Adventure made this book famous. Undersea marches, near-crushing by ice at the South Pole, a supply base inside an extinct volcano, fighting a giant squid, a passage 150 feet below the Suez isthmus. The adventures build to a climax. Along the way they reveal character. What about those lists of fish?
There is a viewport in the Nautilus. Through it and on excursions Aronnax recognizes creatures of the sea. Naturally he writes down what he has observed, which for a scientist is of paramount importance. Our book, as we come to realize, is his journal.
His writing is of course Verne’s writing. A good author can use description both to show us where the characters are, and by pointing out what they notice, to show us what they are. What a viewport upon Aronnax that over thousands of leagues he knows and delights in countless plants and animals by name.
One theme of the book is freedom. Does Nemo have it? Is Land wise seeking to escape, Aronnax to explore, Conseil to endure? Who rises, who sinks, before which challenges, or if you will temptations?
At length we meet Nemo’s hostile purpose, long suggested to us. It is not his only purpose. His science and artistry, his bravery and leadership, are genuine. His love and respect for fellow creatures and fellow human beings are genuine too, but they are flawed. In the crisis we remember it is not our first massacre. The meeting with sperm whales and baleen whales comes back to us.
Is Nemo contrite? Does he lead himself to punishment? When the companions escape, did he allow it? Verne’s architecture in this book, his coloring, his texture, frame these questions. The greatness in his execution has made this book endure.
The 1872 English version, by Lewis Page Mercier (1820-1875), is still the most widely circulated (sometimes as by Mercer Lewis), possibly because it is in the public domain under copyright law and so does not call for royalties. It omits about a fifth of the text, possibly by order of the publisher, and adds a handful of errors, possibly because Mercier worked from French read aloud to him. The 2007 Franklin Watts edition is a reprint of it.
In the 1960s Walter James Miller began calling attention to Mercier’s failings. Miller’s translation of 1965 has an afterword by Damon Knight, which alas I cannot recommend. In 1976 Miller published an annotated edition showing all Mercier got wrong. In 1993 he made another translation with Frederick Paul Walker. In 1998 William Butcher made a new translation with copious endnotes. Butcher says the 1991 version by Emanuel Mickel is Mercier’s word-for-word, although Mickel restores Mercier’s cuts. It is hard to call any of these a model of perception and they all lay on pet theories thick.
The 1962 translation by Anthony Bonner restores Mercier’s cuts and adopts 20th Century language. In 2000 Books of Wonder reprinted it with illustrations by Diane & Leo Dillon, which earned them a nomination for the Association of S-F Artists’ Chesley award.
The 1954 Walt Disney motion picture is a classic on its own merits. Paul Lukas is Aronnax, James Mason a fine Nemo, Kirk Douglas is Ned Land, Peter Lorre is Conseil; it won two Oscars for Art Direction and Special Effects.
I’ve led discussions of this book at s-f conventions. For the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention, I had the honor of choosing four s-f classics, each to be the subject of a panel discussion; one was Twenty Thousand Leagues.
This is an adult book. It may be Verne’s masterpiece.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (1954), Reviewed by John Hertz, July 2011.
Flight has been loved for decades. It is on dozens of children’s-book lists.
Upon publication The Atlantic (Dec 54, p. 98) called it “a perfectly made fantasy…. most realistic description of a trip that two boys make in their own space ship. I felt as if I were right there with them.” Four pages earlier the same reviewer praised Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, and ten pages earlier her editors praised Ben Shahn’s Alphabet of Creation.
The New York Times Book Review (4 Nov 54, pt. 2 p. 30) said “scientific facts are emphasized in this well-built story. Since they are necessary to the development of the story the reader absorbs them naturally.” Just above was praise of Walter Brooks’ Freddy and the Men from Mars.
Coming from outside the s-f community this is high praise, and these reviewers show taste.
Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow has applauded Flight. So has novelist Walter Mosley. It has strangeness and charm.
We since 1992 have been giving the Golden Duck Awards to s-f written for children. In 2002 the Golden Duck Middle Grades Award was named for Cameron (1912-1996). She followed Flight with four more books about Tyco M. Bass and the little planet Basidium-X, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet (1956), Mr. Bass’s Planetoid (1959), A Mystery for Mr. Bass (1960), Time and Mr. Bass (1967). Of these the first is the best.
I’m writing just before the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention, “Renovation”, to be held in Reno, Nevada, during August — the 69th Worldcon, incidentally, annual since 1939 except during World War II. Renovation accepted my suggestion to schedule three Classics of S-F discussions: Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon (1865); Fritz Leiber, The Wanderer (1964); and Flight.
I’ve been saying a classic is an artwork which survives its time; one which, after the currents which may have buoyed it have changed, can be seen to hold merit.
Can a children’s book be a classic? Worth reading for an adult?
I’ve quoted the 20th Century writer Vladimir Nabokov (this is from his Lectures on Literature), “Read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations…. read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art.”
At about the same time W.L. Renwick (English Literature 1789-1815) said “A good story does not depend on anything but how it is told.” He was talking about Robert Burns.
Let’s look at Flight. Some of us have read it; perhaps more than once.
We remember Mr. Bass, who keeps saying “precisely” although he confesses he is like a cook who can’t tell anyone else afterward just how he did it. We remember his house on Thallo Street, and his newspaper want ad written, as Northcote Parkinson taught in Parkinson’s Law three years later, to draw only one answer, the right one. We remember Mrs. Pennyfeather the hen, and the oxygen urn that went phee-eep, and the wise men who weren’t very wise.
Why did the space ship have to be built by a boy, or two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven? Was it to make children the protagonists of the story, so that children would like it? Perhaps. Perhaps Mr. Bass is the protagonist. The First Boy, David Topman, and the Second Boy, Chuck Masterson, themselves ask — fifty pages into a two-hundred-page book, when we are well along. By then we know them and their parents, and we have spent the last twenty pages with Mr. Bass, a little old man who is an engineer, a farmer, and an astronomer.
In fact Mr. Bass is not of our planet, he and his ancestors being Mushroom People, basidiomycetous and thallophytic. The boys are going to them on Basidium. Why not get one of the big airplane companies?
“Dear me!… A huge rocket ship … and all the great lumbering men in space suits with oxygen tanks and cameras and radar instruments, would have frightened the poor Mushroom People out of their wits. Then too,” smiled Mr. Bass rather dryly, “what president of an airplane company would have believed me? You boys wasted no time in doubting.”
We believe Mr. Bass because, by the time he gives this explanation, Cameron has already shown what makes him believable. Chapter 2 introduces him to us, before the boys meet him. We find him on a high stool, writing in an enormous ledger, under a light he invented, surrounded by a clutter of nails and wires and batteries. He finishes his arithmetic and squints through a telescope at his planetoid.
“Diameter — thirty-five miles. Yes, yes, there’s no way out of it. And yet, if the diameter is so small, how in thunderation has it managed to hang onto its atmosphere?”
He is an individualist, an eccentric, but a scientist where it counts. So is the book. We also know about doubting.
In Chapter 4, David’s father, a physician, who thought the want ad was odd because he knew the town and there was no Thallo Street, went to look. At dinner David said the boys had finished the space ship.
For some reason Dr. Topman’s face grew red…. “You mean [David asks] that you’ve seen Mr. Bass?”… “Er — after a manner of speaking, yes. I thought I’d just take a peek in the window, as I couldn’t rouse anyone, and would you believe it, the window was flung right up in my face, and a head appeared.”… “Oh, but Father…. was it Mr. Bass? What did you say to him?” “Very little. I was rather in a hurry. Now kindly get on with your dinner.”
Cameron’s gentle comedy is only one of the gems set in her simple direct language.
At midnight of the day they deliver the ship, the boys blast off. The hour is set by Mr. Bass’ calculations, and he is sorry for it. Nor do the boys sneak out their windows; he insists they ask their parents’ permission, which to the boys’ surprise is given.
This is a point schoolteachers recommending the book make much of, thinking with others in their world that an artwork is good if it portrays what they want to promote. Second-rate readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. In Flight the point has literary merit. The flower is that things unsnarl in this adventure; the leaf is that there are many touches of magic unrealism, to reverse an expression. Of course the boys do not sleep through midnight, but get up and go.
On Basidium they meet Mebe and Oru, who would be the King’s wise men, as they are called, if they were wiser. But they are painted lovingly, as is everyone in this book, another gem.
The king, Ta, proves dignified, gracious, and intelligent. He could easily have been made contemptible — a king! mustn’t we jeer? — or without a twinkle in his eye, near the end when we are ready for it — mustn’t we revere? But Cameron has imagined what her characters need be if they are to do what her story tells.
There are strange plants and clothes. There is trouble, which Mr. Bass has sent the boys to relieve.
“Perhaps,” [the King responds to them] “you have a new thought … that we must work with the thing itself which is causing the trouble.”
Their learning, their deducing, their agonizing, and their answer, have the ring of truth for any scientist. Then home.
There is a reason Mr. Bass could not go himself. He had other fish to fry.
And there are touches of fantasy. Some are brushstrokes that make Cameron’s painting what it is. In the first sentence we see David reading Dr. Dolittle in the Moon (1928), which A.L. Sirois rightly finds a telling detail.
Those who do not know that book get from the title alone something of David and his household; the rest, a sign. There in particular among Hugh Lofting’s tales of a fantastic naturalist is a great deal beyond the possible, but it too is grounded, they all are as we see with a double-take, in science.
John Dolittle knew animals’ language because he learned it by observing them. This is explicit in the Voyages (1922), and as he progresses from mammals, to fish, to insects, to plants, he would rather preserve his notebooks than his life.
Cameron was a craftsman who used to point out that Dylan Thomas’ father read him Shakespeare at the age of four. Some of the fantasy in Flight seems as if it could have been brought within the possible — but this is like the way Sam Johnson or Ben Jonson blushed for Shakespeare whom they all but idolized — or at least like Lofting.
At the beginning of Flight David Topman goes to bed thinking about frameworks and air pressure and velocity (all, we get no other warning, are points of fantasy). At the end there is no ship left — which also kept happening to John Dolittle — but there are two notebooks and a souvenir of Ta.
Aren’t Cameron’s names wonderful?
So is the book.