" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Carol Emshwiller 1921-2019, Discussion of her short story Pelt

  A few days ago Rich Horton, who maintains the website, Strange at Ecbatan posted on the death of science fiction writer Carol Emshwiller. 

"The remarkable Carol Emshwiller died, age 97, on February 2. She was one of the most individual voices in SF over a career of nearly six decades, beginning in the mid 1950s. She also wrote contemporary novels set in the American West."

Her entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is here


One advantage to collecting more anthologies than I can ever read is that I can use the ISFDB to find certain stories by certain authors and see if I have a copy. I did have a number of stories by Emshwiller so I will be reading them over the next few weeks. 

For many years I would have suggested that the Science Fiction Hall of Fame vols. provided a good introduction to science fiction. I still think some of the stories are among the best of their period but others are hopelessly dated. Now I would recommend The Big Book of Science Fiction by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. I will discuss this volume in more detail in another post, but one thing I enjoy is the detailed biographical entry that proceeds the author's story. Their anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories is also great but that is another post on another website, 

"Ursula K. Le Guin has called Emshwiller “a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction.” Karen Joy Fowler said of Emshwiller, “She still defies imitation. But it is my contention that sometime in the last fifteen to twenty years, she has become stealthily influential.”

and "Emshwiller has given her own assessment of her work: “A lot of people don’t seem to understand how planned and plotted even the most experimental of my stories are. I’m not interested in stories where anything can happen at any time. I set up clues to foreshadow what will happen and what is foreshadowed does happen. I try to have all, or most of the elements in the stories, linked to each other."

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 365). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  

The Emshwiller story they include in this volume is "Pelt" which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for November 1958.

"At the time of its publication, “Pelt” was considered to exemplify a strand of “literary” science fiction that bridged the gap between mainstream realism and core science fiction. In the modern era, of course, “Pelt” would not be considered anything other than an excellent and unusual science fiction story,"

The Big Book of Science Fiction (pp. 365-366). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  

The point of view character for "Pelt" is a big white dog. The dog is the companion of a hunter. While several names are used throughout the story it is unclear if they are the dog's actual name. The dog and her master have been on the planet Jaxa for two days. It is winter and the dog loves the planet, there are lots of smells and the ice and snow make for a wonderful landscape of sounds that Emshwiller describes in detail for us. The dog wears a throat mike and has been trained in a series of signals that alert her master to prey or danger, etc. The dog ranges ahead looking for game the hunter can kill. The hunter is collecting furs to sell to "rich earth ladies" he also collected the heads of the animals. On this day the dog encounters a new smell which it describes as honey-furry-fatman, the dog is unclear whether this represents prey or danger. Then it meets one of the creatures, a large alien with beautiful striped fur and huge orange eye in the centre of it's forehead above it's two smaller eyes, which are kind. The alien uses telepathy to ask the dog a question that will be asked several times in the story. "We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today?" (368)

Normally I would stop here but the story impressed me so much I want to look at it in some detail. Be warned this will involve spoilers.

First looking at the use of the dog as the point of view character. (London's Call of the Wild does spring to mind) This choice of the dog does limit Emshwiller's options, the hunter does not say anything substantive to the dog, and while we are told at one point that he talks to himself, he does not say anything meaningful that the dog picks up. So we are reliant on the hunter's smell and actions to convey his feelings. Also the aliens communicate with the dog but only to urge it to be free. They either cannot or will not communicate with the hunter, except through their actions. While these are limitations they also make us work to understand the subsequent actions of both the hunter and the aliens. Emshwiller does not tell us what is going on in the minds of the characters, we have to work it out. 

The dog will not track the sentient aliens, but when an alien, apparently distracted, steps into view, the hunter kills it. Once he approaches it he realizes it is sentient, it was carrying a bag of food. Despite this he skins it and takes the pelt, however the dog notes he leaves other trophies, the head and the hands. He then begins to return quickly and directly to the ship. On the way another alien steps directly into his path but he makes no attempt to shoot it. When he arrives at the ship a group of aliens are waiting. He tries to return the pelt but instead they force a package containing the head and hands on him as well. 

So my interpretation, the hunter is upset to find he has killed a sentient being, but this does not seem to be a moral issue. He does take the pelt after all.  Does he leave the head and hands because if he attempted to sell them they could indicate to any buyers or regulatory agencies that he has killed a sentient being? I suspect he has broken a law and wants to leave the planet immediately before there is more trouble.

The actions of the aliens are harder to fathom, but this is as it should be. Too often the aliens in science fiction are just humans with pointy ears or blue skin. Emshwiller walks a narrow line, we can understand or think, we understand some of what the aliens are trying to do, but not all of it.They show themselves to the hunter even after he has already killed one of them, don't they fear death or can they sense he will not kill again?  

They value freedom.

"We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today?" (368)

But with freedom comes the responsibility for one's choices, one cannot slough off the responsibility. By forcing the head and hands on the hunter, they force him to carry the symbols of his guilt with him. They seem genuinely interested in freeing the dog from it's slavery. But the tragedy is that through conditioning or indecision the dog cannot choose, and so is denied the freedom of the planet Jaxa, which it desires. They will not choose for it.

Too often the science fiction of the 1950's features some explanation of what just happened tacked on to the end to clean up the ambiguous bits. Emshwiller makes us work while we read, so we have to try to understand the characters and the alien environments she presents, the choices she made in plotting the story. In the quote above she mentions "foreshadowing" I think she uses this technique to draw from the reader what she wants or expects. She wants the reader's attention. She wants them to immerse themselves in the text and think about where the story is going and what she is trying to say. My conclusions are based on a single story, I will be reading more of her stories, so my interpretation may change. I do know this was a well written story and one that kept me thinking.  

Your thoughts? 

This story also appeared in Judith Merril's SF The Best of the Best, 1970, with a lovely cover by Josh Kirby.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

New Arrivals; SFBC. Trip to the Moon

Hi, I am working on some more substantive entries, but I spent this week reorganizing my collection. So for now some more new arrivals.

Another quirky cover for Amazing Stories 
by Ed Valigursky (Sept. 1956).

Future Science Fiction offers a more workman like depiction of events on the moon. Cover by  Rudolph Belarski, Dec. 1955.

The cover is uncredited

I have seen countless membership offers for The Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) and have bought a number of the Conklin anthologies and Asimov or Van Vogt collections that were used as inducements. But I have never seen this offer before. 

Despite the blurb below, we know Lewis Padgett was actually the husband and wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, who were responsible for some of the best genre breaking science fiction of the 1940's/50's including "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" and "Vintage Season".

Cover by Mitchell Hooks (1954)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Visions of Tomorrow, Alec Nevada-Lee Astounding

  I have finished reading Astounding, Alec Nevada-Lee's book on John W. Campbell and some of the writers most associated with Astounding, Isaac Asimov,  Robert A, Heinlein, and L. Ron. Hubbard. It was a good read, but fair warning, all four were deeply flawed individuals, though often in different ways. I had been following Alec's blog for years, so this came as no surprise to me. That said, Asimov and especially Heinlein were important authors to me when I began reading science fiction and the accounts of their death did make that child in me feel a bit sad, even though the works I remembered them for were written decades before they passed away. Also "Twilight" and "Who Goes There" by Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart, remain two of my favourite science fiction stories. Alec's book delivered what it promised, an understanding of John W. Campbell's influence in the field for good or ill. Some of the behaviour mentioned in the book is chilling, so if you would like to read something a little more upbeat about Astounding, it's authors and the science fiction of the period I will make some suggestions below.

I did want to pass along two items related to Alec's research for the book. From his website:

"And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here."


Link to the (wonderful)  New York Times Book Review article.


In his year end review Alec also notes "that I saw John W. Campbell’s Frozen Hell, based on the original manuscript of “Who Goes There?” that I rediscovered at Harvard, blow past all expectations on Kickstarter. (The book, which will include introductions by me and Robert Silverberg, is scheduled to appear in June.) " 

Full post here: https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/the-last-resolution/

Kickstarter (closed) information:
Wildside Press will be selling copies:

And as promised, some other titles about Astounding and it's authors. Bud Webster's Past Masters, a number of his essays can also be found online, see my Handy Resources. The other items are out of print as far as I know. 

A Requiem for Astounding (1964) 
A very detailed look at Astounding by an early fan.

Two titles by Sam Moskowitz, a fairly feisty (polarizing?) member of First Fandom. But he did seem to know everyone and claimed to have read pretty much everything.  I do enjoy his profiles, and it is nice to hear from someone who actually knew at least some of the early science fiction writers.


 Cover credits:

Photo one L-R, Hubert Rogers, Rogers, Rogers

Photo two, design Ploy Sirpant, illustration Travis Coburn

Photo three L-R, Rogers, Howard V. Brown, H.W. Scott, Wesso

Photo four L-R, Timmins, Kelly Freas, Freas

Who Goes There?, Richard Powers 

Friday, January 11, 2019

“The things that make us happy make us wise. ” John Crowley - Little Big

As an antidote to poor Marie Kondo, who just wants to bring us joy.

It's Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood" is Doktor's Leech's motto as he opens a haul of Creepy and Eerie Magazines, a forbidden delicacy from his childhood. Thanks to an on-line auction at Back to the Past Collectibles (http://gobacktothepast.com/) the Doktor is finally able to see what his mother warned him about.


While my childhood was not unhappy, I also never truly embraced adulthood.  

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Yngling by John Dalmas / Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier

   Alan Brown in his great series from Tor.com, Front Lines and Frontiers,  recently posted on "The Yngling" by John Dalmas. I really enjoyed this post. For one Brown provided a lovely profile of the author John Dalmas, a writer I had never read. Also I thought his discussion, It's the End of the World as We Know It, looking at the reasons why world ending catastrophes are such a common science fiction trope was quite good.


 The first science fiction book I remember reading was The Star Man's Son by Andre Norton (link below) which I covered on my Norton blog, followed by a number of Wyndham's cozy catastrophes, so I always enjoy a good, lets blow it all up or something and try again story. I knew Doug had lent me the Analog containing part one of  "The Yngling" so I read it right away.


I liked it enough that I borrowed part two and read that. I enjoyed part one, the world building, the introduction of Nils Hammarson as a character, and I found his early adventures entertaining (think troll). However I found the second part where we see the culmination of the story at best anticlimactic, not bad, but a little rushed and overly talky perhaps. In his post Brown states "Another of my favorite stories of this type is Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier, along with The Postman by David Brin." Since Hiero's Journey is a novel I really like, and had intended to cover here for some time, I thought I would discuss it now. 

  First off I should mention that Hiero's Journey was published in 1973 by Chilton, the same people who brought you Dune and some non-fiction books by Silverberg among their other titles. Indeed in the entry on Lanier in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, they note that while working as a editor at Chilton, it was Lanier that convinced them to publish Herbert's Dune.


In 1983 Hiero's adventures continued where the first book left off with The Unforsaken Hiero. But where the first book ended with the central plot resolved, (and for years I simply considered the story over and was good with that) the second book created a number of cliffhangers. While Sterling Lanier lived until 2007, he does not seem to have released any new fiction after 1983/1984 and the trilogy was never completed. I have found some suggestion that Lanier may have suffered a stroke, but if anyone has additional information please let me know. So you may just want to read book one.

  To prepare for this post I reread the book over Christmas at my wife's family farm in Central Saskatchewan (just up the road from our cabin). It is a parkland setting, poplar forests with lots of sloughs. The area is populated by among other critters, moose, black bears, beavers and fishers and on the drive up we saw a deer and a coyote. It is also an area central to the history of both Canada's native people (especially the Plains Cree) and the Metis. In short a perfect spot to read Hiero's Journey

The story takes place five thousand years after The Death, from the description, some type of nuclear war that has decimated most of North America and created large numbers of mutations. The story follows the adventures of Per Hiero Desteen citizen of the Metz Republic, an area encompassing the former prairie provinces of Canada. This area is controlled by the Abbeys and Hiero, full title Secondary Priest-Exorcist, Primary Rover and Senior Killman has been dispatched south on a mission by his abbot. He is mounted on his giant mutant bull morse (moose) Klootz and within the first few pages he has been joined on his journey by Gorm, a telepathic black bear. For telepathy has spread widely since The Death. Hero can also communicate with Klootz although the morse is not terribly bright, Gorm on the other hand is as smart as a person. The land they travel in is one of immense danger. Most humans were killed in The Death and the cities largely destroyed. Some wild animals have grown to immense size, others called Leemutes have achieved intelligence and attack the remaining humans in coordinated groups often mounted on other Leemutes. The realization that these attacks are coordinated by a group of humans is the reason for Hiero's journey. Other creatures having not obvious connection to pre-death 
lifeforms have also arisen. Hero's journey is not only an adventure but also a journey of personal growth as he learns to use his mental powers to counter a number of threats. He will meet more allies and also enemies who are stranger and more deadly than he could imagine. 

Lanier created an immensely interesting world, Hiero and his friends move through a number of different environments and encounter a number of different cultures. 
There is an adequate amount of extrapolation and back story but the narrative does not bog down with lengthy explanations. Hiero is not presented as a superman, he has flaws and makes mistakes. He is reliant on his companions for help but also grows personally, strengthening his abilities.  As a Canadian who has read western Canadian history and also as someone who has spent a fair amount of time lately at the cabin with lots of critters around I could identify with many elements of the story. I enjoy it more now than when I first read it. I also loved the richness of the Lanier's world, a dam building culture of giant beavers, pirates, giant snapping turtles, giant lampreys, (okay giant everything) horse sized minks, mutated howler monkeys with cleavers riding dog-things and an evil psychic brotherhood. I think it is this richness and Hiero's growth that are the reasons I prefer this to the Dalmas story. And Lanier gives you your own morse to ride, what more could a story need. 

Photo/Cover credits

The Yngling, part one Kelly Freas

The Yngling, Part two Vincent Di Fate

Dune, (1966) John Schoenherr

Hero's Journey, Jacket art Jack Freas

Moose, trail camera, on lane to cabin

Bear, trail camera, mounted to cabin

Beaver, Guy lease slough