Posts Tagged ‘Sci-Fi’

I received a comment on the blog this morning from the SYLE Press, announcing their eBook release of John Christopher’s obscure novel, 1960’s The White Voyage, latest in their collection of vintage re-releases by this well-regarded-in-his-time sci-fi writer.

Christopher’s publishing era was the 1950s-60s-70s, and his work is absolutely typical of its time, but he displays an interesting line in dystopian conjecture which makes his work worth dipping into, if only to see how well matched our present world is to his imagined future.

Though The White Voyage is not one of John Christopher’s most well-known works – this claim must go to his young adult Tripods sequence, as well as his chilling and violent The Death of Grass – it’s an interesting example of this writer’s line of speculative fiction, and it’s free today and tomorrow on Kindle, for those so equipped.

Here’s the link:
http://johnchristopher.org/the-white-voyage-2/

white voyage john christopher syle press

Some years ago I wrote the following post on another of John Christopher’s adult-oriented novels, 1962’s The Long Winter, and I’m reposting this today for those interested in this somewhat gloomy genre.

*****

the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.

*****

Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes what seems to me an off-key note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.

*****

John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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ellison wonderland signet 1974 harlan ellison 001Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison ~ 1962. This edition: Signet, 1974. Paperback. 178 pages.

My rating: Collectively, I think maybe 7/10. The individual stories vary in their appeal. In general, I like the dark twisters better than the emotion-tugging ones. Perhaps I’ll stick some ratings on them below.

Tripping back in time to long ago teen reading days when I happily dabbled in science fiction, starting with Ray Bradbury’s fantastical Martian Chronicles – the entry level drug, as it were – and soon moving on to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and others of its ilk, and, finally, discovering the more than slightly twisted short stories of the ever-angry Harlan Ellison.

Rounding up potential reading for the Century of Books, I pulled this collection of early pulp shorts by Ellison from my son’s bookshelf. He (my son, not Ellison, of course) has taken over my collection of vintage sci-fi, and if I want to time travel the genre I need to make a special effort to go out to the cabin, stand on a rickety old kitchen chair and ascend to the top bunk bed (no ladder – my son and his friends being athletic and bounding types), and, kneeling gingerly amongst the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to that mostly uninhabited space, go through the book shelves stacked high with a varied collection of  (forgive the lazy stereotype) “guy books” – loads of falling-apart World’s Best Sci-Fi collections, most of Heinlein’s output, John Steinbeck, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, John Christopher, Bertrand R. Brinley, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton – you get the drift.

Leafing through the dusty Harlan Ellison paperbacks, I waffled between Shatterday, Stalking the Nightmare, Gentleman Junkie, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream… and then I settled on this one, as rather less strident than some of the others. The 1974 reissue also has the bonus of introductory commentary by the author to each of the sixteen stories, always a fascinating addition to such collections, adding context to these otherwise rather innocuous “pulp mag” shorts.

When Harlan Ellison is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad… well, you know the rest of that little nursery rhyme tag. A few of these stories are highly memorable; the rest, maybe not so much. But still something of a must-read collection for the vintage speculative fiction/sci-fi buff.

  • Introduction: The Man on the Mushroom – 1974 – Ellison describes the events surrounding the first publication of this collection in 1962, and the utter financial and emotional destitution attendant upon his migration from Chicago to Hollywood, California, and the exceedingly welcome publisher’s cheque which validated his writerly ambitions.
  • Commuter’s Problem – 1957 – “Thing” was all I could call it, and it had a million tentacles. An ordinary guy living in modest suburbia is vaguely troubled by the not-quite-normal functioning (including the weird garden plant referred to in the first-sentence quote) of the household next door. And then one day the absent-minded morning commute goes on a stop too far. Much too far…  Spoiler: Earth is just a suburb. Good for a chuckle: 7/10
  • Do-It-Yourself – 1961 – Madge retina-printed her identity on the receipt, fished in her apron for a coin, and came up with a thirty-center. It’s amazing what one can purchase by mail order. Like a no-fail, do-it-yourself murder kit. Watch out, loutish husband Carl. (But maybe Carl reads the same back-of-the-magazine ads himself…) Brilliant. This sort of thing is why I keep Harlan on the shelf: 10/10
  • The Silver Corridor – 1956 – “We can’t be responsible for death or disfigurement, you know,” reminded the duelsmaster. Two opinionated academics take their elemental disagreement with each other to the next level, in a literal battle of the minds. Cleverly imagined: 10/10
  • All the Sounds of Fear – 1962 – “Give me some light!” The ultimate Method Actor goes too far. Interesting concept: 5/10
  • Gnomebody – 1956 – Did you ever feel your nose running and you wanted to wipe it, but you couldn’t? A teenage social misfit meets his magical counterpart. Nice twist at ending which I totally didn’t see coming: 7/10
  • The Sky is Burning – 1958 – They came flaming down out of a lemon sky, and the first day, ten thousand died. Intergalactic lemmings, with a bleak message for Earth. Brrr: 7/10
  • Mealtime – 1958 – While the ship Circe burned its way like some eternal Roman Candle  through the surrounding dark of forever… Homo superior? The crew of a far-roving Catalog Ship mapping the planets of unknown stars gets an unnerving comeuppance. This little story has a sting in its tail, but it felt a bit awkward in execution: 5/10
  • The Very Last Day of a Good Woman –  1958 – Finally, he knew the world was going to end. Arthur Fulbright knows the future, and doesn’t want to die a virgin. Multiple things going on here, rather darkly. Kind of icky: 5/10
  • Battlefield – 1958 – The first needle of the “day” came over Copernicus Sector at 0545…and seven seconds. Earthly conflicts are now fought out on the moon, with clinical accuracy of elimination of opponents. The combatants commute to and fro, sharing the same shuttles and getting together to socialize in their downtime, for “peace on Earth” is well-maintained. An eerie tale, all too chillingly possible, one feels: 10/10
  • Deal From the Bottom – 1960 – There was really quite a simple reason for Maxim Hirt’s presence in the death cell. A condemned man sells his soul to the devil for a reprieve. Too bad Maxim has always been a bungler… Okay, I laughed: 7/10
  • The Wind Beyond the Mountains – 1958 – Wummel saw the shining thing come down. The crew of a planetary exploration mission need to find a justification to keep their jobs from being cut. Maybe a live specimen from a strange small planet will help? This one didn’t quite get off the ground, in my opinion, though it had its moments: 4/10
  • Back to the Drawing Boards – 1958 – Perhaps it was inevitable, and perhaps it was only a natural result of the twisted eugenics that produced Leon Packett. Robotics expert Packett is screwed over by his employers. Revenge is inevitable. Beware compound interest! 7/10
  • Nothing for My Noon Meal – 1958 –  There was a patch of Fluhs growing out beyond the spikes, and I tried to cultivate them, and bring them around, but somehow they weren’t drawing enough, and they died off before they could mature. Marooned on a small, barren planet, with his wife’s body entombed in their broken spaceship, a lone man is succoured by oxygen-producing native plants. A chance at escape presents itself; can he bring himself to leave this place he once called Hell? Awkwardly poignant: 4/10
  • Hadj – 1956 – It had taken almost a year to elect Herber. The Masters of the Universe show up and order an envoy from Earth, but at the end of the long journey to the home world, a humiliating slap-down awaits. A four-page snippet of a story, saved from readerly dismissal by being wryly funny: 6/10
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away – 1956 – Sometimes I wish I were a duck, mused Hobert Krouse. Trapped in a dismal job, in a perpetually rain-drenched city, Hobert occasionally intones the childhood incantation, with generally successful results. But then one day it is “the other day”… and Hobert finds himself in a bit of a situation. We leave him surreally floating: 5/10
  • In Lonely Lands – 1958 – Pederson knew night was falling over Sytris Major; blind, still he knew that the Martian night had arrived; the harp crickets had come out. Coming to Mars to live out his few remaining years, Pederson at last finds a kindred spirit who eases his troubled soul. Flirting with the stickily sentimental here, Harlan. Not one of my favourites of this collection; too gosh-darn poignantly sweet: 4/10

 

 

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the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.

*****

Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes a false note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.

*****

John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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6 X H – Six Stories by Robert A. Heinlein ~ 1959. Original Title: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. This edition: Pyramid Books, 1975. ISBN: 0-515-03635-0. Paperback. 219 pages.

My rating: 5/10. More or less.

I discovered the vast, strange, swirling ocean of science fiction in high school, and have dabbled happily along the edges of that varied genre ever since. That time being in the 1970s, the prolific Robert A. Heinlein was still front and centre of the revolving sci-fi paperback rack in the school library, and his books were readily available at our town’s rather dingy little secondhand bookstore, located down a precipitous set of stairs in the cramped basement of a main street store.

This volume is a relic of that era. Definitely not built to last, the pages are yellowing and loose in the binding, the glue having long since reached its expiry date. The smell of the dusty pages takes me instantly back to those high school days. Newly employed at a part-time job waiting tables at our town’s Chinese restaurant, I had money of my own for the first time in my life, and after putting aside most of it into a savings fund targeted for buying my own car, I splurged my tips on books, books, books –  a few new, but most secondhand; you could get more for your money that way, and the selection, then as now, was vastly superior.

That first car, a bright red ’72 Mustang, was purchased the summer I turned 15, for $800 cash, from a quiet young man with a highly pregnant wife (looking back over the years, I suddenly realize the significance of that situation, and my heart bleeds a bit for both of them, but at the time all I felt was sheer selfish desire, no room for empathy in my egotistical teenage heart) – and, oh! – how many hours of sore feet and cigarette smoke and ever-greasy uniforms – remember the hideous waitress garb of the time? – none of this “wear your own clothes” stuff that today’s “servers” get away with – how many early morning and late night hours at $2.65 an hour (before deductions) did this translate to?! – always doing homework frantically during a much-too-short meal break…

My father co-signed the papers for me (I was underage for a legal transaction) against my mother’s most strenuous objections, and after that most of my money went for gas, for despite not yet having a driver’s license I managed to put a lot of miles on that beautiful beast. Different times, different times…

My sweet first ride is sadly long gone, but many of the books of those halcyon teenage summers remain in my now-massive book collection, triggering little episodes of nostalgia which I savour for a moment before turning back to my present-day world. (Which happens to include this book blog, so here I go, digression over,  with my review.)

This is an odd collection even for all-over-the-map Heinlein, and it’s probably been a good thirty years since I read it; I had no memory of most of the stories and it’s definitely not in the favourites pile. Sorting out the last few boxes of my old possessions from my mom’s attic, I found this and immediately put it aside, thinking my sci-fi buff teenage son might like it; he read it and passed it back to me with that current expression signifying mild disinterest – “Meh!”

“No way, it’s Heinlein, must be something good in there!” I declared, and promptly read it myself. And, sorry to say, I guess this time he was more or less right. As he usually is. Quite a lot of fun, actually, having a teen sharing some of my reading tastes. Great excuse to pick up yet more books, equipping the kid with his own library, for when he moves out, you know… For what it’s worth, he’s already on his second car. Nowhere near as cool (hot?) as his mom’s first one, though.

Okay – FOCUS.

Six short stories, more fantasy than science fiction.

  • The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. At 120 pages, more of a novella than a short story. Originally published in the pulp magazine Unknown Worlds, in October of 1942, under one of Heinlein’s pseudonyms, John Riverside.

It starts promisingly enough:

“Is it blood, doctor?” Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held.

Dr. Potbury brought the slip of paper closer to his vest and looked at Hoag over his spectacles. “Any particular reason,” he asked, “why you should find blood under your fingernails?”

“No. That is to say – Well, no – there isn’t. But it is blood – isn’t it?”

“No,” Potbury said heavily. “No, it isn’t blood.”

Hoag knew that he should have felt relieved. But he was not. He knew in that moment that he had clung to the notion that the brown grime under his fingernails was dry blood rather than let himself dwell on other, less tolerable, ideas.

The fastidious Mr. Hoag has a problem. His evenings, nights and mornings are normal enough; he arrives home from work, socializes normally enough, goes to bed, sleeps and risess – but he has absolutely no memory of how he spends his days; no idea what his profession is; the only clue is the brownish-red residue under his fingernails, and a deep sense of foreboding that he is involved in something terrible.

After being turned away with no satisfactory answer by the brusque Dr. Potbury, Mr. Hoag decides to have himself followed. He contacts the firm of Randall & Craig, Confidential Investigators, who turn out to be a husband and wife team working out of their home. Edward and Cynthia (Craig) Randall are well experienced in everyday investigations; after some debate they agree to take on Mr. Hoag’s case, and the plot immediately thickens.

Up to this point the story is engaging and very nicely written; the mood is very 1940’s noir; we’ve all been there before, and we look forward with anticipation to the next logical step. And this is where Heinlein mixes things up. A straightforward “tailing” apparently is successful but goes strangely awry; Edward easily follows Jonathan Hoag to his workplace, a commercial jeweler’s workshop on the 13th floor of a city office building, and talks to Mr. Hoag’s employer. The mysterious red powder turns out to be jeweler’s rouge; Mr Hoag polishes gemstones. Case closed.

But hang on… why did Cynthia see Edward stop and talk to Jonathan, and why does Edward insist they never made contact? Why, when they both retrace Edward’s steps, do they find that there is no 13th floor in the building, and no record of a jeweler’s workshop? And why do none of Jonathan’s contacts and references seem to exist, and why doesn’t he have fingerprints?

Not content to those questions unanswered, to give Mr. Hoag the easy and plausible explanation of the jewel polishing job, and take his hefty fee, Cynthia and Edward decide to push further. And this is where things get really odd. Suddenly things are far from normal in the Randall & Craig world. Mirrors become portals into another reality; strange men with other-worldly powers enter and leave and drag Edward and Cynthia along. The threatening “Sons of the Bird” warn them to drop Mr. Hoag’s case and forget they ever heard about him, or face dire consequences.

After much hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo, Edward and Cynthia more or less get to the bottom of the strange situation, which is more than this reader ever really did. I had to go back and reread the last half of the story, and I was still confused. Something about alternative worlds improperly erased, with Mr. Hoag as a sort of unwitting Nemesis controlling rogue members of a previous world. I think.

Some great writing in this story; Heinlein struts his storyteller’s stuff here, but the plot was crazy-confusing for better than half of it, and the whole thing dragged on way too long. The main characters, aside from the mysterious Mr. Hoag, are Cynthia and Edward, and their close relationship is very well handled; their offhand manner to each other and continual wise cracking hide a deep and abiding love for each other which ultimately allows them to escape from the disaster their meddling has precipitated.

The ending of the story is as mysterious as the beginning, and I won’t really give too much away by sharing it here.

When he goes out to the vegetable patch, or to the fields, she goes along, taking with her such woman’s work as she can carry and do in her lap. If they go to town, they go together, hand in hand – always.

He wears a beard, but it is not so much a peculiarity as a necessity, for there is not a mirror in the entire house. They do have one peculiarity which would mark them as odd in any community, if anyone knew about it, but it is of such a nature that no one else would know.

When they go to bed at night, before he turns out the light, he handcuffs one of his wrists to one of hers.

Good work, front and back of this novella. Some slippage there in the middle, Mr. Heinlein!

I would be interested to hear from anyone else who has their own ideas about this tale.

  • The Man Who Traveled in Elephants. Written in 1948, and published in the magazine Saturn in 1957 under the title The Elephant Circuit.

This is a rather sweet, very nostalgic, Ray Bradbury-ish tale of a retired traveling salesman and his ultimate destination. Something of an ode to the mid-century tradition of local exhibitions and fairs, and all the best things about them. I won’t say too much about this one; there’s not much to it, just a gently sentimental little fantasy. Not a masterpiece, but rather enjoyable in its own small way. There’s an old dog, too. Need I say more? It works.

  • “-All You Zombies-“. Originally published in the pulp magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction, March, 1959.

Time travel and a sex change operation and some cheeky acronyms – see if you can get the connection between the “service” organizations Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, and Women’s Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. (I know – GROAN. This is why, despite his many flaws, I like Heinlein – he makes me laugh despite my better judgement! The guy sure had a thing for acronyms – he was my introduction to TANSTAAFL, among others.)

A weird little “future tale”; pure Heinlein fantasy. Rather offensive and not as funny as the author obviously thinks it is, but it has a few points. A temporal agent on a recruiting mission with the cover profession of bartender – cute concept. For 1959. This one shows its age. And I’m surprised it wasn’t first published in Playboy. Definitely adult in theme!

  • They. Published in 1941, in the pulp magazine Unknown.

A rather Kafkaesque story concerning a man who is being held in confinement of some sort (mental institution? hospital?) because of his extreme paranoia – he insists that he is surrounded by a conspiracy to deceive him as to the true state of the world, and that his is the only “reality” he can be sure of. But is it paranoia if it’s true? One of Heinlein’s experiments in defining solipsism – the philosophy that one can only be sure of one’s own mind; everything else may only be a creation of that mind.

A bit too deep for me. Well written, with a good twist in the end, but overall – “Meh.”

  • Our Fair City. Published in Weird Tales, 1949.

An odd little urban fantasy. A sentient, apparently feminine whirlwind – yes – the kind of whirlwind that swirls about picking up dust and bits of rubbish – named, of all things, “Kitten” by “her” friend Pappy, an old parking lot attendant, plays a part in bringing corrupt city officials to justice. A playful farce of a story; I’ll grant points in that it’s kind of a fun concept; but my reaction was “read it quick and move on”.

“-And He Built a Crooked House-“. Astounding magazine, February, 1941.

A uncategorizable story (probably closer to sci-fi than fantasy… or vice versa – can’t decide!) about a California architect who designs and builds a three-dimensional house based on a four-dimensional tesseract. The whole concept made my head hurt; math and science geeks will no doubt fully “get” this, though. Anyway, an earthquake shifts the house fully into the fourth dimension, while being toured by the architect and his clients.

Heinlein, a quite brilliant mathematician in his own right, obviously indulged his arcane sense of humour here. Farcical and clever and probably best appreciated by like-minded sorts. I mildly chuckled, but mostly was just happy the book was finally over.

*****

So – final verdict? It was an interesting excursion into the long-ago world of Heinlein’s literary B-sides, but it can safely go back into the box. Maybe in another thirty years it will bring my grownup kid some $$$ as he flogs the excess of my book collection on the future equivalent of eBay!

If you see it cheap cheap cheap in the used book by-the-door bins, go ahead & pick it up. In my opinion, not really worth more than a dollar or two, unless you’re a dedicated Heinlein collector.

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Grumbles from the Grave by Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Virginia Heinlein ~ 1989. This edition: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1989. Hardcover. 281 pages.

My rating: 7/10. What was there was fascinating; what was left out perhaps even more so.

A very brief, rather incomplete biographical introduction by Robert A. Heinlein’s third (and longest-serving) wife Virginia, followed by a collection of excerpts from letters mostly by Heinlein (with some replies); and mostly to his long-time literary agent and representative, Lurton Blassingame. This book was published after Heinlein’s death, by his specific request, apt title previously supplied. Heinlein was very aware of his own mortality and was well prepared for his own demise; he suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis in his twenties, and various related and other serious ailments dogged him for the rest of his life. (Heinlein was born in 1907, and died at the age of eighty-one in 1988 – a longer life than might have been expected, considering the severity of some of his medical episodes.)

This is decidedly a book of most interest to those already very familiar with Heinlein’s body of work. Coming to it cold, expecting to find a conventional autobiography, one would be disappointed. While some effort is made to provide references and brief descriptions of the books under discussion, the assumption seems to be that the reader is already a serious Heinlein fan.

I do not think I qualify as a truly serious fan, though I’ve read most – perhaps all? – of Heinlein’s full-length works, plus several short story collections, and have greatly enjoyed all of some of them, and some of all of them. A few, such as Door Into Summer and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are nostalgic favourites and frequent re-reads; I first encountered Heinlein in my high school library and found his works marvelous “escape lit” during a dark, angst-filled period of my teenage life. This said, there are things that make me a bit uneasy in every one of his stories, in particular the later “adult” novels which have a certain patronizing (not quite sure if that is the right term, perhaps “appreciatively leering” is more apt?) view of women out of context with the era of the time of writing.  There are random passages in Heinlein’s books, usually in relation to some of the female characters, which make me suddenly cringe in distaste, all of the author’s commentary about his views of “true equality” taken into consideration.

Heinlein makes no apology for his personal views, which I can best describe as far right-wing with sudden dashes of liberalism when least expected. When he starts to politically pontificate in his books, my eyes glaze over and I scan ahead until we get back to the story at hand; Heinlein himself offers something of an apology for letting himself go on occasion, but his self-awareness of this tendency didn’t stop him from doing it time after time.

It was quite interesting to discover something of the background of some of the best-known novels which I am very familiar with , as well as some of the more obscure juveniles and the vast amount of short stories published early in Heinlein’s career in the sci-fi “pulps” under an array of pseudonyms: Lyle Monroe, Anson MacDonald, Caleb Saunders, and John Riverside. Apparently there was a different rate scale for each of these pseudonyms as well – while “Heinlein” and “MacDonald” might receive a top rate, in 1941, of a cent and a half per word, “stinkaroos” written by “Monroe” were peddled at a lower rate. From a letter to sci-fi magazine Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. in 1941:

…I have a phony name [Lyle Monroe] and a phony address, fully divorced from the RAH persona, under which and from which I am trying to peddle the three remaining stinkaroos which are left over from my earliest writing. For such purposes I prefer editors whom I do not like. It would tickle me to sell off the shoddy in that fashion. I don’t think it is dishonest – they examine what they buy and get what they pay for – but I’m damned if I’ll let my own name appear even on one of their checks.

The editorial voice of Robert’s third wife Virginia, his proofreader, assistant and sometimes-typist as well as his business and financial manager in later years, is apparent throughout. The excerpts that appear are much of a muchness; I have to wonder what was left out of this compilation? Heinlein talks of personally answering all of his fan mail in the earlier years; I would love to see a sampling of some of those early letters, before his sheer popularity made the flow of mail so great that he resorted to one-line, postcard answers.

I generally enjoyed this biography of sorts. It was a glimpse at the back story to the writing some of the novels, and a small window into the life of this passionate, opinionated and very talented writer.

This is a good addition to a shelf of Heinlein’s fiction; I will be keeping it there myself, to one day pass along to my son along with the rest of my collection of vintage sci-fi/fantasy which he has enjoyed dipping into in his own teen reading years.

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