Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Message from the Eocene (1964) by Margaret St. Clair

This is the other half of the Ace double book which is paired with Three Worlds of Futurity. I suspect this novel was written for Ace and twined with the story collection when the publisher needed something else to match. As with all of her novels which I've read by Margaret St. Clair, this one is dedicated to her husband Eric, described in the author info as a "well-known writer of children's stories". The same bio piece lists her interests as sports cars, amateur astronomy, cooking, classical antiquity, gem cutting, and mandolin playing. Quite the polymath, she was.
Message from the Eocene begins several billion years in the earth's past. Technically speaking, this would have been the Paleoproterozoic Era. A humanoid creature only known as Tharg is trying to escape the lighting bolts being hurled at him by an unknown source. He's on the surface of the primitive planet Earth on an important mission for the floating city, Synon. He's a member of a specialized group known as "divers" who travel to the dangerous planetary surface in search of valuable minerals needed by the city. Tharg has been entrusted with a container carrying a mysterious book for delivery to the sister city of Gwynor. He's not sure who is tossing the lighting bolts at him, but suspects they are from their enemies, the Veidimi.
When he's captured it turns out the source of the lighting was the Vaeaa, the "half-mythical overlords" who secretly control the third planet from the sun. By now, Tharg has had the chance to open the case holding the book and find out why it's so important. The book is a guide to the secrets of the universe and was sent to Tharg's people by another advanced civilization. But the Vaeaa representatives disapprove of the book. They are strict materialists who feel threatened by it. They give Tharg a psychoactive drug to test out the book's power, then decide to destroy it. Tharg's last effort is to toss the book (in it's container) into an active volcano, where it will be safe until the right life form can find it. His consciousness now separated from his body by the drug, Tharg drifts away from the Vaeaa's in peace.
As Tharg drifts across the ages, he watches his people rise and fall. The Vaeaa overlords vanish too, but not before planting a projector on Pluto designed to prevent any further books from reaching whatever life might arise on Earth. Soon life does arise on the third planet and Tharg decides to contact it when the life forms have reached a level of maturity equal to his former civilization.
His first attempts at contact are rather amusing. His subject is a Quaker family living in New England in the first half of the 19th century. They become convinced their house is haunted from all the strange noises and apparitions Tharg creates while trying to make contact. They leave the house, but Tharg finds himself trapped in it for years. Once he is able to leave, he decides to make a different connection.
The next part of the book concerns a French mining engineer and his wife. She's "sensitive" to psychic phenomena and they're on the island of New Caladonia where he's overseeing a deep mine. One day the mine is filled with strange geometric shapes and the miners refuse to go down to work. The engineer sends his wife down to investigate. After a series of altercations with the locals, the miners, and finally Tharg, the book is uncovered. But it all ends rather disappointingly.
The final section of the book has Tharg trying to find a way to stop the Plutonian projector as he feels another book must be on it's way to the human civilization. Strange sites are seen all over the planet in preparation for the arrival.
Although it seems to be working the same groove as 2001, this book is a lot more fun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) by Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair's first collection short fiction was actually the second half of an Ace "double" book. Turn it upside down, flip it over and you have Message from the Eocene, also by her, as the companion book. I'll get to the Eocene later, but today, let's concentrate on this collection.
The book has but 5 tales: "The Everlasting Food", "Idris' Pig", "The Rages", "Roberta", and "The Island of the Hands". Three of the stories were originally published under different titles. I'm assuming the new titles are the ones she originally wanted to use. The earliest was written in 1949, the latest in 1962. With the exception of "Idris' Pig", none of these stories were included in The Best of Margaret St. Clair.
The first story, "The Everlasting Food", is the best one in the set. After a violent thunderstorm, Richard Dekker discovers his Venusian wife Issa has become imortal. Although she can't share her immortality with him, she can make their son immortal. She flees across the oceans of Venus (this was written in 1949) with the boy and her half-sister in pursuit. Although the ending is a little contrived, the story still holds up well as an excellent romance. Little touches, such as the title "Pamir", are what make it excellent. In typical St. Clair fashion, many of the terms invented for the story are never explained.
"Idris' Pig" is a screwball comedy set on Mars. Not quite Ray Bradbury's Mars, but a neat place just the same. "The Rages" is told from the point of a man who lives for his next ration of euphoria pills from the government. Finally, there's another romance, "The Island of the Hands", which attempts to answer the old question as to what should your inner self should desire.
The stories in this book don't have the same zing as the ones in Best of. The tend to be more serious, more introspective. The one exception is 1962's Roberta, which combines murder, science fiction, and sex change.
A nice little collection, which is a good companion to The Best of Margaret St. Clair.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sign of the Labrys (1963) by Margret St. Clair

Sign of the Labrys seems to be the one Margret St Clair novel people remember. Although the cover art has little to do with the book itself (big surprise there), the blurb on the back proudly proclaims: "Women are writing science fiction!" And we are told that it is "Fresh! Imaginative! Inventive!" Just like a loaf of wonder bread. I do hope she got some mileage out of this book, first published in 1963. At least some fame would compensate for the covers.
Written from the point of its protagonist, Sam Sewell, Labrys can best be described as a science fantasy idea novel. Although the hero uses science to further his ends, he also delves into the realm of fantasy, and he does it for idealistic reasons. It's also one of the first novels which treats Wicca as a bonafide religion. In some ways, this book is a statement of faith.
It's a post-apocalyptic book which takes place 10 years after 90% of humanity have been wiped out from scientifically created yeasts. Most of the survivors of the plague are living in underground bunkers built for the nuclear war which never came. The survivors are scaveging off the land- most of the trees having been destroyed-and burying the dead.
The novel begins with Sam recieving a visit from FBY agent Clifford Ames. It's never mentioned what FBY stands for, although Federal Bureau of Yeasts might be a good guess. The FBY is the only thing which passes for a government, since most of the plague survivors can't stand being in close proximity to one another. The FBY man is searching for a woman named Despoina (Greek: "Mistress") and he thinks Sewell may have been in contact with her. The FBY suspects her to be a "sower", which is to say a lunatic who deliberately spreads deadly microorganisms.
Although Sewell just wants to be left alone to live his life on E level in the underground bunker, he soon finds out that other people are interested in him. Someone leaves a mystical ring in his posession, he sees the sign of the labrys ( a double-headed fighting ax) on the cave walls, and mysterious figures whisper "Blessed be" in the darkness. Ames returns, dies in a struggle with Sewell, forcing Sewell to venture into the lower levels in search of truth.
On his way down he encounters a mycologist named Kyra who is doing research in what remains of the government labs in her sector. Through the use of mirror gazing and narcotics, she is able to help him look into his soul. Sewell has visions of another life where he danced around the fire and was chased by animals She's also able to get Sewell into the next level, G.
G level turns out to be where all the self-appointed important people reside. They had fled underground in anticipation of nuclear war. After a casual encounter with a woman on this level results in her death, he begins to suspect he may be carrying a deadly yeast infection. By now he's developed the ability to see inside people. A very intelligent dog is able to show him the way to the final level, H.
At level H, Sewell meets Despoina, in all her pagan majesty. He's initiated into the Kraft, just as the FBY attacks. Sewell manages to make it back up to Kyra at the F level, where they plan on making contact with Despoina, but the FBY attacks once again, this time with super cool carbon dioxide gas, intent on freezing everything out of existence. Sewell and Kyra manage to escape the feds through the use of extra-sensory powers. Their goal is to regroup with Despoina's Krafters and strike back at the FBY.
One of the interesting things about the novel is the use of a labrys as a symbol for Wicca. Today, most Wiccian initiates use the pentagram. Once upon a time, the ankh was in vogue, but the five-pointed star seems to have won out. In Greece today, the labrys is used as a symbol of paganism. In North America, it's usually seen as a lesbian symbol (the amazons were supposed to have fought with a labrys). I suspect that St. Clair, having a background in Greek and Roman studies, wanted to associate the Wiccan religion with ancient Greece as much as possible.
Labrys suffers from some of the loose ends which I've started noticing in St. Clair's other writings. At a crucial point in the plot of the book, we find out the pre-plague civilization had developed matter transmitters. OK...if they could send a physical object anywhere, what protection would an underground bomb shelter furnish? Did the matter transmitters become standard just before the plague? And what's with the secret clan of the Wiccans? Where did they come from?
Once again, St. Clair wrote a good novel, just not the great one I'd hoped to find with this book.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Shadow People by Margaret St. Clair

Margaret Sinclair turned to writing books in the 1960's. I don't know why her short story output declines after 1960, but I think it may have had to do with monetary reasons. Science Fiction and Fantasy became big sellers in the Age of Aquarius. Authors are often forced to write to pay the bills. Although the genesis of this novel may have been in the back of her mind for years, the second part seems to have been created for the specific era it was written.
The Shadow People
is very much a product of it's time (1969), but it has influences which go back to the early part of the last century and beyond. As if Arthur Machen had wandered into the Fillmore Ballroom. Gary Gygax, one of the creators of the Dungeons and Dragons game, lists it as an influence. St. Clair quotes selectively from Robert Kirk's 17th century tract on faeries, The Secret Commonwealth. I suspect she used Commonwealth as a guide while writing this novel.
But enough with my speculations. Dame St. Clair is no longer with us, so she can't clear-up all my wondering about her motivations.
The Shadow People begins with the Summer of Love in California, although no specific years are given. The narrator, Dick Aldridge, works for a "hip" newspaper in the Berkley area. His girlfriend Carol is an up-and-coming photographer. Although they are deeply in love, one night Carol storms out of Dick's apartment after an argument. She's gone for several days and Dick decides to check out her basement flat. He finds evidence of a struggle, and decides to go to the police. After the police shuffle him off, Dick takes a bus out to Monterrey to see if she's staying with an older couple they both know (perhaps a stand in for the author and her husband?). Dick finds the isolated house vacant with no sign of Carol or the older couple, but plenty of uncollected mail in the box. And on the way back he runs into a fringe character known as Carl Hood, who mentions Carol may have left "the skin of the world."
Still searching for Carol, he later encounters, Fay, the maid at his room in the Shasta Hotel. She also mentions that Carol may have "left the skin of the world." Now Dick has to know what this all means and begs Fay to tell him. She doesn't tell him much about who abducted Carol, but does show him the path to an underground world where his girl friend may have been taken. And so begins the crux of the book.
Dick, taking food with him (Fay has warned him against eating or drinking anything in the underworld), makes the perilous journey underground from an isolated cellar to vast caverns, until he crosses a subterranean river into the world of the "silent people". Along the way he picks up an enchanted sword (which appears to be a Wiccan ceremonial sword from the description) which pulses when it senses danger. And there is plenty of danger in this underworld.
The underworld is populated by elves, who a distantly related to humans. They come in several varieties- gray, black, green, and white. All are dangerous, but more to each other than to the humans on the surface. On occasion, they make foraging trips to the "bright world"(surface) and steal whatever they need. They feed primarily on atter-corn, a bitter meal made with psychoactive fungus, which produces hallucinogenic effects. But they also feed on human flesh when they can get it. Dick is attacked by them several times, but they seem to be incapable of much group action, since any blood spilled during a confrontation drives them into attacking each other.
I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, but Dick does eventually make it back to the surface. He finds three years have passed (time passage being different in the underworld), the Summer of Love squashed, and the forces of reaction in control. The novel shifts gears at this point, turning into another "winter of our discontent" book. This is what leads me to believe the first section was mostly written years before the second, with the latter written to make the narrative more "relevant" to the current target audience.
And it's the above-ground final section of the book where it runs out of gas. There's some kind of nascent fascist state in formation, but we never get much of a picture of it. People are required to wear ID tags, but you never find out how this came about in the three years Dick was underground, other than a brief mention of law-and-order politicians. There's rioting in the street and some mentions of government conspiracies. The book even mentions the CIA may want the atter-corn for chemical warfare, but this reads as an afterthought, instead of a crucial plot device.
Finally, three years have allowed robotic devices to be created which can police the population and run bulldozers. There's a few pages where Dick discovers how the hills around Berkley where removed accidentally on purpose and used to fill in the San Francisco Bay. This came about in three years? I know people believed anything was possible in the 60's (the US did put a man on the moon), but such a time scale is pushing the willing suspension of disbelief.
What really frustrated me were the characters of Carl Hood and Fay. Carl turns out to be some sinister figure with connections above and below ground. But you never really find out who or what he's working with or toward. Fay has more information about the underworld than she lets on, but her role in the novel is never fully resolved. There's defiantly a relation between both characters, but we don't find out what it is till the end of the book. And we never find out how said relationship figures into the big picture.
In conclusion, The Shadow People is a good book, but could've been a great one. We may never know why a writer of Margaret St. Clair's caliber left so many loose ends in the novel. But she did create a horrifying vision of the underworld which influenced many writers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Starwolf by Edmond Hamilton

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was one of the true giants of golden age science fiction. He managed to create the space opera sub-genre and crank out a series of pulp novels under the Captain Future imprint. There are stories of him typing so fast the typewriter would move across his desk. Later he would marry fellow writer Leigh Brackett and they would collaborate on many other novels. However, as he was constantly writing, Hamilton was loathe to see his earlier works into print. Much of what he published in the 30's and 40's didn't see print again until after he died.
In the late 1960's, Hamilton wrote three novels as part of an sf series. Series novels were all the rage at the time and someone had decided an outer space theme might prove successful. Known as the Starwolf trilogy, they consist of three separate novels: The Weapon From Beyond, The Closed Worlds and World of the Starwolves. In 1982, Ace Science Fiction issued them as one paperback collection, Starwolf. I'm told the first novel was adapted for Japanese television in the late 1970's, but I haven't had a chance to see it.
The trilogy follows the adventures of Morgan Chane, fully human, but adopted by the Starwolves at an early age. In the far future, his missionary parents had traveled from Wales on Earth to Varna, the home planet of a race of humanoid interstellar raiders, known as the Starwolves. Chane's parent's had hoped to save the Starwolves from their savage ways, but the missionaries perished from the excessive gravity and climate of Varna. Chane was raised by the Starwolves, who resemble human tigers with their golden fur. Later, when he came of age, he went with them on raids all over the galactic rim in search of treasure and booty. All of it came to an end when he killed a Starwolf in self- defense while arguing over the spoils of a raid. With an entire extended clan of Starwolves after him, he was forced to flee in a damaged spaceship.
Chane survives long enough to join up with a band of human mercenaries from Earth. Earth, now an impoverished planet, does supply most of the paid guns in the galaxy in the form of soldiers-of-fortune. Chane decides to stay with the mercenary band which rescued him. However, none of the other mercs, save the band's commander, Dilullo, know that Chane is a former Starwolf. Since Starwolves are usually shot on sight, they decide to keep his origin a secret.
The first novel, The Weapon from Beyond, touches briefly on Chane's origins. Most of it involves the mercenary band he's joined and their mission. A planet with vast mineral wealth has hired the mercenaries to seek out and destroy a weapon of vast power which they believe possessed by a rival planetary system. The mercenaries do find the weapon, but it turns out to be a star ship left over by an ancient intergalactic race. Chane earns respect from his new brothers-in-arms as the Varnan gravity of his youth has conditioned him to be far more powerful than the average human.
The next novel, The Closed Worlds, has Chane and the mercenaries traveling to a planet in search of a missing scientist. The brother of a rich star freight owner has disappeared on the planet Arkuun while searching for traces of another ancient Interstellar civilization. Their mission is ultimately successful, but not before Chane has encountered the radiantly beautiful Arkuun woman Vreya.
The series concludes with World of the Starwolves, easily the best one of the series. In this novel, Chane is forced to return to the Starwolve home planet of Varna and deal with the blood feud which cast him out. Searching for a missing work of art known as "The Singing Suns", Chane has led the other mercenaries into a trap. Although Chane manages to escape, the only way to free the other mercs is by leading the Starwolves to the very treasure planet where the stolen Singing Suns are kept. As before, Chane escapes with his strength and guile.
The quality of the writing varies. Most of the time it is standard action-and- adventure, with little thought given to the science behind Chane's galactic civilization. But no one could write about "booming suns" better than Hamilton. Toward the conclusion of the second novel, Chane encounters a device capable of transferring consciousness to any point in space. Here, the book enters 2001: A Space Odyssey territory with the wonders of the universe a-glow.
It's a shame the series ended after three books. I would've like to have seen where Hamilton would've taken Morgan Chane.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

#1. Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen. An unexpectedly chilling tale of demonic possession by this most charming author. -"13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels", by Karl Edward Wagner.

Michael Arlen (born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, 1895-1956), was a writer of novels in Great Britian during the early part of the 20th century. He's known as the originator of the "Falcon" detective series and many humorous novels involving the tribulations of the English upper classes. Resembling something out of Bright Young Things, he cut quite a figure in proper society.
Which makes Hell! Said the Duchess all that more bizarre. Imagine, if you will, a Pre-WW2 British novel of manners with characters named Major-General Sir Giles Prest-Olive and the Hon. Basil Icelin. Have scenes where riots are halted to allow a baby carriage and a nurse to cross the barricades. Also include high-born English women whose honor is questioned. Add some bumbling detectives. Sounds like an Evelyn Waugh work, doesn't it?
OK, now mix in a serial killer named "Jane the Ripper", who is identified by her exotic perfume. Ad a bizarre alternate universe England in 1938 where Fascist Oswald Mosely is the war minister. Through in a mad scientist in drag. Now we should be in Charles Birkin territory. But we're not.
Hell! reads as the shotgun wedding of a P. G. Wodenhouse and Dennis Wheatley. We have droll humor and conspiracies. Police inspectors concerned about the lower classes being stirred and a satanic killer. Most of the novel is humorous, until the final thirty or so pages where it turns into something dark and deadly. I can't help but wonder if, while deciding to close the book, Arlen took up his pen and thought:"Let's give those Bertie Woosters some real nightmares!"
The novel begins with an account of Duchess Mary Dove. Much beloved of her staff and people, she has had scandalous rumors tossed about lately concerning her nighttime activities. Although she claims to be retiring at 10 PM sharp, various people have seen her hanging out with the lower classes in gin mills and coffee shops well into the morning hours. A detective is brought in to investigate. Scotland Yard intervenes. Could she also be the same "Jane the Ripper" who's been cutting up young men around London? Might this be an attempt to stir up the working classes against their betters by communists and anarchists?
As I have said before, 4/5 of this book resides in the chuckling smart set territory. But the final section is as dark as anything Arthur Machen could conceive. And I think this is why Hell! has resonated with aficionados of horror fiction for so long.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Best of Margaret St.Clair (1985)

Naturalist, bohemian, academic, pagan revivalist, and writer, Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) is largely forgotten today. She began publishing her fiction in the late 1940's in the declining pulp science fiction market and continued to be featured in the same magazines through the 50's and early 60's. Around 1956 she published her first sf novel, The Green Queen, and would go onto write another seven novels until 1973. None of her novels or short story collections (three) are available in print. The Best of Margaret St. Clair was issued in 1985 by a small press in Chicago. The only mention of her life I've encountered is this brief.
As I read through these stories, I was struck by how many I'd read in other collections while growing up. "Child of the Void" was featured in Tomorrow's Children (1967) and "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" in Alfred Hitchock's Monster Museum(1965). "Brenda", first published in Weird Tales, was adapted for an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (not that good, but worth seeing if you've read the story).
Every story in this collection is pure gold. Most have the snap, biting ending which turns sf conventions of the 50's on their head. Most of them have aged very well. "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" works as a wicked satire of modern sales techniques and of Lord Dunsany's fantasy stories. "Short in the Chest" has a robotic psychologist giving disastrous advice to the military. My own favourite in this collection, "The New Ritual", works as a woman's interest story, a pastoral, and fantasy fiction.
The truly sad issue is the lack of any interest in her writing, outside a few fans. Here's a woman who wrote countless stories and novels over a twenty year span, then ceased her output. Why? Writer's block? Health issues? It would be good to know.