Thursday, November 25, 2010

Change the Sky and other Stories (1974) by Margaret St. Clair

This is the third and final of Margaret St. Clair's short story collections. Published over ten years after Three Worlds of Futurity and almost ten years before The Best of Margaret St. Clair. Change the Sky consists mostly of her short fiction from the 1950's. When you consider she published over a 100 stories from the late 1940's till the early 60's, this was a very productive period for her. The stories vary in quality, which is what you can expect from such a prolific author. Only three appear in the other collections.
The best of the lost has to be "The Goddess on the Street Corner". It's a sad tale which would have fitted into The Twilight Zone. The story concerns an alcoholic pensioner who finds an ancient Greek goddess on a city street. He takes her home and feeds her bourbon, hoping to restore the deity's powers. The story has a bitter sweet ending, which was not entirely expected.
Military themes abound. "The Death of Each Day" has a gunner trying to escape a war-torn city in the future. "Then Fly Our Greetings" is about a scientist trying to create a humane weapon and it's horrifying results. "Fort Iron" has an officer trying to restore a sense of purpose in an ancient fort. St. Clair takes a dim view of the military mind. One character describes it as hitching a jet plane to an oxcart.
This is a good representative sample of her work from the end of science fiction's golden age.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The House of Souls (1923) by Arthur Machen

It's a little hard to say much about a book where so much has already been said. This is one of Arthur Machen's best short story collections and I recommend it heartily. Consisting of his masterful "The Great God Pan" novella and others, this collection gives an excellent overview of macabre writing at the turn of the century. Full of Victorian shudders.
Few writers have ever been able to make the ordinary so supernatural. In Machen's writing, there's always the survival of something ancient and evil behind every bush and shrub.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Games of Neith (1960) by Margret St. Clair

The Games of Neith was released in 1960 as an Ace twin to Kenneth Blummer's The Earth Gods are Coming. It's one of the last whimsical science fiction novels Margaret St. Clair would write before getting down to the "serious" novel writing she began with Sign of the Labrys. You do get the feeling from reading it that she was getting fed-up with all the rockets and ray guns of golden age SF.
In the far future, humanity has settled on the planet Gwethym. Because of the religious riots which had taken place when the planet was populated, the people of Gwethym have decided to worship an artificial goddess called "Neith". Neith really doesn't stand for much, but she looks nice and radiant on her pedestal and provides an outlet for religious sentiments. However, the followers of the rival god Jovis are still plentiful and long for the day when their deity will become prominent.
The book begins with a discussion between the high priestess of Neith, Anassa, and her consort, Wan. Anassa has just survived another assassination attempt by a devotee of Jovis. There's an "energy leak" taking place on Gwethym and the Jovians blame the worship of Neith for bringing it about. The energy leak (a vague concept) seems to have caused by spaceships using a hyper drive.
Eventually Anassa and Wan take an ocean voyage to find the source of the leak. They are tipped off by some sailors who have encountered an old man living among ancient machines. Since the machines appear to be the work of the "old ones", the humanoids who inhabited the planet eons before the humans arrived, they may hold the key to stopping the energy leak.
I would classify this as the weakest Margaret St. Clair novel of the ones I've read. It has all the feel of something banged out quickly for the publisher. There are a few threads which seem to have been recycled from short story attempts. As Neith was published toward the end of her productive short story career, this may have been the result of trying to merge several ideas in a coherent whole.
One for Dame St. Clair enthusiasts only.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Man Who Saved Britian (2006) by Simon Winder

I really must confess to never having read a single one of Ian Flemming's James Bond novels. But as a kid growing up in the 60's and 70's it was impossible to miss their impact on popular culture. My interest in Eurospy phenomena has always been the off-shoots: James Eastwood, The Man from Uncle, Where the Spys Are. But writer Simon Winder has made it all unnecessary for me to do so since he's published this amusing little book.
Subtitled A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, the book is a document about Winder's love/hate affair with Bond James Bond. He re-accounts how he saw Live and Let Die at a local theater while munching on a rum flavored chocolate bar. As a young adult he would travel the world as a book seller trying to cop a very Bondian attitude to the various countries he visited (much to the amusement of the wait staff). Although he views Bond as a hopeless bit of nostalgia for the late British Empire, he admits Sean Connery does look might real behind the wheel of a fast automobile.
I could go on for pages about this book: it's a non-stop delight to read. Winder is able to put Ian Flemming, Bond's creator, into perspective and muse on all the second banana actors who battled 007. He writes about being in a nation that was in decline in the 1970's and the difficulties of raising kids in a modern age. But I'll let the reader experience his witty comments for themselves.
This is one of the best "fan" publications I have ever read. Devoid of postmodern babble and full of love/disgust for it's subject.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Dancers of Noyo (1973) by Margaret St. Clair

This was the last novel by Margaret St. Clair, published in 1973. Other than a few short stories and commentaries, I can find no other writing by her after this. Why did she quit writing novels? The answer to this question may never be known. But, as Dancers has never been republished, I suspect the lackluster reception the book received may have been a contributing factor. I'm sure the Aquarian portrayal in the novel- whom the narrator calls "Mandarins"- didn't help it much with the intended audience.
Sometime in the near future, the west coast of the United States has been decimated by a horrendous form of cancer known as the "bone melt". After the disease runs it's course, California reorganizes itself into the Republic of California. Some of the survivors live in the coastal towns. Others have taken to the forest and live in "tribes" or communes. To keep the younger generation in check, the older tribal people start obtaining synthetic human "Dancers". These Dancers enforce the tribal will by making young people join in marathon group dances. They also force them to take psycho-active drugs as a form of vision quest. If any of the kids get too rebellious, they can be sent outside the tribe on the "grail quest". And those who do get sent on the quest have a tendency to return a psychological mess.
The dancers enforce their authority with tribal militias known as "The Avengers". Guns are almost unknown in this post-apocalyptic hippie society, but bows are easily made and arrows can kill. Furthermore, the dancers have begun working with "chemical-conscience men". These are hardened criminals the republic have found easier to control with drugs as opposed to prison. Many are on mood controlling drugs because they were vicious killers.
The novel is told from the point of view of Sam MacGregor, although his tribal name is "Bright Moon". His age is never given, but you get the idea he's around 20-years-old. Sent off by his tribe at Noyo to study with an authentic native American medicine man, Sam returns to his tribal village one evening and refuses to join in the marathon dance. For his insubordination, the tribe's Dancer orders Sam to leave their territory and go on the Grail Journey.
Pursued by a pack of Avengers who are determined to see that Sam meets with an accident on his path, Sam managers to make his way into other tribal lands. Along the way he experiences out of body sensations. Sometimes he's put into the mind of a government agent before the fall of civilization. Other times he's a man named Bennett, who was the cellular template for all the android Dancers. After a bad run-in with a chemical-conscious man who was a serial killer before the treatment, Sam enters the land of the Navarro tribe. But the tribe has vanished. All he finds remaining of it is a young woman chained to a rock, left to die in the rising tide.
Sam rescues the woman who turns out to be Francesca O'Hare, the daughter of the man who created the android Dancers. Her father, whom she describes as ripped out of his mind on drugs, has recently died. She can't figure out why her tribe's Dancer wanted her dead, but she thinks it may have something to do with what she learned before her father died. Sam joins forces with her and flees north to the nearest settlement- Ukiah -outside of tribal control. Together they will do what is needed to bring down the tyranny of the Dancers.
Dancers is similar to both The Sign of the Labyrs and The Shadow People with the use of a first-person male narrator. It falls under the category of science fantasy as it too has elements of both science fiction and fantasy literature. The reader is given a lot of medical herbalism information as Sam carries a small medicine man bag with him. However he's not above using magical rites when they seem appropriate.
St. Clair is particular biting in her depiction of the Mandarins, the aging hippie tribal leaders who will do anything to stay in power. Since Sam was raised in a communal nursery, he really has no idea who is his mother. There's an older tribal woman called "Jade Dawn" who claims to be his mother, but he's not sure. As the local county agent says of the Mandarins: "They're too stoned, usually, to make anybody do anything."
The author still manages to pack the creep factor into the book when needed. There's a chilling scene where Sam and Francesca break into her father's hidden laboratory. It's dark and unoccupied by anything human. The increasingly psychotic O'Hare had booby-trapped the lab not only with chemical poisons, but other android creations. They are forced to navigate their way through the dark labyrinth while avoiding Hunters, Diggers, and other nightmare creatures.
It's sad this would be Margaret St. Clair's final novel. What amazing books she might have penned in the final years of her life.