Birthday Reviews: Theodore Cogswell’s “The Wall Around the World”

Birthday Reviews: Theodore Cogswell’s “The Wall Around the World”

Cover by Richard Powers
Cover by Richard Powers

Theodore R. Cogswell was born on March 10, 1918 and died on February 3, 1987.

Cogswell received a Hugo nomination for his book PITFCS: The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, which has been described as a “fanzine for pros.” His story “The Wall Around the World” was nominated for a Retro Hugo Award for Best Novelette. In 2000, he was posthumously inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame.

“The Wall Around the World” first appeared in Beyond Fantasy Fiction, edited by Horace L. Gold, in the September 1953 issue.  It was included in the British version of the magazine the following year and Judith Merril included it in the anthology Beyond the Barriers of Space and Time. The story was included in, and provided the name for, Cogswell’s collection The Wall Around the World in 1962.  Subsequent reprintings occurred in Brian W. Aldiss’s Yet More Penguin Science Fiction and The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, in Harry Harrison’s Worlds of Wonder (a.k.a. Blast Off), and in Wizards, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. Asimov and Greenberg also included the story in The Great SF Stories #15 (1953) and Susan Morris titled the 1990 Cambridge University Press anthology after the story, The Wall Around the World and Other Science Fiction Stories.  Mike Ashley reprinted it in The Mammoth Book of Fantasy. The story was translation into German in 1963, Dutch in 1978, and Italian in 1987.

Cogswell’s “The Wall Around the World” has some strong similarities to another story set in a world of magic.  Porgie is at a school for wizards and lives with his abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin because his aunt’s sibling was killed due to magic. Unfortunately, his teachers are not much more supportive than his family.

Porgie’s “problem” is that he has questions. Their world is surrounded by an insurmountable wall and Porgie wants to know what’s on the other side.  Unfortunately, the state of magic isn’t enough to allow him to fly over the wall and when he tries to figure out how, he only hears that essentially, magic is the only way, he shouldn’t ask questions, and their knowledge of magic gets stronger all the time as they focus on the approved texts. There is also the ominous hints that when Porgie’s father questioned the status quo, a supernatural being known as the Black Man did something to him.

In response to this feedback, Porgie attempts to figure out how to fly to the top of the wall, beginning with the idea of capturing eagles, moving on to mechanical means in a world where “machines” is a dirty word, and then on to magical experimentation.  Cogwell follows his attempts and the impact they have on his studies and his various relationships as his uncle, cousin, and teacher all try to discourage him from learning more, but Porgie’s determination eventually leads him to discover more about his world that he ever expected.

Reprint reviewed in  the anthology Wizards, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh, Signet/New American Library, 1983.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a fifteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Big White Men—Attack!” in Little Green Men—Attack! Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 5 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Thomas Parker

A fine writer not remembered as much as he deserves, probably because he was never very prolific.

John ONeill

I remember the paperback edition of THE WALL AROUND THE WORLD…. one of the first science fiction paperbacks I ever bought, at a library sale on Rockcliffe Airbase in 1978.

R.K. Robinson

I have that collection, and enjoyed it very much.

Rich Horton

Cogswell didn’t write a whole lot of fiction, but this story at least is very fine.

I absolutely love PROCEEDINGS OF THE INSTITUTE FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY STUDIES … one of my favorite books about SF.

Thomas Parker

If I remember correctly, The Spectre General was included in one of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes.

Rich Horton

Indeed it was. It’s enjoyable, but on a recent rereading it struck me as a bit strained.

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