Astounding Science Fiction, March 1944, containing “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill. Cover by William Timmins
Pulp writer Cleve Cartmill (1908 – 1964) is probably best known for writing the story that prompted an FBI visit to John W. Campbell’s office at Astounding. The story in question, “Deadline” (March, 1944), featured a bomb eerily similar to the one being developed by the Manhattan Project at the time. As an educated science fiction audience, Black Gate readers probably do not need that old story re-hashed. Instead, I’ll tell you about three of Cartmill’s fantasy stories published in Unknown, all of which are interesting and worth reading.
Historically, Cartmill is considered a competent but undistinguished pulp writer. In A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes — “Cartmill wrote with an easy and colloquial fluidity that made his stories eminently readable.” I agree. But I also think there’s more to him than that. In the three pulp fantasy stories I’ll be reviewing here — “Bit of Tapestry” (1941), “Wheesht!” (1943), and “Hell Hath Fury” (1943) — Cartmill examines some deeper themes including free will and what makes us human. Although he doesn’t always follow through on these ideas, you are asked to think about them.
As a heads up, there will be heavy spoilers in this article.
The first printing of John Meyers Meyers’ The Harp and the Blade was serialized in seven parts in the pulp magazine Argosy from June through early August of 1940. Although the Rudolph Belarski painting on the cover of the June 22 issue might suggest that The Harp and the Blade is a fantasy, it is not. It is instead a straight adventure story set in medieval France.
What makes this story really interesting is its feeling of reality and the aliveness of the characters. We do not observe the story as if a Hollywood piece, at a comfortable distance from the action. Nor do we wallow in the filth, fleas, and mud. We are shown the reality of battle, the value of a laugh with friends, the necessity of a drink, and the delight of a kiss from one’s wife. The characters’ values are also of paramount importance, with clear demarcations made between good and bad. When there is a case of muddy morals, there is also a rationale, which may not be to our liking, but which makes sense for the characters involved.
The question is never asked — what makes life worth living? Instead, we are shown the answer in the simple things that the hero wants and that his blood-brother already has. This is a man’s tale, not grandiose, but heartfelt and homey as brown bread and good ale.
Robots Have No Tails (Lancer, 1973). Cover by Ron Walotsky
Try this one on for size…you go to sleep one night and have a lively dream. You see yourself doing wonderful things, creating new devices based on principles so advanced you can’t even image how they could be. You don’t question the fact that it is a dream because you know that, normally, you could never build such fabulous, world-changing technologies. It’s all kind of fuzzy though — what you’re building, the people you’re interacting with, everything.
When you wake in the morning you discover any number of strange devices in your house. You have no idea what they are, how they work, or where they came from. The phone rings. Apparently, there are several people to whom you now owe a lot money. You’ve never met any of them before but they seem to know you. Is it a scam? You hope so because one of them is suing you for breach of contract. Another is taking you to court for assault and battery. What happened? Could your dreams have been real somehow? Regardless, it seems that you’re now morally responsible for a whole lot of trouble.
This is essentially the premise of Henry Kuttner’s five Galloway/Gallegher stories: “Time Locker” (1943), “The World Is Mine” (1943), “The Proud Robot” (1943), “Gallegher Plus” (1943), and “Ex Machina” (1948).
Johnny Mayhem, man of a thousand faces, leaping from body to body, putting right things that had once went…no wait! That’s the television show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989 to 1993. Never mind. Decades before Sam Beckett went leaping through time, there was another bodiless adventurer doing much the same thing. His name was Johnny Mayhem.
I think most people are familiar with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). (Certainly, there’s a delightful musical from 1948 featuring Bing Crosby that I loved as a kid.) Twain’s hero is an engineer from Connecticut who receives a blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to King Arthur’s England. Although the story is a social satire, it celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values, among other things. Although not a satire, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965) by H. Beam Piper, similarly celebrates good old American ingenuity and values, but takes place on an alternate 20th century timeline instead of the far past. It’s Piper’s last work and part of his Paratime universe.
In this article I’m going give you six (relatively) spoiler-free reasons to read the book, and one reason that has a spoiler, but that I think will only enhance your enjoyment of the work.
H. Beam Piper wrote a great deal about Time. His books and stories seem split into two types: travel via mechanical means, such as in the Paratime Police stories, and consciousness travel, such as in “The Edge of a Knife.” This article will look at both.
Piper wasn’t the first to write science fiction about parallel realities. Murray Leinster was the groundbreaker for that in “Sideways in Time” (1934). In 1947, Fredric Brown brought us his delightful parallel reality story, What Mad Universe. That same year, H. Beam Piper published his first time travel story, “Time and Again.” This was not a tale about purposeful travel but accidental, through a hellacious explosion. And it wasn’t about physical time travel at all, but consciousness travel. We’ll return to this type of time travel later in the article.
Verkan Vall is the hero of most of the Paratime police stories. His official title is Special Chief’s Assistant to the chief of the Paratime Police — Tortha Karf. Through his adventures we learn about the Home timeline of the First Probability Level and get a look at the complex spider web of realities that the Paratime Police oversee.