Edith Wharton, Jean Cocteau, and an Ancient Mesopotamian Tale

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020 | Posted by Rich Horton

A Backward Glance Wharton-smallI have been making my way through Edith Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance. Along the way I found an interesting bit about a famous (even notorious) French poet and filmmaker, and especially an ancient story he told her.

Wharton describes her time in Paris, particularly pre-World War I. As usual she spends most of her time describing the interesting people she knew there. One of these is Jean Cocteau, and she recounts a tale Cocteau told her, that he claims “he read somewhere.” Here is the story, which many of you will recognize, in a slightly different form:

One day when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus a beautiful youth who was his favourite rushed into his presence, crying out in great agitation that he must fly at once to Baghdad, and imploring leave to borrow his Majesty’s swiftest horse.

The Sultan asked why he was in such haste to go to Baghdad. ‘Because,’ the youth answered, ‘as I passed through the garden of the Palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me he stretched out his arms as if to threaten me, and I must lose no time in escaping from him.’

The young man was given leave to take the Sultan’s horse and fly; and when he was gone the Sultan went down indignantly into the garden, and found Death still there. ‘How dare you make threatening gestures at my favourite?’ he cried; but Death, astonished, answered: ‘I assure your Majesty I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have a tryst with him tonight in Baghdad.’

Wharton claims never to have been able to trace the story. Curiously, A Backward Glance was published in 1934, almost exactly simultaneously with John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra. I wonder if Wharton read the novel — or at least its epigraph – in which of course O’Hara gives another version of the story! (Or if she ever saw W. Somerset Maugham’s play, from which O’Hara got his version.)

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Voodoo, Sea Monsters, and Rebel Colonies: Rich Horton on Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Sunday, May 31st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Sea Siege Andre Norton Ace Double-small Eye of the Monster Ace Double-small

Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton. Ace Books F-147, 1962. 176+80 pages, $0.40. Covers by Ed Valigursky/Ed Emshwiller

During the months-long lockdown here in Illinois as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I know I should be reading the massive TBR pile by my bedside. It’s filled with Nebula award winners, advance proofs of books coming out this fall, and all the new books my friends are talking about. But instead, I want to be reading Ace Doubles.

I blame Rich Horton. Like everyone else, I’m influenced by what I read, and what I’ve been reading recently is Rich Horton’s excellent blog Strange at Ecbatan. Like a superb DJ, Rich knows how to blend the old and the new, and in the past few weeks he’s reviewed The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe (from 2010), Avram Davidson’ acclaimed 2001 collection The Other Nineteenth Century,  the brilliant Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly (1997), the overlooked novel The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996), and a Mack Reynolds/A. Bertram Chandler Ace Double from 1967.

That Ace Double piqued my interest, of course. Like Rich, I have an enduring fondness for these peculiarly collectible science from the 1950s and 60s, although I don’t have nearly the reading muscles he does. I’m mostly familiar with the earlier D-Series, and recently I’ve been re-reading some of Rich’s reviews of those older books, especially the ones I first collected. One of the very first was Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster, a pair of Andre Norton novels issued as an Ace Double in 1962, which Rich reviewed on his blog back in 2017.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Ditmar Award for Best Dramatic Presentation: Aussie Fan, directed by John Litchen

Saturday, February 8th, 2020 | Posted by Rich Horton

John Litchen in Tahiti 1964-small

John Litchen in Tahiti, 1964

My previous article about the 1973 Ditmars covered the winner for Best Australian Fiction, “Let it Ring!”, by “John Ossian.” That story was written in part in support of the bid for an Australian Worldcon to be held in Melbourne in 1975. That bid was eventually successful.

I was surprised to see that “Let it Ring!” beat out three novels for its award, and I was likewise surprised to see that an obscure movie called Aussie Fan beat out A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five, and Tales from the Crypt for the Dramatic Presentation Ditmar. So of course I turned to the experts, people who were in fandom back then, and who know where the bodies are buried.

The great Australian fan (and Ditmar winner on his own) Bruce Gillespie had the answer:

The ‘Aussiefan film’ that won the Best Dramatic Presentation would have been unmissable by anybody attending American SF conventions in 1972 and 1973. John Litchen in Melbourne produced and directed what is essentially a humorous home movie in order to promote the Australia in 75 bid. It ‘stars’ quite a few members of Melbourne fandom, with Paul Stevens as the wascally ‘Anti-fan’ who is determined to wipe out the members of the Aussiecon committee. Malcolm Hunt, who portrays the heroic Aussiefan, disappeared from fandom after his starring role. The film arrived at LACon in 1972, and Jack Chalker (long before he began his writing career) criss-crossed the country, attending a convention almost every weekend from then until Torcon II in 1973, showing the film continually. It was probably the main reason why our bid in 1973 at Torcon was assured before I and about twenty other Australian fans did the presentation (led by Roger Zelazny on the platform) and won the day.

Minnesota-based fan Denny Lien added some details about the reception of Aussie Fan in the US.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Ditmar Award for Best Australian Fiction: “Let It Ring,” by John Ossian

Saturday, January 25th, 2020 | Posted by Rich Horton

Infinity Three-small Infinity Three contents-small

Infinity Three, edited by Robert Hoskins (Lancer Books, 1972). Cover by Jim Steranko

1973 was the fifth year of the Ditmars, awarded in Australia. I have already covered the Ditmars for International Fiction (The Gods Themselves) and for Australian Fanzine (Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary.)

The Award for Best Australian Fiction went, curiously, to a short story, “Let It Ring”, by “John Ossian”. “John Ossian” was a pseudonym for the very well-known Australian fan and critic, John Foyster. The other nominees were all novels: Budnip, by Jack Wodhams; Gone Fishing, by David Rome; and The Hard Way Up, by A. Bertram Chandler. I haven’t read the Wodhams or Rome novel, and I read The Hard Way Up a long time ago – it’s a Grimes novel, and my impression is that it’s much like many Grimes novels, enjoyable enough but not special. So, I was willing to allow that perhaps “Let It Ring” was such a good short story that it would naturally beat out three likely enjoyable but not really brilliant novels.

Foyster, I should add, won three Ditmars – this one, and awards for Best Fanzine in 1970 for The Journal of Omphalistic Epistemology and in 1979 for Chunder. He also won the A. Bertram Chandler Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Australian SF in 2002. He was born in 1941, and died just short of his 62nd birthday in 2003. He and Bruce Gillespie occasionally collaborated on their fanzines SF Commentary and The Journal of Omphalistic Epistemology, but never in a year that either fanzine won a Ditmar.

I found a copy of Infinity Three, edited by Robert Hoskins, wherein the story appeared. I read “Let It Ring”, and I was completely puzzled. I had very little idea what was going on. There are nods to Cordwainer Smith, and his novel Norstrilia (then known by its two halves, The Underpeople and The Planet Buyer.) The action, such as it is, seems to concern a man trying to influence his fellows on the planet Strine, especially Mathers and Kenner, to help him either delay or prevent the entrance of Strine into the Federation. It’s really not very interesting, and it’s presented in a confusing fashion.

I asked a group of people with knowledge of that period in Australian SF, including Bruce Gillespie and Damien Broderick (who anthologized “Let It Ring” in The Zeitgeist Machine: A New Anthology of Australian Science Fiction in 1977.) And they were very helpful.

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An Apology to Jaym Gates

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020 | Posted by Rich Horton

Mike Resnick obit

Mike Resnick, March 5, 1942 — January 9, 2020

After Mike Resnick’s death, some people, Jaym Gates in particular, posted some of their thoughts about his career, most particularly his SFWA Bulletin piece in which he made some sexist remarks about historical women editors. I’m not the right person to dig into detail about that, but it represented part of a historical attitude that, even when held with superficially positive intentions (praise of said editor’s actual editing work, for example), clearly sent a message that for women in the field, one’s appearance can affect one’s reception. And that’s just wrong. No argument. (There is much more to unpack on that subject, and I’m not the person to do it. See Jaym’s post, or see some of the articles posted back then (2013).)

But I confess I was a bit bothered that this discussion happened immediately on Resnick’s death. I am culturally conditioned to follow the ancient Latin maxim “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (say nothing but good of the dead). I mentioned my feelings on another person’s FB page. And I got some pushback.

I thought some good points were made by those who responded to me … One is that people who have been truly hurt by someone else have an understandably complicated reaction to news of that person’s death. At the very least, even if one disagrees with that person’s reaction, one ought to have sympathy, to try to understand why they felt they had to say what they said. Another point is that if the full story of a man’s life, his contributions, is to be offered, when will it be seen except when he’s in the news? Many of us have made posts celebrating the good Mike Resnick did — and make no doubt of it, he did much good for the field. But I acknowledge that he also caused harm — and those who have been harmed deserve a voice, too. A third point is that the voices of people traditionally marginalized — as women have been in our society and in our field — sometimes don’t get heard, or weren’t heard when it really mattered. (The Isaac Asimov stories should make that clear.) If it takes a little rudeness to make sure those voices are heard, that’s a price we ought to be prepared to accept.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Locus Award for Best Short Fiction: “Basilisk,” by Harlan Ellison

Saturday, January 11th, 2020 | Posted by Rich Horton

Deathbird Stories

Deathbird Stories (Dell, 1976). Cover by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon

In this time period the Locus Award for fiction went to novels, novellas, and short fiction, presumably both novelettes and short stories. (I’m not sure where the exact boundary between short fiction and novella was set.) Perhaps appropriately, the winner of the 1973 award, Harlan Ellison’s “Basilisk” is perhaps 7,000 words long, quite close to the current border between “short story” and “novelette” for both the Nebula and Hugo awards.

Harlan Ellison, who died in 2018, aged 84, was one of the most famous SF writers of my lifetime, and one of the most controversial. He also was one of the most celebrated, having won an astonishing 18 Locus awards, and been named SFWA Grand Master, as well as winning 8 Hugos and 2 Nebulas, and too many other awards for me to count.

Speaking personally, Ellison was one of those writers who, for the most part, I could admire without quite loving. A few of his stories were special to me – “On the Downhill Side” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” occur off the top of my head – stories as different from each other as one might examine, but very effective. Much of the rest of his work struck me as impressive but overwrought, and often exchanging affect for effect, or choosing to impress instead of express. If you see what I mean. His technical skill, in the directions he chose, was astonishing, but the end results, at times, seemed a bit empty.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella: “The Word for World is Forest,” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

The Word for World is Forest paperback-small The Word for World is Forest paperback-back-small

The Word for World Is Forest (Berkley Medallion, 1976). Cover by Richard Powers

The great Ursula K. Le Guin won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1973, for “The Word for World is Forest,” which first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions. The story had been written several years earlier, and there exists a letter from Le Guin expressing her frustration with the time it took Ellison to get the story into print.

“The Word for World is Forest” has been a somewhat polarizing tale in Le Guin’s oeuvre for a long time. The conventional view seems to me, at this remove, that Le Guin missed the mark with this story: its tone is too shrill, the story is too preachy. It’s “Bad Ursula,” in a common formulation. And that’s been my position for a long time.

Let’s begin with the obvious: I’ve already discussed the 1972 novellas, in my post about Arthur C. Clarke’s Nebula winner, “A Meeting With Medusa.” Here’s what I wrote:

So, did it deserve its Nebula? Well, in many years it would have. But not this year. Because this year there were two magnificent Frederik Pohl novellas: “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” and “The Merchants of Venus,” perhaps his two best stories ever. Add Joe Haldeman’s “Hero,” the first of the stories that became The Forever War. And even then, we haven’t come to the clear-cut best novella of 1972, one of the very greatest SF novellas of all time: “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” by the late, incomparable, Gene Wolfe.

Does “The Word for World is Forest” stand with “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”? Ummm – no, not even close. I think it’s fair to say that the 1973 awards, both Nebula and Hugo, missed the boat completely. But, eh, that’s happened before. Perhaps not so often so clearly, but there are relatively few SF stories as great as “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”

The fairer question is, does “The Word for World is Forest” stand up on its own terms?

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Forry Award: C. L. Moore

Saturday, December 7th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Astounding Science Fiction Judgment Night August 1943-small

Astounding Science Fiction August 1943,
containing “Judgment Night” by C.L. Moore

The Los Angeles Science Fiction Society (LASFS) began presenting the Forry Award in 1966 for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction. The first award went to Ray Bradbury, who, besides his towering achievements in SF, was a prominent member of LASFS. Over the years, the list of Forry Award winners is a curious mix of the obvious (Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. Van Vogt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lois McMaster Bujold, etc.), with those whose accomplishments are not as writers but still seem significant (Mike Glyer, Chuck Jones, Fred Patten, Ray Harryhausen), and with those whose importance I have probably unforgivably missed (Charles Lee Jackson II, Len Moffat, John de Chancie.)

The 2002 award went to the award’s namesake, Forrest J. Ackerman. Here I will confess a personal bias… If awards like the Campbell and the Tiptree are going to have their names changed, can the Forry Award retain its name for long? Some of my bias is undoubtedly unfair: I think Ackerman’s taste in science fiction was appalling. But that’s just “taste”, and surely he can be forgiven that, and his enthusiasm for the type of SF he loved was no doubt real. But his ethics as an agent, for one, were distressing. But much more seriously, there are credible accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of women fans, and indeed very young women, at least as young as 13. I can’t but feel icky about the worship some express towards him, and while I’m opposed to changing the name of the Tiptree Award, and ambivalent about changing the names of the Campbell Awards, it seems to me that the Forry Award (justified as it may be by Ackerman’s strong association with LASFS) is right out.

But that doesn’t mean the Forry Award winners (Ackerman himself excepted) should be thrown out with the bathwater. And the 1973 winner, C. L. Moore, qualifies as one of the “obviously worthy” winners.

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Rich Horton on Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, and L. Sprague de Camp

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Worlds of If May 1963-small Turn Left at Thursday-small The Continent Makers-small

Cover art by John Pederson, Jr., Richard Powers, and Bob Pepper

I know a lot of writers, and one of the reasons I hang out on Facebook is to find out what the heck they’re all up to. For example, this morning Rich Horton left this brief but intriguing update:

For the third day in a row, I have posted a Birthday Review compendium of reviews of older short fiction from an SFWA Grand Master. In this case, it’s for L. Sprague de Camp.

I checked out his blog Strange at Ecbatan, and sure enough, Rich has had a busy week. It started Monday:

Here’s my first Birthday Review is a while. (I’ve used up most of the birthdays!) This is a pretty significant one — Poul Anderson. He’d have been 96 today. This is a collection of reviews of magazine fiction (with one very late anthology story), including two serializations of a couple of his lesser known novels. And most of the stories here are not that well known either.

In a lengthy post, Rich reviewed 16 Anderson pieces from Super Science Stories, Worlds Beyond, Planet Stories, Space Science Fiction, Science Fiction Adventures, Cosmos, Galaxy, and many more. Here’s his thoughts on Anderson’s cover story for the May 1963 issue of Worlds of If (above left).

“Turning Point” is a neat little story. Kind of Cargo Cult in reverse. Humans come to an isolated alien planet, where the people apparently live primitive lives. But it turns out they are incredible geniuses, who simply never had the spur to develop technology. Once they see human tech, all bets are off.

Read Rich’s complete tribute to Poul Anderson here. Next up was the centenary of Frederik Pohl’s birth, which Rich celebrated with another lengthy review survey yesterday.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 First Fandom Award: Clifford D. Simak

Saturday, November 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Simak city permabooks-small Simak Way Station-small Cemetery World Simak-small

First Fandom was organized in 1959 to celebrate those who had been active science fiction fans since 1938, that is, “before the Golden Age.” (Some define true “first fandom” as dating to 1936 and before.) One of the founders, and first president, was Robert Madle, who is still alive, approaching his 100th birthday.

Beginning in 1963, a First Fandom Hall of Fame Award was instituted, given to a fan active prior to 1938 who was deemed to have given great service to fandom. Over time, as fans of that vintage became rarer, two categories were established: Dinosaurs, who had to have been active prior to the first Worldcon, in 1939; and Associate Members, who have to have been active for at least 30 years. The Hall of Fame Award can be given to anyone active in fandom for at least 30 years.

At the 1973 Worldcon, the First Fandom Hall of Fame winner was Clifford D. Simak. Simak (1904-1988) was born in rural Millville, WI, and much of his fiction reflected that “pastoral” background. His primary career was as a journalist, and he worked for the Minneapolis Star beginning in 1929, retiring only in 1976. He began publishing SF in 1931 with “The World of the Red Sun” in the December Wonder Stories. Simak’s early pulp fiction (which included some Westerns as well as SF) was fairly minor, but he started to make a mark writing for John W. Campbell’s Astounding beginning in 1938. His novel City (1952), a fixup of a number of 1940s stories, won the International Fantasy Award. He won three Hugos, most notably for the 1963 novel Way Station, but also for “Grotto of the Dancing Deer” as late as 1981. He also won a Nebula, and his story “The Big Front Yard,” another Hugo winner, appears in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIB. His last novel, Highway of Eternity, was published when he was 82.

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