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Category: Rich Horton

Recent Treasure: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

Recent Treasure: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

The Gentleman (The Penguin Press, hardcover, 2016). Artist unknown

The Gentleman appeared in 2016, and I completely failed to notice it. But recently my friend Hyson Concepcion recommended it to me in the context of SF or Fantasy set in Victorian (or Victorian-derived) times. She called it a “Neo-Victorian romp with the same commitment to historical accuracy as Black Adder.” Seems irresistible!

And it was! But in what ways will it appeal to Black Gate’s readers? I mean, from one angle this is a romance novel set in Victorian England. Which, mind you, is perfectly fine with me! But how about those readers who want some skiffy or fanty in their books? Well, then, what about a novel in which the literal Devil is a significant character? And one in which the protagonist spends much of the novel trying to find an entrance to Hell, in order to find the Devil and reclaim his wife? Surely that’s fantasy?

Oh, you say, I’d rather have some SF. Well, then, as long as steampunk works for you, how about a novel concerning a semi-secret society of British inventors, often suppressed by their government on the grounds that technological advances shouldn’t progress too quickly? (Plus – a flying machine!)

Well, sure! So it is Fantasy, right? With a smidgen of SF? Yes, but it’s also a true-blue love story. And it’s a madcap comedy featuring a Jeeves-like butler! And it contains an extended debate about the merits of free verse versus iambic pentameter!

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An Evocation of the Science Fiction Dream of Exploration: “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

An Evocation of the Science Fiction Dream of Exploration: “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

Worlds of Tomorrow, February 1967, containing “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. Cover by Morrow

This is the first of what I hope will be an extended series of essays taking a closer look at some stories I either consider to be particularly good, or interesting for other reasons. Of necessity, each of these essays will go into some detail as to the plot of the stories – in most case, in my opinion, this will not “spoil” the stories, but I know that I am less spoiler-phobic than many, so tread carefully.

I remember reading “The Star Pit” as a teen, probably in Robert Silverberg’s exceptional reprint anthology Alpha 5. It was a story I liked then, and loved on a reread a few years later. I remember it as one of the great underappreciated novellas in SF. But it’s been quite a few years since my last read.

In fact this is a story with a decent history of anthologization and recognition over the years, so my term “underappreciated” is off base. It first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow for February of 1967 – and as Worlds of Tomorrow was widely considered the “third-string” magazine in Fred Pohl’s editorship, behind sister magazines Galaxy and If, that could be regarded as “underappreciation,” though more likely it reflected the difficulty of fitting novellas into magazines. (Interestingly, the magazine ceased publication after the next issue (May 1967) before a brief (three issue) revival in 1970 and 1971.)

“The Star Pit” was a finalist for the 1968 Hugo for Best Novella, which went in a tie to “Riders of the Purple Wage” by Philip Jose Farmer and “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey. It was in Judith Merril’s SF 12, the very last outing for her seminal series. Robert Silverberg anthologized it twice – not just in Alpha 5 but in the Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels. Gardner Dozois put it in his anthology with a similar title (and ambition) to Silverberg’s: Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction. And Richard Lupoff chose it for What If? Volume 3, the third entry in his series of books highlighting the stories that he felt should have won the Hugo each year. (Unfortunately, the What If? series was cancelled after the first two books, and Volume 3 only appeared decades later from a small press.)

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Edith Wharton, Jean Cocteau, and an Ancient Mesopotamian Tale

Edith Wharton, Jean Cocteau, and an Ancient Mesopotamian Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Apology to Jaym Gates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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