“Authenticity” in Sword & Sorcery Fiction

Thursday, March 12th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Gabe S&S-small

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

These days, in intersection with my Conan gaming (I enjoy both Monolith’s board game and Modiphius’s roleplaying game), I have been reading a lot of two things: weird fiction from the turn of last century into, maybe, the 1940s; and sword & sorcery — anything that, on its cover, features a muscled male wielding medieval weaponry — predominantly from the ‘70s or ‘80s. (This latter does the double duty of encouraging me to work out.)

As is to be expected, these works offer various levels of quality. Early-last-century weird fiction is in a class of its own, and, though writers of that era freely borrowed tropes, themes and elements from each other (they very much appear to have been in conversation, literally or otherwise), the form of the weird tale is not as calcified as that of sword & sorcery appears to be by the ‘80s. Even within this latter’s straitjacket, however, I have encountered some standouts, including John Dalmas’s The Orc Wars (beginning with The Yngling, 1971), Gordon Dickson’s and Roland Green’s Jamie the Red (an unofficial Thieves’ World novel, 1984), and John Maddox Robert’s The King of the Wood (1983). Why I like these is for the reasons that one would like any work of fiction, of course, but with one addition: they present a sense of verisimilitude. I should add here, for anyone who might not be privy to how sword & sorcery is supposed to be subdivided from its parent genre of fantasy, that sword & sorcery is supposed to be more “realistic.” The world presented in such tales is premodern. Life is hard. The cultures do not have our present technology (nor magic — magic, in this subgenre, if not “low,” is rare and mysterious and terrifying and usually very, very “wrong”) with which to ease the drudgery of existence. In other words, the characters in such stories live in the way that folks in the Middle Ages lived, possibly in the way that many of our grandparents or great-grandparents lived, if they were homesteading somewhere.

This is why I no longer write sword & sorcery. I am a city boy. I am modern. I have no idea what “real life” is like. And yet I somehow have enough of one to know — intuitively or otherwise — when a writer knows even less than I do. To catalog the many errors of some of our most famous current fantasy writers is outside of the scope of these observations, but I’ll point to the occasion that spurred me finally to write on this topic here.

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Having It Both Ways: James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

Thursday, March 5th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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A Case of Conscience by James Blish. First Edition: Ballantine Books, 1958.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)

A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
Ballantine Books (188 pages, $0.35 in paperback, April 1958)

James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Conscience, a Hugo Award winner in 1959, is one of the most famous SF novels that deals with religion. (The other major 1950s novel concerning religion is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I’ve also reread recently).

There aren’t many SF novels dealing with the religion, and it’s easy to understand why; science fiction and religion would seem to be at cross purposes. Religion typically entails belief in supernatural beings, claims about the nature of reality (e.g. the origin of the universe), and deference to ancient authority, while science fiction is about the possibilities of our understanding the universe on the basis of the evidence it presents us, and, like science itself, disregards ancient authority. How to reconcile these aims? Any SF story that presupposed the truth of this or that religion would, in practice, be placed in the religious fiction corner of the bookstore (or in one of the numerous specialty bookstores devoted to one religion or another). While books or stories that imagine that angels, or fairies, or gods are real in the supernatural sense would, within our genres, be classified as fantasy.

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Vintage Treasures: Great Work of Time by John Crowley

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Great Work of Time (Bantam Spectra, 1991). Cover by Thomas Canty

“Great Work of Time” was originally published in John Crowley’s 1989 collection Novelty. It was nominated for the Locus and Nebula Awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Two years later it was published in a standalone paperback edition by Lou Aronica at Bantam Spectra, with a handsome cover by Thomas Canty (above).

Great Work of Time is a time travel story, featuring a secret society at work to prevent World War I and preserve and strengthen the British Empire. The Washington Post calls it “dazzling, Escher-like,” and it has been warmly reviewed in many other places over the years. But my favorite review is a modest Goodreads post by a user named Daniel, which aims to articulate part of the magic of this small tome. It reads, in part,

This general theory of effect is nothing new to the genre of time-travel, yet in his explication of this phenomenon, and in his execution of the story set forth in “Great Work of Time,” Crowley has accomplished something novel and frightening: novel, because the theory that he posits for time travel gives birth to a puzzle-box of plots, each one linked to the other in a myriad ways that a lesser writer would find impossible to describe with mere prose; frightening, because Crowley directs his characters to employ this multifaceted instrument in the continuation and perfection of no less a behemoth than the British Empire.

Once the Big Idea of this novella makes its appearance, its connotations loom like a massive, starlit guillotine, its razored face poised above the great works proposed by Crowley’s characters, its fatal fall held back by a few tenuous questions. Yes, these time benders seek to do good and only good for all of humanity — but who are they to say what is good? Yes, they seek to erase the lines of power that tie men and nations together — but are they not themselves the source of a greater power, one that holds dominion over every possible reality?

These questions frightened me as soon as they appeared, and I wondered if Crowley would approach them in this novella of such modest size. And when he not only touched upon these questions, but traced them all the way to their conclusions, I was left stunned by what I read, and what the words made me see.

Great Work of Time was published by Bantam Spectra in August 1991. It is 136 pages, priced at $3.99. The cover is by Thomas Canty. It has been reprinted over half a dozen times since, including in David Hartwell’s 1,005-page classic The Science Fiction Century (1997), A Science Fiction Omnibus (2007), edited by Brian Aldiss, and most recently in the May 2018 issue of Lightspeed magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams. See our previous John Crowley coverage here, and all our recent Vintage Treasures here.


When Six Americans Defeat an Invading Army: Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column

Thursday, February 20th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein. First Edition:
Gnome Press, 1949. Cover by Edd Cartier

Sixth Column
by Robert A. Heinlein (Gnome Press, 1949, 256 pages, $2.50 in hardcover; serialized earlier in Astounding Science Fiction, January-March 1941)

Sixth Column was the earliest novel-length work by Robert A. Heinlein, though it was serialized in Astounding magazine (Jan, Feb, and March 1941, under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald) and not published in book form until 1949, by which time three or four other Heinlein novels had been published as books (Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Beyond This Horizon (1948), Space Cadet (1948), and perhaps Red Planet, also 1949).

First published in hardcover by Gnome Press under the magazine title Sixth Column (adding the subtitle “A Science Fiction Novel of Strange Intrigue”) it was reprinted for many years in paperback by Signet under the blander title The Day After Tomorrow (a 7th printing with a Gene Szafran cover is shown below, along with the 2012 Baen edition I’ve read for this review). The book isn’t long; 174 pages in the Baen edition, 144 with Signet’s tinier print.

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Vintage Treasures: Heritage of Flight by Susan Shwartz

Sunday, February 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Wayne Barlowe

Susan Shwartz has had a fine career, with five Nebula nominations for short fiction under her belt, a Hugo nom, and other accolades. She’s produced over a dozen novels, including Queensblade (1988), Arabesques: More Tales of the Arabian Nights (1988), and Hostile Takeover (2004).

Her 1989 novel Heritage of Flight was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. It began life as a pair of novellas published in Analog, “Heritage of Flight (April 1983) and “Survivor Guilt” (February 1986). Not everyone found the blend even; here’s part of one of the more detailed Good Reads reviews (from reviewer Jon).

It starts of excellently with some really good, thought through, detailed SF – A space battle, not unlike Battlestar Galactica (The modern version) in some respects, but more engaging technically. Unfortunately the whole middle section of the book is ‘wild frontier’ stuff with virtually no real ‘Sci’ in it at all – you could imagine it being set in the Wild West or Australian Outback with few changes (Think Little House on the Prarie (sic) for adults).

Ian Sales has a lengthy and thoughtful (though very spoilery!) review at SF Mistressworks. Here’s an excerpt.

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Vintage Treasures: The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

Friday, February 7th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Devil in a Forest (Ace Books, 1981). Cover by Kinuko Y. Craft

The Devil in a Forest was Gene Wolfe’s third novel, following Operation Ares and Peace. It was published in 1976, and was very much overshadowed by the release of The Shadow of the Torturer, the opening novel in Wolfe’s masterwork Book of The New Sun, in 1980. Still, in the four and a half decades since its release it’s been much discussed. But my favorite review was this on-the-nose piece by Paul de Bruijn at Rambles:

You know the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, sometimes you can’t judge a book by the publisher’s blurb on the back, either. Gene Wolfe’s The Devil in a Forest proves the point well…

“He lives deep in the forest in the time of King Wenceslas, in a village older than record. The young man’s hero-worship of the charming highwayman Wat is tempered by growing suspicion of Wat’s cold savagery, and his fear of the sorceous powers of Mother Cloot is tempered by her kindness. He must decide which of these powers to stand by in the coming battle between Good and Evil that not even his isolated village will be able to avoid.”

I would love to know what book that is describing, because it is not The Devil in a Forest. Instead you get a story of a handful of villagers who get caught up in events beyond their control. It starts with the simple plan of getting the local highwayman to leave by helping him commit armed robbery. And Wat plays on the greed of a few of them masterfully. Creating a story of a rich pilgrim, he sends several people away so that he, Gloin, Matt and a char burner can rob Phillip the Cobbler. And then of course things start to go wrong…. it is a story well worth the reading.

Wolfe, who passed away last year, shows no sign of being forgotten by the usually fickle SF fanbase, and he’s discussed (and read) just as much as he’s always been. It’s gratifying to see. The Devil in the Forest was published in hardcover by Follett Publishing in 1976, and reprinted in paperback by Ace Books in November 1977 with a cover by F. Kegil, and again in 1981 with a new cover by Kinuko Y. Craft (above). The 1981 edition is 224 pages, priced at $2.25. See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.


But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s Needle

Thursday, February 6th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Needle (Doubleday, 1950, cover artist unknown)

Needle
by Hal Clement
(Astounding Science Fiction, May-June 1949; expanded to book form: Doubleday, 222 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

Hal Clement (legal name Harry Stubbs) was one of the stable of science fiction writers developed by John W. Campbell in the pages of Astounding magazine in the 1940s. His first story was “Proof” in the June 1942 issue and his next 10 stories appeared in the magazine throughout the ‘40s. He’s most famous for the 1954 novel Mission of Gravity and his reputation rests on its sort of hard science fiction: alien environments rigorously extrapolated from known physical principles. (Others in this vein were Iceworld, 1953, and Cycle of Fire, 1957.)

His first novel is a little different. This is Needle, serialized in Astounding and expanded to book form the following year for Doubleday. And published, incidentally, as a juvenile, in the “Doubleday Young Moderns” series, despite, as SFE notes, certain themes. (The edition I’m reading, and using pagination from, is a 1974 trade paperback reprint in Avon/Equinox’s SF Rediscovery series, with an odd cover illustration depicting two Greek-like gods fighting in the clouds. Photo below.)

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Vintage Treasures: The Timescape Robert Holdstock

Thursday, January 30th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover art by Carl Lundgren

Robert Holdstock, who died in 2009, was one of the most important fantasists of the 20th Century. While he wrote over a dozen novels, he’s chiefly remembered for his breakout novel Mythago Wood and its sequels. In his review right here last year, James Van Pelt wrote:

I really can’t recommend Mythago Wood enough. In a time when everyone else was echoing Tolkien, Holdstock created a completely different take on fantasy (rural fantasy — if that’s a genre). I loved this story of two brothers, their estranged and absent father, and a patch of wood that was only three miles around but infinitely deep… Of all the books I’ve read, none has impacted me as strongly at the end as this novel. Endings are hard, so when I read a perfect one, I take notice…

Mythago Wood appeared in 1984. Holdstock published a number of novels prior to the huge success of Mythago Wood, including a pair edited by David G. Hartwell for his legendary Timescape imprint: Earthwind and Where Time Winds Blow, both published in 1982. The combination of Holdstock’s later fame, the Timescape logo, and the fact that neither was ever reprinted in the US has made both of these paperbacks of interest to collectors.

In his 2018 article Why Editors Matter: David Hartwell’s Extraordinary Timescape Books at Tor.com, James Davis Nicoll highlighted why so many collectors today cherish Timescape.

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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

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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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Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Cover by H. Lawrence Hoffman

Earth Abides (Random House, 373 pages, $3 in hardcover, 1949)
by George R. Stewart
Cover by H. Lawrence Hoffman

Here is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. It’s about the entire world, and implicitly the entire human race, and it’s as timely as ever as, for one reason or another, humanity faces the realization that its indefinite survival on planet Earth is not guaranteed.

The novel is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. It was published in 1949 and was Stewart’s only SF novel (though he wrote a couple earlier novels about natural catastrophes, including one about a storm that inspired the US National Weather Service to give storms names). It won the first International Fantasy Award in a year preceding the advent of the Hugos. (Stewart never wrote any other science fiction, and this novel wasn’t published as science fiction, but was later embraced by genre critics, much as the famous novels by Huxley and Orwell were.)

Above is the cover of the first edition. And here are the two editions I’ve read, a 1971 Fawcett Crest paperback with a Paul Lehr cover, and the 2006 Del Rey trade paperback edition.

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