Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars, published in 1912, was the first major success for Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the first of his many Martian or Barsoom novels.

John Carter is a gentleman of Virginia in the period just after the American Civil War who suddenly finds himself on Mars. Early science fiction writers came up with all sorts of fanciful methods of transporting their heroes to other planets. Burroughs solves the problem very simply but in a manner that cleverly leaves as many options as possible open for sequels. This was something that Burroughs did habitually but it’s interesting to see him doing it in such an early work.

John Carter has a kind of out-of-body experience in a remote cave and then wakes up on Mars, which he will soon learn is known as Barsoom to its inhabitants.

Life on Mars faces many difficulties, most especially the scarcity of water and the precariousness of the atmosphere which can only be maintained by artificial means. Mars was not always like this but it has been for millennia a dying planet, the home to dying civiisations. This is one of the earliest examples in science fiction of the dying world. Although Barsoom is not quite dying - the Martian civilisations had developed very sophisticated technologies, technologies that still function despite the decline of the civilisations that gave birth to them. The air and water supplies remain stable as long as the technology functions.

Barsoom is home to several vaguely human-like creatures. There are the giant white apes about which we are told little. And there the Green Martians, described in great detail. They are the first Martians John Carter encounters, human-like in some ways but with six rather than four limbs and with tusks. They are intelligent but savage. Their society is a militaristic communistic society. Duels to the death are an everyday occurrence. Green Martians laugh readily but their laughter is always provoked by cruelty, violence and torture. Their offspring are raised communally and without any real family life they have become vicious and violent.

They are not all bad though and John Carter will form surprising friendships with several of these green men and women.

The third group of human-like creatures are the Red Martians, very much like humans apart from the fact that like all the human-like inhabitants of the planet they are egg-layers. Their skin has a pronounced reddish hue, just as the skin of the Green Martians has a greenish hue.

John Carter discovers he has one huge advantage over all the Martians - being from a planet with much stronger gravitational forces than Mars he is much stronger than they are, and much more agile. This will not only save his life but also earn him recognition as a warrior and leader.

He finds love on Mars, with the beautiful Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris. He also finds himself in the middle of several wars, unsurprising since Barsoom’s inhabitants are addicted to war.

Burroughs had a gift for creating imaginary worlds that are truly alien - worlds where the physical, biological and social rules are quite different as compared to our world. In Pellucidar (the world inside the Earth) for example gravity is inverted. On Barsoom the continued existence of an atmosphere is dependent on machines.

He had an equally strong gift for telling entertaining stories and A Princess of Mars is a great deal of fun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller novel Rogue Male deals with a plot to kill HItler. Only it’s not actually a plot, it’s more of a solo mission that at first seems to have no real motive.

Hitler is never mentioned by name and the attempted assassination takes place in an unnamed central European nation but it’s perfectly clear who the target is. He’s a dictator who is seen as a potential threat to Britain and his country shares a border with Poland.

More interesting than the subject matter is the unusual structure of the book. Instead of leading up gradually to the assassination, the attempt takes place on the very first page. So I’m not giving away any spoilers by revealing that the attempt fails. The would-be assassin (who is also the narrator) is captured and tortured but refuses to say anything of his motives and insists he acted alone. Since the interrogation has failed to produce anything of value the decision is made to dispose of the assassin. Against the odds and suffering from horrific injuries he survives, and sets out on a nightmarish return journey to England.

So who is this would-be dictator-killer? He is an English big-game hunter. He tells us his story in three sections, each written at different stages of what will turn out to be quite an adventure, and quite an ordeal.

While the story opens with the attempt on the dictator’s life there are no extended flashbacks, as you might expect. His story starts with his assassination attempt, although he will certainly reflect upon his actions leading up to that event. Initially he tells us he has no real idea why he did what he did, other than the fact that having had a life-long passion for hunting he thought it would be a challenge to stalk the most dangerous prey of all (shades of the Most Dangerous Game here). He claims that he had no intention of actually pulling the trigger - it was merely a kind of game with himself.

He is a wealthy man and quite well-known, although he never tells us who he really is. He fears that his actions may bring embarrassment and even disgrace to both himself and his country. For this reason, and also because he fears that the dictator’s secret police may be hunting him (by this time they will have discovered that he did not die as they expected him to). So he determines to go into hiding. Being a solitary man by nature, and given that he has spent much of his life in various wild places, he chooses to hide out not in the anonymity of a city but in the countryside.

As his story progresses he faces the slowly dawning realisation of the true reasons that drove him to stalk the dictator, and he faces also the realisation of what the consequences of that self-knowledge must entail.

He also comes to see that he cannot remain the hunted forever.

This is clearly not a mere potboiler nor is it a conventional thriller novel. It obviously has some affinities to the sorts of spy stories that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene were starting to write in the 1930s, with its amateur assassin hero and its emphasis on psychology. It’s also representative of the more literary kind of thriller that was emerging at that time.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t work very well as a suspense thriller. It’s a taut and very tense story and it’s gripping and highly entertaining in its own very individualistic way.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Armageddon - 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan

Philip Francis Nowlan’s novella Armageddon - 2419 A.D. appeared in the November 1928 issue of Amazing Stories and marked the first appearance in print of Buck Rogers, making it something of a pop culture landmark.

In this and in a sequel published not long afterwards he wasn’t yet called Buck Rogers. He was Anthony Rogers. The character acquired the nickname Buck when he made the transition to a comic strip in 1929.

If you’re only familiar with Buck Rogers through the 1939 movie serial (as I was) the novella will come as something of a surprise. The character is recognisably the same and the tone is very similar - very breathless and pulpy - but the background is very different.

In Armageddon - 2419 A.D. Rogers is a First World War veteran working for a company searching for radioactive gases in the late 1920s. He finds rather too much radioactive gas, in fact so much that it puts him into a state of suspended animation for 492 years. When he is revived he finds the world dramatically changed, but not in the way it was changed in the movie serial. China now rules the globe. The Chinese have destroyed their only serious remaining rival, the Soviet Union, and what was once the United States is now ruled by the Han Airlords. The powers that had dominated the world in the early 20th century had been disposed of after a series of lengthy wars.

But American civilisation has not vanished entirely. Their Han masters have such advanced machinery that they no longer have any need for slaves so they no more or less ignore the very small remaining American population which lives a scattered existence. The Americans have however been developing their own technologies. While the Han have airships powered by repeller rays and armed with disintegrator rays, the Americans have anti-gravity belts and rocket guns and advanced communications (by means of the

The Americans have developed an odd social system, a kind of blend of rugged pioneer individualism and informal collectivism but also bearing a strong resemblance to early 20th century US urban political machines. The leaders of the various American settlements are known as bosses and the settlements themselves are known as gangs.

The Americans have long-range plans to reconquer their country. These plans are accelerated when Rogers arrives among them from the distant past. Rogers has the type of 20th century military expertise that has been lost by the 25th century. He knows how to lay down a proper artillery barrage, and this proves to be a devastating advantage.

Rogers soon becomes a key figure in the American resistance. He also acquires a wife, the brave and resourceful Wilma, who proves to be a doughty fighter as well.

Armageddon - 2419 A.D. tells the story of Rogers’ first successful large-scale military campaigns, the first great American successes against the Han airships and a vicious war against traitorous American gangs. The ruthless violence of these wars is somewhat startling.

Thee is great entertainment to be had from the intricate descriptions of such technical marvels as the disintegrator rays, the anti-gravity belts and invisible and weightless metals! This is classic technobabble done with panache. Nowlan has a passion for lengthy and detailed info-dumps.

The literary style is pulpy in the extreme but enjoyably brisk.

It’s all outrageously ludicrous and outlandishly unlikely but it’s great fun.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Double Traitor

If there’s one thing I love even more than spy novels it’s pre-First World War spy novels. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Double Traitor was actually published in 1915 but it’s set in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914.

E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) wrote around 150 novels during his long and successful career. This immense output included many spy thrillers. He was certainly one of the people who put this genre on the map. Like most of the great espionage writers he’s now forgotten.

The Double Traitor deals with a man who becomes a spy by accident, a theme that would become enormously popular in British spy fiction. Francis Norgate is perhaps not quite an amateur spy though. He is a junior British diplomat, stationed in Berlin in 1914. His espionage career comes about as a result of two accidents.

The first occurs in a Berlin restaurant. He is dining with the beautiful Baroness von Haase when he is insulted by a Prussian aristocrat, a prince no less. Norgate, quite reasonably, suggests that the prince needs to improve his manners. Of course at this point the reader naturally expects that there will be a duel, but Oppenheim is not as predictable as that. The actual result of the incident is that Norgate finds himself recalled to London in disgrace.

On the train to Ostend he meets a jovial and garrulous German crockery merchant. Herr Selingman in fact seems to think he’s the Henry Ford of crockery. Norgate is not in the mood for conversation so he claims not to speak German, which of course he speaks fluently. He dozes off and, half-asleep, he overhears Herr Selingman talking to one of his agents. But they’re not discussing tea cups. They’re discussing the Belgian fortifications at Liège, and in terms that strongly suggest that their interest in this subject is far from innocent.

In a moment of confusion Norgate grabs a piece of paper that has fallen out of his traveling companion’s brief-case. It is a list of German spies in Britain!

Back in London Norgate tries to interest Scotland Yard in the list and also shows it to a Cabinet Minister friend of his. Nobody wants to know. The British government is convinced that war with Germany is impossible. They have allowed the country’s defences to be run down and therefore they are determined to go on living in a fantasy world in which the peace-loving German Empire would never start a war.

Norgate decides to go it alone. He joins Selingman’s espionage network, but he is determined to feed them false intelligence. He is now an unofficial double agent. If the British government refuses to face reality he will do what he can as an individual to undermine Germany’s spy ring in Britain and will try to gather enough information to convince the British government of the nation’s mortal danger.

His position is complicated slightly by the act that he has met the Baroness von Haase again and is hopelessly in love with her. She loves him as well but she is a spy as well, an Austrian spy who also works for the Germans.

This is very different from most later spy novels. There’s virtually no action. There is danger though. While these spies are very genteel and civilised even in this world spies can still wind up dead. That’s perhaps one of the more effective things about the book - when one spy does end up dead it comes as a considerable shock. What seemed like a mere Edwardian parlour game is suddenly revealed to be very serious indeed.

There are concepts here that you won’t encounter in modern espionage fiction. There’s honour, and it’s a reality rather than a mere word. There’s patriotism, and it’s patriotism without fashionable irony.

Considering the time it was written, at the very start of the First World War, it’s surprisingly free of any personal animosity towards Britain’s enemies in that war. The Prussian prince who inadvertently triggers off the while adventure is an arrogant bully but the other German and Austrian characters are mostly just doing their jobs. The book is certainly very critical of German militarism but Oppenheim makes it clear that that is a result of policy rather than any kind of inherent quality. And the book is equally critical of the head-in-the-sand pacifism it attributes to the British - the kind of approach to foreign policy that would a generation later become infamous (and rightly so) as appeasement.

There are quite a few characters trapped by conflicting loyalties, including the heroine, Baroness von Haase (who is half-English and half-Austrian).

It’s fashionable today to regard the Victorian and Edwardian periods condescendingly or even sneeringly as ages of hypocrisy and jingoism. This is an attitude that says more about the arrogance of our own age that it says about the Edwardians. The Double Traitor is evidence that even the popular fiction of the early 20th century was capable of dealing with complex conflicts of loyalty and similar difficult issues.

It’s slow-moving and lacking in action by modern standards but still quite entertaining. Anyone with an interest in the early development of the spy genre will certainly find this novel intriguing. Recommended.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories

Robert E. Howard will always be best remembered for his sword and sorcery tales, especially the Conan stories, but his work was extraordinarily varied. He wrote westerns, adventure stories, gothic horror and even detective stories. The one thread that connects all his work however is horror. Even when he wrote detective stories he still added a dimension of the horrific.

Wordsworth’s paperback The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories is an excellent sampler of his non-sword and sorcery output, with a very strong emphasis on the gothic and the macabre.

It includes his classic Pigeons from Hell. There are a couple of werewolf tales. There are three detective stories, remarkably dark and gruesome.

Many of the stories deal with reincarnation or with what appear to be memories of past lives, or perhaps dim collective memories stored in certain arcane objects or certain accursed places. They are stories of events so horrible or so cataclysmic that the echoes remain centuries later. The Children of the Night and The Black Stone are notable examples, the latter a truly superb story, as is The Cairn on the Headland.

Black Wind Blowing is another impressive tale of dark deeds that return to haunt the present.

Thee are quite a few tales that draw on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, not surprising since Howard was an important member of Lovecraft’s circle. The best writers in Lovecraft’s circle had a remarkable ability to influence each other without merely copying each other. They had their own voices and were confident enough in their own abilities to absorb influences without being swamped by them. The Children of the Night and The Fire of Asshurbanipal both draw on Lovecraft’s Mythos but with a definite Robert E. Howard flavour. Howard’s style is more violent and there’s a disturbing eroticism you won’t find in Lovecraft.

Howard was fascinated by the ideas of cultures in collision, and especially by conflicts between cultures at different levels of development, or between cultures of differing levels of barbarism. This is something that drives many of his best tales and he had the ability to capture the feel of cultures with wildly different ways of looking at the world compared to our own.

There’s plenty of horror here. While there’s more violence than there is in Lovecraft Howard’s horror does resemble Lovecraft’s in the sense that it’s not the physical threat you really have to worry about - it’s the cosmic horror that brings madness and undermines the very foundations of reason.

This is a fine collection - highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Daughter of Fantômas

The Daughter of Fantômas was the eighth of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas novels, appearing in 1911. The first novel in the series, Fantômas, had appeared earlier that same year.

Fantômas is crucially important in the history of pulp fiction. He was one of the earliest diabolical criminal masterminds. Although not the first, Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola predating him by nearly two decades. The Fantômas books had an immense influence on pulp fiction and crime fiction in Europe, an influence that has not yet entirely dissipated.

Most fictional master criminals have a nemesis, a figure who pursues them relentlessly with the aim of bringing them to justice. But one is not enough for Fantômas. He has two - the policeman Juve and the journalist Jérôme Fandor.

As this tale opens Fantômas has kidnapped Jérôme Fandor and shipped him off to South Africa in a crate. The journalist is lucky to escape with his life, a piece of good fortune he owes to an enigmatic young man named Teddy.

Fandor discovers strange things happening in South Africa. The immensely rich Has Elders has made his fortune from diamond mining. That doesn’t seem so strange, except that his mine is in a part of the country where diamonds have never been found, and where geologists would not expect them to be found. And while many people have seen the diamonds supposedly produced from this source, they are always cut stones. No-one has ever seen an uncut stone from this mine. Elders claims the stones are cut on-site but the equipment that is allegedly used for this process is quite unsuitable for cutting diamonds.

Teddy has a strange story as well. He has no idea who his parents were, but he knows the answer is found inside a mysterious skull. He has been instructed by the woman who raised him that the answer cannot be sought until he turns twenty-one, but now the skull has been stolen!

Fandor tends to attribute any dastardly goings-on to the notorious arch-criminal Fantômas. He has seen no sign of him, but Fantômas is a master of disguise so that doesn’t mean much. He is sure that Fantômas will eventually reveal himself. As the story unfolds we find that the brilliant ruthless master criminal has a surprising weakness. He has a daughter. He has not seen her for years but now he is determined to find her.

Even by the standards of pulp fiction the Fantômas books are very very pulpy. The plots are ludicrously unlikely and full of outrageous coincidences. The major plot twist in this one is obvious from about page three. That is to some extent the nature of pulp fiction but the Fantômas books are still rather clunky. Not altogether surprising perhaps, considering that Allain and Souvestre churned out no less than thirty-two Fantômas novels between 1911 and 1913! This is not exactly polished writing.

Mark Steele’s translation is slightly problematical. His prose is a bit on the stodgy side and rather awkward at times, but then the original French was probably not much better given the speed at which these books were written.

Whatever their flaws there’s no denying their central place in the evolution of pulp fiction. The French contribution to pulp fiction was immense and is under-appreciated in English-speaking countries.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy

Eric Ambler’s 1938 novel Epitaph for a Spy is a perfect example of his distinctive approach to spy fiction. Ambler’s heroes were not professional spies but ordinary people caught up in the dangerous web of espionage. They do not thereby metamorphose into brave and noble heroes. They remain ordinary people, struggling desperately to survive, blundering through as best they can.

Josef Vadassy is a man without a nationality. Born in a part of Hungary that became part of Yugoslavia after the redrawing of national frontiers in the wake of the First World War, he had moved to Britain and then found himself unable to obtain either a valid Hungarian passport or a valid Yugoslavian passport. He was unable to obtain British citizenship either. Moving to France to take up a teaching position in Paris merely complicated his problem. The French authorities were willing to allow him to stay but made it clear that if he left the country they would not permit him to return.

Vadassy earns his living as a teacher of languages. It’s not such a bad life. The pay is not over-generous but he is content to live simply. He has his hobby. He is a keen photographer and has been able to save enough money to buy a rather fine (and rather expensive) Zeiss camera. He has also been able to save enough to take a holiday, in the French Mediterranean seaside town of St Gatien. The Hôtel de la Réserve is comfortable and the food is excellent.

Then misfortune strikes, through an unlucky accident. He had placed his camera on a chair and someone took it by mistake, leaving their own camera behind. An identical Zeiss Contax camera. He finds all this out when he puts a film in to be developed at the local pharmacy and is arrested. The film contains photographs of sensitive naval installations at Toulon. He is now accused of espionage. He’s a rather timid man but eventually persuades the man from the Sûreté that he is not a spy. He is not out of the woods yet though. Now he must play the spy himself, helping the Inspector to catch the real spy.

This real spy must be one of the guests. Vadassy, being a complete amateur, has only the haziest notions of how to go about finding a spy and not surprisingly he manages to suspect just about everyone and for all the wrong reasons. What he doesn’t know is that the Inspector from the Sûreté hasn’t been entirely truthful with him and the situation is not quite what he believes it to be.

Ambler’s approach to the spy novel is to concentrate on tension rather than action. If you expect sex and violence in your spy fiction you’ll be very disappointed. Ambler’s style is closer to Somerset Maugham’s (in his superb Ashenden, or the British Agent) - successful spycraft is more about knowing how to manipulate people rather than gunplay or fist fights. A talent for duplicity and a flexible approach to morality is more valuable than physical prowess. Sadly Josef Vadassy is essentially a fairly decent straightforward sort of chap and therefore not at all suited to espionage.

Ambler is also far more interested in the psychological dimension than in plotting. It doesn’t really matter who the real spy is, the focus is what happens to a very ordinary man when he suddenly finds himself in the nightmarish twilight world of espionage and counter-espionage. The important question is not so much whether Vadassy will find the spy but rather whether he can survive this ordeal, and preferably survive it without entirely abandoning his humanity or his own sense of morality.

The photographs of the naval installations are what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin - they’re entirely unimportant in themselves and simply serve to drive the plot.

This is a slightly more cynical brand of spy fiction than the type of story that dominated the field in the first few decades of the 20th century, the type perfected by writers like John Buchan and Sapper. It’s not as extreme in its cynicism as the type of spy fiction that would emerge in the 1960s but it does mark a definite step in that direction.

Ambler’s books were significant also in marking a move away from noble and heroic figures like Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay. Ambler’s amateur spies simply muddle through to the best of their limited abilities.

While earlier fictional spies like Maugham’s sometimes dislike the things they have to do they still believe their work is necessary. Ambler and Graham Greene created a new type of spy fiction where the heroes no longer have that sort of certainty and often don’t even really understand what is going on. They are caught up in a web from which they cannot escape. Few writers ever mastered this type of story to the same extent as Eric Ambler.

A great book that entirely deserves its status as one of the classics of the genre.