Sunday, May 21, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, review part one

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the more notable practitioners in the popular pulp genre of sword and planet stories. The sword and planet genre began with Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s interesting that two of the best writers in this genre were women, Catherine L. Moore (author of the Northwest Smith stories and Leigh Brackett. Brackett enjoyed even greater success as a screenwriter, in which connection she is best known for her contributions to some of the best movies of Howard Hawks including The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. She was also the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back (or at least she wrote the first draft).

Gollancz have collected Brackett’s early sword-and-planet adventures in their Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories. Since the twelve stories included in this volume are mostly novella-length and a couple just about qualify as short novels a review is inevitably going to be rather lengthy. As a result I’m going to split this review into two (or it might possibly end up being three) parts.

First up, her very early sword-and-planet stories from the period 1942-48. 

The Sorcerer of Rhiannon is a very early story, dating to 1942. The hero, Max Brandon, is a kind of Indiana Jones-style archaeologist/adventurer and he’s searching for lost treasures on the now dry bed of one of the seas of Mars. He finds the wreck of a ship that sank aeons ago. At the time he finds the wreck he is in deep trouble, hopelessly lost and without food or water. Finding the wreck can’t help him now. There’s not going to be anyone alive to help him there. And there isn’t anyone alive. Not exactly alive. But there are two people there. They’re not alive but they’re not dead either, and they have things they wish to do and they need Max Brandon’s help and saying no isn’t going to do him any good.

The ideas of mind control and possession seemed to have a good deal for attraction for Brackett, popping up in many of her early stories. The idea is handled competently enough in The Sorcerer of Rhiannon. It is obviously an early effort but it has a reasonably good blend of action and atmosphere.

The Jewel of Bas dates from 1944 and mind control is again a central concern. It’s handled more ambitiously and more interestingly this time. The hero is a kind of gypsy, a wandering minstrel who, along with his wife, is captured by rather creepy grey beast-men. They live on a very strange planet on which even stranger things are starting to happen. The planet is experiencing moments of darkness, a frightening thing on a world that has never ever experienced a single moment of darkness. There are megalomaniacal androids, a hidden world inside a mountain and an immortal wizard who may or may not be able (or willing) to save them. 

Again there’s some nice otherworldly atmosphere and some genuinely weird and disturbing moments, and overall it’s an exiting and enjoyable story.

Terror Out of Space takes us to Venus where a cop has been given an assignment that has turned into a nightmare. He has to take into custody an alien being about which little is known except that it is very female and she has the power to enslave men in a very complete way. She is also telepathic. Her voice can drive a man mad but if he looks into her eyes he is truly lost, even though she does not actually have eyes. This is a tale that veers into horror territory and can be considered as an early and very fine example of the mind vampire genre.

The novella Lorelei of the Red Mist was half completed when Brackett was offered a job she couldn’t refuse, as screenwriter on Howard Hawks’ production of The Big Sleep. Ray Bradbury completed the story, apparently without having any idea how Brackett had intended to end it.

A race of man-like creatures lives beneath the Red Sea on Venus. Some of these aquatic men have left the sea to live on land, and have enslaved the humans living near the sea. Those who have left the sea and those who reman hate each other. Another race has appeared on the scene, basically human sea rovers, and they’re engaged in a ferocious war with the formerly sea-dwelling man-creatures.

This sea is not an ordinary sea. It’s a very very strange sea indeed.

All this takes place in a more or less unknown land beyond the a mighty range on Venus. Hugh Starke, a daring thief, is on the run and his only hope of escape is to take his rocket aircraft over that mountain range where no-one will dare to pursue him.

Now he’s in the strange and primitive world beyond the mountains, a world of heroism and war. And he has a new body to get used to. That’s tricky enough but he doesn’t have complete control of this body. There is another mind contesting his control. Also there are people trying to kill him for things that the previous owner of the body did.

So this is another variation on Brackett’s favourite theme of mind control, and a very interesting variation it is. It’s a violent, dark and quite macabre tale. And it’s an extremely good story.

The Moon That Vanished, from 1948, concerns the moon of Venus. Venus of course does not have a moon, but we learn that in the remote past it did have a moon. That moon may have been destroyed or it may have crashed into the surface of Venus, or perhaps it was the moon god that crashed into the planet. The legend is not clear on this point but it is clear about one thing - if a man can reach the Moonfire he can become a god. No-one knows what the Moonfire is and no-one knows where it is. In any case it is forbidden by the priests to seek the Moonfire.

There is one man who knows where the Moonfire is to be found. David Heath is from Earth and he found the Moonfire. Actually many men have found the Moonfire but what makes David Heath unique is that he returned from his quest alive. Alive he certainly is but he is a wreck of a human being, haunted by the shadows in his mind and find temporary oblivion in drugs. And now someone wants him to take them to the Moonfire.

This is a tale of adventure, with a plentiful supply of perilous obstacles to be overcome in order to reach the Moonfire. It becomes something much more interesting when David Heath and his two companions reach their destination to find that what they were seeking was not what they expected even if perhaps it was the fate for which they were destined.

This story does not involve mind control as such but it does deal with the powers of the mind as well as the nature of dreams and reality. It’s another ambitious story (a novella really) that succeeds extremely well.

It’s obvious that at this stage of her career Brackett was still finding her feet but she was doing so very quickly and very impressively. The Moon That Vanished is a very accomplished novella indeed. Brackett has a strong feel for atmosphere. She has her hobby horse, the powers of the mind and the ways in which those powers can be controlled and manipulated, but if it’s a fixation it’s one she makes very effective use of and in each story she manages to find a slightly different angle from which to attack the problem. Being a pulp writer she understands the necessity for keeping the plot moving along at all times. She is (at this stage of her career at least) a pulp writer but she’s a skillful and thoughtful pulp writer. On the basis of these early tales I’m pretty impressed. More to follow in a later post.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Missing Money-Lender by W. Stanley Sykes

W. Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels in the early 30s. The Missing Money-Lender (also published under the title The Man Who Was Dead) was the first of these, published in 1931.

As you’d expect from an author with a medical background many of the key plot elements involve science and medicine. There’s an obvious debt to R. Austin Freeman but there’s also an affinity to the police procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts.

A money-lender, Mr Israel Levinsky, has gone missing. Inspector Ridley of the Southbourne Constabulary is a conscientious and competent officer and his investigation is thorough and efficient but it produces no results. In fact there are scarcely any clues. The one lead that seemed promising ended up going nowhere. It involved a Dr Osborne who had been called in to treat a fellow medical practitioner, a Dr Laidlaw, who subsequently died. There seemed to be no direct connection between the deceased medico and the vanished money-lender but there were several indirect connections and it was with considerable regret that Inspector Ridley had to abandon that particular lead. 

With Mr Levinsky still missing the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and asks Scotland Yard for help. As luck would have it Detective Inspector Drury and Inspector Ridley are old friends so they have no difficulty working together. And finally persistence starts to pay off. 

This first half of the novel is almost pure police procedural, with patient methodical routine police work producing slow but definite progress. 

Of course to launch a successful prosecution for murder it is very desirable to have a body and that’s where Inspectors Ridley and Drury strike real problems. There is a body, possibly more than one, but how many bodies there actually are is uncertain. The identity of the various bodies is even more uncertain. And as for finding a cause of death - there seems to be no hope of that at all. 

The story now starts to move into impossible crime territory. Perhaps not actually impossible crimes, but exasperatingly inexplicable crimes. While police procedurals often deal with crimes that are straightforward once the detective has sifted through all the clues the impossible crime story by its very nature usually involves bizarre and ingenious murder methods. 

This novel is thus a bit of a hybrid but it works quite well.

Inspector Drury is the right kind of detective for a police procedural. He believes in teamwork and he believes in delegating important aspects of the investigation to his subordinates, trusting them to be quite capable of doing their jobs efficiently (and his subordinates are extremely competent). He doesn’t bother with leaps of intuition. If he can’t find a solution then he goes back to square one and combs through the evidence once again. If you’re sufficiently painstaking in your methods you should get results, even if it takes a while. 

In the second half when the impossible crime element starts to predominate we see Inspector Drury unexpectedly receiving help from an amateur sleuth (although admittedly an amateur whose own area of expertise is highly relevant to the case in hand). And suddenly we have some theorising rather than just methodical sifting of evidence.

Whether the impossible crime really would have been plausible in 1931 is a question I can’t answer and I don’t really care. It’s a very cool and ingenious murder method and it works for me. The details are perhaps just a little fantastic but for a keen golden age detection enthusiast that just adds to the enjoyment.

Mr Israel Levinsky is of course Jewish but that fact plays virtually no role at all in the story. I doubt if even the most politically correct modern reader could find anything here to worry them.

The Missing Money-Lender is a marvel of intricate and ingenious plotting and while it falls into the scientific detection category it never becomes excessively dry or dull. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as an overlooked gem but I found it to be a very satisfying and entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust was published in 1961 at a time when its author, Arthur C. Clarke, was at the peak of his powers as a science fiction writer. A Fall of Moondust is not quite typical of Clarke’s oeuvre, this being the closest he came to writing a science fiction thriller.

Back in 1961 there was a popular theory that much of the Moon’s surface comprised vast seas of dust and it’s this idea that provides the inspiration for the story. The idea turned out to be incorrect but it’s still a great setting and a great story.

It is somewhere around the late 21st century, on the Moon (which is now well and truly inhabited). The Selene is a dust cruiser, a kind of pleasure boat that takes tourists on jaunts across the the largest of the lunar dust seas, the Sea of Thirst.

The Sea of Thirst is more than just a dust bowl. This is incredibly fine dust that covers the lunar surface to a depth of anything up to a hundred metres. The combination of the fineness of the dust, the hard vacuum of space and the Moon’s weak gravity causes the dust to behave like a fluid, but not quite like any normal fluid. You can sail the sea of dust, if you have a lightweight dust ski, or even better a dust cruiser like the Selene

The Moon is not always as predictable as its reputation as a dead world would suggest. It is capable of springing surprises and one of these surprises brings disaster to the Selene. The dust cruiser and her twenty-two passengers and crew sinks. 

The Selene is perfectly intact and her passengers are unharmed but they are stuck fifteen metres beneath the surface of the Sea of Thirst, beneath thousands of tons of dust.

A very popular genre in movies at the time was the submarine disaster movie. The best of all these movies was the 1950 British film Morning Departure, in which a rescue operation is mounted to try to save the lives of sailors stuck in a submarine which sank during a training exercise. A Fall of Moondust is very very similar in general outline to Morning Departure and I would bet money that Clarke had seen the movie and had been inspired by it.

However a dust sea is not quite the same as an ordinary sea. In some ways the lunar dust behaves very much like water and in other ways it behaves very differently. The difficulties faced by the rescue operation are similar in some ways and very different in others to those faced by a submarine rescue operation. It’s the similarities to the submarine disaster genre that make this novel such a tense and gripping tale and it’s the intriguing differences that make A Fall of Moondust a genuine hard science fiction novel.

Finding the vanished dust cruiser is difficult enough. Rescuing her passengers and crew is  quite simply something that has never been attempted before. There is no established procedure. The entire operation will have to be improvised. Even if nothing before goes wrong the odds are not that good, and of course something further does go wrong.

Clarke always had a reputation for being a writer with zero interest in characterisation. In this book he makes a few token efforts to bring some of the characters to life. These efforts are notably unsuccessful. Fortunately Clarke does not allow these feeble attempts at characterisation to slow down his story. As it happens he has a terrific story to tell and it’s the scientific and technological challenges that drive the story. 

What is surprising is that Clarke seems to have an instinctive understanding of the demands of the thriller genre. He builds the tension rather nicely and every time it looks like everything is going to be OK he throws a new disaster at the hapless passengers. It’s a genuinely exciting tale and given the unusual and indeed unprecedented conditions in which it takes place we really don’t know just how the rescuers are going to go about the task, mainly because they don’t really know themselves. They’re going to have to invent an entirely novel method of rescue and nobody has any way of knowing if it will work.

A Fall of Moondust has the hard SF elements that Clarke’s fans always enjoy but with enough action and excitement to give it a potential appeal even to those who aren’t hardcore Arthur C. Clarke fans. Highly recommended.