vintage SF month 2017


A collection of seven science fantasy stories.

Publication year: 1975
Format: print
Page count: 212
Publisher: Ballantine Books

“Beyond Our Narrow Skies” by Leigh Brackett

Brackett’s introduction to the collection shows something of the science fiction field in the 1970s. She defends the need for space opera or purely entertaining stories which the critics apparently scoff. So nothing much has changed in my lifetime. She also introduces each of the stories and we get a fascinating glimpse into her own writing process; in 1945, at least, she seemed to have been a pure “pantser”; working without an outline or even an ending to aim for. She reveals how she came to collaborate with Ray Bradbury on the first story of the collection.

I was only familiar with Brackett, Bradbury, and Anderson before reading this collection.

“Lorelei of the Red Mist” by Leigh Brackett & Ray Bradbury (originally published in Planet Stories 1946)
Hugh Starke (note that Stark/Starke name!) is a thief and a very successful one, too. This time he has robbed a million credits from the Terro-Venus Mines. He’s racing from the thugs the Mines sent after him, when his ship crashes. Starke wakes up and sees a strange, naked woman. Starke realizes that his own body is dying and the woman says that she will transfer his mind to another body. Starke wakes up again, this time in chains. It turns out that the body he’s given is one of swordsman Conan, who has betrayed his wife and his liege, in Crom Dhu.

This is a fantasy tale set on Venus. Starke quickly becomes accustomed to his new body but finds himself a hated man. The strange woman, Rann, tries to control Starke’s actions for her own ends but Strake resents that and tries to make his own decisions.

“The Star Mouse” by Fredric Brown (originally published in Planet Stories 1942)
Professor Oberburger is a German scientist of rockets and other hard sciences. He lives now in Connecticut and, because he lives alone, talks to himself in a rather thick German accent. He has invented a new type of rocket and wants to send it to the Moon before revealing it to the scientific community. The only thing he can put in the rocket is a mouse which he names Mitkey (yes, after the famous Disney mouse). Poor Mitkey is stuffed into the rocket, with plenty of cheese, and blasted off. But something unexpected happens.

This is quite a humorous and charming short story.

“Return of a Legend” by Raymond Z. Gallun (originally published in Planet Stories 1952)
Port Laribee is an Earth outpost on drying and dying Mars. A few people are attracted to Mars and work there as settlers but the work is hard. Joe Dayton came there as a young man with high dreams. Some years working there quench his dreams, but not his love of Mars. Then Frank Terry and his 10-year-old son Will come to the outpost, too. A year later, Frank is found dead but his son is missing and Joe is one of the people searching for him.

I was very intrigued by the world-building in this story. The story itself is lyrical and haunting but for me the world-building was the best part. In this Mars, too, the civilization had died, leaving only ruins. There’s little oxygen but the vegetation remains and has gone mostly underground. Some of the plants are still on the surface and it’s possible to puncture holes into the plants and get air that way.

“Quest of Thig” by Basil Wells (originally published in Planet Stories 1942)
Thig is part of a three-man exploration team. They’re looking for more planets for their race, the Horde, to conquer. His people are grown in laboratories and the only emotion they know is loyalty to the Horde. However, they also have a machine which can transfer one man’s memories (and emotions) to another’s mind. To find out more about Earth, they capture the first Earthman they see and Thig is ordered to take the Earthman’s memories and explore the planet. It’s easy because with little plastic surgery Thig looks exactly like the Earthman they captured. However, the man is happily married with children and family life affects Thig strangely.

The Earthman is Lew Terry, a writer of Western tales. He’s struggling to write a new story. Unfortunately, the transfer of his memories kills him and so Thig takes his place in Lew’s family.

“The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears” by Keith Bennett (originally published in Planet Stories 1950)
Patrol Rocket One crashes on Venus, in an unexplored jungle. The scientists and military troops, 45 in all, have to walk hundreds of miles to their base camp, encountering all sorts of horrors on the way. Meanwhile, the men at the base camp are trying to think of a way to help them.

A horror/SF story where the military plays the central part. The main character is Lieutenant Hague who leads a group of infantry men.

“The Diversifal” by Ross Rocklynne (originally published in Planet Stories 1945)
Bryan Barrett feels were strongly about social justice. He’s a writer and he brings to light the wrongdoing of the (US) government and big businesses. However, on man has convinced Bryan to go against his conscious. Bryan hates it but is persuaded by that man to become part of the news media which do their best to keep people uninformed. Bryan hates that man but has to endure a whole ten years of him.

A short but very atmospheric story.

“Duel on Syrtis” by Poul Anderson (originally published in Planet Stories 1951)
Kreega is one of them original Martians; he even fought against the humans when they first conquered Mars a hundred years ago. A lot of things have changed since then: the Martians are no longer slaves but they’re very dependent on humans and their higher technology. Kreega is the last one still living in the harsh Martian wilderness. Riordan is an Earthman who has hunted every kind of big game – except a Martian. He knows that he might not get another chance, so he bribes a human official to look the other way when he goes to the wilderness, with a rockhound and a Martian hawk to run down the last true Martian.

Another very atmospheric story set in a dying Mars.

This is a marvelous collection to fans of pulp SF. The only piece I didn’t care for was Bennett’s; I’m not currently in the mood for horror so I might like it at some other time. Sadly, it seems that no further volumes were published.

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The first book in a science fantasy series.

Publication year: 1974
Format: print
Page count: 186
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Brackett’s pulp hero Eric John Stark returns. His parents are from Earth but he spent his childhood on Mercury. After his parents died, a native tribe adopted and raised him, and he doesn’t consider himself a civilized man. After his foster parents were killed, Simon Ashton took the young, barbaric Eric in. Ashton works for the galactic government and now he’s missing. He went to a newly found planet, Skaith, and hasn’t been heard from since. Stark goes after him.

Much like Brackett’s Mars, Skaith is also an ancient, dying planet where the current people live among the ruins of old civilizations, killing and robbing each other. Off-worlders aren’t welcome and are confined to stay in just one of the city-states. Indeed, most of the population has trouble with the whole concept of other people living on other planets. Some of them consider the whole idea blasphemy. However, when Stark finds out that the local equivalent of law, the Wandsmen, have taken Ashton, he’s determined to search the whole planet if need be. Much to his surprise, he hears that he is now the focus of a local prophesy: he’s the Dark Man who will destroy the Lords Protector and lead people away from Skaith. But the mythical and tyrannical Lords Protector and their Wandsmen want to stop anyone from leaving Skaith. Stark must defend himself from constant attacks while looking for Ashton. Some locals could be allies but can he trust them?

The Ginger Star is a grim book. The people on Skaith are oppressed by the Wandsmen and by their own limiting beliefs. They’re often hungry and cold. The Wandsmen’s minions are the Farers who keep the other people in check with violence. The Farers are often naked and don’t do any other work. The planet has several humanoid races which are apparently results of human groups inbreeding too much and/or genetic engineering. The children of the sea live in waters and have gills. They’re also cannibals and make any use of water very dangerous. The human groups practice human sacrifice. Some throw sacrifices to the sea creatures, other sacrifice humans to the Old Sun.

The book has several named female characters. They all have lives away from Stark and some have even high social standing. Almost all of them are naked when we meet them.

After Stark lands on Skaith, we don’t see much use of science. His weapons are taken away so he has to use knife and sword and his bare hands to fight.

This is a fast-paced book and a good addition to the pulp genre. Considering the shortness of the book, the world-building is amazing. Again, people aren’t described much but the places and the setting is vivid. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but it’s definitely not the end of Stark’s adventures on Skaith.

A stand-alone SF/planetary romance book.

Publication year: 1955
Format: print
Page count: 141
Publisher: Ace Books

Matthew Carse was born on Earth but spent most of his life on Mars. He’s a former archeologist and now more of a treasure hunter on the hot, dry, dying plains of Mars. When a native Martian, Penkawr, follows him, he ambushes the Martian who then shows Carse a great treasure: the Sword of Rhiannon, the ancient Martian god, the Cursed One. Penkawr is afraid that if he shows the sword to anyone else, that other person would rob him. Instead, Carse realizes that Penkawr must have gotten the sword out of the legendary Tomb of Rhiannon which should be filled with treasures. So, Carse forces Penkawr to guide them into the tomb. However, once inside Penkawr finds a way to pay back: he shoves Carse into a strange, dark ball of energy.

Carse feels he’s falling for a long time and that even something strange is messing with his brain. When the fall ends, he finds himself back in the tomb but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s traveled to the past. A million years to the past where Mars is verdantly green and the Sea Kings sail the milky oceans. Carse is now in a strange land whose people and customs he doesn’t know. (Thankfully, they all still speak High Martian so Carse only has a strange accent…)

This is pulp fiction with sea pirates on Mars, ancient gods, and curses. Carse explores the old world together with the reader. He’s also a pulp hero, very sure of himself and without much depth. He even gets a thief side-kick for comic relief.

The book has two named female characters. They both are women of power in their respective societies but I got the feeling that the societies are otherwise patriarchal. Ywain is a proud and cruel woman, ruler of her country while the other woman is a seer.

The storyline was different than I expected, which is usually a good thing. Carse is quickly arrested and spends time as a galley slave.

Brackett has a very sparse style. While she does describe places, we don’t get much description of people. For example, Earth humans and Martian humans can tell each other apart with a glance. I don’t know what their differences are. Indeed, individual people aren’t described at all.

This million-year-old Mars has three humanoid races collectively called Halflings. They’ve evolved from different species than apes. I found them fascinating but we don’t spend much time with them.

If you enjoy fast-paced pulp science fiction, you could enjoy this book but don’t expect it to be anything else.

Stand-alone time travel novel.

Publication year: 1955
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1987
Translator: Aulikki and Markus Lehkonen, with a foreword by Juhani Hinkkanen
Format: print
Page count: 190
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Ursa

Eternity is an organization which oversees time travel which is only possible through devices held by Eternity. All Eternity’s employees (called Eternals) are male humans and for the most part they are supposed to live umarried and never have kids. A few can apply for a relationship with temporal (normal) women (who don’t know much or anything about Eternity) from the council. The council chooses the women in question. Eternity’s offices start from the 27th century and stretch all the way until the Sun goes nova and beyond. However, there are some centuries which aren’t accessible to the Eternals. They can go past them but not visit them.

The men have strict hierarchies according to their jobs. Their main job is to increase humanity’s harmony and wellbeing through small changes in reality. These changes are calculated very carefully in advance. Unfortunately, individual humans’ lives don’t count. That’s why the Eternals are supposed to live apart from the normal humans. However, the general populace, or the upper class, on some centuries do know about the general existence of Eternity and even buy or sell stuff from other centuries, under the strict supervision of the Eternals.

The Eternals are originally normal men from various centuries who were picked around age 15 and educated in the Eternity. They were chosen because the fact that they’re missing from reality didn’t cause temporal changes.

Finnish cover

Finnish cover

Andrew Harlan is a Technician, one of the people who do the actual reality changes and are despised by the other Eternals because of it. Harlan has grown pretty emotionless over the years and he’s also caught the eye of Laban Twissell who is the leader of the council. However, right at the start of the book, Harlan is doing something forbidden and we’re quick shown why: a woman.

The concepts in this book are very interesting and I can see how the story has influenced a lot of writers. Unfortunately, the characters didn’t appeal to me at all so, emotionally the book left me cold. Indeed, even though this book spans history until the very end, there’s apparently not a single reality where women are engineers or scientists. That makes me very sad and angry. Apparently, in this world women can only be seducers or objects of lust. The book has only one named female character. I’m reminded of why I don’t generally read these older SF books.

We saw small glimpses into several centuries and they seemed pretty similar. Of course, Eternity’s job is to iron out all big negatives, like wars, famines, and slavery so that’s intentional. The characters talk about, and experience, nearly all time travel paradoxes imaginable, such as seeing themselves. In this book, time travel can affect the past.

Andrea is hosting Vintage Science Fiction Month in January. I’m joining the fun with a batch of Leigh Brackett books.

Ok, so Vintage Month. The idea is to read (or watch or listen to) anything scifi / fantasy / spec fic / fantastika from 1979 or earlier. You can read a book, listen to an audio book, watch old movies or TV shows. Then talk about it online. Or comment on someone else’s post online. Don’t have time to experience something Vintage-y in January? That’s OK too. If you comment on someone else’s Vintage post, guess what? You’re a participant in Vintage Month. Why 1979 you ask? It’s the year I was born.

My tbr:
The Ginger Star (1975), The Hounds of Skaith (1976), The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), The Reavers of Skaith (1976), and Planet Stories 1 (1975) where Brackett is the editor.

Happy reading, everyone!

Books read:
1, Isaac Asimov: End of Eternity
2, Leigh Brackett: The Sword of Rhiannon
3, Leigh Brackett: The Ginger Star
4, Leigh Brackett ed.: The Best of Planet Stories #1