Random Reading 15
David Langford

Old Stuff

Nelson Bond, The Thirty-First of February (1949). A vaguely familiar title once announced as an episode in James Branch Cabell's "Witch-Woman" fantasy sequence, only three of whose ten planned stories were written. Bond persuaded Cabell to grant him a "Conveyance of Title in Fee Simple" (reproduced on the back jacket and within), giving permission in doggerel to use the title. How could a Cabell enthusiast resist? The thirteen tales here are mainly slick fantasies, but include some rougher-hewn sf like the classic shaggy-god story "The Cunning of the Beast" (1942 Bluebook as "Another World Begins") and the alien-nasty yarn "The Monster from Nowhere" (1939 Fantastic Adventures). Kingsley Amis had quoted and deplored the latter's "repulsive style" in New Maps of Hell, so one passage was eerily familiar. The interesting thing about the monster is that it's four-dimensional, manifesting to puny humans as a number of separate, shifting 3D cross-sections as its various appendages intersect our space. Should this be added to the SF Encyclopedia theme entry DIMENSIONS? Yes and no: the title was already cited there, but with a different date and credited to Donald Wandrei. Next question: is Wandrei's "The Monster from Nowhere" (1935 Argosy Weekly) also about a 4D horror? No, according to the collective erudition of the Fictionmags mailing list, where I learned the source of this mix-up: the Bond story was collected in Groff Conklin's Best of Science Fiction (1946), whose first edition wrongly credited it to Wandrei. Another Encyclopedia error corrected! This is how I spend my days.

Ernest Bramah, A Little Flutter (1930). Mildly fantastic comedy whose sole genre element is the existence of that unlikely giant bird, the Patagonian Groo-Groo. This is initially described as an alarming "five yards two feet in height", which must be a typo or a joke since it's central to the plot that the thing is man-sized. All that actually remains of this prodigy by the time the story gets under way is the skin, and our hero – who for purposes of conditional inheritance must feign an interest in ornithology, and for reasons of mindboggling auctorial manipulation has an unwanted guest (in fact an escaped criminal) on his hands – finds it convenient to have the Groo-Groo skin inhabited. But how long can this impersonation fool the bird experts, including a learned Scot of such caricatured awfulness that modern British readers are likely to have a nervous sense that the Race Relations Act is looking over their shoulder? A very minor Bramah fiction, whose deep obscurity I now understand.

Eric Linklater, The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949), a children's fantasy of undersea adventure featuring magical breathing-under-water oil, a fellowship of immortal ex-sailors led by Davy Jones, and a pleasing reification of the lines of latitude and longitude as actual ropes which are knotted at their intersections and must remain so for the safety of the world. Naturally the dastardly pirates of the title have plans (somewhat poorly motivated, but never mind) to "improve" on the existing knots, at risk of rendering everything utterly higgledy-piggledy. Whimsical fun – Cully the Talking and indeed Singing Octopus is a notable character – but it could have used a trifle more piratical menace. The two main buccaneer leaders huff and puff and plot at length, but (unlike, say, the sinister Abner Brown of John Masefield's not dissimilarly toned The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights) don't seem to have it in them to do anything truly dastardly. Linklater's previous juvenile venture The Wind on the Moon (1944) won him a Carnegie Medal; this non-sequel didn't.

Richard C. Meredith, We All Died at Breakaway Station (1969). This was the launch title for the 1980s UK reprint series "Venture SF", a Hamlyn imprint that promised good old-fashioned space opera: "DO YOU REMEMBER when humans were heroes, androids didn't have social hang-ups and the only good alien was a dead one?" Like most Venture titles, We All Died at Breakaway Station is a reprint from Robert Hale Ltd (motto: "it doesn't have to be good, we have a guaranteed UK library sale"). Not that this is a seriously bad novel. Meredith works hard to put across the story of a heroically doomed rearguard action in space, but can't quite deliver his prologue's promise of an epic to rival Thermopylae, Horatius at the Bridge, and the Alamo. The alien Jillies are adequately nasty, and certainly the only good one is a dead one, but they're coming in overwhelming force. Holding the pass, as it were, are two starships crewed by ruined, cyborgized human casualties of too many past defeats. Can they delay a Jillie breakthrough long enough for the vital FTL message to be relayed by Breakaway Station? This could have worked well had Meredith engineered a steady, inexorable build-up of narrative momentum towards his foretold end. Unfortunately it suffers from twitchy jitters in the form of many flashbacks and cross-cuts, generating a perpetual sense of confusion about time and place – ah, now we're back in the present, or are we? Quite an interesting failure.

A.A. Milne, Toad of Toad Hall (1929). Acquired partly for completism and partly out of sheer curiosity as to how Milne, a competent playwright and popular as such in his day, had adapted Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for the stage. As expected, the more mystical bits ("Wayfarers All", "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn") had to go, and what remains works well. But I found myself just a tiny bit shocked that, for the sake of a rousing finale, Milne allows the supposedly reformed Toad to sing his "Last Little Song" not as a private fling in his bedroom but as the closing party's central attraction – and not only with every evidence of non-reformation but so seductively as to lure all the rest of the cast into an impromptu song-and-dance of unadulterated Toad-worship. Stage direction: "The incense of their adoration streams up to the be-laurelled TOAD ..." At the very last, even the hitherto reliable curmudgeon Badger succumbs. Even Badger! The pillars of reason topple.

J.B. Priestley, Adam in Moonshine (1927) . His first novel, which according to the 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is driven by "sf concerns". Hardly more so, though, than The Prisoner of Zenda. On mentioning his surname to chance companions on a train, our hero Adam Stewart is Ruritanianly mistaken for the Pretender awaited by conspirators hoping to restore England's Stuart monarchy in place of boring old Parliament. This ineffectual revolutionary movement, already well known to the police, includes three gorgeous young ladies with whom Adam enjoys romantic but chaste mini-adventures while evading the dogged constabulary. There are hints that Priestley had, like so many others, got drunk on G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday (1908): the huge and mysterious Baron who leads the "Companions of the Rose" is a Sunday figure without the undertow of menace, delighting in grand gestures like ordering thirty pairs of false whiskers or – when the police swoop at last – sending Adam and his number-three love interest (she drives the getaway car) on a headlong moonlit escape with a case of "secret papers" that proves to contain only the makings of an excellent picnic. Light-hearted silliness.