Short Reviews – Red Witch of Mercury by Emmett McDowell

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Red Witch of Mercury by Emmett McDowell appeared in and was double-billed with Spider Men of Gharr as the featured story of the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

I’m no longer surprised by how good the average Planet Stories piece is.  Going by what some of fandom was saying in the subsequent issue’s Vizigraph, the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories was damning evidence of how far the publication has fallen.  If this is the bad, how great the golden age must have been!

Red Witch of Mercury is a story of intrigue, crime and corruption.  It’s a solid thriller, through and through.  Mercury may be on the brink or civil war. A handful of Earthnoid interests control over half of the resources on the small world, including the lucrative wine trade.  There is some resentment among the Mercurian populace, but the Earth government has just granted the Mercurian people a new degree of freedom and self-governance.  Though revolution could wreck the advancements the Mercurians have made towards independence, rumors are circulating that the Mercurian Patriot movement may still consider violent insurrection to drive the trusts off once and for all.  With the coming of the Festival of Rains, a celebration of the union of the rain god Nemi and his bride the soil which “would make a Roman Orgy look like a Sunday School picnic”, there’s fear that the streets could explode in riots at a moment’s notice.

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Short Reviews, Formula for Conquest, by James R. Adams

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Formula for Conquest by James R. Adams appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

James R. Adams is not very good at writing dialogue.  By the third page, narrator Tod Mulhane had thrice referred to himself as a “soldier of fortune”, and when he gave his background speech that spent a paragraph more or less saying ‘I had it hard, and I could bore you with the details, but I won’t’, I could not help but think of Home Movies spoofing detective/crime noir.  It’s a shame, really, because Adams does a decent job with everything BUT dialogue, so once you get past the clunky and almost cartoonish way everyone in this talks, you’re left with a pretty fun story with some really wild elements.

In “Formula for Conquest”, most of the Solar worlds are inhabited.  A race of pink-haired Jovians who can’t pronounce the letter T are at the head of an evil coalition of worlds – Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus – led by Xan VIII against the allied worlds of Earth, Mars and Neptune.  The story unfolds with scientist August “Augie” Q. Twilken approaching our “soldier of fortune” (it’s never clear what Tod’s actual job is) in a seedy drug-filled bar; he has a formula that will speed up the evolution of the Venusians so they will be able to throw in with the allied worlds against the Jovian coalition.  Augie’s plan is thwarted when Mon Pordo, the head of Xan VIII’s secret police who looks like walrus-camel Jabba the “Hut“, captures the duo and takes them and the evolution formula back to Jupiter.

The Jovians plan on using the evolution formula on the Plutonians to create allies of their own.  Mon Pordo has arranged to use the formula on Pluto’s emissaries, the best and brightest, to Jupiter and will present the hyper-evolved Plutonians to a formal gathering of the potentates and generals from the three evil gas planets. Continue reading

Short Reviews – The Bubble Dwellers by Ross Rocklynne

[Originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Bubble Dwellers by Ross Rocklynne appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories and was one of two ‘novels’ in this issue.

The Bubble Dwellers was definitely one of those fantastic stories that makes the pulps worth checking out.  An evil hypnotist, strange humanoids with a mystic connection to their once glorious past, and bad-ass beauty worth risking life and limb for are all to be found on a hostile alien world of mystery.

Sidney Hallmeyer and Will Carrist are having a smoke, drinking coffee and waiting to die.  The heat shielding on their ship just isn’t strong enough, and they’re going to burn up just like the previous two missions sent to research magnetic fields on Mercury and emanating from the sun.  Just as they’re about to shut off their life support and cooling systems, Sid and Will receive an SOS through the solar static coming from a hitherto unknown planet Vulcan.

Doctor Roberto Zondat, a notorious criminal who had to flee earth after hypnotizing several millionaires to write him into their wills then commit suicide, has holed up on the tiny fiery world of Vulcan.  Zondat intends to establish an empire in the hollowed out magma chambers with the help of enslaved natives.  Edith Dupre, a space-racer who had gone missing a few months before and been stranded on Vulcan ever since, managed to escape the grubby mitts of Zondat and his henchmen to put out the call for help.

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Short Reviews – Battlefield in Black, by George A. Whittington

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Battlefield in Black by George A. Whittington appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

Captain Jon McPartland has problems.  His girlfriend Almira is the daughter of Marshal Denton, “Supreme Commander of all Solar System forces”.  The peoples of Earth and her solar colonies are governed by a “Congress of Specialists”, which is sort of like a cross between a PhD review board and a Senate.  Academics are running everything and the worlds have been disarmed.  Only the “Space Patrol” remains to enforce law in the Solar System.  Almira is trying to get into Congress as a head shrink by putting together a presentation psychoanalyzing Jon; as the daughter of a military bigshot who’s presenting on a bona fide war hero, why she’s a shoe-in to be welcomed into the ranks of the ruling class!  Jon doesn’t want to have his head served up on a platter to a bunch of egg heads who’d probably like to put him out of a job, and the couple has a big fight right on the eve of disaster.

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Short Reviews – Grifters’ Asteroid by H.L. Gold (as Harold C. Fosse)

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

“Short Reviews” are my reviews of short science fiction stories.  Sometimes the reviews themselves are short, but not always.  I started off covering some 70s Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but have moved to focusing on older pulps (Planet Stories right now).  The purpose of this series is let people know what kinds of stories were being told in the pulps and share just how varied and awesome they are.  I’m very excited about bringing this series to a wider audience at Castalia House.  For those interested in previous installments, they can be found here.

Grifters’ Asteroid appeared in the May 1943 issue of Planet Stories.  The version reviewed was the 1953 reprint in the Fall issue of Tops in Science Fiction where it is attributed to Gold’s pseudonym Harold C. Fosse. 

What could be more enjoyable that watching cons get conned?  Watching cons get conned on an alien world, of course!  Grifters’ Asteroid takes the classic story of conmen trying to get the better of each other and puts it in the backwaters of out space.

Joe and Harvey are snake-oil salesmen who have been pushing their putrid panacea all across the solar system and at last found themselves in a lonely saloon on Planetoid 42, a tiny rock with a lovely view of Jupiter.  After quenching their thirst and taking a moment to gawk and be amazed at the proprietor’s six-armed alien servant, Joe and Harvey get the bill:

“If you gents ‘re finished at the bar, your drinks’ll be forty buckos.”

Harvey grinned puzzledly.  “We didn’t take any whiskey.”

“Might as well.  Water’s five buck’s a glass.  Liquor’s free with every chaser.”

Having been called every kind of crook in the book, Angus Johnson, saloon proprietor, mayor, justice of the peace, official recorder and fire chief of Planetoid 42, explains that first of all, he doesn’t get much business on the tiny worldlet, and secondly, the water tastes awful so has to be brought in buckets to be purified.  Harvey admits the explanation puts “a different complexion on what seemed at first to be an unconscionable middle-man between Nature and man’s thirst.”

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Short Reviews – The Enchantress of Venus by Leigh Brackett

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

[Incidentally, Cirsova Publishing’s trade paperback of The Enchantress of Venus is out today.]

The Enchantress of Venus by Leigh Brackett appeared as the featured cover story in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories.  This novella is the second (chronologically the 3rd) book in the original Eric John Stark Trilogy.  While Stark is pretty badass, I’d only peg him as 4th level.  Also of note, this may be the first Brackett story I’ve read without a highly erotic scene of strangulation!

I’d planned to talk a bit more about plot of The Enchantress of Venus, but unlike so many of the stories featured in Short Reviews, this one is readily available online and for free as a work in the public domain, so instead I’ll focus mainly on the Enchantress herself.

Damsel clearly not in distress. That guy on the other hand...

Damsel clearly not in distress. That guy on the other hand…

Eric John Stark has returned to Venus in search of his friend Helvi, who has gone missing while searching for his brother.  Sensing that the pirates he’d been sailing the Red Seas of Venus with are going to pull a fast one on him and sell him into slavery, Stark dives into the thick red mists.  What ensues is a compelling drama about the last of a decadent and inbred family, the Lhari, who rules over the pirate port and uses the labor of captive to excavate the ruins of a lost reptilian race at the bottom of the bay, where the secrets of an ancient life-shaping weapon supposedly rests.

Enchantress of Venus is a slow burn compared to some of Brackett’s other stories, but the atmosphere she creates is as thick as the gaseous seas. The Lhari, particularly Varra, the titular villainess, are delicious in their cruelty, not just to those they oppress, but to each other.  While Ywain’s cruelty in Sword of Rhiannon stems from striving to be more like a man, the son her father didn’t have but needed to hold onto the empire, Varra’s cruelty comes from a place that is utterly feminine and biologically needy – the Lhari are dying out in no small part because they are horribly in-bred, as they look down on the other races and will not mix with them; Varra knows that if she’s to have any future as a ruler, it will not be as her cousin’s bride.

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Short Reviews – Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp

Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

L. Sprague de Camp offers up something of a planetary romance with Finished, where I can’t quite tell if he just bungled his premise or was poorly spoofing Sword & Planet and Campbell ran it because he thought it would make the folks over at Planet Stories look like rubes.

Finished

Why do I feel like the genre is being mocked?

The truth may be somewhere in between. Finished is a mess of weird names and affectations, such that entire paragraphs barely register as coherent ideas expressed in English. De Camp is a smart guy who enjoys being smart, but he’s also a fairly decent writer who has done some really good humorous SFF that, while funny, didn’t quite dip into twee. So despite being a mess, there’s a damn good story at its core that makes me wonder why he didn’t work to tell it just a little bit better.

A planet in contact with the Galactic FederationTM is being kept at arm’s-length by the advanced space-faring culture; they’re just too primitive and barbaric to be granted access to the technical and philosophical knowledge of Earth (Ertsu). The planet has a perpetual regency: the “one king” of the planet is a revered and sacred mummy relic, and the princes of the planet rule in his name. The mummy is fraudulently taken off the planet, and the Prince demands the right to pursue it to earth to recover their world’s most sacred treasure.

Turns out, the theft was a sham. The prince allowed, nay facilitated, the theft of the mummy which could be stuffed with literature and technical manuals so that they might be smuggled back to his world.

There’s a large naval battle as one of the representatives of the galactic federation pursues the rogue prince, who fakes his death, faked a mummy (lost in the battle), and ultimately returns to his people with the promise of a new golden age.

Again, not a bad story, but it suffered greatly in the telling, and I would’ve much rather it be told by a Brackett or a Kline. It’s not something I can easily explain—not within the limitations of time I have for this column—so I can only suggest that you read it for yourself.

This is the last day of the Cirsova Issue 9 & 10 Kickstarter! Be sure to back today if you haven’t already!