Fafhrd & Gray Mouser: A Rebooted Franchise?

Something that didn’t quite register until after yesterday’s post: Fafhrd & Gray Mouser underwent a reboot. This is not the sort of reboot that most people think of today with movies, where a property undergoes a remake and, if it’s a success, it becomes ongoing. Think more of like when Futurama got a reboot via a season of direct to video movies after its cancellation.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser was a pulp property whose creator gave it a grim-dark (grimmer-darker?) reboot following the release of the anthology “Two Sought Adventure”.

When people are “reading it in order”, they’re reading prequels first. It’s starting with Phantom Menace.

After other anthologies were released in the late 60s, Two Sought Adventure (1957), which anthologized all but one of the duo’s pulp-era adventures, was rebranded and re-released as “[Volume 2:] Swords Against Death” with additional stories and continuity material, making it something of a “Special Edition Re-release”. Never mind that it was re-released a couple years after what retroactively became volumes 3 through 5.

That’s right, the publication order of Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books is pseudo-II, III, IV, V, with I and II published around the same time, then VI and VII several years later.

The first Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stuff I read was Swords Against Death, which is pretty consistent, though the later stories do stick out like sore thumbs a bit. Yet I heard a lot of gripes from people starting with Swords and Deviltry. So I recommended folks check out the earlier stuff in volume 2 first. But now, reading some of the later stuff myself, I can definitely see where the gripes come from, especially from people who go into it looking for pulpy sword and sorcery adventure.

There were six years between the last pulp-era Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser story and Lean Times in Lankhmar. There had been some lapses earlier (5 between The Sunken Land and Adept’s Gambit and 4 between Adept’s Gambit and Claws from the Night). The first several stories, however, were one after another from 1939 through 1943; and as I’ve noted in my reviews of pulps at Castalia House, a major tonal shift in SFF started taking place in the early 50s. The shift is even more dramatic in the 60s and 70s, the period during which the vast bulk of the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser canon was written.

I’m not saying “Don’t read the later Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories”– not at all. But I am saying I may be closing in WHY those stories feel so different and readers who’ve seen my praise for the pulpy goodness of Swords Against Death feel confused and let down when they jump into the franchise elsewhere.

While the duo have their origins in the pulps, the majority of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories come from the much later New Wave of science fiction and the Sword & Sorcery Renaissance which was in many ways a grotesque of the genre which had birthed those characters.

So, when I’m recommending that people should read Swords Against Death first, “even though it’s the second volume”, think of me like the guy saying “If you want to get into Star Wars, maybe you should watch A New Hope first, even if it is the Special Edition* and the box says Episode IV.”

*:Except really, Bazaar of the Bizarre is a lot better than CGI Jabba the Hutt

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A Look at the Opening Chapter of Tarzan Triumphant

I started reading Tarzan Triumphant yesterday, and once again Burroughs has managed to blow me away. The setup is so entirely unexpected, especially given what one always hears about Burroughs and the pulps and the “toxic masculinity” of the era and eeeeeevil colonialism and all of that. But it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Burroughs.

Burroughs is always very deliberate in his writing. Nothing is wasted, and there’s meaning and purpose to his prose, so the order in which he establishes things is important. The stories he tells often are comprised of many threads that eventually weave together to tell a tale, and the suspense in a Burroughs story is when those threads threaten to become frayed or unwoven — what must come together seems to come apart until, at last, everything is tightly and neatly tied up where it should be. It is unsurprising he begins this tale with a prologue with the words “Time is the warp of the tapestry which is life,” and aims to pursue this analogy most directly in this work.

It is important when Burroughs chooses to first establish his story’s heroine, second establish his hero, thirdly bring in his villain, and finally Tarzan. Yes, the protagonist of Tarzan Triumphant is a woman, Lady Barbara Collis; her try-hard love interest shall be the young Lafayette Smith, who will clearly need to bootstrap his way up to being awesome enough; the villain shall be Leon Stabutch, the vile cats-paw of Stalin; and at last we know that Tarzan will at some point aid both Barbara and Lafayette while protecting Africa from filthy commies.

AS far as I know the first Earl of Whimsey has nothing to do with this story, and so we are not particularly interested in the fact that it was not so much the fine grade of whiskey that he manufactured that won him his earldom as the generous contribution he made to the Liberal party at the time that it was in power a number of years ago.

Being merely a simple historian and no prophet, I cannot say whether we shall see the Earl of Whimsey again or not. But if we do not find the Earl particularly interesting, I can assure you that the same may not be said of his fair daughter, Lady Barbara Collis.

The African sun, still an hour high, was hidden from the face of the earth by solid cloud banks that enveloped the loftier peaks of the mysterious, impenetrable fastnesses of the forbidding Ghenzi Mountain range that frowned perpetually upon a thousand valleys little known to man.

From far above this seeming solitude, out of the heart of the densely banked clouds, there came to whatever ears there might be to hear a strange and terrifying droning, suggesting the presence of a preposterous Gargantuan bumblebee circling far above the jagged peaks of Ghenzi. At times it grew in volume until it attained terrifying proportions; and then gradually it diminished until it was only a suggestion of a sound, only to grow once again in volume and to again retreat.

For a long time, invisible and mysterious, it had been describing its great circles deep in the concealing vapors that hid it from the earth and hid the earth from it.

Lady Barbara Collis was worried. Her petrol was running low. At the crucial moment her compass had failed her, and she had been flying blind through the clouds looking for an opening for what now seemed an eternity of hours to her.

She had known that she must cross a lofty range of mountains, and she had kept at a considerable altitude above the clouds for this purpose; but presently they had risen to such heights that she could not surmount them; and, foolishly, rather than turn back and give up her projected non-stop flight from Cairo to the Cape, she had risked all in one effort to penetrate them.

For an hour Lady Barbara had been indulging in considerable high powered thinking, intermingled with the regret that she had not started thinking a little more heavily before she had taken off, as she had, against the explicit command of her sire. To say that she was terrified in the sense that fear had impaired any of her faculties would not be true. However, she was a girl of keen intelligence, fully competent to understand the grave danger of her situation; and when there loomed suddenly close to the tip of her left wing a granite escarpment that was lost immediately above and below her in the all enveloping vapor, it is no reflection upon her courage that she involuntarily caught her breath in a quick gasp and simultaneously turned the nose of her ship upwards until her altimeter registered an altitude that she knew must be far higher than the loftiest peak that reared its head above any part of Africa.

Rising in a wide spiral, she was soon miles away from that terrifying menace that had seemingly leaped out of the clouds to seize her. Yet even so, her plight was still as utterly hopeless as it well could be. Her fuel was practically exhausted. To attempt to drop below the cloud banks, now that she knew positively that she was among lofty mountains, would be utter madness; and so she did the only thing that remained to her.

Alone in the cold wet clouds, far above an unknown country, Lady Barbara Collis breathed a little prayer as she bailed out. With the utmost meticulosity she counted ten before she jerked the rip cord of her chute.

We often hear about women being relegated to background roles, being there to prop up the big strong men, etc. etc.  Not so, here!

While one might argue that Burroughs starts with his protagonist’s father, his dismissal of him is very important. The prologue speaks of the far reaching importance of long ago events and individuals well known and obscure; in the opening of his first chapter, Burroughs is simply reminding us that it is Barbara who is important.

No damsel, but a true dame – smart, clever, capable… but in a bit of a scrape, else there’d be little drama to unfold. This budding Amelia Earhart has parachuted into danger and adventure, where the first person she meets and bonds with will not be a man but another clever woman who sees this lady-from-the-skies as an opportunity to get out from under the thumb of the zealous old codgers of her tribe, but I’m getting ahead.

At that same instant Fate was reaching out to gather other threads—far flung threads—for this tiny fragment of her tapestry.

Kabariga, chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo, knelt before Tarzan of the Apes many weary marches to the south of the Ghenzi Mountain.

In Moscow, Leon Stabutch entered the office of Stalin, the dictator of Red Russia.

Ignorant of the very existence of Kabariga, the black chief, or of Leon Stabutch or Lady Barbara Collis, Lafayette Smith, A.M., Ph.D., Sc.D., professor of geology at the Phil Sheridan Military Academy, boarded a steamship in the harbor of New York.

Mr. Smith was a quiet, modest, scholarly looking young man with horn rimmed spectacles, which he wore not because of any defect of eyesight but in the belief that they added a certain dignity and semblance of age to his appearance. That his spectacles were fitted with plain glass was known only to himself and his optician.

Graduated from college at seventeen the young man had devoted four additional years to acquiring further degrees, during which time he optimistically expected the stamp of dignified maturity to make itself evident in his face and bearing; but, to his intense dismay, his appearance seemed quite as youthful at twenty-one as it had at seventeen.

Lafayette Smith’s great handicap to the immediate fulfillment of his ambition (to occupy the chair of geology in some university of standing) lay in his possession of the unusual combination of brilliant intellect and retentive memory with robust health and a splendid physique. Do what he might he could not look sufficiently mature and scholarly to impress any college board. He tried whiskers, but the result was humiliating; and then he conceived the idea of horn rimmed spectacles and pared his ambition down, temporarily, from a university to a prep school.

For a school year, now, he had been an instructor in an inconspicuous western military academy, and now he was about to achieve another of his cherished ambitions—he was going to Africa to study the great rift valleys of the Dark Continent, concerning the formation of which there are so many theories propounded and acclaimed by acknowledged authorities on the subject as to leave the layman with the impression that a fundamental requisite to success in the science of geology is identical to that required by weather forecasters.

But be that as it may, Lafayette Smith was on his way to Africa with the financial backing of a wealthy father and the wide experience that might be gained from a number of week-end field excursions into the back pastures of accommodating farmers, plus considerable ability as a tennis player and a swimmer.

We may leave him now, with his note books and seasickness, in the hands of Fate, who is leading him inexorably toward sinister situations from which no amount of geological knowledge nor swimming nor tennis ability may extricate him.

Now we are introduced to the man who will inevitably become the love interest. Here we have the “adorkable” male lead, the Milo from Atlantis, the Dr. Jackson from Stargate: a glasses wearing pointdexter whose peers and colleagues don’t give him what he feels is his due. He is smart, perhaps brilliant, and more fit than his fellow nerds, but Burroughs reminds us that smart and fit aren’t going to be enough on a jungle adventure. A veritable leitmotif of Burroughs’ Tarzan stories is “The Jungle Makes You A Badass Or You Die”. So we know Barbara is a cool customer who will become badass. And Smith is strong, smart dude who will eventually have to become badass enough to be worthy of Barbara over the course of his jungle adventure.

Now, on to our villain!

When it is two hours before noon in New York it is an hour before sunset in Moscow and so it was that as Lafayette Smith boarded the liner in the morning, Leon Stabutch, at the same moment, was closeted with Stalin late in the afternoon.

“That is all,” said Stalin; “you understand?”

“Perfectly,” replied Stabutch. “Peter Zveri shall be avenged, and the obstacle that thwarted our plans in Africa shall be removed.”

“The latter is most essential,” emphasized Stalin, “but do not belittle the abilities of your obstacle. He may be, as you have said, naught but an ape-man; but he utterly routed a well organized Red expedition that might have accomplished much in Abyssinia and Egypt but for his interference. And,” he added, “I may tell you, comrade, that we contemplate another attempt; but it will not be made until we have a report from you that—the obstacle has been removed.”

Stabutch swelled his great chest. “Have I ever failed?” he asked.

Stalin rose and laid a hand upon the other’s shoulder. “Red Russia does not look to the OGPU for failures,” he said. Only his lips smiled as he spoke.

Leon Stabutch needs little introduction. He is a commie. He is working for Stalin, the super evil commie grampa who plans on carrying out all sorts of evil commie plans in Africa to the detriment of the African people.

Tarzan is going to have to fight commies and you just know it’s going to be awesome. But he’s going to have a lot of other things to deal with first. You know he’s going to be tangled up with Barbara and Lafayette somehow. So, let’s see how!

That same night Leon Stabutch left Moscow. He thought that he left secretly and alone, but Fate was at his side in the compartment of the railway carriage.

As Lady Barbara Collis bailed out in the clouds above the Ghenzi range, and Lafayette Smith trod the gangplank leading aboard the liner, and Stabutch stood before Stalin, Tarzan, with knitted brows, looked down upon the black kneeling at his feet.

“Rise!” he commanded, and then; “Who are you and why have you sought Tarzan of the Apes?”

“I am Kabariga, O Great Bwana,” replied the black. “I am chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo. I come to the Great Bwana because my people suffer much sorrow and great fear and our neighbors, who are related to the Gallas, have told us that you are the friend of those who suffer wrongs at the hands of bad men.”

“And what wrongs have your people suffered?” demanded Tarzan, “and at whose hands?”

“For long we lived at peace with all men,” explained Kabariga; “we did not make war upon our neighbors. We wished only to plant and harvest in security. But one day there came into our country from Abyssinia a band of shiftas who had been driven from their own country. They raided some of our villages, stealing our grain, our goats and our people, and these they sold into slavery in far countries.

“They do not take everything, they destroy nothing; but they do not go away out of our country. They remain in a village they have built in inaccessible mountains, and when they need more provisions or slaves they come again to other villages of my people.

“And so they permit us to live and plant and harvest that they may continue to take toll of us.”

“But why do you come to me?” demanded the ape-man. “I do not interfere among tribes beyond the boundaries of my own country, unless they commit some depredation against my own people.”

“I come to you, Great Bwana,” replied the black chief, “because you are a white man and these shiftas are led by a white man. It is known among all men that you are the enemy of bad white men.”

“That,” said Tarzan, “is different. I will return with you to your country.”

And thus Fate, enlisting the services of the black chief, Kabariga, led Tarzan of the Apes out of his own country, toward the north. Nor did many of his own people know whither he had gone nor why—not even little Nkima, the close friend and confidant of the ape-man.

After his early years, Tarzan has normally followed the prime directive when it comes to getting involved with native conflicts. There are tribes he works with, who are under his protection, and those tribes will often go to bat for him. Heck, the deus ex machina of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core was the crack-team of African riflemen showing up to save the day, because dinosaur-riding snakemen and stuck-in-the-16th-century-pirates are no match for 20-odd blacks with modern long-barrel rifles.

But Tarzan hates the colonial exploitation of the indigenous African peoples, so when he hears that it’s white folks who are causing problems for the Bangalo, he is ready to strip down to his loin-cloth and spring into action!

So, right in the first chapter, we have a lot of stuff we constantly hear about old works flipped on its head; the story starts with female lead, and after these introductions, continues with her; the “adorkable” male hero, often thought to be a much more recent modern trope, is described in his dorkiness and we are shown how he will grow through the listing of what he lacks; Tarzan is going to fight communists – this is 1931, and Papa Joe is shown to be a cold, calculating and evil man who needs to be stopped – this isn’t Cold War spooks, Burroughs knows Stalin’s a rotten dude; Tarzan is anti-colonial – we always hear about the colonialist attitudes of the pulps, or that the pulps failed to examine and address colonialism, but we’re straight up told that Tarzan doesn’t want white dudes exploiting and messing with the tribes in Africa.

Anyway, Tarzan Triumphant is available from Gutenberg Australia. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I can already tell this is gonna be at least as awesome as the other three Tarzan novels I’ve read.

What better way to celebrate Tarzan’s birthday week than with a story about Tarzan fighting to stop a Commie plot?

Big Sale This Week

Issue 6 will be coming out on Friday. If you missed the Kickstarter, you can go ahead and pre-order it. Also, the paperback and hardcover versions will be available then as well.

Kindle copies of Issue 1 will be free all this week.

All Cirsova Hardcovers have been marked to 50% off. Additionally, if you use the promo code “6LZFHB4T” at Lulu, you can get an additional 25% off.

 

Did You Just Misgender Leigh Brackett!?

Okay, there’s been this long-running narrative myth that while Leigh Brackett didn’t have to change her name to hide that she was a woman, she somehow flew beneath the radar with a masculine sounding sound name and found success that would’ve been denied to her if it were more commonly known she was not a man.

Well, I’ve found a smoking gun.

Not only was it known that Leigh Brackett was a woman, Wilbur Peacock, the editor of Planet Stories at the time, went out of his way to correct someone who referred to Brackett as “he” in a letter to the Vizigraph (Planet Stories’ letters section).

Brackett Planet Stories

Planet Stories, May 1943 Issue, P 124

This was relatively early in Brackett’s career, too. She’d only been publishing scifi in the pulps since around 1940, but in 1943 Peacock stated with confidence (and accuracy) that she would be one of the greats of science fiction.

So, a couple things. Sometimes the pulps, SF pulps in particular, are painted as some kind of boys’ club, yet most evidence I’ve seen implies that couldn’t be further from the truth. Weird Tales had several women writing both stories and letters. The issue of Thrilling I read had a pretty even split in the letters section. This is one of the earlier Vizigraphs I’ve read; here you have the Editor not only praising Brackett and confirming that she’s a woman, he even encourages the female readership he’s certain exists to interact more and get involved. Given that the later issues I’ve read tended to have more women writing into to the letters section, it seems they did!  Even if there wasn’t anything close to gender parity, the picture of the pulps and sci-fi as hostile and closed off to women just doesn’t jibe with reality.

Anyway, I would’ve included some more links, but Jeffro scooped me on writing the actual article, since I found this over the weekend and was gonna wait (but clearly this was important enough that it couldn’t wait!)

 

Greater than Gods

Given the Google nonsense, I think it would be fun to give a little synopsis of C.L. Moore’s Greater than Gods.

Male babies are dying out, and a scientist is working on a means of using X-Rays to ensure a balance between the genders. More importantly, though, he’s trying to decide between Betty and Veronica (their real names are unimportant). His friend comes in and tells him how crazy it is that the future exists in a quantum state and how our choices can cause entire universes to come into or flash out of existence. Coincidentally, the scientist is psychically contacted by his future descendants at the same time… But they are from completely different timelines!

Short version, if the Doctor marries Betty, he spends more time with his beautiful but vapid wife, he has a kind and sensitive daughter, his work fails, and mankind slouches into a decadent feminist dystopia in which everyone is hippie-dippie and living in peace and harmony in little groves as all knowledge and technology is lost, dooming the race of man to end in a whimper.

If the Doctor marries Veronica, the sexy brilliant scientist gives him a brood of strong and virile young men, his work succeeds but leads to endless war and conquest of earth and someday the stars, with a mankind bred to rule and be ruled.

One of his lines of descendants will be wiped from existence, and he can doom mankind to a future of decadence and death or galactic immortality and perpetual war.

Given the choice between feminist dystopia and war world, he immediately proposes to his secretary instead, wiping out both possible futures and  opting instead for the unknown.