Commies, Poul Anderson, a Wrap on Kline, some Simak and a Book-Store Score

Jeffro has posted a pretty good piece which coincides with my Monday rant and the last Retro Fandom Friday I posted. Be sure to read it.

Last Friday’s Short Review left me feeling kind of dirty, but fortunately I’m told that Anderson reconsidered many of his youthful positions and his later iconic works benefit from this shift greatly. I’ll try to read a few of his better known works before going back to his 40s stuff.

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I approved this comment for you to laugh at.

RR from I

Finished Swordsman of Mars, and the communist dictator dies an unrepentant traitor, the hero ends up with a dame, though not the one he thought he would; the good emperor pulled an All Father with a strategic daughter-swap. Fortunately, the innate goodness in the old emperor carried over into his daughter, while the villain’s daughter benefited from the good upbringing the old emperor gave her.

Started reading Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage. I’ll have some excerpts and highlights later. While I’m not blown away by it, it’s a fascinating look at a pre-Tolkienian 70s party/quest-focused fantasy adventure that features a demi-human adventuring party. It does a pretty good job highlighting the weirdness of such a company and the political and cultural implications of a Keep on the Borderlands setting extrapolated into a post-conflict world.

Over the weekend, hit up Once-Upon-A-Time Books in NWA, and scored, among other fine treasures, a still-shrink-wrapped Compleat Dying Earth omnibus and a hardbound Skaith omnibus, and some other C.L. Moore and Vance paperbacks.

Oh, and if you haven’t already, be sure to order your copy of Cirsova #7 today! Currently more popular on Amazon than the Swords Against Darkness reboot!

Sometimes You Just Need an Excuse to Get to Your Implausible Action

I’m reading The Swordsman of Mars, my 5th planetary romance by Otis Adelbert Kline, and the 4th in his Dr. Morgan series. As with all of the Doc Morgan stories, we are briefly introduced to the concept of telepathic exchange of minds across space and time–a process which he discovered with the help of Lal Vak, a Martian scientist living a million years in Earth’s past, which allows for individuals with similar enough physiques and thought patterns are able to transfer personalities with the help of their devices.

Dr. Morgan finds bored or down on their luck highly capable individuals and sends them off to implausible adventures on alien worlds, with the promise of thrills and romance and assurances that they’ll probably do just fine once they get there and learn the language.

It’s a silly concept, one which Kline even lampshades in the author’s foreword of the second Dr. Morgan book, The Prince of Peril:

Dr. Morgan had worked on telepathy for many years in his spare time, when he was in practice; but on his retirement, he tried a different track. “I had to amend the theory,” he explained. “I decided that it would be necessary to build a device which would pick up and amplify thought waves. And even this would have failed had my machine not caught the waves projected by another machine, which another man had built to amplify and project them.”

Now I had been a devotee of imaginative fiction for many years, and had often thought of turning my hand to writing it. I prided myself on having a better than usual imagination; yet, I did not think of the implications of the theory of telepathy when Dr. Morgan told me that the man who built the thought-projector was on Mars. While I deferred to no one in my fondness for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories of John Carter and others on Barsoom, I was well aware of the fact that what we knew of the planet Mars made his wonderful civilization on that planet quite impossible. I said as much, going into facts and figures.

“Of course, we won’t really know for sure about the exact conditions there unless we land on Mars. But still we know enough to make Burroughs’s Mars probability zero,” I concluded.

Dr. Morgan nodded. “Entirely correct,” he said. “There is no such civilization on Mars.”

He then explained his own incredulity when his machine picked up the thoughts of a man who identified himself as a human being— one Lal Vak, a Martian scientist and psychologist. But Lal Vak was no less incredulous when Dr. Morgan identified himself as a human being and scientist of Earth. For Lal Vak was certain that there could be no human civilization on Earth, and cited facts and figures to prove it.

Interestingly enough, with the exception of the third Venus book, the Dr. Morgan books have all been prequels to the first one–the second Venus book recounts the adventures of a character who hooked up with Grandon for the climactic battle at the end of Planet of Peril (a “you wouldn’t believe what it took for me to get here in time, remind me to tell you someday!”), and this first Mars book I’m reading is actually the account of Harry Thorne, the guy Dr. Morgan tells Grandon about at the start of Planet as his first successful experiment with Lal Vak.

And it is the task of this first successful experiment to stop the first failed experiment. The first guy Doc Morgan sent to Mars, Frank Boyd, turned out to be an asshole and set himself up as a strongman to take over the world.

In barely more time than it took to you to read this post, Thorne gets sent to Mars, where he is attacked by a stirge-like insect, which he quickly dispatches… however his loss of blood has made him weak, so when Lal Vak brings him back into town and he’s bumped into by an arrogant oaf who demands satisfaction–he falls faint before the first sword-blow! The engineer of his disgrace? None other than Frank Boyd, the man Thorne was sent to stop! And because he de facto lost the duel, he may not honorably challenge him again and is bound to accept any and all humiliations that Boyd may subject him to!

That’s as far as I’ve got, but if it’s like any of Kline’s other stories, it’ll be cram-packed with sword-fight, wild monsters, and hot action dames.

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I think that thing is supposed to be his pet flying duck-bat mount. DIFFERENT FROM WOOLA, I PROMISE!

Review of Cirsova #5

Steve DuBois posted an excellent review of our Eldritch Earth issue; I suggest you go and read it.

He brings up a few interesting points:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.” [editor’s note; this was quoted from my intro to the issue]

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

In many ways, yes, the stories in the issue weren’t Lovecraftian in either the modern or the traditional sense. To an extent, you could accuse some of the stories of “gluing tentacles” to heroic fantasy and calling it “Lovecraftian” and not be too terribly far off from the truth. However, one of the reasons why I was willing to pursue this direction and showcase it in Cirsova is because so much in the current field of “Lovecraftian” fiction is either a deconstruction of Lovecraft and his themes through identitarian lenses on one end and modern pastiches of detectives with guns vs. Cthulhu on the other end. I looked at the project as a reconstruction of Burroughsian (though in practice Howardian) heroic tropes and, in the case of Misha Burnett’s and S.H. Mansouri’s stories, a reconstruction of the identity-based horror.

The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

This is an interesting critique, in part because he goes on to praise Sky Hernstrom as “unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp”, but also because he is right that in the early phases of this shared universe, there is some conflict of what everyone’s vision is. I did not impose an editorial hand to maintain a consistent sense of world-building, as I didn’t feel that was my job. In those cases, such as The First American and Beyond the Great Divide where there was conflicting information about the nature of the Slagborn or the stories that included but gave very different impressions of Deodanth, I decided to let the stories stand on their own rather than try to pick which story was canon and demand the other authors try to shape theirs to better fit that canon.

I do hope that the Eldritch Earth project has some life left in it, because I think it has produced some spectacular early tales. We have a new Darla tale in our current issue and will have a brand-new tale of the Plateau of Leng from Cirsova regular Donald J. Uitvlugt later this year.

This is absolutely the sort of feedback that we’re looking for when we say “Hey leave us a review!” I mean, yeah, a couple lines and some stars on Amazon helps us a ton, too, but this is excellent, actionable stuff that lets us know what we’re doing right, where we can improve, and what direction we should take the magazine in the future.

“Beyond the Great Divide” by S.H. Mansouri an Ursa Major Award Finalist

“Beyond the Great Divide”, S.H. Mansouri’s Slagborn tale from our Eldritch Earth issue, is a finalist for the 2017 Ursa Major Awards in the Best Short Fiction category!

The Ursa Major Award is given out in numerous categories for (often SFF) works pertaining to Anthropomorphic non-human characters. In the case of Beyond the Great Divide, that would be our human-hating insectoid/land-crab-men, the Slagborn, who populate some of the more inhospitable regions of the Eldritch Earth.

Anyone can vote!

All you need to do is register to be sent a voter token in your email.

 

Cirsova’s Planetary Awards Nominee: Out of the Soylent Planet, by Robert Kroese

I’m killing two birds with one stone on this one. Robert Kroese’s Out of the Soylent Planet is my pick for this year’s Planetary Awards in the long-form category.out of the soylent planet

On paper, Kroese’s Rex Nihilo series seems like the last thing I’d enjoy—a snarky, self-aware, often parodic science fiction series featuring a sleazy protagonist whom I’ve described as a cross between Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flannagan character and Zapp Brannigan.  But the strength of Kroese’s writing and his sense of humor accomplish the herculean task of keeping his premise from descending into obnoxious twee. While the first book, “Starship Grifters”, cleaves dangerously close to Star Wars parody, the sequel, “Aye, Robot” abandoned much of the familiar plot beats and moved away from parody, delving further into the realm of satire.

I was worried, then, that “Out of the Soylent Planet” might return to the safer realms of parody when it began with a direct send-up of New Hope’s opening, with SASHA standing in for 3P0. And it was a prequel, no-less!

My fears were quickly allayed, however, as Out of the Soylent Planet progressed rapidly into new territory, establishing the relationship between SASHA and Rex, further developing SASHA’s nature as a near-sentient AI without retreading the first two books, and using some wild and exciting set-ups to do so.

Out of the Soylent Planet is self-aware, and many of the characters are dangerously (wrong) genre savvy, but Kroese handles all of this exceptionally well. He uses Rex to explore the nature of the picaresque hero over the course of the series while even hanging a lampshade as other characters discuss what qualifies one to be a lovable rogue. Like Obi-Wan’s villainy, it all comes down to “a certain point of view.”

While Out of the Soylent Planet is a prequel, it is written in such a way that it could stand alone to a reader new to the series but does not belabor descriptions and exposition which readers of the previous books might be familiar with. The first installment suffered a bit from the “Only Sane Man” trope with SASHA playing the straight-man to the insanity of the entire universe. While there are plenty of mixed up characters in Out of the Soylent Planet, much of that burden is taken off SASHA’s shoulders, giving her a few odd but competent and reliable characters to play off of. This lets her character have some fun/self-indulgence without risking having the world fall to pieces around her. The only weakness it has is an absence of Pepper Melange. Then again, part of what Pepper brought to the stories was that sense that there were people in the universe besides SASHA who were competent (who were not stark-raving mad or lunatic idiots), and by giving SASHA and Rex other ‘straight men’ to play off of, her absence will not be felt by new readers so much as by existing fans of the character.

Even if you haven’t been reading Kroese’s Rex Nihilo Series, this one is worth picking up and diving into.

Just a reminder to readers and other book bloggers: You too can nominate for the Planetary Awards. As a publisher, Cirsova is abstaining from nominating in the short form category, but there’s been a lot of love so far for Schuyler Hernstrom’s “The First American.” All you have to do to nominate a work is post on your blog what you think should receive a Planetary Award and why. Feel free to nominate something we published in 2017.

Cirsova-Published Works Make Tangent Online’s 2017 Recommended Reading List

Each year, Tangent Online publishes a list of the stories they felt were the best among the pieces that they reviewed over the course of that year.

We are thrilled that this year’s recommended reading list includes Brian K. Lowe’s diptych of stories, “War of the Ruby”/”Shapes in the Fog”, in the Short Stories category and Schuyler Hernstrom’s Novella “The First American”.

All three of these stories can be found in Cirsova #5, which is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover.

Tangent Online’s full 2017 list can be read here.

Cirsova’s 2017 stories, by category, can be found here.

Cirsova 2018 Spring/Summer Subscriptions Available Now!

We’re using Kickstarter to sell subscriptions for our Spring and Summer issues. Click through for the full lineup.

This isn’t really a Kickstarter, since it’s not actually kickstarting anything. It’s just for folks who’ve been saying “Shut up and take my money already!” to finally put down for the early-bird special (save a few bucks, mostly on shipping).

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Sick Kitty Super Sale Fundraiser

I hate eBegging, so I’m not going to eBeg unless I get really desperate. But here’s the scoop…

This is Millie, my one year old kitty:Millie.png

She’s had a handful of health problems and managed to rack up quite a vet bill! While it looks like some recent freelance work will cover her bloodwork and heartworm test, she still needs a chest X-Ray and some some medicine, which will total out to an additional $250.

Kitty comes before Cirsova, so this will be coming largely out of our 2018 art budget (which at the moment has just shy of that amount actually sitting in it).

If you want to help out either Millie or the Magazine, here’s what you can do to help:

Buy an ad in the Spring issue. This will help right away because that money doesn’t have to filter through payment networks for a month before hitting the account. I know that it’s gonna be a minute before the Spring issue comes out (late February/early March), but at this point it would really help us out.

Buy a hardcover. We make a bit more per unit on these, so if a dozen or so folks spring for one, it would shore up our budget a lot. Everyone who’s gotten these has been blown away by the quality.

-Buy softcover copies for your friends. Or for your doctors and dentists. If you want to buy a stack so you can leave copies in waiting rooms, we offer really cheap bulk rates ($30 for 5 copies + $20 for each additional 5). This would also fall under “helping right away”, since you’d pay us directly and we’d put in the fulfillment order.

Buy yourself a copy on Amazon. Even though the money will take a few weeks to filter to our account, healthy and steady sales allow us to keep our coffers reasonably filled, especially when accounting for emergencies that can hit the personal budget hard.

-If you already have copies of every issue, feel free to buy some Cirsova Merch.

Robert E. Howard, Feminist! – Guest Post by Paul Lucas

Now that I’ve click-baited you with that misleading title, I’m going to spend some time introducing you to one of The Forgotten Kick-Ass Women of PulpTM – Dark Agnes, the heroine of REH’s Sword Woman. And kick-ass she most certainly is.

According to both howardworks.com and isfdb.com, Sword Woman was not published during Howard’s lifetime, so it’s hard to date. However, C. L. Moore corresponded with him about it at the start of 1935 – she loved it – which gives us a reasonable idea. It’s been published a few times since it was rediscovered, but the version I read was in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard, edited by Glenn Lord, published by Zebra Books in 1976.

Our heroine is called Dark Agnes because of her ferocity, not because of her colouring. In fact, she is one of those redheads that fantasy writers love so much. REH even works that into the first line of the story. “Agnes! You red-haired spawn of the devil, where are you?” It was my father calling me, after his usual fashion.”

So, we are quickly introduced to Agnes de Chastillon, a fiery young woman living in a village in post-mediaeval France. The story starts on the day that she is supposed to be married off to the ‘fat pig’ Francois by her brute of a father, who thinks nothing of knocking her out and dragging her home by the hair when she refuses. In a moving early scene, Agnes’s downtrodden sister gives her a knife with which to take her own life and save herself from a life of drudgery. Of course, this being an REH story, Agnes disdains both choices proffered to her by other people – death or domestic slavery – and uses the knife for something else – to cut her way to freedom. She stabs her betrothed, flees, makes a friend on the road called Etienne Villiers, but is betrayed by him and almost sold into prostitution, beats him up in return, makes another friend, the more honourable Guiscard de Clisson, a leader of mercenaries, then fights again, is shot and so on and so forth, as you’d expect of Howard.

However, this isn’t a manic story, just fast paced. The story is told through lots of action, but the action fits the psychology of Agnes. She is a female berserker, driven with rage to fight her way out of her vulnerable position in society. Indeed, I was convinced enough by her rage and her backstory, which are given in a few vivid strokes by Howard, to overcome my disbelief about her fighting abilities. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a fighting machine, but develops by stages, first standing up to her father, then stabbing her betrothed, and progressing from there. Even so, she is not invulnerable and needs some help in becoming the independent fighting woman she wants to be to escape from the drudgery of domestic life.* Hence, she gains her own martial mentor who is then shuffled off the page, Obi-Wan Kenobi style, when he’s served his purpose. Pulp writers never let a character grow old or outlive their usefulness.

Most of the men who mistreat Agnes, she either kills or beats up herself in one of her rages, or they suffer at the hands of others. In this, she is a catalyst for chaos, but the chaos is already part of her society and she simply brings it out. Her brutal father is ‘marked with scars gotten in the service of greedy kings and avaricious dukes’. The land outside their village is a desperate place filled with criminals, vagrants, wandering mercenaries, and retainers working for unscrupulous nobles. France and the Holy Roman Empire are on the brink of war. It is a turbulent age. No wonder she is so angry all the time.

Agnes is simply someone fighting against her position in a dangerous society, and the same applies to her friend-cum-adversary Etienne Villiers. He is initially her silver tongued rescuer but is later revealed to be a blackguard; however, he does, perhaps, have more fairness buried even deeper still. Both of them are interesting characters with their own sense of honour, their own moral codes, perhaps alien to those of us living in the twenty-first century. It’s their alien codes that gives these characters life, their sparkle.

Despite all the indignities heaped on Agnes, the story isn’t a hate filled screed against men, nor is it a political tract – not that you’d expect any of that from Howard. He just produced a story with a different type of protagonist for his market – a peasant girl. He did give her the expected motivation for many a fictional character – the desire to escape a miserable life – but made sure her motivation was different in other ways – the need to escape a forced marriage to a man she despises, and the need to hide her sex from the world as she flees. That gave Howard interesting material to combine into something new, and it worked. Given Agnes’ background, you would almost think that Howard was writing the prototype of a progressive or feminist story, but in his case the ‘progressive’ elements were there in the service of the story rather than driven by a political agenda.

In fact, Dark Agnes is much more interesting than the gender-neutral characters we see in a lot of stories these days – ‘there are no differences between the sexes’. Thankfully, 1 To use the jargon, she has a character arc. Howard harnessed these differences between men and women, their psychologies and their positions in their society, to produce a vivid and exciting story, much as C. L. Moore did with Black God’s Kiss. It’s no wonder the Queen of Weird Fiction liked this story so much.

My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed ‘Sword Woman.’ It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?

In fact, there were two sequels, Blades for France, which was left unpolished, and Mistress of Death, left unfinished. Howardworks.com and ISFDB list the completed 2 3 and published versions of these stories.

*To use the jargon, she has a character arc.

Paul Lucas is a writer with a story in an upcoming issue of Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine; he can be found here on WordPress.

A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”

Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:

The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.

All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.

Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.

It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.

I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!