Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Will N. Harben's The Land of the Changing Sun

The Land of the Changing Sun is a lost world science fiction novel originally published in 1894.

The author, William N. Harben (1858-1919), was an American whose literary output was rather varied. It included science fiction, religious tales, detective stories, rural comedic sketches and what might be termed early social problem novels.

The Land of the Changing Sun is the tale of two adventurers, an American named Johnston and an Englishman named Thorndyke, whose balloon is lost somewhere over the Atlantic. They are fortunate to reach an island, but this island is so small and so remote that their long-term prospects seem grim. Then they are rescued, but in a very surprising way. They are taken aboard a highly advanced submarine of mysterious origins. It takes them to the land of Alpha, which they will soon discover is located deep beneath the Earth. Alpha has its own sun, which changes colours throughout the day (hence the book’s title) and has a wholly unique climate which never changes at all.

The kingdom of Alpha is very advanced technologically. Socially it’s a little disturbing. It’s too perfect. The Alphans practise eugenics in a rather ruthless manner. Everyone is physically perfect. The men are tall and athletic, the women are stunningly beautiful.

Of course now that our heroes are in Alpha the question is whether they will ever be allowed to leave. The king seems welcoming but the Alphans do insist on physical perfection. Will our heroes be able to measure up to such exacting standards and if not will they still be welcome?

There’s no doubting the physical perfection of the king’s daughter and so it’s hardly surprising that Thorndyke seems inclined to fall for her.

Like Jules Verne Harben takes technologies which existed at the time and extrapolates from them. Submarines existed in 1894 but they were still crude experimental types. Electricity was is use so Harben assumes that it will be used for just about everything in the future. Evolution was still big news and social Darwinism was gaining a following, and eugenics was becoming a matter of debate. The telegraph and telephone were making long-distance communication practicable so Harben in his novel assumes that it will be possible to transmit images over long distances. Motion pictures were not yet a practical proposition but in 1894 experiments were already being made, and motion pictures of a sort exist in Alpha. Airships already existed and the idea of heavier-than-air flight was attracting interest so the sophisticated flying machines in the novel would have seemed vaguely plausible.

The land of Alpha itself is inhabited by and was created by humans who left the world on the surface several centuries earlier. It is an artificial world. It is in fact a new Creation, the work of men who saw themselves as perhaps the equal of God. It is significant that Alpha is a world without religion. It is a materialistic technological society run along utilitarian lines. The greatest good of the greatest number, that sort of thing. There is nothing deliberately cruel about the Alphans (cruelty would be irrational and unscientific), it’s just that sometimes in order to ensure the greatest good of the greatest number sacrifices have to be made.

Harben’s intention is clearly to take a somewhat acerbic look at the logical consequences of materialism and utilitarianism, and he does so from what is clearly a Christian perspective.

The strength of the book is the ingenuousness of the author’s technological extrapolations. The changing sun itself is a fine example. I won’t explain the details - it’s better to discover them as Thorndyke and Johnston discover them. Harben is also quite good on the social implications of technology - the king is essentially a decent and dedicated man but the technology at his disposal does give him a degree of social control over his subjects and there are hints that maybe this is not entirely a good thing.

This is not exactly a dystopian novel. The Alphans are pleasant and generally happy and their king genuinely desires their welfare. It’s more of a flawed utopia. Science can create a potentially perfect society but do we really want to live in a perfect society? And this perfection comes at a price.

Don’t expect much in the way of characterisation. Thorndyke and Johnston as personalities are utterly conventional heroes, the most interesting thing about them being that they’re a bit more ineffectual than most late Victorian or Edwardian heroes. The princess is your stock standard princess, beautiful and noble. The king is perhaps marginally more interesting as he grows to doubt his ability to keep everything under control.

There is adventure here. There are no battles or fistfights or gun duels. The battles are against nature, and to some extent against nature modified by human actions. But there is excitement at the climax.

The Land of the Changing Sun is by no means in the top rank of lost world stories but it is an interesting one with a genuinely interesting artificial world. Worth a look for lost world fans.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ian Kennedy Martin’s Regan and the Deal of the Century

The Sweeney, like so many of the classic television series of its era, spawned a series of TV tie-in novels. Regan and the Deal of the Century was the third of nine The Sweeney novels and was written by Ian Kennedy Martin, the creator of the TV series. It was published in 1976.

The novels were all original stories rather than novelisations of TV episodes.

And Regan and the Deal of the Century is intriguingly different to the series. It's a political thriller and it focuses entirely on Detective Inspector Jack Regan, with the other regular characters from the series playing no part whatever in the story.

My full review of the book can be found at Cult TV Lounge.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

John Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor

John Norman’s Gor novels, that notorious cycle of sword-and-planet tales, began in 1966 with Tarnsman of Gor. Norman is an American professor of philosophy and he uses the novels to explore philosophical, political, cultural and psychological ideas. Norman is a big fan of Nietzsche and Freud, so you have been warned. The good news is that he is also quite heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a much more wholesome influence.

In the mid-1960s Tarl Cabot, a young Englishman teaching at a small American college, receives a strange message from his father, who had mysteriously disappeared years earlier. The message is dated February 3rd 1640. It tells him that he can cannot evade his destiny. Which proves to be the case. While camping in the woods he is taken aboard a spacecraft to the planet Gor.

Gor is a kind of Counter-Earth, apparently part of our solar system but in an eccentric orbit around the Sun, an orbit that ensures that the Sun is always between Earth and Gor. Which is why the planet’s existence has never been suspected. Gor is a very Earth-like planet, although slightly smaller than Earth and with three small moons. The people of Gor are human.

If you want to write a science fiction novel set on another planet but you want the characters to be fully human there are several possible ways of making this plausible. Norman’s solution is a simple but effective one. The people of Gor all came originally from Earth, brought to Gor by the Priest-Kings (who are most likely non-human).

Gor society is rather strange and some ways technologically very primitive. Their most advanced weapons systems are crossbows and spears. They have no modern transportation technology. On the other hand they have primitive computers (the Translators). They seem to have electric lighting.

Gor society is stratified, with a fairly rigid caste system. The higher castes not only have power and status, they have access to knowledge that is forbidden to the peasants. The Priest-Kings are assumed to have access to further knowledge that is denied even to the higher castes.

While the comparisons to Edgar Rice Burroughs are fairly obvious the novel is also reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s sword & sorcery tales. Norman is trying to capture the spirit of a genuinely alien genuinely barbarian society. It’s not just that the social rules are different. The worldview that shapes those social rules is profoundly different.

As a sword-and-planet adventure yarn this is fairly routine (although perfectly competent) but it’s obvious that Norman is more interested in the world of Gor itself, particular its politics and its culture. Gor is divided into fiercely independent city-states but one man, Marlenus of Ar, wants to change all that. He wants to seep the city-states away and establish an empire. There are both upsides and downsides to this and Norman is prepared to let us see both sides of the question. Marlenus is ruthless and power-hungry but he’s also a man of vision.

Norman is all interested in the clash of cultures angle. Slavery is an established part of the social structure on Gor and this includes female sex slavery, this being the reason the novels are so controversial and the reason that attempts have been made to suppress them. It should perhaps be noted however that young Tarl Cabot, the narrator of the novel, is not at all sure that he approves of many aspects of the Gorean social system, including the caste system and slavery. On the other hand he is increasingly not sure whether he disapproves. He can see some virtues in the barbaric society of Gor, and he can see the vices as well.

The slavery theme is pretty central to the book and really can’t be evaded. The master-slave relationship between Tarl and Talema is the core of the story. And it’s not a simple master-slave relationship. There are lots of contradictions in it and it’s complicated by the fact that Tarl has fallen hopelessly in love with her. Norman is interested in doing more tham merely giving us an S&M fantasy (it’s worth noting that there is zero explicit sex and in fact there’s very close to being no actual sex at all in the book). Norman is interested to trying to tease out the nature of freedom in the broadest sense and the nature of slavery in the broadest sense. And while Talema is Tarl’s slave, he is in many ways her slave. Love and desire can bind us more completely than chains.

The sex slavery theme is actually treated with a fair amount of subtlety. What Tarl Cabot only gradually comes to understand is that it is an institution that is part and parcel of Gorean culture and its taken for granted there, by women as well as men. It’s certainly taken for granted by Talema, even when she’s the sex slave. When she offers her submission to Tarl she naturally expects that he will then take her sexually, by force if necessary. When he is unwilling to do so she despises him and she is offended. Tarl keeps thinking that Talema is annoyed at being his slave when in fact she’s annoyed that he is not treating her as a slave. Talema is a product of her culture. She cannot comprehend the idea that society could be organised in any other way. A man should treat a slave in a certain way. It’s the way things are done. Her cultural values are more important to her than her freedom and Tarl’s alien cultural concepts upset her. He has proven himself to be a great warrior. He has won her fair and square. She belongs to him. This is something that seems to her to be entirely natural and proper. He has won the right to her body.

In this first book at least Norman gives no indication of agreeing with either Talema’s point of view or Tarl’s. He is merely describing the clash of totally incompatible and alien cultural viewpoints. Of course the very fact that he gives us both points of view will upset many readers. It was a provocative thing to do but I guess if you’re a philosopher then presenting provocative points of view is what you do. It is important to keep in mind though that Norman is describing an alien social system, not advocating for it. When writers create imaginary societies they’re generally using them to criticise (or praise) their own societies and the US in 1966 was certainly in a state of cultural and social flux.

The fact that the psychological and political underpinnings of Gorean society are examined in some depth sets this novel a little bit apart from a routine sword-and-planet yarn. And the fact that Gorean society is supposed to make us as uneasy and uncomfortable as it makes Tarl Cabot adds considerable interest. And there is enough action to please the average sword-and-planet fan as well.

You might like or dislike Tarnsman of Gor but it’s worth finding out for yourself what all the fuss was about. I’m going to recommend it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

John Rhode's Death in the Hop Fields (AKA The Harvest Murder)

Death in the Hop Fields is a 1937 Dr Priestley mystery by John Rhode, one of the pseudonyms used by English crime fiction writer Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964). It was published in the United States as The Harvest Murder.

It is the hop-picking season and that means major disruptions to the normal course of life in the small rural village of Culverden. Hop-picking requires a vast temporary labour force and in this community the hop-pickers are almost all Londoners, and interestingly enough almost entirely female.

It’s also a busier time than usual for Sergeant Wragge. Keeping the peace in Culverden is usually a very easy task for the sergeant and his two constables but in hop-picking season anything can happen. Even a spectacular burglary. Any kind of burglary would be big news in such a law-abiding place but in this case the thief or thieves made off with some very valuable jewels.

The good news is that it takes no time at all to establish the identity of the burglar. Sergeant Wragge is no fool. He sends the empty jewellery box off to Scotland Yard and they find a very nice set of fingerprints belonging to a known villain named Christopher Elver. Elver had served seven years for dope-smuggling. It’s an open-and-shut case, or it would be if Elver could be found. Detective Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of the Yard is sent to Culverden to lend a hand.

Culverden seems to be experiencing something of a crime wave. There’s a case of arson and since the cottage that was burnt out contained some very valuable antiques and objets d’art it’s also regarded as a fairly serious crime. And since Inspector Waghorn is on the scene he naturally takes an interest in this case as well. And the circumstances are quite puzzling. There’s a very obvious suspect but he has a cast-iron alibi. Waghorn thinks that this is just the sort of thing that would intrigue his friend Dr Priestley. Dr Priestley is sufficiently interested to leave London and travel down to Culverden (and anything that persuades Dr Priestley to leave his home in Westbourne Terrace has to be very interesting indeed.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with murder. Well I’m not going to tell you since even a hint might reveal a spoiler.

Street was known for coming up with ingenious methods of murder. There is definitely some ingenuity here although not necessarily relating directly to murder methods.

Dr Priestley is of the opinion that the solution to the case is perfectly logical and he’s right. The clues are all there. There are however enough false trails to lead poor Inspector Waghorn well and truly astray. Whether the reader will be similarly misled is another matter. I figured out the solution before Inspector Waghorn, but Dr Priestley was well ahead of me. To be brutally honest Jimmy Waghorn should have been transferred to traffic duty after this case. Even the broadest of hints from Dr Priestley don’t help him.

Structurally this book is quite interesting but again I can’t say any more since the structure is part of the puzzle.

I know there are those who find Street’s writing dull but I’m not one of them. I was actually quite interested by the detailed descriptions of the process of hop-picking and those details are relevant to the plot. For me the John Rhode novels are a kind of detective fiction comfort food. I find them to be reliably entertaining and I’m fond of the cantankerous Dr Priestley. As long as you don’t expect non-stop excitement Death in the Hop Fields is highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Graham Greene's The Basement Room (AKA The Fallen Idol)

The Basement Room is a 1935 short story by Graham Greene and it’s best known for being the story on which Greene based his screenplay for Carol Reed’s superb 1948 film The Fallen Idol. The Basement Room is available in an edition along with Greene’s The Third Man.

A young boy named Philip lives in a large house in Belgravia. He has limited contact with his parents but that doesn’t worry him, because he has Baines. Baines is the butler. Baines is very fond of the boy. For his part Philip hero-worships Baines who regales him with stories of his adventurous youth in Africa (some of the stories may even be true). It would all be wonderful, except for the presence of Mrs Baines. Mrs Baines rules the household and has little time for boyish nonsense.

What Philip doesn’t realise is that Mrs Baines is as much a nightmare to Baines as she is to him. You see Baines has a lady friend. Which is a big secret that Philip must not tell Mrs Baines.

Philip is seven years old and he’s just beginning to discover life. And he doesn’t like it at all. The rules seem to be very complicated and there’s a lot of unpleasantness. Grown-ups don’t really seem to be all that happy. Grown-ups also have a lot of secrets and it’s very confusing for a young boy when he becomes privy to some of those secrets. Secrets can be very dangerous things. Keeping secrets can be dangerous and not keeping them can be dangerous also.

It’s a neat little story with a nice little sting in the tail. And it's recommended.

The film version most follows the short story until it gets to the end which has some subtle but actually very significant changes. It’s a fine short story but the film version is much richer.

You can find my review of the film version, The Fallen Idol, at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The African Poison Murders (Death of an Aryan)

The African Poison Murders (originally published in 1939 as Death of an Aryan) was Elspeth Huxley’s third mystery novel.

This time Superintendent Vachell’s initial problem is Nazis. Or at least a German farmer in Kenya who is assumed to be a Nazi agent. There seems to be a bit of a power struggle within the local Nazi hierarchy.

But when murder occurs it seems more likely that it was something to do with a woman. If it was murder. The autopsy offered no clues whatever as to the cause of death. The one obvious cause of death is ruled out immediately. Superintendent Vachell suspects poisoning but there’s not a shred of evidence pointing in that direction. The second murder affords even fewer clues and again there’s no possible way to determine the cause of death.

Superintendent Vachell has other problems. His biggest problem is Janice West, the wife of a local farmer. The Wests seem like they might be involved in some way, but Vachell doesn’t want to think too much about that since he’s fallen hopelessly in love with Mrs West. All very unprofessional, but this is Africa and even Canadian colonial policemen are prone to forbidden passions in the tropics.

What I particularly liked about Elspeth Huxley’s Murder On Safari was that so many of the events, including the murders, could only have taken place in Africa. This is also the case in The African Poison Murders. Vital clues are provided by a bushbuck and by a leopard. Birds provide several crucial clues, directly and indirectly. The terrifying climax in which Vachell stares death in the face could only happen in Africa.

And of course social and sexual mores were different in the tropics. Kenya in the 30s was in fact renowned for the rather friend easy approach to sexual morality taken by the European colonists. Sexual passions always seem to be seething beneath the surface in The African Poison Murders.

This novel includes a fair number of popular golden age detective story clichés, particularly in regard to poisonings.

Having the detective hero fall in love with one of the suspects had certainly been done before but it is somewhat risky. While it makes the detective more human (which can endear him to the reader) it also makes him decidedly unprofessional (which can alienate the reader). Putting a love story into a detective novel is itself risky. It can slow things down and it can be a distraction. There’s a good reason that it was something that was rather frowned upon. Huxley pulls it off reasonably well here and she makes sure that the mystery plot doesn’t get derailed by it.

Vachell knows he’s skating on thin ice, especially given that at the time he falls in clove with Mrs West he’s still not sure of the murderer’s identity and therefore can’t be certain that she isn’t the killer.

The ending is a little unconventional. While there are plenty of clues to guide Vachell and he does do some serious detecting the solution is very much motive-based, and very much psychology-based. Which means the motive has to be psychologically convincing. If you don’t buy the motive the whole thing collapses. I found it to be plausible so I had no great problems with the solution.

The African Poison Murders has other things going for it. Huxley is an entertaining writer. The book doesn’t have to rely entirely on plotting. The colourful setting and the colourful characters provide plenty of enjoyment. That’s all well and good as long as the plot works and I think its does.

The African Poison Murders is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars

Leigh Brackett’s short story (actually more of a novella) Black Amazon of Mars was published in Planet Stories in March 1951. In 1964 it was expanded and revised as a novel, People of the Talisman. It has been suggested that the expansion may have been largely the work of Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton.

The core of the story is the same but it is treated slightly differently. The novel appears, until very late in the story, to be essentially an adventure tale with only the barest hint of science fiction. In Black Amazon of Mars the science fiction elements are there from the beginning, and we have much more of an inkling of what is to come. Eric John Stark does not know exactly what lies behind the Gates of Death but he has a pretty fair idea that it something that should not be awakened. We are given more information early on and there is a much stronger sense of foreboding.

Stark has gained possession of the famous talisman of Kushat, stolen some time before. The talisman is the guarantee of the safety of the city of Kushat. It is the key to a great power that lies beyond the forbidding pass known as the Gates of Death. Only the talisman can save Kushat from the barbarian hordes of the Lord Ciaran.

Stark has no reason to link his destiny to that of Kushat, except for a promise made to a dying man. And there is also the woman, a woman with red-gold hair. She is a dangerous enemy. She might be more dangerous as a lover. But their destinies are entwined. Stark is half-barbarian himself and he knows that whether she brings love or death destiny cannot be denied. There’s a subtle hint of eroticism here that is lacking in the novel. Stark fears the woman but he wants her.

The differences between the two versions become more and more apparent, and more and more dramatic, as the story unfolds. It’s not just plot differences but subtle differences in tone as well. Even the nature of the threat beyond the Gates of Death is slightly different.

It does seem quite likely that Hamilton had a hand in the revision. The original version seems a bit more Leigh Brackett-like, a bit moodier and with a lot lot more emphasis on the strange attraction between Stark and the woman with the red-gold hair.

The novel People of the Talisman (which I reviewed here recently) has much to recommend it but on balance Brackett’s original story is I think superior. Black Amazon of Mars is very highly recommended.