Tales Too Good To Forget #1

James Blish, not that much a beast master.

Tumbrils 7, May 1946
The cover of Tumbrils #7 (May 1946) was presumably the work of James Blish himself.

I have to admit, it’s pretty easy to assume that the author of stories such as A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, and Surface Tension might be a bit on the serious side. Indeed, having read the criticism of James Blish collected in The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (as by his William Atheling, Jr. pseudonym) I can see how such works might convince somebody that Blish was a rather earnest and po-faced individual.

However, it’s always dangerous to assume that the professional writings of an author encompass the whole of that author’s personality. Luckily for us the young James Blish published quite a few fanzines and thus inadvertently provided for anybody fortunate enough to read these evidence that he was far more than a cold and forbidding intellect.

Well okay, to be perfectly honest a lot of his early fanzine writings are indeed as earnest and po-faced as William Atheling, Jr. might lead you believe the real Blish was. But while some of this material might come across as every bit as pompous as the pronunciations of a high art maven (if you don’t believe me then go look for an issue of Renascence, but don’t say I didn’t warn you) in between the bouts of earnestness is another Blish, a wittier, lighter Blish who knew how to not take himself too seriously. The best place to look for this James Blish is in the material which he published for the Vanguard Amateur Press Association. It was here, in Tumbrils #4, that he wrote one of my favourite cat stories. Read this and you will never think of James Blish as po-faced ever again:

‘I don’t want anyone to get the notion that I dislike cats, or harbor any sort of grudge. My friends all have heard me say I refuse to marry until I can find a woman who will bear me kittens, and this is only partly due to my dislike for children. No, my whole intention in setting down these events is to correct the misinformed people who always answer, “Well, I like kittens, until they grow up.”

A mature cat, usually, has lost the salacious curiosity which makes living with a kitten a somewhat dangerous process. This nosiness takes peculiar forms, especially when linked with the feline interest in fishing and running water generally. I once owned a small black Tom who was perpetually climbing up my trouser-leg to peer in and see what that noise was. There was a time when I thought this trick charming, if somewhat morbid, but that was before he was replaced by Curfew whose curiosities led her up the inside of the trouser-leg.

This latter climb took place one evening while I was sitting in the front room listening to some records. The kitten was quite small, and once seated on my thigh in the darkness could not figure out how she had gotten there, why she had wanted to be there in the first place, or how to get out. Attempts to ease her back down the way she had come resulted merely in scars on my leg. I was forced finally to let the beast out via my fly.

Had this been the end of the matter all would have been well, however, as Curfew blinked forth into the light, I looked up and discovered that I had forgotten to pull down the window-shade, and that the woman in the next apartment was watching the whole proceedings from across the airshaft. The expression on her face could not have been wilder had she been confronted with a shuggoth, and for months afterwards I could not meet her on the stairs without her muttering to herself, “My God! Ears!”’

I like to think this story is the chest-bursting scene from the film, Alien, but made cute.

A Most Unexpected Affair

The visual art of Harry Harrison.

Harry Harrison 1
Art by Harry Harrison from Cry #178, published in December 1968 by Elinor Busby, Vera Heminger, Wally Weber.

Harry Harrison is one of my all-time favourite science fiction authors, not so much for his later work which became rather too epic in style for my tastes, but for those books my teenage self found in the local library back in the seventies. It was then that novels such as The Technicolor Time Machine, Deathworld (but not so much the sequels), Bill, the Galactic Hero (but not so much those sequels either), Make Room! Make Room!, and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers became firm favourites.

Given how much and how well Harry Harrison wrote I was surprised to discover he didn’t start his professional career as an author. It was while reading the collection of autobiographical essays he edited with Brian Aldiss, Hell’s Cartographers, that I discovered in Harry’s own memoir, The Beginning of the Affair, how he began selling as an artist long before he attempted to write professionally. According to this essay he only came to write Rock Diver (his first published science fiction short) because a dose of influenza had rendered him unable to draw but still capable of using a typewriter.

More recently however I have discovered a far older Harrison essay called The Author’s Lot II (so titled because it was written as a sequel to an already published Brian Aldisss article) which recounts a more detailed, if less poetic, version of this conversion. The article in question appeared in Vector #22, October 1963, which was and is the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

Harrison starts off with some detail about his development as a visual artist:

‘At the same time I was building a career in art. My interests were Classical and my training was done on the antique and I leaned towards portrait painting. However I watched my maestro, the incomparable painter John Blomshield, starve himself to death and had second thoughts. Easel painting is only for those with private incomes. Recognising the handwriting on the canvas I went to a series of commercial art academies and emerged able to do a competent job of magazine illustration, book jackets, advertising layouts and comic books, all of which I drew with varying degrees of commercial success. I eventually found my niche in the comic books which paid the most money for the least work and gave golden premiums for speed. (I once inked a standard nine panel 15” by 20” comic page in 25 minutes and became known in our professional circle – not without a certain amount of jealousy – as Harry the Hack.) I would probably still be there, buying India ink by the gallon instead of the quart and inking with a bigger and bigger brush, if it hadn’t been for the enduring SF interest.’

Of course this was only possible because Harry had natural artistic talent to work with. To prove this I’m going to share with you the earliest example of Harry Harrison art I’m aware of. (Feel free to think of me as a terrible person for letting you see a beloved author’s earliest, and crudest, work.) “ROBOT” appeared in Sun Spots V5 #2, which was published by by Gerry de la Ree in May/June 1941. I think it’s obvious that even as a teenager (my guess being that Harry was about 16 when this was published) he was already a decent draftsman.

Harry Harrison 2

On the other hand you can see the influence all those years of commercial work had in the piece of art at the top of this column. I wouldn’t try to sell you the idea that if Harry had stayed working on comics he would be up there with the greats like Jim Steranko or Steve Ditko but I do think he had enough talent to become a well known industry professional. If you want further proof then I suggest you ferret out some of Harry’s professional work listed below and judge them:

‘At the same time I was an art pro and did as much SF work as I could find. (If collectors want a new excuse to grub through their files, they’ll find a book jacket of mine from Gnome Press, and illustrations in the revived Marvel, Galaxy and the original Science Fiction Adventures.) I also enjoyed the fannish transports of delight of rubbing shoulders with all the pros, ninety-five percent of whom were living in and around New York City at that time.’

Now comes the more detailed but less poetic story of his conversion:

‘This heady atmosphere was inspiring and the writing bug hit hard. I had had experience editing various kinds of magazines and had written goodly numbers of comic scripts – so why not SF? I wrote and discarded a few stories until I finally had one that seemed adequate. At this time I was illustrating Worlds Beyond and I took it along when I turned in a batch of drawings and asked the editor, Damon Knight, to do me a favour and read the story. Instead of giving me an opinion he gave me a cheque for $100 and since then I have never looked back. (The story was titled I Walk Through Rocks, a terrible title that Damon instantly changed to Rock Diver.)’

Well I guess $100 was enough to turn heads in 1951 but according to Harry there more to it than that:

‘That’s the physical history and I have neatly sidestepped away from my emotional reasons for writing…

…A writer’s job is to turn the dross of his daydreams into gold. SF is the most exacting form of fiction, making all the demands of ordinary fiction plus the science-fictional rationale. Therefore when it is successful its rewards to the author are that much greater. (Not in money of course – that is expecting too much.) I really cannot see what pleasure can be exacted from the writing of yet another bed-sitter novel. Without giving away any secrets I can reveal that writing SF is just as much fun as reading it – and even more therapeutic. Remember; those guns go off louder for me, the blood is redder, the machines shinier – and the phallic spaceships reach up to the clouds.’

This I have no trouble believing having read the novels named above. This was something my teenage self loved about reading a Harry Harrison story, the way it felt as though the author had stood inside the story before me and written it from there rather than from some god-like authorial perspective. I loved all the little random details not essential to the plot but which added so much to the world as it unfolded insdie my head. Forty years on and I can still remember clear as day how in The Technicolor Time Machine the danger of not being entirely inside the field generated by the time machine was ever so casually demonstrated by the discovery of a severed section of exhaust pipe. This is the sort of detail presented in such a way that made me feel as though the author had been there first and had really seen how an exhaust pipe might be accidentally severed and drop unnoticed to the ground.

I don’t suppose an author has to have the talent of a visual artist to make such stories full colour but it Harry’s case it certainly didn’t hurt.

Far Beneath, the Abysmal Sea

The reality of unnatural phenomena.

Forlorn we wait the lashing of the waves,
As they hunt with empty formless hate,
Striking our wooden walls until the boat it staves,
And draws us down to our dreadful roiling fate.

Flying Dutchman.jpg

The principle of mass conservation is one of the fundamental laws used in physics to explain the way the universe works. It states that the mass of a system must remain constant over time, thus mass can neither be created nor destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space or changed in form. The law implies that during any chemical reaction, nuclear reaction, or radioactive decay in an isolated system, the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to the mass of the products.

It’s a law that I have decided can be equally applied to fiction.

Consider this plot then. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Drama occurs. That’s reality and it’s all around us so the creation of fictional drama is really a process not unlike photosynthesis. In other words the creativity is in rearranging in space or changing in form that which already exists.

Okay, so lets consider another example. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl is werewolf. Drama occurs. So does this violate the principle of mass conservation? Werewolves don’t actually exist so does this count as actual creation, an addition to reality rather than photosynthesis? At first glance something like this does seem to be violating the principle due to it’s fantastical nature. But no, like all fantasy the idea of a werewolf is simply a misinterpretation of reality. Werewolves do not exist in real life but every part of their legend is based on some aspect of reality not properly understood by the creators of said legend.

What makes the idea that the principle of reality conservation in fiction so interesting is the game it allows in regards to myth and legend. If such stories are based upon the misinterpretation of reality then the fun is in narrowing down the possible sources of said misinterpretation and disproving the red herrings. One of the best (and most readable) examples of this process is a book called The Legend of Sawney Bean by old-time British Science Fiction Association member Ronald Holmes. In the book Holmes dissects the legend of Sawney Bean, a cannibal who along with his family supposedly lived in a cave and preyed upon travelers in the Galloway region of Scotland. Usually there is not nearly as much useful detail as Ron Holmes had to work with so legend doesn’t always lend itself to easy interpretation. Sometimes though you can be sitting there quietly, just minding your own business, when a fact comes along to pierce the murky depths of legend. Take the story of the Flying Dutchman for example.

The first reference in print to the ship appeared in 1795, when George Barrington mentioned the matter in his book, Voyage to Botany Bay. According to Barrington sailors had told him of a story about a Dutch ship that was lost at sea during a horrendous storm. This it was claimed was due to Captain Bernard Fokke for he was known for the speed on his trips from Holland to Java. The story went that Fokke was aided by the Devil and that he and his crew eventually paid the price for dealing with Old Nick and so were consequently doomed to sail the seas forever more despite their demise. Sighting the Flying Dutchman was said to be very bad luck.

Now what strikes me most about all this is how late in the piece this legend comes. The general agreement seems to be that the Flying Dutchman legend originated in the eighteenth century and that my friends is passing strange. If the Flying Dutchman obeys the principle of reality conservation in fiction then what changed to make such a story suddenly possible? Clearly some new phenomena was needed because mysteriously abandoned boats drifting with the currents is a scene as old as sailing itself. If it was simply a matter of sailors wanting to explain boats apparently travelling by themselves then I can’t imagine they would wait till the eighteenth century to invent the Flying Dutchman story.

It’s for this reason I’m not convinced by the popularity of the fata morgana as an explanation. The fata morgana is a mirage that occurs when warm air rests right above the cold air near the surface of the ocean. The air between the two masses acts as a refracting lens, which will produce an upside-down, distorted image of an object. Even though a ship may be beyond the horizon observers may see an inverted, blurry image of a ghostly ship that will suddenly vanish as the relative position of the observers to the real ship changes.

However given that the Strait of Messina, the body of water between Sicily and mainland Italy, is a famous location for sailors to encounter the fata morgana it seems a tad unlikely this is the inspiration. If it was, then again, why wait till the eighteenth century to concoct a legend of explanation for something known about by the Greeks and Romans? No, what we need to satisfy the principle of reality conservation in fiction is the appearance of some new phenomena that sailors did not encounter, and thus were not moved to explain, until the eighteenth century.

It was while listening to the radio one day that such a possibility presented itself to me. The presenter was interviewing a couple of professional treasure hunters who had been working off the coast of New Zealand. The conversation turned to certain sailing ships laden with valuable cargo that had sunk in those waters and how hard it was to find the remains of these ships.

Now you would think this was simply a case of there being no reliable information as to where the ships in question had gone down. This is fact was rarely the case due to survivors and sometimes even sailors from other ships being able to identify when and where a particular vessel had foundered and under what conditions. And of course once you know details like that the area a treasure hunter needs to search is narrowed considerably. So no, a lack of reportage was not the main problem, instead the major difficulty in locating many of these older wrecks has to do with sheep.

I have to admit that it seems reasonable to assume that once a ship has taken on so much water that the tipping point is reached there isn’t any direction for it to travel but straight down. At best logic dictates a sinking ship might head towards the sea floor at a steep angle due to losing buoyancy unevenly. Even so it should come to rest in a location easy enough to find so long as the location of the tipping point in known. All that reasonable assuming however is based upon steel hulled ships which are too heavy to behave in any other way.

To be fair that’s usually the case with wooden ships too. The average wooden ship might be a whole lot lighter than anything made of steel but the timber it’s constructed of doesn’t have unlimited buoyancy so once the tipping point has been reached that ship is going down. At best the buoyancy of the wood might slow the rate of descent but even that’s a moot point if the ship is laden with cargo, the dead weight of which is going to minimise drift. That, however, is where the sheep come in you see.

The fact was that much of the cargo being exported from New Zealand was relatively buoyant. Bales of wool were not only light in relation to their mass but also contained considerable quantities of trapped air. So while it’s true that a wooden ship carrying a cargo of wool wasn’t unsinkable, such ships would go to the bottom eventually, it’s equally true that depending on how many bales the ship was carrying the descent might take days or even weeks to be completed. So in effect a wooden ship that had been driven onto a rocky outcrop and taken on so much water that its decks were awash and the crew forced to abandon might still be riding high enough for the brave or the foolhardy to stand on the submerged deck once the storm has passed.

What really captured my imagine however was one of the treasure hunters pointing out that even a submerged ship is subject to tides and currents. Which means that after a ship has reached the point of being all or mostly below the waves it’s still being carried along by whichever current has a hold of it. Not only that but according to this treasure hunter such wool laden wooden ships often sank slowly enough to allow currents at different depths to push the ship in different directions. Not surprisingly this process introduces so many variables into calculating the final resting place that a sufficiently small search area can’t be defined. In other words there are sunken wrecks off the coast of New Zealand which are simply unfindable because it’s impossible to know how far they traveled during the process of sinking.

Now, it’s not impossible that something like this happened before the eighteenth century or thereabouts but it does seem unlikely. Early ships mostly carried their cargo unenclosed so I assume they went straight down as they sank because any buoyant cargo could break free and drift away. Even after ships became large enough to store cargo beneath deck the storage space was probably too small for even the most buoyant cargo to overcome the dead weight of the ship itself.

At some point however shipbuilders crossed a line in their quest for cargo capacity that would match the ever increasing demands of international trade. Most sinking ships still went down in the traditional manner but at last a small percentage with the right sort of cargo began taking the scenic route to the sea floor.

Imagine that your ship has just survived a storm and as you sweep the deck what do you see coming towards you but the tip of a mast. Eventually an entirely submerged schooner hoves into view, trailing ropes and scraps of sail silently undulating like the primitive fins of some prehistoric sea-creature. Slowly, but with seeming purpose, it continues on to who knows where. You don’t know what ship this is or why it’s doing something that to the best of your knowledge is totally unnatural. It needs an explanation though because something, anything, is better than the unknown, especially when you sail so far from man and all his works.

How easy would it be to imagine the mystery ship still crewed. Could those wavering shapes be more than a trick of the light in unsettled water? Who could that be but a forlorn figure of a captain standing in silent command beneath the shimmering waves?

And thus, perhaps, the legend of the Flying Dutchman and his search for release from Earth bound limbo is born.

The Great Radio Hoax

As presented by Orson Welles and his Mercury Players.

Everybody knows this story, how the perverse genius of Orson Welles caused mass panic across the United States of America with a radio play which was made to sound like an incredibly realistic sounding Martian invasion. That’s the story which has been handed on down over the decades since 1938, and indeed remains received wisdom yet with a great many people.

More recently however the actual effect this broadcast had has been seriously disputed. For example in this Slate.com article: The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic.

The War of the Worlds is an episode of the drama anthology series, The Mercury Theater on the Air. It was aired as a Halloween episode on Sunday, October 30, 1938 by the the Columbia Broadcasting System network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds that moved the story from the UK to the USA.

As appealing as I find the idea of Wells’ story taking in so many thousands of people who had been looking down their noses at science fiction I can’t bring myself to believe it. The prosaic alternative, that the supposed mass panic was in reality a beat-up by a newspaper industry hoping to scare advertisers away from radio back to print by labelling the former ‘irresponsible and untrustworthy’, seems far more likely to me. (Not surprisingly while CBS was keen to refute such newspaper claims Orson Wells was happy to play along in return for the massive amount of personal publicity it gave him.)

Now as it happens I recently discovered a small piece of evidence to back up my preferred assumption. In the March 1942 issue of Leprechaun is an article by Gerry de la Ree all about this incident. This is the Gerry de la Ree who later went on to publish books such as The Book of Virgil Finlay, A Hannes Bok Sketchbook, and Fantasy by Fabian: The Art of Stephen E. Fabian by the way. In his article de la Ree repeats most of the claims that appeared in the papers; injured people were admitted to hospital in New York, Minneapolis switchboards were inundated by calls, hundreds were fleeing by car in New Jersey. However amongst all this second-hand reporting Gerry de la Ree describes his own encounter with The Mercury Theater’s Halloween production. I suspect this hits closer to the mark than any of the newspaper hysteria.

‘I was among the thousands who heard that particular Halloween broadcast, and I believe that my explanation of why so many people were caught unaware of the falseness of the tale is the nearest to being correct.

The Mercury Theater went on the air at 8:00 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, at the same time that the Charlie McCarthy program began on another network. Many people turned to the McCarthy program and listened to Edgar Bergen and his Stooge crack jokes for the first five minutes, and then switched the dial – – – to the Orson Welles program in many cases.

If this happened to be the case, they got in on it just in time to hear an interlude of dance music interrupted with a news bulletin, which sounded exceptionally realistic. It was announced that a strange meteor had landed at Grovers Mills, N.J., and a few minutes later still another bulletin came through stating that huge creatures, presumably Martians, were emerging from this strange capsule.

Before long, people had their ears glued to the radio, hearing of terrible disasters in and around New Jersey. I, for one, like thousands of others , had never read The War of the Worlds, and this, coupled with the fact that I had just finished a copy of Amazing Stories, made it seem quite possible to me.

However, after turning the dial to other stations, I dismissed this idea, as all other networks were continuing with their scheduled broadcasts. A few minutes later the program was switched to Princeton University, where a professor was supposed to give his explanation of the invasion. The professor was Orson Welles, and this was the final tip-off, as far as I was concerned.’

Gerry de la Ree concluded his article with the thought that being a reader science fiction had shielded him from the hysteria of his fellow citizens but I suspect that it might also occur to people not familiar with science fiction to turn the dial on their radios in search of a little confirmation with much the same results.

The night America panicked? Perhaps not.

Paul Linebarger – Cordwainer Smith

Pondering the pseudonym.


Galaxy, October1962
Cover art by Virgil Finlay for The Ballad of Lost C’mell

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966), citizen of the USA, was an author, political scientist, academic, and military adviser in Korea and Malaya. To me however, and I suspect to most readers of science fiction, he was better known as Cordwainer Smith, the name behind one of the most individual science fiction careers to date.

I don’t know why Paul Linebarger wrote his science fiction under a pseudonym but that he did so doesn’t entirely surprise me. If nothing else a pseudonym allows an individual to keep their writing career separate from other parts of their life if that individual feels a conflict of interest. It wouldn’t surprise me if a political scientist, academic, and military adviser who wanted his associates to take him seriously felt the need to keep his authorial activities discrete. Or perhaps he didn’t want reader reaction to his fiction to be influenced by a knowledge of his other activities. Not that I want to claim either of these suggestions is definitely why Paul Linebarger did what he did, just that they’re definite possibilities.

However, I’m rather less interested in why Linebarger chose to write under a pseudonym than why he chose that pseudonym to be Cordwainer Smith. Now if it had been given to him by an editor then there would be no mystery as back in the day editors seemed to delight in devising the most ridiculous pseudonyms possible. Compared to the likes of Wolfe Herscholt, Belli Luigi, Polton Cross, Deutero Spartacus, and Volsted Gridban , all fine examples of editorial perverseness, a name like Cordwainer Smith hardly stands out.

However Paul Linebarger chose his own pseudonym and given the care with which he wrote his stories I can’t imagine him applying anything less than the same degree of care to choosing a pen-name. In which case I think it reasonable to assume Linebarger chose Cordwainer Smith because it had some sort of significance to him. He wouldn’t be the first to do so, Robert Heinlein for example constructed the pen-name Lyle Monroe from his mother’s maiden name and a surname taken from one branch of her family.



In Linebarger’s case however just what that significance his chosen pen-name might have isn’t immediately apparent. As far as I’m aware Paul Linebarger never explained why he chose Cordwainer Smith and those words have no obvious connection to the man. But that’s alright because I have a theory (actually, I always have a theory, it’s my least endearing trait people tell me).

Let’s start by looking at Paul Linebarger’s Wikipedia page. According to that entry:

“Cordwainer” is an archaic word for “a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather; a shoemaker”, and a “smith” is “one who works in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier”: two kinds of skilled workers with traditional materials.

Well okay, the assumption here seems to be that Paul Linebarger chose the Cordwainer Smith for the archaic craftsman connotations it holds. And it’s true that an author can be reasonably be described as a traditional skilled worker, just with words rather than leather or metal. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, was written nearly 5000 years ago which is long enough ago  to count as pretty traditional in my book).

Which is all very well but as it stands it doesn’t seem to me to be the full story. Paul Linebarger doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would be satisfied with such a shallow hidden meaning. Which is why I found one particular detail in the Michael Kelly book, London Lines: The Capital By Underground, of particular interest.

In this book Kelly spends several paragraphs describing the area surrounding the Barbican tube station. (The Barbican tube station is situated near the Barbican Estate, on the edge of the ward of Farringdon Within, in the City of London in case you were wondering.) According to Kelly outside the nearby Bow Church is the following:

“And, in a little square of grass, there is a statue of Captain John Smith, ‘Citizen and Cordwainer, 1580-1631, First among the leaders of the settlement at Jamestown from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking people’.”

Now this I find interesting, very interesting. If Captain John Smith was a cordwainer does not this suggest a connection with Cordwainer Smith? I have to wonder if perhaps Linebarger called himself Cordwainer Smith as a sly reference to Captain John Smith. If Linebarger viewed Smith as one of the founding fathers of the USA perhaps then his Cordwainer Smith pen-name was his way of hinting at a similar role in his own future history, The Instrumentality. It strikes me as the sort of meta joke Linebarger would have enjoyed. It would also allow him to imply that the tales in his future history, The Instrumentality of Mankind are being set down by one who had been part of the history of The Instrumentality right from the beginning (which as the author he clearly had). Somebody indeed who still lingered on in the wings for reasons unimaginable to tell us these tales of his past but our future history.

A tenuous connection can also be made to the Greek mythological figure Hermes, messenger for the gods and a known trickster. He was the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries as well as being the patron of heralds. According to legend, shortly after birth, Hermes secretly left his home and hid the cattle of Apollo. In order to ensure the cattle would not leave tracks, he made each one a set of four boots. A cordwaining trickster god who was the patron of both heralds and boundary transgressions? That seems like a reference Paul Linebarger would appreciate.

Of course this is all speculation of the most tenuous kind but I like to think that ‘tenuous legend’ is how Paul Linebarger hoped Cordwainer Smith would be remembered.

Not a man, but the ghost who wrote.

Temple of the Sphinx

Some thoughts on the William F. Temple story, The Smile Of the Sphinx.

Temple Sphinx
Art by Harry Turner from Tales of Wonder #4

Tales of Wonder was a British science fiction magazine edited by Walter H. Gillings. It lasted for sixteen issues, the first of which appeared sometime in 1937 and the last in the spring of 1942. The general consensus seems to be that it only went under because wartime paper shortages made continued publication impossible. In actual fact it probably only lasted as long as it did due to the lack of competition, there being no other British science fiction magazines at the time.

The fact of the matter was that much of Tales of Wonder was filled with unchallenging fiction by the likes of Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, David H. Keller, Francis Flagg, and other authors whose time had already passed. Why this should be so was due in part because Walter H. Gillings had a very limited budget to work with. As he explained many years later in Vision Of Tomorrow #7 (April 1970) he could barely pay more than reprint rights for brand new material. More importantly the editorial philosophy of Gillings had a significant effect on the contents of the magazine. To quote the man quoting himself in Vision Of Tomorrow:

‘…new ideas and “thought-variant” plots such as are required by the leading American magazines are not necessary… On the contrary, it is the more simple straightforward theme that is required (however “hackneyed” it might be for America), in order that the story shall be acceptable to a reading public unused to the many fantastic notions that have been developed by American science fiction in the course of eleven years. In this country, the development of the science-fantasy is only just beginning, and although a large proportion of its readers are those who have become familiar with its more advanced forms…, Tales of Wonder will have to start at the beginning and go all over the old ground again if it is to capture the interest of a public big enough to enable it to survive.’

Not surprisingly then that the contents of the magazine was a mixture of less than stellar fiction by US authors (much of it reprinted) and whatever Gillings accepted from his local contacts. The end result was a selection as safe as Gillings had hoped for but which as Graham Stone wrote in Science Fiction News #76 (January 2011):

‘I was soon to realise that a lot of these stories had the same thing with them; they weren’t really stories at all, they had an idea, a possibility, some new departure from what we were used to, but they did nothing much with it. They could be adequately summarised in a few words as I’ve been doing here.’

What material Gillings published in Tales of Wonder that rose above this level was written by the British contingent. According to what I’ve been since told by Philip Harbottle, who I believe knows as much about the early days of British science fiction as anybody still alive, is that Gillings was inundated with material from authors such as John Russell Fearn, Bill Temple, Arthur Clarke, Eric Frank Russell, Les Johnson, and John Beynon Harris but rejected most of these offerings because the material didn’t fit in with his cautious editorial policy. Despite this the British content of Tales of Wonder remains the most interesting part of the magazine.

In particular Gillings published one story that I find absolutely fascinating, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. The story in question is a novelette by William F. Temple, his third published story. The Smile of the Sphinx appeared in Tales of Wonder #4 (Autumn 1938). In the introduction Gillings wrote:

‘…in the light of his logical reasoning, his fanciful notion loses its air of incredibility, and you will find yourself seriously considering whether it might not easily be fact…’

The story was well regarded at the time of publication. For example noted science fiction fan of the day (and later editor of New Worlds), Ted Carnell was so taken by The Smile of the Sphinx that in Novae Terrae #28 (December 1938) he was moved to claim:

‘For just as Bill Temple’s yarn in TOW will long be remembered as the cat story…’

Now at first glance all this makes very little sense as The Smile of the Sphinx is a rather absurd tale about an intelligent race of cats from the Moon who secretly rule the Earth. Editor Gillings to the contrary this story leaks logic like an incontinent sponge and is saddled with a plot that gives coincidence a bad name. Not surprisingly this has little to do with why I find The Smile of the Sphinx to be such an entertaining read. (Before I proceed any further I’d like to point out that the reasons why I enjoyed this tale are not entirely the same as those of Gillings, Temple, and other early fans. If nothing else some of my enjoyment comes from my familiarity with stories not published until after Temple’s effort had disappeared from the news stands.)

The Smile of the Sphinx opens late one night when Mr Eric Williams, a well-known historical novelist meets a great swarm of cats on the Dover Road near Woolwich. This set my alarm bells ringing right away as I knew Eric C. Williams was one of Bill Temple’s fannish contemporaries during the thirties. It seemed very unlikely that our author would coincidentally name one of his characters thus. The plot thickened after I  discovered that in 1937 Eric C. Williams was living in the London district of Catford. Not only that but in Tomorrow #7 (August 1938) editor Doug Mayer published a short article by Bill Temple defending the amount of exposition included in The Smile of the Sphinx and telling how the idea came to him. It’s here that Bill mentions that the cat idea first surfaced at a party held in Ted Carnell’s house, a party where none other than Eric Williams was present. It was therefore no surprise to me that Bill had chosen Williams to be the narrator of this tale. Neither was I overly surprised to discover that Bill Temple was born in Woolwich. At this point I began to wonder if Bill was ever tempted to have his almost fictional narrator living at his parent’s address and writing for Astounding Stories

Anyway, Williams observes the cats fleeing along the road with a degree of precision not normally seen among the feline race. They slip neatly past Williams and promptly disappear into the roadside woods. Within minutes of this parade passing him by, and while Williams is busy describing this unusual phenomena to a policeman, the military arsenal adjacent to Woolwich erupts in a most spectacular manner. This event drives all cat related thoughts out of our protagonist’s head as he rushes into town to help with the rescue efforts.

The next day, while reading about the mysterious destruction of the Krupp munition works in Germany and the Skoda works in Czechoslavakia, Williams is visited by a middle-aged man who introduces himself as Mr Clarke. Bill gave this individual no more name than that and no more detail than that he possessed a large balding head surrounded by graying hair and rode a bicycle which had a brown attache case strapped to it but even so I had to stop the first time I read this paragraph and exclaim, “It’s Arthur C. Clarke!” In a sense the appearance of Arthur C. Clarke shouldn’t be a surprise given Temple and Clarke were sharing rooms at 88 Grey’s Inn Road when The Smile of the Sphinx was written. It’s also a fact that over the years Bill Temple wrote a number of articles in which he gently took the mickey out of his friend and one-time housemate. What surprised me was to discover how early on Bill’s ribbing of Clarke had begun and that it had invaded his professional work.

It’s also worth noting that in regards to the practice of an author introducing friends and associates into their fiction this isn’t the earliest example. For example H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch had already killed each other in print. However Bill’s inclusion of Williams and Clarke occurred before Bob Tucker began including real people in his stories so frequently that this practice became known as Tuckerization so he’s owed some credit I think here (it also helps explain the popularity of the story among British science fiction fans of the day).

Back to the plot and Mr Clarke begins by insisting that Peter, Williams’ cat, be removed from the room before he proceeds to share with our narrator the sort of ‘facts’ which the rational, scientific mind of Arthur C. Clarke would surely reject with disgust. According to the fictional Mr Clarke it was the cats themselves who caused the arsenal at Woolwich to explode. He goes on to explain that cats are an ancient and alien race who live parasitically upon humanity. In other words ‘we are property’, the unwitting servants of felines who had migrated to the Earth from the Moon and adopted the ancient Egyptians as their servants. Apparently the Moon had once been a habitable world fought over by two races, one feline and one canine, until such time as the feline race finally emerged victorious. Unfortunately by then the Moon had been reduced to its current barren state.

Having won the war with a weapon which had rendered all dogs too stupid to remain a threat the cats decided that living on the ravaged remains of the Moon was too much effort. Naturally they designed and built a fleet of spaceships with which to transport themselves and a few of the surviving dogs to Earth, the majority of the remaining dogs being left behind on the Moon to starve. (Mr Clarke also explains that dogs chase cats because they have a racial memory of the war and they bay at the Moon because they have a racial memory of having lost their home world.) Once on our planet the feline race proceeded to use their superior mind power to subjugate our ancestors so that humanity would provide for their physical needs while they indulged themselves intellectually. Anyway, after centuries of peaceful coexistence with humanity the feline race was now alarmed by recent advances in human technology. It turns out that cats are virtually immortal due to their ability to reincarnate. According to Mr Clarke only one thing is capable of destroying a feline mind, a violent explosion. Not surprisingly having suffered numerous losses during WWI, the feline race was determined to ensure the clearly looming conflict in Europe would have to be fought without the aid of high explosives. Mr Clarke concludes by explaining that he has no tangible proof to back his story. He just knows all this because it has come to him and he knows it is true by the power of intuition. Anybody familiar with the strict scientific accuracy of Arthur C. Clarke’s work can be excused for having a good giggle at all this pseudo-scientific flannel.

Anyway, it’s pretty easy to see by this point that Bill is having far too much fun. He was clearly hoping to wind Arthur up by having his fictional doppelganger deliver what is a very silly piece of exposition. I can imagine Arthur ‘Ego’ Clarke opened up his copy of Tales of Wonder and nearly choked on his indignation when reading the words Temple had put in his mouth.

Even somebody without Clarke’s keen intellect can see that this story was ridiculous from beginning to end. How, for example, did a celestial body the size of the Moon manage to hold onto an atmosphere and where is it now? Why did the cats bother bring any of their canine foes along with them to Earth? Why is the Moon now utterly bereft of any observable features which could back up this story? If the cats wield such power over humanity why did they allow so many of their number to perish during WWI? The unanswerable questions raised by this piece of exposition are legion.

Of course Mr Clarke’s monologue also makes me wonder if Bill Temple wasn’t also having a little fun at the expense of fellow author Eric Frank Russell. They certainly knew each other because back then just about everybody involved with science fiction in Britain knew everybody else.

Did Russell tell Bill about his Fortean inspired plot at some point?  The plot which would eventually become Russell’s best known novel, Sinister Barrier? John W. Campbell bought Sinister Barrier and published it in the first issue of his new fantasy magazine, Unknown (March 1939) so the timing is right at least. Sinister Barrier was based on Charles Fort’s famous speculation, ‘I think we’re property’. In it the human race is little more than cattle to aliens called Vitons. They share the world with us and feed off of our nervous energy, the more intense our emotions the better, especially fear and anger. The story revolves around the eventual discovery of this fact and how humanity eventual frees itself. I like to think that EFR did indeed mention what he was working on in a letter to Bill. Given Bill’s reputation as a joker I can then easily imagine him deciding to take the ‘we are property’ idea in an absurd direction. If nothing else it would surely amuse Bill to see if he could get a rise out of Russell.

Of course I don’t suppose I’ll ever know if Bill did intend to wind-up Russell or what EFR thought of The Smile of the Sphinx. Certainly I’ve never seen any correspondence between the two on this topic. On the other hand I’d be surprised if anybody familiar with Russell’s fiction wasn’t already pondering his short story, Into Your Tent I’ll Creep which appeared in Analog/Astounding Science Fiction ( September 1957). If you’re not familiar with this one it involves the people of Earth giving a delegation of aliens from Altair a pair of dogs as a gift to celebrate the signing of an agreement between the two races. However one of the Altarians, Morfad, has discovered that through some anomaly he can read canine thoughts and has discovered that dogs communicate telepathically and are using humanity as their servants. Not in exactly the same manner as Temple has cats doing in The Smile of the Sphinx though. Rather than directly controlling humanity Russell has his dogs using the mighty power of fawning and adulation to get their way. The end result was essentially the same however and dogs prove equally ruthless once they realise somebody has discovered their plan to subjugate the Alterians. Morfad is quickly murdered in such a way as to make it look like an accident so that no suspicion falls upon the dogs. It’s a rather good short story with very typical EFR musings on how an alien race might have objectives we can comprehend but then go about achieving them in a totally unexpected way and how even the commonplace can look different and threatening if viewed from a slightly different angle.

There’s probably no connection between the two stories but I do like to think that one reason Russell wrote Into Your Tent I’ll Creep was to prove that dogs make more sense as masters of the human race than cats. And can it be a coincidence that Morfad suggests that the best way to avoid canine subjugation without offending Terran sensibilities is to settle the dogs on an uninhabited moon?  I can imagine Russell finishing this story and sitting back to think, “Ha! Take that Temple!”

Getting back to the plot of The Smile of the Sphinx Mr Clarke returns the next day and points out that the Sphinx, a photo of which Williams’ has hanging on the wall of his home, is actually modelled on the ‘Ruling Mind’ of the feline race. Williams and Clarke then cycle out to Stonehenge for a cat free chat and while there Mr Clarke delivers some more exposition about the relationship between cats and the Egyptians. He concludes by confiding to Williams that he’s certain the ‘Ruling Mind’ is somewhere very near to him. This monologue is interrupted by another series of explosions as munitions hidden under the plain near Stonehenge are mysteriously set off.

The following day Mr Clarke visits yet again. This time he is in a terrible state as he has now realised that the ‘Ruling Mind’ is actually occupying a majority of his own brain. This apparently explains how he came to know so much about the feline race and their history, it’s been leaking into his conscious from that of the ‘Ruling Mind’ all along. (However, some explanation of how he was managing to function with the majority of his brain occupied by a foreign intelligence would have been nice but I guess given what had gone before this would be too much to expect.)

At this point Mr Clarke leaps up and declares that he must do something about the situation but won’t say what:

‘”Good-bye, Williams,” he flung at me. “I can’t tell you anything more. I mustn’t even think about it.” And was out and down the path before I could comprehend his swift words.’

The finale comes as Williams watches through a telescope, Mr Clarke having cycled away:

‘…I peered through, and the dark little mote out there between the obscure land and pale green sky fairly leapt at me, and became the figure of Clarke, dismounted now and crouching on the lip of one of the recent craters.

He was unstrapping the brown bag. I could not see his face, for the brim of his hit shadowed it. He produced a bunch of keys, and used one of them to unlock the case.

I watched with interest, waiting to see what was in the mysterious case. Wads of newspaper–evidently packing–came out first, and then Clarke extracted some sticks–yellow sticks, about ten inches long.

He put them down , and stood up. He gazed around at the darkling plain. He seemed to undergoing some sort of mental struggle. Then, as if in sudden resolution, he bent swiftly, gathering the stick in his arms and seemed literally to hurl himself over the rim of the crater.

I gasped as he disappeared from view, for those craters were pretty deep–some went right underground. I waited a minute or two hardly daring to breathe, my eye glued to the spot where he had vanished. His bicycle and the abandoned case were still there on the rim.

Then, without warning, a fountain of dirt, smoke, and flame spurted up from the interior of the crater, catching up and tossing the bicycle fifty yards away, and spraying out like a tall, grey plume.’

Despite some rather dubious phrasing, the bit about some craters going right underground in particular confuses me, it’s an interesting climax to the story. Given the absurdity of the initial premise the extreme nature of this scene is more arresting than it might otherwise be. More to the point I can’t help but wonder if fellow Tales of Wonder contributor, John Beynon Harris, was intrigued enough by Temple’s manner of defeating a telepath that he decided to try it himself in his 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. For that matter fellow Tales of Wonder contributor, Eric Frank Russell, had a story called Impulse, later retitled as A Matter of Instinct, published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction which revolved around the thwarting a telepathic alien by acting without conscious thought. The publication dates of The Smile of the Sphinx and Impulse are a little too close to make it likely that one inspired the other but on the other hand it does seem possible that Bill Temple and Eric Frank Russell at some point discussed how one might defeat a telepath. Also, given John Beynon Harris was a regular visitor to Clarke and Temple’s rooms at 88 Grey’s Inn Road it’s entirely possible the topic of how to defeat a telepath was thrashed out there too. To assume these three authors who knew each other and had at the very least occasional contact all came up with the same rather specific idea independently of each other seems far too unlikely. I’m betting the topic was thoroughly discussed by all three before any of the above mentioned stories were even written.

The Smile of the Sphinx concludes with a page of ‘where are they now’ type reportage. There are no more mysterious explosions because apparently the cats have detonated every repository of explosives they considered a threat to them, nobody is game to make more bombs for fear of premature detonation, Scotland Yard has been reorganised due to the nervous collapse of the Special Branch, and there is talk of a World Government being set up. It is also left up in the air as to whether the ‘Ruling Mind’ was actually destroyed or if there was any truth to Clarke’s wild story about cats from the Moon ruling humanity. In other words the story ends with a whimper rather than another bang, and without providing any more grist for this particular mill.

None the less, despite the way the story trails off and as absurd as The Smile of the Sphinx is it delights me to consider how this story might be placed right in the middle of British science fiction of the thirties as the thread that holds so much together.