Alien Skulduggery

A skull ain’t nothing but a close shave gone wrong.

Skull Men

Attention warriors of Zlinn! I have decided that we will not be invading Earth after all. It turns out the Olympic sculling event isn’t what I thought it was. The lizard men can have the place for all I care!”

The warriors of Zlinn made their first (and not surprisingly their last) appearance in When the Skull Men Swooped which appeared in Scoops #3, 24 February 1934. Scoops was a British magazine which published a good deal of primitive science fiction. Like most of the stories which appeared in the magazine When the Skull Men Swooped has no author attributed to it. A lucky escape indeed for whoever was responsible given the quality of the story.

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

A parody of the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.

Probably not Yngvi…

It was in the May 1940 issue of Unknown that a novelette written by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt was first published. The novelette was called The Roaring Trumpet, and marked the first appearance of their hero, Harold Shea, who went on to feature in a series of other stories by de Camp and Pratt It also marked the non-appearance of an equally famous character. At one point Harold Shea and the Norse god Heimdall are imprisoned by Frost Giants after losing a fight with them. While there they encountered a fellow prisoner who comes to the front of his cell every hour on the hour to yell, “Yngvi is a LOUSE!”

Thus began a debate which fascinated science fiction fandom for decades. Was this Yngvi indeed a louse or had his good name been falsely besmirched? At the Denvention, the 1941 worldcon, Milton Rothman (who went on to become a nuclear physicist and science fiction author) put forward a motion at the business meeting to the effect that Yngvi was not a louse only for it to be defeated. A subsequent motion was then passed stating that Rothman himself was a louse.

What the truth of this matter is I suppose we’ll never know for certain. Certainly, at least to the best of my knowledge, neither L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt ever broke down and revealed the truth about their throw-away non-appearing character.

If Yngvi was indeed a louse then I like to think that he was probably a trickster figure, a junior Loki if you will. Yes, just let that idea sink in before you read any further. It’s to that proposition that the following poem is dedicated…

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the end of year slump
And nobody’s posting, not even to grump

That they’re sitting at home, so bored with their day
That to pixel-stained technopeasants they’re liable to stray

My monitor bathed me in a soft festive glow
As I sprawled in my chair, too lazy to go

And tuck myself snug into bed for the night
To dream of the past and putting it right

When from out from the chimney arose a loud clatter
Of scratching and curses and similar matter

I was up in a flash and gasped in surprise
As a chimney indeed met my wondering eyes

What madness was this I thought to myself
Seconds before there was not even a shelf

The wall had been blank, nothing but bricks
To add such a feature was the wildest of tricks

So when his black boots first slid into view
I took it most calmly because that I knew

That whoever made chimneys down them to drop
Would not in my power be easy to stop

So I sat back in my chair to wait for my guest
To reveal himself fully and the why of his quest

It took a few moments of squirming and kicking
Before he appeared rather than sticking

It was Yngvi of course, I could tell by his dress
An amazingly scrofulous, glorious mess

He spoke a few words with a wink and a leer
Making it plain why he’d travelled to here

According to Yngvi come each Solstice Eve
It was his regular duty, a gift he must leave

To one random member of the science fiction crew
A wish they could have, for the new year come true

I raised up my eyebrows and exclaimed in surprise
To trust someone like me was a mad enterprise

Yngvi laughed at my claim and explained in a trice
This was never a contest between naughty and nice

The decision was random and made to bring life
For Yngvi’s a louse and quite fond of such strife

Having decided the why I then started to think
About what sort of change might tickle me pink

I shuffled my thoughts, from noble to lowly
Before announcing success by nodding most slowly

To Yngvi I smiled and announced my grand plan
Most outrageous it was, a perverse little scam

He nodded quite gravely but picked not a bone
Yes, he accepted my choice, it was written in stone

The change that I’d ask for soon would become clear
With the arrival too soon of another New Year

Then with a bow of farewell and a tap of his nose
He departed at once, up the chimney he rose

My wall reappeared right after his leap
So then I did wonder if I’d just been asleep

But I thought my dear reader as I blundered to bed
That I’d be able to tell if you soon asked for my head

So to one and to all my good wishes I send
And the hope my choice doesn’t mean chaos my friends

The Young Arthur Clarke

Who was that Soviet composer I saw you with last night?

Arthur Clarke
Clarke of the RAF

Believe it or not but there was a time when Arthur C. Clarke was not yet a famous science fiction author. Way back in the late thirties he was merely known as an aspiring author and genius who had been nicknamed ‘Ego Clarke’ by his good friend William F. Temple. Why ‘Ego’? Something to do with Arthur C. Clarke being very sure of himself I believe. I’m reminded of a an exchange between Bill Temple and Arthur’s brother that occurred during Clarke’s first visit to the USA. While out on a late evening stroll Arthur’s brother exclaimed in horror that Arthur had forgotten to take the Moon with him. Bill Temple assured him that everything was fine, that Arthur had a US edition over there. You simply don’t make that sort of joke about an unassuming friend. (For more about the Temple/Clarke relationship please read Temple of the Sphinx.)

However ‘Ego Clarke’ wasn’t always the victim. He clearly had a whimsical side to him that at times manifested itself in rather unexpected ways. For instance when Alexandr Mosolov’s infamous orchestral piece, Iron Foundry: Music of Machines, was released in the UK as a ten-inch 78rpm record Clarke enthusiastically added it to his collection. Did he actually enjoy Mosolov’s unique approach to music? Hard to say because he did seem to use that record more as an instrument of war than as entertainment. Consider the following description of an evenings entertainment put on for the London Branch of the Science Fiction Association. According to a report in the March 1938 issue of Novae Terrae the February meeting started off with Walter Gillings reading out aloud Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space. This then was followed by a musical interlude arrange by Ego:

‘His audience sat enthralled, then interested, then passive, then replete, then a little fidgety. After 1½ hours heroic reading without a stop Mr Gillings drew his story to a finish. Grunts and deep sighs sounded from about the table, of ecstasy or relief. The big moment then arrived – a programme of sf music offered by Arthur Clarke. Several faces became stonily resigned as the handle was wound, and as the first notes of Things To Come thundered out, eyes wandered to papers and magazines. And then as the maddening rhythm of Mosolov’s Steel Foundry slammed and roared across the frosty air eyes became expressive once more, but alas, only with amusement and disgust…’

Ninety minutes of Lovecraft followed by a blast of Mosolov? Never has the headline NOT MANY DEAD ever been more appropriate. (Personally I love Iron Foundry but I believe mine is a minority opinion.)

Anyway, according to one of his contemporaries, science fiction fan and artist Harry Turner, Clarke was a repeat offender:

‘Arthur took great delight in playing the Mosolov piece at full volume to impress unsuspecting visitors (I was one!) to the 88 Grays Inn Road flat that he shared with Maurice Hanson and Bill Temple.

A few years later I spent some time in Arthur’s company at RAF Yatesbury, to find myself roped in to help at several wartime record recitals that Arthur busily organised as part of the camp entertainment. While Mosolov didn’t feature in these programmes, I found that Arthur still liked to operate at maximum volume, blithely ignoring all protests from wilting listeners in the front rows…’

This I submit proves that restraint was not an idea the youthful Clarke was especially familiar with. And now I’ve put that put that thought into your head try to remain calm as you read this poem which appeared in the April 1938 issue of Novae Terrae:


by Arthur C. (Ego) Clarke

I shot a rocket into the air,
It fell to earth I know not where,
But 50 grammes of TNT,
Exploded in the Rectory.

I shot a rocket into space,
Toward the full moon’s beckoning face,
And was rewarded for my pains,
By blowing up the Sea of Rains.

I shot a rocket into the air,
But notwithstanding all my care,
Five hundred tons of dynamite,
blew San Francisco out of sight.’

Such cheerful exuberance and utter disregard for consequences. I can’t help but imagine this as an early draft by Tom Lehrer. Perhaps it’s for the best that nobody put Clarke in charge of Britain’s rocket defences. I do feel that rockets and unbridled enthusiasm are best not combined…