Retro Review: “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne

Weird Tales December 1934I’m continuing my quest to review stories by obscure women authors of the golden age with “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne, a gothic horror short story which appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. I came across the story, while reviewing “Black God’s Shadow” by C.L. Moore. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

The story starts in full gothic manner with young Doctor Gradnov walking through a dark and sinister forest on a cold night, making his way to the equally sinister Castle Martheim, which is located on a cliff overlooking a nameless river. It’s obvious that this errand will not end well.

The reason that has brought Doctor Gradnov to Castle Martheim is that the last Baron Martheim lies dying. Doctor Gradnov is troubled by this, because the Baron is not just a patient, he was also a friend with whom the Doctor played chess and talked about vintage wines.

Doctor Gradnov finds the Baron near death and clearly terrified of something. However, the Baron refuses a sedative – though not the brandy the Doctor gives him – and insists that he has to share his secret with the Doctor.

And so, the Baron tells his story. Some forty years before, the Baron – we now learn that his first name is Konrad – went to university and would hold forth about his grand theories about the nature of existence in the local coffeehouses, where he also fell for a waitress named Hilda. However, he had a rival for Hilda’s affections, an older student named Ivan. Hilda preferred the young Baron, whereas Ivan was left stewing with jealousy.

One night, Ivan confronts Konrad in a tavern near closing time. The Baron knows that Ivan hates him and so he is very surprised that Ivan sits down to share a drink with him. Once the innkeeper has withdrawn, Ivan leans close to Konrad and asks if he still denies the existence of the soul. Konrad answer in the affirmative and declares that no, he has no returned to superstition. Next, Ivan asks if Konrad believes that one can sell one’s soul. Konrad declares that this is nonsense. I guess we can all see where this is going by now.

Ivan now tells Konrad that he has sold his soul in exchange for great wisdom and the secrets of the old ones. Ivan also offers to show Konrad ghosts, werewolves and the undead. Konrad still doesn’t believe Ivan, but agrees to go with him, when Ivan taunts him that he is just scared.

Ivan takes Konrad to a ruined castle in the deep dark woods. There, Ivan opens his bag, pulls out all sorts of ritual implements, which he had wisely brought along, and sets them up. He also has an old pistol and a blessed silver bullet marked with a cross, which is the only thing that can slay a werewolf. Ivan hands the pistol to Konrad and tells him to load it. He also tells Konrad that if he fires the bullet at a werewolf and misses, his soul shall forever be forfeit to the undead.

Then Ivan begins his ritual, which generates a lot of smoke. Outside the ruin, the wolves are howling. One appears inside the castle and attacks Konrad. Konrad fires, misses and gets bitten.

The next morning, Konrad flees the university town. He travels the world, looking for a cure, but finds none. For forty years, the Baron has lived in fear of the werewolves who will take his soul once he dies. And now that he is about to die, he is utterly terrified.

Doctor Gradnov tries to calm down the old Baron and tells him that he is safe and that there is no such thing as werewolves. The Baron claims that he can already hear them howling, that he know Ivan is waiting for him. However, Doctor Gradnov and the Baron’s lone servant Hans can’t hear anything.

The Baron finally expires, his face a twisted mask of horror, and now the young Doctor finally does hear something. Outside the castle, a wolf is howling. Three times the wolf howls, a long bitter howl of inhuman despair. Hans, the servant, and even the otherwise atheistic Doctor Gradnov both pray.

100 Creepy Little Creature StoriesThis is a typical example of the filler stories often found in Weird Tales. There are no real surprises here and it’s clear from the beginning where the story is going. Not to mention that the title is a spoiler, which was a common problem during the pulp era. Like many other filler stories, “The Werewolf’s Howl” is also an example of a “tale within a tale” story. I have reviewed a couple of other stories of this type, including two from Weird Tales.

However, “The Werewolf’s Howl” is nicely written and dripping with gothic atmosphere. It’s set in the vaguely German, vaguely Slavic never-neverland of gothic fiction, where every dark forest is full of vampires and every castle is home to a vampire and a couple of ghosts.

Unsurprisingly, there is no German or formerly German town called Martheim nor is there a castle by that name. The university town where much of the tale within a tale takes place is never named. It might be Heidelberg, it might be Leipzig (I can’t be the only one who got distinct Faust vibes from this story about university students hanging out in wine bars and coffeehouses and making deals with dark powers), it might be Göttingen, it might be completely fictional.

The mix of German and Slavic names is also typical for this sort of story. And so the Baron and his servant and the Baron’s university paramour have solidly German names, while the young Doctor and the villainous Ivan both have Slavic names. Now you do find plenty of people with Slavic names particularly in the eastern parts of the former German Empire and universities have always attracted students from abroad anyway. Nonetheless, the coexistence of German and Slavic names in gothic fiction is a strange convention, especially since you never find German and French names existing side by side in this sort of story, even though this common in the areas along the French-German border.

Hilda, the waitress, with whom both Ivan and the Baron are infatuated, vanishes from the story once the rivalry between Konrad and Ivan has been established. I hope she found herself a nice solid student who did not dabble with dark powers.

The depiction of the werewolf legend in this story is certainly interesting, especially regarding the details which differ from the most common modern version of the legend. For example, I was surprised to see silver bullets mentioned as the sole weapon that can slay a werewolf, since I always assumed that this particular detail was invented (along with a big chunk of the modern werewolf legend) by Curt Siodmak for The Wolf Man, a film which did not come out until 1941, more than six years after “The Werewolf’s Howl” appeared in Weird Tales.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Baron is doomed to become a werewolf after death reminds me of the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel, a German Imperial cavalry officer and guerrilla leader fighting the Swedish occupation during the Thirty Years War. Sprengepiel really did exist and lived on an estate just outside the town of Vechta, where he built a grain mill that still exists today and is still operational.

However, no one would remember a 17th century cavalry officer if not for a local legend which claims that Sprengepiel made a deal with the devil, allowing him and his men to turn into bushes at will to confuse and ambush the Swedish forces. However, in return Sprengepiel was cursed to turn into a hellhound with glowing red eyes after death and roam the moors around Vechta (more on the Sprengepiel legend may be found on the website of the Museum im Zeughaus in Vechta). There even is a statue of Sprengepiel in Vechta – in hellhound form. Little children love riding on him.

I’ve been fascinated by the story of Lambert Sprengepiel, ever since I stumbled across him while teaching at the University of Vechta. He even shows up as a supporting character in one of my stories.

Was Brooke Byrne familiar with the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel? It’s not completely impossible, since the story has appeared in collections of local myths and legends several times, including Elisabeth Reinke‘s collection of myths and legends from the Oldenburger Land, which was published in 1922. However, it’s not all that likely either, since the Sprengepiel story is an intensely local legend, little known outside the immediate area where it’s set. And there might well be similar legends elsewhere.

100 Creepy Little Creature StoriesSo who was Brooke Byrne, author of “The Werewolf’s Howl”? Unfortunately, Brooke Byrne is one of those golden age authors who are a complete enigma. According to ISFDB, she had this one story as well as a poem named “Sic Transit Gloria” published in Weird Tales in 1933/34 and then never appeared again under that name in the SFF genre anywhere. Did she find greener pastures elsewhere in the pulps? It’s impossible to say, because unfortunately Brooke Byrne shares a name with an Instagram influencer who makes videos reviewing eyelash extensions as well as a class action lawyer, a softball player and a dozen other people, none of whom are the person who sold a story and a poem to Weird Tales in the 1930s. There is a Brooke Byrne who penned Mending Books Is Fun, a non-fiction book about bookbinding and book repair, in 1957. Is this the same woman as the Weird Tales author? Goodreads seems to think so, but we all know that Goodreads is not exactly reliable.

Interestingly, there is also a young writer from San Diego named Brooke Byrne whose story “Wolves at Twilight” was selected for an anthology of fiction by middle grade students. This Brooke Byrne is very obviously not the same person, but I still found it fascinating that two writers called Brooke Byrne would both write werewolf stories eighty-six years apart.

Considering how obscure Brooke Byrne is, I was surprised that “The Werewolf’s Howl” has been reprinted in a 1994 horror anthology called 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg. This anthology was part of a series of anthologies that the bookseller Barnes & Noble published in the 1990s. Those anthologies drew heavily from the pulps, particularly Weird Tales. Considering that Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Robert Weinberg are both Weird Tales specialists, this isn’t surprising.

A neat if predictable gothic horror story that is very typical of the bread and butter fiction published in Weird Tales.

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Retro Review: “Black God’s Shadow” by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery

Weird Tales December 1934

This is not Jirel, but Tamaris and Salome, the twin sister from Robert E. Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”. Leave it to Margaret Brundage to ignore one of the most iconic scenes in the entire Conan series – Conan crucified in the desert – to draw two attractive women fighting.

My last post was a review of “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore, the story that introduced the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry to the world. So it’s only fitting that I review the direct sequel, “Black God’s Shadow”, too. The sword and sorcery novelette “Black God’s Shadow” appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, two months after the original story. Coincidentally, that issue also contains plenty of letters responding to “Black God’s Kiss”. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Also trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

“Black God’s Shadow” takes place a few weeks or even months after “Black God’s Kiss”. Our heroine Jirel of Joiry is still haunted by the events in the previous story and it shows. She’s having trouble sleeping and she still has flashbacks to enemy knight Guillaume forcibly kissing her in the famous opening scene of “Black God’s Kiss”. The ongoing flashbacks all but confirm what I said in the review of the previous story, namely that the kiss is a stand-in for a far more serious sexual assault, because Jirel’s reactions are those of a rape survivor. And just case there was any doubt, Jirel explicitly states that she always used to boast that her fortress would never fall (which can be read both literally and metaphorically) and that no lover would dare lay hands on her except in answer to her smile. Of course, today’s heroines would offer a more enthusiastic form of consent than a smile, but nonetheless it’s very clear that Jirel did not consent to being manhandled by Guillaume.

What complicates matters is that Jirel still believes herself to be in love with Guillaume. To complicate matters even more, Jirel also hears Guillaume’s voice in her dreams, calling her his murderess (to be fair, Jirel did kill him with a cursed kiss) and begging her to have mercy on his soul. And considering that in life, Guillaume was not at all the begging type, this is certainly something.

From Guillaume’s plea from beyond the grave, Jirel deduces that Guillaume is not in hell, as she initially assumed (after all, he died without sacraments, though Father Gervase, who is absent from this story, could have done the honour in “Black God’s Kiss”), but trapped in the strange dream dimension that can be accessed from a handy portal in the cellar of castle Joiry. And because Jirel still fancies herself in love with Guillaume and also feels guilty about killing him, she decides to hear his plea and descend into the otherworldly dream dimension once more to free his soul.

We now get a repeat of Jirel descending into the dungeon, opening the portal and further descending the strange spiralling ramp that seems to have been made by giant serpents rather than humans, though there still is no sign of any giant serpents living in Jirel’s basement. Once more, Jirel also comes to the point, where she needs to take off her crucifix in order to venture onwards.

Once Jirel has taken off her crucifix, she is in for a shock, because while it was night in the dreamworld last time Jirel visited, it’s bright daylight this time around. And since Jirel is convinced that she will go mad, if she sees the strange dreamworld by day, she decides to wait in a cave until nightfall.

But when night finally falls, Jirel is in for another shock, because the landscape outside the cave looks completely different than the last time she visited. The tower of light is gone, instead there is a mighty river flowing through strange misty fields. Not knowing where to go, Jirel decides to follow the faint sound of Guillaume’s voice blowing in the wind.

We now get another detailed tour of the wondrous sights Jirel encounters in the nightmarish dreamworld. This time around, there are fields in which glowing insects grow, which sting when released. There are monstrous trees with malignant shadows. There are brooks and rivers speaking evil things in a language that is almost understandable. There are disembodied shadows with nothing to cast them. And above it all, a green moon with a face like a decomposing corpse shines in the alien sky.

Jirel eventually finds Guillaume or rather what is left of him. For Guillaume has been turned into a grotesque statue that symbolises all the evil in him. And there was a lot of evil in Guillaume, as Jirel knows only too well. However, chained to the grotesque statue of evil Guillaume is the ghostly form of all that was good and noble in Guillaume, forever forced to reckon with the evil inside himself. Jirel declares that this punishment – confronting Guillaume with the evil inside himself – is both just and enormously unfair.

Nonetheless, Jirel decides to free Guillaume from his predicament and suddenly finds herself under attack by the black god himself. As before, she feels a heavy leaden weight upon her soul, feels her body freezing and turning to ice. But whereas Jirel could save herself before by passing on the black god’s curse to Guillaume, there is no way out for her this time. Jirel is doomed. Not long now and she will turn into the same grotesque representation of all that’s evil inside her (and Jirel is very much not a saint) as Guillaume.

What saves her in the end is yet another flashback to Guillaume forcing a kiss on her. These flashbacks have been haunting Jirel since the previous story, but now they remind her of her humanity, causing her to fight back against the black god. The darkness and ice that enveloped Jirel slowly retreat, as Jirel sees ghostly forms of herself in different moods and emotions dancing around the grotesque statue that once was Guillaume.

Eventually, Jirel’s humanity prevails. The black god retreats and the grotesque statue representing all the evil in Guillaume crumbles to dust. All that’s left is Guillaume’s disembodied shadow, which now leads Jirel on a mad chase through the dream world.

The battle with the black god repeats twice more. Both times, Jirel suddenly feels herself overcome by despair, her body and soul turning to ice. And both times, what saves her and reminds her that she is human is a flashback to Guillaume forcing a kiss upon her. After the second fight with the black god, Guillaume’s shadow vanishes and all that remains is his voice wailing on the wind.

The third and final fight takes place at the black god’s temple. There is no statue this time, just murals of twisted and evil figures. And once more, Jirel is saved by the memory of Guillaume’s unwanted kiss reminding her of her humanity.

After the third and last fight, Jirel no longer hears Guillaume’s voice on the wind, so she assumes that he has finally found peace. She also knows that even though she was able to beat back the black god three times, she can never fully defeat him, because without darkness there can be no light and vice versa. Weary but satisfied, Jirel makes her way back to her castle.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreEven though “Black God’s Kiss” and “Black God’s Shadow” are basically two halves of one long story, “Black God’s Shadow” is much less well known than “Black God’s Kiss”. I suspect the reason is that unlike the previous story, “Black God’s Shadow” takes place almost entirely inside the dream world and the battles Jirel fights are entirely psychological. Jirel does use her sword at one point to free herself from a malign tentacled monster tree, but her three duels with the black god all happen only in the mind. Readers looking for sword and sorcery action will be better serves by the Conan story “A Witch Shall Be Born” by Robert E. Howard, which was originally published in the selfsame issue of Weird Tales. And to be fair, it is a good story, though marred by unfortunate antisemitic stereotypes.

The flashbacks to Guillaume’s sexual assault that Jirel already experienced in the previous story continue to haunt her throughout “Black God’s Shadow”. But this time, Jirel’s experience of the flashbacks is different. Whereas they only elicited murderous fury in Jirel in the previous story, in this story the flashbacks are what keeps Jirel alive, what allows her to prevail against the black god at least for the time being. During her first battle with the black god, Jirel experiences the flashback as “something that happened to some other woman somewhere far away”. Modern psychology would call this dissociation.

Nor is it an accident that what Jirel experiences every time the black god attacks her – the darkness, the leaden heaviness, the despair, the sensation of turning to ice and no longer feeling her body – very much mirrors the symptoms of depression. Jirel’s battle with the black god truly is psychological, for what Jirel is battling here is depression.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreIn the end, the duology of “Black God’s Kiss” and “Black God’s Shadow” is very much the story of a woman coming to terms with sexual assault. In my review of the previous story, I already argued that the forced kiss in “Black God’s Kiss” was a stand-in for the rape that C.L. Moore could not mention in the confines of a 1930s pulp magazine. “Black God’s Kiss” chronicles Jirel’s reactions immediately after the sexual assault – the flashbacks, the red-hot fury, the grief and the confusion, because her body responded to the man who assaulted her.

“Black God’s Shadow” is set several weeks or months later and Jirel’s initial anger has been replaced by the leaden heaviness of depression. The flashbacks to the assault still haunt her, but this time Jirel turns them into a weapon against a far more dangerous enemy than Guillaume, namely her own depression. And in the end, she prevails, though she knows that the black god will never be fully beaten, that depression will always be a part of her life.

Jirel of JoiryThe story also illustrates how Jirel’s image of Guillaume literally changes. In “Black God’s Kiss”, Guillaume was repeatedly described as magnificent and was also very much an arsehole who has never heard of consent. The version of Guillaume that Jirel encounters in the dream world, first as a statue and later as a shadow, is literally the embodiment of all that is evil in Guillaume, a grotesque and twisted thing. But bound to this grotesque image is a ghostly version of all that is good and noble in Guillaume, a Guillaume who is magnificent, but not an arsehole, a Guillaume whom – so Jirel muses – she never got to know. Jirel even agrees that Guillaume’s punishment, being confronted with all the evil inside himself, is both just and unjust. Because regardless of everything Guillaume did to Jirel, there was also good in him.

It’s notable that Guillaume, even though he’s dead, is portrayed as a much more nuanced character in “Black God’s Shadow” than in the previous story. In “Black God’s Kiss”, Guillaume was either the magnificent knight or the despicable villain who assaulted our heroine with no shades of grey in between. We and Jirel encounter both of these versions of Guillaume again in “Black God’s Shadow” in the form of the twisted statue and the ghostly heroic Guillaume, but they are revealed for the caricatures they are. The real Guillaume is somewhere between those two, capable of both good and evil, but still an arsehole.

By the end, it’s not just Guillaume’s soul that has found peace, it’s also Jirel herself. She can now see Guillaume for what he was. She is no longer haunted by flashbacks of his assault nor does she fancy herself in love with him any longer. It’s been awhile since I read the other three Jirel of Joiry stories, but I don’t recall Guillaume ever being mentioned again. Jirel is over him, one way or another.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreThe “Black God” duology is a powerful story of a woman experiencing and recovering from sexual assault. In fact, it’s so powerful that I wonder whether C.L. Moore had any experience with the subject, whether it happened to her or a friend or loved one.

However, considering the subject matter of the story, it’s also very clear why the sort of sword and sorcery fans who mainly want action and adventure are not satisfied with the Jirel of Joiry stories. Because psychological insights and metaphors for recovering from trauma are not what these readers want out of sword and sorcery. Which is perfectly fair and if it’s action and swordfights you want, well, there’s Conan getting crucified in the desert and surviving to wreck vengeance on those responsible right there in the very same issue of Weird Tales.

Nonetheless, it’s fascinating that how much internal battles as well as trauma and recovering from trauma are baked into the sword and sorcery genre, which is something that I at least never quite realised before. Because Jirel is far from the only sword and sorcery heroine who experienced and recovered from trauma.

Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz LeiberLet’s take a look at Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. In “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, an absolutely brilliant story and probably the best Hugo winner for Best Novella of all time (and yes, I will eventually review it), Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet the most important person in their lives, namely each other, on the same day they lose everything – the lives they only just made for themselves and the women they love or at least think they love – for the second time in the space of a few months. What makes the situation even worse is that Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are trying to help their girlfriends overcome their own trauma – the brutal murder of her friend and partner in crime in the case of Fafhrd’s lover Vlana and growing up with an abusive father (at the very least physical abuse and there are hints at sexual abuse as well) in the case of Mouser’s girlfriend Ivrian – and cause their deaths in the process. And Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are deeply traumatised by that experience. They will be haunted – quite literally – by the ghosts of their murdered lovers for years, even as they live on, having great adventures and living largely satisfying lives. They also face down the literal Death – as well as their murdered lovers – in Death’s realm several times.

What makes the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories so fascinating is that Fritz Leiber kept returning to the characters and writing stories about them for a period for fifty years, longer than any other sword and sorcery author. Leiber bridged the first sword of sorcery boom of the 1930s and the second boom of the 1960s and kept writing into the third sword and sorcery boom of the 1980s – the only of the original sword and sorcery authors to do so, since Robert E. Howard was dead and C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith had both stopped writing SFF. Over this almost fifty year span, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories demonstrated both how the SFF genre changed, for example with regard to how much sexual content was acceptable, but also how the characters themselves and Leiber’s insight into them changed.

“Ill Met in Lankhmar” was published in 1970, shortly after Fritz Leiber lost his wife of more than thirty years. The grief Fafhrd and Grey Mouser experience is so relatable, because their author shared it. And indeed, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories written during the early 1970s are all on the gloomy and depressing side, showing both the characters and their author dealing and coming to terms with their grief. Leiber eventually came out on the other side and so did Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. They both found partners who fit them and were willing to put up with the fact that you only get Fafhrd and Grey Mouser as a duo, they both learned they had children they never knew about plus the possibility of more children in the future, they both ended their story in a good place. And so I think, did their author.

Fantastic October 1962The early 1970s streak of dark and depressing Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories is very noticeable, when reading the series in order, but it’s not the only time during their lengthy career that Fafhrd and Grey Mouser dealt with trauma. Their respective origin stories, “The Snow Women” from 1970 and “The Unholy Grail” from 1962, are both stories of trauma and escaping from it, an overbearing mother and an absent and idealised father in Fafhrd’s case, and the murder of his mentor in Mouser’s case. Indeed, there are parallels between “The Unholy Grail” and the “Black God” duology, because Mouser is also willing to risk his soul to avenge himself on the murderer of his mentor and he also defeats his enemy in a purely psychic battle (by pure necessity, because Mouser is bound to a rack, about to be tortured to death, at the time and also not yet all that great as a swordsman). Other Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories that deal with trauma and overcoming it (or succumbing to it) include “The Cloud of Hate” from 1963 as well as “The Bleak Shore” and “The Howling Tower” from 1940 and 1941 respectively, which are among the earliest stories in the series. Just like Jirel and Guillaume, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser also come face to face with the not so good aspects of themselves (and their lovers) at several points during the series.

So what about other sword and sorcery heroes? Well, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is often so gloomy and depressed that he makes Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, surely one of the most depressed characters in popular fiction, seem cheerful. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane is the most anti-hero of sword and sorcery heroes anyway. As for Robert E. Howard, he certainly knew the black god of depression and the shadow of that black god only too well – with devastating results. Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane never deal as directly with their author’s demons as Jirel and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser do – though Conan is crucified in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the novella that was published in the same issue of Weird Tales as “Black God’s Shadow”, and if that isn’t a very metaphorical fate I don’t know what is – but I can’t help but wonder what stories Howard would have written, if he had lived. I can’t say much about Clark Ashton Smith, because I bounced hard off his work, when I tried to read it many years ago. I should probably give him another try.

Black Gods and Scarlett Dreams by C.L. MooreIt’s been long since clear to me that sword and sorcery is much more than just muscular men and women with broadswords having adventures. However, until I reread the first two Jirel of Joiry stories, I never fully realised how much the sword and sorcery genre is also about dealing with and overcoming trauma and grief. But the theme is there in many of the important works of the genre. And indeed, I wonder whether these deeper themes aren’t what separates the great and memorable sword and sorcery characters from Conan pastiches like John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian, Clifford Ball’s sorry attempts at replacing Robert E. Howard and the many forgettable sword and sorcery novels of the 1980s. It’s certainly something I will keep in mind for my own contributions to the genre.

Fritz Leiber was almost sixty when he wrote “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and revealed the formative trauma that lies at the heart of the story of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Robert E. Howard never got there, before his own depression claimed him, and part of me is still angry that his friends and loved ones and modern medicine couldn’t save him, if only because I mourn the stories he could have written, if he’d lived to experience the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s.

C.L. Moore, on the other hand, wrote about trauma and recovering from it at age 23. And that makes her one of the greats of a genre that is so much more than just heroes and heroines with big muscles and bigger swords.

 

 

 

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Retro Review: “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing

Weird Tales October 1934As I said a few posts ago, I will be reviewing vintage SFF stories beyond the confines of the Retro Hugos as well, beginning with “Black God’s Kiss”, a sword and sorcery novelette by C.L. Moore that was the cover story of the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and also introduced the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry to the world. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Also trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.

“Black God’s Kiss” starts with an iconic and oft imitated scene. The castle of Joiry in a vaguely defined medieval France has just been conquered by a knight called Guillaume. The floor is still covered in blood and bodies, when the master of the castle is brought before Guillaume, still in armour, but with bound hands. Guillaume orders his men to remove the helmet of his defeated foe, only to get the surprise of his life, when his captive is revealed to be an attractive, red-haired woman, Jirel of Joiry. Guillaume is quite delighted by this turn of events and forces a kiss on Jirel. Jirel is considerably less delighted and tries to bite his throat out. The confrontation ends with Guillaume knocking her out.

This opening scene is so iconic that variations of it still show up all across SFF and beyond. Whenever a seemingly male or genderless figure in armour, a spacesuit or motorcycle gear takes off the helmet to reveal an attractive woman shaking long, often red hair (though it must be pointed out that Jirel actually wears her hair short) it’s a callback to this scene.

One of the best known variations on the opening scene of “Black God’s Kiss” may be found in Leigh Brackett’s 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars”. In this story, Eric John Stark finds himself tangling with an axe-wielding Martian warlord named Ciaran, whose face is hidden behind a black helmet Ciaran never takes off. Here, the reveal occurs in the middle of the story when Stark is fighting Ciaran, fully intending to kill his opponent (and with good reason, too, because Ciaran had Stark whipped almost to death). However, Stark wants to see Ciaran’s face first, before he kills his opponent and so he rips off the helmet to reveal a beautiful woman with long red hair. Sadly, the reveal was once again spoiled by Planet Stories cover artist George Rozen. But while Guillaume decks Jirel, after she bites him, this confrontation ends with Ciaran knocking out Stark, when he stands there staring at her dumbfounded. The ending is more optimistic as well, when Stark and Ciaran go off together in what is surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship, even though neither of them is the type for a committed relationship. Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton were friends with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, so I strongly suspect that “Black Amazon of Mars” was a direct response to “Black God’s Kiss”. I reviewed the 1964 expansion of the novella last year for Galactic Journey, but I’ve never reviewed the original. I guess that’s what I’ll be doing next.

Rereading “Black God’s Kiss” for the first time in years, I was struck with how masterfully the opening scene is written. Up to the reveal, Moore uses not a single pronoun and only refers to Jirel as “Joiry’s tall commander”. Pronouns only appear once the helmet comes off. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to read this story in 1934, with no foreknowledge of what was to come. Though unfortunately, interior artist H.R. Hammond spoils the surprise and also manages to put even fewer clothes on Jirel than Margaret Brundage did on the cover. For while Jirel wears a chain mail tunic and greaves in the story itself, Margaret Brundage draws her in lingerie and H.R. Hammond draws her naked altogether, though at least he does get Guillaume’s beard right.

Black God's Kiss interior art

H.R. Hammond’s original interior art for “Black God’s Kiss”

When Jirel comes to again, she finds herself locked up in her own dungeon. However, she doesn’t stay there for long, but knocks out a guard and escapes. Guillaume and his men have passed out in a drunken stupor, so Jirel sneaks back to her private quarters and changes her heavy armour for a lighter chain mail tunic. Then she heads for the castle chapel to see the resident priest Father Gervase.

Gervase is happy to see Jirel alive and free and offers to help her escape the castle. However, Jirel has other ideas. She wants to take revenge on Guillaume and she knows just where to find the weapon that will defeat him, namely beyond the handy portal to the underworld that may be found in the dungeon of Castle Joiry.

Gervase is horrified that Jirel as much as entertains the thought of venturing through the portal. He even threatens to wake Guillaume to stop her, for surely the fate Guillaume has in store for Jirel is kinder than what awaits her beyond the portal. Jirel tells Gervase that she knows exactly what Guillaume is going to do to her. First, he’ll rape her and then he’ll either kill her or sell her into slavery. We also learn that Jirel is no blushing virgin, she’s “not innocent in the ways of light loving”, as she puts it. However, Jirel insists on consent and she won’t let Guillaume force himself upon her. She’d rather destroy him, whatever it takes.

Father Gervase agrees that it would be a shame if Jirel were to be raped, killed or sold into slavery, but there is always absolution and atonement for sex and shame (though why would a rape victim need absolution?) and if she were to be killed, well, there’s always heaven. But if Jirel ventures into the underworld, Father Gervase warns her, that she will forfeit her immortal soul. Jirel, however, values bodily autonomy higher than the integrity of her soul and is determined to put her plan into action. Reluctantly, Father Gervase gives her his blessing.

Contrary to what certain quarters claim, religion, particularly Christian religion, doesn’t play much of a role in golden age pulp SFF, probably because most of the writers were secular Jews or equally secular Christians. During the course of Retro Reviews project, I have only come across two stories, “The Veil of Astellar” by Leigh Brackett and  “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne, where Christianity plays a role. However, the few explicitly Christian works of the era, such as the Space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, usually come from outside the pulp SFF scene. But in American SFF magazines of the golden age, religion – if it is mentioned at all – is either a) a sham, b) for aliens, foreigners or prehistoric people or c) both. Even Weird Tales with its focus on the supernatural contains surprisingly little religious content and you are far more likely to find a reference to Cthulhu than to the Judeo-Christian God in its pages.

Therefore, I was quite surprised to find what is in essence a theological argument in the middle of an early sword and sorcery story. And yes, one can argue that it is nigh impossible to write about Medieval Europe without mentioning religion, but then Jirel’s world is clearly not our version of Medieval Europe and not just because in our world, castles don’t normally come with portals to the underworld in their cellars. It’s also interesting that Gervase thoroughly loses the theological argument he has with Jirel. And considering how frankly misogynist Gervase’s point is – “Never mind bodily autonomy, you’ll be given absolution, if you’re raped, and you’ll go to heaven, if you’re killed.” – I wonder whether this scene wasn’t a sly commentary on the misogyny of the Catholic church.

After her argument with Father Gervase, Jirel does venture into the underworld. We learn that she and Gervase found the secret passage that leads there years before and that Gervase ventured in further than Jirel and apparently saw something terrible there, but won’t say what. But when Jirel first goes down a strange corkscrew slide that seems to be made for giant worms or serpents rather than humans (which begets the question what became of those serpents and do they still live in the cellar of castle Joiry?) and then creeps through a pitch-dark passage, she initially sees nothing, but finds that she cannot go any further, because something is holding her back. Jirel realises that what’s holding her back is the crucifix around her neck, so she takes it off (more religious symbolism) and suddenly finds herself standing in a dreamlike world under strange stars.

Jirel’s journey through the strange world in which she finds herself makes up the bulk of the novelette. The things she encounters there include brooks that murmur to themselves in what almost sounds like a language, “small, blind, slavering things with clashing teeth” that assault Jirel, faceless misty women who hop like frogs through the swamp, a herd of blind white stallions that race across the land, while calling out women’s names, a tower made of light, inside of which Jirel encounters a mirror image of herself, a lake full of fallen stars, an invisible bridge and finally a temple on an island where the titular black god resides.

After the theological argument outlined above and the medieval trappings, I at least would have expected a more traditional version of the Christian idea of hell. And indeed, Jirel remarks at one point that this is what she expected as well. But instead, the world Jirel must transverse to gain her weapon against Guillaume bears more resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands than to any Christian depiction of hell.

Now Lovecraft’s influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre is well documented, but often considered to be limited mainly to the cosmic horror aspect. However, Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle was just as much of an influence upon the nascent sword and sorcery genre as the Cthulhu Mythos. Because sword and sorcery is chock full of journeys through strange and perilous dreamworlds. Pretty much every single Jirel of Joiry story features Jirel travelling through strange dimensions, much to the frustration of those who prefer their sword and sorcery with more swordfighting and fewer magical worlds. But it’s not just Jirel either. Robert E. Howard’s heroes, most notably Kull, occasionally found themselves in strange dreamlike worlds as well. So did Elak of Atlantis, a sword and sorcery hero created by C.L. Moore’s husband-to-be Henry Kuttner. And Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have several adventures in the Shadowlands, where Death resides (and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet their murdered first loves Vlana and Ivrian), as well as under the sea and in other strange realms. They also travel into the parallel worlds accessed through the cave of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes (one of which is our world) and battle the interdimensional Mad Men known as the Devourers in “Bazaar of the Bizarre”. So travel to strange realms is as much an integral part of the sword and sorcery genre as swordfights and physical action, barbarians and scantily clad women, evil sorcerers and various cosmic horrors.

Jirel’s journey into the hellish dreamworld culminates in a temple on an island in a lake full of fallen stars, wherein the titular black god resides. This god is not a tentacled monstrosity like Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep, but a one-eyed sexless statue of black stone whose lips are pursed for a kiss. Much as I love the work of Margaret Brundage, her cover illustrations for Weird Tales are usually vague interpretations of the stories they’re meant to illustrate. But the cover for “Black God’s Kiss” is a very accurate representation of the statue of the black god, even if Jirel does not wear lingerie in the story and her sword is nowhere to be seen.

Once Jirel finally reaches the temple, she kisses the statue, driven by a strange compulsion. After the kiss, she feels a cold, heavy weight on her soul. She also experiences a bout of panic and runs back the way she came. Up the this point, Jirel has experienced the strange dreamworld wherein she finds herself only in the dark, but now the sky is lightening. Jirel runs faster in the belief that if she sees the strange land by daylight, she will go mad. It a race against the sun, but Jirel makes it back to the passage that leads to the castle of Joiry just in time, retrieves her crucifix and climbs up the spiralling passage that leads to the dungeons of Joiry.

Jirel notices that there is light at the end of the passage, where it was dark before, but is too weary and too depressed by the heavy weight on her soul that the kiss implanted in her to be particularly bothered about that. She thinks it’s Father Gervase waiting for her, for he is the only other person who knows that the portal exists and where Jirel was planning to go.

But when Jirel staggers out of the passage, visibly ill and weakened from the effects of the black god’s kiss, she finds herself faced not just with Father Gervase, but also with Guillaume and his torch-bearing men-at-arms, which begets the question just how did Guillaume know where to find Jirel, when the only two people who know about the portal to the underworld in the dungeon of the castle of Joiry are Gervase and Jirel herself? Did Guillaume torture the truth out of Gervase? Or did Gervase wake Guillaume, as he threatened to do during his theological argument with Jirel, and tell him where Jirel has gone?

The story itself never answers this question and Jirel herself never asks it, probably because she is too far gone by the time she emerges from the passage. As a matter of fact, Jirel is actually glad to see Guillaume, because that will make her vengeance so much easier. And so she staggers towards him, flings her arms around him and kisses him.

Guillaume is triumphant, because he thinks he’ll finally get what he wants. But no one in this story gets what they want except maybe the black god of the underworld. And so Jirel passes on the black god’s deadly gift to Guillaume via the kiss. Jirel revives, while Guillaume turns stiff and grey and finally dies, but not without first realising  exactly what is happening to him.

Now it should be Jirel’s turn to be triumphant. Except that she isn’t, for the moment that Guillaume collapses dead on the floor of the dungeon, she realises that she didn’t hate him after all, like she thought, but was attracted to him and that the emotions she experienced were lust, not hate. By the sequel “Black God’s Shadow”, Jirel has convinced herself that she was in love with Guillaume and that he is the only man she’ll ever love, but Jirel, no matter how much I like her, has no idea what love is.

And so Jirel kneels by Guillaume’s side, crying, until Father Gervase takes her away. Amazingly, Guillaume’s men-at-arms do nothing, even though Jirel just slew their commander with a sorcerous kiss.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore“Black God’s Kiss” is a classic sword and sorcery story, but it’s also a highly disturbing story and it becomes even more disturbing, the more you think about it. When I first read the story many years ago, I had the same reaction that many people have to the story. Yes, Guillaume is a jerk with zero respect for consent, but isn’t murdering him by magic a little extreme? Wouldn’t just decking him and throwing him and his followers into the castle moat be a more appropriate response to an unwanted kiss?

However, let’s not forget that the pulp magazines, even the more risqué ones like the Spicy line, still had to play coy with the subject of sex, lest they be subject to censorship and outright bans. Quite often, this dancing around the subject of sex led to some truly disturbing moments such as a woman getting raped to death by orang-utans – thankfully off-page – in an issue of The Spider or a scene from a story in a 1937 issue of Spicy Mystery, in which the narrator lovingly describes the orgasmic twitching and squirming of an attractive woman – as she is executed in the electric chair. And as if that wasn’t disturbing enough, that scene is also illustrated in the interior art by Joseph Szokoli.

In spite of Margaret Brundage’s erotic covers, Weird Tales was a lot tamer than the Spicy pulps, though positively risqué by the standards of pulp SFF. Astounding/Analog was so prudish that Anne McCaffrey was thrilled to have snuck a sex scene past John W. Campbell in her 1969 story “A Womanly Talent” – a sex scene that was so tame that it barely registered when I first read the story in question as a teenager some twenty years later. Though Anne McCaffrey wasn’t the first to have snuck a sex scenes past Campbell. Other authors did it as well, including C.L. Moore herself in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner. And even though the covers of Planet Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories are full of bug-eyed monsters threatening to do interesting things to scantily clad women, the most erotic thing found behind those lurid covers are euphemistic descriptions of the female form.

Weird Tales is unique among the SFF pulps, because sex does happen in its pages on occasion and not just in the missionary position and between married couples either. And so Jirel is no blushing virgin and “not innocent in the ways of light loving”, as she admits to Father Gervase who must have heard some very interesting confessions from her. Jirel also has no illusions what Guillaume will do to her, namely rape her and then either kill her or sell her into (sexual) slavery. Not to mention that Guillaume did slay her men-at-arms – in the famous opening scene, Moore explicitly describes the dead bodies and blood on the floor of the throne room. So from Jirel’s point-of-view, killing Guillaume before he can rape and/or kill her is perfectly justifiable self-defence.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreHowever, I’d also argue that the forced kiss at the beginning of the story is not just sexual assault, but a stand-in for an actual rape that Moore could not describe in the confines of a 1930s pulp magazine, even a fairly liberal one like Weird Tales. Because Jirel’s reaction to the forced kiss is very much that of a rape survivor. Throughout “Black God’s Kiss” and its sequel “Black God’s Shadow”, Jirel keeps having flashbacks, keeps feeling Guillaume’s arms around her and his mouth pressing down on hers.

The description of the second kiss is also remarkably orgasmic, considering that Jirel is kissing a statue. As for the fatal final kiss, with which Jirel takes out Guillaume, one could read that as a vagina dentata fantasy or an analogue for sexually transmitted diseases, for even though arsphenamine a.k.a. Salvarsan was available since 1909, syphilis was still a dangerous and often deadly disease in the 1930s. And Guillaume’s fate does overlap with some of the symptoms of syphilis.

So “Black God’s Shadow” is an early example of a rape-revenge story. However, the ending isn’t just disturbing because Jirel kills Guillaume. What makes it even more disturbing is that Jirel realises that she has fallen in lust with the man who assaulted her almost as soon as Guillaume lies dead at her feet. And indeed, Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth explain how much they hate the ending of “Black God’s Kiss” in their review of the story. I hated the ending upon first reading as well, not just because Guillaume was obviously a jerk, but also because Jirel’s attraction to him comes out of nowhere. However, upon rereading the story, I noticed that the hints are there. Guillaume is repeatedly described as magnificent and attractive in scenes which are clearly told from Jirel’s point-of-view.

Besides, Jirel and Guillaume would actually make a pretty good couple, if not for Guillaume’s massive consent issues. Cause they are very similar, both warriors and fighters who love life and intend to live it to the fullest. In fact, I strongly suspect that Leigh Brackett’s “Black Amazon of Mars” is a rewrite of “Black God’s Kiss” with a happy ending, cause Eric John Stark and Ciaran wander off into the Martian sunset together at the end. Interestingly, it is also the only Eric John Stark story that has a “happy for now” ending, cause normally Stark is just as unlucky in love as Moore’s Northwest Smith. And since Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore were friends, it makes sense that they influenced each other.

Jirel de Joiry by C.L. MooreWomen falling in love with their rapists is a very common plot in the romance novels of the so-called “bodiceripper” era (which began with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss almost forty years after “Black God’s Kiss”) and still crops up on occasion, though thankfully much less than it used to. Now rape fantasies are common, but there was also another reason behind the popularity of those “raped into love” stories. For they allowed their authors to write about sex and allowed their heroines to enjoy sex, while still remaining good virtuous women. After all, it wasn’t as if the heroine initiated the sex or even consented, they were forced into having mindblowing, multi-orgasmic sex. The “raped into love” romances of the bodiceripper era eventually faded away as American society became more comfortable with the idea that yes, women do enjoy sex and that this doesn’t make them sluts.

However, unlike the rape-happy bodicerippers of the 1970s, there is no happy ending for anybody in “Black God’s Kiss”. Jirel is heartbroken and Guillaume dies and winds up as a wandering spirit in the hell dimension Jirel visited earlier, as revealed in the sequel “Black God’s Shadow”. And indeed, there are very few happy romantic endings in C.L. Moore’s fiction. Northwest Smith keeps getting entangled with beautiful women, who will inevitably be dead by the end of the story. Jirel usually winds up entangled with men who won’t take “no” for an answer, until Jirel shows them the error of their ways, usually with permanent results. By the end of “The Children’s Hour”, James Lessing cannot even remember his beloved Clarissa. Juille from Moore’s 1943 space opera Judgment Night gets into a relationship with an enemy assassin named Egide. They are both still alive at the end of the novel, which is at least something, though the war that Juille’s and Egide’s people have been waging on each other has destroyed much of the galactic empire that is their home, which is not exactly an optimistic ending either. And indeed, I recall reading somewhere (only I can’t find it now) that C.L. Moore said in one of the few interviews she gave that “love will destroy you in the end” was a core theme of her writing. Her stories, both her solo stories and those she wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner, certainly confirm this.

Jirel of JoiryI have to confess that I’ve always been a bit baffled by C.L. Moore’s tendency to write love stories with disastrous endings, since her own romantic life doesn’t seem to have been unhappy. Her marriage with Henry Kuttner was happy according to all accounts, even if it was cut short by Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958. And even though SFF fandom has nothing nice to say about C.L. Moore’s second husband, largely because Moore stopped writing as soon as she married him and he later declined the SFWA Grand Master honour on her behalf, because C.L. Moore was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, there is no indication that the actual marriage was unhappy.

I recently learned from this blogpost by Bobby Derie quoting from letters that C.L. Moore exchanged with H.P. Lovecraft (as well as from C.L. Moore’s letter of condolence to Robert E. Howard’s father after Howard’s suicide) that C.L. Moore was engaged to a fellow employee at the bank where she worked, when she penned her first stories. In 1936, her fiancé died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in an incident which might have either suicide or an accident while cleaning his gun. This tragedy must certainly have been a blow to C.L. Moore and might well have permanently influenced her views on romantic relationships, except that the stories she wrote before the death of her first fiancé, stories like “Shambleau” or “Black God’s Kiss”, also have a bleak view of romantic relationships. Maybe C.L. Moore was simply a pessimist.

Jirel of JoiryAnother thing which struck me upon rereading “Black God’s Kiss” is how frankly the story talks about sex in an era when that was not at all common. Now most pulp magazines were not as downright prudish as Astounding and its fantasy-focussed sister magazine Unknown, but while romance quite frequently happened in the pages of Planet Stories or Startling Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, those romances were usually chaste. A one paragraph extremely euphemistically described memory of a sex scene in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury earned Planet Stories outraged letters accusing them of publishing pornography.

Compared to this, “Black God’s Kiss” is very direct. Jirel makes it clear that she is not a virgin, that she know what Guillaume wants from her and that she might not even mind, if Guillaume had grasped the concept of consent and that conquering her castle and slaughtering her men doesn’t exactly make Jirel predisposed to like him. Moore’s earlier story “Shambleau” is even more direct, since there is a two page long nigh psychedelic scene of Northwest Smith essentially having tentacle sex with Shambleau. It’s not just those two stories, too, but all of C.L. Moore’s early stories for Weird Tales are suffused with eroticism. For example, the 1935 story “Julhi” begins with Moore lovingly describing every single scar on Northwest Smith’s naked body and he sure has a lot of them. Compare that to the chaste romance described in “The Children’s Hour” ten years later, where the relationship between James Lessing and Clarissa does not seem to go beyond holding hands and taking long walks – which is for the better, lest Lessing accidentally commit paedophilia, considering Clarissa is much younger than she looks.

Now no one will be surprised to find sex in the pages of Weird Tales – just look at those covers. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I was surprised to find so much eroticism in stories written by a woman in her early twenties. Of course, C.L. Moore was in a committed relationship at the time she was writing the Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith stories and people did have premarital sex in the 1930s (my maternal grandmother who was a few years younger than Moore, admitted to having had premarital sex with my grandfather sometime in the late 1930s and she was the most prudish woman imaginable), so she was not necessarily inexperienced. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if the subject matter she wrote about, in a magazine with scantily clad women on the cover at that, was a factor in Moore’s decision to publish her stories under her initials rather than her full name, so she wouldn’t lose her job at the bank.

Jirel of JoiryThe Jirel of Joiry stories are among the foundational texts of the genre now known as sword and sorcery, making C.L. Moore one of the pioneers of the genre, along with Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber with H.P. Lovecraft as a kind of honorary grandfather (sorry). Nonetheless, the Jirel stories tend to get less attention than those of the male founding fathers of the genre. Even the Conan-wannabe stories by Clifford Ball, Norvell Page’s Prester John stories (Steve J. Wright reviewed one of them recently) and the Elak of Atlantis stories by C.L. Moore’s husband-to-be Henry Kuttner sometimes get more attention than Jirel of Joiry, even though neither are what anybody would consider top-tier sword and sorcery.

And what might the reason for that be? Well, that’s not difficult to determine. A woman writing stories featuring a swordswoman that don’t fit easily into any mould is simply too much for some folks. And indeed, last year a debate broke out whether sword and sorcery was an inherently masculine genre that women cannot write nor want to read. Examples of that debate may be found here, here and here, with counter arguments here and here (some links go to archive.is).

These claims are complete and utter nonsense and easily refuted by looking at the number of women who wrote, provided art for and edited Weird Tales as well as at the number of women who read Weird Tales and wrote letters to the magazine. Angeline B. Adams provides some samples of these letters here and here. And the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s was largely due to the efforts of a woman, Cele Goldsmith-Lalli, editor of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, who gave Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser a new home, introduced John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian and also published the occasional sword and sorcery yarn by Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny and others.

However, the existence of C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry throws a wrench into those claims that’s too big to ignore, because here is a woman who was part of the sword and sorcery genre right from the beginning, a woman who was highly respected by her fellow sword and sorcery writers, a woman who corresponded with Howard and Lovecraft and wound up marrying Henry Kuttner.

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. MooreAnd so those who claim that sword and sorcery is an inherently masculine genre throw the whole spectrum of the strategies outlined by Joanna Russ (another woman who wrote sword and sorcery, though she is better remembered for her other work these days) in How to Suppress Women’s Writing at C.L. Moore. “She wrote it, but look what she wrote about” a.k.a. the double standard of content features heavily as does “She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it’s not really art” a.k.a. false categorisation with a dose of “She wrote it, but she had help” (less useful for the Jirel stories, but often deployed to credit the later Kuttner/Moore collaborations solely to Kuttner). And so, the critics in question claim that the Jirel of Joiry stories aren’t really sword and sorcery, because there are too many descriptions of otherworldly realms and not enough swordfighting. Furthermore, Jirel has – gasp – romantic feelings and icky emotions and mourns the man she believes she was in love with. Never mind that Conan mourns Belit and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser mourn Vlana and Ivrian.

Now it seems to me that there is a significant number of sword and sorcery fans who are primarily Conan fans and ignore all other branches of the subgenre, whether it’s the more humorous and more human Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, the Jirel of Joiry stories with their strong emphasis on otherworldly realms, Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories with their not very likeable anti-hero or even Robert E. Howard’s non-Conan stories such as the more philosophical adventures of Kull. But while those sword and sorcery fans who exclusively enjoy Conan just tend to ignore the existence of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser or Elric, they feel the need to actively deny Jirel due to the character’s and author’s sex.

Another strategy Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is creating a lack of models by downplaying the contributions of female writers and artists. We can very clearly see this strategy at play here, for ignoring and denying C.L. Moore as a founding mother of the sword and sorcery genre makes it easier for certain reactionary forces to claim that women just don’t write sword and sorcery and that there are no sword and sorcery heroines except maybe Red Sonja, a character often credited to Robert E. Howard, but actually created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for the Conan comics, even though Howard did write several female sword and sorcery heroines. But the problem of erasing C.L. Moore’s contributions to speculative fiction goes even deeper, because Moore also created the archetype of the space rogue with her other famous character Northwest Smith. All latter day space rogues, from Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark via Han Solo to Malcolm Reynolds owe their existence to Northwest Smith. And even today, the space rogue is a character more likely to be written and championed by women SFF writers. Even Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, though both created by men, were written by women (one of them Leigh Brackett) in some of their most memorable appearances.

Black Gods and Scarlett Dreams by C.L. MooreThese discussions are not new, either, but were already going on in The Eyrie, the letter column of Weird Tales, in the 1930s. In the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, one Bert Felsburg from the unfortunately named Frackville, Pennsylvania, complains about a perceived lack of action in “Black God’s Kiss” and hopes that C.L. Moore will kill off Jirel soon. However, Bert Felsburg also has nothing but praise for Moore’s other character, Northwest Smith, as well as for Robert E. Howard’s Conan and declares that in all the pulp magazines he reads, no other characters appeal to him as much as Northwest Smith and Conan. I tried to find out more about Bert Felsburg, but all that remains of him is that one frequently quoted letter to Weird Tales, a classified ad in an amateur radio magazine and an entry in a genealogy site, which suggests that he was born in 1920, i.e. he was fourteen years old when he wrote that letter, which very much puts his views into perspective.

One Fred Anger from Berkeley, California, was also not a fan of “Black God’s Kiss”, which he called the poorest C.L. Moore story yet. One Alvin Earl Perry from Rockdale, Texas, was not wowed by “Black God’s Kiss” either, but does like Jirel and would love to see more of her. Ernest H. Ormsbee from Albany, New York, not only misgenders C.L. Moore (but then, it was not yet widely known that Moore was female and her future husband Henry Kuttner would address her as Mr. Moore as late as 1936), but also declares that “Shambleau” was the only story by her that he loved (to be fair, it is a good one) and that her other stories were just a little too weird for him, “like the dreams of an opium eater”.

However, “Black God’s Kiss” was also voted the most popular story in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales and attracted its share of fans such as Jack Darrow from Chicago as well as such famous names as Manly Wade Wellman and Robert Bloch, who briefly commented “Conan vile, C.L. Moore splendid”. The “vile” Conan story was “People of the Black Circle”, by the way, the second part of which appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as “Black God’s Kiss”. One M.A. Reynolds of Glendale, California (not Mack Reynolds, the science fiction author and Astounding regular – the details don’t fit) declares themself a C.L. Moore fan and also heaps praise upon “The Three Marked Pennies” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, which appeared in the August 1934 issue and must have been very popular indeed judging by the amount of praise it received several months later, which means I should probably review it sometime. Reynolds also declares that he wouldn’t mind if Weird Tales published nothing but stories by Mary Elizabeth Counselman and C.L. Moore. So much for “Weird Tales readers didn’t like stories by women.”

Another famous name, Virginia Kidd, then thirteen years old, was also enthusiastic about “Black God’s Kiss” and demands to know how Jirel and Guillaume would get back together (I’m afraid she was disappointed on that account). Young Virginia Kidd also had nothing but praise for Margaret Brundage’s covers. Nor was she the only female Margaret Brundage fan writing to The Eyrie that month. One Mary A. Conklin of Coldwater, Michigan, also praises the beautiful ladies in Margaret Brundage’s cover (though interestingly she was unaware that Brundage was a woman) and admits a particular liking for red-headed and brunette models. Indeed, the only people who had issues with Margaret Brundage’s covers being too sexy were male readers.

Mary A. Conklin also praises “Black God’s Kiss” and declares that Jirel is the kind of woman she’d like to be herself. And just to prove that Conan and Jirel were not rivals and that female readers of Weird Tales did like the Cimmerian barbarian, too, Mary A. Conklin calls Conan one of her favourites and hopes that Robert E. Howard won’t have Conan settle down and marry, because she enjoys Conan’s adventures with the lovely ladies. Maybe it’s just me, but I do get the impression that Ms. Conklin was not entirely straight. I did try to find out more about this Mary A. Conklin, but none of the women with that name I found online could have been the reader from Coldwater, Michigan, who wrote several letters to Weird Tales in the 1930s.

Many of the stories I enjoyed as a teenager and revisited for the Retro Reviews project have suffered a visit from the suck fairy in the meantime. “Black God’s Kiss” is the opposite, because I actually enjoyed the story more the second time around. It’s still a disturbing story and less beloved than it should be, because both the story and its heroine don’t fit into any mould. For better or for worse, Jirel is unique among her peers.

I guess I should review the sequel “Black God’s Shadow” next or maybe “Black Amazon of Mars”, Leigh Brackett’s take on the same material. I’ll also revisit Northwest Smith in the near future.

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Some Comments on the 2020 Dragon Award Winners

Dragon Con, a big media-focussed convention in Atlanta, Georgia, has gone virtual this year for obvious reasons, much like every other major or minor convention. Much/most of their virtual programming is free to access for everybody, but I have to admit that I quickly gave up on trying to watch Dragon Con programming, because it was very confusing, scattered over several different YouTube channels as well as Discord. There is a program, which lists all panels and events, but it’s very confusing as well. Not to mention that some of the programming choices are strange, to say the least. For example, a Dragon Con YouTube channel dedicated to American science fiction classics has several discussions of SF movies from the 1990s as well as a reading of science fiction movie novelisations, which is not my idea of science fiction classics at all. Half the programming on the Dragon Con urban fantasy YouTube channel is devoted to TV shows.  And the panelist choices for the literary urban fantasy panels are also a bit strange. I’m not sure if this is the result of Dragon Con pivoting to virtual comparatively late – probably because they didn’t know until fairly shortly before the con, if it would be able to go ahead in person or not – or if programming like that is normal for Dragon Con. It feels like a very different culture, at any rate.

I did listen in to a reading, but quickly dropped out when the author started to explain that yes, she writes science fiction, but it’s not set in space. I mean, it’s 2020. Does anybody out there honestly still think that science fiction needs to be set in space? I also came across a panel on Superversive SFF, which I might listen to, if I’m feeling masochistic. Still, there won’t be a report about the virtual 2020 Dragon Con, largely because I have seen barely anything of it.

In these pages, Dragon Con has mainly been mentioned in connection with the Dragon Awards, an popular vote SFF award attached to Dragon Con that has had a very variable history (to put it kindly), chronicled here.

In short, since their inception in 2016, the Dragon Awards have gone from puppy award to indie SFF award to popular mainstream award with a few puppies and indie authors sprinkled in and back again. The 2020 ballot was probably the most mainstream Dragon Awards ballot yet, with a lot of broadly popular works and hardly any “Who the hell is this?” finalists, much to the chagrin of the usual suspects.

However, the Dragon Awards are nothing if not unpredictable. For example, the 2019 ballot was also composed largely of broadly popular SFF works, but the winners looked considerably different, with the most obscure work winning in several categories. So what will the 2020 winners look like?

Pretty good, as it turns out. Only a few of my choices won, but then only a few of my top picks won Hugos either. But unlike previous years, there are very few cases of “How the hell did this win?” The gender distribution is also a lot more balanced this year, though the Dragon Award winners still skew male. The full list of winners is here, where there’s also some discussion going on in the comments. There is also some discussion in the comments at Camestros Felapton’s blog.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories:

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel is The Last Emperox by John Scalzi. This wasn’t my choice – I voted for Network Effect by Martha Wells – and indeed, the Interdependency trilogy just doesn’t work for me. But John Scalzi is a very popular author and was apparently Dragon Con Guest of Honour this year, so this is hardly a surprising win. Plus, John Scalzi winning a Dragon Award will also royally piss off the usual suspects.

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel goes to Erin Morgenstern for The Starless Sea. Again, this wasn’t my choice – I voted for Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – but it’s a fine novel and also probably the most popular novel on the ballot, since Erin Morgenstern is also very popular with readers beyond the SFF sphere.

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Middle Grade/YA Novel is Finch Merlin and the Fount of Youth by Bella Forrest. I have to admit that this is a win which surprised me a little, for while Bella Forrest is a very popular indie SFF author, I didn’t expect that the tenth book in a series would win an award, especially since the blurb makes very little sense, if you haven’t read the rest of the series. However, while Hugo voters at least make an effort to read every single finalist in a given category, the Dragons have no such expectations and voters just vote for whatever they like best. And Bella Forrest does have a hugo fanbase. My own vote was for Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer BTW.

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction Novel goes to Savage Wars by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach. This was very much not my choice – I voted for System Failure by Joe Zieja. However, even though Nick Cole used to be affiliated with the puppies (and might still be, for all I know), I wouldn’t call this a win for the puppies. For Nick Cole is probably the only puppy-affiliated author to find success outside their immediate ideological bubble. And so the Galaxy’s Edge series Nick Cole writes with Jason Anspach, of which Savage Wars is a spin-off, is very popular, particularly with Kindle Unlimited readers.

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel is Witchy Kingdom by D.J. Butler. This is another unsurprising win, especially since the previous two books in the series were both Dragon Award finalists in this category and Butler seems to be popular with Dragon Award voters in general. Coincidentally, this is also the only Dragon Award win for Baen Books this year and Baen has traditionally done well in the Dragon Awards and also usually has a big presence at Dragon Con. My own vote was for Revolution by W.L. Goodwater BTW.

As I also noted in my discussion of the Dragon Award finalists, the military SFF and alternate history category are the place on the 2020 Dragon Award ballot that most resembles the early years of the Dragon Awards. Of course, these are also much more specific and smaller categories than the science fiction, fantasy, horror and YA mega categories.

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Media Tie-in Novel goes to Firefly – The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove. This is another unsurprising win, considering Firefly is still popular almost twenty years after its very short single season aired. My own pick was Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse.

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel is The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher. It’s a great novel and was also my pick in this category.

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Comic Book goes Avengers by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness. It’s an unsurprising winner, since Avengers is a popular mainstream Marvel superhero comic, whose popularity has probably been boosted even more by the Avengers films. My own vote was for Monstress BTW.

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Graphic Novel is Battlestar Galactica Counterstrike by John Jackson Miller and Daniel HDR. This is one win which did surprise me, because I didn’t expect a media tie-in comic for a fifteen-year-old TV series to beat three popular superhero comics as well as two well-regarded standalone graphic novels. What surprises me even more is that unlike Firefly, the early 2000s Battlestar Galactica seems to have mercifully faded from public consciousness and is rarely discussed these days (though The Guardian did run a puff piece praising the show recently, because it apparently became available on some streaming service), probably because commentary on the legitimacy of the 2000 US presidential election, the war on terror and the Iraq War (plus bonus religious blather) thinly disguised as science fiction seems more dated these days than the original 1970s series. But since Dragon Con has a lot of media programming, including panels about TV shows that have long since finished, it’s quite possible that there still is a fanbase for the no longer quite so new Battlestar Galactica at Dragon Con. And come to think of it, a few years ago, Dresden Files tie-ins won both the comic and graphic novel category at the Dragon Awards, beating several popular works. My own vote for for Black Bolt BTW.

ETA: In the comments on Camestros Felapton’s post, Oleg X points out that the 2020 Dragon Award winner for Best Graphic Novel is a tie-in comic to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, not the early 2000s travesty. Which is even more surprising, for much as I loved the original Battlestar Galactica once upon a time, it’s a 42-year-old TV show that is probably older than most Dragon Con attendees. I didn’t even know there still were tie-in comics and I’m probably one of the comparatively few fans the original show still has. Is there a strong fanbase for the original Battlestar Galactica at Dragon Con and/or in the Atlanta area for some reason?

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best TV series goes to The Mandalorian, which should surprise absolutely nobody, considering that pretty much everybody loves the show and is eagerly awaiting season 2. This was also my pick BTW.

The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Movie is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This win does seem a little surprising at first, because The Rise of Skywalker was a very divisive movie that few people unequivocally loved. However, if you look at the competition in this category – which was affected by the near total lack of new movie due to the pandemic and due to movie theatres still being closed in the US – this win no longer looks quite so surprising. Ad Astra and the live action Lion King are two movies that hardly anybody seemed to like at all and that got comparatively little buzz either, though Disney’s live-action versions of their animated movies always seem to do well, though no one ever admits to watching them or has a single good word to say about them. Joker certainly was popular, but it was also a very divisive love it or hate it film (I’m in the latter camp), plus it’s also only very tangentially SFF. Terminator: Dark Fate was yet another unnecessary sequel to a story that found a satisfying end three decades ago, though the few who did bother to watch the movie generally enjoyed it. And while Fast Color, which was also my pick, is a lovely movie, it’s also an indie movie with a small budget and a much smaller reach than a behemoth like Star Wars.

I’m not a gamer, so I don’t vote in the gaming categories at the Dragon Awards and also can’t say much about the winners – a Star Wars videogame, a Minecraft and a Magic the Gathering expansion and a boardgame called Tapestry – except that they all seem like popular choices.

The Dragon Awards don’t have short fiction categories, but there is a short fiction award given out at Dragon Con, the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. This Eugie Award is not a popular vote award like the Dragon Awards, but a juried award. The 2020 winner is the delightful novelette “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, which I enjoyed very much and which was also my top vote in the Best Novelette category at the Hugos this year.

One problem with the Dragon Awards is that – unlike the Hugos, where the full voting and nominating stats are made public within an hour of the winners being announced – the Dragons are very much a black box award. We don’t know how many votes have been cast in total and per category and how these votes have been distributed among the finalists. Not to mention the boilerplate sweepstakes rules, which basically allow the Dragon Awards administrators to choose the finalists and winners according to their whims (not saying that this is what happens), or the fact that at least in the early years, it was possible for voters to register with multiple e-mail addresses and vote several times.

This year, Dragon Con released a press release about the awards, which notes that there were 8000 ballots cast in total.  It also notes that Dragon Con partnered with several public libraries in the greater Atlanta area to promote the awards and make the finalists available to their patrons to allow them to cast informed votes. This is a great step forward and also explains why the Dragon Awards look a lot more like you would expect a popular vote award to look this year.

So after five years, the Dragon Awards finally seem to be on a good way to become what they set out to be from the start, an award honouring broadly popular SFF works, which may or may not be overlooked by other awards.  The Dragon Awards are on a good way at last. Of course, the rough early years still affect perception of the Dragon Awards, but if the awards continue to follow the path they have chosen this year, those lingering effects will eventually subside. After all, the Hugos survived They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley winning Best Novel in 1955, too.

ETA: Camestros Felapton looks into the Dragon Award numbers and notes that the winners still skew heavily male, especially if you include the comics categories.

ETA ETA: Camestros also has a handy graphic representation of Hugo and Dragon Award finalists and the overlaps between them and also takes a look at the percentage of Dragon Award finalists and winners published by big, medium and small publishers.

ETA 2: At Women Write About Comics, Doris V. Sutherland shares her thoughts on the 2020 Dragon Awards winners and notes that in spite of some far right authors threatening to boycott the awards, thousands of people still voted.

ETA 3: At File 770, Mike Glyer shares some reactions from the puppy camp to the 2020 Dragon Award winners. So far, reactions seem to be divided between “We shall ignore those winners we don’t like”, which basically leaves Cole/Anspach, D.J. Butler and The Mandalorian (cause everybody loves The Mandalorian), and “It’s all the pandemic’s fault, because normal people(TM) couldn’t be bothered to vote in an internet poll”.

ETA4: Former Rabid Puppy in chief Vox Day briefly weighs in on various rightwing culture war movements (archive.is link). He mostly quotes from a post by Jon Del Arroz about “culture war grifters” (basically, a lot of these movements devolved into internal alt-right feuding), but also notes that the “Sad Puppies and the Dragon Awards were doomed”, because they wanted to fix rather than fight “the enemy”.

Ignoring all of the culture war bluster, it seems as if the various puppy offshoot movements have finally realised that the Dragon Awards are no longer “the puppy awards”.

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Retro Review: “The Golden Apples of the Sun” by Ray Bradbury

Planet Stories, November 1953“The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury, which appeared in the November 1953 issue of Planet Stories. It would have been eligible for the 1954 Retro Hugos, awarded in 2004, but neither made the ballot nor the longlist. The magazine version may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The narrator of the story is the unnamed captain of a spaceship called the Copa de Oro a.k.a. Prometheus a.k.a. Icarus, whose mission it is to fly to the sun and retrieve some of its fire or rather fusion power in a giant cup held by a giant remote-controlled hand. What could possibly go wrong with this plan, particularly given the name(s) of the spaceship?

In order to survive the trip to the sun, the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus is cooled down to a temperature of one thousand degrees below zero. Her crew can only survive by wearing protective suits. The first disaster to befall the mission happens when the protective suit of the first mate, a man named Bretton, fails and Bretton freezes instantly to death.

But more danger awaits, for the ice on the ceiling of the control room suddenly starts to melt, when an auxiliary cooling agent pump breaks down at precisely the worst moment. The captain and the crew frantically scramble to fix it before they are burned to cinders.

One of the crew members asks the captain whether to pull out or stay, but the captain orders to stay the course, because the mission has almost reached its climax. And so the captain operates the cup via what would eventually be called a “waldo”, while the rest of the crew still frantically tries to fix the broken pump.

The pump is repaired at just the right moment, the captain pulls the cup with the solar fire into the spaceship and the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus turns around for the long journey back to Earth, her mission a success.

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray BradburyI came across this story, while checking early 1950s issues of Planet Stories for women authors not named Leigh Brackett. I read it a long time ago and remember liking it, so I decided to reread it.

“The Golden Apples of the Sun” is very short, only four pages in magazine format. There is only one named character – who only gets a name when he dies – and the plot is very slight. There is a dangerous mission, there are some complications, everything is resolved at the last minute and the mission is a resounding success.

In the hands of any other author, this story would have been a forgettable filler. And indeed I shudder to imagine what this story would have looked like, if it had been published in Astounding, full of infodumps and clunky technobabble and nonsense science.

However, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a Ray Bradbury story. And so what makes it special is not the slight plot, but Bradbury’s poetic language, filtered through the POV of the nameless captain.

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray BradburyLike most Ray Bradbury characters, the nameless captain shares Bradbury’s idealised midwestern small town childhood (which at least according to this article by Colleen Abel likely never happened that way). And so we get lots of imagery of seasons changing. The heat of the sun is compared to the “sweltering dog-mad days of August”, the interior of the ship is compared to “all the coldest hours of February”. When the pump fails and the ice begins to melt, the captain likens it first to the last icicle of winter finally melting in April and then to a warm summer rain. There is also a striking description of the ship and its crew burning up in the heat of the sun, “popped like strawberries in a furnace”.

The story is also full of allusions of mythology and literature. The triple name of the ship refers to Prometheus who stole the fire from the gods, Icarus who flew to close to the sun, so that his wings melted, and Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s 1929 debut novel, which was probably better remembered in 1953 than it is now, since it’s a historical novel about the life of Henry Morgan and rather atypical of Steinbeck’s work. The title of the story is a reference to the last line of the poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats. “Fear no more the heat of the sun” is a reference to Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. There is also a reference to the 1912 mythological novel The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, an author who must have been a lot more popular in the mid 20th century than he is now, since C.L. Moore also referred to his novella Deirdre in “No Woman Born”.

Indeed, one thing I find fascinating about golden age speculative fiction is how many literary references there are, including some so obscure these days that they require googling. Meanwhile, contemporary speculative fiction is far more likely to refer to other SFF works or various media properties than non-genre literature. Unless it’s Star Trek, which is full of references to Shakespeare with some Dickens and Sherlock Holmes thrown in.

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray BradburyThose who don’t care for Ray Bradbury’s writing tend to claim that he was not a “real”™ science fiction writer, because his stories focus more on atmosphere and mood and less on hard science. And indeed, Bradbury was not particularly interested in technobabble and infodumps, which is probably why he didn’t get along with John W. Campbell of Astounding and found his market elsewhere. However, while Bradbury does not focus on the science, what science there is in his stories is actually pretty sound by the standards of the time.

Of course, the mission of the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus is impossible. Even if it were possible for a spaceship to get close enough to the sun to grab some solar plasma (I assume that’s what they want to grab, but then Bradbury only vaguely speaks of fire), it would certainly yield fascinating scientific results, but not limitless fusion energy. Nor would constantly cooling the spaceship down protect it from incineration. The ESA Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the closest real world equivalents to the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus, are protected by heat shields and reflective aluminium rather than cooling circuits. They are also unmanned.

However, Bradbury’s description of the cooling system of the ship – even it wouldn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do – is pretty sound and I’m totally stealing the “ribbed boa constrictor coils” through which the cooling agent flows for a translation sometime. The “waldo” like grab mechanism to retrieve a sample of solar plasma also isn’t unlike the robotic arms used aboard the late space shuttle and the International Space Station.

I also liked the paragraph where the captain muses about the motive for their perilous mission, starting out with all sorts of reasonable ideas about unlimited fusion energy and unlocking the secrets of the sun, including the line “the atomic bomb is pitiful and small”, which must have been shocking indeed barely a year after the first hydrogen bomb test. But after all the very reasonable scientific motivations, the captain finally comes to the true reason: Because we can and because it’s fun. Somehow, I can’t imagine a line like that in Campbell’s Astounding.

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury

I first read the story in this 1970 paperback edition of “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, found in the university used bookstore.

Even though it’s fairly slight, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a popular and beloved story that has been reprinted umpteen times and gave its title to the eponymous collection. In fact, I’m surprised that it did not make the ballot nor the longlist for the 1954 Retro Hugos, considering how well known the story is. But then the competition was extremely strong that year – the winner in the short story category was “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke. And besides, Ray Bradbury got to take home (literally, since he was still alive at the time) a Retro Hugo for Best Novel for Fahrenheit 451, so I strongly suspect that he didn’t mind not getting a nomination for “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.

Not much in the way of plot and character, but beautifully written and a very typical example of Ray Bradbury’s writing in the 1950s.

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First Monday Free Fiction: A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs

A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the August 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

The recent debate about Lovecraft and his influence on the speculative fiction genre reminded me of A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs, a story I wrote three years ago about sort of Lovecraftian aliens attacking a mining outpost.

As I wrote here, this story was my attempt to write the kind of “Pew, pew, let’s kill all the aliens” military science fiction that sells well in the Amazon Kindle store. Though in the end, it turned into something quite different, because it seems I simply can’t write that kind of story and take it seriously. And so my protagonists are not heroic space marines, but security staff at a mining outpost. And while the aliens are scary and alien, they actually have a motivation beyond “Kill all humans” to do what they’re doing. There is plenty of shooting and explosions, though.

So join Matt and Cally, as they prepare to fight…

A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs

Space-suited creatures stream through the airlock. At least, I think they’re wearing space suits, since those sure as hell don’t look like any space suits I’ve ever seen. There are too many arms, too many legs, too many limbs. Even looking at them hurts and makes me doubt my sanity.

More and more pour into the station, until the entire corridor is just a mess of arms and legs and limbs. Closer and closer they come, relentless, unstoppable.

My finger tightens on the trigger of my plasma rifle, itching to shoot, itching to blow off some of those arms and legs and limbs, blow them to smithereens.

“Hold your fire,” the voice of Security Chief Burnett echoes in my ear, “Hold until they’re at the bulkhead.”

Intellectually, I know he’s right. After all, we’ve only got one shot at this, just one chance. But though my mind knows he’s right, that doesn’t mean that my heart does.

After all, I’ve seen what they can do. I’ve seen the aftermath, the bloodstained floors and mangled human bodies, the charred remnants of outposts where not a single soul was left alive.

At first, we didn’t even know what it was. All we knew was that along the rim, outposts and space stations suddenly went dark. And once the galactic government got around to sending someone to investigate, all they found were wrecked stations and decomposing bodies without a single clue as to what had happened.

Bodies and wrecked outposts piled up, as the attacks increased. And gradually, we found clues. SOS calls, breaking off in mid transmission. Marks and scratches on walls and bulkheads that nothing human could have made. Traces of organic substances that matched absolutely nothing in the known universe. And finally, grainy security cam footage of multi-limbed horrors the likes of which no human eye had ever seen.

We’d thought that we were alone in the cosmos, that the universe was ours for the taking. We were wrong.

But though we knew what we were up against, we still had no real way of stopping them. And so outposts and stations continued to go dark, their crews torn to pieces. Central Government increased patrols along the rim and sent marines to guard and defend endangered stations, but it was to no avail. The enemy continued to strike, evading the patrols and killing the marines along with everybody else.

The enemy. That’s what we call them, cause we don’t know what their proper name is or if they even have one. We don’t know what they want, why they attack us and why now, we don’t even know what they look like. Until now…

Cause I’m seeing them, seeing them with my own two eyes, these creatures with too many arms and legs and limbs. I see them advancing towards us, scurrying like oversized spiders, scuttling like lobsters or starfish, different, terrifying, other.

Very likely, it’s the last thing I’ll ever see.

Cause unlike the other colonies and stations that were hit, we don’t have a large crew. Hyams II just a small outpost, a handful of miners extracting tantalum ore from an asteroid plus support personnel and families. We don’t have marines to protect us, just a bunch of underpaid and underequipped security guards. We’re outnumbered and outgunned and we know it.

And yet we fight, make a stand. Because we have to. Because we’re humans and we don’t just lay down and die. We fight and even if we go down, we’ll make sure those monsters regret ever having come here.

The first of the creatures, the vanguard, are almost at the bulkhead now. It’s the perfect spot for an ambush, a natural bottleneck. Just a few more feet and then…

“Fire. Fire at will,” Chief Burnett yells, his voice echoing in my head.

I press the trigger. I see the flash of fifteen plasma rifles discharging all at once, hear the roar. I see a blast hit its mark, see one of those too many limbs blown off, see green alien blood — of course, it’s green — splatter onto the bulkhead.

I don’t know if it was my blast that blew off that limb or somebody else’s. I don’t care either. I just press the trigger again and again. I don’t even have to aim, cause the corridor is full of creatures now, a solid wall of arms and legs and teeth, giant razor-sharp teeth. I just fire, fire into that living, writhing wall, fire again and again and again.

The creatures scream. Their screams are eerie, like the screams of a doomed soul in hell or the screech of a ship breaking apart in deep space. It’s a scream the likes of which no human being ever emitted and yet I know what it means. These are death screams, the sounds of the creatures as they rage against the end of everything they ever cared about, whatever that might be.

I see the first of them go down, go down in a tangle of too many limbs. The ones that follow clamber over their fallen comrades, but nonetheless their advance has slowed down. And still we fire, fire until the charge of our plasma rifles runs out.

The bodies pile up at the bulkhead, a natural barricade to slow down the enemy’s progress, allowing us to pick them off one by one. It’s a good plan — not mine — but like any battle plan, it doesn’t survive contact with reality. Because the enemy just keeps on coming, wave upon wave of multi-limbed creatures breaking upon the bulkhead, clambering over the bodies of those that went before. And no matter how often we fire, no matter how many of them we take out, there’s always more to take their place.

I don’t even bother aiming. I just press the trigger, again and again, as often as my rifle will let me.

This always looks so easy in the sims. Aim, fire, enemy goes down, repeat. Reality is a lot more messy. Blood splatters, dying creatures scream, my comrades-in-arms are hyperventilating beside me. And the smell — oh God, the smell. Sweat, piss, the acrid stench of alien blood and above it all, the pervasive stench of fear, pure and unadulterated fear.

We manage to hold off the enemy at the bulkhead for a surprisingly long time. At least ten or fifteen minutes, though it’s difficult to tell in the heat of battle. At any rate, it feels as if I’ve been here forever, crouched behind a makeshift barricade of crates full of ore, firing at the enemy.

We fought bravely, that’s what they’ll say at our funerals, provided there’s enough left of us to bury afterwards, that is. We fought bravely and held off the enemy, but in the end we still fell, succumbing to their superior numbers.

And that end is nigh now, it seems. One by one, my comrades-in-arms stop firing as the charge in their plasma rifles runs out. The rifles will recharge, of course, eventually, but by then it will be too late. By then, they will have overrun us.

More and more creatures manage to clamber over the pile of bodies. For now, we’re still stopping them, but they’re coming closer, ever closer. Bodies are lying in the corridor now, limbs twitching, dying but not yet dead.

The creatures don’t care. They don’t pause to check on their wounded, they just press on, trampling over their fallen comrades. It’s this casual disregard for the lives of their fellow soldiers that makes me shudder more than anything.

I ruthlessly fight the terror down and fire, hitting one of the creatures point-blank in the chest or at least, what I think is its chest. The creature literally explodes in a shower of greenish blood and guts. Then it goes down, landing on top of the fallen comrade it had so casually trampled down only seconds before.

My rifle barely has time to recharge, when another suddenly appears before me, directly at the barricade, its squirming limbs reaching for me. I scream and fire blindly at the thing. The creature’s chest explodes, splattering me with its stinking greenish blood. It stings on my skin, like toilet cleaner.

More and more of the creatures reach the barricade. We’re still holding them off, for now, but occasionally one manages to break through, wreaking havoc among our lines.

A tentacle-like limb reaches across the barricade. Right beside me, its spiked tip finds Jenkins and bores itself into his chest. Jenkins screams and I fire, blowing the creature’s tentacle clean off. The thing screeches, as Jenkins falls, impaled by the tentacle, the first of us to go down.

Alvarez is next. She doesn’t even get to scream, for the tentacle wraps itself around her neck, choking the life out of her. We fire at once, but the thing just refuses to let go off her. And when it finally does, Alvarez is already gone, the horror of her final seconds still etched onto her face.

I barely have time to mourn her, then one of them is upon me, its tentacled limbs grabbing for me. I fire blindly and the thing explodes, drenching me in its stinging greenish blood.

“Retreat,” the voice of the Chief Burnett yells in my ear, “Retreat!”

He doesn’t have to say that twice. Those of us who are still standing make a run for it, firing back at the creatures that are snapping at our heels.

When we start to run, we are five. By the time, we make it to the next bulkhead and I hit the “Close” button, there’s only two of us left.

The bulkhead come down, right onto the slithering limb of one of the creatures. The limb twitches and shudders, until Cally blows it to bits.

“That was stupid,” I say, once I get my breath back, “We have to save our rifle charge and that…”

I look down at the severed limb and suddenly realise that I have no idea what it is. Arm, leg, tentacle, something else entirely?

“…thing couldn’t have hurt us.”

Cally collapses against the bulkhead, careful to keep her distance from the severed limb, even though she knows it’s dead, has to be dead.

“I know,” she says, “It’s just… I can’t bear looking at those things. The dimensions are all wrong and all those arms, legs, tentacles, limbs… it’s like something out of a nightmare.”

She buries her face in her hands.

“I don’t know if you understand, but… just looking at them makes me feel like I’m going crazy. Like maybe I’ve already gone crazy and am locked in a psych cell in the med ward and none of this is real…”

She looks up, her eyes wide and filling with tears.

“Do you know what I mean, Matt?”

I reach out, touch her shoulder, gently. “I do. I understand. Something about those critters… it’s wrong. Deeply wrong.”

Cally nods. “Like they shouldn’t even exist.”

I squeeze her shoulder, though I’m not sure if she can even feel it through her body armour. “I know. But you’ve got to pull yourself together, Cally. We’ve got to regroup, decide what to do now…”

“What to do now?” Cally emits a bitter laugh that briefly makes me wonder whether she’s gone hysterical on me. “There’s nothing to do, nowhere to regroup. They’re all dead, Matt, all dead. We’re the only ones left.”

“Maybe not. The other teams…”

“If any of the other teams were still alive, don’t you think we would have heard from them by now? But there’s nothing…” She touches the ear piece of her com unit. “Nothing.”

“Maybe they’re just too busy kicking alien arse to respond,” I say. It’s a lame excuse and I know it. So does Cally.

“Or maybe, they’re just too busy being dead,” she says.

She’s probably right. In fact, it’s very likely that she’s right and everybody else is dead. But someone’s got to stay optimistic around here and since Cally isn’t volunteering, I guess the task falls to me.

“We should try hailing the others, before we jump to any conclusions,” I say.

I’m just about to do that, when I’m interrupted by a dull thud.

I turn around and so does Cally. There is another dull thud, banging against the bulkhead behind us. And another. And another. And then they become a cacophony.

“We need to get away from here,” I say to Cally.

***

We sprint to the next bulkhead and hit the “Close” button, putting yet another barrier of ten centimetre thick steel between us and them. Not a moment too soon either, because just as the steel doors close, I see the creatures making short work of the bulkhead behind which we’d sheltered only seconds before.

Once the bulkhead slams close, Cally and I exchange glances, just to make sure that the other is still there, still alive, still unhurt.

“God, you look like shit, Matt,” Cally remarks.

I look down at myself, at my battered body armour and blood-splattered uniform. Then I look at Cally who — just like me — is covered head to toe in alien blood and alien guts. Her braid, normally red, is dripping with green.

“You don’t look much better.”

“So what do we do now?” Cally asks me, checking the remaining charge in her rifle. It’s deep in the red, just like mine. We’ll need to plug them in and recharge, before we can do more than get off a few shots.

“We’ll do what we planned to, before we got interrupted,” I say, “Try to hail the others to see what the plan is.”

“And if there are no others left to hail?” Cally asks.

I shrug. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

It’s a stupid platitude and we both know it. But sometimes, when everything around you goes crazy, stupid platitudes are exactly what you need to keep you sane.

So we try to hail the others. And just like Cally feared, all we get is static, nothing but static. We’re on our own, two of us against hell knows how many of them.

We both shut down our ear pieces and exchange helpless a look.

“So what now?”

A dull thud bangs against the bulkhead behind us, so we start moving again, rifles at the ready, though neither of us has got more than a few shots left. We move deeper into the complex, closing every bulkhead we pass to slow them down. At least, we’ve still got power… for now.

In the middle of an intersection, we find Choi. Though the only reason we know it’s Choi is the nametag on his uniform, splattered in alien blood. There’s not much left of his face or indeed the rest of him. He still has his rifle, though, and it still has some charge, so we take it along. After all, it’s not as if Choi has any use for it anymore.

“They’ve been here,” Cally whispers, “They’ve gotten through the bulkheads and barricades. They could be lurking anywhere.”

She’s right. We can’t just blindly wander through the complex, not when the enemy could be lurking behind every corner. We need a plan and we need eyes.

“If we could at least get to the security centre, so we have access to the cams,” I say.

But the security centre is far from here, on the command level. Lots of hallways, corridors, bulkheads and open spaces between here and there. Lots of places to hide and lots of possibilities to die.

Cally scratches her head. Green alien blood sticks to her fingertips. Disgusted, she wipes them on her uniform.

“Maybe we don’t have to go all the way to the security centre,” she says, “If we find an info terminal, I should be able to tap into the cams from there.”

It sounds like a plan, the only one we have, so we proceed to put it into action.

We slip into somebody’s quarters and lock the door. Cally immediately sits down at the terminal and gets to work, while I shove a chest of drawers up against the door as an extra barrier. Then I take the power packs out of our rifles as well as the rifle I took from Choi and plug them into the nearest bank wall sockets. It’s risky, leaving us defenceless like this, but if we’re going to survive, we need to recharge our rifles. Besides, I hope that the reinforced steel of the door and my makeshift barricade will give us enough time to retrieve our rifles, should the creatures find us.

Once I’ve dealt with the rifles, I take a moment to look around. The bed is made, the duvet tucked in at all four corners, waiting for its occupant who’ll never come back. There isn’t much in the way of personal effects. A ornamental pillow on the small sofa. A holo on the wall, waves endlessly rolling onto a tropical beach. A framed photo of a smiling woman.

My gaze falls on the bathroom door. Once more, I look down at myself, all splattered in sticky alien blood. “I’m going to see if I can clean myself up,” I announce. Cally just grunts, absorbed in her task.

In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror. My face is still there, still the same, only that there’s greenish alien blood sticking to every square inch of my skin. Cally was right, I reflect. I really do look like shit.

I try the tap and the water comes on. It’s cold, but at least it’s water, clean, fresh water. My throat, I suddenly realise, is parched, so I bend down to drink. Then I splash the cold water onto my face and my hair, rubbing and scrubbing, trying to get the blood off. I’m successful, sort of. At any rate, I look more like myself and less like someone who spent the last hour bathing in an alien abattoir. Though come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.

I find a washcloth, moisten it and begin to rub at my body armour. But though the cloth quickly turns green, my armour is still a mess. Those creatures’ blood sure is sticky. And stingy — damn it, my face still stings, even though I washed most of the blood off.

So I rummage through my lost crewmate’s belongings and finally find a tube of moisturising cream. And though I’m not sure if it will help, I apply some of it to my stinging face.

“Matt, come here,” Cally calls from the bedroom, “I’ve got it.”

She must be thirsty as well, I realise, so I grab a glass, throw out the toothbrush and fill it with water.

When I hand it to her, Cally flashes me a quick smile. “Thanks.”

On the screen in front of her, there is a mosaic of security camera feeds. I lean over Cally’s shoulder to take a closer look.

Most of the feeds just show empty corridors. Occasionally, there is damage visible, shredded bulkheads, smashed lamps, ceiling and wall panels torn down. Once or twice, I spot a trail of blood on the floor.

“Where’s the security centre?” I ask.

“Here.” Cally enlarges one of the feeds and my heart sinks.

The armoured windows of the security centre — space-rated glass, five inch thick, plasma and bulletproof — have been shattered as if they were nothing but the water glass I just gave to Cally. Inside, every single console has been smashed. The bodies of Chief Burnett and Deputy Chief Moskovitz lie where they’ve fallen, still clutching their rifles.

Unlike the rest of us, Burnett and Moskovitz actually knew what they were doing. Chief Burnett used to be a marine, an honest-to-God space marine, before they kicked him out over some scandal or other, while Deputy Chief Moskovitz spent fifteen years as a police officer in the harshest neighbourhood of Meridian Bay in the Mars colony. These two were the toughest people I know. And yet the aliens made mincemeat of them.

I avert my eyes, because I don’t want to, don’t need to see this. And then I look back anyway, once I realise that there is something missing. For though the security centre has been trashed, the only bodies inside are human.

“Where are the aliens?” I ask.

Wordlessly, Cally switched to another feed. And then another.

Now I finally see the bodies. A whole lot of them, alien and human, haphazardly piled up, until it’s no longer clear where the one ends and the other begins or even what the body was in the first place, alien or human. On the floor, puddles green and red blood run into each other, mixing into a murky, muddy brown.

One thing is certain, however. The bodies are all dead. Not a single limb, neither human nor alien nor something in between, is twitching.

“Considering how many creatures there were, I can’t believe we got them all.” Never mind that they were still chasing us up to a few minutes ago. “So where is everybody?”

“Look.” Cally operates the controls and the cam feeds change. Instead of corridors, we now see mine shafts. And aliens scurrying up and down the mineshafts.

“They’re in the mine? But why?”

“To steal tantalum ore, I guess. They’re just thieves.” She brings down her fist on the desk, nearly upsetting the glass of water I bought her. “Common garden variety thieves.”

“But this makes no sense,” I say, “Why go to all this length, attack so many outposts and kill so many people just to steal stuff?”

“Why do pirates hijack freighters and kill the entire crew just to steal the cargo?” Cally counters, “Because people are arseholes, that’s why.”

“I’m as tolerant as they come, but those… things are not people.”

“Right,” Cally says darkly, “They’re worse.”

For a few seconds we watch the creatures as they pack chunks of ore into what I assume are transport containers. They seem completely absorbed in their task.

“If they want to steal ore, then why don’t we just let them,” I suggest.

Cally shoots my a disbelieving look. “Let them?”

“While the aliens are busy stealing the ore, we just hide out in here and barricade the door. And then, once they’re gone, we can radio for help.”

Cally slowly shakes her head. “That won’t work.”

“And why not?”

“Because there are patrols.” She presses a few buttons and the feed on the screen changes again, showing alien creatures patrolling the corridors of the base. “And when they find a survivor…” She presses another button. “…they do this.”

The scene shifts again to show a room very much like the one we’re hiding out in. The door is locked and barricaded and a terrified man, a civilian wearing the coverall of a maintenance tech, is crouching in a corner. Then the door is ripped aside and a creature bursts in. It launches itself at the trembling maintenance tech. Blood sprays, red.

I avert my eyes. I don’t need to see any more.

“We could’ve helped him,” I whisper.

Cally shakes her head. “No, we couldn’t. Cause it already happened.”

I shoot her a questioning look. Briefly, my eyes touch the screen. Mercifully, Cally has switched it off.

“I set the feeds to record, so Central will at least be able to see what happened, if we don’t make it out,” she explains, “The cams caught that while you were in the bathroom.”

“Fuck,” I exclaim before I can stop myself. But then, given our situation, I doubt anybody would have a problem with a single swear word or five.

“But even if there are patrols in the corridors, aren’t we still safer in here?” I ask, “All we need to do is avoid the patrols. And since we have access to the security feeds, we know where they are.”

“We can’t do that either,” Cally says, “Okay, so we could. But it would be wrong.”

“And why? Cause I really don’t care if the Niob Corporation loses a few hundred tons of tantalum ore. They sure as hell ain’t paying us enough to risk our necks out there.”

“That guy we just saw wasn’t the only survivor. There are others hiding out around the complex. Civilians mostly, even a few kids…”

“…and we can’t leave them at the mercy of the creatures,” I complete.

We’re station security, probably all that’s left of station security. Protecting the Hyams II and its people is our job. And yes, most of the time, it’s about breaking up drunken bar fights, confiscating drug shipments and nabbing the occasional smuggler or thief. I never expected to have to deal with aliens and neither did Cally, I suspect. But even though we never expected a situation like this, dealing with it is still our job. And we will deal with it or die trying.

I pull up a chair and sit down at the desk next to Cally. “Can you show me the feeds of the mine again?”

She presses a button and promptly images of mine shafts and aliens packing up ore appear on screen. The creatures are packing the ore for transport in the same place the miners do, at the entrance of the mine just below the central elevator shaft. The shaft is the only access to the mine. If we could somehow block it, the creatures would be trapped. But how…?

“Cally, can you give me storeroom five?”

“Sure. Why?”

On the screen, the inside of storeroom five appears. I see the crates, the crates I myself helped to stack up, when I was supervising them being unloaded from the supply shuttle last week.

“See that? Those crates contain the explosives for blasting the new tunnel.”

“And?”

“If we can get the explosives to the top of the elevator shaft and blow it, then we’ll bury the creatures.” Of course, we’ll also destroy the mine, but all things considered, I hope the Niob Corporation will forgive us.

Cally looks intrigued. “This could work. This could really work. But we still have to deal with the patrols. We need to lure them away from the civilians somehow…”

“…preferably towards the mine and the explosion. But how?”

Cally is flipping through the security feeds with a nervous tap of her fingers. Corridors rapidly alternate with quarters, public areas, the concourse, the central cafeteria, mine tunnels, store rooms and then corridors again. On one of the feeds, I spot something moving in one of the corridors. Not a creature. No, this is smaller. Much smaller.

The flicker of movement barely has time to register, then it’s gone again, replaced by footage of civilians hiding out in a walk-in freezer at the central cafeteria.

“Could I see the one before again?” I ask.

“Sure.” Cally flips back and then I finally see what the source of the movement is. It’s a cleaner bot, dutifully wiping up the blood stains left over from the battle.

Cally and I exchange a look. “I’ve got an idea,” we say as one.

***

Now we finally have a battle plan, we put it into action.

Cally has managed to hack into the control system for the cleaning bots — not that it’s difficult, they’re only cleaning bots after all — and uses them to distract the patrols, directing them away from the civilians and us and hopefully luring them to their doom.

“Coast’s clear,” she says. Then she leans over and plants a quick kiss on my cheek. “For luck.”

As I slip out of the door and back into the corridor, armed with Choi’s rifle and my own, I still feel the warmth of her lips on my skin. And suddenly, I feel like one of the knights of old, heading out to slay the dragon, a token of their lady worn close to their heart.

I make my way to storeroom five and the shipment of explosives stored there, dodging alien patrols and crawling through ventilation ducts much of the time. Cally directs me via my ear piece from her base in the quarters of… — crap, I don’t even know the name of the crewmember whose room we requisitioned.

I emerge into storeroom five through a hatch in the ventilation system. The crates of explosives are still where we left them days before, still stacked on float pallets, too.

I call Cally. “Okay, I’m here. Got the explosives and some fuses, too. Let me know if the coast is clear.”

“Wait,” Cally’s voice says in my ear. She sounds tense. “Wait.”

I crouch behind one of the pallets, my freshly charged plasma rifle aimed at the door, while Choi’s rifle is slung over my back. For several tense moments, I wait.

Finally, Cally breathes a sigh of relief. “Coast’s clear. Go.”

Now comes the difficult part. I have to move one of the float pallets full of explosives from storeroom five into the space above the main elevator shaft. The distance is not that far, but I have almost no cover and the float pallet moves slowly. Thankfully, the explosives are so powerful that one pallet should be sufficient. Because I don’t even want to imagine having to do this more than once.

As before, Cally directs me via my ear piece.

“Go.” — “Wait.” — “Not yet.”

I flatten myself against a wall and clutch my rifle, the float pallet hovering expectantly beside me, while one of the things scurries past, not three metres away. But once more I get lucky and the thing never even looks my way. It just moves past, trailing its too many limbs.

Getting the explosives into the machine room above the elevator shaft is the next challenge. Sure, there is a discrete side door set into the tiled wall of the miner’s showers of all places. And thankfully, the aliens are not interested in the change room and showers. But the access door is too narrow and the float pallet does not fit through. So I have to lug the crates with the explosives through a service corridor into the elevator machine room, while Cally keeps an eye on everything. Thankfully, the aliens don’t seem to be any more interested in the elevator machinery than in the showers and change rooms. Their mistake.

Once all the explosives are in place, I lay the fuses and set the timers. Then I wait, while Cally lures the patrols to the mine via the cleaning bots.

I glance at the timer, which is mercilessly counting down.

“Only two minutes left,” I whisper.

“Wait,” Cally replies, “The last two patrols are almost there.”

“If I wait any longer, I’ll get buried along with the enemy. And that wasn’t the plan.”

“Wait,” Cally says.

I watch the timer counting down. 01:39, 01:38, 01:37…

“I have to go now,” I whisper, “Or I won’t make it.”

“Wait,” Cally says.

01:27, 01:26, 01:25…

“Cally, I need to leave. Now.”

“Wait,” she replies, “Just a few more seconds.”

01:04, 01:03, 01:02…

“I don’t have a few more seconds.”

“Now. Run.”

So I run. I run with fifty-six seconds to spare.

I dash out of the machine room, into the service corridor, through the access door, through the showers and change rooms for the workers.

I’m halfway through the change room, when I hear the explosion behind me, followed by the rumble of hundreds of tons of rock coming down and burying the enemy.

A second or so later, the shock wave gets me. I’m thrown flat to the floor. Lockers collapse all around me. One lands on top of me, pinning me down.

I must have passed out, at least for a few seconds, because when I come to again, I hear a voice yelling at me from far away. The voice gradually comes into focus. Noise coalesces into words.

“Matt, do you copy? Are you okay? Matt, what’s going on?”

It takes me a few more seconds to find my tongue and persuade it to form words. “I’m alive. But I can’t move. Trapped.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get you. Where are you?”

“Change room,” I manage to say, spitting out a mouthful of blood, “Did… did it work?”

“Yes, it did. You brought the ceiling down on them. All of them. We made it, Matt. We buried the enemy and saved everybody.”

A little voice at the back of my head tells me that I should try to free myself from the locker that landed on top of me. But considering that Cally and I just saved the surviving civilians and managed to beat back the enemy for the first time ever, I guess I have earned a moment of rest.

Besides, it’s not as if I have much of a choice, since my mind decides to pack just that moment to pass out.

***

When I come to again, I know not how much later, the weight of the locker pressing down on me is gone as are the hard tiles of the change room floor. Instead, I feel something warm and soft all around me, almost as if I’m floating.

It’s a pleasant sensation, so I decide to enjoy it some more.

Finally, I open my eyes, only to close them again at once, when I’m hit with a light so searingly bright it burns my retinas.

“Turn the bloody lights down,” I mumble or at least I try, for what comes out is an unintelligible garble-garble, even to my own ears.

Still, someone seems to have understood, for when I try opening my eyes again a bit later, the light is gone. It’s still there, of course, just not shining straight into my eyes any longer.

Instead, I see a ceiling. White, bland, could be anywhere. There is a lamp, too, the sort of high-intensity and high-luminosity lamp found in medical facilities everywhere. And suddenly, I realise where I am. I’m in med bay, in bed.

The stain on the ceiling, shaped like a scuttling cockroach, gives it away. As does the face that suddenly appears in my field of vision. White hair, reddish wrinkled skin, intelligent eyes and a chin covered by three days of stubble. Doctor Sternhagen, the permanently grumpy head of the med ward. I’d never have thought that I’d ever be so glad to see him.

“Well, look at that,” he says, “The conquering hero is awake.”

“What happened?” I croak.

“You have a concussion as well as plenty of cuts and bruises, all from being way too close to a massive explosion,” the Doctor explains. Somehow, he manages to make it sound as if that’s all my fault. And I guess to some degree it is. Even though I had an excellent reason.

“You also have a broken leg from having some ceiling panels as well as a locker land on top of you.” Doctor Sternhagen shakes his grizzled head. “It took three men to dig you out.”

At the moment, I’m just grateful that there still were three men left alive in the colony to dig me out.

“Did it work?” I ask, “Did we…?”

“Yes, you saved Hyams II, if that’s what you were asking about,” Doctor Sternhagen says, as if saving the entire colony and everybody still alive in it was no big deal, not bigger than breaking up a pub brawl in the Miner’s Luck Tavern on a Saturday night, “Not sure if you really needed to blow up the entire mine to do it, but…”

“If you have a better idea, I’m open to suggestions,” I manage to say.

Doctor Sternhagen shakes his head. “Not my field, young man. Though I suppose I owe you some thanks. Not sure how much longer Doctor Cruz, Doctor Al Azzawi, Nurse Rockinsky, Nurse Battenberg and I could’ve held out in the morgue locker.”

So that’s most of the medical staff safe then. “You’re welcome.”

Niob Corporation is understandably pissed about the loss of the mine, but Central Government and the military are thrilled to finally have more info on the enemy, including some, admittedly very squashed specimen to dissect. And guess whose job it is to prepare the mangled bodies for transport?”

“Sorry about that.”

The Doctor brushes me off with a wave of his hand. “Oh well, I did go off into space in search of adventure. Just never thought it would look quite like this.”

He shakes his head. “Anyway, you’re officially a hero now. There’s talk of medals and commendations. Oh yes, and there’s someone here to see you.”

The Doctor turns away and waves at something or rather someone beyond my field of vision. “Come in, come in. He’s awake. Just make it quick, cause he still needs to rest.”

Doctor Sternhagen retreats, his grizzled face replaced by one that is far more lovely. Cally, cleaned up and little worse for wear. Her smile lights up my heart.

“Hi there. My hero.”

“Hi yourself,” I manage to say, “And if anyone’s a hero around here, it’s you.” My hand finds hers, squeezes it. “I couldn’t have made it without you. Thanks.”

Cally returns the pressure on my hand. “And I wouldn’t have made it without you, so I guess we’re even now.”

She pulls away, even though I wouldn’t have minded at all holding her hand a little longer. “Anyway, the military is en route to pick up and examine what’s left of the aliens. They also want to give us a medal. Both of us.”

“Yeah, the Doc said as much.”

“Better yet, they’re keeping the Niob Corporation off our backs for damaging corporate property. And there’s talk of posthumously reinstating Chief Burnett into the Space Marine Corps and maybe even awarding him a medal, too.”

I manage a smile. “That’s good. He’d like that.”

Cally reaches for my hand again, her touch warm and reassuring. “We did it, Matt,” she whispers, “We saved everybody. Well, not everybody, but at least most of the civilian staff. And we beat them. We beat the enemy and proved that they can be defeated.”

I smile up at her. “Yeah, I guess we did. Thanks, Cally. For everything.”

Cally does not reply. She just bends down to kiss me, on the mouth this time, and the universe around me falls away.

The End…

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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The 2020 July Short Story Challenge Postmortem – 31 Stories in 31 Days

With everything that happened regarding Worldcon, the 2020 Hugo Awards and the Retro Hugos, I didn’t really get around to doing the usual postmortem post for this year’s July Short Story Challenge yet.

To recap, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

In 2019, I also started keeping a running tally of all stories written on this blog to keep myself accountable. And because I found it helpful, I did it again this year.

Regarding the day by day tally, none of these stories will appear in print as is. Almost all of them will probably gain a couple of hundred words or even a complete subplot during the second draft. Several titles will likely change and some stories might not see the light of day for a long time – because they are too short to stand alone and I don’t have anything similar enough to bundle them with or because they just don’t work. Cause not every story to come out of the July Short Story Challenge can be a winner. Some stories are great and need only very little work, others need extensive rewrites to be brought into publishable form. Finally, some stories aren’t really publishable at all. But with 31 stories even the occasional story that’s not publishable isn’t a great loss.

So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:

  • Mystery and crime fiction: 5 stories
  • Sword and sorcery: 4 stories
  • Epic fantasy: 4 stories
  • Contemporary and urban fantasy: 3 stories
  • Space opera and military science fiction: 3 stories
  • Alien invasion and first contact: 3 stories
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction: 3 stories
  • General science fiction: 2 stories
  • Dystopian fiction: 1 story
  • Historical fantasy: 1 story
  • Historical fiction: 1 story
  • Horror: 1 story

That’s not all that different from the genre breakdown in previous years. As before, most of the stories are some flavour of speculative fiction, with some mystery and crime fiction and a little historical fiction sprinkled in. As before, a lot of stories are also genre hybrids. Three of the four sword and sorcery stories and the historical fiction story also have horror elements. Two sword and sorcery stories have crime fiction elements, as does one of the space operas and the dystopian story. A military science fiction story, a sword and sorcery story and an epic fantasy story of have romance subplots.

The July Short Story Challenge usually tends to generate quite a few post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t quite know why, though part of the reason is that when I use images for inspiration, I often find myself drawn to images of ruins or abandoned places. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I did write three post-apocalyptic stories this year, because I’m not really in the mood for post-apocalyptic fiction.

So let’s take a look at the length breakdown. The shortest story was 358 words long, the longest 7467 words. This matches my experience from previous years that the stories resulting from this challenge range in length from flash fiction to the lower end of the novelette spectrum with the majority falling in the 2000 to 4000 word range. This year, I wrote four flash fiction pieces of less than a 1000 words and three more stories barely cleared the 1000 word mark, which is more very short stories than usual. Thirteen stories were more than 2000 words long, seven more than 3000 words, five stories were more than 4000 words long and two stories clocked in at more than 7000 words and thus came up to the lower edge of the novelette range. All in all, I wrote a little more than 73000 words of new fiction in July 2020, which is less than in 2018 and 2019, but more than in some of the previous years.

As for why my total wordcount is lower this year, Worldcon took up a lot of my time, especially since CoNZealand took place at the end of July rather than in mid to late August, so both Worldcon prep and Worldcon itself coincided with the July Short Story Challenge this year. And indeed, the stories get notably shorter in the last ten days of July during the runup to Worldcon. I was working on a longer story during this time, too, but I didn’t have time to finish it, though I eventually will.

When Dean Wesley Smith did his July short story challenge back in 2015, he found that most of the stories he wrote were part of established worlds or series. Interestingly, my experience at the time was the opposite and I wrote only standalones. Though in subsequent July short story challenges, the number of stories in established or new series slowly went up. So I wrote five series stories in 2016, seven in 2017 (though two of those only became series subsequently), fifteen series stories in 2018 and fourteen and a half series stories in 2019. This year, I wrote twelve series stories.

I wrote three new Thurvok stories, but then the Thurvok series was not only born during the July Short Story Challenge, most of the series also consists of stories written during the challenge. Furthermore, I wrote a Helen Shepherd Mystery, an The Day the Saucers Came story and two In Love and War stories, though one of them will probably serve as the opening scene of a longer story.

I also wrote four Culinary Assassin stories, which are intended for an upcoming collection of very short (under 2000 words) stories featuring an assassin who kills people in restaurants, after sampling the food. I have a bunch of these lying around and really need to collect them eventually.

The final story isn’t a series yet, though I’m planning to revisit the central character eventually. It’s another sword and sorcery story, but unconnected to the Thurvok series, because the plot won’t fit neither the characters nor the tone of the Thurvok stories. And so I came up with Kurval, an older and somewhat wiser character than Thurvok and his friends. I really enjoyed that story and will certainly revisit Kurval somewhere down the line.

Both series and standalone stories offer different advantages and challenges. The good thing about series stories is that that worldbuilding is already done. Furthermore, I know the characters and how they will react to a given situation, so it’s easy to plug them into a new story and just let them do their thing. On the downside, series characters also bring all sorts of baggage and backstory with them. As a result, the series stories are usually longer. And except for the three Culinary Assassin stories (which are a special case), the series stories are all among the longer stories I wrote for the challenge. Standalone stories, on the other hand, require developing the world, the characters, the plot, everything from scratch. On the plus side, the characters don’t have any baggage or backstory except what is required for the story.

I’ve already discussed the inspiration for the different stories in the day by day post. As before, my collection of inspirational images played a big role, because I find that visual prompts simply work well for me. All sorts of random flotsam and jetsam inspiration also went into the stories.  As I’ve said before, the best thing about the July Short Story Challenge is that for thirty-one days, every idea, no matter how offbeat or obscure is viable.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that every year, certain tropes and themes appear during the July Short Story Challenge that tend to occur in several of the stories, especially since the stories also build upon each other on occasion. This year, there are fewer repeated themes than in previous years, though there are some. For example, I wrote seven stories in which food plays an important role, but then food generally plays a big role in my fiction. There were three stories about very different alien invasion, one abortive and two successful. There were two very different story – one humourous and one straight horror – about summoning demons.

There also were several stories, all very short, which are basically vignettes describing some kind of fantastic place with little to no plot. Such pieces occasionally crop up during the July Short Story Challenge. I should probably collect them in a collection called An Atlas of Fantastic Places eventually. Either that or I’ll send Thurvok and friends to explore those places.

Another more abstract theme that emerged during the 2020 July Short Story Challenge is stories which deal with justice and mercy. This theme showed up in five very different stories in five different genres and settings ranging from the a pre-gunpowder fantasy world via the Thirty Years War via rural America in the 1950s to an unspecified dystopian near future and not quite so dystopian far future.

As before, I’ve found that the July Short Story Challenge results in a wide range of settings and characters. Settings range from various fantasy lands and Germany during the Thirty Years War via rural America in the 1950s and several contemporary settings to various dystopian and post-apocalyptic future and far off planets. POV characters include men and women, gay and straight characters, characters of varying ages, races, ethnicities and backgrounds and even an alien and a flamingo. Which proves that creating under pressure doesn’t meant that you have to default to straight white protagonists.

One thing that the July short story challenge has proven time and again (apart from the fact that it’s possible to write a short story in a day and that those stories can sometimes be damned good) is that everything that we read, watch or otherwise consume goes into the great stewpot of our subconscious, where it’s mixed and blended, until it arises in the form of story ideas. The July Short Story Challenge functions like a pressure cooker for creativity and speeds up the stewing process. And sometimes, the result is magic. At other times, they’re just plain weird

So will I do another July Short Story Challenge next year? Well, time and health permitting, why not? After all, the past six challenges have resulted in a lot of wonderful stories and even series that might otherwise have never been written.

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Retro Review: “The Martian and the Milkmaid” by Frances M. Deegan

Fantastic Adventures October 1944I keep finding more stories by obscure and forgotten women authors of the golden age, so enjoy this review of  “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, a science fiction short story by Frances M. Deegan, that was published in the October 1944 issue of Fantastic Adventures and would have been eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

“The Martian and the Milkmaid” opens with the narrator in his car, complaining about the state of the roads in North Dakota in 1944. We learn that his name is Howard Clement and that he is a geologist chasing meteorites, looking for deposits of diatomaceous earth. Too bad that that meteorites have the diabolical tendency to select the most inaccessible places to land.

Howard’s destination is the rundown farm of Bill and Margie Henshaw, where a meteorite came down in 1901. The Henshaws are friendly enough and welcome Howard with breakfast and freshly brewed coffee. Though Bill warns Howard that his scientific equipment will draw the attention of the Gook, a mentally disabled man who lives on the farm and likes tinkering with things. Sometimes, he’s remarkably successful – for example, he built an incubator for the Henshaws, allowing them to raise and sell chickens. Oh yes, and the Gook just showed up on the farm at the same time the meteorite came down. Bill Henshaw found him wandering alone in the storm, naked and full of bruises.

As is the habit with friendly midwestern farmers who come across aliens and meteorites in their fields (just remember the origin of Superman), the Henshaws took the Gook in and nursed him back to health. From the bruises on his body, the Henshaws assumed that the Gook had been held captive and escaped. Since the Gook couldn’t speak in any language the Henshaws could understand, they also assumed he was mentally disabled, though the story uses far less polite terms. “Gook” was about the only word the stranger could utter, so that became his name.

Howard finally meets the Gook, when he comes into the kitchen and sits down at the table. We learn that the Gook is tall, slender and dark-skinned, that he has pointed ears, wears black glasses, that his dark hair has a purple tint and that his skin has an olive green tinge. When the Gook finally takes his black glasses off, his eyes are yellow. He also takes his coffee with Margie Henshaw’s homemade chili sauce.

The Henshaws asks Howard about his mission, so Howard gets to infodump about the benefits and applications of diatomaceous earth. There’s even a helpful footnote with further explanations. The science is correct, too – which is more than you can say for some of the stories in Astounding – with two exceptions. Diatomaceous earth is not linked to meteorites and there never was a deposit in North Dakota. Instead, the world’s biggest deposits were in the Lüneburg Heath some 130 kilometres from where I live. This also explains why the US would be so eager to located alternative deposits of diatomaceous earth, since the ones in the Lüneburg Heath were inaccessible to them due to World War II.

Later that evening, when Howard is checking his equipment, the Gook comes to his room, watches him and finally asks Howard if he is intelligent. Outraged, Howard replies that he is of course intelligent, but the Gook is not convinced. After all, he muses, nothing is less certain on this haphazard planet than intelligence.

The Gook now tells Howard that he comes from Mars and is more than four hundred years old. He also tells Howard that he will find no fallen meteorite on the farm, because the meteorite was the Gook’s ship. As for all the other meteorites Howard was investigating, well, they were Martian spaceships as well. For Mars is dying and the Martian people are nearly sterile. However, Earth is green and abundant and humans have no problems reproducing. The Martians want to find out why and maybe import some earthly germs and seeds to make Mars green again. However, the Gook finds Earth incredibly primitive and backwards, even though he learned English from some old schoolbooks, mail order catalogues and a dictionary the Henshaws had in their house. And since the Gook is extremely long-lived, he’s biding his time and waiting for technology to become advanced enough to establish communications with Mars. Oh yes, and his name really is Gook.

Howard tells Gook that it’s no surprise that he finds rural North Dakota backwards, but New York City is a completely different matter. Gook decides to take this as an invitation and travels back to New York City with Howard. The Henshaws aren’t even sad to see him go; they believe it will do Gook a lot of good to see more of the world than just the farm.

In Chicago, while waiting for the flight back to New York City, Howard gets some suits for Gook, because his farmer’s garb won’t fly in the big city. He also introduces Gook to whisky, which Gook likes, and tells him that putting ketchup and chili sauce on everything is absolutely not acceptable in polite society. And since Howard can hardly introduce Gook as a stray Martian who followed him home, they instead hash out a convincing backstory for Gook.

There is only one problem. Gook is too dark-skinned to pass as a white man – and that’s exactly how Deegan puts it. So Howard decides to pass Gook off as an East Indian man of mixed parentage named George Guk. This George Guk is a highly educated refugee who does not wish to speak about his traumatic past, which also avoids uncomfortable questions. It is very telling that a mixed race Indian refugee was considered more acceptable in the 1940s than an American-born black man.

Howard also announces that he does not intend to support Gook indefinitely, but that Gook will have to get a job to support himself, whereupon Gook informs Howard that the capitalist system is absurd and a symptom of the barbaric confusion of human existence and that humans should just abolish it. Gook also criticises consumerism and declares that WWII is a barbaric waste of resources, but that humans apparently have so many resources they can’t help but start wars to destroy them. When Howard points out that most humans wish for peace, Gook counters that humans fight from birth on. So in short, Gook is a dark-skinned pacifist Socialist from Mars, who criticises American consumerism. He also utterly fails to be impressed by all the technological miracles Howard introduces him to – radio, telephones, electricity, indoor plumbing – because too many devices are faulty.

Back in New York City, Howard pulls some strings and gets Gook forged papers as well as a job with the company where he works. Gook also moves into Howard’s apartment. And that’s where he meets Hebe, Howard’s lover and the titular milkmaid.

According to Howard, Hebe – though she went by a different name back then – won a milking contest at a county fair in Pennsylvania and was sent to the New York World Fair of 1939 to give milking demonstrations dressed up as Hebe, goddess of dairy. Of course, Hebe isn’t the goddess of dairy, but the goddess of youth and cupbearer to the gods of antiquity, but apparently 1930s dairy promoters had only a very vague grasp of Greek mythology.

Once in New York, Hebe got the taste for big city life and just stayed on, becoming a Broadway starlet. She also married a past-his-prime boxer and had a string of babies with him, four in five years. Hebe’s husband is always on the road, looking for opportunities to make his comeback (even though – as Howard remarks – he never had a career in the first place), so Hebe is alone a lot. That’s why she started an extramarital affair with Howard. However, once blonde and well-endowed Hebe sets eyes on Gook, she forgets all about Howard and embarks on an affair with Gook.

But Howard is far more irritated that Gook has been given a job in the company’s experimental lab, where he is apparently doing invaluable research on some kind of top secret project. Howard is even more irritated that Gook earns three times what Howard earns, even though Gook has no interest in money and deposits his entire paycheck with Howard.

A few months later, Howard finally learns what Gook has been working on. For Gook has been developing an extremely light and extremely strong plastic, which has immediately been put to use to build an experimental bomber, powered by high octane fuel. And who will be the test pilot of this miraculous plane? No other than Gook himself.

However, the plane disappears during its trial flight, along with Gook. Hebe disappears around the same time during a visit to Hebe’s family in Pennsylvania. A mysterious plane was spotted in the area where Hebe was last seen.

Both Hebe and Gook are presumed dead. But Howard is not convinced and wonders whether they took off to Mars together to repopulate the planet.

In the course of the Retro Reviews project, I have unearthed a lot of forgotten gems. “The Martian and the Milkmaid” is not one of them, however. The prose is clunky and there are several strange phrasings and homonym errors, e.g. Margie Henshaw “bides her tongue” at one point. The plot is also predictable and it’s always clear where the story is going. The fact that the title basically spoils the story doesn’t help either.

Nonetheless, “The Martian and the Milkmaid” is an interesting story, because of what it reveals about the attitudes of the time during which it was written. One thing to note is that the narrator Howard Clement is an idiot and a jerk besides. Now narrators who are idiots and jerks are not exactly rare during the golden age, though I’m often not convinced that the author knows that their narrator is a jerk and an idiot. However, I’m pretty sure that Frances M. Deegan knows only too well that Howard is an idiot and a jerk.

For starters, Howard is wrong about almost everything in this story. He is wrong about the meteorites. He is dismissive of the Henshaws. He mistakes Gook for mentally disabled (to be fair, so do the Henshaws, but they at least have a reason, since they do find him wandering around naked in a storm, unable to speak English) and even once he realises the error of his ways, he does not really grasp that Gook is vastly more intelligent than Howard will ever be, as evidenced by the delightful moment when Gook presents Howard with his paycheck, which is thrice what Howard earns.

But Howard isn’t just an idiot, he’s also a jerk and unpleasant. Because from the first line on, Howard does nothing but whine. He whines about bumpy roads and meteorite landings in difficult to access locations and that he has to drive through rural North Dakota on what he assumes is a wild goose chase. He also whines about being stuck with Gook and about Gook getting recognition and earning more than Howard. Finally, Howard basically threatens to sue the Henshaws, should they or Gook as much as touch his equipment.

Finally, Howard treats Hebe like a living sex doll and doesn’t seem to realise that Hebe has ideas and ambitions of her own. Instead, Howard thinks that Hebe is stupid. At one point, Howard even remarks that Hebe should have stayed on the farm or gone back there to become the wife and mother she was meant to be rather than a Broadway starlet. Howard also takes Hebe for granted and doesn’t even realise what is happening when she dumps him for Gook. Instead, he seems to assume that Hebe sleeps with anybody and that she will come back to him.

Talking of Hebe, she doesn’t appear on the page and we only see her through Howard’s eyes (and Howard is an idiot, as we have established), but nonetheless she is very unusual woman character by 1940s standards. For starters, Hebe is very much a woman who knows what she wants and goes out and gets it. And if that means posing as a milkmaid at the 1939 World Fair, then so be it. Hebe also has an ongoing extramarital affair and eventually runs off with another lover, leaving her husband and children behind, and absolutely no one seems to think that this is anything out of the ordinary, let alone that there is anything wrong with her behaviour. Considering how vilified women who have extramarital affairs and/or who abandon their children are to this day, this is really quite remarkable. Finally, Hebe – who is explicitly described as white, plump and blonde – is engaged in an interracial (and interspecies) relationship and again no one seems to think anything about this, twenty-three years before interracial marriage was legalised in all of the US in the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case.

Talking of Gook, he is not only explicitly described as a man of colour, he is also the smartest person in the story by far. Unlike Hebe’s behaviour, Gook’s skin colour does become a plot point, when Howard is forced to concoct a backstory for Gook that will be more acceptable in a deeply racist society than a mere, “He’s black, deal with it.” I also find it interesting that a mixed race refugee of East Indian origin was considered more acceptable than an American born black or mixed race man. And how much do you want to bet that Howard passed off Gook as the son of an Indian maharaja or something?

Though again it’s interesting that except for Howard (whom we know to be a jerk), no one seems to bat an eyelash at the fact that Gook is not white. The Henshaws, a farming couple from North Dakota, a state which is still more than eighty percent white today, take him in, George’s employer gives him a well paid job working on a top secret project during wartime and Hebe has no issues embarking on a relationship with him. Indeed, the only person for whom Gook’s skin colour is an issue is Howard.

Though I do find it strange that Gook was content to just spend forty-three years on the Henshaw farm rather than try to get his hands on more advanced technology. Yes, North Dakota may be remote and rural, but it did have universities in 1901 and even more by 1944. North Dakota also had railroads, so Gook could have left at any time. And since he had access to mail order catalogues and a dictionary and very likely the radio, he must have realised that there is more to Earth than rural North Dakota.

The science in the story is dated, but no worse than what you find in other magazines of the pulp era. Gook’s homeworld is the dry and dying Mars of the pulp science fiction shared solar system. The fact that Gook is humanoid and can interbreed with humans is nothing out of the ordinary for the period either. And the infodump about diatomaceous earth is actually correct, which is more than you can say for many of the infodumps in Astounding, several of which were pure nonsense (“Far Centaurus”, anyone?).

Another thing I noticed is how many food descriptions there are in “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, which is remarkable, considering that food almost never features in golden age speculative fiction. Sometimes, there are cocktails, but otherwise the only food that is mentioned are the ubiquitous food pills. “The Martian and the Milkmaid”, on the other hand, offers a rich farm breakfast consisting of coffee, ham and fried potatoes, thick slices of home-made bread and rich, yellow butter. Considering that this story was published in the middle of WWII, when most of these foodstuffs were rationed, it’s a luxurious breakfast indeed. Furthermore, there also is Margie Henshaw’s homemade chili sauce (which sounds delicious) and ketchup – here spelled “catsup” – which Gook has with everything.

So who was Frances M. Deegan, the author of “The Martian and the Milkmaid”? Frances M. Deegan is another of those enigmatic women writers of the golden age about whom we know next to nothing. She published seventeen SFF stories between 1944 and 1952, all in Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. Some people believe that Frances M. Deegan was a house name and that the person behind the name was William L. Hamling, editor at Ziff-Davis Publishing, publisher of both Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. Hamling happened to be married to a fellow writer named Frances Yerxa (widow of SFF writer Leroy Yerxa), whose maiden name may have been Deegan, which would support that theory. Though stories by Frances M. Deegan continued to appear in Ziff-Davis magazines, well after Hamling left the company. And considering the case of Allison V. Harding, I have to wonder why it’s inevitably women authors who are believed to be house names, while obscure male authors are nonetheless assumed to be actual people, unless proven otherwise.

However, the name Frances M. Deegan also appears around the same time in crime fiction magazines like Detective Story Magazine and Mammoth Detective. The latter was a Ziff-Davis magazine, but Detective Story Magazine was published by Street and Smith. US census records also show that there was a Frances Marie Deegan, who was born 1901 in Iowa and died 1975 in Los Angeles. Interestingly, 1901 is also the year in which Gook crashlands on the Henshaw’s farm.

Mammoth Detective January 1946Eric Leif Davin also dug up a brief autobiographical article that accompanied one of Frances M. Deegan’s stories in Mammoth Detective. According to this article, Deegan was born in Iowa and never married, because no one ever asked her. After a stint as an office worker, she went to Chicago in the 1920s to become an actress and nightclub singer and later moved to New York and St. Louis. Note the parallels to her character Hebe, another country girl trying to make it in show business in the big city. Frances M. Deegan hung out with gangsters, was shot at and beaten up and did PR work for an anti-Prohibition organisation. However, Frances M. Deegan always wanted to write and not just anti-Prohibition leaflets either. One day, she met Raymond A. Palmer, editor at Ziff-Davis, and asked him if she might submit something to him. Palmer told her to go ahead and thus began the SFF and crime writing career of Frances M. Deegan. “The Martian and the Milkmaid” seems to have been her first published story.

So there really appears to have been a writer named Frances M. Deegan and the name similarity to William L. Hamling’s wife was just a coincidence. If the autobiographical article she wrote for Mammoth Detective is even remotely correct, Frances M. Deegan also seems to have had a fascinating life. Once again, I wish we knew more about her.

“The Martian and the Milkmaid” is never going to be a classic. Instead, it’s a typical example of the bread and butter stories (quite literally in this case) that filled the pages of the science fiction pulps of the golden age. But even if the story is no classic, it’s nonetheless interesting and far from the worst story I have reviewed for this project.

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Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month for August 2020

Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month
It’s that time of the month again, time for “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some July books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Once again, we have new releases covering the whole broad spectrum of speculative fiction. This month, we have urban fantasy, epic fantasy, science fantasy, paranormal mysteries, paranormal romance, space opera, military science fiction, dystopian noir, horror, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, ghouls, dragons, demon hunters, space mages, cyborgs, space marines, intergalactic outlaws, haunted asylums, haunted space stations, crime-busting witches and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a group blog run by Jessica Rydill and myself, which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things speculative fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Belle Vue by C.S. AlleyneBelle Vue by C.S. Alleyne:

Jealousy. Betrayal. Murder. And a hunger for vengeance that spans the centuries…

History student Alex Palmer is thrilled when his girlfriend, Claire Ryan, buys an apartment in Belle Vue Manor, formerly a Victorian lunatic asylum.

But as Alex begins to discover the dark truth about the asylum’s past, he, Claire, and their friend Marianne find themselves on a nightmarish journey. Each will face the deadly consequences of the evil that began with the construction of the first Belle Vue Manor by an aristocratic French émigré in 1789, as well as the cruelty and satanic practices that continued when it became an asylum for the insane.

As the two strands–past and present–unfold, Alex uncovers a supernatural mystery where revenge is paramount and innocence irrelevant–without being aware of the price he, and those around him, will pay.

Indomitable by Jonathan P. BrazeeIndomitable by Jonathan P. Brazee:

Beth “Fire Ant” Dalisay is the Navy’s top ace.

But the alien Crystals really don’t care. They intend on wiping out humanity no matter who stands in their way.

Pulled from her Wasp fighter, the Navy assigns Beth as a scout pilot with a mission to find the Crystal’s home world. But in an underpowered Mosquito scout and no weapons with which to defend herself, if she finds their home system, can she possibly survive long enough to report back to Navy HQ?

In a final clash between humanity and the Crystals, can one pilot make a difference? Can humanity survive?

Legacy of Vale by Rhett C. BrunoLegacy of Vale by Rhett C. Bruno:

War threatens to destroy the Circuit once more…

After arriving on Ceres Prime, ADIM, is hesitant to help the Ceresians. Their hatred for his creator will never wane, and he starts to understand the danger all of Cassius’ many rivals pose. How can he keep him safe?

When Sage Volus finds herself a captive of Cassius Vale, she begins to struggle with her role in the coming war, and what exactly it means to be an executor. The removal of her cybernetic implant reveals emotions she thought she’d buried too deep to be found. She must make a decision on who she truly wants to serve.

After breaking free of the solar-ark Amerigo and certain death, Talon Rayne finds himself in unusual company. His quests to hold his daughter again will bring him to places he never thought he’d go?into the very arms of his people’s most hated foe.

As the battle grows ever closer, threatening the all-out war that could annihilate millions, these four must determine what part they intend to play, who they will align themselves with, and what it means to be human in a solar system where that means less and less.

Storm Forged by Lindsay BurokerStorm Forged by Lindsay Buroker:

Moving into a rundown Victorian house with a vampire living in the basement isn’t as bad as I thought, but things go from weird to weirder when a badly injured gnome collapses in my back yard.

The surprising part? It’s my friend Nin’s long-lost grandfather.

Since he’s unconscious, we can’t figure out who’s chasing him, or where he’s been all these years, but if we can’t help him, he’ll die.

To make matters worse, there’s a new dragon in town. A female dragon. Everyone knows females are more dangerous than the males, and this one takes an instant dislike to me. It seems that she wants to date my mate, Zav, and has his mother’s approval.

If I can’t avoid her wrath and find a way to cure the gnome, Nin’s going to lose her grandfather, and I’m going to end up deader than the vampire in the basement.

The Renegade by J.N. ChaneyThe Renegade by J.N. Chaney:

Jace Hughes is a Renegade.

That means taking jobs and not asking questions, whether that involves smuggling, transporting runaways, or performing other, far less wholesome work. Whatever the situation, Jace is willing to do what it takes to achieve his dream and live the life he’s always wanted.

That is, until he comes face to face with an item of unprecedented value—something that could give him everything he needs to pay off his debt and be free.

The only problem is that selling it would also shift the balance of power between the two largest empires in the galaxy.
And spark another intergalactic war.

Unfortunately for Jace, he won’t have long to decide. Renegades, assassins, and government cronies are after the item, too, and unlike Jace, they won’t hesitate to kill.

Marauder's Compass by M.D. CooperMarauder’s Compass by M.D. Cooper:

Jax and the crew of the Lightning Runner have narrowly escaped Sinclair and her DSA fleet, but their troubles are far from over.

The flight from Iydra Station has depleted their antimatter reserves. Without resupply, they’ll have limited options should they run into trouble again—which they fully intend to do. With numerous parties hunting for their ship, Jax must choose their haven carefully.

Penny knows of a secret city within a dwarf planet where they take refuge. However, it doesn’t take long to discover that their enemies have yet again increased in number. With several of the crew captured and the ship trapped, their options are few and drastic.

The mission to infiltrate the Paragonian outpost is in dire jeopardy and Jax must consider making the ultimate sacrifice in order to achieve victory.

And if he fails, all Aquilia will be swept up in war.

The Invisible by Seb DoubinskyThe Invisible by Seb Doubinsky:

It’s election time in New Babylon, and President Maggie Delgado is running for re-election but is threatened by the charismatic populist Ted Rust. Newly appointed City Commissioner Georg Ratner is given the priority task to fight the recent invasion of Synth in the streets of the capital, a powerful hallucinogen drug with a mysterious origin. When his old colleague asks him for help on another case and gets murdered, things become more and more complicated, and his official neutrality becomes a burden in the political intrigue he his gradually sucked into. Supported by Laura, his trustful life partner and the Egyptian goddess Nut, Ratner decides to fight for what he believes in, no matter the cost.

High Protector by Rachel FordHigh Protector by Rachel Ford:

Kaladorn. Slave born.

Rohana knew her destiny. She’d been born to serve her king, to live and die at his command. She hadn’t questioned when he ordered his armies into the frozen North, to fight a queen who threatened the South.

Except, Queen Ilaria has never been a threat to their nation. On a frozen field of battle, Rohana learns the truth. And she has one moment to make a decision.

One moment, for a slave to rewrite the fate of two empires.

This novel features characters from the first two novels, and introduces new characters. It is a stand-alone novel.

Blood Ties by K. GormanBlood Ties by K. Gorman:

Together again, and ready to bring the system to its knees.

Karin Makos has spent the last two months running from one thing or another—but all that’s about to change. Her sister’s back, and Nomiki’s ready to grab their problems by the horns, throw them on their backs, and rip into them with her modified carbon steel blades.

With the backing of the Fallon Empire and a promising new lead, the two are determined to reach down into the mystery of their past and pull out its secrets, once and for all.

But they aren’t the only ones on the move. And looking may uncover more than even they could have bargained for.

The Eurynome Code space Opera series continued with this unforgettable third installment. Grab your copy today!

Curse a Brew Streak by Lily Harper HartCurse a Brew Streak by Lily Harper Hart:

Ofelia Archer is living the dream … or as close as seemingly possible.

She owns her own business, her father seems to be on an even keel, and her new relationship with Detective Zacharias Sully is cruising right along. Everything changes in an instant, though, when screams from the street lead to zombies running amok through the French Quarter.

Ofelia is a tough witch who takes no guff but even she is at a loss. Who is creating the zombies? Where are they coming from? They’re not rising from the dead as much as being bumped off and used as an invading army.

Sully wants to take control of the investigation but the higher-ups in the New Orleans Police Department assign the case to a new detective, much to his chagrin. That detective is keen to find answers. Unfortunately, he’s looking hard at Ofelia to find them.

Sully and Ofelia are going to have to work together to find answers. Their adventure will lead them from the French Quarter to the Garden District and beyond. Even then, when things start coalescing, gnashing teeth won’t be the worst of their problems.

Months ago they were two factions working on their own. Now they’re together, and stronger for it.

Not all the magic in the Big Easy is good. Some is evil … and the two sides are about to collide.

Permutation by Patty JansenPermutation by Patty Jansen:

En route to a job in the asteroid belt, the transport ship that Jonathan and Gaby are travelling on is required to give assistance to a space station in trouble.

Astoria Station stopped responding to everything except automated messages. Jonathan and Gaby, familiar with disease and habitat collapse, offer to help.

But not even they are prepared for what they find, or the efforts by some to sweep it under the carpet.

 

Magitak by B.R. KingsolverMagitek by B.R. Kingsolver:

Hunter James was my grandfather.

He wanted to end the cycle of war, but instead he broke the world. Demons, vampires, and monsters poured through the Rift into our dimension. The Magi emerged from humanity’s shadows and fought the Rifters, eventually forging an uneasy peace.

For most humans, demons, and Fae, magik and technology are totally incompatible. But some mages are able to manipulate mechanical and electrical devices. They are called magiteks.

My name is Danica James. I’m a magitek and a cop with the Arcane Division. My job is to protect humanity from the monsters. Sometimes the monsters are human.

Freaky Seas by Amanda M. LeeFreaky Seas by Amanda M. Lee:

Mystic Caravan Circus is heading to Charleston and – per usual – trouble is not far behind.

For Poet Parker, who is grappling with saying goodbye to her assistant, she’s looking forward to quiet nights on the beach and quality time with her boyfriend. All that changes when the sea starts giving up its dead … and they appear to be hungry.

Under normal circumstances, zombies wouldn’t be a big deal. They’re slow, lumbering, and easy to dispatch. This infestation is different … and they appear to be controlled by a strange creature long since thought extinct.

Gorgons were believed to be things of myth and legend but one is haunting the beaches of Charleston … in close proximity to the circus and a writer’s retreat. In fact, the nutty individuals spouting fantastical stories and trying to one-up one another in the bluff house overlooking the circus grounds are all suspects because one of them is controlling the gorgon. Finding the individual responsible for causing endless upheaval and death is no easy task, though.

Poet is a fighter but this battle is all-encompassing.

Not every monster is obvious. Sometimes they hide behind human faces.

This time Poet is going to have to wade through layers of darkness to find the light. Surviving to see the final sunrise will take them all working together … and even then they might not be strong enough to claim victory.

Darkness is coming. Will anyone survive to see the dawn?

Sanctum by Hannah McBrideSanctum by Hannah McBride:

A survivor on the run

After refusing the laws of her sadistic pack, Skye Markham barely escapes with her life, seeking sanctuary with the feared Blackwater pack. Hunted by her former Alpha and his soldiers, she’s determined to create a life even though she knows they will come for her.

An alpha with a pack to protect

As the next alpha in line, Remy Holt has spent years guarding the Blackwater pack and his family from those who seek to seize control and destroy them. The last thing he needs or wants is Skye Markham and the dangers she brings with her adding to the stress on his pack, but his wolf has a different opinion. He wants her, and after one moment that shouldn’t have been possible, he knows he’ll never be able to let her go.

A bond unlike any other

Skye thought she was finally safe, but as her bond with Remy strengthens, the shifter world starts to break apart at the seams. Missing shifters, a dying population, and pack wars are all causing their sanctuary to crumble around them, and Skye is trapped in the middle of it all. Someone is out to destroy the pack and if they succeed, there will bring down everything Remy has sought to protect and for Skye… maybe there is no such thing as a sanctuary.

Ghouls and Alchemy by Amy B. NixonGhouls and Alchemy by Amy B. Nixon:

My name is Nathan Holloway. I was a US Marine before they transformed me into an Amethyst Hunter.

They are Nexus, a covert organization specializing in extracting dead soldiers from the battlefield, reviving them through alchemy and using them for wet work.

Hunting witches and sorcerers, vampires, fae, shapeshifters and magical lawbreakers? That’s the easy part. But being immortal? Well, that’s a different question.

For me, immortality comes with a hefty price tag.

My Materia Prima – the quintessence of every living organism – is growing feeble. Nexus’ remedies have turned me into an addicted junkie. My sardonic cynicisms are rewarding me with more enemies than allies. And the mysterious Alchemist, who gave me a second chance at life, has condemned my soul to the fiery pits of hell.

Things can’t get worse, can they? They can, and they just did.

One of our agents has gone rogue and stolen a supersonic combat aircraft. The country’s under a ghoul invasion. The ghoul-breeding Sa’alin queens are nowhere to be found. And in the midst of it all, we discovered something cunning, vile and even more lethal than the ghouls. Something we thought was erased from existence centuries ago – a necromancer.

Join Nathan as his journey weaves him into a web of ancient alchemy, high-tech science fiction and mythological fantasy.

Reckless Pursuit by Safari SpellReckless Pursuit by Safari Spell:

A dragon is no match for love…

As the handsome and charismatic son of a powerful fallen angel, dragon shifter Spencer Kaden has spent centuries seeking pleasure and little else.

So when his father sends him to the backwoods city of Cypress, Georgia, as a sentry for the Grigori, he plans to do what he always does until it’s time to leave – divide, conquer, repeat. But that was before falling in love with his beautiful yet troubled coworker, Talor Gardin.

Grief-stricken from debilitating loss, Talor suffers from panic attacks and deepening depression. She’s in no place to be pursued. But when she begins to spiral, Spencer finds himself torn between who he is and who he wants to be.

Desperate to save her, he must decide if he will risk everything he holds dear by daring to ask a favor of the siren, the powerful and dangerous sworn enemy of the Grigori…or if the price of love is too great a cost.

The Service of Mars by Glynn StewartThe Service of Mars by Glynn Stewart:

Secrets have been unleashed
Worlds have fallen
A Mage-King has died
But the war rages on!

Secrets and warships combined to turn the tide of the Siege of Legatus, delivering the capital of the Republic of Faith and Reason into the hands of their enemies. With Damien Montgomery called away to lead the entire Protectorate of Mars, fighting the war falls to Mage-Admiral Jane Alexander and Mage-Lieutenant Roslyn Chambers.

As the Martian Second Fleet moves against the remaining Republic worlds, Captain Kelly LaMonte’s covert stealth ship sweeps the worlds away from the conflict, searching for the Republic’s government-in-hiding and a chance to end the bloody conflict.

But this war began in the shadows, and the secrets hidden in those shadows threaten to turn the tide of the war once more—and bring it to the heart of the Protectorate!

Cursed Wolf by Brogan ThomasCursed Wolf by Brogan Thomas:

For a shifter…

…being stuck in wolf form is torture.

The moment I shifted; my life changed.

After witnessing a traumatic event at a young age, nine-year-old Forrest shifted into her wolf form – and was unable to shift back. Years later and suffering at the hands of her malicious step-brothers, she stubbornly clings to the hope that she’ll turn back into the girl she once was.

But when her magic returns at the moment she needs it most, Forrest is thrust back into the world of humans. There’s only one problem. Her pack is out to kill her.

Struggling to learn how to walk and talk again, Forrest finds herself on the run from the cold-blooded shifter council. But hidden deep within her human form lies a secret – a powerful magic that has the potential to set her free.

If only she can stay alive long enough to master it…

Invasion by James David VictorInvasion by James David Victor:

Undercover behind enemy lines and there’s only one person he can trust. Maybe.

The Skarak have invaded with a force certain to overwhelm all of humanities defenses. To make matters worse, Boyd’s cover in the Faction is on the verge of being blown. Even if he can escape, his chances of survival are thin. Can he trust an enemy who just might turn out to be more of a friend than he ever thought possible? Or will it even matter as the Skarak look to destroy both the Union and the Faction?

Invasion is the third book in the Blue Star Marines series which follows a young man who will have to push his hatreds aside and come to the aid of all humanity.

Download Invasion and see if humanity can overcome itself and survive in the vast darkness of space!

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Cora’s Adventures at the Virtual 2020 NASFiC and More Thoughts on Virtual Conventions

 

Columbis_NASFiC imageIn January of this year, there were four SFF conventions/events I was tentatively planning to attend, namely CoNZealand, the 2020 Worldcon, in Wellington, New Zealand, Futuricon, the 2020 Eurocon in Rijeka, Croatia, Hinterm Mond in Leer, East Frisia, and Namenlose Tage, a gaming con in Syke that takes place only 13 kilometres from where I live, i.e. practically next door. Two of these cons have since gone virtual, one that was scheduled for March has been cancelled and one has been postponed until 2021.

Like pretty much everybody, I miss in person cons. I miss meeting old and new friends, I miss listening to panels, I miss strolling through the dealer’s room and most of all, I miss the many great people you meet at every con.

However, there is also a silver lining to the fact that the ongoing COVID pandemic has forced every SFF con that wasn’t cancelled outright to go virtual. Because it means that I can virtually attend cons I would never have attended in person, mostly because they happen on another continent.

One con I would very likely never have attended in person is NASFiC, the North American Science Fiction Convention, which only takes place when Worldcon is outside North America. And if Worldcon is outside North America, I’m more likely to attend Worldcon than any North American convention.

The 2020 NASFiC was supposed to take place in Columbus, Ohio last weekend, but went virtual like pretty much all conventions these days. And I decided to register, because some friends invited me to.

Unlike Worldcon, I wasn’t on programming at NASFiC, so I just watched whatever program items interested me (and took place at a time that worked for me) and chatted a little on Discord, while going about my ordinary weekend.

The first panel I watched was “Fantasy for YA vs. Adults”, featuring Alma Alexander, Farah Mendlesohn, Sherwood Smith and Kathryn Sullivan. I picked this panel over the horror panel going on at the same time, because I knew and liked the panelists. There was some concern in the chat that the panelists were all white. And indeed, more diversity would have been nice, especially considering what a diverse field fantasy in general and YA in particular is.

Talking of the chat, unlike other recent virtual conventions, NASFiC opted not to use the Zoom chat, but have the Discord chat side by side with the panel. From the POV of an audience member, this was a lot better than having to switch between Discord and Zoom in different tabs/windows. Though I’m not sure how it was from the POV of a panelist, since panelists and moderators can more easily see questions, when they are asked in the Zoom chat. There were also several “pure” Discon channels for fan tables, dealers, Worldcon bids, etc…

The “Fantasy for YA vs. Adults” panel also dropped out towards the end due to a technical glitch. When the panel did not come back, I switched to one of the other program rooms. In fact, another feature that I enjoyed about the 2020 NASFiC is that it was easy to switch between the different program rooms, since you didn’t have to enter a whole new Zoom room, but could just switch between tabs on the con homepage. And so I caught the tail end of a reading by Phoebe Barton, an author I briefly met at the Dublin Worldcon last year.

Another panel I attended was the “Fanzine” panel, largely as a point of comparison to the fanzine panel I moderated at CoNZealand. The panelists were Chris M. Barkley, Steven H. Silver and Joel Zakem, the moderator was Anne Gray. Compared to the CoNZealand panel, the NASFiC fanzine panel was more focussed on traditional print zines and transitional zines like File 770 or Journey Planet, which bridge the gap between the traditional print zines and the various digital projects like blogs, newsletters, fancasts and YouTube channels. Meanwhile, in my panel at CoNZealand, we tried to cover both print zines and online zines, while the CoNZealand Fringe fanzine panel focussed almost exclusively on online publications. All these approaches are valid and unlike some others, I think the difference between the print and online zines lies mainly in the medium and not so much in the content. Cause if I look at some old fanzines from the 1930s or 1940s on fanac.org, I find that the topics and content aren’t all that different from what you can find in today’s blogs, newletters, etc…, even if the names and slang are unfamiliar.

ETA: Chris Garcia of Journey Planet and The Drink Tank, who was one of the panelists at the CoNZealand fanzine panel, and his family need help, because they have been evacuated from their home because of the California wildfires and don’t know when and if they can return.

Talking of fanzines, all fanzines, whether print or online, could use some more attention. Because Best Fanzine is inevitably the category which gets the least votes at the Hugo Awards, sometimes barely clearing the 25% No Award hurdle. I find this a pity, because fanzines are doing great work, regardless of medium, and there doing it purely for the love of the genre. I’m not sure why fanzines and fansites aren’t getting more attention, though I suspect that part of the problem may be that the big corporate sites like Tor.com, iO9, The Daily Dot, SyFy Wire, Digital Spy, etc… are sucking attention away from smaller blogs and sites. I also think we should shine more of a spotlight on fanzines and fansites in the run-up to the 2021 Hugos, but that’s a subject for another post.

Another panel I attended was the NASFiC special edition of “The Journey Show”, Galactic Journey‘s regular series of online events. The subjects of the “Journey Show” vary and the subject of this show was art, albeit with a twist. Because the audience gives prompts, which would then be drawn live by a panel of artists and cartoonists. Gideon Marcus was the moderator – the artists were Cathleen Abalos, Lorelei Marcus, Jimmy Purcell and Hugo finalist Alyssa Winans.

This panel was a lot of fun and I enjoyed seeing how the different artists interpreted the prompts – prompty like “lady pirates”, “mermaids with rayguns”, “Nnedi Okorafor creating” (okay, so she wasn’t even born in 1965, but who cares?), “school in space”, “Gideon Marcus as Conan the Barbarian”, etc… I think this is an idea that can also be done very well at a physical con with the resulting drawings subsequently exhibited in the art show.

In general, I find that virtual cons manage to replicate the experience of panels and readings remarkably well. The Discord chats aren’t really a replacement for in person conversations, but they do fulfill their purpose. And while I didn’t attend any parties at NASFiC, I did enjoy the Zoom parties I attended at CoNZealand.

So let’s talk about things that don’t really work at virtual conventions. The dealers’ hall is one of them. Because even though virtual conventions are making efforts to replicate the dealers’ hall experience, scrolling through some online stores just doesn’t offer the same browsing and discovery experience as a physical dealers’ hall. Case in point: If I’m at a physical con, I usually buy something in the dealers’ hall – a t-shirt, a piece of jewellery, books. I have yet to buy something at a virtual convention.

Another thing that just doesn’t work online in cosplay. Because costumes are meant to be seen in person and photos just don’t capture the magic. And indeed, NASFiC had to cancel its masquerade for lack of entries.

Of course, physical conventions won’t be possible again until 2021 at the earliest, because right now stuffing hundreds or even thousands of people into a convention centre, hotel or other venue is just too risky. There is a reason that con crud is a thing. And until we can have physical cons again, virtual cons are a nice replacement.

There also are a lot of virtual cons happening in the next few months and most of them are fairly cheap or even free, so I’m planning to attend others. It’s not just SFF cons either – many crime fiction cons and festivals are going online as well. And while I read and write crime fiction, I rarely attend crime fiction festivals except for Prime Time Crime Time, Bremen’s local crime fiction festival (which won’t take place in 2020). But there are a couple of virtual crime fiction festivals coming up like Bloody Scotland, so why not check them out?

Normally, my con reports are photo heavy, because there are usually a lot of interesting things to see at conventions. But if the con takes place online, there is nothing really to photograph except for my desk, which isn’t very interesting.

So enjoy Oculus and Ophthalmos, the friendly eyeball monsters I made for the CoNZealand yarnbombing project. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to finish Ophthalmos in time for CoNZealand, so he and his brother Oculus get to brighten up this NASFiC report instead:

Oculus and Ophthalmos

Oculus and Ophthalmos, the friendly eyeball monsters, brighten up my bookshelves and pose with several Hugo winning works.

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