Retro Review: “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury

Weird Tales May 1944“The Lake” is a short story by Ray Bradbury, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“The Lake” is narrated by Harold, who as a twelve-year-old is spending one last day by the shores of Lake Michigan, the titular lake, with his mother. The next day, Harold will get on a train to move to California. It’s September, the beach is largely deserted and the hot dog stalls and merry-go-rounds on the boardwalk have already closed down.

The melancholy of the setting echoes Harold’s mood. For Harold is not just sad because he is moving away, but also because he lost something or rather someone important here at the shores of Lake Michigan. His classmate Tally, a girl Harold has been in love with since forever, drowned in the lake earlier that year and her body was never found.

Harold disentangles himself from his mother and ventures into the water, calling for Tally to come back. Finally, he builds half a sandcastle on the beach and calls out to Tally to come and build the other half, just like they used to do. But of course, Tally doesn’t come. Instead, the sandcastle is washed away by the waves.

The story now skips ahead ten years in two paragraphs, as Harold takes the train to California, grows up, goes to law school and marries a woman from Sacramento called Margaret. For their honeymoon, Margaret suggests visiting Harold’s old stomping grounds in Illinois.

By now, Harold has happily settled down in California and largely forgotten Illinois, but the train ride east brings back memories. Walking through his old hometown, he finds that he doesn’t recognise anybody, though some faces seem vaguely familiar, carrying echoes of old classmates.

Of course, Harold and Margaret also find themselves down by shores of Lake Michigan, walking along the beach on a September day much like the one when Harold left Illinois forever. Harold watches a life-guard boat moor at the quay, watches a life-guard carry out a bag containing a body. Full of foreboding, he tells Margaret to stay behind and walks over to the life-guard to ask what happened.

The life-guard tells him that they found the body of a little girl who has been dead a long time. The only reason the life-guard knows the dead body is a girl is because of the locket she had been wearing. The life-guard also says that no child drowned in the lake recently and that only one of the twelve children who drowned there since 1933 was never recovered. Harold already knows that the body has to be Tally, but asks to see it anyway. He also asks the life-guard where the body was found. “In the shallow water”, the life-guard says.

Harold walks over to the spot where the body was found and sees half a sandcastle on the beach, footprints leading to the castle and then back into the water. Harold finishes the sandcastle and realises that he will love Tally forever, even though he grew up and she will forever remain a child. He also wonders what to do about this woman called Margaret who’s waiting for him on the boardwalk. Though I do feel sorry for Margaret who after all didn’t know that she was marrying a man who was still in love with his dead childhood sweetheart.

The October Country by Ray Bradbury“The Lake” is a famous story that has been reprinted dozens of times. And rightfully so, because the story is utterly beautiful. I knew that I had read the story before, but I had forgotten how short it is, a mere four pages long. But Bradbury packs a lot into those four pages. You can almost see the beach, you can hear the seagulls, smell the hot dogs, feel the sand between your toes and the water lapping up to your legs. And you also feel the overwhelming sense of melancholy and loss that permeates this story.

Stylistically, Ray Bradbury was one of the best writers of the golden age and “The Lake” is a perfect example of his trademark poetic style. Much of the story consists of evocative descriptions of the shores of Lake Michigan. And it is certainly no coincidence that Bradbury was born in the town of Waukegan, Illinois, which lies on the shores of Lake Michigan, and later moved to California, just like his protagonist. A lot of Ray Bradbury’s stories feel autobiographical and “The Lake” is one of them. And if you do the math, you’ll notice that Bradbury was about the same age as his protagonist and first-person narrator Harold, when he wrote “The Lake”. Was there ever a childhood friend who drowned in Lake Michigan? I don’t know. But the evocative descriptions make the story feel very real.

Considering how description heavy this story is, it is interesting what Bradbury does not describe. For we do not get a single description of the dead body in the bag – Bradbury only tells us that Harold looked into the bag and looked away, for one look was enough. Harold also remarks upon how small Tally’s body, for while he grew up, she never did. Considering that Weird Tales was a horror magazine, Bradbury’s restraint in not giving us a description of the dead body is notable. But then stories in Weird Tales often kept their various horrors vague, the writers well aware that imagination can generate horrors worse than anything a writer can describe. And I guess we can all imagine what a body looks like after ten years in the water. Bradbury doesn’t need to tell us.

In one of my posts about last year’s Retro Hugo finalists, I noted that Ray Bradbury’s 1944 Retro Hugo finalist and eventual winner “R Is For Rocket” was the story which felt most timeless among the finalists, even though it included such vintage science fiction tropes as food pills and rockets with mighty fins. “The Lake” feels even more timeless than “R Is For Rocket”, simply because it doesn’t contain any overt science fiction tropes. Instead, it is a story about loss, grief and a September day on the shores of Lake Michigan. “The Lake” wouldn’t feel out of place in the (virtual) pages of a contemporary issue of Uncanny or Fireside or Tor.com, though instead of a train, Harold would probably take a plane these days.

A wonderful and haunting story.

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Toss a Coin to Your Witcher: Some Thoughts on The Witcher

I have to admit that initially, I wasn’t even going to watch The Witcher. For while I am cursorily familiar with the books, I have never played the videogames nor watched the Polish TV series from the early 2000s. And the trailers made the Netflix series look like a cheap Game of Thrones wannabe, even though the source material is something quite different.

I’m not the only one to make the Game of Thrones comparison. Indeed, most reviews in mainstream outlets compare The Witcher to Game of Thrones and declare that it falls flat. The overwhelmingly negative reviews only served to confirm my decision to skip The Witcher, considering that I hadn’t been particularly interested in the show in the first place.

However, then something strange happened. For while mainstreams reviews of The Witcher were overwhelmingly negative, I started seeing more and more positive comments about the show on Twitter and various blogs. Again, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. In The Guardian, Edward Helmore comments on the discrepancy between professional and fan reviews to The Witcher with a condescending, “Well, I guess these fantasy fans will watch any old tosh to fill the Game of Thrones gap in their lives.”

The last time I came across a film/TV show that critics hated but fans loved, I came down hard on the side of the fans. And so, when I found myself looking for a new SFF show to watch after I’d finished The Mandalorian, I decided to give The Witcher a try. I’m glad I did, because I came to enjoy The Witcher quite a bit.

It’s no surprise that mainstream critics are comparing The Witcher to Game of Thrones, because people, particular if they’re not familiar with a genre, tend to draw comparisons to something they already know. And considering what a cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones was, it’s inevitable that any new epic fantasy series is going to be compared to Game of Thrones, just as Game of Thrones was compared to Lord of the Rings, when it first started, because at the time Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation was the most recognisable example of filmic epic fantasy out there. And just as Game of Thrones likely would never have existed, if Lord of the Rings hadn’t first demonstrated that yes, there is a huge audience for epic fantasy out there, The Witcher TV-show would probably never have existed without the success of Game of Thrones.

And there certainly are some similarities between The Witcher and Game of Thrones. Both are set in a vaguely medieval European secondary world with kings and queens, monsters, magic and dragons. Both shows share the same muted colour palette with lots of greys, browns and blacks that is apparently de rigeur for filmic fantasy these days and actually predates Game of Thrones, going back to the Lord of the Rings movies and the non-fantasy epic Gladiator at the turn of the millennium. The Witcher also occasionally indulges in gratuitous nudity and violence, though not nearly as much as Game of Thrones did. However, these similarities are superficial and largely due to basic genre tropes and general aesthetics of what the audience expects from filmic fantasy these days. But if you look underneath the surface, The Witcher and Game of Thrones tell two very different stories.

Game of Thrones was an epic in the most literal sense of the word, a giant tapestry with dozens of individual plot strands, umpteen POV characters and a cast of thousands. But while The Witcher is set in a world that is as big as that of Game of Thrones, the series tells a much smaller story. For while there are the requisite epic battles and clashes of kingdoms going on in the background, the TV series tells the story of three people: Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, a freelance monster hunter, Yennefer of Vengerberg, an abused hunchbacked girl turned powerful sorceress, and Cirilla “Ciri”, the teenaged crown princess of the kingdom of Cintra who is on the run, after the evil empire of Nilfgaard conquered Cintra and killed her grandmother, the queen. Initially, the stories of these three people seem to be independent of each other, but eventually they intersect and intertwine. All three storylines also happen at different times, though this does not fully become apparent until episode 3 of the series. Geralt’s storyline intertwines with Yennefer’s in episode 5. Geralt’s storyline also touches upon Ciri’s in episode 4, though the two will not meet in person until the very last scene of the final episode of the first season. The structure with the three different timelines is not an artefact of the books, BTW, but a decision made by the showrunners. For while the books do jump around in time quite a bit – partly, because the first two books are fix-ups and partly because Andrzej Sapkowski is fond of having characters narrate events in flashbacks – they don’t do it like the series. The books are also far more focussed on Geralt and later Ciri, whereas the series gives equal weight to Geralt’s, Yennefer’s and Ciri’s storylines.

In fact, I would say that the books are often closer to sword and sorcery than to epic fantasy. And Geralt, the wandering loner and freelance monster hunter, is a classic sword and sorcery protagonist. He’s no chosen one on a quest, he’s just a guy doing a job he didn’t exactly choose, while trying and usually failing to keep out of trouble. Geralt has a lot more in common with Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (and while we’re adapting classic fantasy, can someone please make a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series?) than with Aragorn or Frodo, including a taste for beautiful and dangerous women. And since The Witcher started out as a series of short stories published in Polish fantasy magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, the sword and sorcery vibes make sense, because sword and sorcery is a subgenre that works well as short fiction. Epic fantasy requires longer lengths. I have no idea whether Andrzej Sapkowski was influenced by classic sword and sorcery fiction – with authors from non-anglophone countries, availability is always an issue, even more so for authors from beyond the former Iron Curtain – but Geralt is basically a sword and sorcery protagonist in an epic fantasy world.

Talking of influences, The Witcher, both books and series, have a hodgepodge of influences. However, contrary to what the critics claim, Game of Thrones is not one of them, if only because The Witcher actually predates A Song of Ice and Fire by a decade. The first Witcher story, entitled simply “Witcher”, was published in 1986 (and all Witcher stories and novels except for one were published before 2000), while A Game of Thrones came out in 1996 and the TV series did not start airing until 2011. And while some critics point out that one episode of The Witcher features brother-sister incest as a plot point, that episode is based on the very first Witcher story, which came out ten years before the first Game of Thrones book. Never mind that Game of Thrones certainly did not invent sibling incest.

Instead, The Witcher is influenced by a mix of Western and East European fantasy and folklore. Tolkien clearly was an influence and indeed I found the very Tolkienesque elves jarring, because such elves come from celtic rather than continental European folklore. But then Tolkien’s work were available beyond the Iron Curtain – my own copy of The Hobbit is an old East German edition with woodcut illustrations. Andrzej Sapkowski himself has named Roger Zelazny as an influence (which means that Zelazny’s work must have been available in Poland in the 1980s/90s) and quite a few people have noted the similarities between the first Witcher story (adapted for the third episode of the series) and Nicolai Gogol’s novella Viy, which I read many years ago in – yes, a volume of ghost stories I had been given by an aunt from East Germany. Finally, The Witcher is influenced a lot by fairytales and folklore from both Eastern and Western Europe and beyond. For example, the story on which the first episode of the series is based was intended to be a subversion of the Snow White fairytale with Renfry, the princess turned brigand, basically Snow White gone bad.

Eastern Europe had a strong tradition of fairytales and children’s fantasy throughout the Communist era. At first glance, you would think that Communist countries had little use for fairytales with their old-fashioned plots and their kings and queens, princes and princesses, wizards and witches. However, Eastern Europe also published a lot of fairy- and folktale collections as well as new fairytale inspired stories, mostly aimed at children. Pretty much all of the fairytale books I had as a kid were East German editions that had arrived in parcels from my two East German aunts for Christmas and my birthday (meanwhile, my Mom sent a parcel containing such Western goodies as chocolate, coffee, nylons, canned fruit, etc… to my aunt every month). It wasn’t just East European fairytales either, but Grimm’s Fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen’s, Nicolai Gogol’s ghost stories, Tolkien, an absolutely beautifully illustrated picture book featuring what appears to be a Russian take on Little Red Riding Hood, etc… Furthermore, Eastern Europe produced a steady stream of lavishly produced fairytale films and TV series (mainly Czechoslovakia, but East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union all produced fairytale and fantasy films as well), which were widely watched and enjoyed throughout Eastern Europe and also spilled out across the Iron Curtain, winding up as cheap and wholesome afternoon programming for children in West Germany and elsewhere. Those movies were extremely well made, often played fast and loose with the source material. Some like the 1979 Czech TV series Arabela were even remarakbly subversive. I and many other children lapped this stuff, because they were often the only fantasy we could find among dreary realism of the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, I had quite a lot of exposure to East European fantasy as a kid, both via fairytale movies and TV shows and via the books I got from my aunts in East Germany (thank you, Aunt Metel and Aunt Erika). And I recognise the influence of East European fantasy in The Witcher, mixed with the grime and dirt of Anglo-American grimdark fantasy.

And indeed one of the things I loved about The Witcher was how very much the series subverts Anglo-American storytelling expectations. After all, here we have a series about a monster hunter who tries to avoid killing monsters as far as possible and instead tries to either save the monsters, if they were innocent victims of circumstance (the striga, Duny, the dragon and its egg) or persuade them to go away (Renfry, the elves at the edge of the world, the djinn). Furthermore, we hardly ever actually see Geralt fight monsters. There is the spidery creature at the very beginning (a scene which put some folks off the entire series, which is a pity, because they’re missing out), two monster kills that take place off-stage and the fight of the ghouls in the very last episode. Compare that to US fantasy, whether it’s Supernatural or Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter books. In fact, I now wonder how the Witcher videogames handle the material, considering that gamers usually place a high emphasis on fighting and killing monsters. And a monster hunter who doesn’t kill monsters unless he has no other choice is not really a typical videogame character.

The very first episode puts Geralt in a situation where he has no choice but to kill someone he doesn’t want to kill, when he finds himself caught up in a conflict between the sorcerer Stregabor and a princess turned brigand named Renfry. Stregabor tries to enlist Geralt’s help in killing Renfry whom he insists is dangerous, because she is one of sixty girls born during an eclipse and the only one who survived, after Stregabor imprisoned and killed all the others. Renfry in turn tries to enlist Geralt’s help to kill Stregabor, who destroyed her life after all. Geralt tries to stay out of the conflict and persuade Renfry to leave town, but she refuses. And so Geralt is forced to fight and make a choice. Reluctantly, he kills Renfry. It is pretty obvious – both to Geralt and the viewer – that this was the wrong choice. Yes, the first episode has our hero fail utterly. Worse, the events will continue to haunt Geralt throughout the series, as he is constantly called “the Butcher of Blaviken” after killing Renfry and the men in her thrall.

One thing that surprised me was how likeable Geralt was, considering that he is a perpetually glum, emotionally challenged outcast who communicates in grunts and the occasional “fuck” and who no more gets along with people than with the monsters he tries not to kill. However, Henry Cavill manages to imbue what could have been a one-note character with a lot of charm, which surprised me even more, considering that my main exposure to Henry Cavill so far was his utterly awful take on Superman (which, to be fair, is more Zack Snyder’s fault than Cavill’s). Apart from that, the only other things I’ve ever seen him in were The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was okay, and an early appearance in Midsomer Murders, where he first gets caught with his pants down by David Bradley (a.k.a. Walder Frey a.k.a. the First Doctor) and then bitten by a fox and eventually steps into a trap and is shot, making him one of the many future stars who started their careers by playing murder victims in Midsomer Murders. Still, considering that Henry Cavill (with Zack Snyder’s help) managed to make Superman unlikeable, I certainly didn’t expect him to make Geralt of Rivia, a characters who’s much harder to like than Superman, likeable, yet somehow he does. Of course, it helps that Henry Cavill is apparently a huge fan of the Witcher books and games. And so Cavill manages to show us the cracks in Geralt’s stoic facade. For even though Geralt is supposed to have no emotions, a side-effect of the mutation that turned him into a Witcher, he obviously has feelings and even admits at one point that the supposed lack of emotions in Witchers is just a story that gives people one more reason to despise Witchers like him, even though they need his help. Hmm, a despised outcast mutant protecting people who fear and hate him, that seems very reminiscent of the X-Men, though I have no idea if the comics were ever available in Poland either before or after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, Sapkowski might simply be drawing on the same source material, namely 1940s and 50s pulp science fiction, that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were drawing on.

At any rate, the problem is not so much that Geralt has no feelings, but that he doesn’t really know how to deal with the ones he has. And so the cracks in his stoic facade become increasingly apparent over the course of the first season. For example, Geralt carries Renfry’s brooch around for the entire season and eventually attaches it to the pommel of his sword, a reminder of the one time where he completely and utterly fails. Geralt also thinks that finding and freeing a djinn is a perfect way to cure insomnia, only to use the final wish he gets to save Yennefer. When he is wounded (and for a tough monster hunter, Geralt gets injured a lot) and sees his mother in fever dreams, he cries out at her, if she knew what they’d do to him, when she handed him over to the Witchers. In the very last scene of the season, Geralt clumsily hugs a traumatised Ciri back, after she throws her arms around him – after having spent most of the season avoiding Ciri, to whom he’s bound by destiny and a custom known as the law of surprise. Geralt’s interactions with Yennefer alternate between glowering at her and glowering even more at every man who dares to come near her and uttering thrice his daily quote of grunts, when he is with her, something he even remarks upon at one point. And so Yennefer not only gets the statement “You are important to me” out of Geralt, but he also confesses his connection to Ciri to her. But important as Geralt’s connection to Yennefer is to the plot, it’s actually his one-sided friendship with Jaskier the bard that does the most to humanise Geralt.

Geralt first meets Jaskier in a tavern in episode 2, where the patrons are throwing breadrolls to shut Jaskier up (the practical Jaskier picks him up and stuffs them into his pockets), while everybody shuns Geralt as usual. In fact, Jaskier is pretty much the only person who does not shun Geralt, but instead views him as a golden opportunity to get more material for his ballads. And so Jaskier – the series decided to stick with the untranslated Polish name, while translations of the books usually opt for some kind of flower, usually yellow* – attaches himself to Geralt, in spite of the latter’s best efforts to make him go away. After an adventure with elves at the edge of the world, Jaskier sings “Toss a coin to your Witcher”, the ballad that broke the internet, because it is just that catchy. Also note the annoyed look on Geralt’s face, when he realises that both the song and the bard will follow him around from now on.

I found the use of music in The Witcher very interesting, because it hearkens back to older storytelling traditions. Bards and balladeers occasionally show up as characters in SFF. Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John and Tom Bombadil are probably the best known examples, though there is also Ciaran from “The Jewel of Bas”, a Leigh Brackett story that is the subject of an upcoming Retro Review, and of course Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd. But what makes the use of ballads in The Witcher so interesting is that the ballads comment on the story. And of course, ballads originally were a storytelling and also a news medium. At least in the German speaking world, ballads as a storytelling medium survived well into the twentieth century. For example, here is a photo of a balladeer at the Bremer Freimarkt sometime in the early twentieth century. The Nazis largely wiped out the tradition of wandering balladeers, because they disliked showpeople and carnival folk in general and balladeers in particular, because by the twentieth century the ballad had also become a medium of satire. “Mackie Messer” a.k.a. “Mack the Knife” by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht is probably the most famous German ballad of the twentieth century (here is the original performed by Lotte Lenya) and definitely satirical. After WWII, the ballad was revived as a medium of satire in West Germany. Furthermore, the ballad also appeared in the West German cinema of the 1950s, used to explain and comment on the plot. This technique shows up in not just in fantasy films like Das Wirtshaus im Spessart (The Spessart Inn) and its sequel Das Spukschloss in Spessart (The Haunted Castle), but also in serious movies such as Wir Wunderkinder (Aren’t We Wonderful?) and Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary), all of which – yes, also the two fantasy movies – are not only among the best movies made in 1950s West Germany, but they are also offer a slyly satirical look at postwar society, where the old Nazis are worming their way back into positions of power, while their former victims still can’t catch a break. The use of ballads in West German films to comment on the plot stopped abruptly in the early 1960s, likely due to the untimely death of Wolfgang Müller, one half of the comedy duo Wolfgang Neuss and Wolfgang Müller who played wandering balladeers in most of these movies, in 1960.

I have no idea, if Andrzej Sapkowski or Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich have ever seen any of those movies, though it’s not as unlikely as it seems, because at least the Spessart movies were shown beyond the Iron Curtain and Wir Wunderkinder won a Golden Globe. But Jaskier very much struck me as the second coming of Neuss and Müller or rather Knoll and Funzel, as their characters are known in the Spessart movies, because he also is a comic relief character who uses his songs to comment on the plot (though actor Joey Batey has a better voice than Wolfgang Neuss and Wolfgang Müller). And interestingly, Jaskier’s songs also influence the story. For after Jaskier writes “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher”, a song which apparently went as viral in the story as in reality, the various people Geralt meets begin to treat him notably better, recognising that he is in fact “a friend of humanity” there to help. Jaskier is also instrumental in Geralt meeting the two other main characters of the series, Ciri (or rather her parents and grandmother) and Yennefer. Of course, Geralt reacts to Jaskier improving his image with glumness and grunting, as usual. Though it becomes clear to the viewer, if not to Jaskier himself, that Geralt does care about the bard. When Jaskier is hurt during an encounter with a djinn, Geralt tries to get him medical help and anxiously asks if Jaskier will be all right, because Geralt said some not very nice things about Jaskier’s music (more precisely, he called it “a pie without the filling”, which is really not a nice thing to say). And when Geralt lashes out at Jaskier, after Yennefer has dumped him, and points out that all his troubles, particularly his connection with Yennefer and Ciri, are all Jaskier’s fault, the bard is hurt, but by now he knows what Geralt is like. The last two episodes were packed with plot, but it’s still a pity that we did not get to see Geralt and Jaskier reunite.

Apart from Geralt and Jaskier (and a couple of villains), all characters of note in The Witcher are female. A lot of people have remarked on the many, many awesome women of The Witcher and quite a few believe that the fact that showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is a woman is responsible for the strong female presence in the series. However, except for one case where a male alderman is replaced by his teenaged daughter in the show, all of the female characters in The Witcher can be found in the books and are just as formidable there.

Quite a few people (here is one example) have complained about the way the series treats Yennefer who starts out as a disabled (she has a hunchback, a curved spine and a deformed jaw) and severely abused young girl, then has her physical flaws magically corrected for the price of losing her womb. She subsequently tries to regain her fertility by any means possible. Both disability cure narratives and fertility loss treated as a curse are potentially offensive tropes. And as a woman who has no children and never wanted any I normally dislike any kind of story which focusses on a woman’s desperate attempt to gain/regain her fertility. However, both Yennefer’s disability and her infertility are important plot points in the books, so the series couldn’t really leave them out without significantly altering Yennefer’s storyline. Plus, the series manages to handle these potentially offensive tropes in a way that minimises their offensiveness.

For starters, note that Yennefer is not actually happy, after her body has been corrected and not just because of the infertility issue either. It’s obvious that she misses her old self at times. At one point, she even tells an apprentice sorceress with a scarred face that beauty is overrated. The decision to let Yennefer have a boyfriend and sex, while still in her original body, also helps to mitigate the problematic aspects, because it shows that there were people able to look beyond her disability even before. I also suspect that Geralt wouldn’t have been put off by Yennefer’s original body either, because he isn’t the type to care only for outward beauty. Never mind that Geralt has also undergone traumatic physical changes, when he was turned into a Witcher against his will.

I have to admit that I did find Yennefer’s desire for a child a bit baffling, because she didn’t display any maternal tendencies in the series before and indeed agrees to have her womb removed to magically change her appearance (and no, we did not need to see the gory details). So I was baffled that she is suddenly willing to risk her life to cure her infertility. However, the Yennefer looking for an infertility cure is several decades older than the girl who wants power and beauty and thinks she cannot have one without the other. Also Yennefer is clearly troubled by the royal baby she is unable to save from a magical assassin sent to eliminate the baby and its mother. Furthermore, issues like menstruation, fertility, contraception, pregnancy, abortion and miscarriage play a bigger role in The Witcher books than in most epic fantasy novels, particularly epic fantasy novels by male authors. As detailed in this Tor.com post by Rachel Ashcroft, in one of the later books a female character finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, which leads to a debate whether she should have the baby or have an abortion, with the male characters conceding that it is primarily the woman’s decision. This is a topic that would be extremely uncommon even in Western fantasy, let alone fantasy by a male author. Considering that Poland is dominated by a particularly reactionary strain of Catholicism and has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, Sapkowski daring to mention abortion at all and pointing out that it’s the woman’s decision and no one else’s is downright revolutionary.

Finally, Yennefer is not the only character in The Witcher who was rendered infertile by magic. It is implied that her fellow sorceresses underwent the same ritual and none of them seem to be as troubled by losing their fertility as Yennefer. Of course, one could interpret Tissaia’s attachment to the magical school of Arethuza, whose rectress she is, as a displaced motherly instinct, but maybe she just likes being a teacher. Furthermore, Geralt was also rendered infertile by the process that turned him into a Witcher and is perfectly fine with this. In fact, he tells Yennefer that their lives are not good for children, so it’s probably for the best that they cannot have any. So of course, destiny, being a bitch gives Geralt (and eventually Yennefer) exactly what he doesn’t want, namely a child in the form of Ciri, when Geralt saves the life of Ciri’s father-to-be and invokes a custom called “the law of surprise” in response, which gives him something the person he saved has, but doesn’t yet know about. Almost as soon as Geralt has invoked the law of surprise, Ciri’s mother-to-be Pavetta pukes on the floor, revealing her pregnancy. “Fuck” is Geralt’s response, because he wants nothing to do with this child and indeed does his utmost to keep away from Ciri and the kingdom of Cintra for the next twelve years or so. He doesn’t even know that Pavetta’s unborn child is a girl until he returns to Cintra. It’s only after Geralt has seen the lengths to which a dragon was willing to go to protect his egg and when Cintra is at risk of being attacked by Nilfgaard that Geralt finally decides to take his responsibility seriously and returns to Cintra, offering to protect Ciri. Geralt even makes it clear that he only wants to help and doesn’t want to take Ciri away from her grandparents, but his offer is rebuked anyway and Geralt is imprisoned (he escapes pretty easily). In fact, if Ciri’s grandmother had been more reasonable and accepted Geralt’s offer, the traumatic experiences of Ciri’s flight from Cintra and subsequent search for Geralt (even though she is no idea who this person her grandmother insists is her destiny even is) could have been avoided. Of course, that would also have wiped out much of the plot of season 1.

The two most discussed TV (well, streaming video to be exact) series during the 2019/2020 holiday period were undoubtedly The Witcher and The Mandalorian. Yes, there was also His Dark Materials and Watchmen, though season 4 of The Expanse seems to have attracted less discussion than earlier seasons. And though The Witcher and The Mandalorian seem to be completely different shows on the surface – one epic fantasy and the other space opera – they also share remarkable parallels and not just because I was initially reluctant to watch either show and then wound up enjoying both a whole lot.

If you strip away all the fantasy or respectively Star Wars trappings of The Witcher and The Mandalorian, what you find in both cases is the story of a traumatised, monosyllabic and emotionally stunted loner, who hunts bad guys (many of whom aren’t quite so bad), finds himself guardian to a child with special powers, a child everybody is after, and becomes a better person in the process. Of course, Baby Yoda is still a baby, while Ciri is a young teenager, but apart from that it is notable that both The Witcher and The Mandalorian are stories of (reluctant) fatherhood. Furthermore, both Mando and Geralt find themselves at the centre of a found family, only that Mando gets a magical alien baby with Force powers, a troubled former shock trooper, a grumpy Ugnaught and a gun-toting droid nanny, while Geralt gets a teenaged princess with magical powers, a troubled sorceress and a goofy bard. I suspect it’s the found family aspects that made me fall in love with both shows, because I am a sucker for found family stories.

However, it’s certainly interesting that the two most discussed SFF shows of the 2019/2020 holiday period were both stories of reluctant fatherfood and stories which feature a largely positive image of parenthood. Now I know that quite a few people of a usually conservative bend complain about the image of fathers in US TV shows as useless bumblers, mostly referring to sitcom characters. I don’t watch sitcoms, so I rarely see the bumbling and idiotic US sitcom fathers. However, I have issues of my own with the portrayal of fathers of US television, namely that fathers (and sometimes mothers) are portrayed as overly controlling towards their teenaged children. Examples are Roger Murtaugh in the TV version of Lethal Weapon (which made me dislike Murtaugh, a character I liked in the films) and Danny Williams from Hawai Five-Oh, who at one point freaks out that his ten-year-old daughter (!) is smiling (!) at a boy. To German viewers like me, these overly controlling fathers seem very alien, not to mention borderline abusive, because my father never tried to tell me how to dress (and if he had, he’d have gotten some massive pushback) or who to hang out with. And while some of my friends had more controlling fathers, not even the worst of them reached the level of a Danny Williams or Roger Murtaugh. This is also why I was so annoyed at the grisly book turned movie turned TV series Das Pubertier (the title is a really offensive German pun that equates teenagers with animals), which features terribly controlling parents, because German parents didn’t use to be like that and hopefully aren’t today either. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised to see two positive portrayals of reluctant fatherhood in the kind of show where I would have least expected them.

So toss a coin to your Witcher, because it is a highly enjoyable series, which will almost certainly appear on my Hugo ballot.

*The Polish name means “Buttercup” as far as I know. In English, he’s Dandelion, in Czech Marigold (which causes issues with Trish, the character who actually is called Marigold) and in German, he’s Larkspur.

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Cora is a 2020 GUFF Candidate

The ballot for the 2020 Going Under Fan Fund (GUFF) race has been announced and I am one of the candidates.

What is GUFF, you ask? The Going Under a.k.a. Get Up and Over Fan Fund is a great project which sends fans from Europe to Australia/New Zealand and vice versa. This year a European fan/fans gets to go to CoNZealand, the 2020 WorldCon in Wellington, New Zealand.

This year, we have six GUFF candidates and a total of eight people on the ballot, namely Hisham El-Far and Lee Fletcher from the UK, Hanna Hakkarainen from Finland, Elizabeth Jones and Claire Rousseau from the UK, Dave Lally from the UK, Alison Scott from the UK and of course yours truly. All of them are awesome people and I’m honoured to be in such company. You can find out more about the candidates at the GUFF site and at File 770.

I’d also like to thank my nominators, Jo Van Ekeren and Camestros Felapton from Australasia and Adrienne Joy, Kári Tulinius and Mark Yon from Europe as well as June Young and Hampus Eckerman, who were also willing to nominate me, but aren’t listed on the ballot.

So how does it work? Simple. You make a donation to GUFF and fill out the ballot, which may be found here. The votes are ranked, similar to Hugo voting, i.e. you rank your first choice first, your second choice second, etc… There also are the options “no preference”, which means that you want to support GUFF and want one of the candidates to go, but don’t particularly care who, and “hold over funds”, which is like “no award” at the Hugos. You can vote until April 13, 2020.

Who can vote? Anyone anywhere in the world who makes a donation to GUFF and has been active in SFF fandom (e.g. attending cons, running fanzines and fansites, reviewing books and movies, participating in online discussions or engaging in other fannish activities) since at least January 2018.

Let me also give a shout-out to DUFF, the Down Under Fan Fund, a similar project which sends fans from North America to Australasia and vice versa. The 2020 DUFF race is also currently open for voting with four great candidates. The official ballot is here.

What happens if I win? Well, first of all I get to attend WorldCon in New Zealand and meet fans from the other side of the world, which is pretty damn awesome in itself. And you get to vicariously participate in my adventures, because a GUFF winner is required to produce a trip report. So if you enjoyed my reports about WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, my two-part report about WorldCon 77 in Dublin or my report about the local Steampunk con Steamfest in Papenburg, you can expect something along those lines, only with more waterfalls.

And if someone else wins? Well, then you’ll also get a trip report, though one with a different protagonist. But most importantly, you’ll have supported a great fan-run project, which is entirely funded by donations.

So what are you waiting for? Donate and vote for me or one of the other great GUFF candidates.

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Retro Review: “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” by Stanton A. Coblentz

Werid Tales July 1944“The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

This story takes the form of a tale told around the fireplace. One night, man called Carrigan, who’s worked as a state executioner for thirty years, is hanging out with friends and telling stories about his work. The fact that Carrigan is so open about what he does for a living is remarkable, considering that most real life executioners rarely talk about their work (executioners also have a high rate of depression and suicide), though there are exceptions who like to give interviews or write memoirs. And considering that executioners were historically shunned and often had to live outside the city gate, it’s also remarkable that Carrigan even has friends, even if those friends mainly seem to be interested in the macabre stories Carrigan has to tell.

Carrigan is quite unapologetic about his line of work. And so when one of his friends, the first person narrator of this story, asks him if there was ever a prisoner who got away, Carrigan tells the story of a convicted bank robber and murderer he calls Scar-Face because the man had a distinctive scar on his face.

Throughout his trial, Scar-Face insists that he is innocent and did not fire the shot that killed a bank clerk, but it is to no avail. He is sentenced to death anyway. On death row, Scar-Face is remarkably cool and sanguine, even as his execution date draws near.

On the way to the gallows, Scar-Face is polite and cheery and even helps his executioners to blindfold him. Meanwhile, Carrigan is overcome by a spooky feeling. And though Carrigan has zero moral qualms about executing people and even brags that he has already hanged fifty men, he is uncommonly reluctant to pull the lever. When Carrigan finally pulls the lever after all, what happens is… nothing. The trap door does not open and Scar-Face does not hang.

Carrigan pulls the lever again and again, but the trap door just won’t open. So Carrigan and his assistants check the gallows and everything seems to be in order. Even the trap door opens as intended, when Scar-Face is not standing on it. But as soon as they return the condemned to the gallows, the trap door once more refuses to open. At one point, Carrigan even has his assistants try the gallows on himself, with the rope tied around his waist rather than his neck. The trap door opens. So Scar-Face is brought back to the gallows and once again nothing happens.

Eventually, Carrigan and his assistants give up. Scar-Face is returned to his cell and Carrigan has to explain to the state governor why the execution could not be carried out. The governor is furious and threatens to fire Carrigan, but eventually relents, since there are plenty of witnesses to confirm that the failed execution wasn’t Carrigan’s fault.

And so a new execution date is set and a new gallows is built. The governor even shows up in person to witness the execution. Scar-Face is taken to the gallows and once more nothing happens. The trap door refuses to open and a thorough examination of the gallows finds no technical fault. Exasperated, the governor finally gives up and commutes Scar-Face’s sentence to life imprisonment. Of course, this would never have happened in reality, at least not in the US, where executioners try again and again, if the first execution attempt fails. And yes, there are several examples.

Carrigan concludes his tale by reporting that a few years later, a member of Scar-Face’s old gang made a death bed confession and admitted that he shot the bank clerk. So Scar-Face was innocent after all and is promptly freed. When his friends ask Carrigan about his theories why Scar-Face couldn’t be hanged, Carrigan admits that during the final execution attempt, he saw a strange mist in the gallows chamber, a mist which coalesced into a pair of hands that held the trap door shut.

I have to admit that I chose this story at random, while (virtually) flipping through the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales. What attracted me was the title and the evocative interior art by A.R. Tilburne. Besides, the story is very short – only four pages long – and so I decided to read it.

I wrote in my review of “Guard in the Dark” by Allison V. Harding that her stories were often dismissed as forgettable fillers in later years. I felt that was too harsh a verdict for “Guard in the Dark”. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang”, on the other hand, really is a filler. The story is well written – the general writing quality in Weird Tales seems higher under Dorothy McIlwraith than during Farnworth Wright’s tenure – and effective, but it is also very slight. There isn’t any deeper meaning nor does the story offer any opinion on the death penalty one way or another. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is merely a spooky anecdote. There also is very little supernatural content in this story apart from the mysterious misty hands. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” could have been published just as well in the likes of Black Mask or Dime Mystery or any other crime pulp.

The fact that the story is well written is no surprise, as author Stanton A Coblentz was a veteran pulp writer who had started publishing in the 1920s and kept writing well into the 1960s. He was a frequent contributor to Amazing Stories and the other Hugo Gernsback magazines. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is somewhat atypical for Coblentz, since most of his work seems to have been science fiction, quite a lot of it satirical. In addition to writing speculative fiction, Coblentz also was a poet and literary critic.

“The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is very likely based on a real case, that of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his employer in England in 1885 and survived three attempts to hang him, when the trap door would not open. As in “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang”, the gallows functioned perfectly fine, when tested. Like the fictional Scar-Face, John “Babbacombe” Lee had his sentence first commuted to life imprisonment and was eventually freed. Though John “Babbacombe” Lee was not saved by supernatural intervention. Instead, the most likely explanation for the failure to hang him is that the gallows had been disassembled and set up in a different part of the prison prior to Lee’s execution. In the process, the trap door mechanism had become misaligned and the trap door refused to open. An alternate explanation is that a prisoner tasked with setting up the gallows in its new location had deliberately sabotaged the mechanism. But whatever the reason, John “Babbacombe” Lee survived his execution by sixty years.

The case of John “Babbacombe” Lee is fairly well known and was also described in detail in the memoirs of James Berry, the executioner who was supposed to hang him. Coblentz likely stumbled over this story at some point and fictionalised it.

A neat spooky anecdote, lots of atmosphere, but little substance.

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Retro Review: “Guard in the Dark” by Allison V. Harding

Werid Tales July 1944“Guard in the Dark” is a short story by Allison V. Harding, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“Guard in the Dark” is the story of Jeffry Wilburts, a young teacher straight from college, educated in the latest theories of child psychology, who is hired as a private tutor for a twelve-year-old boy named Ronald Frost. Ronald’s parents are concerned, because Ronald is neglecting his school work and doesn’t want to hang out with his peers. What is more, Ronald – like many a boy in the middle of World War II – is obsessed with lead soldiers and has a huge collection of them.

However, Ronald’s obsession with lead soldiers goes beyond staging and re-enacting famous battles. Instead, Jeffry witnesses that Ronald arranges the soldiers in a precise pattern on the floor of his bedroom and regularly replaces the soldiers with fresh ones from his stash. Jeffry also cannot help but notice that the soldiers seem to be guarding Ronald’s bed. And whenever Jeffry asks Ronald what he is doing with the soldiers and why he has so many, Ronald only replies that he needs them.

By now, it is quite obvious where the story is going. And indeed, when Jeffry enters Ronald’s room the next morning, he catches Ronald trying to hide several broken lead soldiers (and speaking as someone who used to collect the tin soldiers in historical uniforms that used to be in Kinder Surprise Eggs in the 1970s and 1980s, let me tell you that such figures are almost impossible to break). Ronald’s parents confirm that Ronald keeps breaking his toy soldiers. They also are angry, both because of the costs of replacing the soldiers and because they fear that Ronald’s aggression will make him even more isolated. But when Jeffry asks Ronald point blank why he keep breaking his soldiers, Ronald insists that he did not break them – they died. Jeffry presses Ronald for the truth and the boy finally blurts out that the soldiers protect him from something that comes into his room by night.

Of course, Jeffry does not believe him and instead recommends that the Frosts send Ronald to see a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, Ronald’s stock of lead soldiers dwindles, for the soldiers keep dying and Ronald’s parents refuse to buy any more. Ronald begs Jeffry to get him more soldiers, but Jeffry refuses as well. He suggests repairing the broken soldiers, but Ronald insists that won’t help, because dead is dead.

One night, when Ronald’s soldiers are almost all gone, Jeffry decides to sneak into Ronald’s room, while the boy is sleeping, and observe what is going on. He also takes along his trusty notebook. Maybe, Jeffry muses, he can even catch Ronald red-handed, while he stomps around on his toy soldiers.

But while Jeffry is waiting for something to happen, he nods off… or so he thinks. He awakes with a start and finds himself in the middle of a pitched battle. The toy soldiers are on the move, running, shooting, fighting and dying, while battling a heavily breathing shadow which is closing in on Ronald’s bed. During the battle, a lead soldier jumps onto the notebook on Jeffry’s lap, firing his pistol at the shadow.

As is common for stories published in Weird Tales, we never see the monster that menaces young Ronald, even though interior artist Boris Dolgov portrays it as a horned and hoofed devil. Meanwhile, Harding describes the monsters as follows:

“A breathing, panting noise of a thing. Nameless, descriptionless, except for the grotesque shadow it threw.”

When the battle ceases and all soldiers have fallen, Jeffry – being a coward at heart – grabs his notebook and flees back to his own room. When he wakes up the next morning, he assumes he simply had a bad dream and heads for breakfast with the Frosts. However, Ronald does not come down for breakfast, so his mother goes up to fetch him and lets out a scream. Jeffry and Mr. Frost run upstairs to investigate and find Ronald sitting up in bed, utterly insane.

Ronald is carted off to an institution and Jeffry is out of a job. When he opens his notebook, a lead soldier falls out. Jeffry picks him up and notices that instead of the bland features that all of Ronald’s soldiers had – described at several points throughout the story – this soldier has an expression of unspeakable horror frozen on his face.

“Guard in the Dark” is an effective, if somewhat predictable horror story. In many ways, this story reminded me of “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, winner of the 1944 Retro Hugo for Best Novelette. Both stories feature children in peril from unknown forces, toys which are not what they seem (and there are stories that booby-trapped toys were used as weapons in WWII by all sides) and unsympathetic parents and child psychologists who refuse to listen to their kids and lose them in the end. I wonder whether these stories were inspired by worries about mothers neglecting their children as many women entered the workforce due to World War II, while fathers were absent altogether due to fighting overseas. At any rate, there is a very strong message of “Listen to your children and believe them” in both stories.

Jeffry Wilburts not a child psychologist, but a teacher. However, he frequently mentions that he studied child psychology and tries to apply his psychological knowledge to the problem of Ronald. But even though Jeffry is the protagonist and POV character of “Guard in the Dark”, he’s not a very likeable character. He’s incompetent and also an idiot who ignores what is bleedingly obvious, that the soldiers are alive and protecting Ronald from some kind of nightly horror. Though to be fair, readers naturally expect some kind of supernatural going-ons from a story published in Weird Tales. Jeffry, on the other hand, has no idea that he is a character in a Weird Tales story, so he refuses to consider any supernatural explanation for what is happening in the Frost household. However – and this is the one thing I cannot forgive him for – Jeffry is also a coward and complete and utter failure as a teacher. Because teachers are very much wired to protect their students, even if that means endangering themselves. We see this again and again in the case of school shootings, fires and other disasters. Teachers will risk their own lives to protect their students. And therefore, Jeffry running away and abandoning Ronald to the monster just feels wrong to me. Any teacher worth their salt would have battled the monster to protect Ronald.

As I read the story, I also noticed how much Ronald’s behaviour matches the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Ronald is withdrawn and isolated, he refuses to socialise with other children, he engages in ritualistic behaviour, becomes anxious when his rituals are disrupted and he is focussed on a narrow special interest. Of course, Ronald has a very good reason for doing what he does – there really is a monster in his closet that is out to get him. But if you ignore the supernatural explanation, Ronald’s behaviour seems like a textbook example for autism spectrum disorder. And considering that Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger were carrying out their studies on children with autism and Asperger syndrome in 1943 and 1944 respectively, i.e. around the time this story was published, I wonder whether Allison V. Harding was familiar with their research.

When I started the Retro Reviews project, I wanted to cover not just popular stories by big names, but also stories by lesser known authors. Allison V. Harding is certainly one of those lesser known authors, even though she was prolific, publishing thirty-six stories in Weird Tales between 1943 and 1951. Furthermore, Allison V. Harding is one of the forgotten female authors of the golden age – yes, there were women other than Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore writing SFF in the 1940s, several of them publishing in Weird Tales. That made her work a natural choice for a review.

Avon Fantasy Reader No. 15Comparatively little is known about Allison V. Harding. She was clearly popular in her day, as Weird Tales letter columns and reader polls from the 1940s indicate. However, after 1951 she abruptly vanishes from the SFF scene. She never published another story, never appeared at conventions, her stories were dismissed as forgettable fillers and very little of her fiction was reprinted. “Guard in the Dark” was reprinted only once, in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 15 in 1950.

Allison V. Harding herself was a phantom. Sam Moskowitz managed to shed some light onto the mystery of Allison V. Harding, when he dug into Weird Tales‘ old files and found that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Jean Millicent, daughter of a prominent East Coast family, who may or may not have been an attorney and who would go on to marry Charles Lamont Buchanan, associate editor for Weird Tales and Short Stories, in 1952. Some people believe that the author behind the Allison V Harding stories was not Jean Millicent at all, but Charles Lamont Buchanan, who used the name of his future wife to be to avoid a conflict of interest. I have no idea whether there is any truth to this theory, though “her family did not know that she was a writer” isn’t much evidence, because people don’t necessarily share every detail of their life with their extended family. Furthermore, as outlined by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, attributing women’s achievements to the men in her life is an incredibly common phenomenon. So unless there is definite proof to the contrary, I’ll assume that the person behind Allison V. Harding is the person whose name appeared on the royalty check from Weird Tales. I’ll also continue using female pronouns, when referring to Harding.

Jean Millicent lived until 2004, when she died at the age of 85. Her husband Charles Lamont Buchanan lived until 2015 to the ripe old age of 96. And considering how well researched Weird Tales and its contributors are, it’s a mystery why none of the many Weird Tales scholars ever thought to interview Jean Millicent or Charles Lamont Buchanan and ask them point blank who wrote the Allison V. Harding stories. Just as it is a mystery why Allison V. Harding, who was after all one of the ten most prolific contributors to Weird Tales, is so completely forgotten these days. Part of the reason is probably that Harding was very much a phantom. Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and other prolific Weird Tales contributors left plenty of notes, drafts and letters behind, but all we have of Allison V. Harding are her stories. Furthermore, Harding’s stories appeared during Dorothy McIlwraith‘s tenure as editor of Weird Tales, whereas glory days of the magazine are considered to have been under the previous editor Farnsworth Wright.

So were Allison V. Harding’s stories “forgettable fillers”, as Robert Weinberg supposedly called them in his study of Weird Tales? At least based on “Guard in the Dark”, I would disagree. Yes, the story is fairly predictable, but it is also atmospheric and effectively written. I have certainly read worse Weird Tales stories from much bigger names. I also wouldn’t mind reading further stories by Allison V. Harding. After all, there are six stories published in 1944 alone to choose from.

 

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Retro Review: “The Big and the Little” a.k.a. “The Merchant Princes” by Isaac Asimov

Astounding Science Fiction August 1944“The Big and the Little” is a novelette by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Most readers will probably know the story under its alternate title “The Merchant Princes”, which is how it appeared in Foundation, the first book of the eponymous trilogy.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

I already recapitulated the Foundation series so far in my review of “The Wedge”, the story which directly precedes this one. So rather than repeat everything again, I’ll just direct you over there.

“The Big and the Little” takes place approximately thirty years after the events in “The Wedge” and also focusses on the traders, who peddle the Foundation’s atomic powered gadgets and spread its influence along the galactic periphery. One of those traders is Hober Mallow, the protagonist of “The Big and the Little”.

Like Limmar Ponyets from “The Wedge”, Hober Mallow is also something of an outsider on the margins of Foundation society. Like Ponyets, he was born in one of the four kingdoms the Foundation controls via its fake religion and was later given a lay education. But even though Mallow has enjoyed the benefits of a Foundation education, he is still not considered a true Foundation citizen, because he was not born on Terminus. Asimov rarely bothers to give us physical descriptions of his characters, but what little he tells us about Mallow’s appearance suggests that he also looks different than other Foundation citizens. For starters, he still dresses in the style of his homeworld Smyrno. And in one scene, while Mallow is hanging out naked (!) with a male friend in his private sun room in what is surely just a harmless discussion about politics, his skin is described as brown. So it’s at least possible that Hober Mallow is a man of colour. It is also possible that he is not straight, because the homoerotic vibes in that sun room scene are very strong (at one point, Mallow’s friend places a phallic object – a cigar – in Mallow’s mouth), even though this went completely over my head when I first read the story as a teen.

At the beginning of the story, Mallow is approached by Foundation politician Jorane Sutt, who worries that a Seldon crisis – one of the flashpoints in Foundation history where Hari Seldon’s hologram shows up to prove the protagonist right – is approaching. Now Sutt wants Mallow to head to the Korellian Republic – the Star Wars associations of the name were not lost on my teen self – to investigate the disappearance of three Foundation trading ships in Korellian space. Because the Foundation are the only ones who are supposed to have atomic power on the galactic periphery, attacking and destroying Foundation ships should be impossible. Unless the Korellian Republic also has atomic power, that is. And if the Korellian Republic really has atomic power, the question is how they got it. Sutt fears that there may be a traitor in the ranks of the Foundation, maybe one of the traders who aren’t “real citizens” anyway. Maybe even Mallow himself.

So Mallow sets out for the Korellian Republic with his ship, the Far Star, a politically ambitious trader named Jaim Twer in tow. Mallow rightly suspects that Twer may be a spy for Sutt, but takes him along anyway. The Korellian Republic is a republic in name only, but has been ruled by members of the same family for generations now. The latest leader, Commdor Asper Argo calls himself “the well-beloved”, but resides in a fortress-like estate and surrounds himself with bodyguards.

Even though Mallow is an official envoy of the Foundation, the well-beloved Asper Argo keeps him waiting. One day, a man claiming to be a Foundation priest shows up on the landing field, begging for help. For while the Korellian Republic tolerates Foundation traders, they forbid Foundation missionaries from entering their territory on the penalty of death, since the fate of the four kingdoms and Askone, the world from “The Wedge”, has made all other polities on the galactic periphery wary of the Foundation’s fake religion. Mallow’s crew lets the wounded priest aboard – against Mallow’s explicit orders. Mallow now finds himself in a similar situation to Limmar Ponyets from “The Wedge” – he has to deal with a Foundation citizen who wilfully flaunts the laws of other worlds. Unlike Ponyets, however, Mallow makes no attempt to save the priest. Instead, he delivers him to the mob baying for his blood outside the ship, to the horror of both Jaim Twer and his crew.

I had completely forgotten the episode with the priest. Upon rereading the story, I was stunned by Mallow casually abandoning the man to certain death. Of course, the priests of the Foundation’s sham religion are not particularly likeable, but that doesn’t mean that you want to see one of them get lynched. Mallow justifies his actions by telling Twer that he believes that the episode with the priest was a deliberate trap. After all, the Far Star has landed in a largely deserted area. So where did the priest and the mob pursuing him suddenly come from? All these are good questions, if there had been any hint regarding these facts, before Mallow brings them up. In the end, Mallow is proven right, too. But even though the plot is rigged in Mallow’s favour, the casual cruelty with which he throws the priest to mob still left a bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention that Mallow seem to believe in the “rum, sodomy and the lash” school of captaincy, pulls a blaster on his own crew and even remarks at one point that while he may be a democrat at home, aboard the Far Star he is a dictator. All of the protagonists of the early Foundation stories are jerks, but Hober Mallow is more open about it than either Salvor Hardin or Limmar Ponyets.

Soon after the episode with the priest, Mallow is suddenly given an audience with the Commdor, which he takes as further proof that his instincts were correct. During that meeting, Mallow assures the well-beloved Asper Argo that he has zero interest in spreading the Foundation’s religion, all he wants is to sell his wares for mutual benefit. Mallow’s dislike for the Foundation’s fake religion seems genuine, most likely because as someone born in the four kingdoms he was once on the receiving end of that religion.

The one scene in the story that I clearly remember some thirty years after I first read it also occurs during this meeting, when Mallow demonstrates one of his products, a necklace and belt combination that glows thanks to the miracles of atomic power, on an unnamed female servant in the Commdor’s household. This female servant is one of only two female characters in this story (and the entire first Foundation book, for that matter), the other being the Commdor’s wife, who is married to him in a political union. The Commdor’s wife even gets a few lines – mostly nagging her admittedly awful husband – while the female servant only gets to model pretty glowing jewellery. I remember this scene so clearly thirty years on, because a) this set of glowing jewellery sounded awesome and I would have loved to have one, and b) wearing a belt with a miniature nuclear reactor in the buckle also sounded incredibly dangerous and like a recipe for cancer. However, if someone had managed to make the glowing jewellery without the nuclear reactor, I would have been so there. I clearly wasn’t the only person who was fascinated by that scene, because William Timmins’ cover illustration shows a hand, presumably Mallow’s, holding the glowing necklace aloft.

But Mallow doesn’t only have nuclear powered trinkets for sale, he also has more practical wares, which he’d be only too happy to demonstrate to the Commdor, provided he could be given access to a steelwork. The idea behind this is that if the Korellians have atomic power, an industrial facility like a steelwork would be the place to find it, though don’t ask me why Mallow expects to find evidence of nuclear power at a steelwork. The Commdor agrees quickly, too quickly, and so Mallow gives his demonstration. He also finds evidence of atomic power, though not in the way he had expected. For the Commdor’s bodyguards are armed with atomic blasters bearing the crest of the Galactic Empire.

Foundation

Cover of the Gnome Press edition of Foundation.

Once Mallow knows where the Korellians got atomic weapons from, he sets out to investigate further, heading for a world called Siwenna that was once the capital of an Imperial province. But all he finds is an impoverished world under the thumb of a cruel Imperial viceroy who has ambitions to become Emperor himself. Failing that, the viceroy is planning to build up an empire of his own on the periphery and has already married off his daughter to Commdor Asper Argo of the Korellian Republic.

Mallow learns all that from an impoverished and disgraced Imperial patrician who just happens to be the first person he encounters on Siwenna. But contrived as this encounter seems, the story the old man tells about a succession of increasingly weak emperors and ambitious viceroys, about rebellions, counter-rebellions, massacres and genocide is powerful, even if all the action once more happens off stage, as is common with Asimov’s work.

But Mallow not only learns that the Galactic Empire, while still existing, is in dire straits, he also learns that the Foundation’s technology is more advanced than the Empire’s, that most of the Empire’s technology are legacy systems which the maintenance techs can’t even repair, should they break down, and that the Foundation are believed to be a semi-mythical group of space magicians this far from their sphere of influence. Viewed from the POV of our current information society, where every bit of news travels around the world in seconds and it is possible to have a conversation on Twitter with participants on four different continents, the complete breakdown of communication between the remnants of the Empire and the Foundation as well as the mutual ignorance of each other (Mallow is surprised that the Empire still exists) seems unlikely. I suspect it would have seemed unlikely even in 1944, where Asimov himself had a map in his office at the Navy Yard marking frontlines and troop movements on the other side of the world. If anything, the mutual ignorance of the Empire and the Foundation of each other reminded me of the tendency in the Star Wars universe to treat events that occurred only a few decades ago as ancient and quasi-mythical history.

Armed with this knowledge, Mallow returns to Terminus to build factories to fulfil the lucrative trade contracts he brought back from his trip to the Korellian Republic, accumulate wealth and run for office. But Mallow’s political ambitions anger Jorane Sutt, who then brings up the death of the priest in the Korellian Republic to have Mallow arrested and tried for murder.

Now the story takes a sharp turn into courtroom drama territory with the murder trial of Hober Mallow. Mallow takes the stand and proceeds to tear the case apart. First, he presents a hitherto unknown recording of the incident with the priest, which conveniently reveals that the supposed priest has a black light tattoo (something I for one did not know already was a thing in 1944) marking him as an agent of the Korellian secret police. Mallow further reveals that Jorane Sutt was trying to set him up and is planning to use the Foundation’s fake religion and the associated church to topple the secular government. Finally, Mallow reveals that his travelling companion Jaim Twer was a spy for Sutt all along and is not a trader, but a Foundation priest. As for how Mallow knew that Twer had to be a priest, in a conversation early in the story, Twer did not know what a Seldon crisis was and Mallow had to explain it to him, even though anybody who’d enjoyed a Foundation lay education would have known about Seldon crisises.

Like many golden age authors, Isaac Asimov wrote in more than one genre and was also a mystery writer. Now Asimov would not start writing straight mysteries until the 1970s and his 1953 science fiction crime novel The Caves of Steel is generally considered his first foray into the mystery genre. Nonetheless, many of Asimov’s early science fiction stories are structured like mysteries, even if the puzzle to be solved is “Why does this robot misbehave?” rather than a classic whodunnit. “The Big and the Little” is a good example, especially since there actually is a crime to be solved here.

But even if “The Big and the Little” is a science fiction mystery, it’s not a very good one. For even though Mallow’s deductions are all logical and make sense, the reader is not given the chance to make the same deductions, because they are not given the same information. Mallow might wonder how an escaped priest and an enraged mob come to show up at the largely deserted landing place of the Far Star, but the reader never learns that the area is deserted until Mallow tells us. Nor does Asimov ever mention that the fake priest’s robes are uncommonly new and clean, until Mallow decides to let us know. The incriminating tattoo comes completely out of nowhere as well. And the initial mystery of the vanished trader ships is resolved almost as an afterthought with a single line: “It was the Korellians using Imperial technology. Who else could it have been?” However, I do have to applaud Asimov for turning the incredibly awkward “As you know, Bob…” dialogue to explain what a Seldon crisis is into a vital clue to the central mystery.

Mallow is acquitted, since no crime was committed, and also elected mayor, since his political rival Jorane Sutt was revealed to have been plotting treason all along. However, there still is that pesky Seldon crisis to deal with, which finally arrives two years later, when the Korellian Republic declares war on the Foundation by attacking its trading ships with the much larger and more powerful Imperial dreadnoughts that Asper Argo, the well-beloved, managed to inveigle out of his father-in-law, the ambitious Imperial viceroy. If you’ve been hoping for a big space battle, you’ll be disappointed though, because once more Asimov keeps the action off stage and only gives us a short scene of a crewmen aboard a doomed trading ship getting his first glimpse of a gigantic Imperial warship.

Hober Mallow responds to the Korellians’ attack not by launching a counterattack, because this will only put the Foundation into the crosshairs of the Empire (which is what happens in the following story “Dead Hand”) and the Foundation is not yet strong enough to deal with the Empire. Instead, Mallow declares a trade embargo against the Korellian Republic. Then he sits back and waits until first the nuclear powered gadgets he sold to the Korellians break down and then the larger, industrial systems as well. And since Mallow knows that the Empire, though allied with the Korellians, does not have the technology to repair or replace the broken Foundation tech, he need only wait until the Korellian economy fails and the populace revolts.

“The Big and the Little” is the story which introduced me to the concept of economic embargos and the logic behind it. And as explained by Mallow, it all makes sense and neatly works out, too. There is no shooting and no bombing, the Korellians back down eventually and hardly anybody is hurt. Of course, reality is never quite so simple, but then the plot of the Foundation stories is always rigged in favour of the Foundation –until it isn’t.

Even though there is a Seldon crisis in “The Big and the Little”, Hari Seldon himself does not appear in this story. I assume that Seldon’s hologram does appear at some point to explain why Hober Mallow is right and Jorane Sutt is wrong, but for some reason we never get to see this moment. Instead, Mallow himself explains to his old enemy Sutt and his friend, sounding board and occasional nude sunbathing partner Ankor Twael that the Foundation will henceforth move away from conquest and domination via religion towards conquest and domination via trade. Sutt, a steadfast adherent to the old ways, is outraged, while Twael worries what will happen during the next Seldon crisis, when domination and expansion via trade stops being effective. Mallow agrees that his tactics will eventually cease working, but since it’s not likely that there will be another Seldon crisis in his lifetime (though Salvor Hardin got two), that’s a problem for someone else to worry about.

Foundation 1983 Panther edition

The 1980s Panther edition of “Foundation”, wherein I first encountered this story.

Upon rereading this story, I realised that I remembered very little about it apart from the scene with the glowing necklace and that this was the story with the economic embargo. Part of the reason for this may be that “The Big and the Little” (the title refers to the big but lumbering Empire and the small but nimble Foundation) is something of a mess. The story is long – at the upper edge of the novelette range – and somewhat disjointed. It almost feels as if Asimov – who was after all only twenty-four, when he wrote this story – bit off more than he could chew with “The Big and the Little”. Asimov juggles lots of plot strands – there is the central mystery of where the Korellians are getting their weapons from and what they’re up to, the political manoeuvring and backstabbing between the various fractions in the Foundation, the Seldon crisis and the shift in Foundation policy as well as setting up the conflict with the Empire, which will come to a head in the next story “Dead Hand” – so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t tie up all of those many plot strands in a satisfying manner. What is more, the four stories that make up the first book in the Foundation trilogy are mainly set up. The truly memorable Foundation stories – “The Mule”, “Now You See It…”, “…And Now You Don’t” – all come later in volumes two and three. If Asimov had never written another Foundation story after “The Big and the Little”, I doubt that the series would be remembered as fondly as it is today.

Isaac Asimov has always stated that the Foundation series was inspired by The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon and the parallels are certainly notable, particularly in the latter story “Dead Hand”. However, the Foundation series also bears strong parallels to the course of European imperialism and colonialism, which began with sending missionaries (though unlike the Foundation’s fake religion, the Catholic missionaries sent out by the Spanish and Portuguese empires were absolutely sincere) and eventually came to focus on trade. Like the Foundation, Europe’s colonial powers also exported trinkets and imported the raw materials they lacked. And just like Hober Mallow, people from the colonised countries were never quite viewed as real citizens, even if they had been educated in the colonising country. Finally, the tactics used by the Foundation are also eerily reminiscent of American postwar policy, where the US tried to dominate its sphere of influence both via trade and also via exporting its political, if not religious beliefs (and occasionally those, too, or how else did South Korea come to have a sizeable number of evangelical Christians?).

In fact, the thing that most struck me upon rereading the Foundation stories was how political the series is and how very much it is about imperialism, particularly the American variety thereof. Not that my younger self did not realise that the Foundation series was political, but I mostly viewed it as a blueprint for preventing/reversing social and technological decline (and I was very worried about this at the time, viewing every empty shop and every broken neon sign as a symptom for decline, because Hari Seldon points out broken neon signs as symptom for the decline of the Empire in Prelude to Foundation) and bringing about a better future. And indeed, there is something very seductive about the idea of the Foundation using its superior technology as well as every trick in the book to make the universe a better place and bring about a political aim that none of the characters will ever see.

This is the reason that so many politically interested people – figures as different as Paul Krugman, Newt Gingrich and Osama Bin Laden have all cited the Foundation series as an influence – have been inspired by the Foundation series, when they read it at a young age. I don’t even exclude myself there. My love for the Foundation series was the reason why I picked sociology as my secondary subject at university, because I wanted to do what Hari Seldon did, predict the future and find a way to make it better. Of course, I quickly figured out that it doesn’t work that way in reality and that psychohistory is far more fiction than science.

The Foundation series will always remain a classic of political science fiction. However – and this is something my younger self missed – the vision of politics the series presents is not necessarily a good one and the Foundation is not necessarily right.

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Retro Review: “The Wedge” a.k.a. “The Traders” by Isaac Asimov

Astounding Science Fiction October 1944“The Wedge” is a short story by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the October 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Most readers will probably know the story under its alternate title “The Traders”, which is how it appeared in Foundation, the first book of the eponymous trilogy.

Since “The Wedge” is one of the stories that make up the Foundation trilogy, perhaps a recap is in order, though Asimov, whose 100th birthday we are currently celebrating by remembering his accomplishments and personal faults, never gives us one, neither in the magazine nor in the book version. Still, for anyone who needs a reminder, here is the story so far:

Warning: Spoilers!

The Foundation started out as a group of scientists sent to the planet Terminus on the galactic periphery to compile an encyclopaedia and preserve knowledge at a time when the Galactic Empire was falling apart. However, the true purpose of the Foundation, revealed by psychohistorian Hari Seldon or rather his hologram, is to guide humanity through the dark age following the fall of the Galactic Empire, to reduce the length of that dark age from thirty thousand to a mere thousand years and to establish a second Galactic Empire, all following Seldon’s master plan.

Alas, the Foundation is still just a group of encyclopaedists on a small and poor planet, surrounded by aggressive neighbours who have declared themselves independent from the Empire. However, Terminus has atomic power (Asimov’s word choice) and its neighbours do not. And so Salvor Hardin, mayor of Terminus, creates an artificial religion called Scientism to bring and keep the neighbouring four kingdoms under the control of the Foundation.

Foundation

Cover of the Gnome Press edition of Foundation.

All this happened in the first two stories of what would eventually become the Foundation series, published in Astounding some two years prior in 1942. “The Wedge” is chronologically the third and by publication order the fourth Foundation story. It is set some fifty years after the previous story “Bridle and Saddle”. The four kingdoms are now fully under Foundation control thanks to the fake religion, but other planets have caught on to what the Foundation is doing and understandably want nothing to do with them. So the Foundation tries to spread its influence via traders who peddle atomic powered gadgets along the galactic periphery.

One of these traders of Limmar Ponyets (named Lathan Devers in the magazine version, but I will stick with the name most readers will be familiar with in this review) who has a hold full of unsold wares and problems making his quota. A call reaches him in the shower (literally) and a ship pulls alongside to deliver an important message that self-destructs upon reading – twenty-two years before Mission Impossible.

A trader named Eskel Gorov has been arrested on the planet Askone for attempting to sell atomic gadgets there, even though Askone has banned all Foundation traders and gadgets, because using atomic power is against their religious beliefs. Gorov is facing the death penalty for sacrilege and Ponyets is supposed to get him out. An additional complication is that Gorov is not a trader at all, but an agent of the Foundation whose mission it is to introduce atomic powered gadgets to Askone to soften up the local government to Foundation control.

Ponyets has a quite interesting backstory. It is implied that he was not born on Terminus, but in the four kingdoms and initially trained as a priest (and indeed a later story explains that most traders actually hail from the four kingdoms). But representatives of the Foundation recognised his intelligence and brought him to Terminus to be educated there. So, unlike most citizens of Terminus, Ponyets is actually familiar with the scripture and rituals of the Foundation’s fake religion. This knowledge will come in handy on his mission.

Fake religions, which are science in disguise, were a popular trope during the so-called golden age of science fiction. And since fake religion stories predominantly appeared in Astounding, I suspect this was one of Campbell’s pet subjects which he foisted on his writers. The early Foundation stories are probably the best known examples of this trope, but the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist Gather, Darkness by Fritz Leiber is another science as religion story and a most excellent one, too. Now Fritz Leiber actually did train as an Episcopalian priest and left, because he did not feel the vocation, even though the church wanted to keep him. These experiences influenced Gather, Darkness and Leiber’s hilarious 1959 story “Lean Times in Lankhmar”. And in fact I wonder if Leiber, whom Asimov must have known, wasn’t an inspiration for Limmar Ponyets, the failed priest turned Foundation trader.

On Askone, Ponyets meets with the local elders who imply that Gorov may be released, if Ponyets is willing to pay for his freedom. However, the Askonians have no interest in Ponyets’ wares. Instead, they want gold.

Ponyets has no gold – the Foundation had no particular interest in precious metals for their own sake. However, he uses his superior scientific knowledge to rig up a matter transmutator to turn iron into gold, which he demonstrates to the Askonian elders with great theatrical flair. The Askonians may hate atomic power and science in general, but they really love gold, so they are willing to turn a blind eye to where it came from.

Ponyets also exploits tensions inside the council of elders by setting up a private meeting with an ambitious council member named Pherl. Ponyets offers to sell the transmutator to Pherl, so he will have enough gold to finance his rise to power. Pherl knows that the religious taboos of his world are just superstition “for the masses”, but he has to pretend to adhere to them to avoid the gas chamber. Ponyets assures him that no one need ever know that he has the transmutator.

Pherl finally agrees. He purchases the transmutator and Gorov is freed. However, Ponyets has tricked Pherl and installed a camera in the transmutator. He then proceeds to blackmail Pherl by threatening to broadcast footage of Pherl using forbidden technology to the superstitious masses of Askone. This would mean certain death for Pherl, so he is forced to purchase Ponyets’ entire inventory. And so Ponyets not only makes his quota, but has also fulfilled both Gorov’s mission and his own by installing a Foundation friendly leader on Askone.

I first read the Foundation series as a teenager and was blown away by the sheer scale, the twists particularly in the later volumes and also by how the Foundation usually triumphs by using brain over brawn.

Foundation 1983 Panther edition

The 1980s Panther edition of “Foundation”, wherein I first encountered this story.

My memories of “The Wedge” were vague – I mainly remembered it as “the one with the gas chamber”, because several characters are threatened with execution by gas chamber, which disturbed my younger self a lot. Upon rereading, the gas chamber references are not nearly as prominent as I remembered. It also turned out that a vivid scene of Gorov being taken to the gas chamber, only seconds from execution, only existed in my mind. This occasionally happens for me with stories I first read as a teen – scenes I remember very clearly don’t exist, because my vivid imagination supplies the details.

As I reread the story, I also remembered Ponyets’ transmutation parlour trick and how much it impressed my younger self. Because I’d learned in chemistry class that it was indeed possible to turn mercury or lead into gold, but that it took a whole lot of power and the resulting gold was unfortunately radioactive (the Foundation has solved the latter problem, but not the former). In fact, radioactive gold was first synthesized from mercury in 1941 in an experiment that Asimov as a graduate student of chemistry would have been familiar with and that may well have inspired this story. The Foundation series is often called hard science fiction, largely because the stories originally appeared in Astounding, even though there is very little in the way of hard science in the series. The transmutation parlour trick in “The Wedge” is probably as close as the Foundation stories come to actual hard science fiction. And my younger self was very pleased to see something I’d heard about in chemistry class pop up in a science fiction story (so pleased that I even told my chemistry teacher about it) and used in such a clever way to trick a bunch of idiots.

The cleverness that pleased my teen self so much is still evident in the story when I reread it as an adult, because Limmar Ponyets is a very clever man who comes up with a very clever scheme to trick the Askonians. There is just one problem. Ponyets may be clever, but he’s also an arsehole and even admits it. After all, he quotes a saying attributed to Salvor Hardin, mayor of Terminus and hero of the first two Foundation stories, “Never let a sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

It’s a great line, which also serves as the epigraph of the magazine version of the story. But is what Ponyets and the Foundation are doing truly right? My teen self would probably have said yes. After all, the Foundation are the good guys here. They are trying to preserve civilisation and stave off the dark ages, even if I’d have preferred it is the ultimate aim of the Foundation was the creation of a Galactic Republic or Federation rather than an Empire. Still, if the Foundation has to use subterfuge and dirty tricks to fulfil that purpose, then so be it. Never mind that it is hard to feel sorry for the Askonians, because at least the ones we meet are all greedy and pompous idiots. And besides, the Askonians have gas chambers and obviously like to use them. As a matter of fact, Askone would probably be better off under Foundation control. After all, the Foundation has better technology, they are smart and they don’t have gas chambers.

Adult me can see that the Foundation is in the wrong here. Yes, the Askonians may be pompous, greedy and superstitious idiots, but they have made it very clear that they want nothing to do with the Foundation as is their good right (though I still disagree with the gas chamber threats. Just send Gorov back to where he came from and blast him out of the sky, if he comes back). It’s the Foundation which keeps violating the Askonians’ sovereignty and which clearly wants to take over Askone as it took over the four kingdoms. At least with the four kingdoms, the Foundation had the excuse of self-defence, since the four kingdoms were threatening Terminus. With the Askonians, they have no such excuse, because the Askonians are no threat.

No matter how noble the intentions of the Foundation are (and they only are noble, if you believe that Hari Seldon was right. Otherwise, the Foundation becomes a bunch of fanatics taking orders from a hologram), their methods of coercing other planets are wrong. Adult me also cannot ignore how strong the undercurrents of imperialism and colonialism are in the Foundation stories. Because the Foundation uses religion, trade (silly gadgets against various resources they lack) and force to take over other worlds – for their own good, of course – just like any real world coloniser. And just like the USA post-WWII in the real world, the Foundation has absolutely no qualms about meddling with the governments of sovereign nations. There are golden age stories which are critical of colonialism and imperialism – the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “The Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett is one example – but “The Wedge” is not one of them. The Foundation is always right, at least in the early stories (They are disastrously wrong in “The Mule”), and the narrative doesn’t invite us to question them or their motives.

But it’s not just the uncritical endorsement of imperialism that makes “The Wedge” and the other early Foundation stories feel dated. In fact, these stories were already dated when I first read them as a teen in the late 1980s. And so you’ll find people nonchalantly smoking aboard spaceships and a total lack of women. All five named characters are male and no women appear at all, not even as walk-ons.

But the most glaring issue to me was the uncritical veneration (in the most literal sense of the word) of atomic power in the early Foundation stories. Because when I first read those stories a few years after Chernobyl, nuclear power was viewed as a failed and extremely dangerous technology that needed to be phased out as soon as possible (By 2022, Germany will finally get there). Literally everybody in Germany who wasn’t either completely stupid or a rightwing politician (which was pretty much the same thing) was opposed to nuclear power, so seeing an organisation as smart as the Foundation endorsing it was jarring to say the least.

However, I had developed the habit of checking copyright dates by that point and could see that the Foundation stories were very old and had been published before the first atomic bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I decided to give Asimov a pass, because he couldn’t have known how dangerous nuclear power was. Of course, the dangers of radioactivity were well known even in 1944 – the radium girls lawsuit took place in 1927/28 – and as a graduate student of chemistry, Asimov would certainly have known about the dangers. And to his credit, Asimov made a sharp turn away from nuclear optimism after Hiroshima. Nuclear power is barely mentioned in the post-1945 Foundation stories and by the Galactic Empire stories of the 1950s, Asimov frequently described Earth as a radioactive wasteland.

“The Wedge” is one of the less memorable Foundation stories and coincidentally also the only one where Hari Seldon’s hologram does not appear, since a Foundation agent nearly getting himself killed trying to undermine the society of a neighbouring world apparently does not qualify as a Seldon crisis. “The Wedge” also displays several of Asimov’s trademark weaknesses such as bland characters and clumsy dialogue, though the latter isn’t as noticeable here, because the Askonian elders are supposed to be pompous. This story also shares the unfortunate tendency of Isaac Asimov to let his climactic scenes happen off stage. And so instead of showing us Ponyets confronting Pherl with filmic evidence of the latter committing sacrilege, Asimov just tells us about it by having Ponyets recount the events to Gorov after the fact.

In spite of the story’s obvious weaknesses, the plot of “The Wedge” still holds up seventy-five years later and I enjoyed the story upon rereading. “The Wedge” is still a clever science fiction story – albeit one that comes with a generous helping of the unexamined imperialism and colonialism that afflicts the entire Foundation series.

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Retro Review: “Terror Out of Space” by Leigh Brackett

Planet Stories Summer 1944

This scene does not actually appear in the story.

“Terror Out of Space” by Leigh Brackett is a science fiction novelette, which appeared in the summer 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. You can find the story online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The story starts with the protagonist, an officer of the Tri-Worlds Police, Special Branch called Lundy (no first name given), in a fistful of trouble. He’s flying solo through the clouds of Venus, desperate to deliver his cargo to a destination he will never reach.

Gradually, we learn that a mysterious alien lifeform has crash-landed on Venus and caused a wave of madness. For this mysterious alien lifeform is telepathic and appears to every heterosexual male as the most desirable woman ever. However, no one has ever looked into her eyes and lived to tell the tale. Apparently, the alien has zero interest in heterosexual women or gay people of any gender. Lundy and his partner Jackie Smith have been tasked with capturing one of those alien lifeforms and delivering it to a group of scientists for analysis. They got lucky and managed to apprehend both the creature as well as its latest victim, a man named Farrell.

At the beginning of the story, the creature is locked in a safe aboard Lundy’s ship. Lundy also drugged and strapped down its victim, though not before Farrell managed to knock out Jackie Smith. And so Lundy is flying solo, while Smith is unconscious and Farrell is screaming his lungs out in the hold.

When Farrell falls suspiciously silent, Lundy goes to check on him and finds that the man has torn himself loose from his restraints, the straps cutting his flesh to the bone. The gravely injured Farrell demands that Lundy let the creature out of the strongbox, because “she” is afraid of the dark. Lundy refuses only to find himself looking into the barrel of Jackie Smith’s gun, for Smith has also fallen under the creature’s spell.

The resulting fight causes the craft to crash into the Venusian ocean. Only Lundy survives – Farrell succumbs to his injuries and Smith drowns, an expression of horror frozen on his face. The safe is open, the creature gone.

So Lundy puts on a pressure suit, grabs some meds and oxygen tanks and decides to walk across the Venusian ocean floor to the destination he was trying to reach. This trek across the ocean floor is a highlight of the story. Atmospheric descriptions of alien worlds are one of Leigh Brackett’s great strengths as a writer and she employs it to the fullest here, offering up vivid and nigh psychedelic depictions of the Venusian ocean floor, complete with ruined underwater cities and flesh-eating monster flowers. On the way to one the former, Lundy nearly succumbs to the latter, but just as the flowers are about to devour him, he is rescued by a group of telepathic Venusian kelp people.

The friendly kelp people tell Lundy that they live in a nearby ruined city. The kelp people are all female, because the males abandoned their partners to follow a mysterious women who passed through. Lundy recognises the creature’s handiwork at once. The kelp women ask Lundy for help to rescue their menfolk, because the kelp people are periodically besieged by creatures they call the Others who prey on them. The women know how to keep themselves and their seedlings safe, but the men are so besotted by “her” that they are sitting ducks.

Lundy, being a heroic type, at once promises to help the kelp people. Besides, he sees a chance to finally apprehend the creature, which has caused so much pain and misery. However – and this is something you would never find in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction – Lundy also has doubts whether he is up to the task, whether he will be able to resist the creature, when Jackie Smith, Farrell and the kelp men all succumbed to “her”. Just as Lundy is scared much of the time during his trek across the ocean floor and his pursuit of ‘her”. Nonetheless, he is going to bring “her” in or die trying.

Things come to a head, when Lundy tracks the kelp men and the creature to the heart of the ruined city. He manages to catch the creature inside a net and promptly finds himself assaulted by the kelp men who are desperate to free “her”. But lacking human hands, they cannot. At the same time, the Others – also kelp beings, but vicious, cannibalistic ones – attack. Leigh Brackett is not the first author who comes to mind when thinking of aliens who are truly alien – she was simply more interested in humans than aliens. The kelp people, the creature and the Others are some of the more interesting alien beings in Brackett’s fiction.

Lundy knows that the kelp men are so focussed on freeing the creature from the net that they are easy prey for the Others. So Lundy does the very thing he’d been terrified to do, he telepathically communicates with the creature, telling her that he is the only one who can free her, but that he won’t, unless she lets the kelp men go.

The creature obeys and just in time, too, for the Others are almost upon them. The kelp men escape. Lundy tries to hold off the Others with his blaster and finally hides in one of the ruined houses. He finds himself trapped in a Venusian execution chamber together with the creature, while the Others are swarming outside. Worse, Lundy’s oxygen supply is getting low.

The creature tries to persuade Lundy to let her go, but he lets her know in no uncertain terms that he will never let her go after what she has done to Jackie Smith and Farrell and so many others. Now Lundy – and the reader – finally gets to see “her” in the form of a small, naked and angelically perfect woman. Her eyes, however, remain hidden for now. In many ways, “she” reminded me of the alien angel from Edgar Pangborn’s debut story “Angel’s Egg”, which appeared seven years after “Terror Out of Space”.

Though exhausted and high on stimulants, Lundy still manages to resist “her” and asks the creature at one point why precisely she drives men crazy and eventually kills them. The creature does not understand. The men worship her and it’s nice to be worshipped. Nor does she understand the meaning of death, because in deep space, where her species lives, there is no such thing as death. On Venus, however, the creature is not immortal, because she cannot withstand the gravity. Sooner or later, it is going to crush her.

Once Lundy understands the creature’s motivations, he makes a deal with “her”. Lundy will make sure that everybody knows her story and that she will be remembered and yes, worshipped, as a hero, if she leads the Others away from Lundy and the kelp people into a convenient nearby undersea volcano. The creature agrees because dying while being worshipped and remembered is better than dying in a net and forgotten.

So Lundy lets her go free and she goes off to fulfil her part of the deal. However, Lundy makes one fatal mistake. He asks her to let him look into her eyes. And once he does, he finally understands why Jackie Smith died with an expression of pure horror frozen on his face. Because behind her eyes, there is nothing.

Sea Kings of Mars by Leigh Brackett

I first encountered the story in this Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks collection.

“Terror Out of Space” is a fairly uncommon Leigh Brackett story. Her talent at writing action scenes and evocative descriptions of alien landscapes is evident here, but both protagonist and plot are quite unlike Brackett’s usual work. For starters, Leigh Brackett’s protagonists tend to be outsiders and even outlaws, people living on the margins of the future society she depicts. Lundy, on the other hand, is an officer of the Tri-Worlds Police, Special Branch. Interplanetary police officers occasionally show up in Brackett’s stories, but mostly they are faceless antagonists who pursue her outlaw heroes. Lundy is one of only two sympathetic representatives of the official authorities of the solar system I have ever encountered in Leigh Brackett’s fiction. The other is Eric John Stark’s mentor and surrogate father Simon Ashton, who appears briefly at the beginning of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” in 1948 and less briefly in the Skaith trilogy of the 1970s.

Regarding the plot, “Terror Out of Space” is very much a hunt for an alien monster tale, which is not a type of science fiction story that Leigh Brackett wrote very often. There is something almost Lovecraftian about the idea of a mysterious creature that drives men (and only men) mad. But whereas the creature would have remained unknowable in a Lovecraft story, while the protagonist succumbs to madness, Lundy remains sane long enough to negotiate with the creature and learn about her real motives. “Terror Out of Space” certainly has its share of moments of horror – Farrell, who cuts himself to the bone trying to escape and bleeds to death, the dead Jackie Smith with an expression of nameless horror frozen on his face, the alien plantlife trying to devour Lundy and of course the beautiful woman with nothing where her eyes should be. Nonetheless, “Terror Out of Space” is not a science fiction horror story like John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” or H.P. Lovecraft’s “Color Out of Space”.

It is also unusual for a Golden Age story that the alien creature is not so much evil, but misunderstood and has no idea about the damage she is causing. Just try to imagine what this story would have been like, if it had been published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. For starters, Lundy would never have been allowed to have doubts and fear, even though this sets him apart from the stereotypical square-jawed heroes of the Golden Age. And the creature would have been unambiguously villainous, only to be outsmarted by superior human intelligence. But then, Leigh Brackett had stopped publishing in Astounding by this point, having found a more sympathetic audience for her brand of science fiction in Planet Stories.

Of course, Leigh Brackett, whose penchant for femme fatales is well known, could not resist turning even her very alien antagonist into a femme fatale. And not just any old femme fatale either, but the ultimate femme fatale who literally drives men of any species mad with a single look into her eyes.

When reading “Terror out of Space”, there is never any doubt that this is vintage science fiction. Whether it’s the vivid description of an ocean covered Venus that never was or Lundy’s old-fashioned rocketship, complete with an autopilot named Iron Mike who is a literal robot or the aggressive heterosexuality of the creature, it is always very obvious that we are reading a story that’s seventy-five years old. However, “Terror Out of Space” is also dated in other less obvious ways. For example, the medication Lundy takes along on his long trek across the Venusian ocean floor is a drug called Benzedrine, which left me puzzled, thinking, “But isn’t that the trade name of an allergy medication?”

It turns out that I got the names mixed up (I was thinking of Benadryl, which is indeed an allergy medication) and that Benzedrine was an early amphetamine, which actually was used as a nasal decongestant, before people figured out that it also was a very effective stimulant. In the 1930s to 1950s, Benzedrine was widely used, both by soldiers in WWII as well as by scientists, mathematicians, writers and artists who used it to focus, stay awake and be more productive. And considering the conditions under which pulp fiction writers worked, sometimes cranking out one or two short novels per month, it’s obvious why a stimulant like Benzedrine would be popular. And indeed, Wikipedia has a long list of references to Benzedrine in pop culture.

So a science fiction reader in 1944 would have known what Benzedrine was and what its effects were at once, whereas I – reading the story seventy-five years later – had to look it up. Leigh Brackett also namedrops another drug, Avertin, which Lundy uses to sedate the raging Farrell. I initially assumed Avertin was a made up name, but when I googled it, I found that Avertin is the trade name for an anaesthetic called tribromoethanol, which is still used in veterinary medicine today and which was used for humans in the first half of the twentieth century, before safer substances were developed. So again, a reader in 1944 would likely have known what it was.

The story provides enough context that it is obvious what these drugs do, even if – like me – you have never heard of them. Nonetheless, the takeway here is that a science fiction writer should never assume that something ubiquitous in your day will still be recognised by latter day readers, let alone in whatever future you depict. And indeed, when mentioning medication (which occasionally comes up in the In Love and War stories in particular), I never use real brand names, but either make up a name or just describe what it does.

I’m also very glad that the many references to drug use you can find in science fiction from the Golden Age all the way through the New Wave and beyond went completely over my head, when I read these stories as a teenager (not “Terror Out of Space”, but other stories by Leigh Brackett). Because I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy those stories, if I had realised how drug-soaked many of them were. For back when I read them in the late 1980s, it was a serious topic of debate among my friends whether it was morally acceptable to consume art that had been produced under the influence of drugs. I resolved the issue for myself by declaring that none of my favourites would ever as much as look at drugs – after all, they were science fiction writers and should know better (Yes, I know. I was very naïve) – so the question was moot. When I saw a documentary about Hollywood on TV and some fellow held up a bag of what he claimed was cocaine and said every movie or TV series produced in Hollywood was made by mediocre people under the influence of cocaine, I was utterly crestfallen and depressed, because it that were true, it would mean no more US movies or TV shows ever. In the end, after an avid discussion with friends, we decided that the man in the documentary must have referred to dull Hollywood movies, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Terms of Endearment, Basic Instinct and the like, that nobody liked anyway.

Among Leigh Brackett’s extensive oeuvre, “Terror Out of Space” is one of the more obscure stories. It hasn’t been reprinted very often – once in 1959 in an anthology of Venus stories edited by Donald A. Wollheim and then not again until 2005 in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition Sea Kings of Mars and Other Stories, which is also where I encountered it. But while “Terror Out of Space” is fairly obscure and also atypical for Leigh Brackett, it is nonetheless a fine and entertaining story, featuring some of the more interesting alien creatures of the Golden Age.

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Introducing the 1945 Retro Hugo Spreadsheet and Retro Science Fiction Reviews

Anybody who has been following this blog for a while will know that I have been occasionally frustrated with the Retro Hugo Award finalists and winners, because all too often, people seem to be voting and nominating based on name recognition rather than quality and so we see weak works by big names get nominated or even win, while lesser known stories and authors are ignored.

Part of the problem is that while we have excellent crowdsourced recommendation systems for the current year Hugos such as Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom or the HugoAward Nominees Wiki, there is nothing of that sort for the Retro Hugos. So I thought, “Why don’t I start an open recommendation spreadsheet for the Retro Hugos?”

I was actually planning to do this last year, but then I caught the flu and was out of commission for much of the nomination period and in the end could barely get my own nominations done in time.

But the idea lingered in the back of my mind and so I decided to create a recommendation spreadsheet for the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards. You can find that spreadsheet here.

If there is a 1944 work of science fiction, fantasy or horror you feel is missing, please add it to the spreadsheet. The more of us contribute, the better. Also, please spread the word about the 1945 Retro Hugo Award spreadsheet. You can use this handy shortlink: http://bit.ly/RetroHugo1945

And if you’re wondering what is eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards, Paul Fraser of SF Magazines has you covered with this overview of 1945 Retro Hugo eligible fiction, complete with links where to find the works in question.

Another problem with the Retro Hugos is that while there are plenty of reviews for current works out there, which help us to find works we enjoy and may want to nominate, reviews of older SFF, particularly older SFF from a specific year, are much thinner on the ground. So I decided to do my part and review works eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos at this blog. And if I could persuade others to do the same, we might manage to offer a good overview of eligible works to potential Retro Hugo nominators.

Then I thought, “Why not have a dedicated site for reviews of Retro Hugo eligible works? I could crosspost my own reviews there and link to those of other people.” And this is how Retro Science Fiction Reviews was born.

Right now, there is only an introductory post over there. The first review will go up tomorrow both here and at Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Of course, I am only one person and obviously cannot review everything that came out in 1944. Not to mention that there are many works and whole fields I don’t know very much about. And like everybody I have my own biases. There are authors and works I just don’t care for.

Therefore, I need your help. Have you reviewed an SFF work that came out in 1944 and is eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos? Then mail me a link to your review or leave it in the comments. Would you like to review a 1944 work and don’t have a place to post your review? You can also mail me the whole review and I will post it over at Retro Science Fiction Reviews, giving you credit, of course. You can contact me at cora(at)corabuhlert.com.

So let’s work together to improve the Retro Hugos.

 

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First Monday Free Fiction: Shelter

Welcome to the January 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.

After the End - Stories of Life After the ApocalypseIt’s winter in the Northern hemisphere or at least it’s supposed to be, so this month’s free is a wintery tale called “Shelter”, which may be found in the post-apocalyptic collection After the End – Tales of Life After the Apocalypse.

So follow graduate student Ryan, as he trudges across a frozen future Earth in search of…

 

 

 

Shelter

Ryan had been walking for seven days, when he found the ships. They were just sitting there, smokestacks, masts, radar antennae, bridges, even whole decks jutting from the massive ice layer that covered much of the Northern hemisphere.

For decades, humanity had worried about climate change and global warming, engaging alternately in denial and aimless action just for the sake of it. What hardly anybody — well, hardly anybody except for a few scientists to whom no one listened anyway and a few bad disaster movies no one took seriously — had foreseen was that even as the average global temperature steadily rose, parts of the Earth nonetheless got colder. A lot colder.

And so — while humanity was still arguing whether climate change was real — the thermohaline circulation in the oceans gradually slowed and finally shut down altogether. The Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift grew steadily weaker and finally broke off. The Northern hemisphere experienced an increase in severe weather events, super-blizzards and the like, until it was finally left buried under a thick layer of ice that never melted.

All that had started a long time ago and had already been in full swing when Ryan was born, on the battered, but still inhabited South Coast of England. After three winters in a row that lasted from September to May, Ryan’s parents had enough of it all and emigrated, like so many others, to more temperate climes. And so Ryan had grown up in Morocco, until the encroaching ice layer had forced him to relocate even further south, to Senegal, as an adult.

But even though most of the Northern hemisphere and its major population centres were long lost to humanity, people still mounted expeditions into the frozen North, to check if there were any changes, if the ice layer was still growing thicker or perhaps thawing again or if there was anything up there to be salvaged.

As a graduate student at the University of Dakar, Ryan had joined one of those expeditions. These days, an expedition into the frozen North was a rite of passage, something every aspiring academic had to do on the path to doctorate, post-doc work and eventually tenure.

Besides, to be perfectly honest, Ryan had been curious what the home of his first three years on Earth, a home of which he only had vague memories of snow, hail, rain, storms and waves crashing against a grey and grimy shore, looked like today.

Okay, so the South coast of England wasn’t even the destination of the expedition, that was Denmark. But it was close enough for Ryan, especially since Northern Europe was just a featureless ice desert with the occasional very high mountain and the even more occasional very tall building poking through.

There had been thirteen of them at the start of the expedition — and yeah, maybe the fact that thirteen was an unlucky number in Western lore should have warned them. Because after three weeks of normal progress — as normal as progress through an ice desert at subzero temperatures even at the height of summer could be — it had all gone wrong.

Their expedition of thirteen had just passed Frankfurt, a city in Germany or rather what was left of it. For nowadays, what had once been Frankfurt was marked only by the tops of skyscrapers poking out from the ice layer. Apparently, so one of senior professors explained, Frankfurt had once been a financial and business centre, so it had rather a lot of skyscrapers.

But unfortunately, the uneven ground due to the skyscrapers also caused crevasses to form. And one such crevasse had claimed the entire expedition — professors, post-docs, grad students, dogs, snowmobiles, tents, provisions, equipment, com systems, everything — leaving behind only Ryan with a single barely adequate shelter, a rifle with some spare ammunition, provisions to last him maybe a week and no way to call for help, since all the radios and com systems had fallen into the crevasse along with the rest of the expedition.

That left Ryan only with two options. One, lie down and die, and two, go on and try to find provisions, shelter and a way to call for help.

And since Ryan had never been one to give up, he chose option two and went on, alone. He continued to follow the expedition’s original course, at least as far as he could replicate it with only a compass and no functioning GPS to aid him.

He’d never make it to the rendezvous point, of course, not unless he could find extra provisions along the way. But if anybody decided to look for the missing expedition, once they failed to check in, they would do so along the original course, which increased Ryan’s chances of rescue.

But there was no rescue forthcoming, no spotter planes flying past overhead. There was nothing but ice, ice and even more ice. So either no one was bothering to look for the missing expedition or they’d tracked them to their last known location, found the crevasse and deduced that there was no one left to rescue, that all members of the expedition were dead. Either way, Ryan was on his own.

For six days, he trekked across the ice, pulling along a little makeshift sled. Occasionally he came across manmade structures poking out of the ice. The tops of communication towers mostly, since they’d generally been the tallest structures around. But even though Ryan tried to coax some of the antennae back to life, it was to no avail. The com towers and their antennae were long dead.

On the seventh day finally, when the last of his provisions had run out, and Ryan was facing a slow death by starvation, he came upon the ships and a new hope for salvation.

The ships had piled up haphazardly, almost as if they had drifted here, abandoned by their crews to the ice. Though the fact that there were ships suggested that he’d reached what had once been the North Sea coast by now. Not far from the place where he’d been born then, which would make this a fitting place to die.

But Ryan wasn’t dead yet. And if he could find shelter and provisions aboard one of the frozen wrecks, he wouldn’t die for a good while yet. And if he found a radio and managed to coax it to life again, he might even be rescued.

But first things first. And first, Ryan had to decide which wreck to try. He finally selected the biggest one he saw, a gigantic boxlike ship that loomed high above the featureless ice desert. It was the logical choice, really. Better to scale the outer hull above the ice than descend down a smokestack into hell knew what.

So Ryan deployed his gear and began to climb. It was a long and laborious climb, for the vessel’s frozen steel hull was near vertical and jutted a good forty meters out of the ice. There were no windows or portholes either, just smooth featureless steel. The lettering on the vessel’s stern proclaimed her to be the MV Aniara, registered at Stockholm.

Ryan feared that he would have the climb up all the way to the weather deck, but he got lucky and came across a cargo ramp that hadn’t been fully folded up and allowed him to enter.

Inside the vessel it was pitch dark and the descent down the cargo ramp was steep. Once he reached the bottom, Ryan activated his pocket torch.

Inside the belly of the great vessel, he found deck upon deck of cars, antique cars of the kind he’d seen in old movies from before the great freeze. His friend Paul, who was a car buff, would have been delighted. There were trucks, too, and busses, farm and construction equipment and even two bright red fire engines just like the ones in the movies of his youth. What he didn’t find, however, was anything in the way of food.

He even tried breaking into some of the cars — though it pained him to destroy such perfectly preserved antique artefacts — to see if he could scrounge up anything to eat. Alas, the cars were all brand-new, up to that distinctive new vehicle smell still preserved after forty or fifty years trapped in the ice.

Okay, so the Aniara had obviously been a vehicle transporter once, but she still had to have a crew. There hadn’t yet been any fully automatic vessels at the time the Aniara got trapped in the ice. And where there was a crew, there had to be food.

After trudging up nine decks of cars, cars and more cars, Ryan finally reached the weather deck, carrying what seemed to be gigantic wind turbine blades. And at the far end of the weather deck, beyond the blades, loomed the bridge and the crew quarters and sanctuary.

The crew quarters were deserted, though the cabins still had beds and blankets and even the occasional discarded magazine and dead flower pot, suggesting they’d been left in a hurry.

Ryan also found the galley, which — praise the Lord — still held some food. Whatever fresh food there had been was useless, long rotted away in dead freezers that had been intended to preserve it. But there were still dry foods, noodles, rice, beans, as well as cans of vegetables, tuna and corned beef, jars of pickles and jam, bottles of ketchup and Sriracha, orange juice, Coke and beer. Ryan gathered everything edible together and had a feast that night of baked beans and corned beef with a dash of Sriracha, cooked over a fire he’d built from some crates he’d found in the galley, washed down with beer. Sure, the beer had gone stale in the past forty years or so, but it was still beer.

That night, he slept in a real bed for the first time in four weeks, in what had once been the captain’s cabin. In the movies, the captain always got the best cabin, so Ryan figured it had probably been that way in real life as well.

The next day, he went to explore the Aniara’s bridge. Even though the vessel was old, it still had radar and GPS and computers and communications equipment, all long dead unfortunately. Though he did find a handwritten note that the vessel had been en route from Baltimore to Bremerhaven, when she got trapped in the freezing North Sea and had to be abandoned.

Ryan spent an hour or so sitting on the floor of the bridge, lamenting that his last best hope had evaporated to nothing. Sure, he had found some provisions, but he was still stranded in the middle of an icy nowhere with dead communications equipment and no power to coax it back to life again.

For the vessel’s engines were dead, had been dead for decades. On the other hand… he was on a vessel full of cars and trucks. And cars and trucks had batteries. And some of those batteries might still be usable, if he was lucky.

Ryan spent most of the next day pulling ancient batteries from antique cars, batteries that were so much punier than the ones he was used to, for the majority of the cars and trucks and assorted construction equipment aboard the Aniara were still gasoline or diesel powered, which seemed like a colossal waste of resources. But then, if the people of old had been less wasteful, this would still be the port of Bremerhaven rather than an icy desert studded with trapped ships.

Hooking up the batteries to the Aniara’s com system took up most of the next day, but after endless hours of work, the radio finally came to life with a burst of static. Another twenty minutes of fiddling with frequencies and settings, hoping that the batteries would not die on him, and Ryan finally hailed Agadir, northernmost outpost of civilisation in this post-freeze world.

It would still take several days for rescue to arrive, of course. But until then, the Aniara would shelter and feed him just fine.

He’d made it. He was safe at last.

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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