Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944 edited by Mary Gnaedinger

Famous Fantastic Mysteries ran from 1939 to 1953 as primarily a reprint magazine.  It was originally published by the Munsey Company to feature the many speculative fiction stories they’d published over the years in their non-specialist magazines like Argosy, to cash in on the now thriving SF magazine market.  They’d had many fine stories over the years, such as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and had new art commissioned for the stories from excellent artists, especially Virgil Finlay.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

At the end of 1942, Munsey sold the magazine to Popular Publications, which changed the reprint policy to only stories that had not appeared in magazines before.  They also switched the magazine to a quarterly schedule for the duration of the war.  So the March 1944 issue was still early in their new policy, and the letters column reflects this, with several readers still arguing “no magazine stories” was a bad idea.

Back before internet archives, interlibrary loan, or even “Best of the Year” collections, tracking down a particular half-remembered story was an exercise in frustration, so this reprint magazine was a godsend and sold well.

This issue has only two long stories (short novels), but they’re both indeed famous.  Cover honors go to G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.”

Syme is a philosophical policeman, part of a secret unit of Scotland Yard.  As ordinary police officers deal with ordinary crime, a philosophical policeman deals with philosophical crimes that threaten to corrupt or destroy society.  After a debate on what constitutes true poetry with a man named Gregory, Syme finds himself in a position to infiltrate the controlling council of Europe’s anarchist conspiracy.  But has he bitten off more than he can chew, and who or what exactly is the remarkable Mr. Sunday?

As the subtitle suggests, the story runs on dream logic, and has many nightmarish qualities.  The pursuer who moves slowly but cannot be escaped, the eyeless face, and the story’s biggest twist, which is famous but I won’t actually spoil in this review just in case.

Chesterton was a fervent Catholic, and his depiction of Anarchism as a philosophy may not be entirely accurate or fair.  But it still leads to some hilarious moments in the person of Gregory, who tries to disguise himself as authority figures only to fail because he can only act out the negative stereotypes he has of them.  And this moment, which commentators on the internet will surely identify with…

“I am afraid my fury and your insult are too shocking to be wiped out even with an apology,” said Gregory very calmly.  “No duel could wipe it out.  If I struck you dead I could not wipe it out.  There is only one way by which that insult can be erased, and that way I choose.  I am going, at the possible sacrifice of my life and honor, to prove to you that you were wrong in what you said.”

While the story starts out mostly plausible, the events become more and more unlikely, until the final scenes are almost hallucinatory.  We finally learn most of the truth about Mr. Sunday, or at least what he wants us to know about him.

Some of the story’s digs at society may take knowledge of pre-World War One English culture to fully appreciate, but as an extended philosophical jest, it’s amazing.

“The Ghost Pirates” by William Hope Hodgson is about a sailor named Jessop, and the strange events aboard the ship Mortzestus.  He hears even before shipping out on her whispers that the boat is ill-starred, but it’s going the direction he wants, and paying well.

At first, the rumors seem unfounded, but soon odd things are happening.  There are too many shadows, some not cast by any living thing.  Secured items become unsecured when no one is looking, and the sails behave as though there is wind, even when the air is calm.

When the ship is past the point of no return, the weird happenings turn dangerous, and then deadly.  The ship has lost sight of its course, and there are shadows following it in the water….

Mr. Hodgson was a sailor himself for several years, and the story is soaked in authentic detail and nautical terminology.  Having a dictionary handy for some of the obscure terms is recommended.  For those who love sea tales and ghost tales, this is a well-told treat.

Both of these stories are in the public domain, and can be found free on the internet, or in your library.

The magazine also has a tribute to Abraham Merritt, who had long been a mainstay of its pages, and had recently passed away.

Book Review: A Far Sunset

Book Review: A Far Sunset by Edmund Cooper

Paul Marlowe is apparently the last survivor of the Gloria Mundi, a starship commissioned by the United States of Europe to explore the Altair star system. The fifth planet of Altair turned out to be inhabitable and inhabited by humanoid aliens, but the crew of the Gloria Mundi vanished in clumps. Marlowe and the remaining members were captured by the native Bayani, and while they were held, the ship self-destructed as a security measure.

A Far Sunset

Now known as Poul Mer Lo, the stranded Earthman must find a way to survive in an alien civilization, and find a new purpose in life. He has many ideas he could use to uplift the primitive Bayani, but his attempt to introduce the wheel results in 137 deaths, and Enka Ne, the god-king who has tolerated Poul Mer Lo’s presence, is soon to pass on.

Paul Marlowe must gamble everything he has left on an expedition to the Temple of the White Darkness, seat of the god Oruri. Are the secrets there worth the cost?

This 1967 novel posits the use of cryogenic suspension to make starships viable by 2012 (and also to treat mental illness!) The Americans and Russians (_not_ the Soviet Union, despite naming their ship the Red October) launch their own expeditions, which are irrelevant except for spurring the USE to put together the Gloria Mundi. Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands each contribute a married couple to the crew; psychologist Paul marries medical doctor Ann as an arrangement so they’ll be eligible. Hilariously, the wedding is broadcast on Eurovision.

During their waking times on the twenty-year voyage, Paul and Ann get along okay, but Paul never falls in love with her. That, and his belief that he is now a widower, means that Poul Mer Lo doesn’t feel terribly guilty about availing himself of the services of Mylai Tui, a former temple prostitute assigned by Enka Ne to be his servant. For her part, Mylai Tui mentions more than once how impressed she is with her master’s large thanu, and wants to bear his child to prove her worthiness.

The narrative smacks more than a little of colonialism, with the cultured Englishman stranded among dark-skinned natives who desperately need uplifting by his superior technological and cultural knowledge. He even assumes a position of power in their government by the end. By comparison, the sexism is downright subtle; Mylai Tui’s character arc is far more about “native servant worships English master” than about “woman is subservient to man.”

The highlight of the book is the perilous voyage to the Temple of the White Darkness, and Marlowe’s meeting with Oruri. It turns out Earth is not the first planet to send expeditions to Altair Five, and reading between the lines, the destruction of Atlantis might have been the best thing that ever happened to the human race. This section is exciting and full of wonder.

While the book is not badly written, it’s not well written enough to overcome the colonialist attitudes embedded in the narrative; I would not recommend it except to someone who’s studying pro-colonialist literature in speculative fiction.

 

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

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