Today’s trip to the vault brings us two science fiction stories from 1962 both written by women and both being contemporary snapshots of their era. But that’s about all they share. The first, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant, is pitched as melodrama. The second, “The Glory of Ippling” by Helen M. Urban, is pitched more as satire. I’ll put links to each at the bottom of this post. Both are worth the few minutes they take to read.
First up, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant. Spoilers abound.
The artwork “by Schelling” hooked me before I even started the story. It’s like a still from a black & white TV show or soap opera or even an episode of Mad Men. The teary-eyed woman, clutching her handkerchief, the indifferent man with his horn-rimmed glasses, the décor in the background, all of it looks less like science fiction and more like a day-time television show. All before the story even starts. Interesting.
The story itself is about one Lucilla “Lucky” Brown, a secretary for a Los Angeles advertising firm. Lucky seems to have everything going for her at least as far as her boss and coworkers think. So why then does she leave the office at 4:30PM three days a week to see a psychiatrist? No one can believe it let alone explain it. Especially not junior executive Paul Chapman who all fall and winter was very interested in Lucky Brown, but by spring and summer wasn’t interested in anything much at all.
Well, turns out Lucky is telepathic and has been all her life. As a child she found great joy in this, but then her parents taught her to be ashamed of her ability. After that she managed to mask her powers from herself by simply believing herself “lucky”. For years that worked. But then she and Paul Chapman had to work together on an advertising campaign and while they seemed so sympathetic in so many ways, the outcome led to collapse for both of them. During the campaign, while doing project research, they read old pulp science fiction magazines, and Lucky found great comfort in their stories of people with fantastic powers, but Paul derided and mocked them. This made that old shame return. Only now it was worse. It brought nightmares of isolation and despair with it. Hence her trips to Dr. Andrews.
This is that sort of science fiction story I believe we are supposed to find uplifting, but which, mainly because I’m a horrible person who likely was hugged the wrong amount as a child, I can’t help but read as both sinister and too treacly sweet. The reason Lucky is going to see Dr. Andrews is because she feels shame that she’s different. Except the different she feels is of that sort that makes her special and there by better than the people around her. I know that’s absolutely not Constant’s intent, but that’s me. It’s absolutely valid to write the stories that reflect the world you wished existed or provide you with those connections you feel you lacked. But those aren’t the stories I like.
On to the “Glory of Ippling”!
Helen M. Urban’s “The Glory of Ippling” is also set in the world of 1962 California, but the vision it shows is one of wrestling events, burlesque parlors, and advertising gone rampant. It’s less Mad Men and more Mad Magazine and quite possible to read as a lampoon of a certain UFO cult that still exists to this day. All of which makes it almost the exact opposite of “The Sound of Silence”.
In “The Glory of Ippling” the Ipplings are a vast space empire of superior elitists who come across as caricatures of 19th century Austro-Hungarians. They’re big into uniforms and the excellence of their way of doing things. One of their number, one Boswellister who received his post less by skill and more by his social connections, has been sent by the Ipplinger Cultural Contact Group to make contact with humanity. Unfortunately Boswellister is finding it hard-going as humanity is a craven superstitious species, beholden to sensation whether in the wrestling ring or on the stripper’s runway.
When he finally does manage to get our attention, we see him not as the superior specimen of an intergalactic empire he absolutely believes himself to be, but as a salesman pitching a new product. The UFO technology, the dazzling lights, it’s all just more spectacle to get people to buy something. When Boswellister fails to produce the requisite “free samples” a riot ensues, forcing Boswellister and the rest of the Cultural Contact Group to abandon their mission and flee Earth.
This is a very silly story, but a quite fun one that delights in skewering pretensions. It’s a story where everyone is not simply ugly, but absurd. Humanity is absurd. The superior Ipplings are absurd. Especially Boswellister, Boswellister is extremely absurd. He is that guy who calls everyone else sheeple, prides himself on his logic, and laments the vulgarity of the modern world while harassing sex workers. If Boswellister had only waited until 2016. The USA would have elected him president.
Here’s the link to “The Sound of Silence”.
The next Yesterweird read will be Plague Ship by Andre Norton. If you like these sort of reads please consider supporting my Patreon.
The first two are from December and can stand in for my favorite reads from December 2018 post.
Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman: Lamat is a mountain guide and Disaine is a religious woman come to climb the sacred mountain. A really marvelous piece of fantasy writing that does away with a lot of the grand epic storylines of modern fantasy to focus down on the personal and philosophical.
Semiosis by Sue Burke: Classic science fiction of the First Contact sort where the human colonists must figure out how to communicate and survive with an intelligent and arrogant plant. Also, weirdly, has a heavy undercurrent looking at parenting and partnering styles.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Everything changes for a quaint New Hampshire town when a mysterious auctioneer arrives. Soon people are giving away all their prized possessions so as to profit from the auctions, but the trouble keeps ratcheting up because the Auctioneer always wants to sell more. The scariest book I read this year.
Black God’s Drum by P. Djeli Clark: Fun alternate history fantasy adventure novel. A young pick-pocket in the Free City of New Orleans overhears a group of Confederate dead-enders plot to abduct the Haitian scientist responsible for the construction of Haiti’s deterrent super weapon. From such beginnings pulp adventures are born!
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: I read a few Eric Ambler novels this year, and I loved all of them. This one might have been my favorite because the protagonist, a sleazy taxi driver caught up in a criminal plot, is the most interesting. I also recommend A Coffin for Dmitrios.
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: A story about an elderly midwife and her apprentice living on the margins of a rural English village in the 1960s. It’s a deep dive into a small setting that’s almost folk horror but not quite. Highly recommend it.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: The Hong Kong gangster kung fu fantasy novel I didn’t know I needed until I read it. This was a ton of fun. And with the sequel set to come out in 2019, I’m eager to learn what happens next.
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: In the aftermath of a terrible intergalactic war, the galaxy’s intelligent species have decided they will instead settle their disputes through a musical contest much like the Eurovision contest of our world. Now it’s Earth’s turn to perform, and if we lose our planet is doomed.
Silent Hall by NS Dolkart: A fantasy novel about a world with very active gods and how awful that is for all. This reminded me a lot of the sort of fantasy I devoured in the 1980s, David Eddings, Weiss and Hickman, except Dolkart’s able to update that style with self-awareness to make it appeal to a more contemporary audience. I need to read the sequels.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymir by John Crowley: A story about a crow that’s sort of immortal as he lives on the margins of our world and watches human civilization develop. Bleak and beautiful.
The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington: A non-fiction history book that’s the biography of a single man, Franz Schmidt the 16th century executioner in the German city of Nuremberg. The portrait of Schmidt that emerges is that of a man of honor and integrity in a time and place that hardly warranted either.
An Unhappiness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A science fiction novel set onboard a generation ship and as is usual with that subgenre, everything that can go wrong does go wrong so the society that emerges is a horrible one. But despite all that, the book’s not one you can look away from.
A last nod to 2018 with a sunrise picture from December 30th.
Things published this past year:
“Periling Hand” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies: A story about a guy, a take-out delivery guy, dealing with his shit, on an alien planet where people harvest pollen using living tractors and they make alliances with intelligent stone circles that might or might not be about to fight a civil war amongst themselves. Basically, a mumble-core space western.
“A Ghost Can Only Take” at Reckoning: Not a story but an essay about walking in the grand tradition of “a person takes a walk and won’t stop talking about it” style of essays. (Although heaven forbid you actually go for a walk with them and try to have a conversation then. No. No. That is forbidden.) Strange thing about this essay is that I could keep writing and writing and writing it, because landscape is always happening. Whether it’s cyclically changing with the season or evolving as development occurs, landscape is not a steady state and not even memory can capture it. The latest issue of this magazine is out now.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you have a Happy New Year.
Back when I read Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and did a chapter by chapter read through marveling at all its marvelous WTFry I thought it would be fun to do more of that. And if you liked that, then you’ll be happy because I’ve decided 2019 will be the year when that happens. Or maybe you won’t be happy, because it’s going to be on Patreon.
For a bit now my wife and I have been talking about using Patreon, she for her comics and me as a tool to keep me motivated and focused on my writing goals. And while I’m not at that brave stage where I’m comfortable sharing drafts of stories I’m working on and all that, I am certainly okay with louding off about old weird books. So that’s going to be the tent pole at first for my foray into Patreon. This blog’s going to remain the place where I post my favorite reads every month and whatever else I feel like.
So without further to do. . . announcing Yesterweird, a book club slash review site where I’ll make regular dips into works available for free online (mostly at Project Gutenberg). To start I’ll be looking at a trio of old science fiction novels, the first one being this radioactive pill of a 1950s YA novel, RIP Foster Rides the Gray Planet. After that my plan’s to write about some of Andre Norton’s space opera stuff and John Joseph Astor IV’s 1894 planetary romance novel A Journey in Other Worlds. Astor was like the Elon Musk of his day and supposedly the richest man to die on the RMS Titanic.
So support to follow along and read sentences like “he liked his war how he liked his equations. Cold.” Or just to find out why I thought that sentence was funny. And if you pledge at the 5-dollar level you can even decide what I’ll read next. If you’ve wanted to know more about some painful old tome, but never wanted to take the time to actually read it now’s your chance to make me do it!
Yes, launching a Patreon where I blog for loose change in January is our era’s version of the going to the gym more often New Years resolution, but so what? That’s what I’m doing. It could be worse. I could be writing this to announce that I’m launching a podcast.
Had the first session of a new D&D campaign. I’m running it with 5e using Jack Shear’s Krevborna setting. Like all good campaigns do, the first session started in an inn…
I pretty much rely on three opening scenarios to bring an adventuring party together: escape from jail, shipwreck, or solve a murder. Here I was using the latter. Having read some on the Gumshoe system I used the simple rule that the players will always find the clue. Their dice rolls will only determine how clear the information they learn is.
So far there’s only three players. There’s the fighter from a (vampiric) family of Lamasthu nobles who had once been the vessel for a demonic power. Another former soldier from Lamasthu who had witnessed his village destroyed. And a bard escaping the criminal underworld of the nearby city Piskaro. In the middle of the night a murder occurred. The innkeeper and his family brutally slain. The culprit? A guest in the inn. The suspects:
- A gambler and his body guard
- A farmer and his son
- A much less likable farmer
- A merchant
- A beggar woman prone to visions
- An old priest and a young acolyte
Most everyone had a secret. The merchant was having an affair with the innkeeper’s wife and had been seen going downstairs in the middle of the night. The unlikable farmer was a lookout for a bandit gang. The beggar woman had the serving girl’s crushed skull in her bag. The young acolyte was actually a woman in disguise on the run from her family. And there was a dead soldier in the barn.
Things happened. Unexpected things.
The gambler and his bodyguard were designed to be a bandit/thug encounter, but the party negotiated with them. Sort of. One of the fighter players came upon the pair robbing the inn’s till and instead of trying to stop them let them go. The other fighter got attacked by the devourer without knowing where it was coming from. And the bard did a decent job playing detective.
The real culprit? An intellect devourer that was using its ability to hop from skull to skull. It made an attack or two against the party without them realizing what was going on except they felt their skulls being crushed. Its goal was to get inside the priest’s skull and leave the inn. But to do that it had to leave a trail of dead bodies behind it. The merchant, the two adult farmers, and the priest all wound up getting taken over by the devourer with the requisite scenes of player character interrogating one of them only to have the suspect’s head suddenly explode as the devourer fled to another occupant.
Combat against the devourer proved rough. One fighter got knocked out and the other failed a fear check and proved less than effective.* In the end the bard’s spells proved more valuable than either fighter in fighting a creature resistant to so many attack types. Now the player’s have agreed to replace the priest as the acolyte’s escort to a nearby abbey in the marsh.
Next game scheduled for Sunday.
* Invariably the player who writes the longest backstory about what a bad ass they are will not roll above a 10 on a D20 for at least 75% of the adventure.
This is another fable sparked by class conversation. I’ll assume most of you will be familiar with the frog in the well story. Here’s my treacly version of it.
So there were three frogs that grew up living at the bottom of a well. They lived there all alone happy to know nothing about the outside world. One day after a rainstorm the water in the well rose to the point where the frogs could see the outside world. They saw the sky. They heard the birds. They could smell all the smells in the fields around the well. So they decided to jump out and see this new world. It was a lot to take in. Some of it good. Some of it bad. They were stunned. The flies were bigger than the little flies they got down where they lived at the bottom of the well. The world was louder and less muffled than what they’d heard in the dark below. And the sun was so much brighter than they expected.
Suddenly a bird landed directly in front of them. It was a tall long necked long legged crane with eyes like glass pellets and a beak as sharp as a knife. The frogs had never seen a creature like this before, and could do nothing but stare up at it in awe. It bent down and in one great big gulp swallowed the center frog whole. Just like that their friend was gone. The frogs fled. One jumped back down the well. The other jumped into a nearby pond. Which frog do you think was better off: the one that went back into the dark below, where he was safe, but closed off all alone, or the one that jumped into the pond that found a way despite the dangers to live in the wide open world?
Chuggachug-chugging along towards 2019… who knows what awaits?
Here’s my favorite reads from November.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: This was scary as all hell. Unrelenting and harrowing where the entropy dial is twisted all the way to 11 and the bad stuff keeps happening and the stakes keep ratcheting upward. To be honest I had to put the book down for a bit because I found it too unrelenting. The story’s about a New Hampshire town that finds itself falling under the influence of an out of town auctioneer with big plans for the community, but first he just needs to make some changes to the place. This was Samson’s only novel before she died from cancer. I’m happy to see it back in print.
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed: A weird secondary world novel set in the aftermath of what feels to be the equivalent of the Great War. Lt. Benjamin Braddock managed to survive the war that saw so many of his companions dead, but the ghost of his commanding officer and friend still haunts him. Even more so when Braddock starts taking over that friend’s life. What I liked about this book was that Braddock’s a nobody and his predicament is completely personal. As his friend’s family begins to groom him to replace their dead son, Braddock starts seeing the ways honor can be a curse as much as a gift. That in the end Mohamed zags when I wishes she would have zigged doesn’t take away from how fun the trip was.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark: This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in an alternate 1880s where the Civil War ended in a stalemate, New Orleans is a free state, airships ply the skies, and several Caribbean nations gained their independence by harnessing the powers of the former slave population’s African gods and goddesses. If it had only half those things I might have skipped it, but since it had all those things (and more!) I was hooked.
When a young pickpocket overhears a group of confederate terrorists conspiring to kidnap the Haitian scientist who harnessed the storm god’s power, she sets out on a mission to save the scientist.
Provenance by Ann Leckie: I eventually warmed to Leckie’s Imperial Radch series despite the amount of hype that had accumulated around them, which isn’t the books’ fault at all. In particular the second one, Ancillary Sword, was a fascinating example of military SF, except focusing on all the boring parts of the military like doing garrison duty in a peaceful allied nation. Provenance calls to mind that book. It’s a stand alone novel about history and identity and being from somewhere It’s also filled with quirky little details like how every human culture has their preferred drink and complains when they go to another culture and have to accept other drinks. Like think how much people argue about pizza today, now imagine if every planet in the solar system had multiple styles of pizza. There’s also a good bit in this about parenting, bad parenting in particular.
When Ingray frees a convict from prison to pretty much impress her adoptive mother, it sets in motion events that will see her having to stop the invasion of her planet.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht: A spy novel! A lesbian coming of age novel! A story of imperialism and disillusionment. How exciting! Vera Kelly’s a CIA operative in mid-1960s Argentina monitoring student activists and suspected communists. Vera’s also a teenage girl in 1950s Maryland coming to terms with her crush on a classmate and her failed suicide attempt.
When a coup occurs and one of her contacts betrays her, Vera finds herself trapped without any way of coming home, but also unsure where her home is. This was smart like a good Graham Greene novel mashed up with a Nancy Drew novel.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard: A science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by vietnamese cultures legends. Yên’s a failed scholar bartered away to the dragon Vu Côn by her elders in order to pay for the dragon’s intervention in healing a higher class child’s illness. Yên expects nothing but death at Vu Côn’s hands, but instead the dragon has a job for her, to tutor her two unruly children.
A lot’s made about sense of wonder in speculative fiction and how there’s a lot less of it now than before, to which I have to ask what the hell people are reading, because I find no end of examples of it. And this book would be a go-to example of it. De Bodard’s descriptions are vivid, not simply lush, but dazzling. Wonder (and terror and yearning) abound in this book.
… and that’s all until next time.