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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (peractorum memoria)

Bitten by the Nostalgia Bug

Way back in 1995, the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) published Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories about The People. Now, twenty five years later (!) they have published Believing which contains all the stories she wrote that aren’t about The People. Goodness me, what a long time we had to wait…

NESFA publications tend not to go out of print so at long last everything that Zenna Henderson ever wrote is now available in two very handsome (though rather expensive) books. Despite the price, I urge you to invest in them both. Zenna Henderson was a wonderful writer. Sadly she seems to have fallen into obscurity now, but there was a time when a new Zenna Henderson story was something that a lot of people looked forward to greatly. I know, for I was one of those people.

Many of the stories in Believing are about children (though not all the children are human). In real life(TM) Zenna Henderson was a school teacher. As far as I know, she had no children of her own but her professional experiences gave her a brilliant insight into the way that children think and feel and as a result these stories are peculiarly touching and believable.

It’s half a century or more since most of her stories were written and perhaps they might feel a bit dated and old fashioned to modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, I admire them hugely. They are filled with wonder and with joy about the way the world works and, even though Zenna Henderson repudiated her own Mormon inheritance, they often have a deeply religious feeling to them.

Zenna Henderson was a feminist writer long before there was such a thing as feminism – perhaps she could be thought of as a proto-feminist. Unfortunately, some feminist critics have dismissed her stories because they disapprove of the gender stereotypes that Henderson often writes about, but I think that by simply taking her stories at face value, these critics are rather missing the point. Henderson was a clever and subtle writer. Sometimes it is the very nature of the gender roles played by her characters that brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. For example, the critic Farah Medlesohn, who clearly admires Zenna Henderson just as much as I do, pointed out that in the story "Subcommittee", Henderson uses stereotypical gender roles to emphasize how feminine communications and interests can directly influence the choice between peace and war. And you don’t get to make many bigger decisions than that…

The story is about Serena. She is married to a general who is attempting to achieve some sort of peaceful reconciliation with a warlike alien race. Serena, who is present at the negotiations, befriends an alien mother and her child. Because they have a mutual interest in "women's things" like cooking and knitting, Serena finds out that the aliens need salt in order to guarantee the future of their species. The peace negotiations her husband is conducting are deteriorating in a mess of mutual misunderstanding, much to the general’s despair, until Serena interrupts a meeting with her revelation. She proposes a solution, which is accepted. In other science fictional hands I suspect the story would have quickly degenerated into armed conflict with the aliens (that’s still a popular theme even today), but "Subcommittee" is much more concerned with resolving the conflict than it is with gearing up for battle. It is precisely because of the characters' gender roles that the final plot twist is able to bring the story to its resolution. That’s really rather cleverly subversive, if you think about it.

I am very, very pleased that Zenna Henderson’s stories are now all back in print.

Somehow I never got round to reading Gregory Benford’s Galactic Centre novels when they were first published. I’m not quite sure how I missed them – I’d read and enjoyed several other Gregory Benford novels – but somehow the Galactic Centre stories passed me by. However I’m starting to catch up. I’ve just read the first novel in the series, In The Ocean Of Night.

It’s a fix up novel built from several self-contained pieces that originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the mid-1970s. The plot can be summarised by saying that Nigel Walmsley, an astronaut, has several encounters with alien technology and/or alien life. The devil, of course, is in the details. How well does Gregory Benford describe these encounters, and what can Nigel make of them? I think that Benford scores very highly on both these points. The alien technology is cleverly described and Nigel is brilliantly characterised (though it has to be said, he is not a very nice person and seeing the world through his eyes is sometimes rather painful).

The novel is clearly heavily influenced by the ideas of the New Wave writers who were particularly prominent at the time the novel was being written. That, of course, immediately biases me in its favour. As a consequence of that influence, although its subject  is intrinsically "hard science" there is still a lot of exploration of the psychological impact of the alien technology. Inner space was very important to the new wave writers and even though Benford is writing about outer space, he still takes their manifesto seriously.

For some odd reason, Benford, who is American, has chosen to cast Nigel Walmsley as an Englishman, albeit an Englishman who has spent some time living in America. Benford claims that he based the character on several transplanted Englishmen that he’d worked with over the years. But whatever the inspiration, I felt that he succeeded brilliantly in bringing Walmsley believably to life. Certainly I was convinced. Walmsley’s use of language was very believably British and so were his attitudes. All in all, I felt that In The Ocean Of Night was an excellent read and I’m sorry that I missed it the first time around.

Non-Stop was Brian Aldiss’ first SF novel. It was originally published in 1958 and I don’t think it’s ever been out of print. A recent incarnation of the book is as part of the Gollancz Masterworks of SF series, so it has certainly stood the test of time. I was  in my early teens when I originally read it and I remember enjoying it a lot. The story was about a generation starship and it was the first time I’d ever encountered that idea. My mind was completely blown. But it’s been a very long time since I was a teenager and I’ve read goodness only knows how many SF stories since then. Consequently, these days I seldom, if ever, read a book with the same sense of wide-eyed wonder that once I did. So when I recently came across yet another edition of Non-Stop I got curious. I wondered how well it had survived the years. Would I still find it an entertaining read or would the years have taken away its original thrill? Not to keep you in suspense, I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed this book the second time around just as much, if not more, as I enjoyed it the first time. I remembered the rough outline of the plot but the details had long since vanished from my mind and it was a great pleasure to discover them all over again.

The Greene tribe live in cramped Quarters hacking down the flourishing plants known as ponics (the derivation of that word is obvious – even thirteen year old me understood that clue right from the beginning) which threaten to take over the corridors. Marapper the priest is convinced that the people are all living in a vast ship and, together with Roy Complain, he sets off to the area known as Forwards where he hopes to find the mythical control room. Along the way the party encounter many mysteries and have disturbing encounters with giants and outsiders and mutants…

All the questions that are raised in the early part of the novel are eventually answered, though none of the answers turn out to be what the reader might expect them to be. It’s all too easy for writers of stories about generation ships to fall into the trap of predictability – after all, the confines of a spaceship do rather limit the development of complex plots – but Aldiss skilfully avoids that trap and the revelations about what is really going on in the ship are original, thrilling and quite unexpected. The novel is a guaranteed page turner and I suspect it is the very best generation ship novel that has ever been written or that ever will be written. I guess that means that you can call it definitive. It certainly deserves its reputation as a classic.

I have long maintained that Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (first published in 1872) is the very best vampire story ever written. It scared the willies out of me as a child and so when I came across a BBC audio presentation of it I couldn’t wait to find out if the story was still as powerful as I remembered it being. Spoiler alert: is most definitely is!

Despite the book being a BBC production, it is not a dramatisation. It’s just a straightforward reading of the story. I settled down for a spine chilling evening with it (it’s a very short book, a novella rather than a novel).

The story is narrated in the first person by Laura, the daughter of a rich English widower. They live in an ancient castle deep in the wilds of "Styria" (from context, Styria is obviously somewhere in Austria or perhaps the Balkans). Through a curious circumstance, they are joined in their isolation by the eponymous Carmilla. She is soon revealed to be a vampire and we later learn that she is several hundred years old and her real name is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein (Carmilla is a rather obvious anagram of Mircalla – shades of the later Dracula/Alucard playfulness...). Carmilla’s relationship with Laura is partly vampiric and partly sexual, lasciviously described and deliciously frightening.

The family is joined by Baron Vordenburg, the descendant of a man who long ago exterminated most of the vampires in the area. Using his forefather's notes, Vordenburg locates Mircalla's hidden tomb. The body of Millarca/Carmilla is exhumed. She lies in her coffin immersed in blood. She is breathing faintly, her heart beating, her eyes open. A stake is driven through her heart, and she gives a corresponding shriek; then the head is struck off. The body and head are burned to ashes, which are thrown into a river.

Laura is taken on a long tour across Europe to aid in her recuperation from the trauma of her relationship with Carmilla. But she never fully recovers…

Carmilla was published a quarter of a century or so before Bram Stoker’s more famous Dracula and there is no doubt that Carmilla had a huge influence on Stoker’s novel. Stoker’s Van Helsing is simply Le Fanu’s Baron Vordenburg in a skin and Carmilla herself appears, thinly disguised, as the vampiric sisters encountered by Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s character Lucy could easily take the part of Le Fanu’s Laura and I doubt that it is a coincidence that both characters names begin with the same letter.

All the elements that make up this story are overly familiar to modern readers. We’ve been exposed to them so many times in so many, many stories. That, of course, makes it extraordinarily easy to simply dismiss Carmilla as just a collection of vampiric tropes. But that’s only true in the same sense that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can (jokingly) be dismissed as just a collection of famous sayings. Looked at with the benefit of hindsight, both can be criticised as clichés as long as you keep your tongue firmly in your cheek. But it’s important to remember that Le Fanu (and Shakespeare) did it first and they did it best. Without Carmilla we could never have had Twilight. That may or may not be a good thing…

I’ve read a couple more of Max Allan Collins novels about the private detective Nathan Heller. The gimmick of the series is that the fictional Heller finds himself embroiled in investigations of actual real life crimes. This gives Collins a chance to show off his historical erudition (and the depth of his research) and it also allows him to suggest alternative explanations for what actually happened. If you want to stretch a point, you could almost call the stories science fiction in the sense that, if you squint a bit, Collins’ stories are clearly definable as belonging to the genre of alternative history.

The previous novels in the series dealt with crimes and criminals that are world famous (the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby for example). But the two novels I’ve read this month both deal with rather more obscure events. Carnal Hours is about the murder of Sir Harry Oakes in the Bahamas in 1943 and Blood and Thunder is about the assassination of Huey Long in 1935.

I’d never heard of the Harry Oakes murder and I was only vaguely aware of Huey Long. I knew he was some kind of American politician and I knew that he’d been assassinated but I knew absolutely nothing about his life and times. I suspect that Huey Long might be rather more well known in America than he is in the rest of the world because he was a Presidential candidate and therefore he had a large amount of national exposure in the newspapers and on the radio. But outside America, Huey Long and the scandals that swirled around him are almost completely unknown. I must confess that I had to look up both of these events in order to confirm just how closely Collins had stuck to the historical record and I found that his semi-fictional explanations of what he claims was really going on to be very plausible indeed.

The murder of Harry Oakes is probably only of interest because when it happened there were strong rumours that the Duke of Windsor, the ex-King Edward VIII of England, was closely involved in it. Remember, the year was 1943 and England was at war with Nazi Germany. The Duke of Windsor had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas. Partly this was to keep him safely away from the fighting and partly it was because the British Government wanted him to stay as far away as possible from England so as to minimise the effect of his strongly expressed Nazi sympathies. It remains unproven whether he actually was involved in the Oakes murder, but the evidence in favour of it is strong and Collins only has to tweak the story a tiny, tiny bit to make the Duke’s involvement sound very plausible indeed. Speaking as an Englishman with an interest in history, I found the speculations in the novel to be utterly fascinating.

Huey Long (nicknamed the Kingfish) was probably the closest thing to a socialist that the mainstream American political system has ever produced. He promoted tax schemes designed to redistribute the wealth of the country so as to guarantee what these days we would call a universal basic income for everybody. He also proposed to implement free college education, old-age pensions for all, a guaranteed one month vacation every year for all workers and a maximum working week of thirty hours. All very laudable goals. He was shot to death in 1935 and originally his death was blamed on a lone gunman. But later it came to be accepted that the gunman had missed his target (if indeed he ever even shot his weapon at all) and that Long was actually killed by a stray bullet from the gun of one of his bodyguards as they fired at the supposed assassin.

Collins’ novel comes down firmly on the side of the "stray bullet" theory and he makes it sound even more plausible by providing very good reasons for the presence of the lone gunman none of which have anything to do with assassination. Collins also suggests that it was extremely unlikely that the man ever wanted to shoot the Kingfish at all, though he did perhaps want to punch him in the mouth!

Both novels paint perfect portraits of their historical eras and characters. Collins has done a brilliant job of bringing some very obscure events alive, making them vibrant and exciting, making the reader actually care about what is going on. The Nate Heller books are truly very, very clever novels indeed.

Zenna Henderson Believing NESFA Press
Gregory Benford In The Ocean Of Night Orbit
Brian W. Aldiss Non-Stop Gollancz
J. Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla BBC Audio
Max Allan Collins Carnal Hours Signet
Max Allan Collins Blood and Thunder Signet
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