Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Retro Review: "Citadel of Lost Ships" by Leigh Brackett



The finalists for the 1945 Retro Hugos will be announced tomorrow. But for now, I'll continue to take a look at some of the finalists for previous years of Retro Hugos. And today, I'll continue with a story that was not the best story on the ballot, neither in its respective category nor by the respective author, but that I nonetheless found extremely interesting and that I found myself thinking about a lot more than about many of the other Retro Hugo finalists of that year.

The story in question is "Citadel of Lost Ships", a space opera novelette by Leigh Brackett that was the cover story of the March 1943 issue of Planet Stories and was a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

Roy Campbell, the protagonist of "Citadel of Lost Ships", is a typical example of the outlaw heroes Leigh Brackett was so fond of. He is also explicitly described as dark-skinned, even if cover artist Jerome Rozen portrays the character as white and blonde and a deadringer for Doc Savage as portrayed by Walter Baumhofer.

At the beginning of the story, Roy has narrowly escaped the Spaceguard and found refuge with the Kraylens, a tribe of native Venusians who have taken him in before. But there is trouble brewing in this peaceful Venusian paradise, for the exhausted and injured Roy is woken by war drums in the middle of the night.

Roy finally gets the story of what is going on from his Kraylen foster father. It turns out that oil, coal and other minerals have been discovered in the Venusian swamps near the Kraylens' home. And now the Terran-Venusian Coalition government is planning to take possession of the Kraylens' land to drain the swamps, drill for oil and mine the coal and other minerals (we wonder if the appropriately named Terran Exploitations Company is involved). The Kraylens will be resettled into reservations, where tourists can gawk at their primitive lifestyle. Understandably, the Kraylens are not fans of this plan. "We will die first," Roy's foster father says.

Roy wants to help the Kraylens. After all, they gave him a home when he needed one and hid him from the authorities several times thereafter. But Roy also sympathises with the Kraylens' plight in more ways than one, for we learn that he comes from a family of farmers who had been working the same plot of land for more than three hundred years, until they were displaced by a hydroelectric dam, victims of the same idea of progress and expansion that will now claim the Kraylens and their way of life.

Luckily, Roy has an idea. The travelling space station Romany, the titular "Citadel of Lost Ships" since it has been assembled from abandoned spaceships, has been offering refuge to those displaced by the imperialist expansion of the Terran-Venusian Coalition for a long time now. And Romany just happens to be in orbit around Venus, so maybe they can be persuaded to take in the Kraylens. It is worth a try at any rate.

So Roy sets off for Romany, narrowly evading yet another patrol ship on his way there. When he reaches the space station, he isn't exactly given a warm welcome. The communications officer, a young black man from Mercury called Zard, treats him coolly and his boss, an Earthman called Tredrick, blows him off and tells Roy that Romany cannot help the Kraylens and that he shall leave. However, shortly after Tredrick has broken contact, Roy receives a message from Zard telling him to dock at one of the ships that make up Romany. Because, so the young man tells him, there are some who still consider Romany a refuge.

Roy docks as instructed and is promptly knocked out by a one-armed Martian named Marah, who mistakes him for a spy for Tredrick. Once that misunderstanding has been cleared up, Roy learns from Marah and a human telepath named Stella Moore what is going on aboard Romany.

It turns out that Romany is on the edge of a civil war between those like Stella, Marah and Zard who want to continue living according to their own code and help those in need, even if it pisses off the Coalition government, and a group led by Tredrick and the station council who want to stop interfering with the Coalition's plans in exchange for better trading rights and constant orbits. Tredrick's fraction is about to move against the rebels when Roy blunders in.

Stella promises Roy that the rebels will rescue the Kraylens. In exchange, Roy promises that he'll stick around and help the rebels – for the Kraylens' sake and because Roy sympathises with the rebels and their cause.

Romany is a fascinating setting, an assembly of spaceships whose interior not only houses members of many different races, but also mimics their natural environment, i.e. the Venusian quarter has swamp vegetation, while the Titanian quarter has ice caves. Sadly, Leigh Brackett never revisited Romany, though it's spiritual descendants still abound in science fiction, ranging from Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine to Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets, from the Valérian and Laureline comics and the recent film adaptation by Luc Besson.

The rebels are planning to take a ship and rescue the Kraylens, but before they can get there, they find their way blocked by Tredrick and his men. Tredrick informs everybody that Romany cannot help the Kraylens, not anymore, because the Kraylens have already been imprisoned for harbouring the dangerous criminal Roy Campbell. And even though Roy used a false name, when contacting Romany, Tredrick knows that he is aboard the station and warns everybody who helps him of dire consequences.

The rebels pretend to comply with Tredrick's orders, while Stella and Marah help Roy escape. Roy manages to make his getaway just before the Spaceguard arrives, which leads to yet another chase, as the Guard ships pursue Roy and his ship. Roy's ship is fatally damaged in the resulting firefight. Roy himself is badly wounded, but nonetheless he gets into a spacesuit and steps out of the airlock. He hides among the debris of his damaged and dying ship – a manoeuvre that Roy's spiritual descendant Han Solo would use again some thirty-seven years later in The Empire Strikes Back, the original screenplay of which was also penned by Leigh Brackett – and then uses the jetpack of his spacesuit to descend to Venus. Of course, Roy would have gotten burned up upon entering the atmosphere, but pulp space operas don't care about such inconvenient scientific facts.

Back on Venus, Roy meets up with Marah, Stella and their motley crew of alien rebels, who took a ship from Romany to rescue the Kraylens. Together, they head for the Venusian city of Lhi, where the Kraylens have been imprisoned.

However, Tredrick pre-empted their move and has put the Kraylens under heavy guard. But one of the rebels, a man from the Jovian moon Callisto, uses his magical harp to put the guards to sleep. But when Roy and his friends free the Kraylens, Tredrick himself shows up with more guards. A firefight erupts and Roy and Stella find themselves face to face with Tredrick himself.

Now we briefly get Tredrick's motivation for turning on his own people. Tredrick explains that even though he was born on Romany, he was never happy there and didn't care for the freedom Romany offered, since that freedom also meant poverty. So Tredrick decided to rise through the ranks, take over Romany and make a deal with the Coalition government to ensure prosperity for all. Roy and the Kraylens as well as Stella, Marah and the rebels stand in his way, so Tredrick decided to use the Coalition forces to get rid of them.

Roy launches himself at Tredrick and the two men engage in a furious fight. But Roy is weakened from his injuries and therefore he is losing. Just as Tredrick is about to kill Roy, Stella intervenes and uses her telepathic abilities to kill Tredrick.

Roy tells Stella to lead the others to safety. He will stay behind and take the blame for the death of Tredrick and the escape of the Kraylens. Because, so Roy tells Stella, the Coalition government needs a scapegoat for what happened on Venus. And if they cannot use Roy as a scapegoat, they will go after Romany. And Romany has no chance against the combined might of the Terran-Venusian Coalition. But if Roy sacrifices himself, Romany gets to remain free.

"You're wonderful," a tearful Stella tells Roy, "I didn't realize how wonderful."

Roy promises Stella that he won't be in prison for long and that he'll escape. He also says that he hopes Romany will remember him and maybe erect a statue in his honour, because he will be back. Then he waits to be arrested, while Stella flees with the Kraylens.



"Citadel of Lost Ships" is exactly the kind of glorious and thrilling pulp space opera that Leigh Brackett excelled at. However, the story also has a strong undercurrent of social criticism. Now a lot of Leigh Brackett's early stories were critical of imperialism and capitalism and often featured marginalised protagonists. "Citadel of Lost Ships", however, features Leigh Brackett in full social justice warrior mode.

Stylistically, "Citadel of Lost Ships" is very much a story of its time. It's set in the pulp science fiction shared solar system and its full of the usual anachronisms such as finned rocket ships, people smoking in space and Roy Campbell surviving re-entry in a spacesuit. On the other hand, "Citadel of Lost Ships" is exactly the opposite of the prevalent stereotype of golden age science fiction. "Citadel of Lost Ships" couldn’t be further from the ideals of Campbellian science fiction (and John W. Campbell did not publish it – Malcom Reiss of Planet Stories did). Furthermore, the themes Leigh Brackett tackles – the impact of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, the treatment of indigenous people, the sacrificing of people in the name of progress – are all themes that science fiction is still grappling with today.

The humans of the Terran-Venusian Coalition are clearly the bad guys jere and the story is very concerned with the treatment of what Roy Campbell calls “the little people”, many of whom are aliens who – in a genre tradition that would last well into modern times – stand in for various marginalised groups in the real world. The plight of the Kraylen is clearly intended to criticise the treatment of Native Americans – and let’s not forget that the Wounded Knee Massacre took place only twenty-five years before Leigh Brackett was born, while the last conflicts between Native Americans and representatives of the (white) authorities happened within Brackett’s lifetime, i.e. those events were still very much within living memory, when “Citadel of Lost Ships” was published. Romany, the name of the space station, refers to the Romani people and indeed, Stella explains at one point that the station and its inhabitants are welcomed as traders but otherwise “hated, just as gypsies [Brackett’s word choice, not mine] always are.” This is not the only time that the Romani people feature in Leigh Brackett's stories of the golden age either. "The Jewel of Bas", published a year later, also features a heroic Romani protagonist.

Roy Campbell's father losing the family farm to a hydroelectric dam project, an event which psychologically scarred Roy and set him on the path towards crime, also echoes actual events of the time the story was written. Because the 1930s and 1940s were the age of the great hydroelectric dam projects in the US like the Hoover Dam (then still known as the Boulder Dam) or the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. These hydroelectric dams displaced (and were still displacing when the story was written) farmers, families and sometimes whole towns in the name of progress. It’s very difficult to find critical voices about the Tennessee Valley Authority Act or the Boulder/Hoover Dam even today (the displaced farmers and flooded towns are usually just a footnote), so to find one in 1943 is quite remarkable.

Furthermore, people are still facing displacement due to hydroelectric dams and strip mining operations today, whether it's the historic Turkish town of Hasankeyf about to be flooded by the waters of the river Tigris due to the Ilisu Dam or the people of the Garzweiler and the Lausitz regions in Germany who have lost or are still about to lose their homes to lignite coal strip mining, even though lignite coal is extremely harmful to the environment and will be phased out in the next ten to twenty years anyway. So the issues addressed by "The Citadel of Lost Ships" are not in the distant past – they're still current today.


Roy Campbell is one of my favourite Leigh Brackett characters. In many ways, Roy Campbell feels like a prototype for Eric John Stark, who would come along six years later. Like Stark, Campbell is a man of colour, like Stark he does not fit into regular human society, like Stark he found a home with an indigenous tribe, only to lose it again, when those indigenous people were displaced and slaughtered in the name of progress. But while Eric John Stark is generally a good man, Roy Campbell is probably the noblest character Leigh Brackett ever created, even though Roy sees himself as anything but a hero. I also doubt it's an accident that this noble outlaw and hero of colour shares a surname with the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a man who would become infamous for his reactionary views regarding race, gender and politics. Was this Leigh Brackett's way of giving John W. Campbell the finger?

In many ways, it's a pity that Brackett never revisited Roy Campbell. Did he manage to escape from the prison mines of Phobos (in the pulp science fiction shared solar system, moons are inevitably prisons)? Did he even go to prison in the first place or did the Coalition authorities just shoot him, because the whole affair was too embarrassing? Did Roy get that statue and did he ever get to see Stella again? We'll never know.

Roy Campbell also sums up the point of the story on the final page, when he says:
“They’re building, Stella. When they’re finished they’ll have a big, strong, prosperous empire extending all across the System, and the people who belong to that empire will be happy.
“But before you can build you have to grade and level, destroy the things that get in your way. We’re the things – the tree-stumps and the rocks that grew in the way and can’t be changed.
“They’re building; they’re growing. You can’t stop that. In the end it’ll be a good thing, I suppose. But right now, for us…”
So much for the claim that the golden age was unpolitical and all about fun science fiction and/or that the science fiction of the time promoted the unquestioning belief in science and progress and the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism. Cause here we have a story from 1943 that is very much about social justice warriors in the most literal sense of the word fighting against human imperialism.

But don't let my analysis of the political background of the story scare you off. Because "The Citadel of Lost Ships" is a cracking good pulp space opera, whether you agree with its politics or not.

The novelette category of the 1944 Retro Hugos was uncommonly strong and so "The Citadel of Lost Ships" lost out to the excellent, if very different "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. And much as I enjoyed this story, it was not in first place on my ballot either, if only because I love Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser even more and "Thieves' House" is the best of the early Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories published in Unknown. And indeed, reviewing the early Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories is a project to tackle, once I've dealt with the 1945 Retro Hugo finalists I missed.

"The Citadel of Lost Ships" is one of the lesser known Leigh Brackett stories of this era. It has been reprinted a few times, but not nearly as frequently as many of her other stories. This is a pity, because "The Citadel of Lost Ships" is a great story that deserves to be better known.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Retro Review: "Exile" by Edmond Hamilton



Now that we're waiting for the finalists for the 1945 Retro Hugos to be announced, let's take the time to look at some of the finalists for previous years of Retro Hugos. I'll start off with "Exile", a science fantasy short story by Edmond Hamilton that was published in the May 1943 issue of Super Science Stories and was a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

"Exile" begins with four science fiction writers – Madison, Brazell, Carrick and the narrator – sitting around the fireplace, sipping whiskey and talking about hunting, baseball and science fiction. The narrator remarks that all four of them are trying very hard to seem like ordinary, solid citizens, even though they don't feel at home in this world and never will. They all want something different, something more, that's why they became science fiction writers in the first place.

Brazell points out that the fact that they get paid for it is a large part of the reason why they all write. The narrator agrees that yes, the money is important, but that they nonetheless all dreamt up stories and new worlds long before they were paid for it, even long before they started to write down their stories, because none of them fit in the real world.

"We'd feel a lot less at home in some of the worlds we write about," Madison says, whereupon Carrick pipes in, "That happened to me. I once wrote about an imaginary world and then I had to live in it."

Of course, everybody is eager for the story, so Carrick delivers it. It happened, he says, after he moved out to the edge of the city right next to a new power station, because it was quiet there and he needed the quiet to write. Carrick was about to start writing a new series of stories all set in the same world, so he began to create the world and its inhabitants. He made the inhabitants human, but he also made them and their world less civilized and more superstitious and barbarian than the real world, because that would provide conflict and fiction needs conflict.

Carrick is so engrossed in his worldbuilding that he suddenly experiences a click in his brain, as if the world he created and its people had crystallized into existence in another reality, likely due to the energy generated by the power station next door. Then Carrick wonders what would happen if he imagined himself living in that world and creates a character and history for himself.

There is another click and Carrick suddenly finds himself in his imaginary world, as if he'd been born there and always lived there. Carrick is excited at first, as he goes out and walks the streets of the world he created and looks at the people he dreamt up. But eventually, he becomes unhappy, because the world he created is just too barbarian for him and all the things that had seemed exciting from a distance are repulsive and unpleasant close-up.

So Carrick tries to imagine himself back into his own world, only to find that it doesn't work. He's stuck. He considers killing himself, but eventually he adapts. Brazell asks Carrick what he did in the other world. Carrick explains that he didn't have the skills or the knowledge to do most of the jobs in the other world, so he did the only thing he could do. He wrote stories. He wrote stories about his own world, which seemed like science fiction to the inhabitants of the other world and made him popular.

Madison wants to know how Carrick got back in the end. "I never got home," Carrick says sadly, "I'm still here."


"Exile" is very short, only two and a half pages long in magazine format, but it sure packs a punch. It is an example of the "twist in the tale" stories that were so popular during the golden age, stories which exist only to deliver the final punchline. "Exile" wasn't even the only "twist in the tale" story on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot – "Death Sentence" by Isaac Asimov and "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, both finalists in the same category, are "twist in the tale" stories as well.

"Exile" is however an excellent example of a "twist in the tale" story. It is a lot more effective than "Death Sentence" and on par with "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", which is remarkable, because unlike the Robert Bloch story, "Exile" doesn't have much of a plot. It's merely a story about four people sitting around the fireplace, drinking whiskey and telling stories. "The Man Who Wouldn't Hang" by Stanton A. Coblentz is probably the closest comparison. But "Exile" is much better. In fact, it is remarkable how well this little story works.

I suspect part of the reason why "Exile" works so well is that it perfectly captures the sense of alienation that many writers and fans of speculative fiction feel. Like the unnamed narrator of Hamilton's story, a lot of us don't feel at home in the real world, so we dream up imaginary worlds. And while getting paid to write about adventures in imaginary worlds is a nice side-effect, many of us dreamt up stories and worlds long before we were ever paid to do it and would continue to do so, even if we didn't get paid for it.

But even if we don’t really fit into the real world, would we truly want to live in the worlds we create or could we even survive there? I guess, as with poor lost Carrick, the answer is no.

Even though there is a pseudoscientific explanation for Carrick's predicament, "Exile" is more portal fantasy than science fiction. It's not even the only portal fantasy on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot – "Doorway into Time" by C.L. Moore, which was nominated in the same category, is also a portal fantasy. Furthermore, travel to parallel worlds/other planets by the power of imagination has been a common trope in speculative fiction ever since John Carter wished himself upon Mars in A Princess of Mars back in 1911. Edmond Hamilton himself would also revisit the idea of imaginary space/time travel via pseudoscientific means in his 1947 novel The Star Kings.


Considering that "Exile" is essentially a story about four science fiction writers sitting around and talking, the question is which real science fiction writers of the golden age, if any, do the four characters represent. When I read the story last year for the Retro Hugos, I assumed that Madison was a stand-in for Edmond Hamilton and that Brazell was a stand-in for his future wife Leigh Brackett due to the vaguely similar names. And indeed, I named the Hamilton and Brackett stand-ins in my Silencer novelette The Heavy Hand of the Editor, in which my fictional 1930s pulp author Richard Blakemore locks horns with John W. Campbell (or rather a Campbell stand-in called Donald Angus Stuart) and interacts with several real authors of the golden age, Ed Madison and Liz Brazell in homage to this story. However, Leo Morey's interior art for "Exile" shows only white men in suits (and reminds me visually of the Dover reprints of selected pages from old Sears catalogues more than anything), no women anywhere in sight. So is Brazell a stand-in for Ray Bradbury, who was after all friends with Hamilton and Brackett? Or am I completely mistaken and it's someone else?

What's even more interesting is who Carrick is supposed to be? Cause I would really like to know which science fiction writer of the golden age dreamt our world into existence. For that matter, I'd also like to know which author of apocalyptic fiction is responsible for our current reality. However, I really cannot come up with any SFF writer of the golden age who'd fit what little we learn about Carrick. Though Carrick does put in a cameo in The Heavy Hand of the Editor, if only because paying homage to obscure golden age science fiction stories is fun.

But even though "Exile" appeared in Super Science Stories, which was one of the lesser science fiction magazines of the early 1940s, it's not exactly an obscure story. At any rate, it's less obscure than some of the other stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project. "Exile" has been reprinted several times and was selected for the Best of Edmond Hamilton collection that Leigh Brackett edited as well as for the anthology The Great SF Stories, Vol. 5, 1943, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. And of course, "Exile" was well enough regarded that it won a nomination for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards, even if it lost out to Ray Bradbury's excellent "R is for Rocket" a.k.a. "King of the Gray Spaces" in the end.

A fine story about alienation and the power of imagination and also a great example of the "twist in the tale" stories that were so popular during the golden age.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Retro Reviews: A Preliminary Post-Mortem



In keeping with the post-mortem theme, I will be illustrating this post with pulp covers featuring skulls, skeletons and corpses

On Friday, March 13, nominations closed for the 2020 Hugo and 1945 Retro Hugo Awards. It will be a few weeks until we know who the finalists are, so it's time for a preliminary post-mortem of the Retro Science Fiction Reviews project. 
 
As I wrote in my introductory post, the aim of Retro Science Fiction Reviews and the 1945 Retro HugoRecommendation Spreadsheet was to aid nominators for the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards, to crowdsource recommendations and offer reviews to allow nominators to make more informed decisions rather than defaulting to the most famous names.

Did the project succeed? Well, we won't know for sure until the finalists are announced. But the Retro Hugo Recommendation Spreadsheet quickly filled up with recommendations I hadn't entered.

As for Retro Science Fiction Reviews, all in all I posted twenty-nine reviews of works eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos on this blog in two and a half months. Twenty-six of those were my own reviews, three were guest reviews by Don Briago. Steve J.Wright also jumped in and reviewed a whole lot of eligible works on his blog. Many thanks to Steve and Don, by the way. You're both awesome.

Did we manage to cover everything? Of course not. And considering the sheer amount of material that was published in the American science fiction magazines and beyond in 1944, that would have been impossible. 


So let's take a look at what we covered at Retro Science Fiction Reviews:

Including the guest reviews, we covered three novels, two novellas, eight novelettes and sixteen short stories.

Regarding magazines, AstoundingScience Fiction and Weird Tales tie for the top spot with eight stories reviewed each. Planet Stories follows with six stories reviewed, then Amazing Stories with three and finally Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories with one story each. Two of the three novels reviewed were not published in a magazine. I did not get around to reviewing any stories published in Captain Future, Fantastic Adventures, Doc Savage, G-8 and His Battle Aces, The Shadow or the Canadian edition of Super Science Stories nor in the general interest pulps such as Argosy. Meanwhile, Famous Fantastic Mysteries only published reprints in 1944, so they were out anyway.

So let's take a look at the authors: Ten of the works reviewed were written by women, seventeen by men, one was a collaboration between a male and a female author. So a little over a third of the stories reviewed Retro Science Fiction Reviews were written by women, which is quite high for the golden age. 

Breaking it down by author, Ray Bradbury leads with five stories reviewed, followed by Leigh Brackett with four. Isaac Asimov is in third place with three stories reviewed. For Leigh Brackett and Isaac Asimov, I reviewed their entire SFF output in 1944. C.L. Moore, Allison V. Harding, Frederik Pohl and Clifford D. Simak had two stories reviewed each. Edmond Hamilton, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Manly WadeWellman, Henry Kuttner, Olaf Stapledon, Dorothy Quick, Dorothy B. Hughes, Alice-Mary Schnirring and Stanton A. Coblentz had one story reviewed each. 


So what did I learn from the Retro Reviews project? For starters, that there were a lot of really good stories published in 1944 and not just the enduring classics either. No, a lot of little to unknown stories that have rarely to never been reprinted turned out to be very good as well. Even the weaker stories were entertaining at the very least. However, I have to admit that I abandoned some stories that failed to grip me after a few pages, because I have only so much time and didn't want to waste it on a story that bored me. That said, I only abandoned two or three stories. 

Meanwhile, guest reviewer Don Briago got unlucky with the near future thriller The Delicate Ape byacclaimed crime and noir author Dorothy B. Hughes, a novel neither he (nor anybody else, it seems) likes. However, they can't all be winners. 

According to received wisdom, Astounding Science Fiction was the best of the golden age science fiction magazines due to the high number of classic stories John W. Campbell published. Weird Tales is held in high regard, while Farnsworth Wright was editor, but is less well regarded after Dorothy McIllwraith took over in 1940. Meanwhile, magazines like Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories or Startling Stories are usually considered lesser venues, the contents as lurid as the covers with the occasional good story. 

As so often with received wisdom about past periods of science fiction, this does not match what you find when you actually read the magazines in question. True, Astounding Science Fiction published a lot of classic stories during 1944 and the entire golden age. They also published a lot of not so great stories, only that those have been largely forgotten. 

However, I also noticed that while the good Astounding stories, such as "No Woman Born" byC.L. Moore or the City cycle by Clifford D. Simak or the Foundationstories by Isaac Asimov (though the two 1944 Foundation stories were lesser entries in the series), were very good indeed, the gap between the good and the not-so-good stories was larger in Astounding than in the other magazines. Because the lesser stories in Weird Tales or Planet Stories or Amazing Stories (and Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, I assume, even though the sample size is too small) were always at the very least entertaining. And some little known stories from those magazines turned out to be very good indeed, such as "Morgue Ship" by RayBradbury or "Iron Mask" by Robert Bloch. Meanwhile, the lesser known Astounding stories were inevitably little known for a very good reason, namely because they had aged badly or just weren't very good to begin with. It's probably telling that all of the stories I abandoned were from Astounding.

I suspect the reason for this discrepancy is Astounding's focus on idea stories and hard science fiction. Because idea stories and hard science fiction tend to age badly, once the ideas and the science are obsolete. For quite often, the central idea is all those stories have. Without the idea, there really is no story. And the stories that endure either have a central idea that still appeals (this applies to the Foundation and City stories and also to "No Woman Born") or have something going for them beside the central idea ("Catch That Rabbit"by Isaac Asimov). 

Meanwhile, the various adventure stories set in what I've called the pulp science fiction shareduniverse are still entertaining as spy thrillers or crime stories or adventure stories, even if you know that science is nonsense and that the solar system doesn't actually look like that. And Weird Tales doesn't give a damn about scientific accuracy anyway, even though they did publish science fiction on occasion. But the focus of the magazine is on entertaining horror and fantasy stories and Weird Tales was very good indeed at what it did. In fact, I prefer Weird Tales under Dorothy McIllwraith to Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright, for even though Wright published many classic stories, I can only tolerate the often overblown purple prose of Weird Tales in the 1930s in small doses. 


It's not exactly news that genre distinctions were more fluid during the pulp era. And the reason I haven't done a genre or subgenre breakdown of the stories reviewed is because it's impossible. In some cases it's obvious, e.g. "Desertion" byClifford D. Simak or "Catch That Rabbit" by Isaac Asimov are unambiguously science fiction, while "Hoofs" by Manly Wade Wellman or "The Dear Departed" by Alice-Mary Schnirring are unambiguously fantasy. With horror, it gets more difficult, because a lot of the stories I reviewed were also horror and not just the ones published in Weird Tales either. 

However, what makes "Killdozer!" by Theodore Sturgeon, a story about a possessed and murderous bulldozer, science fiction and "Ride the El to Doom" byAllison V. Harding, a story about a possessed and murderous elevated train, fantasy? The fact that "Killdozer!" was published in Astounding and "Ride the El to Doom" in Weird Tales? That fact that Sturgeon offers a pseudoscientific explanation why bulldozer Daisy starts killing people, while Harding doesn't offer one? And then you have stories like "The Veil of Astellar" by Leigh Brackett about a guilt-ridden space vampire or "Iron Mask" by Robert Bloch about a rabidly francophobic medieval robot attempting to influence the outcome of WWII, which are nigh impossible to classify.

However, the stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project also draw on influences from beyond the three speculative sister genres science fiction, fantasy and horror. And so a lot of those stories also contained elements from other genres. Oddly enough, the western was not one of them, in spite of all the complaints about science fiction stories that were just westerns in space during the 1940s and 1950s. But while I don't doubt that stories like those about Bat Durston whose adventures would never be found in Galaxy were published somewhere in 1944, not one of the twenty-nine stories reviewed for the Retro Reviews project matches that description.

Instead, the biggest influence comes from the crime, mystery and thriller meta-genre and its many subgenres. And so there were a lot of stories that were also spy thrillers, mysteries or noir tales. War fiction, whether directly about WWII or indirectly about some other war in the far future, was also a big influence as well, but then military science fiction was a thing long before Robert A. Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers. But I also came across elements borrowed from gothic romance or contemporary literary fiction. The pulps were one huge genre mash-up petri dish and this extended also beyond the pages of the magazines, as e.g. The Delicate Ape by Dorothy B. Hughes, a WWII influenced near future spy thriller shows.


Last year, I wrote a series of blogposts inspired by the finalists for the 1944 Retro Hugos, in which I noted that a lot of the common assumptions about the golden age of science fiction simply aren't true or apply only to a minority of stories. Let's have a quote:

Now we all have an idea of Golden Age science fiction in our heads. Hard science fiction with fairly rigorous science, at least by the standards of the time, the unquestioning belief in science and progress, the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism and imperialism, future histories dominated by great men (and of course, they’re always men), square-jawed space heroes and brilliant scientists, competent characters – white, male and American, of course – using their brains and occasionally, their rayguns, too, to solve problems, women – if present at all – as damsels in distress to be groped by bug-eyed monsters and rescued by the competent man, people of colour and LGBT people absent altogether, aliens as the other to be either fought and destroyed or at best patronised, humanity inevitably triumphant.

For starters, hard science fiction stories, while certainly present, were actually a minority among the stories I reviewed. And even the supposedly hard science fiction stories contain a lot of handwavium or meaningless technobabble. Psychohistory and positronic brains are just scientific sounding terms Isaac Asimov made up. The descriptions of the surface of Jupiter in Clifford D. Simak's "Desertion" may be as accurate as possible by the standards of the day, but the machine that transforms humans (and dogs) into Jovian lifeforms is pure magic science.  

As for the competent man who triumph due to their superior brains, characters like Limmar Ponyets or Hober Mallow (who is neither white nor straight) from Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories certainly match that description, as do Rake Allan from EdmondHamilton's "The Free-Lance of Space" or Click Hathaway and Sam Burnett from Ray Bradbury's "The Monster Maker" and "MorgueShip" respectively. But while robot troubleshooters Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell from Isaac Asimov's "Catch That Rabbit" do solve the problem at hand, I wouldn't call them competent – instead, they're very much idiots who get lucky. Jerome Webster from Clifford D. Simak's "TheHuddling Place" may be a brilliant xenobiologist and doctor, but he is also afflicted by crippling agoraphobia. Maltzer, the scientist from "No Woman Born" by C.L. Moore, is a depressed wreck and the only competent person (in the loosest sense of the word) in the story is Deirdre, the brain in a robot body. Meanwhile, Rick Urquart, the drifter turned unlikely saviour of Mars in Leigh Brackett's Shadow Over Mars is mainly competent at getting himself into trouble and Ciaran, wandering balladeer and petty criminal from Leigh Brackett's "The Jewel of Bas", is no one's idea of a competent hero either. And let's not forget Svan, the Venusian terrorist so incompetent that he blew up himself and his resistance cell, because he was too stupid to turn over a piece of paper in Frederik Pohl's "Double-Cross". So in short, competent men (and women) exist in golden age science fiction, but are far from universal.


As for the gender distribution, six of the twenty-nine stories reviewed, including one written by a female author, contained no female characters at all. Four more stories only feature female characters as walk-ons. Often, the women don't even get a name. Only four stories have female protagonists, while only three pass the Bechdeltest. That's rather depressing, especially considering that a third of the stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project were written or co-written by women. And at least according to the letter columns in magazines, many of the readers were women as well. Of course, there were also stories with memorable female characters such as Deirdre from "No Woman Born", Mayo McCall from Shadow Over Mars, Mouse from "The Jewel of Bas" or Sharon Countess Monteseco from "Hoofs". Nonetheless, there is room for improvement on the gender front.

On the other hand, the Retro Reviews project has also proven once again that while the science fiction of the golden age was very straight and white, it was not nearly as straight and white as received wisdom would have you believe. Six stories featured characters of colour, in five of those six the character of colour was a main character. Oddly enough, one character I had always assumed was a person of colour, Gregory Powell from Isaac Asimov's "Catch That Rabbit" and the other Powell and Donovan stories, never has his skin colour mentioned anywhere. The only description of him that we get is that he wears a moustache. I suspect I pictured him as black, because there was a popular actor at the time I first read the story who was named Gregory, had a moustache and was black, so the name and the scant description brought to mind that actor.

With LGBTQ characters, the pickings are even slimmer. For starters, there are no openly LGBTQ characters in those stories at all. However, there are two stories, Isaac Asimov's"The Big and the Little" and Ray Bradbury's "The Monster Maker", where it is implied that the main character is not straight. If I'd gotten around to reviewing "The Devil's Book Keeper", the 1944 entry in Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin occult detective series, we would probably have had three instances, because several people have remarked on the homoerotic vibes between de Grandin and his mystery-solving partner Dr. Trowbridge. In the case of Asimov' Hober Mallow (who is also one of the six characters of colour mentioned above, since his skin is explicitly described as brown), the homoerotic implications are also pretty blatant, because Mallow spends his free time hanging out nude in the solarium of his new home with his friend/sounding board Ankor Twael, talking politics, while Twael puts a cigar in Mallow's mouth. And yes, I know that sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, but come on.

So in short, yes, golden age speculative fiction was pretty straight, white and male, but there were exceptions in all the magazines and sometimes, a writer even managed to sneak in a character of colour who is implied to be gay right underneath John W. Campbell's nose. 

 
So what about the unquestioning belief in science and progress and the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism and imperialism? Again, such stories exist, but they're far from universal. The Foundation stories are probably the worst culprits, because the Foundation uses their superior knowledge to bully and steamroller everybody else into submission. But that's okay, because they're the good guys, they're really smart and they're trying to stave off the Dark Ages. It also helps that the "collapse of galactic civilisation" bits in the Foundation stories are fairly dark and depressing, so you never even question the Foundation's goals, because the alternative looks so much worse. And indeed, this may be why the Foundation stories have been such a strong influence on so many intelligent kids, some of whom went on to draw all the wrong conclusions from those stories and also never revisited them as adults able to realise, "Uhm, actually the Foundation are kind of arseholes, even if they may be right." And there is really no reason to believe that Hari Seldon or rather his hologram is right about anything except that Asimov tells us that Seldon is right.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Clifford D. Simak's City cycle, where humanity manages to isolate itself into eventual extinction, as dogs and ants take over. Or "No Woman Born", where a scientist is in such despair over having engaged in Frankensteinian research that he tries to kill himself (and fails, because his creation saves him). Or the dying worlds and weary immortals of Leigh Brackett's stories, who also gave us those champions of truth in advertising, the Terran Exploitations Company, who are trying to bleed dry what's left of a dying Mars. So no, golden age science fiction was not always optimistic about science and progress either. 

Nor did golden age science fiction accept colonialism and imperialism without questions. Particularly Leigh Brackett's protagonists often side with oppressed natives against the expansionism and colonialism of Terran empire. Frederik Pohl also addressed the subject in "Double-Cross", though in Pohl is more cynical and portrays the rebelling natives and the Terran colonisers as equally bad. Considering the two Frederik Pohl stories I reviewed for this project, it's notable that in both stories, the interplanetary rebels are not the good guys. For someone like me who grew up on Star Wars, that was a huge surprise, because I automatically equal rebels in science fiction with the good guys. I also can't help but wonder whether Pohl's disenchantment with the Communist groups of which he was a member contributed to his rather cynical view of would-be rebels and revolutionaries.

Not a skeleton or skull, but a prime example of the bug-eyed monster menacing a young lady.

As for the infamous bug-eyed monsters, several 1944 magazine covers feature monsters, bug-eyed or otherwise, menacing scantily clad heroines. However, of the twenty-nine stories reviewed for this project, not a single one featured a bug-eyed monster. Even if there was a bug-eyed monster on the cover, there often wasn't one in the story itself. The closest any of the reviewed stories came to a bug-eyed monster was the apelike anthropoids from Leigh Brackett's Shadow Over Mars and those are far more interested in able-bodied men to enslave than in damsels in distress to grope. There is also the alien femme fatale creature in Brackett's"Terror Out of Space", but that creature is never seen in its original form, nor is she remotely interested in females of any species. In fact, I suspect that the bug-eyed monster is more of a cover art cliché than something that actually appeared in any golden age science fiction stories.


So what happens next? I will definitely keep Retro Science Fiction Reviews open. For starters, the 1945 Retro Hugo finalists will be announced soon. And since I doubt that I caught all of the finalists, I will review the ones I missed. Furthermore, there will also be future years of Retro Hugos to cover. Finally, I can also review older SFF works independent of the Retro Hugos.

I'm also always happy about guest reviews. So if there's a vintage speculative fiction work you always wanted to review, let me know.