Monday, 27 January 2020

Retro Review: "The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett

"The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett is a science fiction novella, which appeared in the spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The protagonists of "The Jewel of Bas" are two newlyweds, Ciaran (a name Brackett would reuse for the 1951 Eric John Stark story "Black Amazon of Mars") and Mouse. Ciaran and Mouse are drifters. Ciaran is a wandering balladeer who carries a harp and sings songs about the old legends of his planet, while Mouse is primarily a pickpocket and petty thief. Both these skills will serve them well in the adventure to come. Ciaran and Mouse call themselves gypsies, a term which is considered offensive now, but was still in common use in 1944. Ciaran and Mouse are not even the only self-proclaimed Romani in Leigh Brackett's planetary romances of the 1940s. "The Citadel of Lost Ships", a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo, features an entire space station full of intergalactic drifters who refer to themselves by the g-word. Uncommon for the time, Leigh Brackett has a lot of sympathy for her Romani protagonists.

Unlike Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett does give us pretty detailed descriptions of her characters. And so we learn that both Ciaran and Mouse are fairly short and skinny, probably due to not always having had sufficient food, and Ciaran has bent legs, too. Ciaran has a scar on his lip and is missing a tooth, Mouse has curly dark hair and a brand between her eyes that marks her as a thief. Both Ciaran and Mouse have brown skin, so here we have a golden age story with two unambiguous protagonists of colour.

Ciaran and Mouse are more typical characters for a Leigh Brackett story than Lundy from "Terror Out of Space". For most of Brackett's protagonists are outsiders who live on the margins of their respective societies. Many are thieves or criminals of sorts and quite a few are people of colour, including what is probably Leigh Brackett's most famous character, Eric John Stark. But unlike Eric John Stark and other Brackett protagonists, Ciaran and Mouse are not physically impressive. And though we are never given their age, but Ciaran and Mouse feel young, late teens or early twenties. Younger than most other Brackett protagonists, at any rate. Their relationship is volatile and they quarrel a lot, occasionally escalating into violence, even though they clearly love each other.

In fact, the story starts with Ciaran and Mouse quarrelling, as they are having dinner on a ledge overlooking an area called the Forbidden Plains. Mouse is scared, because she has never been outside the city before. And besides, there are rumours about people going missing near the Forbidden Plains. But Ciaran assures her that the shortcut they took is perfectly safe, even if it passes by the Forbidden Plains. While he's at it, Ciaran also gives us a handy introduction to the old legends of his world, which he uses as fodder for his ballads, such as the story of Bas the Immortal who lives inside Ben Beatha, the Mountain of Life which overlooks the Forbidden Plains, with his android servants and a non-human slave race called the Kald. Bas the Immortal owns the Stone of Destiny, a powerful jewel that allows him to rule the world. Ciaran assures Mouse that those are just legends, stories to frighten children with, though he also dreams of climbing Ben Beatha and getting his hands on the jewel one day. He will get his wish.

Mouse and Ciaran's dinner is interrupted by a shadow falling onto the ledge where they're resting. They are frightened, for their world knows no night. By now, we are wondering just where exactly "The Jewel of Bas" is set. Leigh Brackett normally set her planetary romances in pre-spaceflight consensus version of our solar system that never was with Mars and Venus being particularly popular settings. However, the world of "The Jewel of Bas" with its sun balls and permanent daylight doesn't match Brackett's version of Mars or Venus or Mercury or indeed any other planet of the solar system. So did Leigh Brackett actually write a story set on an extrasolar world, thirty years before the Skaith trilogy? Or is something else going on here? It's a mystery that will be resolved by the end of the story.

Soon after the incident with the shadow, Ciaran and Mouse find themselves in even worse trouble, when they are attacked and kidnapped by vaguely humanoid creatures with grey skin and pink eyes. Before he is knocked out, Ciaran recognises their attackers as Kalds, the non-human servants of Bas the Immortal. So if that part of the legend is true, maybe the rest is true as well?

When Ciaran comes to again, he and Mouse find themselves chained together with other people abducted by the Kalds and herded across the Forbidden Plains towards Ben Beatha. However, Mouse's unconventional upbringing has also given her some mean lockpicking skills, which she uses to free herself, Ciaran and several other prisoners from their chains. The prisoners revolt and attack the Kalds, when another shadow falls onto a world that doesn't know darkness. Ciaran and Mouse manage to escape in the ensuing chaos. The join forces with some of their fellow escapees, a big red-haired, nearly naked hunter, a wild-eyed hermit who appears to be insane and a dark-skinned trapper named Ram, whose wife and son were also abducted by the Kalds.

Because the Kalds have closed off all other escape routes, Ciaran, Mouse and their comrades have no choice but to head further towards Ben Beatha. Ram is killed in a fight with the Kalds, though not before finding his wife and son dead by the wayside. Meanwhile, Ciaran, Mouse, the hunter and the hermit sneak into a cave at the foot of Ben Beatha and find themselves staring into a pit, wherein a huge machine is being built. The human prisoners are used as slave labour to build the machine. They also seem to be drugged or hypnotised, not caring whether they live or die. And in fact, several slaves drop dead from exhaustion right in front of the eyes of Ciaran and his companions.

Ciaran and friends make it to the bottom of the pit undetected. Here, Ciaran finds proof that yet more of the old legends he used to sing about are true, for they witness one of the androids of Bas the Immortal hypnotising the new prisoners via some kind of mesmerising light. Mouse and the hermit are also affected by the light – only Ciaran and the hunter manage to escape, though not before overhearing that the androids are worried about something failing and that the machine will not be finished in time. They also overhear that the androids are planning to overthrow Bas the Immortal and rule the world themselves.

During their escape, Ciaran and the hunter are separated. Ciaran knows that the slaves are being worked to death and that things will only get worse with the androids in charge. Desperate to save Mouse from that fate, he decides to climb Ben Beatha to find Bas the Immortal and enlist his help against the androids. While he is climbing, Ciaran also notes that the sunballs which provide his world with light and warmth are dimmer than they used to be.

Ciaran eventually reaches an outcropping near the top of the mountain, which turns out to be a balcony leading to the quarters of Bas. He ventures inside and gets the surprise of his life, when he finally finds Bas, asleep on a bed which is shaped like an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life (though Brackett uses the Latin term "crux ansata" for the symbol). For Bas is not the ancient and godlike immortal Ciaran has envisioned. Instead, he is a teenaged boy, perpetually young due to his immortality. At this point, Ciaran also remembers another legend, older than most, about the Shining Youth from Beyond, a boy who never grows old. So that legend is true as well.

Ciaran tries to wake Bas, only to be thwarted by the curtain of light that surrounds Bas and his ankh-shaped bed. When the curtain of light flickers out due to a convenient power failure (The frequent power failures in the story are timed very conveniently, even though there is an in-story reason for them), Ciaran still cannot get Bas to wake up. Desperate, Ciaran finally sits down on Bas' bed and begins to play sad songs on his harp, which does the trick. Bas is awake at last, though not exactly happy about it.

We now get a brief rundown of the long history of Bas the Immortal. Bas, we learn, was a fisherman's son from Atlantis. He gained his immortality as well as the Stone of Destiny from a meteor strike. Now Bas had eternal life and the powers of a god, but because of his youth he was never respected, only hated. Eventually, he left Earth with his androids and the Stone of Destiny and settled on the tenth planet of the solar system. Inside the hollow tenth planet, Bas built a world of his own, lit by sunballs and powered by the Stone of Destiny, and populated it with humans imported from Earth as well as the alien Kalds. But the people of this world also quickly came to hate Bas and so he went to sleep to live in his own dream world and left the androids in charge of the world he had created.

This conversation occurs in the penultimate chapter of the novella and finally clarifies where exactly the story is set, namely on or rather inside a hypothetical tenth planet of our solar system (Pluto was still considered the ninth planet back then). In fact, I wonder why Leigh Brackett didn't simply use Pluto instead, especially since hardly anything was known about Pluto a mere fourteen years after its discovery. But then, hypothetical trans-Neptunian planets are very common in science fiction well into the twenty-first century, almost as common as real trans-Neptunian objects.

But though the revelation of where exactly the story is set only happens towards the end, Brackett weaves in hints regarding the nature of this world throughout the story such as the sunballs or the fact that neither Ciaran nor Mouse have ever experienced darkness before and are terrified by it as well as a moment early on where Ciaran recalls one of the legends surrounding Bas the Immortal, according to which Bas was born on a world with only one big sunball, where the sky changes from light to dark "like a woman's fancy" and where the horizon curves down. So yes, the clues to the nature of this world are there from the beginning, even though I completely managed to miss them upon first reading.

The world of Ciaran, Mouse and Bas is also highly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar (which is eligible for the 1945 Best Series Retro Hugo), for Pellucidar also has a horizon that curves upwards, is also lit by a sunball and also knows no night. And considering Leigh Brackett has stated that she was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and that Burroughs' Tarzan was a big influence on Eric John Stark, it's very likely that she read the Pellucidar novels. However, Burroughs places his Pellucidar "At the Earth's Core", whereas Brackett places her world on a planet beyond Neptune. It's certainly a fascinating world and I wonder why Leigh Brackett never revisited it in future stories like she kept revisiting her versions of Mars and Venus.

However, Ciaran and Bas don't have much time to dwell on the exact nature of their world. For the Stone of Destiny, which powers the sunballs and keeps the world habitable, is failing. Once it does fail, everybody in this world except for Bas and his androids will die. And life won't exactly be pleasant for Bas and the androids either, considering they will be trapped on a frozen rock in space. Ciaran also deduces that this is why the androids are using the human slaves to build the gigantic machine he saw earlier, as a replacement power source for the failing Stone of Destiny.

Ciaran has the hardest time convincing Bas, the solar system's oldest emo teenager, to help, since the fatalistic Bas declares that thousands of people dying is no big deal, since human lifespans are so short anyway. And besides, he'd much rather sleep. It's only when Bas realises that the androids plan to do away with him as well that he agrees to help.

Together, Bas and Ciaran set out to confront the androids, just as the machine the slaves built starts up. The androids try to hold Ciaran and Bas back by siccing the Kalds on them. But the Kalds succumb to Bas' telepathy, so the androids have the hypnotised human slaves block the way. Bas cannot see a way past the slaves without hurting or killing anybody. So Ciaran draws the human slaves away with his harp, pied piper style, while Bas turns the last bits of power in the Stone of Destiny against the androids, destroying them. The slaves are freed and the world is saved.

Ciaran and Mouse try to persuade Bas to stay with the people he saved, but Bas won't hear anything about that. Sooner or later, in a couple of generations, they'll only hate him again, he says fatalistically and goes back to sleep to live in his dream world with his perfect dream girl. Ciaran and Mouse bid him good-bye and realise that even if their lives are limited, they are much happier than Bas the Immortal will ever be.

"The Jewel of Bas" is a glorious pulpy adventure story that manages to offer up plenty of twists and turns, whether it's the revelation where the story is set or Bas the legendary Immortal turning out to be a sullen emo teenager whose initial response to the impending end of his world is a shrug and "Whatever". Bas only appears in the final three chapters of the novella, but he is certainly a memorable character, both a tragic figure and an annoying brat.

Dying worlds, mysterious relics and ancient legends that turn out to contain considerably more than a kernel of truth are common themes in Leigh Brackett's work and "The Jewel of Bas" has all of them in spades. Leigh Brackett's stories often inhabit the borderland between science fiction and fantasy. "The Jewel of Bas" tilts further towards fantasy than most. Yes, the story is set on another planet, there is a mysterious machine and there are androids, but Leigh Brackett isn't particularly concerned about how any of this works. If this novella had been published in Astounding, we would have been treated to pages of technobabble about how the machine powering the planet works and how the androids were built. Leigh Brackett, however, isn't interested in the details of her wholly imaginary technology. We get a few lines that the machine is powered by the rotation of the planet and by vibration, before we get back to the adventure and the crisis at hand. And the androids are no Asimovian robots with positronic brains and careful programming, they're just a monster to fight and an obstacle to be overcome. Indeed, the story would have worked just as well, if Leigh Brackett had simply waved her hand and said "magic", when asked how exactly the imaginary technology works. And indeed, the Stone of Destiny is pretty much magic. "The Jewel of Bas" is wallpaper science fiction, but it is also an excellent example why wallpaper science fiction often endures long after harder science fiction has become hopelessly dated.

Leigh Brackett's planetary romances are exactly what the term "sword and planet" as an analogue to sword and sorcery was invented to describe. In fact, Adventures Fantastic notes in their review of "The Jewel of Bas" that the story not only feels like a sword and sorcery tale, but that it also pays homage to several popular sword and sorcery works. And so Ciaran plays a tune played at the funerals of Cimmerian chieftains at one point and mentions an ancient legend from the forests of Hyperborea at another, paying homage to both Robert E. Howard's Conan (who hails from Cimmeria and visits Hyperborea) and Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean Cycle. And we know that Leigh Brackett was a fan of Robert E. Howard's work and even named a character in "Lorelei of the Red Mist", her 1946 collaboration with Ray Bradbury, Conan after Howard's barbarian, a decision she later regretted when the Conan stories were reprinted to huge success in the 1960s and the name became forever associated with the Cimmerian barbarian.

Adventures Fantastic also points out that the red-headed hunter who aids Ciaran and Mouse during their escape is reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's red-headed barbarian Fafhrd. In this case, the link is more tenuous than in the previous example, but the interactions between Ciaran and the hunter are a little reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser down to the hunter calling Ciaran "little man", which is how Fafhrd often refers to the Mouser. Though Fafhrd is the bard in that legendary partnership. Furthermore, it's also notable that there is a character, albeit a female one, called Mouse in "The Jewel of Bas", considering that Mouse was the Gray Mouser's original name, before he decided to rebrand himself. Though this little tidbit would not be revealed until the novelette "The Unholy Grail" in 1962, i.e. eighteen years after "The Jewel of Bas". Though it is pretty obvious that the various SFF authors of the golden age were all reading each other's work, even if they didn't know each other personally, and so occasionally dropped little Easter eggs into their stories.

The stereotypical protagonist of golden age science fiction is the competent man (and it is almost always a man, the occasional Susan Calvin notwithstanding) who uses his brains and his specialist knowledge to solve the problem at hand. Astounding was the realm of that particular breed of competent man, even though there were many stories published in Astounding that don't match that stereotype at all. Leigh Brackett's protagonists are certainly all competent, though they couldn't be any more different from the heroic engineers and scientists found in the pages of Astounding. Instead, Leigh Brackett's protagonists are usually outsiders living on the margins of their respective societies. Many are borderline or outright criminals. And while these marginalised outsiders do apply their specialist skills to the problem at hand, these specialist skills usually have very little to do with superior scientific knowledge.

Instead, Eric John Stark survives thanks to the instincts he acquired as a child growing up with a tribe of semi-primitive aliens on Mercury. Matt Carse from the 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon uses his knowledge of Martian history and legends to save the day, as does Carey from the 1963 story "The Road to Sinharat". Meanwhile, Ciaran uses both his knowledge of the old legends of his world and his skills as a musician to save himself, his beloved Mouse and his world. SFF does have its share of heroic bards and balladeers from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd via Tom Bombadil and Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John to Jaskier/Dandelion/insert flower name here from Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher and the eponymous TV series. Ciaran, however, is one of the earliest examples of this character type – only Fafhrd (and if one counts his first appearance in a poem, Tom Bombadil) predates him.

As for Mouse, all of Leigh Brackett's female characters are as competent as their male counterparts. Scrappy little Mouse, though far from a typical female Leigh Brackett character (Brackett tended to go for femme fatales rather than tomboys), is no exception. After all, the initial escape wouldn't even have been possible without the lockpicking skills she acquired in her past as a thief.

"The Jewel of Bas" is a great example of the kind of grand planetary adventure that Leigh Brackett specialised in and just as exciting and enjoyable as it was seventy-five years ago.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Retro Review: "The Lake" by Ray Bradbury

"The Lake" is a short story by Ray Bradbury, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful and haunting story.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Retro Review Links for January 22, 2020

Welcome to the latest edition of Retro Review Links, where I link to reviews of 1945 Retro Hugo eligible by other bloggers:

Magazine reviews:

Novel reviews:

Short fiction reviews:

Series reviews:

Dramatic presentation reviews:

Monday, 20 January 2020

Retro Review: "The Man Who Wouldn't Hang" by Stanton A. Coblentz

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

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 January 2020

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

"Guard in the Dark" is a short story by Allison V. Harding, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As is common for stories published in Weird Tales, we never see the monster that menaces young Ronald, even though interior artist Boris Dolgov portrays it as a horned and hoofed devil. Meanwhile, Harding describes the monsters as follows:
"A breathing, panting noise of a thing. Nameless, descriptionless, except for the grotesque shadow it threw."
When the battle ceases and all soldiers have fallen, Jeffry – being a coward at heart – grabs his notebook and flees back to his own room. When he wakes up the next morning, he assumes he simply had a bad dream and heads for breakfast with the Frosts. However, Ronald does not come down for breakfast, so his mother goes up to fetch him and lets out a scream. Jeffry and Mr. Frost run upstairs to investigate and find Ronald sitting up in bed, utterly insane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Retro Review Links for January 15, 2020

Welcome to the first edition of Retro Review Links, where I link to reviews of 1945 Retro Hugo eligible by other bloggers:

Magazine reviews:

Novel reviews:

Short fiction reviews:

Dramatic presentation reviews:

Monday, 13 January 2020

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

"The Big and the Little" is a novelette by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. Most readers will probably know the story under its alternate title "The Merchant Princes", which is how it appeared in Foundation, the first book of the eponymous trilogy.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mallow is acquitted, since no crime was committed, and also elected mayor, since his political rival Jorane Sutt was revealed to have been plotting treason all along. However, there still is that pesky Seldon crisis to deal with, which finally arrives two years later, when the Korellian Republic declares war on the Foundation by attacking its trading ships with the much larger and more powerful Imperial dreadnoughts that Asper Argo, the well-beloved, managed to inveigle out of his father-in-law, the ambitious Imperial viceroy. If you've been hoping for a big space battle, you'll be disappointed though, because once more Asimov keeps the action off stage and only gives us a short scene of a crewmen aboard a doomed trading ship getting his first glimpse of a gigantic Imperial warship.
Hober Mallow responds to the Korellians' attack not by launching a counterattack, because this will only put the Foundation into the crosshairs of the Empire (which is what happens in the following story "Dead Hand") and the Foundation is not yet strong enough to deal with the Empire. Instead, Mallow declares a trade embargo against the Korellian Republic. Then he sits back and waits until first the nuclear powered gadgets he sold to the Korellians break down and then the larger, industrial systems as well. And since Mallow knows that the Empire, though allied with the Korellians, does not have the technology to repair or replace the broken Foundation tech, he need only wait until the Korellian economy fails and the populace revolts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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