Thursday, 2 July 2020

Retro Review: "Intruders from the Stars" by Ross Rocklynne


"Intruders from the Stars" is a novella by Ross Rocklynne. It was first published in the January 1944 issue of Amazing Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

"Intruders from the Stars" opens on a far off planet, where a decisive battle is taking place. It's the battle for the fate of an empire, with insurgent forces led by the unnamed prime minister about to vanquish the forces loyal to the Empress, a former slave girl named Bess-Istra. Her forces beaten, Bess-Istra and her surviving soldiers retreat to their citadel, where an escape ship is being readied.

The reader quickly realises that Bess-Istra, though beautiful, is a nasty piece of work, a typical pulp fiction femme fatale. Her reign was bloody, the revolution necessary to depose a tyrant. The prime minister, who is in love with Bess-Istra, even offers her to rule by his side and rebuilt the planet together. However, Bess-Istra will have none of that. She even knocks out her own general Bandro, when he urges her to negotiate to save his own neck.

Bess-Istra and her surviving forces, including the unconscious Bandro, board the escape ship. Her plan is to leave her homeworld and head to a neighbouring solar system and conquer a planet there. The journey is supposed to take thirteen years, which all aboard will spend in suspended animation courtesy of sleep gas.

However, the inhabitants of the neighbouring planet spot Bess-Istra's ship in time and deflect it away from their world. So Bess-Istra and her loyal troops float through space until they happen to land on Earth.

The scene now shifts to Mozambique in the middle of World War II, where American war correspondent Bill van Astor Smythe encounters two missionaries, the Reverend John Stevens and his assistant Thomas Reynolds, while both parties are hiding from the Japanese, who have invaded Mozambique. The young Reverend and his assistant are on their way to a village, for the locals have abandoned Christianity for a new god and also stolen the Reverend's altar candles. Bill is on the run, for the squadron of British soldiers he was embedded with has been wiped out by the Japanese.

Now there never was any Japanese military activity in Africa during World War II – the only axis countries fighting in Africa were Italy and Nazi Germany and they had largely been driven out by 1944. Furthermore, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and Portugal remained neutral during World War II, so what a squadron of British soldiers was doing there is anybody's guess. It's interesting that Ross Rocklynne messes up something as basic as World War II frontlines. Though the summary of events he gives is correct up to the point where the British take over Mozambique and the Japanese invade Madagascar and Mozambique. Was this a scenario that was considered plausible at some point, since it seems extremely far-fetched to me? I have no idea.

Bill, the Reverend and his assistant make their way to the village, where they find Bess-Istra's spaceship. It turns out that the new god the locals are worshipping is none other than the sleeping Bess-Istra herself, who is conveniently visible (and conveniently half naked) through a porthole of the spaceship.

The Reverend is deeply upset that his converts have abandoned Christianity to worship scantily clad women. He is even more upset, when Bill points out that the sleeping woman is not from Earth, for the existence of extraterrestrial life is not compatible with his faith. Bill, the Reverend and Reynolds are still arguing what to do, when Bill spots a plunger and pushes it downward, because messing with an alien spaceship is obviously such a brilliant idea. As a result, the sleep gas is vented outside the ship, knocking out Bill, the Reverend and his assistant. Bess-Istra awakes.

The three men are taken prisoner and come to aboard the ship. They are subjected first to an interrogation machine and then taken to see Bess-Istra herself. The Reverend immediately accuses Bess-Istra and her people of planning to conquer the Earth. Bill tries to calm him down, but the Reverend has another fit when Bess-Istra mentions gods – in plural – and informs her that there is only one true god. If Bess-Istra had shot him at this point, I certainly would have understood.

However, Bess-Istra has a different plan. Instead of revealing her intentions outright, she tells Bill and the two missionaries that she has scanned their brains and thus learned not only English, but also much about the Earth, including that the world is at war and that the Allies are losing, which is certainly an interesting interpretation of the situation in early 1944, when the battle of Stalingrad (which is generally considered the turning point for Nazi Germany) was already over, even if the Normandy landings were still several months in the future. However, Bess-Istra can help. She and her people will end the war and bring peace to Earth, using their superior alien weapons.

Bess-Istra's offer quickly convinces the Reverend that she is not evil after all, even though he would prefer world peace to be achieved without bloodshed. I have to commend him for this, especially considering the genocidal tendencies we've seen elsewhere on the ballot ("Arena", cough).

Bill is a little bit more sceptical, probably because he spares the occasional glance for General Bandro and Bess-Istra's subordinates who are having a hard time keeping a straight face at Bess-Istra's sudden commitment to world peace. Furthermore, Bess-Istra is also a little too dominant for Bill's taste, though he quickly becomes as besotted with her as everybody else. Bess-Istra, meanwhile, asks Bill and the Reverend (Thomas Reynolds has wandered out of the story and returned to the mission by now) where her forces shall begin their mission to bring peace to Earth. Bill and the Reverend both suggest liberating beleaguered Mozambique and Madagascar from the Japanese. And so they set off in Bess-Istra's ship to disable the Japanese supply fleet, leaving it floating aimlessly in the Indian ocean. Cut off from supplies, the Japanese will be forced to retreat and surrender.

Next, Bess-Istra directs her spaceship to New York City and lands on the roof of the offices of the newspaper syndicate Bill works for, so he can deliver his report in person and will also be believed.

The next target of the campaign for world peace is Italy. Now by early 1944, the Allies had already invaded Italy and Mussolini had been deposed, arrested and subsequently freed by the German army and installed as a sort of puppet ruler in those parts of Italy that were still under Axis control. Nonetheless, the situation did not look particularly desperate for the Allies in Italy in the real world, though the battle of Monte Cassino happened in the winter of 1943/1944. And even though it's never named in the novella itself, it's clearly this battle that Bess-Istra's forces interrupt by knocking out the Italian and German forces with a gas ray, causing Mussolini to flee to Germany.

The Russian front and the western front are next. Bess-Istra's gas ray and another weapon which causes amnesia take out the German forces and the Allies converge on Berlin, where a revolution breaks out (which would coincide nicely with the group around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and their ultimately failed plot to assassinate Hitler) and Hitler is deposed.

Once World War II has been ended in Europe – and with less bloodshed than in the real world, though we might have ended up with Stauffenberg and his fellow reactionaries in charge, which would likely have been worse for Germany in the long run – the next aim is ending the war in Asia and the Pacific. This time around, Bess-Istra's forces deploy contracting fire rings around Japanese occupied cities in Asia. These fire rings destroy all sulphur and render gunpowder and therefore all firearms useless, leaving the Japanese soldiers at the mercy of the locals. In his review of the story, Steve J. Wright points out that even with alien super science, this scenario would not have worked, because modern armies including the Japanese forces had abandoned blackpowder by World War II.

As a coup de grace, Bess-Istra also teleports Hitler, Goebbels, Göring (at any rate, I assume that the fat, cruel man is supposed to be Göring, since it's unlikely to be Churchill), Mussolini, Admiral Tojo, Emperor Hirohito and other Axis leaders aboard her spaceship as prisoners. Quisling, head of the Norwegian Nazi puppet government, commits suicide.

Bill finds himself falling hard for Bess-Istra, even though he knows it's a bad idea. Meanwhile, Reverend Stevens tries to convert her – not entirely without success, for Bess-Istra is quite fascinated by the idea of a god who is not in favour of power and cruelty. And of course, the Reverend falls for Bess-Istra, too, because every man in this story eventually falls for Bess-Istra. Bill, however, still has sense enough to wonder just what exactly Bess-Istra's motive is in all this.

During a broadcast to the entire world, Bess-Istra declares herself ruler of the Earth. Bill launches himself at her, only to be shot down by her stun gun. He and the Reverend are thrown into a cell aboard her ship.

Meanwhile, Bess-Istra has been busy. She has set up a world court to try the Axis leaders and other war criminals, has ordered all warships and warplanes scrapped, has redrawn the world map and set up new states, has introduced a world currency, set up a climate control system and overhauled the global transportation system to use the same technology her spaceship uses. In short, she's been remarkably efficient and also hasn't proven herself a cruel tyrant so far, because apparently she has been listening to Reverend Stevens extolling the virtues of Christianity to her and was convinced.

Bess-Istra frees Bill and the Reverend and makes Bill her personal press agent to make her look good, since someone from her own camp is feeding negative stories about her less than glorious past to the press. Bess-Istra refuses to suppress these stories, because she now believes in the freedom of the press. Bill, on the other hand, is still not convinced that Bess-Istra really has the world's best interests at heart, even though she has only done good so far. By now, he's also completely in love with her, even though he hates himself for it. Bess-Istra is also falling for Bill, though she hates the idea almost as much as he does.

Bess-Istra's benevolent dictatorship is interrupted, when her former general Bandro, now head of the international world police, and chief scientist Sab-Hallo revolt against her, because they have had enough of Bess-Istra's sudden desire for peace and democracy. They take Bill and Bess-Istra prisoner and end the trial of the Axis leaders by summarily executing them, turning Hitler into an oily stain on the courtroom floor. Bill and Bess-Istra are about to be executed as well, when Reverend Stevens crashes a power glider into Bess-Istra's headquarters, takes out the rebelling soldiers with the gas ray and rescues Bill and Bess-Istra.

The Reverend explains that a convert among Bess-Istra's soldiers tipped him off about the plot. Together, they head for the Reverend's old mission in the jungle of Mozambique (which is still a Portuguese colony, Bess-Istra not having gotten around to eliminating the evil of colonialism yet), Bandro's forces hot in pursuit. Bandro's forces sweep the jungle with the green ray, a devastating weapon, but luckily Bess-Istra has an energy shield which can protect them – but only one, so they have to huddle together. They make it to the mission, where they find Thomas Reynolds and several of the converted locals dead, killed by the green ray. I honestly wonder why Thomas Reynolds is in this story at all, since his character serves no real purpose, disappears from the story about a third in and only reappears to be killed off.

Bill, the Reverend and Bess-Istra hole up in the mission house, where tension quickly comes to a head. Bill accuses Bess-Istra of not being sincere in her newfound conversion to Christianity and tells her point blank that deep inside, she still worships the terrible goddess Stuz, even though the priests of Stuz abused her and turned Bess-Istra into the warped person she has become. Bess-Istra hotly denies this and declares that she must kill Bill for his presumption, whereupon he hits her repeatedly, even though he normally does not strike woman.

This is one of my least favourite tropes in older works, where the masculine hero hits an "uppity woman" to make her more pliable and she goes along with it instead of kicking the bastard to the curb. This trope usually occurs within the framework of an "I hate you, I hate you, I love" relationship, which is of course what is happened between Bill and Bess-Istra. The "man hits woman" trope that's extremely common in old Hollywood movies and also shows up in genre fiction, though it is not all that common in SFF, probably because golden age SFF is not particularly interested in interpersonal relationships. "I hate you, I hate you, I love you" relationships are somewhat more common. Examples include the relationship between Jirel of Joiry and Guillaume in "Black God's Kiss" by C.L. Moore or the relationship between Eric John Stark and Ciaran in "Black Amazon of Mars" by Leigh Brackett or the relationship between Matthew Carse and Ywain of Sark in "Sea-Kings of Mars" a.k.a. "The Sword of Rhiannon", also by Leigh Brackett.

However, in all three examples attempting to use physical violence against the woman they definitely are not in love with does not end well for the men in question. Guillaume gets magically slain and has his soul banished into hell (Jirel eventually frees him, once she realises that she loves him after all), while Eric John Stark and Matthew Carse get whipped for their trouble and Eric John Stark gets decked by Ciaran, too (they both eventually get the woman after many exciting adventures). And while I suspect that Jirel, Ciaran and Ywain would get along just fine with Bess-Istra, none of them would allow a man to hit them and get away with it. I guess the difference here is that those stories were written by female authors, while "Intruders from the Stars" was written by a man.

And so Bess-Istra does not make Bill suffer, but instead starts crying, while her features becomes softer and less cruel, after Bill hits her. Her conversion to Christianity is also a lot more sincere now. However, Bill is still not happy, because Bess-Istra does start to become a bit too affectionate towards the Reverend John Stevens.

While Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend are busy with their own interpersonal drama, Bandro hasn't been idle either. He executes all captured war criminals and completely destroys Berlin and Tokyo. Bill is not at all happy with the former – he believes in trials and due process – but does find some justification for the latter. After all, the Japanese and the Nazis considered themselves superior to others, which apparently excuses killing civilians who may not even have agreed with their respective regimes. It's one of those slap in the face moments I occasionally experience when reading/watching Retro Hugo finalists – the realisation that as far as some long dead author is concerned, I'm not really a human being and deserve to be killed just because of my nationality. The worst examples usually occur in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories, though I have also seen a few examples in the fiction categories. It's not even limited to the Retro Hugos – there are alternate history novels written in this century that openly fantasize about how wonderful it would be, if the Allies had nuked Germany.

To be fair to Ross Rocklynne, Bess-Istra immediately tells Bill that there won't be any cities destroyed and civilians murdered on her watch, because they are better than that. And indeed, it is also possible to view this scene as a commentary on the large-scale bombing of cities and other civilian targets in which the US and UK were engaged at the time. After all, our heroes have always attempted to deal with their enemies via non-lethal means and with a minimum of bloodshed throughout the novel and also only aimed their operations at military and not civilian targets. The Reverend even feels ill, when he is forced to shoot some of Bandro's soldiers.

Bandro also has temples dedicated to the cruel Goddess Stuz built and all other religions banned. Furthermore, he orders that all power gliders be equipped with a device that allows his police forces to take control of the vehicle, making it impossible to use the power gliders against him. And since Bess-Istra had all other vehicles scrapped in an attempt to make global transport faster and more energy-efficient, Bandro's order effectively makes any resistance against him impossible.

However, Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend still have a power glider that Bandro's forces cannot control. And so they embark on a desperate mission to sneak aboard the spaceship that brought Bess-Istra and her people to Earth and take out Bandro and Sab-Hallo.

The plan works, too. The three of them evade Bandro's patrols, sneak aboard the spaceship, while it is en route to San Francisco, make their way to the control room, where they kill Sab-Hallo. Bess-Istra then floods the rest of the ship with sleep gas to render Bandro and his forces unconscious. However, Bandro has managed to make his way into the control room just in time and holds the trio at gunpoint, planning to kill them.

However, the Reverend won't let himself be shot quite so easily. He commands Bandro to stop and drop his weapons in the name of the Lord. Bandro is not impressed by the Reverend's religious fervour, but caught off balance long enough that Bill can jump him. In the resulting struggle, the Reverend is shot, Bill breaks Bandro's neck and the spaceship is about the crash into the San Francisco Bay.

Once the dust settles and Bess-Istra gets the ship back under control, only she and Bill are left standing. Bill tries to comfort the grieving Bess-Istra and says that he knows how much she loved the Reverend. Bess-Istra replies that she of course loved the Reverend – after all, he was a truly good man. However, she only loved the Reverend as a brother. In turn, Bill assures Bess-Istra that it does not matter what she did on another planet millions of years ago, for on Earth she did good. They kiss, finally admitting their feelings for each other.


"Intruders from the Stars" is the first story by Ross Rocklynne I ever read and I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much. I fully expected to read a weak story that would end up at the bottom of my Retro Hugo ballot, either below or just barely above "No Award". And indeed, the only reason I read it before the remaining two novella finalists is because I found "Trog" unreadable and just couldn't face another A.E. van Vogt story after struggling through "The Winged Man".

However, I was pleasantly surprised, because "Intruders from the Stars" is not a bad story at all. True, it's not a timeless classic either and probably wouldn't have made the ballot at all, if 1944 hadn't been a weak year for novellas. However, "Intruders from the Stars" was thoroughly entertaining and genuinely clever in parts in spite of its flaws.

I particularly like that after the alien mass slaughter in the prologue, "Intruders from the Stars" consistently goes for non-lethal solutions and seeks to solve the problems thrown at the characters – including ending World War II – with a minimum of bloodshed. After the "genocide is good" message in stories like "Arena", the fact that "Intruders from the Stars" privileges non-lethal solutions and actually condemns large-scale slaughter was a breath of fresh air. Also, what happens after World War II is ended early by superior alien technology not only partly mirrors what happened in the real world, e.g. war crimes tribunals rather than summary executions, but also tries to envision a more peaceful postwar world. Interestingly, the picture drawn up of Bess-Istra's new world order does mirror some quasi-utopian essays about how science fiction can contribute to a better world after the war that you can find in fanzines of the period.

Another thing I enjoyed was that a character who is introduced as an unambiguous villainess in the prologue and who has bad intentions for at least half of the story nonetheless ends up doing a whole lot of good. It's also interesting that Bess-Istra (and likely Bandro and Sab-Hallo as well) are presented not as intrinsically bad, but as the products of a bad environment. Bess-Istra is a classic example of an abuse victim who becomes an abuser. Except that she changes, once she finds herself in a better environment and meets better people.

Bess-Istra starts out as a 1940s femme fatale, a stereotype that was extremely common at the time, but eventually grows into a character of her own, though I don't like the taming part at all. Nonetheless, Bess-Istra is one of the more interesting female characters I've come across in the course of the Retro Reviews project.

Bill van Astor-Smythe and the Reverend John Stevens similarly start out as stereotypes. The Reverend is a true believer and a pompous fire and brimstone preacher, while Bill is a standard dashing reporter hero – another 1940s stereotype – and speaks in irritating period slang. Like Bess-Istra, both of them eventually grow into more rounded characters and become a lot more interesting. Too bad that the love triangle between the three of them and the "I hate you, I hate you, I love you" relationship between Bill and Bess-Istra never grows beyond cliché.


Those who know me are probably aware that I'm not a fan of religious content in science fiction. Thankfully, golden age science fiction usually doesn't pose much of a problem in that regard, because if religion plays a role at all, it's more likely to be a scam like the fake religion from the early Foundation stories or the equally fake and vastly more oppressive religion from Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber. "Intruders from the Stars" in unusual, for religion not only plays an important role in the story, but even serves as an agent of character development, because it is the encounter with Reverend Stevens and his brand of Christianity that causes Bess-Istra to change. Nonetheless, the religious content in "Intruders from the Stars" does not bother me beyond some eye-rolling moments, probably because religion is also used as a shorthand for how the prevailing culture of a society influences character. After all, Rocklynne makes it clear that the cult of the goddess Stuz is the reason why Bess-Istra and presumably Bandro and Sab-Hallo are the sort of people they are. Once Bess-Istra comes into contact with a less violent culture and religion, she changes and becomes a better person.

Considering how prolific Ross Rocklynne was during the golden age and how long his career lasted (long enough that he embraced the New Wave and even had a story in Again, Dangerous Visions), surprisingly little is known about him. According to the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, "Rocklynne had one of the most interesting, if florid, imaginations of the Pulp-magazine writers of his time, and wrote very much better than most." The first bit certainly applies to "Intruders from the Stars". As for the second, I didn't find "Intruders from the Stars" badly written, in spite of some clunky passages,  and dated slang (which is a common problem with older pulp fiction in general). However, I didn't find it exceptionally well written either, compared to the likes of Clifford D. Simak or Ray Bradbury or C.L. Moore.

Rocklynne debuted in Astounding during the F. Orlin Tremaine era and published several of his early stories there, but by the 1940s, his fiction was more likely to appear in other venues like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories or Fantastic Adventures. Was Rocklynne one of those science fiction writers of the golden age who just didn't get along with John W. Campbell? Based on "Intruders from the Stars" at any rate, Rocklynne's fiction wasn't particularly Campbellian (the aliens triumph, religion saves the day, genocide is bad and non-bloody solutions are preferred), but then much of what Campbell published in Astounding wasn't particularly Campbellian either. Given the role religion plays in "Intruders from the Stars", I also wonder whether Rocklynne was a religious man. Does anybody who has read more of his work know whether Christianity appears frequently in his work?

That said, "Intruders from the Stars" does have its share of flaws. I've already pointed out some of them above. And while calling Joseph Stalin of all people gallant might be excusable in 1944, when the Soviet Union and the US were allies in World War II and little was known about the system of gulags and general regime of terror in the USSR, it has not aged well at all. Calling Winston Churchill gallant has not aged well either, even though people in the US and UK are only now getting around to recognising the many problematic aspects of the man. Still, it's a known risk of contemporary set stories – and I'm surprised how many SFF stories I've read for the Retro Reviews project that are either directly or indirectly about World War II – that some things will age badly.

Another flaw that the story shares with Henry Kuttner's "A God Named Kroo" and many other stories with non-western settings from the period is that it is full of dated racial and ethnic stereotypes, which can make a modern reader cringe, even though you have to give props to Rocklynne, Kuttner and others for at least remembering that the world does not solely consist of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans and maybe the occasional Irish stereotype. Rocklynne also remembers that World War II was a truly global war and mentions Chinese and Senegalese soldiers along with various westerners.

In the end, the flaws of the story are too many to make "Intruders from the Stars" a true classic and viable Retro Hugo contender, especially considering that "The Jewel of Bas", "Killdozer" and "A God Named Kroo" are all better. Nonetheless, this novella was a lot more entertaining and enjoyable than I expected and takes an anti-genocide stand, which is more than can be said for many other stories of the period. That said, it does feel like a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, namely the super science stories of the so-called radium era of the 1930s.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Retro Review: "The Winged Man" by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt


"The Winged Man" is a novel by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt. It was first serialised in the May and June 1944 issues of Astounding Science Fiction and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here and here. There is also a paperback version, which has apparently been expanded from the magazine version. However, I don't have the paperback, so this review is based on the magazine version alone.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

"The Winged Man" opens in the present day, i.e. 1944, aboard the US Navy submarine Sea Serpent in the Pacific. The Sea Serpent is currently above water and one night, First Officer William Kenlon chances to observe a very large bird flying past. There is only one problem: The Sea Serpent is more than one thousand two hundred miles from the nearest atoll, so where does the bird come from? Furthermore, the bird Kenlon saw is considerably larger than an albatross, the largest bird who could fly more than a thousand miles.

Kenlon discusses this mystery with the Sea Serpent's third officer, one Lieutenant Dan Tedders, who almost never sleeps. However, he is asleep when Kenlon rouses him to annoy him with questions about the exact position of the Sea Serpent (which any officer worth his salt could have determined himself). And since this is a story published in Astounding, that conversation is full of infodumps and clumsy "As you know, Bob…" dialogue about albatrosses and the size of the Pacific.

After the infodump, Kenlon decides to take another look outside. The moon breaks through the clouds and Kenlon chances to see the bird again. Only that it isn't a bird. It's a man with wings.

Shortly thereafter, Tedders shows up to apologise and technobabble some more about what Kenlon might have seen. Lucky for the reader, Kenlon and Tedders are interrupted before they can launch into another infodump, because the winged man has landed aboard the Sea Serpent and is attaching something to its hull. Kenlon and the winged man fight, before the winged man takes off into the night.

Now we're in for another endless round of technobabble and infodumping, while Kenlon attempts to remove the device the winged man has attached to the hull. Alas, the device cannot be removed. Though the radio operator of the Sea Serpent is fairly that it's not a bomb, but some kind of radio device.

Kenlon and submarine commander Jones-Gordon decide to capture the winged man, for otherwise they would never be believed. They succeed, too, but not before the winged man has attached a second device to the hull of the Sea Serpent. The devices cannot be removed and emit a light so bright that the bones of the crewmen aboard the Sea Serpent become visible (I had flashbacks of The Day After at this point, though the device is not a nuclear weapon).

Interrogating the winged man proves to be difficult, for he speaks a language no one aboard can identify, let alone understand. Finally, they begin to communicate via drawings in a notebook.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Sea Serpent suffers various misadventures. One man drowns as Kenlon and several other crewmen fall into the sea. Later, they spot a bleak grey shoreline on the horizon, even though there shouldn't be any land in more than a thousand miles. An attempt to explore the mysterious landmass causes two more crewmen to die, when they sink into quicksand.

Kenlon, who has a knack for languages, tries to learn the winged man's language and teach him English. The effort is successful enough that they can communicate. The winged man, whose name is Nemmo, informs Kenlon that the Sea Serpent has been brought a million years into the future via the strange devices Nemmo attached to the hull. It's amazing that no one aboard the submarine noticed this before Nemmo told them. You'd think they would at least notice that they have lost contact with their command and that no new orders are coming in.

The land is uninhabitable due to "water that fell from space" and created the treacherous quicksand. The winged people were genetically engineered to survive under the new conditions, as were their sworn enemies, a race of amphibious humans, while the regular human died out. The winged people live in a floating metal city in the sky, the amphibian men live in metal citadel under the sea. The two races have been at war for a long time now. Somehow, Nemmo's people managed to bring a WWII submarine into the far future. They want the Sea Serpent to destroy the citadel of their amphibian enemies, then they will return them to their own time.

Commander Jones-Gordon has no intention of helping the winged people. The US Navy will not be drawn into a private war in the far future. And besides, the only hostile act – kidnapping the Sea Serpent and her crew – was committed by the winged people.

The Sea Serpent finally reaches the island city of the winged people. Kenlon spots other craft in the water around the island. He asks Nemmo about this. Nemmo tells him that other winged people have been sent through time to bring back war machines to defeat their amphibian enemies. However, the amphibians have not been idle either and drag Commander Jones-Gordon down into the sea. Thus ends part one.



Part two begins with Kenlon, now senior officer aboard the Sea Serpent, staring at the spot where Jones-Gordon was dragged into the depths. Kenlon initially wants to go after Jones-Gordon and his kidnappers with the submarine, but quickly realises that's futile, because Commander Jones-Gordon is surely dead by now, while the amphibians are headed for their underwater city. Kenlon plans to head there as well, catch up with the kidnappers/murderers of Commander Jones-Gordon and torpedo them. However, Nemmo claims not to know the coordinates of the undersea city. Only the council of the winged people knows the exact location.

Kenlon's interrogation of Nemmo is interrupted by a delegation from one of the other ships the winged people have brought through time. This delegation consists entirely of women, who are escorting a political figure called the Sessa Clen to her wedding. Their ship comes from ten thousand years in the future. Luckily, the commander, a woman named Dorilee, speaks English that Kenlon can understand (though it is very unlikely that the English language will remain even remotely understandable even a thousand years into the future, let alone ten) and also implies that Americans are the only civilised people of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, Dorilee and her squad of Joannas are the only female characters in the story so far and they only appear partway into part two.
Kenlon is quite smitten with Dorilee, while Dorilee infodumps all over him. She explains how her own flying ship works (magnetism), gives him a rundown on the other ships the winged people abducted and also informs Kenlon that Nemmo has been in constant contact with the other winged people. Then Dorilee abruptly decides to take command of the Sea Serpent, because she believes that only a submarine can carry out the winged people's mission. Kenlon pulls his gun on Dorilee who takes him out with some paralysing crystals.

"A woman was about to capture a fully armed, fully manned United States submarine", a desperate and paralysed Kenlon muses, while at least this reader cheered Dorilee on, because she is a lot more interesting than the rather dull and bland Kenlon.

Meanwhile, Kenlon is still standing like a statue in his own control room, while musing about the humiliation he just experienced and how this will disgrace him in the eyes of the crew. He is also furious that Dorilee doesn't even seem to care about the mortal wound she dealt to Kenlon's honour, because women just cannot understand such things. At this point, my eyes rolled so hard that I almost sprained them.

But Van Vogt and his wife E. Mayne Hull are not yet done with the casual sexism. For when Dorilee, who apparently also likes infodumping to people who can't answer, informs Kenlon that they need to return to their own time quickly, for otherwise the Sessa Clen whom they are escorting to her marriage will be replaced by her sister, Kenlon muses that a woman on her way to her wedding is more tigress than human being. At this point, my view of Kenlon changed from "bland nonentity, who unfortunately happens to be the protagonist" to "sexist jerk".

By now, the second and third officer, who were both up on deck, realise what is going on. The second officer tries to retake the control room, only to fall to the paralysing crystals. Third officer Tedders, however, is manning the Sea Serpent's anti-aircraft gun and will not stand down. Dorilee now gives Kenlon a device that neutralises the paralysing effect and tell him to order Tedders to stand down. Kenlon, fearing bloodshed, does so.

Once Dorilee and her Joannas have taken over the Sea Serpent, they are eager to set off and destroy the underwater city. However, the winged people are no more willing to give her the coordinates than they were willing to give them to give them to Kenlon. For it turns out that the council of the winged people is still undecided on the plan to destroy the stronghold of their enemies. This is a problem, because the council is supposed to be omniscient. And so the council demand to see Kenlon first. They do not ask to see Dorilee, at least not now. But then, Van Vogt and Hull have been referring to the winged people as the "winged men" throughout. Apparently, sexism is still a thing one million years in the future.

Kenlon is taken to the city of the winged people and now Van Vogt and Hull finally remember that where there are winged men, there will be winged women as well. None of them get any lines – all we get are some descriptions of Kenlon ogling them, before he decides to ogle the flying city instead.

But before Kenlon gets to meet the council, he first finds his consciousness transferred into the body of a winged being. Kenlon experiences the wonders of flight and joins in with the winged people sunbathing, singing and dancing high above the clouds that now envelop the Earth. But before Kenlon can actually talk to anybody, he suddenly finds himself underwater swimming, his consciousness suddenly transferred into the body of an amphibian person. The amphibians are on a shark hunt with Kenlon along for the ride. And then, once the shark has been captured and killed, Kenlon finds himself taken to the underwater city. He notes that the amphibians are all busily working, whereas the winged people prefer to flit about, while singing and dancing. Kenlon also learns a little about the main problem facing the amphibians – more and more of their number are succumbing to the lure of the sea and deserting the city – and meets an amphibian woman. This one even gets a few lines, mostly to berate the amphibian menfolk for their fascination with the sea and to inform us that women who take to the sea can never return to the city. Whether in the air or under water, sexism is clearly alive and well in the year 999999 A.D.


This positively psychelic cover dates from 1970.

The scenes of Kenlon experiencing the joys of flying and swimming are nigh hallucinatory. In fact, it is striking how many scenes there are in golden age SFF that read like transcripts of drug trips. I always assumed the association of SFF and drugs was mainly a product of the New Wave, but it was already a thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

Just before Kenlon is returned to his own body, he witnesses several amphibians dragging the limp body of Commander Jones-Gordon through an airlock into the underwater city and announcing that he will be easy enough to revive. So Jones-Gordon is alive after all.

However, Kenlon doesn't have time to muse about this, before the council of the winged people asks him to decide which of the two humanoid species on this far future Earth – the amphibians or the winged people – should survive. For both species believe that the Earth is not big enough for both of them and are planning to destroy the other. The amphibians have the better chance, because they have powerful tractor beams that are slowly dragging the flying city into the sea. However, the winged people have Kenlon and a submarine.

There is no real reason why this weighty decision should fall to Kenlon other than that he is the protagonist and currently in command (at least in theory) of the lone vessel that can destroy the underwater city. The council of the winged people also make it very clear that they don't want an alliance with Dorilee and her all-women troop of Joannas (who actually are in command of the Sea Serpent), for only Kenlon can resolve their dilemma. Gee, I wonder why.

Once the council of the winged men have said their piece, they return Kenlon to the Sea Serpent where a furious Dorilee is waiting for him. Turns out that Kenlon has been gone for three days, not a few hours as he initially assumed. It also turns out that Dorilee did not get the amazing drug trip of flying with the winged people and swimming with the amphibians, when she was questioned by the council. Instead, she was merely taken to a room with what sounds like a primitive computer.

Dorilee is eager to attack the undersea city, so they can all return to their own times. Kenlon, however, does not want to attack the city, because that would mean killing Commander Jones-Gordon. Of course, Kenlon doesn't even particularly like the man, but he still feels dutybound to rescue him. Furthermore, Kenlon finds that he does not want to exterminate an entire species, even though his commanders are planning to do the same thing to the Japanese.

It is depressing that by the standards of Astounding Science Fiction in 1944, a character realising that genocide is bad is a step forward. After all, in Fredric Brown's "Arena", published in the same year, genocide was the solution to the protagonist's dilemma. It's also disturbing how many science fiction stories published in 1944, mainly in Astounding, but also elsewhere, feature two species so different and hostile to each other that the universe/galaxy/solar system/planet is only big enough for one of them. Yes, I know it was in the middle of World War II, but fanzines from the same era often contain musing about how science fiction can bring about a better and peaceful world for everybody, so why were the prozines so genocidal?

An interesting collage style cover from 1967.

However, Dorilee is still bound on destroying the undersea city and the amphibians. The hatches are closed and the engines start up. However, Dorilee and her Joannas have made a fatal mistake. They use the Diesel engines not the electrical motors. And the Diesel engines require so much oxygen that they quickly exhaust the entire submarine's air supply. One by one, the Joannas pass out. Kenlon, however, was lucky enough to grab an oxygen tank just in time. He disarms the Joannas, strips them nude, because they might have weapons or shields hidden in their underwear (yes, honestly, that's the reason given in the story) and locks them in the torpedo room. However, Kenlon has regained his honour and standing in the eyes of his crew and that clearly matters more than the fact that he just stripped and groped more than forty women.

No sooner has Kenlon regained control of the Sea Serpent that the amphibians return Commander Jones-Gordon. It turns out that Jones-Gordon made a deal with the amphibians. They will return the Sea Serpent to its own time, if Jones-Gordon destroys the city of the winged people, using the warheads from the torpedoes as bombs and the submarine's onboard sea plane to launch them. Kenlon wants nothing to do with this, after all he has just come to the conclusion that genocide is bad.

Luckily, Kenlon speaks the language of the winged people and Jones-Gordon does not. And so he tells the winged people to seize Jones-Gordon and himself. Then he sets course for the undersea city and fires torpedoes into the city's central computer a.k.a. "council" and the tractor beam emitter, while leaving ninety-five percent of the city intact. This way, the amphibians no longer pose a threat to the winged people.

Jones-Gordon forgives Kenlon for his mutiny and the Sea Serpent is returned to 1944 – without Nemmo and the Joannas, of course.


The striking minimalist cover of The Winged Man dates from 1967.

Short fiction rather than novels was the beating heart of the science fiction genre during the golden age. As a result, the novel category at the Retro Hugos is often full of left-field finalist. However, pickings were truly slim in 1944 for The Winged Man to make the Retro Hugo ballot. For the novel is, to put it politely, not very good.

For starters, it's much too long. There is no reason that this story needs to be novel-length. It would have worked just as well as a novella or even novelette. But as it is, The Winged Man feels padded. A large portion of the novel is being taken up by Kenlon musing about his commander, whom he dislikes because Jones-Gordon is too rigid and unimaginative, Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity, after Dorilee takes over his ship, and Kenlon wondering whether to commit genocide and how to extract himself and his ship from the dilemma in which they find themselves. As a result, we spend an awful lot of time in the head of Kenlon, who's simply not a very likeable character. He's dull, bland and a raging sexist.

The same description could also apply to the novel as a whole. For while pulp science fiction can be many things, it rarely is boring. The Winged Man, however, is just dull. For large stretches of the story, very little happens. And even if something happens, it isn't particularly exciting. Even action scenes are dull. What little happens is also quite often confusing. There were several moments where I thought, "Wait a minute, what just happened? Did I miss something?" The pacing of the novel is simply off.


This German cover from 1967 mimics the popular war pulps of the era, but it is an accurate illustration of the story.

Submarines were a popular subject for pulp fiction from the 1930s well into the 1950s and beyond, not just in the US but in Germany as well. As a result, I have read my share of submarine adventures and none of them manage to make life and battle aboard a submarine as dull as The Winged Man. For SFF stories about submarines published in 1944 alone, "Undersea Guardians" by Ray Bradbury is much better than this turkey.

But while part I is merely dull, part II is so suffused with glaring sexism that it's hard to imagine that The Winged Man was co-written by (and in the magazine version, solely credited to) a woman, E. Mayne Hull, A.E. van Vogt's first wife. I forgive Hull and Van Vogt for not including any women in the first part, because there were no women on submarines of any nation during World War II. However, the treatment of Dorilee and her Joannas in part II is unforgivable. Yes, the idea of an all-women military unit was revolutionary in 1944 (and there are still plenty of people in the SFF genre today who have issues with the idea of women soldiers). And to be fair, Dorilee isn't particularly likeable – after all, she does commandeer the Sea Serpent after taking out her crew, though she doesn't want to kill anybody, if she doesn't have to. She is also fully willing to commit genocide, but then so is Commander Jones-Gordon.

However, Kenlon's blatant dismissal of Dorilee's motives grates. Yes, it's only a wedding, but Kenlon himself admits that he has no idea how weddings work and what they mean in the future world from whence Dorilee hails. It's well possible that the failure of the bride to appear at her wedding might mean summary execution for the bride and her retinue. It might mean that the bride's home country is bombed into submission – after all, it's clearly a political wedding. We don't know the consequences of the bride missing her wedding and neither does Kenlon. Nonetheless, he is convinced that the Sessa Clen, the woman Dorilee serves, is merely a bridezilla willing to do whatever it takes to get her perfect wedding.

The fact that Dorilee and her Joannas are defeated by their lack of knowledge about how WWII submarines work grates as well, even though the text makes it clear that the reason for their ignorance is the fact that the technology is so old that any knowledge they have about it is spotty. Nonetheless, there is an unpleasant undertone of "women are just too stupid to understand science" here, especially since oh so superior Kenlon manages to stay conscious, because he knows how his own submarine works.


Not only is the tagline on this 1980 cover wrong, since the Sea Serpent travels one million years into the future rather than thirty thousand, nothing about this cover is accurate. I assume the woman is Dorilee, even though she does not wear a bathing suit in the novel itself. And why are the men dressed like extras from Battlestar Galactica, when they would be wearing Navy uniforms?

But the most annoying thing is being treated to pages upon pages of Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity and worrying that the crew will no longer respect him, now he has been beaten by a woman (Dude, I'm pretty sure the crew can't stand you anyway, because you're an insufferable prick). And then we get Kenlon whining that Dorilee will never understand how she has humiliated him, because she is just a woman. Never mind that Dorilee is a military commander as well and therefore Kenlon's equal and would probably understand his worries about losing the respect of his subordinates. Most likely, it simply never occurs to her that the fact that she is a woman would be a problem for Kenlon. And don't even get me started on Kenlon personally stripping every single Joanna aboard naked. But he doesn't do it because he enjoys it (yeah, I bet he doesn't), but because the Joannas might have hidden weapons or shields in their underwear. Honestly, the supposed hero of this story gropes and strips more than forty unconscious women. I cannot imagine such a scene flying anywhere in modern SFF.

All of the above could be blamed on the fact that the POV character of the novel just happens to be a sexist jerk. However, the sexism in The Winged Man is not just in Kenlon's head – no, the whole novel is suffused with casual sexism. It begins with the fact that the two species competing for dominance on the Earth of the far future are referred to as the winged men and the fishmen throughout the novel. And while we do meet females of both species, the winged women never get any lines at all and the lone amphibian woman only gets to nag the menfolk for being too enamoured with the sea. Finally, there is the fact that it is Kenlon of all people who is asked to make the final decision about the fate of the winged people and the amphibians. Not Dorilee or Commander Jones-Gordon or the Sessa Clen or any of the people aboard the other ships that have been abducted into the future, but Kenlon, whose only distinguishing qualities are that he is an annoying jerk who happens to be the protagonist.

Talking of which, I also find it extremely unlikely that a WWII submarine, even a particularly advanced one, is the mightiest weapon to be found in one million years. That's like claiming the Wilhelm Bauer, the most advanced submarine of its time (which - though still powered by both diesel engines and electrical motors - was a lot less likely to accidentally suffocate its crew than the Sea Serpent) built in the last days of WWII, was the mightiest weapon in all of creation. Yes, if you want to destroy an underwater city, a submarine is a good bet. And while the military usefulness of submarines will eventually decline – though I suspect that the aircraft carriers the Americans love so much will be gone before submarines – grabbing a nuclear submarine with nuclear warheads from a couple of decades later would have been much more effective. And yes, Van Vogt and Hull had no way of knowing this. But claiming that a WWII submarine is the most mightiest weapon of all time is extreme even for John W. Campbell's well known superiority complex.

This 1977 cover shows both the Sea Serpent and the citadel of the winged people.

So far, I have been very harsh on The Winged Man and frankly, the novel deserves it, because it really is not very good. However, there were some aspects about the story that I liked, so let's focus upon them: For starters, I like the fact that genocide is not the answer in this novel. Yes, I know that "Genocide is bad" is a low bar to clear, but there are 1944 SFF stories (as well as many later ones) which fail to clear even that low bar ("Arena", cough). I also like that Commander Jones-Gordon is initially unwilling to get involved in the conflict between the winged people and the amphibians, because it's not the US Navy's job to get involved in other people's wars. Of course, Jones-Gordon still goes fully genocidal at the end and the US would get involved in other people's wars plenty of times over the next seven decades, but by 1944 standards "Genocide is bad" and "We keep out of other people's conflicts that we neither understand nor do they have anything to do with us" are remarkably progressive statements.

Another thing I liked about The Winged Man is that the plot largely makes sense and is free of the random plot twists every 800 words or so that Van Vogt was so fond of. I suspect that this is the influence of E. Mayne Hull.

Of the many covers "The Winged Man" has had over the years, this Dutch cover from 1974 is probably my favourite.

I also liked some of the worldbuilding details such as the fact that the winged people's numbering system has a base of nine rather than ten. The descriptions of the citadels of the winged people and the amphibians respectively are suitably alien and yet make perfect sense for the beings that inhabit them. Van Vogt and Hull also at least considered the biological implications of the humanoid beings they introduce, e.g. the winged men have hollow bones to allow them to fly and the amphibians are bigger than regular humans and have gills.

However, the few good aspects don't make up for the fact that The Winged Man is a slog and simply not a good novel. If not for the fact that there are still many fans who like Van Vogt's work, I doubt it would have made the Retro Hugo ballot. Cause it's just not Hugo-worthy in my opinion (unlike Van Vogt's much better "Far Centaurus"). If it wins, I shall be very cross, especially since both Shadow Over Mars and Sirius are much better.


Monday, 15 June 2020

Guest Review: “The Mad Chemist” by Carl Barks, reviewed by Don Briago



Today, I'm happy to bring you another guest review. This time around, the subject is The Mad Scientist by Cark Barks, a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award in the Best Graphic Story category. So I hand over to Don Briago to share his thoughts on The Mad Scientist.

***

"The Mad Chemist" is a ten-page Donald Duck comic by Carl Barks that first appeared in the May 1944 issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. It has been nominated for a Retro Hugo in the category of Best Graphic Novel or Comic. 

Spoilers follow. 

While the ducklings Huey, Dewey, and Louie play with a chemistry set, their impetuous Uncle Donald can’t resist dumping random ingredients into their flask, which bursts into the air and clonks him on the head. “I feel like a super man!” Donald says, and starts spouting a stream of chemical formulas, the basis for what he terms “Duckmite”, the world’s most powerful explosive. 

It is also, he and the boys soon learn, a miraculous fuel that enables their jalopy to travel at 836 miles per hour. Naturally, Donald then plans to pour Duckmite into a rocket ship and fly to the moon. The nephews worry that he’s too manic to embark on such a journey. 

A doctor examines Donald’s head and diagnoses him with “risus bumpoticus on the locus cocus”, a brain fever that gives the victim temporary super-intelligence. “But after the bump goes down,” the doctor predicts, “he’ll be as du- I mean, as good as ever.” 

The rocket launch is a success. As soon as Donald leaves Earth’s atmosphere his bump recedes, and he becomes terrified. The rocket orbits around the moon and slings back towards Earth, crashing, as luck would have it, into Donald’s backyard. His neighbors don’t believe that he went to the moon and poor Donald, no longer a genius, is unable to explain how he managed such a feat. 

“The Mad Chemist” is not one of the great Duck Tales. Most Barksist scholars agree that the comics reached their peak after the war, from the late 40s to the mid 50s. At this early stage Barks hadn’t perfected his Duck formula, a potent mixture of silliness, satire, and genuine adventure. “The Mad Chemist” isn’t as grounded as later stories, and the plot, such as it is, hops from one mishap to the next, with none of the ducks showing much agency, as we say nowadays.

All the same, this is a surprisingly suitable Retro Hugo nominee, less for its intrinsic merit than for the way it reflects the SF fandom of 1944. If you were a kid who read the pulps, you would have loved the “mad scientist” premise of the comic, and even more, its focus on rocketry. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, nerds were obsessed with rockets. Rocket ships of course featured prominently in science fiction, and in science fact, rockets represented the possibility that we would someday be able to travel in space. There was furious debate in the nerd community about whether rockets could ever be powerful enough to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, until German nerds silenced the skeptics by aiming their frightening V-2 missiles at London. 

One Londoner named Arthur C. Clarke survived the barrage and speculated that, by using German-style rockets, you could in theory launch a satellite up into orbit and transmit signals back down to any location on the planet. Thus the space race was born, and the next thing we knew the Beatles were singing “All You Need Is Love” on TV to billions of hippies over the world at once, and we were, like Donald Duck, on our way to the moon. And it’s all thanks to "The Mad Chemist.”

Well, maybe that slightly exaggerates the influence of Carl Barks, but it’s a fact that “The Mad Chemist” did become a tiny part of scientific history. In the first panel on page 2, Donald makes a reference to a chemical compound that hadn’t been mentioned before, and in a serious chemistry paper published in 1963, the panel was reproduced in its footnotes. (You can read about the details here). One author of the article had been a childhood Duck fan who had carefully preserved his Barks comics. 

That chemist wasn’t alone. After working for most of his career without any recognition, late in life Barks received a lot of fan mail from historians, archaeologists, astronomers and other scholars who claimed that his Duck Tales expanded their minds and stimulated their love of learning when they were children. In the same way, many scientists began as avid SF fans who enjoyed asking themselves "Would this be possible in real life?" when reading a pulp adventure. 

“Would it be possible to release a vast quantity of energy by splitting an atom?” the physicist Leo Szilard asked himself when reading H. G. Wells’ speculations about the possibility in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. Although, to our shame, we have produced Wellsian nuclear weapons but have yet to produce a Wellsian time machine, who's to say we won't someday be filling our jet packs with Duckmite, and hailing "The Mad Chemist" as the inspiration for our golden age of interstellar exploration?

***

Many thanks to Don Briago for this great review of The Mad Scientist, even if the novel itself turned out to be a bit dull.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Retro Review: "A God Named Kroo" by Henry Kuttner


This cover does not illustrate "A God Named Kroo", but Venusian Nightmare" by Ford Smith

"A God Named Kroo" is a novella by Henry Kuttner, this time writing under his own name. It was first published in the Winter 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

"A God Named Kroo" begins with Kroo, a minor village god in the Himalayas. Kroo has a problem, for his last worshipper died fifty years before. Ever since then, Kroo's temple has lain abandoned, avoided by the villagers. Now the only follower that Kroo has is a yak, which wandered onto the temple grounds one day in search of food and now belongs to Kroo according to ancient tradition.

And so Kroo would eventually have faded away for lack of attention and worshippers, if American archaeologist and ethnologist Dr. Horace Danton hadn't come along in dire need of a yak, for two of his have died and the rest are exhausted. The villagers are reluctant to sell Danton the yak, for it belongs it Kroo, but eventually the almighty dollar wins out. Danton now has a yak and Kroo has a new acolyte.

The point of view shifts to Danton now. We learn that he has been travelling the Himalayas for two years, cut off from all news. Idly, he wonders how the European war (what we would call World War II) is doing, unaware that the war is purely European no longer (and frankly never was in the first place, though Danton views the war between Japan and China as a separate conflict).

Kroo first makes his presence felt, when his sacred yak falls into a ravine and Kroo levitates it to safety. He also follows Danton and his native guide Jieng in the form of a thundercloud. When Danton mentions the mystery of the floating yak to Jieng, Jieng points out that he initially assumed the yak was a magician or a god in disguise, but when he questioned the yak, the yak did not answer. Jieng also noticed the thundercloud long before Danton did (but then Danton is your typical absent-minded professor type rather than Indiana Jones) and suggests that Danton may have become a living buddha. When Jieng mentions the goddess Kali whom he worships (Kuttner does not explain why a man with a vaguely Chinese name worships a Hindu goddess), there is a sound of thunder, which Jieng takes for a sign that another god is present. Danton, being a sceptical westerner, will have none of this.

Before the debate can go any further, Danton and Jieng are interrupted by a native attack. However, Kroo will not lose his newfound acolyte and so he picks off the attackers with well-aimed lightning bolts. And as if all this were not yet strange enough, Danton and the yak are suddenly lifted into the air and briefly find themselves sitting upon the thundercloud. And once Kroo sets them down again, he suddenly begins speaking through the very confused Danton, demanding the Jieng and the rest of the expedition worship Kroo or suffer the consequences.

Kroo also declares Danton his high priest. A conversation between Kroo and his new high priest follows, even though Danton is basically talking to himself. Danton understandably thinks that he is having a mental breakdown and also drinks a lot of whiskey, while Kroo tries to convince Danton that he is real. But only when Kroo levitates Danton into the air again and threatens to fly him halfway to the Moon does Danton relent. Kroo now demands that his high priest provide him with a temple. Danton meanwhile tells Kroo that he doesn't want to be his high priest, because he has no idea what to do. All he wants is to go home to the States. Kroo asks where the States are and Danton says eastwards, ever eastwards. He is clearly confused by the experience, because New York, where Danton wants to go, is west of Tibet. Nonetheless, Kroo obliges and flies Danton and the yak eastwards.

However, Kroo is weakened and so he only gets as far as Burma (nowadays, we would call it Myamar) to a town called Myapur (likely fictional, at any rate no town by that name exists in modern day Myamar), where he decides to find a temple, evict the resident god, if necessary, and rest awhile. However, the "temple" upon which Kroo decides is really a power station and it is guarded by Japanese soldiers who have taken over the formerly British colony of Burma. Kroo dumps off Danton and yak inside the power station and goes in search of the resident god to challenge him to a duel.

Danton, meanwhile, finds himself confronted by some very angry Japanese soldiers. But though Danton speaks Japanese, he has no idea that the US are at war with Japan now. The Japanese soldiers assume that Danton is a spy, arrest him and take him to their commander, one Captain Yakuni. There he also meets another western prisoner, a young woman named Deborah Hadley, who came to Burma as a singer in a travelling show. Deborah is no wilting wallflower. She smokes, wears pants, curses (in Gaelic, so not to upset the censors), knows how to fly a plane and banters with Yakuni and Danton (whom she calls Dan, because she dislikes the name Horace). At one point, she tells Yakuni to have the hapless Danton shot, because he obviously doesn't have the brains to be a spy. Imagine Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall playing her in a movie and you've got the idea.

When Yakuni qustions Danton, Danton manages to put himself perilously close to the wrong side of a firing squad. He politely asks Yakuni for transport, because he urgently needs to get his specimens and data back to the US, which goes down about as well as you'd expect. Yakuni also wants to know how Danton got from Tibet to Burma. Danton obviously cannot tell the truth, so he claims he was hypnotised and only came to in the power station.

Yakuni decides not to shoot Danton for now and instead asks Deborah to show him around. Deborah takes Danton to a bar and catches him up on recent events. She also tells Danton that Yakuni needs the power station, because he is manufacturing bombs from a special, electrolytically created superexplosive. Deborah wants to either get word to the Allied forces or destroy the power station herself and enlists Danton's help. Danton also tells Deborah about Kroo, but naturally she doesn't believe him.

Kroo picks just that moment to return and work another miracle. He levitates Danton and the yak into the air and has Danton order Burmese and Japanese (and Deborah) alike to worship him. The Burmese comply, the Japanese try to shoot down Danton and get fried by lightning bolts for their trouble. Deborah procures a dead goat as an offering to Kroo, which pacifies him for now.

Yakuni, on the other hand, is not at all pacified. He has Danton arrested again and demands to know what exactly is going on. Danton of course can't explain and then Kroo starts speaking through him again, demanding that Yakuni worship him. And when Yakuni refuses, Kroo starts to curse him using Danton's voice. As a result, Kroo almost gets his high priest shot by the furious Yakuni, but luckily he decides that discretion is the better part of valour and teleports Danton and Deborah to his "temple", before Yakuni can pull the trigger.

At the "temple", really the power station, Kroo makes Deborah his priestess, informs Danton that he has gotten rid of the men who defiled the temple (Japanese soldiers who were supposed to repair a broken dynamo, before Kroo reduced them to piles of ashes) and demands that they prepare the temple for a sacrifice. Kroo departs and Deborah and Danton discuss what to do now. They both realise that the Japanese will shoot them, should they find them in the power station. Deborah suggests wrecking the power station and Danton grabs a sledge hammer that is conveniently lying around and proceeds to smash the dynamos. This brings Kroo back, who considers the dynamos his altars and will not have them touched. Deborah persuades Kroo that this was all part of the ritual. Kroo relents and demands that Danton go outside the temple to bring Kroo's commandments to the people.

"I'll tell the Japanese what you want", Danton tells Kroo, "But they won't listen. They'll just shoot me."

Kroo confidently replies that he will protect his priest. So Danton goes out and promptly finds himself starring into the barrels of dozens of Japanese rifles. Yakuni orders his soldiers to shoot Danton, but Kroo intervenes and freezes them. He then declares a holiday in his honour and demands that his worshippers celebrate. A Burmese man points out that they don't have any food, because the Japanese took it all, so Kroo promptly raids the Japanese stores and teleports that food into the street, much to the delight of the Burmese and the chagrin of Captain Yakuni.

Kroo finally unfreezes the Japanese soldiers and demand that they join in the celebration. And just to make a point, he incinerates several Japanese soldiers who advance upon the power station. So Yakuni and his soldiers pretend to go along and join the festivities to honour Kroo. Several soldiers try to seize and shoot Danton, but once more Kroo intervenes, incinerates the soldiers and then erupts into a thunderstorm. He also lifts Yakuni up into the air and has Danton order him to worship Kroo or be incinerated. Then Kroo orders a tournament to be held to determine the chieftain of his tribe, which Kroo personally will oversee while inhabiting the body of the yak.

Left alone at the power station, Danton and Deborah decide to steal some of Yakuni's bombs and blow up the power station, even if that will infuriate Kroo. However, they find that Kroo's taboo is too strong. Nor can they radio for help, because Yakuni has disabled the radio. Danton is also certain that Yakuni has not truly given in, even though he is pretending to go along with Kroo for now.

Over the next few days, Danton proceeds to manipulate Kroo. First, he persuades Kroo to make Danton and Deborah invulnerable. Kroo does grant them invulnerability, but only if they remain near the sacred yak. Next, Danton persuades Kroo to have the people build a floating temple, which conveniently doubles as a raft. Finally, Danton persuades Kroo that in order to become a better and more legendary god, he needs to symbolically die and be reborn.

So Kroo goes into hibernation. Danton and Deborah take the chance to board the floating temple together with the yak, claiming to make a sacrifice to Kroo in a secret place. They also tell the Burmese that if they do not return within two days, the town of Myapur is a taboo place in order to protect the Burmese from a possible Allied bombing as well as the enraged Kroo.

Danton and Deborah get away from the village without incident and travel down the river on their raft. However, they fail to find an Allied base. Worse, Kroo awakens from hibernation to find Myapur deserted, his high priest, priestess and worshippers gone and his "temple" desecrated, since the Japanese took the dynamos with them, when they left. So Kroo seeks out his faithless priest and priestess, fully determined to kill them for the sacrilege. However, Deborah and Danton manage to persuade Kroo that it was the Japanese who desecrated the "temple" and that Deborah and Danton were just trying to get help. This satisfies Kroo for now, though he demands that Danton get his "shining altars" – the dynamos – back.

Danton deduces that Yakuni must have transported the dynamos downriver and that he must have set them up near a waterfall to utilise water power. So he asks Kroo to fly them down the river to search for Yakuni and the missing dynamos. They finally find Yakuni's new power station, which is fully operationally. The dynamos are up and running and Yakuni is manufacturing bombs again.

Confused, Kroo asks what happened to his temple and his altars. Danton tells him that an evil god has taken up residence in the temple, an evil god worshipped by the Japanese, and that Kroo should challenge this god in battle. Kroo promptly flies off to do that and succeeds in blowing up the dynamos, the Japanese and himself. The yak drops dead the moment Kroo does. Danton and Deborah are finally free. They mourn Kroo, who may have been a barbarian god, but wasn't a bad sort overall. An Allied plane comes to investigate the explosion and Danton and Deborah are rescued at last.

The point of view now switches to Kroo again, who finds himself on the rainbow bridge to Asgard – pardon, Godheim, the afterlife for deceased gods. Kroo is confused, because Godheim is for great gods and Kroo was just a Tibetan village god who never had the chance to grow to greatness. However, the other gods inform him that Kroo was brave enough to go up against a mighty deity whom none of them have ever dared to face. And even though he was slain in that battle, this more than qualifies Kroo for a place in Godheim. Is the point here that science and technology are more powerful than any of the gods of old? Or am I reading too much into this?


I have no idea which story this cover illustrates, but it's not "A God Named Kroo"

"A God Named Kroo" is a charming and highly entertaining adventure story. The plot moves at a brisk pace and so the story feels shorter than it actually is. Occasionally, SFF novellas from the golden age can feel padded and overly long – the authors were paid by the word, after all. I never had this feeling with "A God Named Kroo".

Thrilling Wonder Stories was mainly a science fiction magazine, but "A God Named Kroo" is pure fantasy without even a hint of science fiction. I could easily imagine it in John W. Campbell's Unknown – the science versus religion angle would have appealed to Campbell and Unknown published a lot of contemporary fantasy and also published lighter and more humorous stories than Weird Tales – and maybe that's what the story was intended for. Alas, Unknown fell victim to World War II paper rationing the year before and so "A God Named Kroo" wound up in Thrilling Wonder Stories instead.

Danton, Deborah, Kroo, Yakuni and even the yak are all fully developed characters with their own goals and motivations. I liked the fact that Danton – though brave and intelligent – is also something of a bumbler. Nor is he technically proficient – he is an archaeologist and ethnologist, after all, not an engineer. Deborah is a great example of a 1940s take on a strong female character, written by a man no less. I bet she'd get along just wonderfully with Mayo McCall from Leigh Brackett's Shadow Over Mars. Even Kroo, village god with an inferiority complex, is a remarkably sympathetic character – especially considering he is a barbarian god with a taste for blood sacrifices and the tendency to incinerate recalcitrant worshippers.

Considering how many American works of the WWII era portray the Japanese as grossly racist caricatures (e.g. last year's Retro Hugo winning Wonder Woman comic or the Retro Hugo nominated Batman serial), it is a pleasant surprise that Yakuni, though the antagonist, is still very much a human being. Nor is Yakuni portrayed as pointlessly cruel, which is even more of a rarity. Yes, he plans to shoot Danton, but that's actually understandable given the situation. He also does not sexually harass Deborah, though one of his subordinates does. But then, Earth's Last Citadel, a 1944 Best Novel Retro Hugo finalist by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, has two main characters who are Nazi spies and only contains one offensive scene. Kuttner and Moore do not dehumanise their antagonists, which makes me like their fiction even more.

That's not to say that there aren't several moments in "A God Named Kroo" that will make a modern reader roll their eyes or grit their teeth. Because there's quite a bit of casual racism in the story. Jieng, Danton's guide, is described as monkeylike. The Burmese and Tibetan people are described as superstitious and backwards, even though they are generally sympathetic characters. The Japanese are repeatedly described as "yellow-skinned" (Has Kuttner ever seen a Japanese person? Or any Asian person, for that matter?) and referred to as "Japs" or "Nips" in the dialogue throughout.

Furthermore, Kuttner also seem to be an adherent to the Lester Dent method of writing adventure stories in foreign settings. Foreign words are scattered throughout the text to evoke a sense of authenticity, whether the terms make any sense in that setting or not. Jieng is described as Hindu, even though he appears to be Chinese or Tibetan and would therefore most likely be Buddhist. Finally, Kroo manifesting as a thundercloud and striking down his enemies and insufficiently worshipful followers with lightning bolts is based on a very western and Christianised idea of religion. For manifesting their anger as thunder and striking down enemies with lightning is something western deities do.

But in spite of these criticisms, "A God Named Kroo" is highly enjoyable story. I could easily imagine this as a movie, a sort of cross between Indiana Jones, African Queen and Bringing Up Baby.

Talking of Indiana Jones, his inspirations are not as well documented as those for Star Wars, though in general Indiana Jones is believed to have been inspired by the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s with maybe a dash of Doc Savage thrown in. However, I have also come across several science fiction and fantasy stories from the golden age which were more than a little reminiscent of Indiana Jones. "A God Named Kroo" could actually be an Indiana Jones movie – down to the protagonist and his female partner being saved and the antagonists being destroyed by divine intervention. For though Indy is more of an action hero than Horace Danton, he nonetheless is saved by divine intervention in his first three movie and by alien intervention in the fourth that we shall not talk about. I don't know if George Lucas ever read "A God Named Kroo". However, we know that he was an avid reader of pulp science fiction, so I wonder if there isn't a little bit of Horace Danton or Leigh Brackett's various archaeologist protagonists in Indiana Jones.

The fact that "A God Named Kroo" is such a delightful and entertaining story makes it even more of a surprise that the story is relatively obscure. It is probably my favourite of the Kuttner solo stories I've read so far. At any rate, I enjoyed "A God Named Kroo" more than the better known Gallegher stories from the same period. Nonetheless, "A God Named Kroo" has only been reprinted once in seventy-five years – in 1954.

This very obscurity may well count against "A God Named Kroo" in the Retro Hugos, which tend to reward stories and authors with name recognition – which is why substandard early stories by future stars get nominated and occasionally win Retro Hugos over better, but lesser known stories. And though the novella category for the 1945 Retro Hugos is a tad weak, "A God Named Kroo" is up against the well-known and very good "Killdozer" by Theodore Sturgeon as well as also very good "The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett and "The Changeling" by A.E. Van Vogt, who still has a lot of fans. Furthermore, Henry Kuttner has somewhat fallen into obscurity, probably because he died much too young. "A God Named Kroo" would certainly be a worthy winner, but I suspect it's too obscure to win.