Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 07, 2009

travel books and pulp adventures

I am a bit fan of history. Invariably, when I read a nonfiction book, it is history-related somehow. Travel books, in particular, are only as enjoyable for me as the amount of historical content they contain. My touchstone for travel books is H.V. Morton’s A Traveler in Rome whose main concern is discussing the historical background of each site Morton visited.

Tim Severin has a very good reputation as a travel writer, so I bought his book In Search of Robinson Crusoe which is not really a “search” for Crusoe himself–after all, how can you seek a purely fictional character?–but an investigation into similar shipwrecks and people trapped on deserted islands. Much of the book concerns pirates, as well as Severin’s own experiences in Nicaragua, and some of it, although not all, is fascinating reading. Severin tends to go on too long with a single topic, so that occasionally you wish one of his characters would get off the damned island! But overall, I am enjoying the book.

I’ve been catching up on some short fiction recently. The October-November 1999 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction had quite a few outstanding stories:

• Kate Wilhelm’s “The Happiest Day of Her Life” started out as a Connie Willis throwaway (I am not a big fan of Willis’ comedies) but sequed into an interesting story about how genetic mutations protect themselves.

• Ursula K Le Guin’s “Darkrose and Diamond” was a bittersweet Earthsea story which should appeal to all Le Guin fans (and which is in her book Tales of Earthsea).

• Robert Silverberg’s “A Hero of the Empire” is a portion of his fascinating alternate history Roma Eterna in which the Roman Empire in the West did not fall but remained intact until modern times.

• Lucius Shepard’s “Crocodile Rock” was a typical Shepard tale involving Third World culture and legend and a main character who gradually gets drawn into a situation far over his head.

I’ve also been reading the December, 1951 issue of Galaxy (yes, I am crawling through the entire run of the magazine), whose centerpiece is a Damon Knight novella “World Without Children,” a story about near-immortal humans (a topic Knight has used several times) becoming sterile as a side effect of the longevity treatment. But the government has forbidden childbirth since increasing population is a serious threat to a world where nobody dies, so an underground movement tries to encourage clandestine births in order to protect humanity from gradual extinction. My only complaint with the story is its blatant deus ex machina ending, which seems a bit strange for a writer who is renowned for his careful deconstruction of famous sf stories because of flaws such as illogic.

The highlight of the issue for me was Fritz Leiber’s short story “A Pail of Air,” which told of the survival of a family in a future in which Earth is pulled out of its orbit and ends up orbiting far beyond Pluto. This story is available in The Best of Fritz Leiber (assuming you can find a copy!).

Finally, British publisher Gollancz has released as series of books under the cumulative titles Fantasy Masterworks, one of which is a huge collection of the best of Leigh Brackett entitled Sea-Kings of Mars. I’ve been reading the book in spurts, since 650 pages of pulp adventures can get a bit blurry at times. Many of Brackett’s famous books are here in their original novella form, such as “The Sword of Rhiannon” and “The Road to Sinharat,” as well as her famous collaboration with the young Ray Bradbury, “Lorelei of the Red Mist.” They are all enjoyable stories so long as you are looking for color and sense of wonder rather than intricate plots and characterization. They reminded me of such early Zelazny stories as “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and, especially, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” with somewhat less poetry, but they are all enjoyable stuff. When I finish the book, I might reread her John Stark on Skaith trilogy from the 1970s.


  • You had to remind me that I have not read any Brackett stories in a long time. I'll have to move the Skaith trilogy or the Best of... up to my reading stack.

    I was going to reread Zelazny's This Immortal but I found a copy of Philip Jose Farmer's Jesus on Mars. Since he recently passed away I decided to go with the Farmer book next.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:29 PM  

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