John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p.227 of 365)
The Blue Monkeys (Part 1 of 3) • serial by Thomas Burnett Swann ♥♥♥+
Period of Gestation • short story by Thom Keyes ♥♥♥♥
The Witch • short story by Keith Roberts ♥♥
Anita • short story by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥♥
Dummy Run • short story by Colin Hume
As Easy as A.B.C. • reprint novelette by Rudyard Kipling
Symbiote • short story by George Rigg
Escapism • novelette by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥
Love Feast • short story by Johnny Byrne
Editorial • essay by Kyril Bonfiglioli
One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a while is re-read Science Fantasy of the Kyril Bonfiglioli period in tandem with Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds.1 The latter got all the glory in the middle and late 1960s, but I have a sneaking suspicion that between 1964 and 1966 Science Fantasy was its match if not its superior.
I’ve decided to start with Bonfiglioli’s third issue because the first two were dreadful, filled with stuff that had been exhumed from the bottom of various writers’ trunks.2 There are also three good reasons for starting here: first there is the reappearance of Thomas Burnett Swann (who had been an important contributor during John Carnell’s editorship with, amongst other stories, the Hugo Award finalist Where is the Bird of Fire?); second, Keith Roberts appears for the first time in the magazine with three stories: he would go on to dominate the magazine’s pages and covers; finally, it contained a genuinely transgressive/taboo-breaking story of the kind that New Worlds was usually given credit for publishing.
Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Editorial echoes my sentiments above by stating that this issue is ‘the first with which I am fully satisfied’, before talking a little about the stories and taking the mickey out of James Goodrich’s (of Middletown, New York) letter:
“I deduct from reading your editorial, skimming thru the stories (read Aldiss’) and noting the competition for scientists that u are not going to pub anything that might be labelled fantasy, weird, horror, mythical or—perish the thought—sword & sorcery. If this conclusion is correct, then u may remove a potential subscriber from the list. When I became convinced that I could rely on Ted to include 1 fantastic story in almost every ish & decided to mail a check, the old Science Fantasy ceases. Overjoyed to learn SF was to return, I eagerly awaited the 1st no. only to have my hopes ruined.
Did I like anything about your debut? No. The cover is fashionably avant garde & consequently repugnant. The contents are uniformly ugh. I am over 35, have a degree in biology, am a responsible adult tho highly unconventional, am a parent & a professional public librarian; yet scientific s /f of any calibre bores me completely.
Regardless of my feelings I wish u much success in reaching your fictional goals.”
(Dear Sir, I regret to deduct that u found debut ish ugh & note that u wd prefer unscientific science-fic in unfashionable cover. I hope u dislike this ish less. Sincerely— Ed.) p.3
The fiction leads off with the initial part of Thomas Burnett Swann’s first novel The Blue Monkeys (this was later reissued by Ace as The Day of the Minotaur).3 I think I first read this in my late teens and thought it OK but wasn’t wild about it. I liked it a lot more this time around, possibly because I am now a Swann completist and have read everything else he wrote.4
After a ‘lost manuscript found’ introduction, this gentle mythological fantasy starts with Thea and Icarus, the strange adolescent children of Aeacus, who returned to Knossos with them after three years wandering in the country of the Beasts. Their ears are delicately pointed and their hair has tints of green: they are half human-half dryad.
When their home town Knossos is invaded by Achaeans they manage to escape by glider, but are recaptured on landing. Ajax, the leader of the Achaeans, sets his mind to ravishing Thea and tells her to bathe and then dress like a woman. Her brother Icarus goes with her and later comments on her choice of clothing:
“He is going to be disappointed,” said Icarus, entering the room. “He wanted you to dress ‘as becomes a woman.’ “
“You know very well what he meant. He wanted to see your breasts. Myrrha always said they were like melons, and if they kept on growing they would soon be pumpkins. I expect he feels like gardening.”
“He can see enough of them now.”
“I know, but you’ve diminished them. Perhaps you could paint your nipples with carmine.
“Do you want me to look like a Moabite temple girl?” she protested, though nipples were also painted in worldly Knossos.
“It can’t hurt to pacify him,” said Icarus realistically.
She thought with a start: He does not suspect what Ajax really wants of me. He still believes that a woman pleases a man only by showing her breasts and perhaps giving him a kiss.
“You see,” he went on, “if he likes your dress, he may not make you kiss him.”
“If he likes my dress, he will make me kiss him.”
Icarus looked surprised. “But that seems greedy. Must he get everything the first night?”
“Achaeans are greedy men. That’s why they’ve come to Crete.” p.21-22
Ajax subsequently summons Thea and, after an unsuccessful attempt by Icarus to save her by ‘losing’ his tame snake Perdix in the chamber, she has to resort to a pin in her hair to cool his ardour….
After injuring Ajax both Thea and her brother are banished to the Lair of the Minotaur in the Forest of the Beasts where they fear being killed and eaten. However, the minotaur, Eunostos, turns out to be a gentle soul whose bellowing and prowling is all for show, a ruse to keep humankind away from the Forest and its mostly gentle Beasts. The minotaur takes them to his home:
The house had once been a mountainous oak, broad as the Ring of the Bulls at Knossos, but thanks to a bolt of lightning, only the trunk remained to a height of twenty feet, like the walls of a palisade with a walkway and narrow embrasures near the top in case of a siege. I went to the door and rang the sheep’s bell which hung above the lintel. Behind the red-grained oak I heard the quick pattering steps of a Telchin as he came to raise the bolt. In the forest, it was always necessary to lock one’s door. According to an old proverb, “Where locks are not, the Thriae are.” The shy Telchin did not wait to greet us. He and his race are frightened of strangers, though among themselves they boast and wench and fight at the drop of a toadstool.
I had hollowed the trunk of my tree to encompass a garden, which held a folding chair of citrus wood, a large reed parasol like those of the Cretan ladies when they walk by the sea, a clay oven for bread and honey cakes, a grill for roasting meat, and a fountain of hot spring water which served as my bath and also to wash my dishes. Around the fountain grew pumpkins, squashes, lentils, a grape vine hugging a trellis, and a fig tree with small but shapely branches and very large figs. Between the hearth and the parasol grew my favourite flowers, scarlet-petaled, black-hearted poppies, and Zeus help the weed which stole their sunlight or the crow which bruised their buds!
I have always felt that a garden should extend and not circumscribe nature; I plant my flowers haphazardly instead of in rows, and sometimes I scatter my tools in pleasant disorder, like branches under a tree. But Thea was used to the tidiness of palace courtyards. I felt rebuked by her look and hurried to pick up a rake, muttering, “I wonder how this got there,” though of course I had laid it there myself three weeks ago and stepped around it every morning. p.33-34
The plot synopsis and the two quotes will give good idea of the feel of the novel, and I suspect that readers’ reactions will be Marmite ones. Some will be enchanted by the thought of reading a fantasy like this and the others will have no souls….
I do have a minor criticism of this first part of the novel and that is its structure and viewpoint. After starting the novel with the contemporary introduction about this being a lost manuscript, Thea, and to an extent Icarus, are the point of view characters for the next chapter and a half. Then the narration is almost entirely from the viewpoint of the Minotaur for the rest of the novel. This all makes for a very choppy start, and seems a rather first-novel type of flaw.
Period of Gestation by Thom Keyes5 is a grim tale of mad astronauts that most assuredly wouldn’t have appeared under the previous Carnell regime. Not only that, it was more transgressive than anything its supposedly more taboo-busting companion New Worlds would publish for some time. Bonfiglioli notes in his editorial:
I was solemnly warned not to print Thom Keyes’ PERIOD OF GESTATION since it deals with matters more familiar in the pages of THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM than in the curiously chaste and prudish ambience of science fiction. I do not think it is an immoral story: to record unnatural crime is not to endorse it. Moreover, I think it is the first story I have seen which takes a really straight—if disillusioned—look at what might really happen to human nature when subjected to the intolerable strains of space. p.2
The story starts several years into a long spaceship voyage, by which time all the crew members have gone crazy and indulge in intermittent violence against each other. Move over Barry Malzberg. Also:
Berry was a darling boy, a sort of Botticellian Lucretia Borgia, who had let his hair grow long after his first madness, when they had all convinced him that he was Jesus Christ. They learned that this was a dangerous game to play. Berry had an ideally pale skin for the picture as well, because he refused to sit under the sun lamps as they all did as part of their daily ritual. His face was roundedly thin, and the cheekbones were high, and his long hair fell fair. So whether they bullied Berry or whether they slept with him, it was all the same to them, because he was a lower form of life in some way, like a woman. p.41
Matters take an unexpected turn when it appears that Berry is pregnant. The rest of the crew have trouble dealing with this development:
There had always been tension among them, but never the sort of hostility that was growing up now. Berry, of course, was obviously trying to pretend that he knew nothing about this at all. And the rest of them decided that this was the best course to follow in their relations with him; to act as if there was nothing wrong, and that they had not even noticed. Prokosch tried to work out how far gone he was, and after careful observation and tabulation they decided on two months. Prokosch tried to set himself up as the father and acted like a complete bastard all the time, and would lie awake all the night and worry, and then he tried to bully Wrenn and Newman until they ganged up on him and nearly kicked him to death in order to keep him in place.
They had to decide then that they were all the father, and that was the nearest to the truth. p.42-43
Once they are almost within radio range of Earth (spoiler) Berry’s pregnancy comes to term in a grisly and horrific way. Although the homosexuality isn’t surprising nowadays the violence and the ending still have a punch. I suspect some of the readers of the time would have been a little shocked to find a story like this in a SF magazine.
Next up is Anita by Keith Roberts. This is actually the first two of the ‘Anita’ series stories, The Witch and Anita rolled into one, but which are separate in the subsequent collection.6
The Witch is a pleasant if minor introduction to Anita, the teenage witch who lives in English countryside with her Granny Thomson. In this first instalment Anita undergoes an initiation to turn her into a fully-fledged witch. It introduces two recurring characteristics of the stories: first, the person conducting the initiation, her no-nonsense guardian Granny Thomson. She has a distinctive Northamptonshire dialect:
She added a pinch of black powder to the brew and shook in a few frog’s legs from a polythene bag. The fumes intensified. She said “’Ere y’are then, sit yer down. I ent got orl night. Bring that there chair uwer.” The contents of the pot had begun to solidify; she withdrew a horrible-looking blob on the end of a stick. She said “Undo the top o’ yer dress then. Look smart.”
Anita wailed “Oh, no! “ She clapped a hand to her throat. Granny Thompson’s eyes gimleted at her. She said “Git it orf. Clean on yisdey, that were. Think I got nothink to do but wosh for y’ all day? Wan’ it all done for yer, you young ’uns do.” p.49
Secondly, it describes Anita’s rapport with the natural world:
It took a few moments for her to recognise the callsign, for it was very distant. When she did she answered joyfully. It was a bat, the nocturne who lived in the church over the hill. She waited until he came zigging across the moon to her, then got up and walked on with the little animal circling above her head. She talked to him as she went. He always intrigued her. His mischievous little mind was full of strange thoughts about glow-worms and bells, and spires so old God had forgotten them. p.53
Not much happens in this one beyond the initiation rite and Anita going out to attempt some magic.
The second story, Anita, is quite a different kettle of fish. This one is powerful, dark and tragic; rather atypically so for the series. The story starts with Anita spying on a young couple who regularly meet by the lake. The girl, Ruth, is there on her own occasionally and she and Anita eventually become friends. Anita has lived a sheltered life away from humankind and learns a lot about Ruth and her life:
One night Ruth persuaded Anita to walk back with her so she could see her home. When the houses came into sight Anita stopped and refused to go any farther. She said “They aren’t like mine. They’re just not proper places to live. Where do you grow food?“
Ruth laughed. “We don’t grow anything. We just buy it. Or at least Mummy does. There’s a van that comes round on Tuesdays. We put a lot of things in the refrigerator. They keep for ages like that.” Anita winced. She thought she had never heard anything so sinful. p.58
Anita learns that Ruth’s boyfriend, Jem, is Romany. Her parents do not approve:
The next night Jem did not come and Ruth cried again. Anita put her arms round her and felt most peculiar as a result. She was not supposed to be sorry for humans, only hinder and impede them. At this rate she would not go to Hell at all but to the Other Place.
Mimicking her Granny, she said “‘Ere, ’old ’ard. I kent stand orl this sniftin.” It made Ruth laugh and she began to talk again. But it was all about unhappy things; how her father had told her the Romanies were no good because they had lice and even if Jem’s folk got a house on the council estate she could not see him because he was only a Gippo and would never do an honest day’s work, and how would she like looking after a dozen kids while he was down in the pub swigging his money away and anyhow he was sure to beat her. p.59
At this point, what has been a light melodrama turns rapidly (multiple spoilers) into something much darker. Jem and his family are turfed off the common by the police and he leaves no signs for Ruth to follow. She goes home, has a violent argument with her father, and then runs out of the house towards the lake:
The water was icy and knifed at her as it rose above her waist but she only noticed it in a detached fashion. Soon she was half-swimming, kicking awkwardly to push herself into the deep places at the centre. She felt sorry for her parents, for Jem, for Anita and herself but she would have to do it now. To go back muddy to her neat home would be worse than not going back at all. Soon her clothes became heavy with water and began to pull at her like hands urging her toward the mud of the lake bottom. She relaxed, feeling herself drawn down to the dead leaves that waited there, and apart from the first few moments it was not too bad at all. p.59
Anita arrives shortly afterward but is too late to save her:
She stood on the edge of the dull grey water clenching her hands and feeling drums roll inside her head. Then everything went red and started to flash and when she could see the lake again there was a furrow in the water like that made by a plough in a field and Ruth was walking up it toward her. She came jerkily, swinging her arms and legs like a puppet and with her eyes staring straight ahead. Anita felt a little bit of her mind that was still alive saying ‘Had to, had to,’ then even that was gone and there was nothing. p.62
After reanimating the corpse, Anita marches it back to the estate where Ruth lived:
Nearly all the lights of the little houses were out and the cars stood in the drives, patient humps waiting for the morning. Anita squealed to the sky. “Come on, ’oomans, up yer gits. Jump about.” She took Ruth’s cold hand and skipped in a mad imitation of gaiety. “See wot om brought for yer!”
She stopped by the hedge that bordered the lane and glared with eyes that were phosphorescent with rage; then she summoned all her power and sent the zombie running awkwardly across the road and through the first gate to fumble and beat at the door. Then the next and the next. “You tell them” choked Anita. “Tell them who sent you. Tell them what I am. Say I’ll come in the night. I’ll be the thing that jumps in the river when all the fish have gone. The bush on the common that isn’t there in the morning. The bird that screeches when the owls are in their holes. The branch that bumps the roof when they’ve cut down all the trees. Tell them I’ll kill them all! “ And Ruth went bang-bang-banging along the doors while inside saucepans danced with pressure-cookers and mincers and dinner-mats and old stacks of women’s magazines burst into flames in their cupboards and the tubes of Murphys and rented Cossors imploded and refrigerators vomited their scraggy contents and wept ammonia, while spillholders and plastic roses jumped from their shelves and the hardboard backs burst from cheap wardrobes and shiny city suits leaped in the air and lights and screams came on in every little house… p.63
It is a quite extraordinarily powerful sequence of events, especially from a new writer. That said, the change in pace and tone between the first and second halves is rather like going from a gentle walk to jumping on a skateboard at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Nonetheless, a very good story and one of Roberts’ best.
Apart from the third Roberts’ story towards the end of the issue the rest of the fiction isn’t up to much. There are several short-shorts: Dummy Run by Colin Hume is about an out of work ventriloquist being snatched by a flying saucer crew for a pre-invasion interrogation. Subsequent misunderstandings save the planet. Symbiote by George Rigg is about a man seeing pink elephants, mostly narrated from their point of view. Love Feast by Johnny Byrne cheerily ends the issue by describing post-holocaust auto-cannibalism.
As Easy as A.B.C. by Rudyard Kipling is a reprint (The London Magazine, March 1912) that tells of the future Aerial Board of Control going to Illinois to put down a rebellion. Certain of the citizens have gathered in a crowd to demonstrate for democracy, so the rest of the populace have shut down the transportation grid to force the ABC to remove them. I suspect the endless talk that the characters engage in to describe their futuristic technology and political system is fairly typical of this kind of period piece. I have no idea why Bon, or any number of subsequent anthologists, thought this was worth reprinting.7
Escapism by Keith Roberts is a well enough done traditional SF story about the narrator befriending a man called Dave, who is the projectionist at the local cinema. Later, Dave starts screening film for a strange film crew who are on location, and their film has a 3D quality that doesn’t require any special equipment…. After running several reels of their historical film they realise they are dealing with time travellers from the future.
This story will be of particular interest to Keith Roberts aficionados as parts of it foreshadow aspects of his future work. First, there is the love of machinery—in this case film projection equipment that he would have known from his father’s job as a cinema projectionist in Kettering8:
The mechs were years out of date; Simplex heads, Western bases, Ross arcs, they looked like ancient mechanical patchworks. But they had the sleek air that comes from careful handling, the spoolboxes were polished, the driptrays scoured and gleaming. p.105
Then there is the dislike of modern life, as when Bill talks about the past they have seen on film:
“That was the time to live, Bill. No main roads, no housing estates. America a pirate’s Eldorado, London a town out of fairy tales. It was quite a time.” p.120
There is also the mythology of the land:
[Dave] had strange fancies about the chalk hills. They intrigued him; I remember once when we were walking on the downs near the sea he stopped and asked me whether I was afraid of waking them. He said we were moving on their backs like fleas on a whale. I asked him what he was talking about and he laughed and said they’d been asleep too long, we didn’t mean anything to them now. p.106
Finally, there is the foreshadowing of the medieval battle scenes that would appear in Corfe Gate, at the end of Pavane:
They held the camera on the battle.
I’d seen good filming. I’d seen All Quiet and Gone with the Wind, the Odessa steps massacre and the fall of Babylon from Intolerance, but I’d seen nothing like this. It was the details that got me. A man loping for cover, sweating and grinning with his hands full of his own entrails. Severed flesh on the grass. A soldier’s arm stripped by a swordcut. I saw a horse take a pike head in the nostril, saw its face turn to smashed bone. I saw something else too as Monmouth’s men rose to receive the Royal cavalry. That upset me worst of all.
Five minutes later it was over. A riderless horse moved past the camera cropping grass. Smoke drifted slowly. There was a noise of birds, mixed with the baby-voices of dying men. The reel ended. p.119
One of the better issues of Bonfiglioli’s reign and recommended to anyone interested in this period.
- …and also read the Astoundings and Unknowns of the 1940s. And the first few years of Galaxy and the first decade or so of F&SF. Have a look at the Weird Tales of the early to mid-1930s. Possibly reread the magazines I first read in the mid-’70s, especially Fantastic from 1976…. Keep up with the magazines being published at the moment. And then….
- Bonfiglioli relied heavily on ‘bottom drawer material’ by Brian W. Aldiss for his first couple of issues of Science Fantasy after being appalled at the poor quality of quarter a million words of mss that had been submitted. Transformations by Mike Ashley p.243
- The publication of The Blue Monkeys in paperback form as The Day of the Minotaur was not helped by Swann’s then agent John Carnell:
After leaving the editor’s post at Science Fantasy to Kyril Bonfiglioli in 1964, Carnell set up a literary agency, and Swann was among his customers. “He was a fine editor but a poor agent for me,” Tom wrote. “I suggested Ace and Ballantine to Carnell, but he said he had already queried them.” Dropping Carnell as agent, Swann wrote to Donald Wollheim (then SF editor at Ace) who immediately asked him to submit the two novels he’d published earlier in Science Fantasy—The Weirwoods and Day Of The Minotaur. Wollheim “accepted Minotaur in three weeks,” Swann reported. “Two weeks after Minotaur appeared [he] accepted [Weirwoods] too. Later I learned from Mrs. Ballantine that Carnell had never approached her about my stories, just as he hadn’t approached Wollheim…. I think he was so busy that he forgot just whom he had written and whom he hadn’t. I met him once in London and thought him delightful, though even then he was always rushing about, catching omnibuses and such.” Letter to Bob Roehm 7/13/73, quoted in Thomas Burnett Swann: A Critical Introduction by Robert A. Collins, in the Matt Hargreaves published The Minotaur Trilogy by Thomas Burnett Swann, p.305-6.
The novel was subsequently a Hugo Award finalist in 1967.
- It took me a long time to get hold of all Thomas Burnett Swann’s books in those pre-internet days. They were difficult to find, expensive, sometimes both. I remember spending a couple of days on one holiday to Los Angeles in the ’90s driving to various second-hand book stores spread far and wide looking for those elusive volumes. At one store I found three of them, and it wasn’t a speciality store either. I felt like I’d won the lottery.
- I first read Thom Keyes’ story in Best SF Stories from New Worlds #4. Michael Moorcock also nicked Hilary Bailey’s In Reason’s Ear and Josephine Saxton’s The Wall from Science Fantasy for other volumes in this series.
- The original Ace edition of Anita had fifteen stories in it, eleven from Science Fantasy, two from F&SF and two originals. The later, attractive Owlswick Press edition added The Checkout, a 1981 story from F&SF, as well as Stephen Fabian illustrations.
- As Easy as A. B. C. at ISFDB.
- Keith Roberts: The Patient Craftsman by Mike Ashley, p.2, Science Fiction Monthly, v02n12.