Vortex v01n01, January 1977

ISFDB link

Editor, Keith Seddon

First Entry • short story by Steve Axtell
The End of All Songs (Part 1 of 4) • serial by Michael Moorcock
The Englishman’s Lady • novelette by Ravan Christchild
The Touch of a Vanished Hand • short story by Robert Holdstock

Cover • by Rodney Matthews
Interior artwork • by Michelle Robson, James Cawthorn (5 for story, 5 in article), Jocelyn Almond (4), Stephanie Little
Editorial • by Keith Seddon
“Sci-Fi, Sword-and-Sorcery” • interview of James Cawthorn by Eric Sutton

The first I knew of this large size SF magazine (quarto1 according to ISFDB) was when I stumbled upon the second issue in W. H. Smith’s in Union Street, Aberdeen, in early 1977, while wandering down to the bus stop after school. I bought the second issue and pored over it until, a week or so later, this back issue arrived at my newsagent.
It opens with a standard post-New Worlds Editorial by Keith Seddon (Moorcock’s large format New Worlds cast a long shadow, one that would reach even beyond Interzone’s first issues in the early 1980s) and has the seemingly obligatory experimental/speculative fiction pitch:

Vortex has come into being for the simple reason that there is no other monthly magazine of its type. Perhaps most like Vortex was Michael Moorcock’s large format New Worlds which has not been published for over seven years.
Until now, readers have had to satisfy themselves with paperback SF, which has maintained a strong conservatism; not many experimental books have appeared. Not that publishers are to blame for this state of affairs—with the economic recession we are still living through, publishers understandably wanted to stick with sure bets. And even with a straight SF novel, there is still an element of risk.
With the emergence of Vortex, such risks become almost nonsensical, in that each issue will contain several items of fiction, only one of which will be in any way experimental.
Experimental fiction is usually labelled Speculative Fiction, which is reasonable, because not many authors attempt to experiment within the ‘rules’ of Fantasy or Horror or SF. Besides which, the purpose of experimenting is usually to see what happens when certain of these rules are adjusted.
We all know what straight SF, and Fantasy consists of, because we have had the paperbacks to rely upon.
What then is Speculative Fiction? Firstly, it is the hardest of all the forms of fiction to actually write. Because it explores alternatives, challenges established mores, and tends to be more philosophical than scientific, it becomes more difficult to convince the reader of the validity of the changed rules that have been used in any particular item of fiction.
In a way, Speculative Fiction is the most down to earth of all the forms of fiction that are shrouded under the umbrella of Science Fiction; because Speculative Fiction reflects the times. It is often used as a commentary on Social History.
Such fiction is the richest in possibilities. p. 1

If speculative fiction is ‘the richest in possibilities,’ it rather makes you wonder why only one of the stories each issue ‘will be in any way experimental.’ In some respects the promise of fiction-type diversity is remarkably similar to Moorcock’s early ‘don’t frighten the horses’ editorials in the first of his paperback format issues of New Worlds.

First Entry by Steve Axtell2 is a relatively short piece of fiction that gets matters off to a solipsistic start. A man sets up camp near a mansion that is not shown on any maps. This activity is interspersed with several flashbacks to his post-war childhood.
In the morning he climbs the surrounding wall and goes to the mansion. There he is greeted by a beautiful woman who takes him upstairs and makes love to him.
The surreal ending (spoiler) has him wake up to find he has become an old man, andbeside him, the woman is a pile bones. He flees outside, and then finds himself floating in a body of water that he can’t escape. Meanwhile, on the hill above, the mansion burns.
This reads like a transcribed dream, and not a particularly coherent one at that.
The End of All Songs by Michael Moorcock was the start of a four-part serialisation of the final novel in his ‘The Dancers at the End of Time’ trilogy.3 Previous to this there had been two shorter novels published (An Alien Heat and The Hollow Lands) as well as four novellas in New Worlds anthology series (volumes #7 through to #10). I had really enjoyed the first two of these latter novellas, Pale Roses and White Stars, and had then obtained the two novels (which were in paperback by then, having been published in 1972 and 1974).
I thought at the time that this serialisation would save me waiting for the usual year or eighteen months for the paperback version, but I see it was soon published in July of the same year. That said, I’m not sure it is that clever an idea to launch your magazine with the third novel in a trilogy: God knows what new readers made of it.
The first two novels in the trilogy introduce the exotic inhabitants at the End of Time, a dissolute and amoral but innocent and amusing group of characters who use their power rings to satisfy any whim. One of them, Jherek Carnelian, falls in love with a 19th century woman called Amelia Underwood and then pursues her. Their problematical relationship (Underwood is an uptight married woman of her time wrenched into the future, and Carnelian has no concept of ‘virtue’ or ‘sin’) involves two time-travel trips back to the late 19th century. The first trip ends up with Jherek being hanged but surviving as he is spat back to the future. Meanwhile, alien space travellers have visited Earth warning of the end of the Universe. At the end of the second book Jherek and Amelia are stranded in the Silurian era. (There is a longer synopsis of these amusing books below.4)
This instalment starts with the pair trying to make the best of their situation, trying to work out what of the local flora and fauna is edible, etc. They are not left on their own for long before another (unidentified) time-traveller turns up and, after a brief conversation, departs, leaving them a picnic hamper. The idea of a multiverse is either introduced (or restated, I forget) as he mentions he has gone past the End of Time into another universe.
In short order they are joined by Inspector Springer and the Lat (who essentially play the role of rude comic dwarves in the piece) and return with the Jherek and Amelia to their camp for tea. The Lat wander off, build a raft and are attacked by sea scorpions.

Captain Bastable and Una Persson turn up to rescue the survivors and take them all to the Time Centre. Over coffee ‘Sergeant Glouager’ (presumably Karl Gloauger from Behold the Man) tells them about the fluctuations in the Multiverse, and Una Persson tells them about the Conjuction of a Million Spheres, when the multiverse repairs itself. I wondered at this point if this novel was when Moorcock starting tying all his work together.

Jherek and Amelia are sent back to the End of Time in a sequence that has a nice time travel passage:

Jherek watched them retreat. The thrumming grew louder and louder. His back pressed against Mrs. Underwood’s. He turned to ask her if she were comfortable but before he could speak a stillness fell and there was complete silence. His head felt suddenly light. He looked to Mrs. Persson and Captain Bastable for an answer, but they were gone and only a shadowy, flickering ghost of the black wall could be seen. Finally this, too, disappeared and foliage replaced it. Something huge and heavy and alive moved towards them, passed through them, it seemed, and was gone. Heat and cold became extreme, seemed one. Hundreds of colours came and went, but were pale, washed out, rainy. There was dampness in the air he breathed; little tremors of pain ran through him but were past almost before his brain could signal their presence. Booming, echoing sounds — slow sounds, deep and sluggish — blossomed in his ears. He swung up and down, he swung sideways, always as if the capsule were suspended from a wire, like a pendulum. He could feel her warm body pressed to his shoulders, but he could not hear her voice and he could not turn to see her, for every movement took infinity to consider and perform, and he appeared to weigh tons, as though his mass spread through miles of space and years of time. The capsule tilted forward, but he did not fall from his seat; something pressed him in, securing him: grey waves washed him; red rays rolled from toe to head. The chair began to spin. He heard his own name, or something very like it, being called by a high, mocking voice. Words piped at him; all the words of his life.
He breathed in and it was as if Niagara engulfed him. He breathed out; Vesuvius gave voice.
Scales slipped by against his check and fur filled his nostrils and flesh throbbed close to his lips, and fine wings fluttered, great winds blew; he was drenched by a salty rain (he became the History of Man, he became a thousand warm-blooded beasts, he knew unbearable tranquillity). He became pure pain and was the universe, the big slow-dancing stars. His body began to sing. p. 44-45

After they arrive they return to Jherek’s ranch, and they are invited to a party where Mongrove, returned from space, will reveal his news about the state of the Universe.
This is a pleasant enough instalment, but you get the distinct impression of the deck chairs being rearranged for the final section of the novel.

The Englishman’s Lady by Ravan Christchild5 appears to be a coherent piece at first but then degenerates into an almost arbitrary collage of various events and scenes. In among this there are a few threads of narrative, which take place in different times and possibly universes. One concerns Lady Caroline being tasked by Prime Minister Gladstone to go to India on an airship and warn her husband about an imminent uprising. She later meets Captain Terrier on board and they start an affair (there are several instances of casual sex throughout the story).

They later go to see a whole list of rock bands at a three-day concert:

Captain John Terrier escorted the Countess Caroline Giles of Warwick into the Playroom, the best known night-club of French-occupied Cologne. Coloured lights (lashed at them from all angles as they entered the Bastille Bar, where electric guitar music was playing at a volume just below the threshhold of pain.
The service in the Bastille Bar was by waitress, and so Captain Terrier and the Countess sat at a table of smooth green onyx.
Terrier ordered the drinks; two martinis, one (his own) with a measure of Scotch whisky added.
They sat and watched the guitarist, an ambitious young man called Erik (The Red) Klapton, who was backed by a group called the Dominoes. He struck Captain Terrier as being extremely good with a guitar; the Countess thought him rather ugly. P. 21

(The illustration above isn’t of Clapton but an earlier incident on the airship involving Ziggy and the The Spiders from Mars . . . .)
Another thread involves Terrier fighting in Iceland, and there is also an account of war in Kiev tacked on at the end (there is a lot of random violence to go with the sex).
Initially this anarchic, tongue-in-cheek stuff (part Captain Bastable, part Jerry Corneilius and part Oh, What a Lovely War!) is relatively absorbing, but it goes on far too long (it is about 10,000 words) and, ultimately, it makes no narrative sense. And this is the first of a three-story series . . . .
The last story is The Touch of a Vanished Hand by Robert Holdstock. The narrator starts with a short account of psychological problems he had in the past, stemming from when a man held his hands. He then describes a relationship with another man called Gable on the planet Sirius-7. When they use a mechanism to jump to another planet, Gable vanishes and the narrator is left with the permanent feeling of Gable holding his hands. The rest of this short story describes his subsequent travels, including a visit to the vanished man’s son:

“I was not greatly endeared to my father. Nor he to me.”
His voice was Gable’s voice. I wanted to listen to him talk for hours, but he fell silent.
“Why did your father leave? Why did he become so depressed?”
“Why?” He laughed. He kicked at some mechanism hidden in the reeds and his lake erupted into turbulence. He stripped off his clothes and walked to the water’s edge. Gable in every way. I felt my stomach knot and suppressed the desire I felt. He stepped into the waves and shouted, “I was greater than him. In every way.” He began to swim and he turned on his back and there was a smile of horrifying coldness upon his face. “I took his soul. I drained him. I became Him . . . and more.”
The pressure on my hands increased. Was Gable listening? I squeezed the unseen hands and felt the despair of the trapped man. I wondered in what hell Gable was existing. Was his son interested in knowing his father’s fate? Should I tell him? p. 40

The narrator then experiences hallucinations, and the feeling of a woman’s body under Gable’s hands, before he realises (spoiler) that he is the one who has been lost in transit.
This one didn’t entirely work for me, and the gloomy tone (typical of this period) doesn’t help, but it is okay, I suppose, for all that.

The Cover for this issue, and for the next two, is provided by Rodney Matthews. It was certainly an eye-catching magazine on the newsstands, and I still like it (and the other issues) now. The cover artwork would be reproduced without the titling on the back cover of future issues, but this one is blank, as are the inside front and rear cover. The Interior artwork is mostly good amateur level work (by Michelle Robson, Jocelyn Almond and Stephanie Little), and some of it is in colour6, but the real event is a number of large size illustrations by James Cawthorn. He also contributed to the second part of the serial7 and they are even better.
“Sci-Fi, Sword-and-Sorcery” is an interesting interview of that artist, by Eric Sutton. Cawthorn is an interesting subject and there are chunks of it that are quite quoteworthy. This is on SF for escapist readers, for example:

Maybe I read science fiction as an escape, but to me all literature is escapist, for it takes you away from your everyday life. It could be the most morbid fiction you could imagine, but it’s still taking you away. I think that when people say SF is escapist, what they mean is that it’s fantastic. Of course, some SF readers are obviously in retreat from life. In America you had whole hordes of people who literally wished they ‘could find a good book to live in‘, specifically Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They took to it in droves, its history, customs, languages; it was so much nicer than living in the real world. They wanted to stay inside it. Also Frank Herbert’s Dune. That became a cult, and I’m sure the reason is this: it created an entire, fictional world in which you could submerge yourself you didn’t have to come out unless you were forced to. Most of these cultists are of an age when they should be exploring what’s actually going on in the world, building up their own futures, and it makes you wonder what pressures they’re under. Maybe the real world over there is so off-putting that they can’t stand it. That’s real escapism and sounds like a case for a psychoanalyst. I agree that escapism does have a specialised meaning in that case, because these people really are trying to get away; they’re not reading just for amusement, but because they don’t like their lives. They want something else. p. 31

At the time of making this comment, American had just lost the Vietnam war (and endured tumultuous protests about this conflict at home) and President Nixon had only avoided impeachment by resigning.
There is this on pulp fiction:

As for pulp literature, I like it. You see, it’s a sort of . . . it has a sort of nostalgia for me, even though I wasn’t old enough to be reading it during the early thirties when it was in full flood. I like the whole tradition of garish covers, thick pulp pages with untrimmed edges . . . I wish the situation still existed. At its peak two hundred titles a month went on the bookstands — Westerns, Romances, Historical, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Flying Stories. There was even a magazine called Zeppelin Stories, which shows you how specialised the market could get. Writers worked under a tight discipline. The best learned that they could produce very good stuff while working to a tight schedule and under the moral and political restrictions imposed on them by the social conditions of their time. Because don’t forget that this was during the Depression when people wanted what you call escapist literature. You had to be a prolific writer, also. And the pulps accepted things which more respectable magazines wouldn’t touch, among them SF and some types of horror and fantasy. p. 32

And this on sex in SF:

There was a great deal of eroticism in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, though because of the time at which he wrote it was largely implicit rather than explicit. If you have ever read his first published novel, A Princess of Mars, it is there from beginning to end, sometimes very powerfully, and quite possibly unconsciously. Later writers such as Howard carried it further out into the open, within the limits of the magazine market. One of the most obvious things about S&S, which has been analysed by many people, is that it’s full of leather, buckles, furs, straps, swords, jewels, all the trappings of the standard erotic story.
When you get writers cashing in on its sudden popularity by including overt sex, they kill the whole motive power of this type of fiction. It’s the fact that the sex element is more or less submerged that drives the story forward. Modern film-makers have almost destroyed the classic horror subjects, such as vampirism, by misusing their freedom to be very explicit in what they put on the screen. p. 36

I think it is observations like these that make me like what little I’ve read of his book reviews.

Overall, this new magazine is a very mixed bag. The pluses for me were the artwork, the Moorcock serial, and the single piece of non-fiction, the minuses were the short fiction, influenced by the worst aspects of the New Wave.

  1. The magazine size is 210 by 274mm, so closer to B5 Extra, 201mm by 276mm.
  2. This is Axtell’s only piece of fiction although he would contribute an interview with Rodney Matthews in the next issue. This suggests that ‘Axtell’ may be a pseudonym for Seddon.
  3. Although this is supposed to be the third part of a trilogy, it is more like the second half of a very long novel. Each novel flows seamlessly into the next.
  4. The first novel, Alien Heat, opens at the End of Time with Jherek Carnelian (the first naturally created human in many years) and his mother having a picnic. They discuss the meaning of the word ‘virtue,’ which Jherek finds baffling. They later make love, before departing in a recreated airborne locomotive to Jherek’s house. You can get a feel for the series from this scene:
    He sounded his whistle.
    “Shuffle off to Buffalo!”
    Responding to the sonic signal, the little locomotive took magnificently to the air, shunting up the sky, with lovely, lime-coloured steam puffing from its smokestack and from beneath its wheels.
    “Oh, they gave him his augurs at Racine-Virginia,” sang Jherek Carnelian, donning a scarlet and cloth-of-gold engineer’s cap, “saying steam-up, you’re way behind time! It ain’t ‘98, it’s old ‘97. You got to get on down that old Nantucket line!”
    The Iron Orchid settled back in her seat of plush and ermine (an exact reproduction, she understood, of the original) and watched her son with amusement as he opened the firedoor and shovelled in the huge black diamonds which he had made specially to go with the train and which, though of no particular use in fuelling the aircar, added aesthetic texture to the recreation.
    “Where do you find all these old songs, Carnelian, my own?”
    “I came across a cache of ‘platters,’“ he told her, wiping honest sweat from his face with a silk rag.
    The train swept rapidly over a sea and a range of mountains. “A form of sound-storage of the same period as the original of this aircar. A million years old, at least, though there’s some evidence that they, themselves, are reproductions of other originals. Kept in perfect condition by a succession of owners.”
    He slammed the firedoor shut and discarded the platinum shovel, joining her upon the couch and staring down at the quaintly moulded countryside which Mistress Christia, the Everlasting Concubine, had begun to build a while ago and then abandoned.
    It was not elegant. In fact it was something of a mess. Two-thirds of a hill, in the fashion of the 91st century post-Aryan landscapers, supported a snake-tree done after the Saturnian manner but left uncoloured; part of an 11th century Gothic ruin stood beside a strip of river of the Bengali Empire period.
    You could see why she had decided not to finish it, but it seemed to Jherek that it was a pity she had not bothered to disseminate it. Someone else would, of course, sooner or later.
    “Carrie Joan,” he sang, “she kept her boiler going. Carrie Joan, she filled it full of wine. Carrie Joan didn’t stop her rowing. She had to get to Brooklyn by a quarter-past nine!” He turned to the Iron Orchid.
    “Do you like it? The quality of the platters isn’t all it could be, but I think I’ve worked out all the words now.”
    “Is that what you were doing last year?” She raised her fine eyebrows. “I heard the noises coming from your Hi-Rise.” She laughed. “And I thought it was to do with sex.” She frowned. “Or animals.” She smiled. “Or both.” p.10-11
    (Nice little nod to Ballard’s novel there.)
    They go on to a party hosted by The Duke of Queens. He has recreated the 28th century Great Fire of Africa with burning cities sculpted from water! Jherek meets various people including the eternally gloomy Mongrove, the time-traveller Li Pao, Lord Jagged, and Mistress Christia the Everlasting Concubine, who is having sex with a gorilla (although this is O’Kala Incardanine in another form). Most significantly he meets a very proper lady time-traveller from the 19th Century called Mrs Amelia Underwood, and Yusharip, a space traveller who is prophesising the end of the Universe (this theme runs in the background throughout the novel). As is the custom among the denizens of the End of Time, they both end up are captives in a menagerie. When Jherek decides to fall in love with Amelia it sets in place the arc of the novel’s events.
    Lord Jagged subsequently suggests to Jherek that he steal Yusharip from My Lady Charlotina so he can trade him to Mongrove for Mrs Underwood (Jherek subsequently delights in the thrill of being called a ‘thief’). When Jherek and Amelia finally spend time together the novel turns from a farce into a culture clash comedy of manners. Eventually they kiss, and it is at this point My Lady Charlotina gets her revenge by snatching Mrs Underwood and sending her back in time to the 19th Century. Jherek eventually follows in a time machine similar to the one in Behold the Man. There are lots of other in-jokes in the book too, such as Jherek being told to use the name ‘Lord Carnell’ (after the previous editor of New Worlds, John Carnell) when he is recruited by a 19th century con-man called Snoozer Vine, who uses Jherek to break into fancy hotels.
    The first novel reaches a climax when Jherek is sentenced to hang for murder—the caper in the hotel goes awry and Snoozer Vine shoots a doorman—by a judge who looks exactly like Lord Jagged but who refuses to acknowledge that he knows Jherek. At the point of the gallows trapdoor dropping he finds himself back at the End of Time, courtesy of the Morphail effect. There are various mentions of this effect throughout the novel—a phenomenon that expels time travellers from a particular period so that time won’t be altered—and other time travel detail that suggests that something underhand is occurring.
    The second book, The Hollow Lands, again starts with a mother and son picnic, this time at Shanslorn, one of the ancient cities. And once again they head off to a party, this time a regatta organised by My Lady Charlotina where the entrants have got the wrong idea about historical ships: the Queen Elizabeth is a huge wooden woman. . . . Later Jherek talks time-travel with the scientist Brannart Morphail (he of the Morphail effect) before going to hunt for a new time-traveller who has been detected by Morphail’s instruments. When The Duke of Queens flying hen breaks down they end up in a forest where they hear a band of wandering musicians who turn out to be the Lat, an aggressive group of one-eyed, three pupiled dwarves who attempt to kidnap them.
    Jherek escapes, only to fall down a tunnel into Wonderland, which is a nursery run by a robotic nurse. The nursery appears to have been in a closed time loop for millions of years. The Lat later turn up, and it isn’t long before Nurse sorts them out. She later speaks to Jerry (as she calls Jherek, who she has developed a soft spot for) about the current time-period, and agrees to send him back to 1896 so he can be reunited with Mrs Underwood.
    Back in 1896 there is more entertainment to be had as Jherek once again upsets the conventions of the times. He meets H. G. Wells on his way to Amelia’s home and has a sincere conversation with Wells about time travel. The next highlight is at Amelia’s house— Jherek is having tea with her when Mr Underwood arrives home, and the conversation spirals entertainingly out of control. The best part of the book.
    Amelia and Jherek end up leaving the house to escape an irate Mr Underwood and are later unsuccessfully pursued by police.
    The last part of the book has them in the company of a number of Café Royale writers and editors when Inspector Springer (the arresting policeman from the first book) arrives to apprehend them. Jagged rescues the pair and puts them in a time machine back to the End of Time. It malfunctions en route and they overshoot their own period and end up in the Silurian era.
    If the first book is a social comedy, this one is more or a farce. + for both books.
  5. Seddon denied that he was Christchild at the time and, I have been told, repeated this a few years ago. The Steve Mitchell character from this story reappears, however, in Mark Ambient’s Due West: Vermilion Sun on Horizon: Dying in issue #5. Ambient, like Axtell, is another one story, one interview author . . . .
  6. I think the colour title plates of the Christchild and Holdstock stories may be by the designers rather than the artists listed. They are of a markedly different style from the B&W artwork for the stories.
  7. Cawthorn didn’t illustrate the third and fourth parts, I assume because he didn’t get paid (I vaguely recall a comment from Michael Moorcock about not getting paid the money for the serial rights after the magazine collapsed, but can’t remember where I read it).

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