John Boston & Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy 1950-1967 (71%, Location 4981 of 7028 in the Kindle edition)
The Lady Anne • novelette by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥♥♥
A Light Feint • short story by John T. Phillifent [as by John Rackham] ♥
Break the Door of Hell • novelette by John Brunner ♥♥♥
Homecalling (Part 1 of 2) • reprint novella serial by Judith Merril ♥♥♥
Editorial • Kyril Bonfiglioli
This issue’s cover1 is one of many by Keith Roberts for the magazine and portrays the land locomotives from his story in this issue: these, at times impressionistic, covers gave the magazine part of its distinctive character. As to the novelette itself, The Lady Anne, this section of Pavane should have been the one that appeared last issue as it starts with a page of prologue describing the events that have led to this world: the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, the invasion of the Spanish and the eventual world-wide dominance of the Catholic Church. The final passage places the story in the middle of the twentieth century with the suggestion that rebellion is in the air.
The story itself starts in a gloomy engine shed with Jesse Strange preparing a land locomotive called ‘The Lady Anne’ for a run to the coast. We later find out that the internal combustion engine is more or less banned in this world (limited to 150cc or less) and all haulage of freight is done by huge land engines that run on the roads. These first few pages set the tone for the first half of the story in that there is a lot of detailed and evocative description and little incident, but it makes for an engrossing story nonetheless. This is partly because of the detail which makes this world of the hauliers spring off the page and into three dimensions:
He laid the fire carefully, wadding paper, adding a criss-crossing of sticks, shovelling coal from the tender with rhythmic swings of his arms. Not too much fire to begin with, not under a cold boiler. Sudden heat meant sudden expansion and that meant cracking, leaks round the firetube joints, endless trouble. For all their power the locos had to be cossetted like children, coaxed and persuaded to give of their best. p.6
The driver grinned faintly and without humour. The starting drill was part of him, burned on his mind. Gear check, cylinder cocks, regulator . . . He’d missed out just once, years back when he was a boy, opened up a four horse Roby traction with her cocks shut, let the condensed water in front of the piston knock the end out of the bore. His heart had broken with the cracking iron; but old Eli had still taken a studded belt, and whipped him till he thought he was going to die. p.8
There is much more of this as he sets off on his run but what makes the story even more convincing is that the writer slips back and forth through three levels of reality during this journey. The first, as described above, is the world of the hauliers; the second is the Catholic controlled world he lives in:
And there were rumours of more restrictions on the road trains themselves; a maximum of six trailers it would be this time, and a water cart. Reason given had been the increasing congestion round the big towns. That, and the state of the roads; but what else could you expect, Jesse asked himself sourly, when half the tax levied in the country went to buy gold plate for its churches? Maybe though this was just the start of a new trade recession like the one engineered a couple of centuries back by Gisevius. The memory of that still rankled in the West at least. The economy of England was stable now, for the first time in years; stability meant wealth, gold reserves. And gold, stacked anywhere but in the half-legendary coffers of the Vatican, meant danger . . . p.10
The final layer—which gives an emotional dimension to the other two realities—is where Jesse grieves for his recently dead father and owner of the firm of Strange & Sons:
So Eli was dead. There’d been no warning; just the coughing, the hands gripping the chair arms, the face that suddenly wasn’t his father’s face, staring. Quick dark spattering of blood, the lungs sighing and bubbling; and a clay-coloured old man lying abed, one lamp burning, the priest in attendance, Jesse’s mother watching emptyfaced. Father Thomas had been cold, disapproving of the old sinner; the wind had soughed round the house vicious with frost while the priest’s lips absolved and mechanically blessed… but that hadn’t been death. A death was more than an ending; it was like pulling a thread from a richly patterned cloth. Eli had been a part of Jesse’s life, as much a part as his bedroom under the eaves of the old house. Death disrupted the processes of memory, jangled old chords that were maybe best left alone. p.15
It is not until half way through that we actually meet the other two characters who will be key players in the rest of the story. The first is Anne, who works as a barmaid near the hotel where Jesse will spend the night, and, it materialises, who his locomotive is named after:
Did she know? The thought always came. All those years back when he’d named the Burrell; she’d been a gawky stripling then, all legs and eyes, but she was the Lady he’d meant. She’d been the ghost that haunted him those hot, adolescent nights, trailing her scent among the scents of the garden flowers. p.25
The other is Colin de la Haye, Col, a rogue who Jesse went to Sherbourne College with before he gave it up to return to his father and the locomotives:
After College Jesse had lost touch with him. He’d heard vaguely Col had given up the family business; importing and warehousing just hadn’t been fast enough for him. He’d apparently spent a time as a strolling jongleur, working on a book of ballads that had never got written, had six months on the boards in Londinium before being invalided home the victim of a brawl in a brothel. “A’d show you the scar” said Col, grinning hideously, “but it’s a bit bloody awkward in mixed comp’ny, ol’ boy. . .” p.28
The remainder of the story is about how Jesse interacts with each of them.
When I originally read this excellent story some forty years ago it seriously impressed me and hooked me on Roberts for evermore. I was somewhat wary about coming back to it but this time around I think I may have enjoyed it even more. Though I knew how the story ended I found myself rather in awe of Roberts’s technical ability in the first half of the story: very few writers can write engrossingly while virtually nothing happens, and it was interesting to see how he achieved this. I realise that this may be a Marmite story though, and if this doesn’t grab you in the first half you may struggle to finish it. That would be a pity, for you will miss out on the emotionally affecting and physically exciting second half.
A Light Feint by John Rackham is one of those tales that seem to be not uncommon to SF magazines: the chatty recollection of adventures had with a genius amateur-inventor type. In this one Fred develops wireless fencing foils and jackets for his local club which involve a laser device. While testing them he discovers that the foil cuts off the leg of the table. Cue mad dash to that evening’s fencing club to stop the new foils being used on people. The narrator and Fred get there by using another of Fred’s inventions, the Monster, a kind of hover-airplane. This involves much aerobatics and a couple of partially-dressed woman en route. None of this disguises a very slight piece.
The first time I read Break the Door of Hell by John Brunner I really did not care for it—’good idea, lousy execution’—and after a few pages I was beginning to feel the same way again. However, I finished the story thinking it quite clever and enjoyable. Which isn’t to say that it the first few pages couldn’t do with being brought into sharper focus. This is a little like the Blish story in the previous issue in that it is initially quite difficult to work out what is going on.
It starts with a bad case of the Moorcock’s, with lots of muttering about Time, the realm of Chaos, and various elementals buried under mountains, etc.:
Time had come to that great city: Time, in which could exist order and logic and rational thought. And so it was removed from his domain for ever, gone from the borderland of chaos which exists timeless in eternity. p.61
The main character is the supernatural Traveller in Black whose role would seem to be sorting out the borderlands between Order and Chaos. He notices a city where Time still happens: this should not occur in Chaos. He then sets off on a somewhat circular journey to the city to resolve the problem.
On his travels he meets series of people and grants their desires, but in a way that does not necessarily help them:
In the rich city Gryte a thief spoke to curse the briefness of the summer night, which had cut short his plan to break the wall of a merchant’s counting-house. “Oh that dawn never came!” he cried. “Oh that I had lasting darkness whereby to ply my trade!”
“As you wish,” said the traveller, “so be it.” And darkness came: two thick grey cataracts that shut the light away. p.65
His granting of multiple wishes works in a rather clever manner and the Traveller in Black manages to work his way back to the anomalous city. The Traveller seeks answers to the questions he has from a man he recognises and their conversation comes to a close like this:
“Good day to you, sir,” he added to the traveller. “It’s been pleasant to renew our acquaintance, and I greatly hope you find someone who can aid you in these inquiries where I failed you.”
‘‘As you wish, so be it,” said the traveller under his breath, and a great weight seemed to recede from his heart. p.69
A former inhabitant of the city in question soon comes along:
Then, to the instant, appeared a curious bewildered figure from the direction of the city gate: a pale-faced, wild-haired man in a russet cape, clinging to a pitiful bag of belongings as though to a baulk of timber in an ocean of insanity. p.70
In conversation he tells the traveller that the inhabitants of the anomalous city have started dabbling in magic and then utters the fateful words:
“Doom!” cried Jacques, and an unholy joy lit his face. “I told them so—over and again I told them! Would I could witness it, for the satisfaction of seeing them learn how right I was!” The traveller sighed, but there was no help for it now; his single nature bound him to unique courses of action. He said sourly, “As you wish, so be it.” p.73
As to how the traveller deals with the inhabitants of the city when he finally arrives there (spoiler) the quote at the beginning of the story gives a clue:
I will break the door of hell and smash the bolts; I will bring up the dead to eat food with the living, and the living shall be outnumbered by the host of them.
—THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH p.61
All told, an interesting, clever fantasy, and I look forward to tracking down the others in this series.2
The last item of fiction in this issue is the first two-thirds of Homecalling a novella by Judith Merril. This was another which I enjoyed more this time, probably because I took it on its own merits which are those of a fairly enjoyable juvenile. It concerns Deborah, an eight year old, and her baby brother Petey, who are the only survivors from a family whose spaceship crashes on an alien planet. Also on the planet are telepathic, insectoid aliens (these are more interesting than they sound) who soon realise that there is an intruder not far from their settlement.
The majority of this part is about Deborah and Daydanda, the mother of the aliens, getting used to, and negotiating with, each other. Sometimes this is overdone and the story definitely has its longeurs (Chapter 12 for one), but it also has some well written parts, such as where Daydanda travels out of her alien home for the first time in ages:
Once she had flown above the tree-tops, silver strong wings beating a rhythm of pride and joy in the high dry air above the canopy of fronds. Her eyes had gleamed under the white rays of the sun itself, and she had looked, with wild unspeakable elation, into the endless glaring brilliance of the heavens.
Now she was tired, and the blessed relief from sensation when they set her down on the soft ground—after the lurching motion of the forest march—was enough to make her momentarily regret her decision. A foolish notion this whole trip . . .
Kackot agreed enthusiastically.
The Lady closed her thoughts from his, and commanded the curtain at her side to be lifted. Supine in her litter, safely removed from the Strangers under a tree at the fringe of the clearing, her vast body embedded on layers of cellulose mat, Daydanda looked out across the ravaged black strip. And the sun, in all its strength, collected on the shining outer skin of the Strange Wings, gathered its light into a thousand fiery needles to sear the surface of her eyes, and pierce her very soul with agony.
Once she had flown above the trees themselves . . . p.126-127
There is also an experimental split chapter—the pages go from single to double column and simultaneously give both Deborah’s and Daydanda’s thoughts—which works not too badly I think.
I have one final quibble and it is that this was originally published in Science Fiction Stories in 1956: you have to question the advisability of reprinting a ten year old juvenile in Impulse in the mid-sixties. But hey, it is enjoyable enough even now, and maybe Bonfiglioli was short of material.
As to the non-fiction, you can tell that Bonfiglioli finds writing editorials a little tedious judging by the beginning of this one:
I must admit that after two years as editor of this magazine and its predecessor I am still by no means certain what my job is supposed to be when I sit down to write the editorial. Some American editors cheerfully pontificate about the future of life in general and the human race in particular: I fear my talent, like the housemaid’s baby, is just a very little one and quite unsuited for such bold brushwork on so cosmic a canvas. Others delight in muttering darkly about new devices which will make all traditional scientists look like a lot of Charlies. I have no access to information of this kind and no scientific vocabulary to exploit it with if I had it. To me, a 100 per cent negative feedback is what happens when you bounce a baby too soon after its breakfast. p.2
He subsequently goes on to say ‘what else is there to do but talk about the contents?’ At the end he also mentions Chris Priest’s comment in Vector #37 about ‘typical Bonfiglioli space-fillers’ and hopes the longer work in this issue will be welcomed.
It was. Another notable issue.
- In a parallel world the magazine didn’t change its name to Impulse and this is the cover for Science Fantasy #83:
In the parallel world next to that one, the magazine not only didn’t change its name, it didn’t redesign the cover with #74 either:
This last one is my favourite type of Science Fantasy cover design. Yes, way too much free time…
- There were five ‘Traveller in Black’ stories: the first, Imprint of Chaos, had also appeared in Science Fantasy (#42, August 1960). In this reality two further stories appeared in Fantastic (The Wager Lost By Winning, April 1970 and Dread Empire, January 1971) and one in Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine (The Things That Are Gods, Fall 1979). In the parallel world above they appeared in Science Fantasy #131, #140 & #244 . . .