Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Thirty-First of February by Nelson S. Bond

Thirty-First of FebruaryThe Book of the Week is The Thirty-First of February, a collection of short fiction by Nelson S. Bond. This is to honor Mr. Bond, who passed away recently at the age of 97.

Nelson S. Bond was a prolific pulp writer, penning well over 200 stories for the pulp magazines. He is best remembered for his light-hearted science fiction and fantasy for the SF pulps and for Blue Book and Weird Tales, but he also wrote many stories for the sports and mystery pulps. Most of his work was first published between the late 1930's and the mid-1950's, and he only occasionally wrote fiction after that, including a story for Asimov's Science Fiction in 1999. He often wrote scripts for radio and television, and in 1946 wrote arguably the first teleplay ever aired on a TV network (a network consisting of New York, Boston, and Washington). In 1998 Bond was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

After retiring from writing full-time, Nelson Bond went into business as a rare book dealer, so I thought it would be fitting to honor him with the hardcover first edition of one of his own books. On the other hand, we shouldn't neglect his background in the pulps. Next week's Magazine of the Week will be a pulp magazine with a cover story by Nelson S. Bond and a cover image that may have inspired the creators of the film Planet of the Apes.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Startling Stories November 1939

Startling Stories November 1939Continuing our tribute to Jack Williamson (1908-2006), the Magazine of the Week is the November 1939 issue of Startling Stories, with cover story "The Fortress of Utopia" by Williamson, a story he remembered fondly in a
1999 Interzone interview.

I thought this magazine would be a fitting one to honor Jack Williamson, not only because I love the cover's science fictional variation on the story of Noah's Ark (even if it is not quite so garish a cover as last week's), but because the magazine contains a profile of Jack Williamson in which he boasts of recently passing one million words published in his career. There is no telling how many millions more words he wrote between then and his most recent novel, The Stonehenge Gate (2005).

From 1928 on, Jack Williamson was one of the regulars of the science fiction pulps until the market shifted to paperbacks. It is remarkable that he was then able to reinvent himself as a more sophisticated writer and continue his career for another half-century. Next week we will honor another mainstay of the science fiction pulps who recently passed away, a writer who was not inclined to make that transition after the pulp magazines disappeared and had written only sparingly since the 1950's.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Amy's bookshelf :: Fantasy & Science Fiction January 2006

F&SF January 2006For some time I’ve been saying I wanted to read more short fiction. Years ago I used to regularly read the stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and more; but not lately. I still subscribe a number of SF magazines.

The cover story for the January 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is "Planet of Mystery" by Terry Bisson, a pulp fiction planetary romance. The cover art is by Max Bertolini. In "Planet of Mystery" a space mission to the planet Venus improbably discovers a cool surface and breathable air on Venus, plus amazon women riding centaurs. Later a sentient robot and a flying saucer are encountered. It’s frequently ridiculous, lightweight entertainment. Sort of dumb fun. The second half of this novella is in the February 2006 F&SF issue.

The magazine contains two novelettes, both of which were good. "Less than Nothing" by Robert Reed is part of a series of stories about Native American boy Raven. This is fantasy intersecting with today's world. "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister concerns a CIA operative secretly spreading plague in South America in the 1960s. It read as scarily too real.

Of the four short stories, my favorite was "Horse-Year Women" by Michaela Roessner. It’s an emotional modern story entwined with tales of women born in the Oriental Year of the Horse. My least favorite story was the "Shadow Man" by Matthew Hughes due to its creepy horror elements. "A Daze in the Life" by Tony Sarowitz is a near future science fiction story about hiring out brain processing power. In fairy tale "Journey to Gantica" by Matthew Corradi a woman grows as tall as a giant and shrinks to miniature size.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Green Girl by Jack Williamson

The Green GirlThe Book of the Week is The Green Girl by Jack Williamson, who passed away Friday at the age of 98.

Jack Williamson made a great many contributions to the world of science fiction and fantasy, including such classics as Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids. He coined the term "terraforming" and wrote the first stories involving the modern concepts of androids and anti-matter (which he called "contraterrene" or "C-T" matter). But Williamson will probably forever be best remembered for the incredible longevity of his career. Jack Williamson sold his first story in 1928 and was an established author with dozens of published works to his credit before Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein even made their first sales. (Isaac Asimov was thrilled to receive a congratulatory post card from Williamson after Asimov's first story was published.) Yet he continued to write impressive and important fiction into the 21st Century, publishing works in nine different decades. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella for his story "The Ultimate Earth," published in 2000, 72 years after his first story.

Williamson held a PhD in English literature from the University of Colorado and taught full-time at Eastern New Mexico University from 1960 to 1977. After that, he taught part-time and organized the Jack Williamson Lectureship Series, an annual program inspiring a new generation of writers since 1977. Jack Williamson was the second person ever named "Grand Master" by the Science Fiction Writers of America (Heinlein was the first). He was also named Grand Master by the World Horror Society, received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement, and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

As you can see from the Book of the Week, Avon Fantasy Novel #2 printed in 1950, Jack Williamson was one of the authors who helped science fiction and fantasy break into the new paperback fiction market. He was already very familiar to SF readers at the time thanks to his pulp fiction, an example of which we will see next week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer

The Daughter of Fu ManchuWe can hardly discuss the "yellow peril" subgenre without mentioning the most successful yellow peril writer of all, Sax Rohmer, and his most famous character, Fu Manchu. The Book of the Week is The Daughter of Fu Manchu, the first American appearance of Fu Manchu in paperback.

Sax Rohmer was the pen-name of Englishman Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward. Rohmer wrote a variety of types of fiction, including comedy, adventure stories, mysteries, and science fiction, but his most lasting contribution to literature is a dubious one, his absurdly stereotyped Chinese villains, particularly the sinister Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu's stories were written in the pulp style, but surprisingly he did not start out in the pulp magazines but rather in slick magazines like Collier's and in hardback books (although the pulps quickly imitated him with The Mysterious Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin). Fu Manchu was a hit from his first appearance in 1912, perhaps due to lingering anxieties from the Boxer Rebellion in China, then later found an even wider audience through paperback reprints and movies. Actors who played Fu Manchu on the screen included Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. (Fu Manchu is the answer to the trivia question: What was Peter Sellers' last role before his death?)

As we have seen the past two weeks, any history of the pulp magazines must acknowledge the unfortunate racial stereotypes that were prevalent in the pulps. However, there were also occasions when the pulp magazines actively attempted to change prejudiced attitudes in society. Next in our tour of the pulp magazines is an issue of the most successful of the "hero pulp" magazines, in which our hero battles racial prejudice . . . with a pistol. But first, next week we will honor a recently departed pulp writer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Adventure July 1934

Adventure July 1934The Magazine of the Week is the July 1934 issue of Adventure magazine, cover art by Walther M. Baumhofer.

One aspect of collecting pulp magazines that takes some getting used to is that often the magazines' covers and contents reflect the prejudices of the time. The cover of the Magazine of the Week, featuring a sinister-looking Asian villain (check out his sharpened thumbnail), is an example of what collectors call "yellow peril" cover art, a common racial stereotype in the pulp era. The Magazine of the Week's "yellow peril" cover illustrates the story "War Lord of Darkness" by Erle Stanley Gardner. This was published one year after Gardner created the character for which his is now best remembered, Perry Mason.

Needless to say, the "yellow peril" stereotype is offensive to modern readers. However, the Magazine of the Week is an example of how misleading it can be to hold figures from the past to modern standards. Before you judge Erle Stanley Gardner harshly for writing this story, you should know that prior to becoming a full-time writer, Gardner was a practicing lawyer in California, where he gained a considerable reputation for vigorously defending Asian clients. In Chinese-American communities he was called "t'ai chong tze," the big lawyer. Even though "War Lord of Darkness" has a Chinese villain, Gardner's stories also contain many sympathetic Asian characters. (The same is true of the creator of the most famous Asian villain, whom we will see next week.)

At the same time, while politically correct attitudes can be taken to excess, this kind of cover art is a reminder of the important function served by what we now call "political correctness." By perpetuating racial stereotypes, the pulp magazines contributed to bigoted attitudes, helping to make possible for example the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Stereotypes about Asians and African-Americans were especially common in pulp fiction, and the fact that social norms have evolved to the point that such attitudes are no longer tolerated in the publishing field is something to be celebrated. I hope you will forgive me for circulating this cover image, but I think it is a useful exercise to look back upon the attitudes of the past, so that we may see how far our society has come and remind ourselves not to repeat past mistakes.