You’ll never guess what arrived in the post today

sk1You probably think getting hold of an old omnibus of Edmond Hamilton’s Star Kings books is not much of an accomplishment. Nothing to boast about.

But you are wrong.

Here, in full, is the epic story of an improbable quest. All it lacks are those certain elements you need to market a film successfully: suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings, especially happy endings.

Call me Bibliophile. Some months ago –  never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would order a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s Chronicles of the Star Kings. Reading old space operas is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get me some Hamilton or Williamson or early Simak, some Brackett, perhaps, or some Moore, even some Dickson or early Brunner, as soon as I can.

Why Chronicles of the Star Kings? I was working on something tangentially related so it seemed an ideal opportunity to pick up the cheapest copy I could find of this omnibus volume that I repeatedly looked at on the shelf but never bought back in my teens (I was having too much fun devouring all the Philip E. High published in the same series). So I checked amazon marketplace sellers and abebooks. Amazon was way cheaper so I ordered a copy. Little did I suspect I  was merely ordering my first copy.

The parcel arrived on 11 September. My eager little hands tore it open and found inside:
sk2Now, I have nothing against East End Sagas, whether gripping – as it claims – or not. But it was not what I wanted. So I set the returns process in motion and requested they replace it with the book I ordered. They acted with unexpected promptness, dispatching a replacement the same day. Of course, instead of replacing it with a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings, they replaced it with a copy of Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street.

So I set the returns process in motion again, advised them of the glitch in their inventory system, requested a refund and checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. I ordered it, and waited.

And waited; and waited.

Then a week or so later got an email telling me it had been damaged in the post and returned to the seller. They could not provide me with another copy so gave me a refund.

I checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. And this time was next day delivery. I ordered it, and waited.

But nothing happened.

I left it an extra day but still nothing happened.

I checked the online tracking. Apparently it had been delivered.

Only it hadn’t.

A trip to the local sorting office ensued. The guy there explained that he could not search for the parcel without the notification card I had been left by the postman. Only I hadn’t been left a notification card, which is so unlike Colin, my lovely postman, that I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark. (Rottenness! thy name is Barry, the lazy substitute postman! But I’m getting ahead of myself.) The best the guy could offer to do was organise a redelivery, and hope that would magic my parcel into being.

The mention of Colin’s name, however, prompted the woman behind the desk to leap into action. Colin would not make that kind of mistake. She asked if I had the tracking number – I did – and after a couple of minutes on the computer was able to confirm that indeed my parcel was lost in some peculiar back-eddy of the postal system. She went to check out back to see if the parcel was there – it wasn’t, but even if it had been, she wouldn’t have been able to hand it over since I did not have a notification card. “I’ll have a word with Colin when he gets in,” she said. “He’ll know what happened.”

A brief aside on Colin. He has been my postman since I moved here fifteen years ago, and somehow he has survived the deliberate sabotaging of the post office by successive governments – running down its services, forcing them to deliver mail below cost for the private carriers competing with them for business, prioritising business deliveries over private mail, etc, etc –  as they sought to privatise it, which they eventually achieved a few years ago, since when £500,000 per day has been paid out in dividends to hedge funds and city shareholders. Somehow, through all this, Colin has retained a sense of the role of the postman in the community, as part of the glue that holds a place and its people together. We are not just streets and doors and letterboxes to him. In this, he reminds me of my milkman grandad. Unlike lazy Barry.

Later that morning, Colin knocks on my door.

“Oh,” he says, ‘it was Wednesday. Barry did the route on Wednesday. He’s dead lazy. If it’s not at the sorting office, he’s left it with a neighbour. Won’t be any more than two houses away. I’ve got a couple of packages, so I’ll ask at those houses. If I have no luck, I’ll catch up with him later, and come back after my shift to tell you what he did with it.”

That’s Colin for you.

No way he needs to come back after his shift; he can let me know tomorrow. In the meantime, once I’ve finished my coffee, I’ll knock on some neighbours’ doors.

Colin was right. It was with a neighbour two doors down. I sought out Colin to let him know. Went home. Poured another cup of coffee and opened my parcel. To find within it a copy of:

sk2

So the glitch in the inventory was definitely an amazon problem, not an individual seller’s problem. I begin the returns process, ask for a refund, and this time inform amazon rather than merely the seller of the problem. And by good fortune, a couple of cheaper copies of Chronicles of the Star Kings have appeared on abebooks, so I order one.

And nothing happens.

Except the last amazon marketplace seller tells me to not bother returning Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street – and in addition to refunding me, they will try to locate a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings in their warehouse for me, free of charge, for all the comical inconvenience to which I have been put. So for a moment there it looks like I might end up with three books in total, rather than the single one I first ordered back in the mists of time, around the dawn of man.

But phew! they can’t find a copy.

But I don’t fucking believe this! my parcel containing – at last, I hope – Chronicles of the Star Kings has been damaged in the post and returned to the abebooks seller, who arrange a refund as they do not have a replacement copy in stock.

Back to abebooks. A sixth attempt to buy this fucking book.

And today this arrives:

sk1The only problem is, I no longer have any fucking clue what I wanted it for in the first place.

So, no, despite appearances, not even a happy ending.

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EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s, The Skylark of Space (co-written with Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby)

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

eeds_theskylaWritten: 1915–1920
First published: Amazing Stories, August-October 1928
First edition: Providence, Rhode Island: Buffalo Book Co., 1946
Edition used: London: Panther, 1974 (revised text of 1958)

Richard Seaton accidentally discovers the ability of ‘X’, a hitherto unknown metal,

to liberate and control the entire constituent energy of metallic copper. (17)

This

pure and total conversion of matter to controllable energy [with] no radiation, no residue, no by-products (17)

062provides the key to space travel. Seaton and his millionaire chum, M Reynolds Crane, set out to exploit this source of virtually free energy. An attempt by rival scientist, Marc ‘Blackie’ DuQuesne, to hold Seaton’s wealthy fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, ransom in exchange for X goes awry. DuQuesne’s starship is flung across space at an incredible speed. Seaton and Crane pursue them in the eponymous starship. They rescue Dorothy, DuQuesne and another hostage, Margaret Spencer, from the grip of a dead star. On the low-gravity planet Osnome, they take sides in (and win) a genocidal war, before returning to Earth.

Smith was neither the first to write space opera (Robert W Cole’s 1900 The Struggle for Empire is a more likely contender), nor the first American author of space opera (that distinction probably belongs to Ray Cummings), nor indeed the best of the subgenre’s first flourishing in the American pulps (Edmond Hamilton, John W Campbell, Jr and Jack Williamson consistently wrote less infelicitous prose and demonstrated a better grasp of the potential of sf). But Smith’s work remains the best-remembered. Undoubtedly, this is partly a result of being the-skylark-of-space-fffamong the first pulp sf to be reissued in hardback editions in the late 1940s and 1950s, and of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions finding a substantial following among the fantasy readership created/uncovered by the US paperback editions of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although Smith’s space operas often seem excruciatingly naïve by the standards of more contemporary authors (Iain M Banks, Samuel R Delany, Colin Greenland, Ursula Le Guin, M John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds), the continued popularity of the Star Wars movies indicates that juvenile sf of this sort is still attractive; and while it is tempting to read Smith’s sf as camp, this can only partly (if, presumably, increasingly) account for its appeal.

One of Smith’s central achievements is to capture something of the scale of the universe while also rendering it safe, conquerable, human-sized. Despite postulating new technologies and travelling thousands of light years from Earth, the characters and plotting of The Skylark of Space are firmly rooted in familiar romance conventions. Seaton is a working class boy made good, a scientist and athlete

over six feet in height, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted. (12)

He can withstand higher acceleration than any of his crew, and exercises his super-strength to great effect in Osnome’s low gravity.

Crane,

the multi-millionaire explorer-archaeologist-sportsman’ (12)

is also a businessman, an engineer and

a rocket-instrument man second to none in the world. (13)

Seaton’s love for Dorothy and Crane’s for Margaret is pure, assured, eternal. DuQuesne is

utterly heartless and ruthless, so cold and scientific (90)

003yet strangely honourable in his villainy. And in a world dominated by global corporations, it falls to such individuals to discover, create, explore. Despite such unrealistic characterisations, the very familiarity of these types works to domesticate the universe in which they adventure.

Moreover, the vastness and strangeness of space is also contained by Smith’s repeated failure to depict it. As the crew whiz around the galaxy, they observe it almost entirely through instrument readings, and the few descriptions of what can be seen through the Skylark’s viewports possess a curious contradictory quality:

For the blackness of the black of the interstellar void is not the darkness of an earthly night but the absolute absence of light–a black besides which that of platinum dust is merely gray. Upon this indescribably black backdrop there glowed faint patches which were nebulae; there blazed hard, brilliant, multi-colored, dimensionless points of light which were stars. (88)

In addition to the clumsy simultaneous presence and absence of light in this view, there is blackness to be recognised through its dissimilarity to the blackness with which the reader is familiar.[1] A more telling failure to depict an external view of space comes in the passage in which Crane realises his love for Margaret. Staring out

into infinity, each felt as never before the pitiful smallness of the whole world they had known, and the insignificance of human beings and their works. (91)

As their ‘minds reached out to each other in understanding’, Crane considers Margaret:

He looked up quickly and again studied the stars; but now, in addition to the wonders of space, he saw a mass of wavy black hair, high-piled upon a queenly head; deep brown eyes veiled by long, black lashes; sweet, sensitive lips; a firmly rounded, dimpled chin; and a beautifully formed young body. (91 and 92)

This description[2] displaces that of the view that so enraptures Margaret and prompts her to say

‘How stupendous . . . how unbelievably great this is . . . […]. How vastly greater than any perception one could possibly get on Earth . . . and yet . . . […] doesn’t it seem to you, Mr. Crane, that there is something in man as great as even all this? That there must be, or Dorothy and I could not be sailing out here in such a wonderful things as this Skylark, which you and Dick Seaton have made?’ (92)

This bathetic descent contains and constrains the capacity of the sublime to disorientate and estrange.

Throughout the novel, Smith demonstrates little interest in the implications of his conceits. For example, when a mechanical educator accidentally gives Seaton and Dunark, Kofedix of Kondal, perfect knowledge

down to the finest detail […] of everything that the other had ever learned (117)

it is merely a convenient plot device, enabling Seaton to justify his collaboration with the fascistic social-Darwinist Kondalians against the treacherous Mardonalians (who ‘are the scum of the universe’ (120)).

ill-613Again and again, The Skylark of Space promises novelty but delivers mere novelties.

And herein must lie whatever appeal it has: there is no terrible abyss, just space waiting to be filled should anyone ever look out of the window.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
This practice of describing the indescribability of a phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself reaches its glorious nadir in the explosion of a charge of X:

There was a blare of sound that paralyzed their senses, even inside the vessel and in the thin air of that enormous elevation. There was a furiously-boiling, furiously expanding ball of . . . of what? The detonation of a Mark Ten load cannot be described. It must be seen; and even then, it cannot be understood. It can scarcely be believed. (105)

[2]
It is, of course, equally telling of Smith’s lack of interest in his female characters that not only should Margaret be so beautiful as to distract Crane but also so eminently reducible to a list of clichéd fragments. Elsewhere, she champs at the bit to be a secretary (92).