Thursday, 27 May 2010

Fantasy/SF: recent reading

Further to The Eyre Affair: I just finished, and very much enjoyed, the second in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, Lost in a Good Book. As explained earlier, Thursday is a detective / security services operative in a world culturally similar to ours, but differing in its all-pervading relationship to literature, limited access to time travel, and the ability of some characters to jump in and out of books. Oh, and Wales is a socialist republic and cheese is illegal.

In Lost in a Good Book, Thursday finds her husband has been "sidelined" (i.e. wiped from history) by the Goliath Corporation in order to blackmail her into retrieving one of its executives she trapped inside Poe's poem The Raven. She is also confronted with the impending end of the world. Her attempts to elucidate both mysteries lead her into being apprenticed to Jurisfiction, an organisation that works inside books to police the text. Her mentor is Miss Havisham, who we find wears trainers when Dickens is not describing her: one of many examples of what goes in books hidden behind the reader. For instance, when Thursday is taken into Great Expectations to help Magwitch get ashore (I'm sure Fforde must have read John Sutherland's Can Jane Eyre be Happy on this problem), we see out of Pip's sight in another part of the graveyard that an archaeological dig is going on to find earlier drafts of the text). The prison hulk from which Magwitch escapes is meanwhile being parasitised by "grammasites" that suck adjectives from descriptions. All very enjoyable, and I can't wait to get on to the next in the series, The Well of Lost Plots.

Elsewhere, I recommend the recent Guardian Books Blog posting World of Fantasy: Conan the Barbarian and his lily-white women ("Is it ridiculous to criticise Robert E Howard's enjoyably pulpy Conan stories for their 1930s attitudes to women and race?"): both the article and its discussion have good recommendations to fantasy novels, some little known.

One I followed, and liked, is Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1915 non-mythos novel Beyond Thirty (widely retitled The Lost Continent). The setting is 2137 and the Thirty refers to 30°W; a border not crossed by the isolationist Pan-American Federation since the collapse of Europe during the First World War over a century previously. The novel follows the adventures of Lieutenant Jefferson Turck, commander of the Coldwater - a Pan-American "aerosubmarine" - who is separated from his ship and forced to take its small launch to land on what once was England. After finding only wilderness at what once was Devonport and encountering a small tribe on the Isle of Wight 1, Turck and his crew reach the site of London, now a lion-infested forest with a few ruins (one for David Platt's Where London Stood, I think) and larger tribes. He teams up with a young woman called Victory, who turns out to be Queen of England. After capture by the armies of Menelek, head of the Abyssinian Empire, they finally escape to civilisation, an enlightened Asian empire governed from Peking. Turck asks the Chinese emperor who won the war in Europe:
"Pan-America, perhaps, and China, with the blacks of Abyssinia," he said. "Those who did not fight were the only ones to reap any of the rewards that are supposed to belong to victory. The combatants reaped naught but annihilation. You have seen--better than any man you must realize that there was no victory for any nation embroiled in that frightful war."

"When did it end?" I asked him.

Again he shook his head. "It has not ended yet. There has never been a formal peace declared in Europe. After a while there were none left to make peace, and the rude tribes which sprang from the survivors continued to fight among themselves because they knew no better condition of society. War razed the works of man--war and pestilence razed man. God give that there shall never be such another war!"
Turck and Victory return to Pan-America, and all is well.
My return to Pan-America was very different from anything I could possibly have imagined a year before. Instead of being received as a traitor to my country, I was acclaimed a hero. It was good to get back again, good to witness the kindly treatment that was accorded my dear Victory, and when I learned that Delcarte and Taylor had been found at the mouth of the Rhine and were already back in Pan-America my joy was unalloyed.

And now we are going back, Victory and I, with the men and the munitions and power to reclaim England for her queen. Again I shall cross thirty, but under what altered conditions!

A new epoch for Europe is inaugurated, with enlightened China on the east and enlightened Pan-America on the west-- the two great peace powers whom God has preserved to regenerate chastened and forgiven Europe. I have been through much--I have suffered much, but I have won two great laurel wreaths beyond thirty. One is the opportunity to rescue Europe from barbarism, the other is a little barbarian, and the greater of these is--Victory.
It's a polemical curiosity, clearly inspired by ERB's outrage at the ongoing WW1 and the prospect of US isolationism allowing Europe to tear itself apart. It also has a touch of the sexism and racism that's being discussed at the Guardian Books Blog in relation to the works of Robert E Howard, and the dénouement seems thoroughly naive - a world split between two civilisations trying to displace a third looks like a recipe for further conflict. It's nevertheless strangely readable: see Erblist or Project Gutenberg EText-No. 149 for the text; and FantasticFiction for editions and covers.
- RG

1. Nitpick: ERB's geography is pretty poor here. He says:
We skirted the northern shore of the island in fruitless search for man, and then at last landed upon an eastern point, where Newport should have stood
Nope. Newport is about 4.5 miles inland from the northern tip of the Island.


  1. Just finished the Eyre Affair myself and had much to question. Firstly, is everything a send up? I can get Millon Floss and Braxton Hicks, but I confess a lot of the others escape me. Secondly, is the Richard the III presentation a send up of the audience participation in the long lasting replay of "Rocky Horror Picture Show?"
    On another note, the ERB story reminds me of that one you discussed about the Persian Navy discovering New Yor, The Last American by James Mitchell. Visitng the ruins of once prominent cities in science fiction is, I guess, pretty common as, for instance, in "A Scientific Romance" by Ronald Wright or "Eternity Road" by Jack McDivitt.

  2. Oh, undoubtedly, to both. I had to look up Braxton Hicks; I can see why you'd know it in your line of work.

    Spotting references to ruined Londons in literature has become a bit of a hobby for me (admittedly, with Google Books, it's also become a bit fish-in-a-barrel lately); I've had a long correspondence with David Platt (not this one), whose Where London Stood site is devoted entirely to the theme of ruined modern cities.