Sunday, February 8, 2015

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #32 : Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #4

by Professor Gilbert Colon, P.M.P.*

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #4
July, 1975
Editor-in-Chief: Marv Wolfman
Cover Artist: Frank Brunner
Frontispiece: An Unknown World of Bob Kline

“Prologue: An Official Inquiry”
Script: Tony Isabella
Art: Don Heck and Frank Chiaramonte
No editorial introduction to this issue; instead Unknown Worlds plunges right in with, “At last!  The Secret of ‘Slow Glass’!”  The “ominous” back story of Sandson O. Tyme, purveyor of Slow Glass, apparently an illegal material that gets him in hot water with “--THE TRIBUNAL OF THE UNIVERSE!!”  (Last time was O. Tyme-meets-O. Henry, and this time Lewis Carroll is referenced, Tyme’s trial – or “inquiry” as the Tribunal euphemistically calls it – being vaguely likened to Alice’s before the Red Queen, at least according to Officer Devin’s perspective.)  

“The Enchanted Village”
Script: Don and Maggie Thompson
Art: Dick Giordano
Adapted from the story by A.E. van Vogt
After crashing on Mars, the lone survivor of an Earth ship wanders the Red Planet’s wastelands only to find the most inhospitable of oases – a deserted but living village (“the village was alive!”) whose every attempt at manufacturing food for him either almost kills him or makes him sick.  (The alien city turns out not to be malign – it is only used to support Martian life, not the unknown biology of a man from another world.)  When the village does finally get it right, “it has to destroy part of itself to give…”  When all else fails, and all seems lost, there is one last desperate measure left untried…  

A survival tale with a twist that suffers from incessant one-man narration (and consequently drags a bit, at least in the beginning).  Still its outcome is different from the average survival story and not likely to be guessed.  Touching upon this resolution, in the van Vogt profile piece following this story, “The Dreaming Kind,” interviewer Brennert remarks to the author that “Much of your work—such as Slan, The World of Null-A, and even the story that Marvel is adapting, ‘Enchanted Village’—…deals with mutation and metamorphosis; it seems to be a recurrent theme of yours.”  Van Vogt’s novel Slan, it is worth mentioning, was slated for issue #7 – “…our first multi-part serial…already scripted and ready to be illustrated,” says issue #6’s “Shape of Things That Came” column – but that was before Unknown Worlds’ ultimate cancellation.  

The Dreaming Kind:
A Conversation With SF Master Author A.E. van Vogt
Introduction by Interviewer Alan Brennert

Described by Brennert as “one of the most prominent and most widely-read authors of science fiction in the world,” van Vogt wrote his first story, “Black Destroyer,” for Astounding Science Fiction (July 1939), adapted by Unknown Worlds’ precursor Worlds Unknown (issue #5).  Van Vogt’s interests ranged from Dianetics to hypnotism, and many of his “early stories had their basis in dreams…”  While “working for one cent a word,” finding resolution to his stories was “creat[ing] anxiety,” so “to solve some problem in the story” he would “awaken [him]self periodically throughout the night…in the middle of some dream.”  He relates how Harlan Ellison wanted “to write a story with him for…Partners in Wonder” and how the title Ellison supplied, “The Human Operators,” was reinforced after that through some chance dialogue overheard in an actual elevator and “one of those sinister dreams.”  Is there method in his madness?  Read and make up your own mind to discover.  

What separates van Vogt, in his own estimation, from the science fiction of his day is that “The reality writers of today feel that you should bring in the sweat, the spit…in science fiction,” but he disagrees.  He feels books like this “are selling better—temporarily; but in the long run they won’t,” and this is because “Reality is a very current thing, and the writer of that kind of story is going to find that his reality will become quaint within five or six or seven years.”  So van Vogt’s approach is not to “bring in too much of the current quaint reality of the Vietnam war, or the current quaint reality of anything….”

Van Vogt sees science fiction as a literature of both “ideas and concepts,” but acknowledges that Ellison disagrees because, like so many of “the New Wave writers,” he is “aware of the spit in the person’s mouth” to “get down to the reality level.”  He admits he has “toyed with the idea of doing it myself but I’m afraid of it” because “all of my stories…are still in print…and I noticed that there are writers of whom this is not true.”  None of this means “that you can’t write realism—you have to have some reality in a story or nobody reads it…”  One van Vogt novel that might qualify as an example is “The Violent Man, and it didn’t do too well…”  He set it in Red China, thinking “it would make…a fortune…And it did not.”  

Agreeing that “society is an ‘unfortunate necessity,’” van Vogt believes it will remain “so until we have a technology that will alter it.”  To a technocrat like van Vogt, people do not change the world.  “[T]hose little Romans...They had a technology of warfare…Technology is the key to the whole future of the world...”  In contrast, “sixteen hundred thousand people in Calcutta can do anything—they can be murderers, they can be solidly religious people, they can be anything they want to be, and it will change nothing.”  

Next van Vogt elaborates on his theory of damage done by “parental mismanagement, by fear, by shock experiences…”  People “arrive at adulthood battered” and “In fact…never recover” because “The individual never really has the time to recover from it.”  But Brennert suggests “science fiction can be more than an escape…it can help people adapt to change, to overcome ‘future shock’…,” and van Vogt partially agrees: “As a result of seeing all kinds of changes depicted in science fiction stories, [people] are not that startled when a change occurs in their present existence.”  

Brennert quotes a critic as saying that van Vogt’s “heroes and…villains are usually ‘thorough-going bastards,’” citing Slan’s protagonist and his “peculiar kind of amorality—particularly in the way he uses hypnosis to blithely alter the personalities of those he needs to manipulate.”  Van Vogt answers that “When I got into Dianetics, I discovered what I had done in Slan.  Hubbard has a scale of emotions by which people operate,” and details the stages on the scale.  Though Slan seems to precede van Vogt’s voyage into Dianetics, the idea of an ambiguous leader who uses hypnosis sounds a little uncanny.  

Van Vogt amusingly describes his friend Ellison, “instantly antagonistic,” as having “a harmonic of the highest ‘tone’” on this scale.  For himself, van Vogt puts himself as having “spent most of my life at the ‘suppressed anger’ stage,” and Hubbard explained that “A suppressed anger individual…is a person who favors opportunism.”  As a result, “I favored opportunism in my stories.”  Nowadays he has “consciously…move[d] up one step” from an “‘anger’ person…,” unlike Ellison who “bridles…instantly” and “automatically.”  (Van Vogt and Brennert share a sustained laugh over this.)  

Explaining his involvement in Dianetics (which he views as apart from Scientology), van Vogt perplexingly offers that “When my friend L. Ron Hubbard asked me to join him in Dianetics, I resisted for a short time, but then I thought, well, that’s a way of listening to people; I’ll do it.”  This Unknown Worlds piece does not dig deeper than that, and it would take a lot to piece together van Vogt’s history with Hubbard and Dianetics, but drawing from Charles Platt’s interview in his book Dream Makers, it seems that Hubbard was sufficiently impressed with a book van Vogt wrote on hypnotism, called him out of the blue, and ultimately appointed him head of the California Dianetics operation.  (Hubbard reportedly told van Vogt over one phone call, “We’ve got all kinds of people who want to send money to somebody out there, and there’s nobody to send it to,” to which van Vogt responded, “Tell them to send it to me and I’ll guard it for you!”)  

Hubbard, of course, was a writer of pulp science fiction in his own right before using his system of Dianetics to found the Church of Scientology, though it is doubtful that van Vogt, despite the association, has ever written anything quite like Battlefield Earth!  Legendary Astounding Science Fiction editor John Wood Campbell, Jr. was also an early Dianetics dabbler who, according to van Vogt, was the one who dissuaded Hubbard from putting mysticism into Dianetics; that came later with Scientology, and van Vogt was not on board with that.  Eventually van Vogt opened his own center when the organization he headed finally went broke and kept that one open with his own funds till 1961.  

Whether or not van Vogt’s eccentric views conform to Dianetics, and other details about the Hubbard-van Vogt connection, is better left to the Scientologists.  Meanwhile Brennert, because of van Vogt’s vast array of “studies,” wonders if he will ever lose interest in science fiction, but van Vogt reassures him that “I find myself with so many ideas coming up all the time that it looks as if, no matter what I do, I’ve got ten more…”  While he doesn’t “know how this is going to work out…,” the fact is that van Vogt lived till 2000, completing many more novels and other stories before his demise at age 87.  

Original painting for Van Vogt's Paperback Library
edition of Monsters (1965)

Otis Adelbert Kline: Visionary of Venus
By David Anthony Kraft

Kraft, former publisher of a fanzine devoted to Kline and literary agent for the Kline heirs, “came to work for Marvel” after Roy Thomas “first contacted [him], in spring of 1971, about adapting one of OAK’s interplanetary novels into illustrated form” (along with “a brief biographical text piece”).  The four intervening years were due to “legal problems…entirely beyond the control of either Marvel or the Kline Estate” until “Roy came up with a legally-unencumbered yarn…”  And here we are.  

In brief, Kline “was a contemporary of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, Jack Williamson, and so many others during the golden 1930’s; the days of the pulps—such as Weird Tales, Argosy, Amazing, and so forth.”  But one of the most interesting fact-bits about Kline is that during his lifetime “he acted as Robert E. Howard’s literary agent, in addition to…John W. Campbell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Frank Belknap Long.”  As for his own literary output, “he is known for his swashbuckling stories of high adventure in the tradition of E.R. Burroughs,” with “His first novelet…published, serially, in the first two issues of the now-legendary Weird Tales magazine, in 1923.”  He is “most famed for…a modest series of interplanetary novels set on Mars, Venus, and the Moon.”  One “final book-length manuscript, The Hunters of Mars, is reputed to exist but has yet to be located.”  Kraft’s open-forum reportage in Marvel’s pages never did yield any clues as to the whereabouts of the missing manuscript which, if it ever even existed, is lost to this day.  

When it came to advocacy, it must have been Kline’s time in the sun.  In addition to Kraft’s “introductory appreciation,” Fred Blosser wrote an informative article for Marvel’s Savage Tales #6 (September 1974), “Jan--With One ‘N’: A Review of Otis Adelbert Kline’s Jungle Hero,” all about another pulp Kline character, Jan of the Jungle.  That Savage Tales issue contained a Jann of the Jungle story (Marvel’s female jungle heroine), but never Kline’s Tarzan-ish central character, just as when Marvel made an industry out of their jungle lord Ka-Zar without ever adapting the original Bob Byrd pulp Ka-Zar who served as inspiration.  

“A Vision of Venus”
Script and Art: Tim Conrad
Adapted from the story by Otis Adelbert Kline
with special thanks to Pete Iro
This is the “legally-unencumbered yarn,” based on the Amazing Stories (December 1933) short story and presented here because of how remarkably “it manages to distill all the elements of the standard Burroughsian science fiction novel into their absolute basics, while still retaining the sense of exotic adventure and high romance.”  Writing at the time, Kraft hopes that its inclusion in Unknown Worlds “motivate[s] you to haunt the second-hand bookstores in search of several now-out-of-print novels by Otis Adelbert Kline.”  (In the age of hard SF that Marvel so prized in its pages of Unknown Worlds, space opera authors like Kline must have been in severe decline, though in recent days houses like Wildside Press and Paizo Publishing have reprinted his “planet” stories.)  

A whole other magazine could be made adapting lesser-known science fiction and fantasy pulp fiction, something better than Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction or its predecessor Worlds Unknown, something along the lines of Savage Tales, but with more variety.  (Except for the occasional John Jakes sword-and-sorcery adaptation, Marvel mostly focuses on Robert E. Howard or original Conan yarns, though some of the Conan originals are in fact adaptations of fantasy works by authors such as Norvell W. Page and Gardner Fox.)  

The Kline story itself, “A Vision of Venus,” is pure pulp planetary romance wherein a princess of Venus (“Mirim, daughter of Zand”) falls from a flying dragon (“a man-eating Gnarsh!!”) after a wound from Our Hero (“Lotan, a young plant-hunter”).  It is ironic that this Amazing Stories tale would be chosen for Unknown Worlds – in many ways it mirrors Frank Brunner’s Smash Gordon story “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Mongo!” from Unknown Worlds’ premiere issue which was intended to mock space opera.  

There are a few too many exotic names thrown at us in this “one concise act” for readers not to chuckle at times – “the Imperial Government of Olba on Venus,” “Lotan’s [telekinetically-driven] flier,” “kadkor, that rare and valuable food fungus,” “1000 kantols of land,” “Ropok Ocean,” “the fleet of Tyrhana,” all in two pages!  But it is all part of the fun, a word that could hardly be used when describing much of the decade’s self-serious and self-important science fiction.  

“A Vision of Venus” seems a bit brisk, even for a swashbuckler, though maybe it was meant, in its original form, to set the stage for a larger work, and indeed Kraft in his Kline introduction explains that it “is properly a part of the mythos fleshed out in the Venus Trilogy (Planet, Prince, and Port of Peril).  Whatever the backstory, it is certainly a refreshing about-face for Unknown Worlds.  (Are they eating crow?  In last issue’s letter column, they hinted “The verdict isn’t in…on space opera!”)  

A letter writer in issue #6 describes “A Vision of Venus” as “an intriguing distillation of O.A. Kline’s ‘oeuvre’ into one near-vignette,” going on to praise “New artist Tim Conrad” as “very impressive” with a “style” that “strikes me as a cross between Val Mayerik and Barry Smith (esp. the anatomy).”  


Fantastic Worlds
by Don & Maggie Thompson
A regular new feature from those “guides [and] lifers,” the Thompsons, containing “news about science fiction and other items of interest to science fiction fans, along with book reviews and other oddments.”  What they “do not plan to do” is “fanzine (fan magazine) reviews very often,” but they make an exception for Locus because it “contains most of the news about what is happening in science fiction…where conventions are being held…what books are…to be published, etc.”  

On the topic of conventions, the Thompsons list “the oldest [of the] regional conventions,” Midwestcon, along with the West Coast’s Westercon, Toronto’s Fan Fair III, and the World Science Fiction Convention.  Of these, all but Fan Fair III seem still to be operational today.  On the subject of “books to buy,” the Thompsons recommends two: The Best of Henry Kuttner (because “no collection of his superb short stories has been made in years—until now”) and Ballantine’s The Best of Planet Stories #1 edited by Leigh Brackett who “turn[ed] out unabashed SF adventure stories.”  It is surprising that the anti-space opera Unknown Worlds points this out, and the Brackett-edited volume in fact collects “her collaboration with Ray Bradbury, ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist,’ a blood-and-thunder adventure novelette about a man named Conan—but not that Conan.”  Too bad Roy Thomas could not have adapted that!  

With no recriminations or backstabbing paparazzi, Bruce Jenner
(third from the right) finally found a place he could feel welcome.

The Science Fiction Book Club (still on Long Island, these days under the Bookspan company umbrella) gets a mention because of its exclusive offers.  For instance, The Best of Henry Kuttner is only available as a paperback original, but join the Club and you could have it in hardcover.  Not only that, but “Most of the club’s monthly selections are cheaper bindings of hardcover books, sold at a price much below the hardcover price…”  Other special club offers include “a pair of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘John Carter’ novels with a dust jacket and several interior illustrations by Frank Frazetta.”  Conclusion: “Those alone make club membership worthwhile.”  
Then comes some education: “‘Fanfac’ is fan activity, anything science fiction fans participate in…”  That includes fanzines, and the various types involved.  “The fan editor…publishes his own magazine, assembling articles, artwork, letters and other outside contributions into his very own publication.”  You can find a fuller definition of this title in any comic book thesaurus under the heading “Dean Enfantino.”  Then there is the “fan writer and/or artist, who contributes,” and “the convention fan,” who attends conventions “to see Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov insult each other entertainingly for the amusement of the assembled multitudes.”  “The club fan…forms a group of like-minded individuals for regular or irregular meetings,” and while “most fan clubs don’t last too long,” “one of the nation’s oldest groups” – the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society – “has been around for decades and is still cohesive enough to have bought a house with funds raised by an assortment of club projects and dues.”  Next are “the letterhacks…who spend…an inordinate amount of time writing letters to magazines,” and then “the collector” of which “there are many degrees to this particular mania.”  (On the extreme end are those “who have had to buy huge houses just to store their collections,” most famously Forrest J. Ackerman “who has devoted his entire life to science fiction and fantasy and who recently bought an immense mansion just to hold it all.”)  

As the Thompsons say, “Welcome to fandom.”  

Dean Pete goes on vacation and the University runs rampant

“Good News from the Vatican”
Script: Gerry Conway
Art: Ading Gonzales
Adapted from the story by Robert Silverberg
A bishop, a rabbi, and some laymen and women walk into one of Rome’s al fresco caf├ęs for drinks…  It sounds like the set-up for a stand-up joke, but is actually the beginning of a tale from science fiction author Silverberg.  Despite being a Nebula-winning short story, there is little story here, only a dramatized incident of future Earth history as Pope Sixtus VII is elevated to the Chair of Peter in Rome as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.  The catch?  He is a robot.  Though Sixtus is held in highest esteem by Catholics and non-Catholics alike the world over, there remains controversy and reservations, and the narrator pensively asks himself, “will the grand ceremony of election ever be held again?  Will we need another pope, when this one whom we will soon have can be repaired so easily?”  

The question never dealt with (though the striking visual of a very mechanical-looking robot in papal garb cannot help suggesting it) is how can an artificial intelligence life form possess a soul?  Does an immortal machine even need an immortal soul?  Within the story’s context, the elevation should not be overly controversial a notion to Earth’s population in that future era since there seems already to exist at least one robot cardinal.  To probe the question of artificial life and the soul more deeply, read where Philip K. Dick explores the nature of his “andys” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (“replicants” in the film adaptation Blade Runner).  Perhaps Silverberg forgoes struggling with the issue because Charles Beaumont already did so in “Last Rites” which Richard Matheson, in a brief introduction to the short story compiled in The Howling Man, compared with the best of Graham Greene’s Catholic tales.  (The story of Matheson’s support for friend and colleague Beaumont during his degenerative phase is poignantly documented in Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works by Matthew R. Bradley.)  

No clue is given how Pope Sixtus will reign, though he must be at least a little on the traditional side as he wears the papal tiara, something modern-day popes have forgone since around the time of the Second Vatican Council.  The worst that can be said about this “Pope Sisto Settimo” is that, on the last page, he seems (shall we say) a little showy.  

Issue #6’s Reader’s Poll ranked the story sixth and admitted that “A few readers seemed to feel the story needed more punch to be effective as a comic story…”  The same Poll thanks Mr. Silverberg himself “for his complimentary comments on Marvel’s version of his…story.”  Though wonderfully illustrated, it does register at least one complaint in the letters column of issue #6 that “The very ‘Warren-ish’ art didn’t work too well…”

Silverberg’s short story has been described as a satire, and if so the satire is subtle.  Silverberg could not have been considered too religiously antagonistic as his “The Pope of the Chimps” was eventually anthologized as Catholic-themed science fiction in the Andrew Greeley-edited Sacred Visions, appearing alongside short stories from Gene Wolfe, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Anthony Boucher, and others.  Of course this does not mean Silverberg is religious in any sort of way – he says, in Asimov’s Science Fiction: “I’m not a devout Catholic nor a lapsed one nor even a Christian at all.  Like Isaac Asimov…I was born into the Jewish faith.  As it was with Isaac also, my Judaism has always been entirely a matter of cultural background rather than religious observance, but Jewish is what I call myself whenever I’m asked about my religious affiliations.”  

In that same Asimov’s column, at the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s election in 2006, Silverberg essentially remarks that while his prediction of a robot pope has yet to come true, the pontiff of the 21st century does have an e-mail address which his column provides.  Silverberg’s other impish reflections in Asimov’s are characteristically amusing, and informative too – he relates taking some inspiration, in more ways than one, from the 1904 English novel Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe.  

One of Silverberg’s other novels, Up the Line (1969), also touches upon religion in a humorous fashion as crowd after crowd of time traveling tourists throng Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and “grows bigger and bigger, every time.”  HarperCollins commissioned a series of sequel books from other authors set in the same universe as Up the Line, the “Robert Silverberg’s Time Tours” series, one of which was The Pirate Paradox by Greg Cox and Nick Baron.  

“Encounter at War”
Script: Jan Strnad
Art: Rich Corben
“Leave no man behind” degenerates into “every man for himself” in this “episode of battle,” or so it seems in this tale lacking clarity.  Issue #4’s Reader’s Poll, writing about “The Hunter and the Hunted,” says “This story would probably have rated even higher if anybody could have understood it.  Now wait’ll people start trying to unravel the Strnad-Corben offering in this issue!”  That would be a challenge considering the fact that part of “Encounter at War’s” incomprehensibility stems from the fact that it comes from “a short series of tales dealing with an Earth invaded by a race of gnome-like aliens who had teleported here from a distant star.  This is the final episode of that interstellar struggle....”  In other words, we have only an incomplete story.  “A year or two ago,” this excerpt is introduced, “comics-fan Jan S. Strnad and underground cartoonist Richard V. Corben collaborated on [the] short series...”  We are left with a tiny fragment and expected to fill in too many blanks.  The semi-wordless approach does not help matters either.  

This much we do know: An Earth rescue party lands on an alien world and is ambushed by the planet’s natives.  One soldier is abducted, whisked off to their city, and tossed in prison with the captain he came looking for.  From there, they plot their escape together.  Effective dialogue bubbles which use symbols instead of words make the aliens that much more alien.  There is plenty of evocative alien and spaceship design at work, quite unlike what is typically seen in this type of story, the best part of “Encounter at War.”  

“Kick the Can”
Script and Art: Bruce Jones
"Kick the Can"
An old-fashioned love triangle set in the near future in which a lovelorn young man joins “the 21st century’s answer to the Foreign Legion” to forget his heartbreak, only to have the old flame and his rival-in-affection stir up a past he thought was once-and-for-all behind him.  “Kick the Can” is a pretty simple affair, but it begins overly wordy and gets off to a slow start before picking up considerably.  The flashbacks to childhood effectively give the future cat-and-mouse game and its finale, set on big game-hunting planet Cylis 4, a real emotional resonance.  

In what the Contents bill as “The Trial of Mr. Tyme,” Slow Glass becomes the element that could “topple an empire,” and Tyme’s Slow Glass supplier the man behind that revolution (though not in collusion with the peaceful Tyme).  The conspirator, Demin, wonders if Tyme would, if he knew, “support my plans to seize that mad creature…[the Tribunal]”  But we do not know enough about what Demin calls the “insane reign” of the tribunal he is trying to bring down to be supportive or not, the very tribunal Tyme must appear before for selling the Slow Glass which has been deemed a dangerous material…  


“The Shape of Things that Came”
The “communications from Inner Space” letters column begins a short but warm obituary tribute to Artie Simek, “long time letterer for Marvel.”  “The ether [also] vibrates” with a Reader’s Poll which ranks the stories of issue #2 according to reader votes.  Proving that Mike Kaluta’s “The Hunter and the Hunted” was not understood by many, there is in answer to one reader a multi-paragraph explanation which, barring something from Kaluta himself, is as definitive as one is going to get.  (Elsewhere, in the poll section, Marvel a second time admits Kaluta’s story was barely comprehensible.)  So much dissection for so small a tale; was it worth it?  You be the judge…unless you are busy wasting time trying fruitlessly to figure out “Encounter at War.”  So much dissection for so little payoff…  

—Professor Gilbert

* Professor of Moldy Pulps

In just four short weeks
on this same channel!

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