WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 4)

Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. Though there was a period of time taken up by one immense book, I’m delighted to report that I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. As I said in the first part of this now, apparently, ongoing feature after finishing the first random book that came out of the box, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read for fun more, but my editor’s brain won’t allow me to read a book “just because.” I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on.

Though I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, I did with the last one I just finished: a 1969 Ace Science Fiction Classics edition of The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life by Homer Eon Flint, which looks exactly like this (I scanned my own copy):

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Pulp author Homer Eon Flint might be best known for the strange circumstances surrounding his death in 1924, but for fans of classic science fiction it’s as the co-author (with Austin Hall) of The Blind Spot that he’s known and loved. It’s not strange that I picked up a book that’s actually a combination of two novellas first published in the old SF pulps. I’ve been reading a lot of pulp lately, teaching an ongoing online pulp fiction workshop, and writing some pulp-inspired stuff of my own, so this jumped off the shelves of a used bookstore and into my grab-bag box with lots of cousins from that era.

The Lord of Death was first published in the magazine Argosy All Story Weekly in May 1919, followed by The Queen of Life in the August 1919 issue of the same. That makes it the 97th anniversary of the first publication, so sort of a bit of bonus timing there.

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

One of the things I confront right away in my pulp fiction workshop is the obvious sexism and racism on display in any image search for pulp magazines. It was clear that the publishers back then thought their predominantly white male audience would respond favorably to women in bondage and stereotypical caricatures of non-white villains. I guess they were right because these magazines sold like crazy.

It’s interesting, though, how often, or more accurately, how rarely the stories printed under those covers actually matched the racist, sexist packaging.

It was with this, and other pulp thoughts in mind that I made my way through The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life.

Though the subject of race doesn’t really come up, there was at least this cringe worthy line late in the book when the earthmen are puzzling over the appearance of the Venusians: “Like a lot of Chinamen,” said Van Emmon in an undertone, “can’t tell one from another.”

Okay.

Keeping in mind that very nearly a century has passed, how does Mr. Flint approach gender, circa 1919? In The Lord of Death we meet Mercury’s despotic emperor Strokor, who has this to say about the only woman mentioned in that novella:

She was in no way like any woman I had seen. All of them had been much like the men: brawny and close-knit, as well fitted for their work as are men for war. But this chit was all but slender; not skinny, but prettily rounded out, and soft like. I cannot say that I admired her at first glance; she seemed fit only to look at, not to live. I was minded of some of the ancient carvings, which show delicate, lightly built animals that have long since been killed off; graceful trifles that rested the eye.

Later, when the “chit” in question offers herself up to mighty Strokor for marriage:

Many women had looked like that at me before. But I had always been a man’s man, and had ever heeded my father’s warning to have naught whatever to do with women. “They are the worst trick of all,” he told me; and I had never forgot. Belike I owe much of my power to just this.

“I will have naught to do with ye,” I told her, civilly enough. “When I am ready to take a woman, I shall take her; not before.”

Granted, “man’s man” Strokor is the villain of the piece, and this passage is meant to further paint him as an unfeeling brute, but here we see a female character serving only to further illuminate the male. We’re also left to ponder the gay subtext rich throughout this, which might still have been at least partly intentional almost a century ago.

But what makes The Lord of Death interesting isn’t the sexual politics but the more overtly political message at the heart of the story.

We begin with a team of scientists and intellectuals from Earth who travel to the planet Mercury in a spacecraft of their own invention. Their theory that Mercury once orbited farther from the sun and was the home of an intelligent species is confirmed—but only by the ruins the natives have left behind. In the ruins they find recording devices that tell them the story of Strokor, a brutish despot who (spoiler alert) goes on to wipe out the entire population of Mercury (including himself) in his effort to achieve world domination.

World War I, the War to End All Wars, came to an end six months before the first publication of The Lord of Death.

Surely the horrors of mechanized warfare were top of mind for pretty much everyone at that time, and the fact that science fiction was used as a warning for just how mad the madness of war can get shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. If anything here we have a science fiction author warning of the genocidal war to come. And though Strokor’s doomsday weapon depends on magnetism, Flint is eerily prescient in terms of the potentially world-ending weapons yet to be invented.

In that context the fact that he seems to see women—or anyway, his villain tends to see women as sex objects at best or irritants at worse is secondary to the idea of a war that results in complete mass extinction.

So much for The Lord of Death. What about The Queen of Life?

In the second installment our intrepid explorers once more venture out into interplanetary space, this time with their sights set on the planet Venus. And this time, they’ve recruited a new member of their team, someone they know by reputation only and who, heaven forefend, turns out to be . . . a woman!

Gasp!

But this is a man’s job, with danger and the necessity for rational thought, and all the other reasons a woman couldn’t possibly be expected to be brought along.

But then, strangely, especially so in light of Strokor’s feelings on the subject and the otherwise complete lack of any female voice in The Lord of Death, in The Queen of Life the earthmen get over the fact that their new teammate is a woman surprisingly quickly. There are a few clunky passages early on where the forward-thinking Mr. Flint grapples with the reality of the day’s sexual politics. His male characters struggle to be genteel and not condescending, and though for the most part they fail, the effort flies directly in the face of pulp magazines that much more often looked like this:

I know, right?

I know, right?

The female lead of The Queen of Life is E. (Edna) Williams Jackson, known as Billie, and though she’s happy to help with the cooking and washing up, she is seen as a valued member of the team by the end of Chapter 2, in which we learn that she’s wont to wear trousers and doesn’t care who knows it. It goes from retrograde to quaint in odd little baby steps and though there’s a certain amount of what might now be described as “mansplaining” we see in The Queen of Life the direct opposite of Strokor’s macho warmongering. Instead, the much more civilized—and very much still alive—citizens of Venus are in the process of genetically engineering women to fertilize their own eggs, thereby rendering the male gender obsolete.

Though male Venusians stage a sort of riot in response, I got the feeling that Flint left it for the women of Venus to move into a peaceful and productive future unencumbered by the warlike brutes with penises that have done nothing but fuck up everything they’ve ever touched.

World War I ended six months before the publication of The Lord of Death, and American women voted for the first time fifteen months after the publication of The Queen of Life.

So this concept that men are warmongering assholes and women might fix everything if given the chance, was certainly in the air while Homer Eon Flint was writing his pulp science fiction mini epics.

Pretty forward thinking, but like the best science fiction, it was much more about what was going on while it was being written than it was any real attempt to guess at the actual cultures of Mercury and Venus.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, creative team, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 4)

  1. Pingback: LEAVE ME OUT OF IT, PLEASE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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