Thursday, 3 May 2018

Book: 'The Roaring Trumpet' (1941) by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

It's fascinating to find out that this was first written (as a shorter story) in 1940. This is perhaps the first real prototype 'man travels to another world' story, if you throw away 'A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court' and the 'John Carter' novels. Okay, so it's not the first, but it does predate a second favourite example, 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' by Poul Anderson, by almost fifteen years, which is impressive. However, out of all the stories mentioned, 'The Roaring Trumpet' features a protagonist who chooses to travel between the worlds, which is an important distinction. Yes, he ended up in a different world to the one he planned, but it was an expedition instead of an accident, and what an expedition! The central conceit is that we are capable of experiencing and receiving far more sensations than those of our own universe, and that it is entirely possible to travel between the universes by re-tuning our consciousnesses to receive the impulses from those worlds... Yes, it is interdimensional travel by self-hypnosis, or so it seems!

'The Roaring Trumpet' kicks off the 'Harold Shea' or 'Enchanter' sequence, which is a great achievement. This, and the following story, 'The Mathematics Of Magic' are the extended versions of the original magazine stories. Every story is in some ways a parody of or a homage to a notable mythology. This time, we get Shea visiting Norse mythology, on the very eve of Ragnarok, and it's lovely indeed. We get encounters with the Norse gods, species aplenty, snow, snow, and more snow, and lots of interaction between the modern man Harold and the natives. Wonderful prose, warm characterization, a novel premise, and a good dose of verisimilitude holding it all together. Is it a parody, though, as people suggest? The interior of the story doesn't think so.

It's always nice to visit the Norse legends, isn't it? Much more warm and comforting than wandering off to the Greek or Arabian tales... Maybe that's because we have a more censored version of the Norse stories in the public consciousness, or a lack of awareness of specifics? Perhaps it's the secret inner Scandinavian which lurks in the core of all us British coldlanders.

'The Roaring Trumpet' could well appeal for it's comparative innocence, despite not really being all that pure. It's written in a simple and appealing way. Now, will 'The Mathematics Of Magic' live up to its standard?


Monday, 23 April 2018

A Long Story, Or A Short One

The Quirky Muffin has been on partial suspension due to a series of serious and idiotic complications. At the beginning of the year, I feel sick with a chest infection, and recovered, before falling sick again. Some chance remarks passed on by the people at large invented the notion of a twelve week virus, and so I set myself to wait it out. However, I stayed sick, and got worse and worse. Six or seven weeks in, the first visit to the doctor occurred, in which all the misinformation led to nothing conclusive, and then after that x-rays, before it finally became clear that it was a very well developed chest infection indeed. The final result, after lots of anti-biotics and three months elapsed, is that things are approaching normal once again here. Yes, there is still some pain from the cough-inflicted damage, but it will be repaired. A diet rich in anti-inflammatories is proving very useful indeed... Roll on, cocoa, oranges, olive oil, almonds, broccoli, ginger and more. There are ways to do things.

It's nice to not feel exhausted, or scared of going to bed, any more. Very nice indeed.

Oh, and it's Snooker World Championship time again! Many more interesting long and short stories.


PS If someone says 'broncoscopy', don't expect anything pleasant!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Finny Foot Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x10, Produced 1x15)

Baby Kurt Russell. Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong. The lovely silent opening. The Napoleon centred episode. He missed out on that mother! Waverley calms him down at the end. Marc Daniels. An explanation of the 'Finny Foot' title. Living dangerously in powdered chemical land. That wonderful and traitorous hound. Where would we be without caves?

This is a very impressive affair, immediately from the silent opening as Napoleon and Ilya investigate and ultimately incinerate a dead Scottish village in containment suits. It's a visual stunner. Then, we get the best of cases, a Napoleon-centric episode and a great guest star in the form of the little tiny Kurt Russell of 1964! Not only Kurt Russell, but also Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong, whose legendary role in 'Get Smart' has forever ruined his earlier appearance here. He could have been doing anything, even acting out the best villain in all of screen history, but all you will think of is the Kraw. Anyway, with that put aside, this episode is studded with interesting and unusual moments.

At one point, a scientist doing a post-mortem on a dead seal stops to explain the 'finny foot' of the title in reference to the taxonomical name of the specimen, and it works! He just does it, theoretically to the UNCLE crew via the closed circuit television. Kurt Russell's Christopher endlessly tries to matchmake his temporary guardian Napoleon with his beautiful widowed mother, which is sweet, and there's a potent sense of innocence mixed in with all the intrigue. It's a remarkable achievement when the problem being investigated is so deeply serious: a chemical which causes accelerated ageing, which thankfully is only shown as a pre-established result during the introduction. Napoleon is rather cavalier with the 'dried out' powdered chemical when it's found, though.

Russell is very good as Christopher, but the real guest star of the episode was a lovely and cuddly dog, who sadly leads the enemy agents also in pursuit of the chemical directly to Napoleon and the lad, and to the rusted drum that housed it. What a cute dog! And what a cute little moment, when Napoleon solved the riddle of the ring and the statue. It's a lovely episode, with a nicely characterised ending, when Christopher decides Napoleon is too busy to be his dad, and leaves with his actually attractive mother, while Mr Waverley wisely leads the dumbstruck Napoleon away before he does something he would regret.

Mr Waverley is wise. Never doubt it.


Next time: 'The Yellow Scarf Affair' (If it's interesting or good!)

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Literary Reflection, X

There have been quite a few things read while I've been, and continue to be a little, sick. A few won't make the grade for being talked about, mainly due to being a bit lightweight and flimsy. 'Lightweight and flimsy' is excellent when you're a bit distracted and disconnected from reality! Let's get to it.

'She Died A Lady' (1943) by Carter Dickson a.k.a. John Dickson Carr
This one has faded from memory quite quickly. There was an unhappy marriage, a pair of lovers leaping from a cliff, Sir Henry Merrivale cavorting around in a powered wheelchair and a toga, and a very extended unravelling at the end which didn't quite cut the mustard. The characterisation is excellent, though, and the ultimate ending to the story is unexpected. It seems that villains sometimes get away with things in the Carr universe. How strange that is. It's oddly reminiscent of 'The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, while being quite different. Middle of the road Carr.

'He Who Whispers' (1946) by John Dickson Carr
This has actually grown a little in my memory since the reading. Carr seems to have been a very brave writer in terms of brushing with what must have been taboo subjects, mostly in the realms of sexuality. Here we have a pre-war scandal about a lady secretary being built up around her once again, a vampire allegation, a country house mystery, and they're all tied up together by a curious string of coincidences. It's good, better than you think it is on the first reading. The final unravelling is not the best in the world, however, but it is much better than that of 'She Died A Lady', and culminates in something entirely unexpected. Needless to say, there are no real vampires in the Dr Gideon Fell universe. Or are there? He seems to be constantly dicing and debunking the supernatural in his cases, which we will surely return to. Maybe it's because he seems part supernatural himself, in that grandiose, too large to be true, description he has.

'The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer' (1876) by Mark Twain
The complicated relationship with Twain continues, as 'Tom Sawyer' has drawn to a close. It's a great example of a youthful adventure story, so far removed from the world of 2018 as to be entirely fantastical. There was a time when children could get away with roving wild in the countryside, living lives of comparative innocence, free of the insecurities caused by being as extremely interconnected as we are now. It's charming, comparatively brief, and free of the quality that makes Twain such a nervous read at times: The unbendable impulse to make a satirical point. 'Tom Sawyer' has none of that, and is brilliant as a result. That man Twain could write like no other. Even the inclusion of a crime story doesn't over-balance the narrative too much. Someone (Oh, I give up, it was John Dickson Carr, continuing our trend) once said that adventures were impossible to write after the Second World War as the world had gotten too small. Would a cavern labyrinth cause so much fear and confusion if written in the year 2018? Probably not. Tom Sawyer himself would have been demonised as some kind of delinquent after all his misadventures and his parents beleaguered by Social Services, despite the fact that he ended up as Mark Twain himself!

It's charming, and meanders around in some kind of circle before we end up back with the mischievous Tom Sawyer, the delinquent Huck Finn, and the prospect of other stories that will follow. It's a nice children's story, with a lot of appeal for adults jaded by the present too.

'Dimension Of Miracles' (1968) by Robert Sheckley
Ah, Sheckley, the great weirdo. You can never tell what you're going to get with this writer, except that it will probably be offbeat, and sometimes very, very confusing. In 'Dimension Of Miracles', we get one of his most comedic novels, wherein an executive called Carmody is mistakenly awarded a galactic sweepstakes prize, before immediately being mislaid in the cosmic scheme of things, while a Carmody-eating predator is automatically spawned according to the natural laws of the universe. What follows is a bizarre quest for home, with an intelligent and rather sarcastic prize in tow, and the mystifying questions of 'Where, when and which?' to answer before safety is reached.

'Dimension Of Miracles' is incredibly inventive, with so many bizarre concepts thrown in that you can get quite overloaded at times. The self-consuming Prize, the Carmody-predator, the 'where, when and which?' conundrum, a crippled God of a lonely world, and planetary architects combine to make this confection. Is it any good? Honestly, I have no idea, but it has been read a few times. The ending just sweeps out of nowhere.

'A Study In Scarlet' (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle
This is the legendary and lesser read first Sherlock Holmes story, a novella, which so brilliantly defined Holmes and Watson that its details stood nearly unaltered for the whole canon. There's the first meeting, the classic list of Holmes' talents that Watson compiles, the violin, the unusual murder, the introductions of both Lestrade and Gregson, and the Baker Street Irregulars. That's practically the whole universe, although I don't recall whether this is the story with the Mrs Turner / Mrs Hudson confusion. It might have been one of the best of them all, except for the extremely frustrating and extended flashback that explains the motivations of the ambiguous villain of the piece. That flashback, in combination with Zane Grey's 'Riders Of The Purple Sage', really takes a hammer to the Mormons of the time. Was there a societal campaign/prejudice against Mormonism at the time? It is, overall, a mixed bag as a result, but the Holmesian portion is most brilliant, and its importance is paramount.

'The Sign Of Four' (1890) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Now, we get to the second Sherlock Holmes story, which is one of the great crowd favourite. It has everything you could want, packed into novella length: Thrills, a romance, hidden treasure, a mystery, subcontinental connections, a secret sign, huge pearls delivered annually, a siege, poisoned darts, and even a frantic boat chase down the Thames. Strangely, considering that the vast majority of the stories remain to be written, Watson is effectively written out of the mythology by the conclusion. He will, however, return! This is practically the prototype or quintessential adventure, and you probably can't do too much better. The boat chase may directly have inspired the train chase in 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' by Nicholas Meyer, which is a great inspiration to take.

Oh, there should probably be some kind of plot summary for this one. A young lady hired Holmes and Watson to accompany her when she receives a message from the same hand that has been sending her a magnificent pearl annually, saying that she has been greatly wronged and will get justice. What follows is a grand yarn with roots in the Indian Mutiny, the Andaman Islands, and in treasure. Treasure! Oh, and Watson gets engaged. If you want any more, then you'll have to read the thing! Classical, legendary, brilliant, and adventurous.

Dr John Watson will return...

'They Shall Have Stars' (1956) by James Blish
This is the first chronologically, but the second written, in the 'Cities In Flight' series, and is quite distinct from the other three novels, in that it is an origin story for the ensuing status quo and based effectively in the present day (2013, to be precise). 'They Shall Have Stars' is a scientific and philosophical tale, which revolves around the dangers of ignoring crackpot and marginal theories, of becoming so like your enemies that they win by default, of the great vistas of exploration that still await, and even more cosmic endeavours. Down on the strictly textual level, it's the story of an astronaut who stumbles into something unusual while delivering soil samples to a laboratory, of a gigantic experiment on Jupiter, a political intrigue being run by a besieged senator, and a McCarthy-esque figure overseeing the accidental destruction of the West in its ultimate Oswald Spengler decline.

The whole thing works together well, and Blish write so interestingly that you have to keep reading. It's amazing to think that he's not a very well known writer, in comparison with the established Giants of science fiction. His 'Star Trek' adaptations will stand forever as great writing especially, as will 'Cities In Flight' and 'A Case Of Conscience'.

Is it a good novel? Yes. Is the Spengler stuff interesting? Yes, although it's only really highlighted in the collected 'Cities In Flight' volume. We seem to have deviated from Spenglerian laws a little in our world, but also followed them quite a lot. What will happen to us next? The invention of the Spindizzy is one of the best ideas in all of science fiction, and its culmination in lifting whole cities into space to become galactic 'fix-it men' is spectacular, but that awaits in future volumes. For now, the stars have been opened up for all. How glorious is that?

Other things read:'Star Trek: Dark Victory' (1999) by William Shatner
'Star Trek: Preserver' (2000) by William Shatner
Selections from 'The Complete Prose' (1998?) by Woody Allen

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Project Strigas Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x09, Produced 1x14)

We've missed out 'The Love Affair', which was pretty uninspired.

This is an odd one. It's notable for featuring both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner before the advent of 'Star Trek', but this episode is also a prototype for the gigantic cons that would feature in 'Mission: Impossible'. It's an odd mix, which works but doesn't quite feel like UNCLE. Even Shatner feels a little unformed, as if Captain Kirk was the final resolution of his learning curve as an actor. It's still fun to see him, though. Oh, Shatner... Nimoy plays one of his typical three-dimensional heavies, and almost never intersects with his future acting partner, except for one brief moment.

In 'The Project Strigas Affair', Mr Waverley tasks Napoleon and Ilya with discrediting a troublesome foreign ambassador by any nefarious scheme they can come up with, so they fabricate a completely fictitious and top secret weapons project called 'Strigas', recruit a former top chemist (Shatner) and his wife to act as fake traitors, and then sit back and watch the spies unravel. It's an extremely ambitious hour. Mr Waverley even gets to be chilling and dangerous when seizing and levering a foreign agent to be a double. Sadly, though, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't quite work.

At least it's interesting, unlike 'The Love Affair', which continued the sequence of Eddie Albert appearances in old television series that don't work. Here, all the performances are good, and the story is intricate and interesting, including a major disaster for our heroes. Maybe it's better than I've made it out to be, with a jaundiced view of things while apparently endlessly sick. The only thing to really be held against it is a certain staginess, and the relative absence of Robert Vaughn. Elevating McCallum and guest starring Shatner means that some of that prized Napoleon Solo time had to be taken away, and so everything is just a little less SMOOTH...

Is this the introduction of Ilya's shoddy disguises?

Next time: 'The Finny Foot Affair', hurrah! Normal service is still far from being resumed, due to exhaustion and illness. It really never does end.


Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Rest Interval Continues

As may be freely observed, the Quirky Muffin sabbatical continues. I, as a suffering sick person, burdened with an apparently immortal virus, just don't have the energy to do much of anything. Surely, there will be an eventual recovery? Surely?

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Absence Of Horizontality

The prevailing theory is that the writer of the Quirky Muffin is suffering from a twelve week virus combined with a ripped throat, causing extreme fatigue, endless coughing, and absolutely no sleep due to problems with being horizontal.

Oh, the joy of being horizontal, so long absent. What is sleeping the night through really like? Will there ever be enough energy to get the Quirky Muffin back in full operation? How on Earth do people sleep while sitting up? How?

Next time, it will be the next episode of 'The Man From UNCLE', but for now it is time to rest. Or not rest, but desperately try to, while being increasingly confused.