Monthly Archives: November 2009

A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore

Earlier this month, on the way home from World Fantasy Con, we stopped in the town of Ben Lomond, in the mountains south of San Jose and just north of Santa Cruz, to visit Marina Fitch and Mark Budz, old friends. We walked through downtown Santa Cruz to have dinner and visit a couple bookshops — including Logos Books & Records — the likes of which have vanished in big cities like Los Angeles, where I live.

At Logos (which reminded me of Sam Weller’s Bookstore in Salt Lake City, which I visit every time I’m there for a software engineering convention, with its mix of new and used books and its basement floor where the SF section is located) I bought, almost at random, as a souvenir, a small hardback book by H. G. Wells, called The Croquet Player. For $5.

It was a title I’d never heard of, copyright 1937, but then I knew that Wells had published many works in his latter years that have never gained the reputation of his earlier works — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, etc etc — that so prefigured and defined the genre of ‘science fiction’.

“The Croquet Player” is a slim volume of 98 pages, a novella at best, that according to Bill Contento’s Locus Index, was first published in 1936 in London, and rarely reprinted since then. (The volume I purchased is apparently the first US edition, though without dust jacket.)

The story’s narrator, in the first of four sections, describes himself as something of a dandy, with “soft hands and an ineffective will”. He then meets a stranger who tells him of strange circumstances in Cainsmarsh. At the midpoint of the story, it seems we’re reading Wells’ version of an HP Lovecraft tale — a rural community haunted by an otherworldly presence, or infestation. But as the tale continues, it develops that this presence is subjective, an effect due to the awareness of the vastness of time revealed by modern science — an effect so disconcerting that our narrator cannot comprehend its significance. He is content, as the story closes, to dismiss it entirely, to return to his passtime of playing croquet.

It’s a surprisingly postmodern story (and not, in the end, strictly SF or fantasy at all). But what I find most curious is that this tale has been completely forgotten. It’s an example, as with other authors we might think of, of how an author’s early works have outlasted the later, supposedly more mature ones.

Addendum: here, via Google, is Time Magazine’s March 1st, 1937 review of the book.

World Fantasy Con, Wrapup

I attended several panels on Saturday at WFC in San Jose, including the standard “best books of the year” panel at which, in previous years, Charles Brown has distributed an early draft version of the Locus Recommended Reading List (limited to fantasy titles) as a basis for discussion. This year’s panel included Liza Groen Trombi as the Locus representative and was moderated by Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9; also participating were Justin Ackroyd, Jo Fletcher, and Tom Whitmore. Newitz (who I had the chance later in the afternoon to meet, and put a face to a member of the io9 team) posted her account of the panel with lists compiled by most of the participants of their favorite titles, though missing from that account are the answers to the first question posed of the panel: if they could name just one title to recommend, what would it be? Jo Fletcher singled out Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (sequel to Mythago Wood); Justin Ackroyd, Jack O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist; Newitz herself, Jacqueling Carey’s Santa Olivia; Liza Trombi, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream; and Tom Whitmore, NESFA’s John Bellairs compilation Magic Mirrors, because it includes a previously unpublished sequel to an early Bellairs work.

Earlier I caught part of a panel on “the role of religion in contemporary fantasy” in part to hear guest-of-honor Zoran Zivkovic, whom I had never seen before. He speaks English very well, though with a pronounced accent that requires some attention, and his responses to questions posed to the panel were usually anecdotal, with humorous points. Also on the panel was Robert Silverberg, with his familiar wry observations on becoming Pope (increasingly less likely, as time passes) and how much religious opinion varies when solicited from, for example, Connie Willis, Ralph Vicinanza, or Tim Powers…

Other panels included one on homosexual characters in fiction. Has society reached a stage where such characters are past notice? Answer: no. (The panelists included Malinda Lo, author of just-published Ash, a lesbian version of Cinderella [just reviewed in the NYT Book Review -- see blinks]; Nancy Jane Moore; Doselle Young.) GoH Jeff VanderMeer moderated a panel on “what we read for fun”, with Michael Swanwick, Zoran Zivkovic again, Garth Nix, and Richard Lupoff. Swanwick said even fun reading can’t be dumb, and rhapsodized about Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand. Zivkovic described how at his age (he’s 61) he needs to choose his reading carefully, and mentioned favorite titles (I hope I got this right) The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, and, later, Jose Saramago’s Blindness. VanderMeer described an unlikely source of fun, A Dictionary of Non-Scientific Names of Freshwater Crayfishes, Nix recommended Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (especially older editions), and Lupoff discussed books by sincere lunatics, books by people who really believe in hollow earths, or martian civilizations. Later he mentioned how unexpectedly hilarious Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow turned out to be, past the first 100 pages or so.

The convention’s dealers room was modestly sized but remarkable for consisting almost entirely of book dealers, with only three or four jewelry tables among them. The art show was astonishingly small; no doubt there was some good reason why, that I didn’t hear. As much as the scheduled events, of course, the lobby bar/lounge, and the 20th floor party suites, were the center of activity throughout the weekend. Saturday night’s party sponsors included Gordon Van Gelder, pouring wine and assorted spirits to celebrate F&SF‘s 60th anniversary, and Orbit Books (or perhaps the author herself), celebrating the publication of Gail Carriger’s Soulless, a Victorian era urban fantasy, complete with tea service, cucumber sandwiches, mince pies, and numerous other English treats.

The banquet was steeply-priced, $75 per ticket, but the food was good and the event ran like clockwork, finishing both the meal and the award presentations in under two hours.

Overall it was a good convention — interesting panels, nice hotel, opportunities to catch up with old friends, have some fruitful business discussions, and meet new people.

Home from World Fantasy Con

Just a quick note for the moment — home tonight from World Fantasy Con, following a visit Sunday night with friends near Santa Cruz, and a drive home today via the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ll do one more post summarizing some interesting panels at the con (though note the io9 ‘blink’ posted this evening, about the notable books of the year panel) and some of the interesting parties at the con…