Sunday, March 28, 2021



John Taine (Eric Temple Bell)  1883-1960)

Dr. Eric Lane is an ichthyologist and paleontologist living in San Francisco with his daughter Edith and his lab assistant Drake.  The latter is interested in ancient Bolivian texts and inscriptions.  A captain Anderson and his first mate Ole Hansen pay a visit to show the Dr. a specimen that they found in the south Atlantic ocean:  a smallish creature with wings, beak, armored skin and feathers.  The captain's story has to do with a vast explosion that almost wrecked their ship about 120 miles from the Antarctic coast.  It occurred at night and in the morning they saw that all the ocean as far as they could see was covered with crude oil.  Carcasses of dinosaur-like beasts littered the surface and polluted the surrounding atmosphere with the noxious fumes of rotting meat.  The first mate was a camera fiend and had 144 photos of the ocean and its dead denizens.  The Lanes were fascinated and decided to fund an expedition to the region to investigate the phenomena and to find the source of the oil.  They equip the captain's ship with supplies for a year and sleds and dogs and even a small airplane and embark from Rio, intent on reaching Antarctica.

When they arrived, they saw what seemed like an active volcano in the southern distance as well as a convenient fjord that might possibly provide access to the area.  For five weeks they examined a rocky beach which was covered with the bodies of thousands of dead dinosaurians.  Many of them had plates like triceratops and long necks like brontosauruses.  They sailed up the inlet as far as they could, then  took to the dogsleds for the rest of the way, about 200 miles.  The snow was covered with shards of basalt-like rocks that had pictographs incised in them, apparently originating from the distant volcano.  On the third day they reached a wide sort of trough about 30 miles across, filled with circular holes 30 to 50 feet in diameter.  While trying to negotiate this maze of holes, the mist disappeared suddenly with a violent suction action that swallowed up their sleds as well.  Immediately afterwards, giant cones of ice were ejected like a missile from a silo.  They shot into the air with a scream and ignited.  Rather alarmed, the party trekked back to the ship and spent a lot of time arguing about the causes of the violent upheavals.  The conclusion seemed to be that an enormous pool of oil underlaid the continent and that there was a cushion of methane resting on it that periodically ignited from friction with the sides of the wells, as it pushed the ice plugs into the air.  

They decide to explore by air, using the airplane, and Edith and Ole volunteer to operate the machine, both of them having the requisite skill.  Flying south, they observe that no volcano can be seen, but passing the trough area they fly over about five miles of extremely broken up country, on the other side of which they discover a sort of giant caldera seemingly concealed by a layer of inky black clouds about 90 miles in diameter.  Ole and Edith decide to fly west and in about an hour find another depression 50 or so miles across.  They fly down into it and realize that it's around 15,000 feet deep and that it has grass and trees and a small river.  And a cavern in the side of it about 3,000 feet high.  They enter it with the plane and run into geysers of fire and lots of live prehistoric beasts, so they retreat precipitously and land on a beach.  Ole is notorious for having an opinion about everything and he shares his ideas with Edith;  he thinks the whole area is underlain with interlacing tunnels full of animals and gas and that the periodic fires derive from tidal effects caused by the orbiting moon.  The plane is charged by a belligerent triceratops so they fly out and land on the ice where a giant ostrich chases them away.  

Back at the ship more philosophizing takes place.  The doctor believes that an ancient civilization created life in the form of a basic molecule that was the beginning of an entirely new line of evolution, the results of which were to be seen in the monstrous forms, neither saurian or ornithian, that they saw all over the area.  He also thinks that the pictographic fragments on the rock shards were some sort of warning about the dangers of ungoverned proliferation.  He wants to dig further into the mystery, so they trek back to the trough area.  They rig a long hose from one of the blow holes so that they can discourage the attacking monsters with the gas (partly CO) by spraying carbon monoxide at them.  Then they drill holes in the side of the caldera wall so that they can use dynamite to shear away the outer layer of rock (which they had discovered was artificial:  actually a form of cement invented by the ancient race) to gain access to whatever the pictographic message was in its original form.  They set off the dynamite which raises a huge cloud of dust and spores that the scientist collects in specimen jars.  After examining the dust Dr. Lane realizes that the spores were the original invention of the ancients and that they were the source of the evolved monsters.  Also one of the jars leaks and they wake up in the morning finding that their clothes and all the area around them was covered with a kind of green fuzz.  They are afraid that the planet will be destroyed by the fast growing green stuff so they blast another hole into the lake of oil and set it on fire.  They race to the plane and take off, leaving behind them a titanic explosion that blows up the continent of Antarctica, or most of it anyway.  The ship's crew had walked to the edge of the ice and were later picked up by a passing whaler.  The plane full of scientists flew to the nearest whaling station and eventually made their way back to SF.

This was a pretty exciting book.  It had a sort of dry, joking tone that seemed a little manic at times, as if Taine was chortling to himself over the explosions and the preternatural biological disasters that he'd dreamed up.  In real life he was a mathematician with some original work to his credit.  He had quite a few stories published in the SF mags as well as a number of novels.  It was pretty obvious he had a lot of fun writing them, although, for the reader, his sense of continuity was sometimes pretty much at risk, with the action progressing in a sort of random illogical fashion, so that it was often a matter of doubt as to which part of the continent the heroes were actually at.  It was fun, though and certainly a different kind of book.

Saturday, March 20, 2021



H. Rider Haggard  (1856-1925)

Colonel Quaritch had led a strenuous life in the British army and at the age of 43 decided to retire.  He found a nice little cottage in the south of England on the land belonging to the de la Molle family, of whom only Ida and her father the Squire remained to represent the long history of the de la Molle family.  One of the more famous ones was James de la Molle, who was executed by Cromwell in the Civil War, but not before he'd hid his fabulous wealth and left a clue to its whereabouts in the family bible.  The Squire had made unsuccessful attempts to locate the treasure, as he was seriously in debt and had over-mortgaged his land and castle, but to date had had no luck finding it.  To make things worse his largest tenant farmer had given notice to surrender his rental of the largest farm on the property and was about to move out, thus removing the owner's largest source of income.  Lawyer Quest held the position of intermediary between the bankers (Cossey ltd.) and the Squire.  The Cosseys were notorious greedy penny-pinchers and were hankering to get their hands on the rich property.  The older Cossey was in poor health and expected to die in the next few months.  Eagerly anticipating the event was his son, Edward, who was a selfish rake and the lover of Quest's wife Belle, who he doesn't really like but who is madly in love with him.  Edward is madly in love with Ida, but she finds him repulsive.  However she agrees to marry him if he will use his influence to vacate the mortgages on the castle and land.  

Meanwhile Harold Quaritch and Ida have fallen in love also and the former is aghast at Ida's decision, but being a quiet sort, doesn't have a whole lot to say about it.  Lawyer Quest also has designs against the Castle, being a social climber of the worst sort who will do anything to raise himself in society.  George, the overseer of the de la Molle agricultural interests is a slightly comic, but crucial character in the plot who has adventures in London related to Quest's past matrimonial history with an alcoholic chanteuse named Edith, also known as "Tiger".

Cross-currents abound as the plot progresses.  At one point Quest tries to blackmail Edward with some love letters he's stolen from Belle.  Edward is in a tizzy, waiting for his sick father to die so he can pay off the mortgage on the castle himself and marry Ida.  Opportunities arise to save Ida and the farm several times, but are constantly thwarted by the conniving lawyer and young Cossey.  Belle is sick at heart with her love for the amoral Edward and during a garden party shoots him with a shotgun, imperiling his life.  Quest has been blackmailed for years by the Tiger for being a bigamist and is perennially anxious that his secret past will out.  So affairs progress and seem to reach a point of no return on Christmas Eve, when the mortgage is due and Ida has to finally decide.

Harold is naturally upset with all the goings-on that he has pretty much stayed out of, but when it seems that he is about to lose the love of his life, he remembers the family bible.  There's a hand-written dedication in the front of the book which has been supposed to present a clue to the treasure's location, but nobody has ever been able to decipher it.  Agonizing in his helplessness, he holds the book (spoilers ahead) up to the firelight and sees that some letters stand out more than others.  He puts them together and they apparently indicate that the gold is buried inside the hill that his cottage rests on.  He runs out to get a shovel and starts digging up the dirt inside the tool shed behind the house and finds it to be mostly unconsolidated sediments.  Up to his neck in the hole he's dug, he's about to give up when he remembers a crow bar that he had seen leaning up against the wall.  He jams the bar down in the bottom and it hits a hard surface after a couple of feet, so Harold resumes digging.  By this time he's enlisted George to help him.  Between the two of them they pry up several old tiles and reveal an empty space beneath.  George, being taller and younger, descends on a rope they've rigged up;  Harold hands him a lantern and George emits a blood curdling screams and swarms back up the rope babbling about ghosts.  So Harold goes down himself and sees....

Well, i said "spoilers", so i guess...  There are skeletons laying all around in various conditions of decay.  One with a coronet falling off its head is situated on what appears to be a large coffin.  Harold reassures George and the two of them investigate, discovering a secret compartment below the coffin that is filled with gold coins from the 18th C. and before.  All sorts of vintages from multiple countries, and priceless rarities pour out of the broken casket when they lift it away from the coffin.  Speechless with delight, Harold runs to the castle where Ida is about to once more agree to sell herself to Edward, and informs them that they are now the possessors of great wealth.  Chagrined, Edward slinks away, trapped inside his overwhelming lust and greed.  Harold and Ida marry and live happily ever after.

I should have mentioned that Quest, traveling to London to get revenge on the Tiger, meets her on the train and they rage at each other, crashing around inside the passenger compartment and accidentally falling out the door, over a bridge railing and into a river which the train happens to be crossing over at that particular moment.  Their bodies are found later, clutching one another, lying on a mud bank.  

Those readers who have trod Africa on the way to King Solomon's Mines, will find the language in this novel quite familiar.  Haggard's prose is elegant and comprehensible, and distinctive from almost every other author i've read except perhaps that of Disraeli.  The plot seemed a bit repetitive, with a sort of pinball effect as regards the will-she or won't-she phase of the plot.  I think Haggard could have done more with Harold than he did, but it was still a fun and interesting series of character studies associated with the engaging plot evolvements.  

Sunday, March 14, 2021


A.D. 2000

Alvarado Mortimer Fuller  (1851-1924)

It's a dark and stormy night in the garrison.  Three subalterns are having a convivial evening;  Junius Cobb, Lester Hathaway and Hugh Craft are soldiers in the Army, based in the Presidio, San Francisco (located on a hill above the Golden Gate).  The conversation has drifted to the scientific researches of Junius, who claims to have invented a way to place a human body in suspended animation for an indefinite length of time.  The other two officers ridicule the idea at first, but later are convinced to the point that they agree to help Junius with his plan to use himself as an experimental subject.  The process involves sealing the victim in a glass coffin and filling it with ozone crystals, trusting that the said crystals will seep oxygen into the body through its pores.  They plan to use the base of the 25 foot high replication of the Statue of Liberty that Adolph Sutro (a famous entrepreneur in San Francisco's history) had had erected some years previously.  They sneak up to the top of the hill on which the statue is built and cut a hole in the bottom, fitting a solid door for access.  They carry in the casket and some buckets of crystallized ozone and Junius lies down in it.  After securing him inside, they leave and seal the door behind them.  The intention is to have the door opened in one hundred years (1987).  A letter to that effect has been left with the authorities in the Treasury department.  Jean Colchis had been a fellow researcher of Junius, and was familiar with his theories.  His daughter, Marie, had acted as lab assistant to the scientists and Junius had fallen in love with her.

1987 passed without any notice being taken of the experimenter's fate until the letter was accidentally found in one of the Treasury's files thirteen years later, in the year 2000.  Curiosity leads to a party breaking into the chamber with crowbars and the discovery of the glass coffin.  Junius is rescued and found to be still alive, although on the verge of extinction because the ozone crystals were almost used up.  After a period of recuperation, he's introduced to the new United States.  Inventions abound.  Transportation is by electric car or subterranean train.  Tunnels have been dug all over the country that are designed for pneumatic trains.  Giant engines are used to create a vacuum at the destination points of each train so that the cars are sucked along by the difference in pressure.  Engines at embarkation points are also used to push the trains along the tracks which are located in slots below the base of the tunnels.  Long thin metal slats connect the rails with the trains.  Top speed is 240 MPH.  The fuel for the engines is lipthalite, a gaseous form of lipthalene, a combination of nitrogen, carbonic acid and other elements.

In 16 hours, the train reached Cairo, Illinois, where the passengers had to transfer to a submarine to get to Washington DC.  The Central Sea was created by the accidental ignition of gas wells situated along the Mississippi river valley.  So many well had been drilled and there was so much gas, that the whole valley unzipped like a string of firecrackers, splitting the crust and allowing the influx of 90,000,000,000,000 gallons of water that inundated the midwest and created the new ocean.

Junius received a hearty welcome in Washington, with thousands of colored lights and banging of gongs all along his ride to the White House, where he was interviewed by President Craft, the great great grandson of Hugh Craft, his old army buddy.  Some of the statistics pertinent to the United States as it now existed:  population 500 million people, 68 states (the borders reached from Panama to the Arctic), and 9 territories.  There was one daily newspaper, the Daily American which was published by the American Press in America, a city in Kentucky on the eastern edge of the Central Sea.  England was now a republic, Siberia was a nation, France was a monarchy, China had an Emperor, and the national sport was baseball.  The Code of Justice had been shortened and improved:  there was now a Universal Federal Code that eliminated juries.  Corruption carried a life sentence.  There were limits on corporate profits;  there were no billionaires or millionaires, as people, not capitalists, ran the country.  Locally, communication was by pneumatic tubes (like the ones department stores used to have) that ran all over the urban areas.  Long distance messages were delivered by sympathetic needles.  These "quantum" needles were found to be in sychronicity with each other regardless of physical distance, so a mechanical system was invented to use the movements of paired needles, separated to various locations of the nation or world, to convey messages.They visit Niagara Falls, but it's not there when they arrive.  Junius is informed that the whole river has been converted to an electrical generating plant that supplies power to the entire east coast.

Meanwhile, some new friends have become aware that Junius is lonely.  He's told them of his former girl-friend, Marie Colchis and how much he misses her, so two of them, the daughters of Craft and Hathaway, decide to search for her.  After adventures, they locate what is supposedly her tomb on the island of Guadalupe.  Enlisting the help of a ship's doctor, they find a cave in the middle of the island and discover Marie in the same condition that Junius had been when he was found in San Francisco.  They revive her and they all return to Washington DC only to be informed that Junius and two others have borrowed a blimp to fly to the North Pole, which no one has ever visited before.  The blimp is driven by lipthalene and is 377 feet long.  Named the "Orion", it has a car suspended below it of 1500 square feet.  It's driven by a 46 foot propeller and is fully equipped for long distance travel.  Seven attempts have been made to reach the Pole but none have succeeded.  But the Orion, after traveling the length of Greenland and over the Arctic Ocean, arrives and lands at 90 degrees longitude and sinks a monument in the bare earth.

They successfully journey back to Washington, where Junius meets Marie.  They marry along with other characters ancillary to his adventures and they all live happily ever after.  And they're rich as well, as a lot of jewels were discovered on Guadalupe Island.

This book was a lot of fun.  It was the only one written by Fuller, and, although it was not a professional production, it was inventive and original.  Fuller spent most of his life in the Army where he was a bookkeeper.  He used to refer to himself as an "Indian Fighter" even though most of his experience probably had to do with numbers rather than hostiles.  But he had a vivid imagination, which makes up for a lot.  I thought it was astonishing that he referred to the quantum world and that he was well aware of the dangers of capitalism even though the book was published in 1887.  He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before his retirement.  The book is listed in the Gutenberg files if you're interested...

Sunday, March 7, 2021



Alfred Noyes  (1880-1958)

The time is about one hundred years in the future.  The earth has been plagued by war and famine, the result of a recurrent series of belligerent and aggressive tyrants in charge of governing most of the nations on the planet.  Finally, as a result of the sinking of a neutral passenger liner, the final engagement takes place.  A mad scientist has discovered a radio frequency that will stop the human heart.  In a short period of time, knowledge of how to create this wave has spread to most of the countries and one of them has utilized the beam to attack her enemies.  And is imitated by most of the larger governments.

Mark Adams, a member of the Royal Navy, was aboard a submarine which was lying on the bottom of the sea adjacent to the Isle of Wight.  The boat had suffered an engine failure and most of the crew had escaped, but Mark was unconscious due to a scrabble with a pugnacious fellow submariner who had a bad case of the me-firsties.  When he woke up, he utilized the escape mechanism to reach the surface and swam to shore.  He noticed a number of sea-bathers lying about, apparently asleep.  But when he tried to rouse one of them he noticed they were all dead.  He hot-wired a car and drove to Cowes, the major city on the island, but couldn't find any live people.  He tried visiting his uncle Andrew who lived nearby but nobody was home.  So he commandeered a small boat and sailed to the mainland.  He thought if he could use the powerful radio located at the nearby yacht club he might be able to find out what was going on.  But the radio seemed dead also:  no static and no response.  He laughed hysterically for a bit after understanding that in all likelihood he was the only person left on the planet.

Appropriating food and clothing as needed, he made his way to London where he found a lot more bodies.  They were all sort of dried out with chalky faces, looking a lot like mummies.  Finding an abandoned limousine, he equipped it with food and  necessities and set forth on a road trip, taking in all the major cities of England and Scotland.  He didn't find a single soul alive, so he made a plan to try Europe.  Arriving in Paris he didn't find anyone either, but while sitting disconsolate in the Louvre, he found a lady's purse stuck behind a seat cushion.  Inside was a watch that had just been wound, so he knew there was at least one other person alive beside himself.  Outside, he saw that his car had been stolen.  Various indications suggested that whoever it was, was originally from Rome, so he got another auto and drove there.  Touring around the classical/tourist sites, her heard a scream while he was checking out the House of the Borgias in the Vatican.  He ran, but couldn't find the lady, but through some rather clever deduction, he managed to trace her to Ravello, on the Amalfi coast.  They got together at last and she (Evelyn) shared her survival story.

She had been on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in a diving bell, looking for unusual fauna with a man named Mardok.  Unknown to her, this person, being a kind of future-day Trump, had been largely responsible for the death of the human race.  But he was a scientist as well as being a maniacal psychopath, and was interested in ruling the post-human world with Evelyn as his help-mate.  Of course she's horrified at the idea and manages to elude his clutches once they were back on the surface.  She and Mark lead a settled life for a while in Ravello until Mardok (who'd been searching all over Europe for Evelyn) discovered their whereabouts.  The two flee back to Rome, but Evelyn falls into the clutches (i like that word:  i used to be a mechanic) of the evil Mardok and agrees to marry him.  She convinces him to take a boat to Capri for a marriage ceremony, but cleverly manages to trap him in the Blue Grotto when the tide arose, escaping back to Naples where she and Mark flee once more.  Their new plan is to take refuge in Assissi, where they hope there are still some monks left.  But they soon realize that Mardok is close behind them.  Their car breaks down and they find two horses with which they ride cross-country to Balneum Regis, a castle on the edge of a cliff at the end of a dead-end road.  Mardok catches up to them but in the mist drives over the cliff edge and crashes at the bottom, killing himself.  

Mark and Evelyn travel on to Assissi, where they find peace and tranquillity at the Monastery of St. Francis, and also a number of monks who have survived the crisis.  When asked how they did it, the querulee replied only that it had something to do with the local rocks.

Noyes was a well-recognized and popular figure as a poet.  "The Highwayman" might have been his most popular work.  He was certainly an accomplished describer of scenery of all sorts, and inventive insofar as the plot was concerned.  There was a lot of religious philosophizing that interrupted the action from time to time, and provided a reason for a certain amount of vague haranguing.  In my view, it was a bit narrow-minded, but others might feel differently.  Anyway, it was entertaining and thought provoking even though i wouldn't rate it as high as the other work of the same name by Mary Shelley.