Monthly Archives: August 2018

Short note, bad joke

I am working on a story which includes a person whose father was protestant and whose mother was catholic. As a result, the character is ambivalent about religion. He says at one point, “I prayed to a Protestant God when my father was listening, and to a Catholic God when my mother was listening. It was all the same to me.”

In another place, this sentence occurs —

His bi-sect-ual childhood had made him immune to religious enthusiasm.

I took the offending adjective out today. It was just too jarring to leave in place in a serious work. But oh how the smart-ass in me hated to see it go — so much that I had to write this mini-post before it faded into the ether.

It won’t be in the final manuscript, but at least you heard it here.


519. The Lensmen (2)

Continued from Monday . . .

If you find the style of Galactic Patrol too old fashioned after two chapters, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it. But if you don’t stay, you will miss a menagerie of strange aliens, both sentient and otherwise.

No one has read all of science fiction, but I’ve read a lot. And in my slice of the SF universe, I have never found a writer who created more or weirder creatures than Doc Smith. I’ll describe just two; first Worsel:

. . . there was hurtling downward toward them a veritable dragon: a nightmare’s horror of hideously reptilian head, of leathern wings, of viciously fanged jaws, of frightfully taloned feet,  of multiple knotty arms, of long, sinuous heavily-scaled serpent’s body.

This is the creature who will become the second most formidable Lensman, and Kennison’s best friend. A third Lensman was Tregonsee:

This . . .apparition was at least erect, which was something. His body was the size and shape of an oil-drum. Beneath this massive cylinder of a body were four short, blocky legs upon which he waddled about with surprising speed. Midway up the body, above each leg, there sprouted out a ten-foot-long, writhing, boneless, tentacular arm, which toward the extremity branched out into dozens of lesser tentacles, ranging in size from hair-like tendrils up to mighty fingers two inches or more in diameter. Tregonsee’s head was merely a neckless, immobile, bulging dome in the center of the flat upper surface of his body — a dome bearing neither eyes nor ears, but only four equally-spaced toothless mouths and four single, flaring nostrils.

These are the minions of civilization; the baddies look worse.

Are these aliens too weird to be believable? Actually, the opposite is true. When we move beyond our solar system, if we don’t find aliens so outré that no science fiction writer could have predicted them, I’ll eat my keyboard.

Part of the power of these descriptions comes from E. E. Smith’s writing style. In flipping through the internet while writing this, I ran across a comment that if the Lensman series were to be offered for publication today, it would not be accepted. That is absolutely true, but it is also true that without the Lensman series, there would be no Star Wars, nor any other space opera. The Lensman series set the pattern that all others would follow, and nothing that came after was as good as the original.

Heinlein was Smith’s friend, and our best picture of him comes from RAH. He said that Smith was the original of the Gray Lensman, and that his wife was the original of Clarissa MacDougal, Kinnison’s sometime companion-in-adventure and wife-to-be.

Much of the charm of the series lies in Kennison’s Boy Scout incorruptibility. Those who say he has no personality are wrong. He simply has a personality that is out of the modern norm. Like Jesus. — which is exactly what he should be, as the end product of thousands of years of Arisan work in perfecting human DNA.

All this works, and the hundreds of weird aliens work, because E. E. Smith’s writing style is essentially naive. His rolling cascades of description could only come from someone who is incapable of embarrassment.

It’s been a long time since that kind of writer has been in vogue, and that day will probably never come again. But if you can achieve the right mind-set, you can still be amazed. The six paperback novels are available in any good used book store. Pass the clerk a ten-spot and the wonders of the universe will be yours.

Banner of the Hawk 59


Melcer sat long after Jor had left, staring into the fire. In the month since Marquart’s death, he had done much to consolidate his rule, starting with Jor’s reinstatement as warden. Tomorrow, he would meet with Dymal to try to enlist his support. Messina would be disappointed that he would not get Jor’s land, but he would he happy enough with Dutta’s. Dutta’s children were too young to effectively complain. Things were going well.

Still, he was uneasy. Tidac had escaped his men, though they had brought back Clevis’ body. The boy was lost somewhere in the hills surrounding the Valley. With winter’s deep snows only weeks away, that would probably be the end of him.

But, he could not be sure. Until he saw the boy’s body, his position would not be secure. He would have to go in fear that the boy would grow up to avenge his father’s death, just as Melcer had avenged Rondor’s.

Melcer’s hands trembled with suppressed rage; if only he could be sure.

He stared into the fire, seeing the sails of a ship, well trimmed, in those glorious hours when a storm had just begun, before the sails had to be reefed and the ship began to wallow in the waves. Those had been the days. Wine and women in every port, the easy camaraderie of the fo’castle. He remembered his old friend Rondor, standing wheel watch with his long hair blowing about him, grinning into the wind. Those were the days.

Rest easy, old friend; you are avenged.

Avenged, but still gone, and the life they had lived was gone with him.

One of the servants was waiting for his attention with yet another detail of the daily administration of the Valley. Melcer stared hungrily at the fire, praying that he would go away, but instead he approached tentatively until Melcer stiffened his neck and shouted, “Leave me alone!”

The servant scurried away and Melcer felt a little better.

He tried to recapture the feel of a ship beneath his feet. He closed his eyes and saw the storm clouds scudding across the damp sky. He opened his eyes and saw the basalt walls of the citadel which had become his prison.

Vengeance had seemed so important, but now Marquart was dead, and it hadn’t helped Rondor at all. Melcer wondered why he had bothered.

He thought of Tidac again. Because he had killed the father, the son must die. It was the way of the world. 

He would have to pass the word that he would pay for the boy’s death, but he would have to be careful not to arouse the High King’s ire. Even though Limiakos was busy fighting back the Dzikakai, he could spare a hundred men to swat a fly.

Again he remembered his nephew’s face and regretted that the boy had to die. Melcer hadn’t really wanted the Valley. But now that he had it, no one was going to take it away from him.


There will be one final echo of this tragedy, Monday and Tuesday.

Banner of the Hawk 58

Marquart saw Melcer’s face, as he had seen him in the Griffon, but this time he was not drunk. This time his eyes held the deep hatred that Marquart had put there when he killed Rondor.

This need not have been!

But was that true? Looking into Melcer’s face, Marquart saw Beshu. Observe much, speak little, and trust no one. Beshu’s words; Melcer too had grown up with them ringing in his ears.

In Melcer’s face he saw Beshu. And himself. And even Tidac, in years to come. So much alike. Too alike for alliance.

Marquart felt all his failings come round to halter him. The dead men at his feet had fought for pay. Not one of them had cared if he lived or died. All that might have cared, he had driven away.

# # #

Clevis threw his left arm around Tidac and began to retreat, sword out in front of him, backing toward a side passage that ran down to the kitchens.

# # #

Marquart raised his lancette. He was dressed in furs and wool and Melcer in leather and mail, but that was not the killing difference between them. Marquart felt his end before his end. Dread filled him, as a rage that matched his own put an end to all his scheming.

# # #

Tidac saw the end. He saw Melcer’s sword fall, and saw his father fall. He saw much more than that.

He saw Baralia throw back her head, screaming out in orgiastic joy, “Free!” and saw her fading figure fly arrow straight through he stone walls of the Citadel to the menhir, to merge finally and eternally with those she had sought to join for all her years of hellish exile.

He saw his father’s soul rise up out of his falling body and follow her flight, crying out, “No!” The menhir had claimed him years before. There would be no need of enreithment. The menhir itself had torn soul and ai from his body as it fell, and all that Marquart had been was swallowed up by the ring of stones before his body had stopped twitching.

# # #

Clevis saw none of this, but he heard Marquart’s death cry and knew that nothing mattered any more but getting Tidac to safety. He dragged the boy through the kitchen and out to the entryway. No one was there. All the guards had rushed into the Citadel toward the sound of battle. Clevis dragged Tidac down the ramp. 

One of Marquart’s men, Devlin, came cantering up on kakai. Clevis let him draw close, then jerked him down. He hit the ground hard, stunned, and Clevis kicked him in the face.

There was no time for explanations. Not even seconds. Clevis hurled himself into the saddle and reached down for Tidac. He turned up the road toward Instadt, where the boy’s g’father could offer him sanctuary.

He had not gone a mile when he saw troops on kakai moving to cut him off. He turned north then, in the direction of the mountains.

# # #

Melcer looked down on the empty face of his h’brother. He looked like Beshu. He looked like the face Melcer saw each time he looked into a mirror.

Tidac would look like that someday, if he lived. And he would remember this day. When Melcer had seen the boy sitting on the fence rail, half a year ago, he had actually felt a kinship with him. It would have been pleasant to have a nephew.

Now all that was changed. Now the boy had to die. more tomorrow

518. The Lensmen (1)

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Part of this appeared in Alien Autopsy (2), but this is an expanded version.

E. E. (Edward Elmer) Smith’s prose sings. I said that all my selections sing and I’m going to stick to that statement. I also said that that singing was a function of the story being told. Smith’s prose is like a heavy metal band in front of a driving beat, pumping their fists and screaming out in a harsh falsetto.

Doc Smith is the only writer I know above the age of twelve who uses capital letters for emphasis, as in —

All I can say in that you have the most important assignment in the Universe today, and repeat — that information MUST GET BACK TO BASE.     Galactic Patrol p. 23

Admittedly he only uses this sparingly, but if any modern writer were to use it at all, it would be tongue in cheek. Smith is completely serious. 

So why is he on my best list? Because no one is better than Doc Smith at what he does — pure evil, shining good, huge distances, dizzying speed, massive warfare, whole planets reduced to rubble, and a hero that is so perfect that Superman would retire if he ever met him. All this without a single blush; without even knowing that some of his fans might blush for him. That complete lack of a sense of the ridiculous is why the Lensman series works. Mankind is fighting for its life against an evil and overpowering enemy, every man must do his part, and there is no place for half measures.

Like Star Wars on steroids? No, that defames Smith and his work. Doc Smith invented space opera. Star Wars is the Lensman series diluted by a whole ocean.

[That, by the way, is me being over the top in homage to Smith, who lived over the top.]

Let’s take a moment to name the books in order.

                First Lensman
                Galactic Patrol
                Gray Lensman
                Second Stage Lensman
                Children of the Lens

Smith was not available in either of the two libraries that were the centers of my childhood universe, but when I got to college, one of my roommates was a fan. He wisely started me on Galactic Patrol, and I read through to the end of the series, then circled back. Take my word for it — keep the same order. If you start on the putative book one, Triplanetary, you’ll probably never make it past page five.

In fact, books four through six were written from 1937 through 1948, all appearing serialized in Astounding. Smith wrote Triplanetary in 1934, but it was a stand-alone. When he got a chance to get the complete series published in paperback, he rewrote Triplanetary to fit the others, wrote an entire new second book, First Lensman, and tweaked the rest. They fit together, and the first two have moments of excellence, but the last four are the essence of the tale. If you find the style too old fashioned after two chapters of Galactic Patrol, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it.

Continued on Wednesday.

Banner of the Hawk 57

In Dael’s chair, there was a coagulation of light as Baralia made herself visible to Marquart, seated at ease in the chair meant for his wife. He started to turn toward her in anger, and paused as he realized that the guests, even Dymal, were frozen in place.

Baralia had never shown such power before, but before he could even feel surprise, a greater wonder occurred. Tidac turned his face toward the apparition and his voice burst out, “Get out of my mother’s chair.”

It was not a child’s voice, and it did not ring in the air, but in Marquart’s head and Baralia’s head. It sounded with a clap of inner thunder; Baralia leaped to her feet and staggered backward.

None of the guests saw or heard anything. Only Dymal felt the backwash of ai, and he did not understand it.

Tidac turned his face back to the guests. As quickly as he had acted, so quickly he forgot her.

Baralia’s breath came harshly into her lungs, though she had no longer any need to breathe. The child had sent a shiver of fear through her, but now he was ignoring her again. How he had seen her at all would have caused her concern, but not now. Not so close to the end. In minutes, the child would no longer concern her.

“Why are you here?”  Marquart demanded.

“For the same reason I have always been here. To pave the way to your downfall and my release. And you have made it so easy! Expecting betrayal, you have assured it. You wanted to be great, but your death will come from the least of these.”

Marquart darted an angry eye at the frozen guests, hissing, “Who?”

“Would you kill him?”

“I would.”

“It is too late. It was a servant. You wouldn’t even know his name.”

“A servant!”

“Of course. They hate you too, you know. They smuggled in your destruction under a load of potatoes.” Suddenly, Baralia laughed and pointed . . .

# # #

Tidac did not know that he had frozen time. He only knew that his hated, bitter enemy, the one who stood between him and his father — the one who had made his father drive his mother away — was sitting in his mother’s place and that was not to be endured.

He did not know when he let time flow again, but he did. The guest’s cups completed their motions; the toast was drunk, and only Marquart and Dymal knew that something had happened.

By prior planning, when the cups from the opening toast clattered back to the tabletop, Melcer’s men-at-arms surged out of their hiding places. Marquart’s guards stood at attention with sheathed weapons. Melcer men had swords in hand, and that made all the difference.

Marquart leaped to his feet, drawing his lancette. A quick cut, backhand, opened the throat of the first of Melcer’s men, and he fell twitching to the floor.

Tidac went to cover. The lethargy of a wounded ai did nothing to stop the movements of a finely trained body. He dropped in place and rolled over under the table. He located sight of his father’s boots, saw the dying armsman fall into his view and shook his head as that dying ai sought the strongest local source of power and scratched for entry at the portals of his mind.

By the movement of his feet, Tidac saw Marquart slide forward. Another wet sound, another cry, and another dying man fell into sight. As Marquart’s feet rounded the corner of the table, Tidac erupted again behind him, heading for Clevis. The old warrior had his sword out but had not left his place by the wall. He caught Tidac as he ran and forced him behind him, standing between the boy and danger.

The battle had reached its climax. All Marquart’s men were down, and half of Melcer’s men lay with them. Melcer’s remaining men drew back. Melcer and Marquart faced off over the tangle of bodies. more tomorrow

Banner of the Hawk 56

“You are not my friend. You are not quite my enemy, but you are almost my enemy.”

“I do not wish to be your enemy.”

Marquart made a motion not unlike avert, shoving the statement aside. “You and I stand eye to eye, adversaries, wanting the world to go very different ways. You will not change and I will not change so we are enemies — almost.”

Dymal spread his hands in a motion of surrender. There was too much truth in what Marquart said for him to deny it.

“I have made mistakes,” Marquart admitted, “and one of them was Weikata. I chose him because I would not let my almost-enemy be mentor to my son. I was wrong.”

Dymal nodded and retained a respectful silence. A lesser man would never have admitted the error.

“Nothing between us changes. That must be completely clear!”

“Go on.”

“You are my adversary, but you are not my son’s adversary.”

“No, I am not.”

“Tidac has no friends. Two or three of my men love him like a son, but he is so much more than they are that there is little they can teach him.”

“They teach him humanity — but I know what you mean.”

“I can’t touch him in any way that matters. He is respectful and obedient, but I have no idea what goes on in his mind.

“He needs a powerful adult — who isn’t me. Someone he will talk to. He also needs someone who will teach him to harness his ai.”

Silently, Marquart finished the sentence, as no one ever taught me. Dymal read the unspoken words on his face and once again regretted his silence on the matter.

That moment was the closest Marquart ever came to understanding himself.

Marquart kicked back his stool and paced the room. During these quiet minutes with Dymal, he was fighting a fierce battle with his rage and distrust, fighting for the soul of his son. Finally he stopped and faced the priest. He sought to make his face calm, but only made it implacable. Marquart’s ai was a raging flame about him. Dymal saw it; Marquart did not.

In a voice brittle with forced calm, Marquart said, “Tomorrow, I will send my son to you for training. You may have him only a few hours a day. I will monitor his progress closely. Treat him well, and we will see where else we might work together. Harm him, or try to turn him to your thinking, or try to turn him against me, and I will destroy both you and your temple.”

# # #

The guests arrived and were seated. Three chairs remained empty at the head of the table. There were three matching chairs at the foot, with Dymal seated alone in the center. The other guests were arrayed in scrupulous order along the long sides, with a few of the lesser guests at smaller tables off to the side.

None of the guests were armed. Six men-at-arms stood at attention, three along each wall so that they were behind the guests.

There would be little celebration at this feast.

Tidac came in after the others, uncomfortable in the finery he rarely wore. His smallsword was sheathed at his side, and Clevis accompanied him. Since Melcer had recently shown himself, Marquart trusted no one else to stand by his son. Clevis moved to stand behind the head of the table and Tidac seated himself at the right. The chair at the left was for Dael. Marquart had ordered it be present, and empty, to dare anyone to comment.

Marquart came in last, dressed in furs and new wool, with his lancette at his side. He took the center chair and raised his cup in an opening toast. His guests moved to comply and froze halfway through the motion. more Monday