Month: February 2019

Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.

Advertisements

Ten of the Best. #4: Pointillist School vs Police School

When Charles L. Harness burst onto the SF scene in 1953 with his novel Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), it was arguably the only thing that could stand comparison with Alfred Bester’s masterpiece of the same year, the winner of the first ever Hugo award – The Demolished Man.  Yet Harness stuck to the day job as a patent lawyer and did not deliver another novel until The Ring of Ritornel (1969), which together with Firebird (1981) comprised his three great odes to galactic cycles, underpinned by the theories contained in historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s twelve volume A Study of History (1934-61).

Any number of Harness’s conceits could make it into my top ten.  I almost went for the forensic spider in Ritornel, that when fed the poison, constructs a web of its chemical structure. But topping that even, is the iconic scene in Harness’s novella The Rose (1966), in which the enigmatic artist Ruy Jacques helps fugitive psychiatrist Anna van Tuyl evade the authorities in the Park of the White Roses.

The impending crisis:

Out in the Via an ominous silence seemed to be gathering.  The Security men were probably roping off the area, certain of their quarry.

The set up:

He began to untie the bundled purple dress… …He tossed the gaudy garment at Anna, who accepted it in rebellious wonder.

The proposition:

The pointillists knew how to stimulate white with alternating dots of primary colours… …[They] could even make white from just two colours: a primary and its complementary colour.  Your green dress is our primary; Violet’s purple dress is our complementary… …daub them on the canvas side by side, stand back the right distance and they blend into white.  All you have to do is hold Vi’s dress at arm’s length… 

Ah yes but…

She demurred: ‘But the angle of visual interruption won’t be small enough to blend the colours into white, even if the police don’t come any nearer than the archway.  The eye sees two objects as one only when the visual angle between the two is less than sixty seconds of arc.’

Fortunately the artist relies more on the suggestibility of the mind than the mechanics of the retina, so that’s all right then.

…if our lean-jawed friends stared in your direction… …they’d see you as a woman in green holding out a mass of something purple.  But… …I’m going to stand over there, and the instant someone sticks his head through the archway I’m going to start walking… …normal people in western cultures absorb pictures left to right.  So our agent’s first glance will be towards you and then… …[He’ll] be distracted by the fountain in the centre. And before he can get back to you, I’ll start walking, and his eyes will have to come onto me...

Ruy heads off while Anna at first watches, then closes her eyes…

He was past the fountain… …Now he must stop…only he didn’t.  His steps actually hastened.  That meant…

I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as I write this.  What pure, priceless SF gold.