Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Retro Hugos for 1942

This year's Worldcon, of which perforce I am a member, is giving out the Retro-Hugos 1943 (works of 1942). So it's time to resurrect something I've done for Retros before, though not since before I started this blog, which is to survey the eligible works of my favorite old-time authors: the three major Inklings, plus Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake.

Well, Tolkien and Peake may be discarded forthwith, as neither published anything in that fraught wartime year. Charles Williams had a theological treatise, The Forgiveness of Sins, a few theological articles, and a lot of book reviews, but those aren't much help. That leaves C.S. Lewis and Dunsany.

Lewis, by contrast, had a very big year. He published two eligible books. A Preface to Paradise Lost is a set of scholarly lectures which would easily qualify for Best Related Work; I leave it to any Miltonians reading this as to how worthwhile it is, as I've never tried reading the Lewis book myself. (I have tried reading Paradise Lost, but let's leave it at that.)

The other is The Screwtape Letters, one of Lewis's most famous books. It's a little hard to say what kind of book this is. At its core it's a set of Christian moral lessons, and the Library of Congress classifies it as such, but it's clothed in a fictional framework of such piquancy as to have made the book's reputation. It's in the form of the letters of advice sent by a senior devil, the Screwtape of the title, to a junior tempter who's sitting on the mental shoulder of a nondescript young man living in wartime England. (We never learn the man's name or much about his life: this doesn't interest Screwtape, whose only interest is in acquiring the man's soul.)

The idea, of course, is to goose readers into accepting Christian moral lessons by presenting them from the perspective of someone trying to undercut them. Screwtape is a suave but nasty bureaucrat, as Lewis felt it was in those haunts, and not in Dantean dens of iniquity, that the true evil of his time was taking place - e.g., though he could hardly have known about it, the Wannsee Conference, which took place just as the book was being published.

Lewis has great fun with Screwtape chortling in evil glee over things people are tempted into doing that they don't realize lead to their damnation, for instance Letter 17 on the Gluttony of Delicacy. "She would be astonished - one day, I hope, will be - to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small."

Lewis once said that, while the book was easy to write, keeping his mind in Screwtape's persona was cramping, and to my mind the book's biggest flaw is that the author isn't always able to keep it up. Though Screwtape's raging frustration at not being able to figure out what God is really up to is amusing, he can also say things like, "Remember, always, that [God] really likes the little vermin" (Letter 13), after which Lewis realizes that Screwtape is likely neither to say such a thing nor to believe it, and has to make him backtrack (Letter 19).

This brings up the point that the letters were probably written in first draft and never revised. Which is relevant to the Hugos because the sequence was in its entirety (except for a brief preface to the book edition) serialized in a church newspaper in 1941, so it's technically not eligible for 1942. (A definitive edition, with a longer preface and a new Screwtape piece, didn't come out until 1961.) But I won't tell anyone if you won't.

Also, the book is, at a quick estimate, not much over 30,000 words long, so by Hugo standards it's a novella.

Now for Lord Dunsany. In 1942 Dunsany published five stories, all very brief, and about a dozen poems, mostly in Punch. Most of the poems are hopeful gazes towards military victory, and a couple of them introduce the allegorical figure of Liberty, so they could technically be considered fantasy.

None of the stories are SF or fantasy, though the only one of them that's worth reading could possibly squeeze in by courtesy. It's a Jorkens story reprinted in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947), where it's the shortest piece in the book. Jorkens is Dunsany's long-running clubman character who's prone to making outrageous claims or telling absurd stories which nobody can disprove. In this brief tale, "On the Other Side of the Sun," that topic comes up - "I wonder what's there?" - and Jorkens astonishes all by stating, "I have been there." His regular patsy, Terbut, demands "When, may I ask?" At Jorkens' reply, "Six months ago," any red-blooded SF reader should know instantly how the story is going to end, but the penny doesn't drop for the hapless Terbut until after he makes a large bet that Jorkens is lying.

The year's other Jorkens story, "The Khamseen" (also in Fourth Book) doesn't even rise to that level of triviality. This time the strained topic is a man with icicles in his hair. Jorkens says he met one once - in the Sahara. Turns out he had a freezer (nothing is said about how it's powered) and was trying to prevent heatstroke.

Similar dorkiness infects the three remaining stories, mercifully uncollected. "Westward Ho!" (Punch, 11 Nov.) asks the unnecessary question, if the Middle East extends as far west as Libya, then where's the Near East? And two exceedingly tiny squibs ("Neutrality Over Berlin", Punch, 21 Oct., and "The Higher Neutrality", Punch, 2 Dec.) depict a wise-guy Irishman named Muirphaigh whose sole function is to enable Dunsany to mock the Irish Republic's position of neutrality in the war.

I should also add that 1942 was the year of publication of Islandia, extracted from the notebooks of its already deceased author, Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia is another story that's fantasy by courtesy, as there's no magic in it, but it describes, in awesome world-creating detail matched only by Tolkien, an imaginary country on an imaginary continent somewhere in the South Atlantic. Even in the abridged published version it's very long, and forms a kind of utopian wish-fulfillment, making Islandia the only novel I know that I would rather live through than read.

1 comment:


    Superman. January 5, 7, 9, 1942. "The Mechanical Man"
    Inner Sanctum. January 18, 1942. "Dead Reckoning"
    The Columbia Workshop. January 25, 1942. "The Man Without A Shadow"
    The Lux Radio Theatre. January 26, 1942. "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"
    The Columbia Workshop. February 8 or September 14, 1942. "Portrait Of Jennie"
    The Shadow. February 22, 1942. "Death Gives An Encore"
    Dark Fantasy. February 27, 1942. "Spawn Of The Subhuman"
    Dark Fantasy. May 8, 1942. "The Cup Of Gold"
    Plays For Americans. May 24, 1942. "Chicago, Germany" by Arch Oboler
    The Columbia Workshop. May 31, 1942. "The City Wears A Slouch Hat" by Kenneth Patchen
    The Columbia Workshop. June 12, 1942. "Inside A Kid's Head"
    Plays For Americans. June 21, 1942. "Adolf and Mrs. Runyon" by Arch Oboler
    Treasury Star Parade. July 7, 1942. "Chicago, Germany" by Arch Oboler
    The Columbia Workshop. July 20, 1942. "Someone Else" by Lucille Fletcher
    Author's Playhouse. August 16, 1942. "Sam Small's Better Half"
    Let's Pretend. August 22, 1942. "Why The Sea Is Salt"
    Let's Pretend. August 29, 1942. "The Little Mermaid"
    Superman. August 31, 1942. "Superman Comes To Earth"
    Suspense. September 2, 1942. "The Hitch-hiker" by Lucille Fletcher
    Let's Pretend. September 5, 1942. "The Elves and The Shoemaker"
    Let's Pretend. September 12, 1942. "The Water Of Life"
    Let's Pretend. September 19, 1942. "Gigi and The Magic Ring"
    Suspense. September 23, 1942. "A Passage To Benares"
    The Columbia Workshop. September 28, 1942. "Florrie and The Country Green" by Abraham Polonsky
    Lights Out. October 6, 1942. "What The Devil"
    Lights Out. October 13, 1942. "Revolt Of The Worms"
    The Columbia Workshop. October 19, 1942. "Remodeled Brownstone" by Lucille Fletcher
    Lights Out. October 20, 1942. "Poltergeist"
    Jack Armstrong Oct 20, 1942 "The Adventure Of The Atomic Engine"
    The Shadow. October 25, 1942. "The Mystery Of Madman's Deep"
    Lights Out. October 27, 1942. CBS net. "Mungarha"
    Dark Destiny. October 31, 1942. "Masquerade"
    Lights Out. November 10, 1942. "Bon Voyage"
    Lights Out. November 17, 1942. "Come To The Bank"
    Ceiling Unlimited. December 21, 1942. Gremlins