Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

Luce began with the intention, more particularly, of reintroducing to the book industry a paperback format pioneered and exploited by Ace from the early 1950s until the late 1960s, and most emphatically associated with science fiction. The “double novel,” in so-called tête-bêche binding, coupled two full-length stories between separate covers, rotated 180 degrees to one another, and sharing the spine. Readers who have never encountered an “Ace Double” might imagine it this way: Holding it in one’s hand, the reverse cover is upside down in relation to the obverse cover. Turning the last page of one novel, the next page appears upside down; the reader flips the book over and begins reading the other novel right side up. In negotiating with Amazon, Luce ran into the stubborn technical difficulty that modern books require bar-codes, which tête-bêche could not accommodate, but after a spell of cantankerousness Amazon did relent concerning the two covers. That is a production issue. The real interest of Luce’s “hobby run amok” is in the cornucopia of its repertory.

Vengeance of Kyvor

Luce commented during a telephone conversation how three central motives have dictated that repertory. First and foremost is Luce’s interest in restoring to print lost classics and notable, readable stories from the mid-Twentieth Century, the “space-opera” type of science fiction that fired his own imagination in adolescence and young adulthood and that fires it still today. A second motive is the consideration never to abuse copyright, which means limiting the selection to a carefully vetted pool of items that have fallen into public domain. Fortunately the number of public domain items is large. Armchair runs no risk of running out of publishable material. “We could continue at our present rate for ten years,” Luce says, “and still not exhaust the possibilities.” A third motive of the enterprise is to make use of original cover-art wherever possible, particularly periodical cover-art from the pulps. Covers sell a good many books, Luce admits. In a few cases – for example, Joe Gibson’s Venus Enigma (Other Worlds September 1951) or Randall Garrett’s Vengeance of Kyvor (Fantastic April 1957) – the covers might well exceed the prose in artistic merit. In addition to the double-novel series, Armchair also issues single-novel books, author-collections, and mixed-author anthologies.

Except for collectors of the perishable mid-century magazines, a good deal of Armchair’s rapidly expanding catalogue permits genre aficionados, at whom Luce aims his line, at last to read stories and to make the acquaintance of writers hitherto known only by title or name – or perhaps in association with a cover illustration reproduced in one of the books on genre-aesthetics such as Robert Lesser’s Pulp Art (2003) or Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson’s Pulp Culture (1998). Edwin Graber’s Flame-Jewel of the Ancients (Planet Stories Spring 1950) provides an example. Graber’s saga of interstellar warfare with a “lost-science” subplot earned Allen Anderson’s brash cover. Graber remains utterly obscure. Not even the Internet Speculative Fiction Database can marshal any knowledge of him, not so much as his mortal dates or the suggestion that he might be a pseudonym, although Amazon’s website hints that in addition to furnishing genre fiction for the pulps Graber also published poetry.

Whatever the facts might be concerning Graber, Anderson (1908 – 1995) in his picture has realized the essence of The Flame Jewel, but in an image, oddly, that the story-teller himself never describes: The warrior-hero Glayne, having penetrated the enemy’s fortress-labyrinth, having seized the talisman of cosmic power, the “Flame Jewel” of “the Elder Tane Gods,” thus snatching victory from defeat – Anderson now joins him in transcendent hierogamy with Niala, his love-interest and the saga’s damsel-in-distress. The story has involved Glayne’s journey from cynicism to commitment amidst interstellar Titanomachies, which amounts to a conversion of a sort, if not exactly to a graduation through successive higher levels of being. Anderson’s painterly vision plumbs the situation more deeply than Graber’s authorial impulse. Anderson gives viewers the apotheotic couple floating imperviously in space, sans vacuum-suits, with Niala holding the resplendent and rather scary Jewel in her right hand. The absconded bijou pulsates with a talismanic aura; its etheric vibrations communicate themselves to the two soaring figures, resplendent against the dark background.

Flame Jewel Interior Illo

Graber’s “Gods,” as he has Glayne’s antagonist explain, “were remarkable creatures.”  The speaker adds: “They even possessed immortality – but they lost it for all practical purposes when they failed to adjust their bodies to the expanding universe.” The Tane lived in the earliest, high-energy phase of the cosmos, which, according to the exposition, “definitely rules out protein construction… but just what they were composed of is unknown.” When with expansion, the frequency of the cosmos altered, the Tane began to die violently: “They exploded… billions and billions of them,” in a Götterdämmerung on a galactic scale. The survivors built the Jewel, “that tiny ovoid crypt,” as their ark, and sealed themselves in it. The Jewel “slowly dwindled in size in relation to our own universe” until it contained an “accumulated charge… so titanic that it defies conception.” Anderson has glimpsed the initiatory character of the tale, at which the tale’s author has merely hinted, providing only a banal ending. If Anderson’s cover were more interesting than Graber’s narrative, it would nevertheless be satisfactory to know the occasion that generated the image – and so it is, thanks to Luce.

In providing a new, inexpensive edition of that perennial classic A Princess of Mars (1910) by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1870 – 1950), Armchair anchors its catalogue in the bedrock, so to speak, of planetary romance. Under the thesis that pulp science fiction taps into mythic and archetypal patterns of narrative, A Princess exhibits numerous tantalizing features, not least in its pseudo-editorial framework, the “Foreword” by protagonist John Carter’s nephew, “Edgar Rice Burroughs.” In this framing gimmick the nephew gives biographical details of his uncle and an explanation of how Carter’s manuscript, telling of his Martian sojourn, came to be published. Carter, the eternal misfit who is not at home in the earthly realm, exhibits the traits of a prehistoric shaman or medieval ascetic. “I have seen him from my window,” the nephew writes, “standing in the moonlight on the brink of the bluff overlooking the Hudson with his arms stretched out to the heavens as in appeal.” The editorialist adds, “I thought at the time that he was praying, although I never had understood that he was in the strict sense a religious man.” Carter dies mysteriously one night on his Hudson Valley estate, his body “stretched full length in the snow with the arms outstretched above the head.”

Carter has “died” once before, chased into an Arizona cave by Apaches bent on murder, and overcome by a drowsy influence in the air, as the manuscript bequeathed to “Burroughs” recounts. Carter sinks into a trance, only to awaken in a new frame of consciousness that transfigures the Southwestern landscape into the simulacrum “of some dead and forgotten world.” In the trance-state, Carter finds that his “attention,” as he says, “was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon.” Mars – for that is the star’s identity – “seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts the particle of iron.” In a timeless instant he is there – naked like a newborn or like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, lifted by the tide, naked and impoverished, to the sands of Scheria. It is the shaman’s death-and-rebirth. He must even learn to walk anew, and to speak again in a tongue not his own. In the original Mars or “Barsoom” Trilogy, Carter rises by ritualistic stages to become the “Warlord of Mars,” guarantor of peace on an ancient, decadent world of fascinating imagined societies and cultures. The hierogamy of Carter with Dejah Thoris, Princess of the Twin Cities of Helium, begs for illustration by the likes of Anderson.

Empire of Jegga original Cover

Luce’s uncanny sense of what ranks worthily among the forgotten prose of the science-fiction pulps impels him to make available again after more than seventy years in oblivion a remarkable take-off on A Princess, by David V. Reed (1924 – 1989), called Empire of Jegga, which first appeared in Amazing Stories for November 1943. A Princess is ultra-Romantic, chivalrous, and heroic. Empire, which imitates the “Barsoom” Trilogy almost point by point, determinedly avoids all Romantic appurtenances to resemble something like Robert Graves’ Claudius novels in an extraterrestrial setting. There is a noticeable parallelism with A. E. van Vogt’s Hand of the Gods (1946; later incorporated in Empire of the Atom, 1957), another Machiavellian narrative of planetary empire. Yet as much as Reed’s premises adhere relentlessly to the materialistic principle, his conception of Martian civilization ritualizes, to coin a phrase, much more than that of Burroughs. Reed’s elaborate rituals, entailing as they do an all-pervasive notion of hierarchy, imply a corresponding although unspoken metaphysics, which insinuates itself despite the author’s hard-core pulp-style convictions.

In Empire, Earth or “Kren” occupies the same physical position as it does in Ptolemy’s cosmos: Reed’s Earth is the lowest point in the solar system by virtue of its dense atmosphere, which the space-faring but non-metallurgical Martian or “Jeggite” civilization cannot penetrate; in addition, Earth lags behind Mars and Venus in technical development and cultural elaboration. Nick Brewster, Reed’s rather cynical protagonist, in applying his industrial and engineering genius to rocketry, pioneers the path upwards in both the physical and metaphysical senses. In the latter way, Brewster’s progress in Empire resembles the progress of the Noble Soul in the Egyptian Book of the Dead or in one of the Second-Century Gnostic handbooks of afterlife-survival. Reed’s ever-contending dynastic families bear demonic names like Eblis and Ahriman, which emphasize the resemblance. Reed insists that despite Brewster’s apparent cynicism, he is “civilized,” and that despite its baroque beauty, Martian culture is cruelly decadent. A social superior cannot murder a social inferior, Akar, a Praetorian, tells Brewster; the term murder would be misapplied in such an instance, the Martian blandly insists.

The assassination of the “Ho-Gon” or emperor fairly early in the narrative, which Brewster witnesses from a tower-perch high above the scene, deserves quotation: “Still no one moved and the center Jeggite laughed and threw his taper to the floor where it exploded with a tremendous white flash and nothing of it remained. Then the five warriors moved in on him, their tapers held high, and one after another plunged the feebly glowing points into his body… The assassination had been accomplished with the simplicity and inevitability of a drama.” And what is a drama but a ritual? The assassins, who emerge from “weird, white, opaque” columns, wear “emblazoned insignias,” such as “three bolts like unfeathered arrows of emerald jewels,” “a fiery red streak like the wake of a rocket,” and an “amber flaming stone.” One recalls amulets and talismans of the Late-Antique afterlife guidebooks, not to mention the emblems of heraldry and the chessboard. As in The Flame-Jewel of the Ancients, dynastic power in Empire enforces itself through its monopoly over ancient, non-reproducible technologies, which Brewster, rising to become the “Jev of Thyle,” must hijack or circumvent. Brewster finds his equivalent of John Carter’s Dejah Thoris in Suba, a Venusian of elevated rank.



Empire of Jegga belongs to Luce’s line of stand-alone titles, with original Amazing Stories cover art by Robert Gibson Jones (1889 – 1969) showing the duplicitous Martian girl Vrita coolly murdering one of her enemies. Another stand-alone title, Into Plutonian Depths (1931), originally in Wonder Stories, comes from the pen of journeyman fictioneer Stanton A. Coblentz (1896 – 1982). Into Plutonian Depths lacks Empire’s robust prose, vivid description, and rich symbolism, but it illustrates a narrative pattern common to a number of titles that Luce has rescued, such as You Can’t Escape from Mars (Amazing, September 1950) by E. K. Jarvis, undoubtedly a pseudonym, and Empire of Women (Amazing, May 1952) by John Fletcher, probably also a pseudonym. These stories share the trope of travel to another world followed by descent into the interior of that world, whose labyrinth the protagonist must escape. Burroughs wrote several prototypes of the narrative, but the real inspiration might be Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s Coming Race (1871), with its subterranean Theosophical utopia and improbable, well-nigh ridiculous romance.

In all three cases – Coblentz, Jarvis, and Fletcher – the subsurface world houses a stagnant, pronouncedly theocratic society run by a corrupt clerisy whose devoutness expresses itself chiefly through human sacrifice. For that matter Reed’s “Jeggite” society is also sacrificial. These into-the-depths sagas derive from the mythic archetype of the descent of Orpheus into Hades to retrieve Eurydice; either that, or from the tribulation of Lucius Apuleius’ main character in the Second-Century romance The Golden Ass when he braves Hell to confront the Death-Goddess Persephone and obtain from her a token that will complete his priestly initiation. As in Burroughs’ Gods of Mars, negotiating the labyrinth entails overthrowing the priesthood, by hook or by crook, which Coblentz’s planetary explorers rather lamely fail to do, but which Jarvis’ hero and Fletcher’s suavely accomplish. You Can’t Escape from Mars involves something of a misnomer because the action takes place on, or rather within, Phobos, not on or in Mars itself. Of the three tales, the best-written and most cheekily imagined is Empire of Women, a story that will be unreadable by feminists, in whose climax the male lead not only converts the high priestess from virility-aversion but achieves immortality in the bargain.

Poul Anderson (1926 – 2001), not to be confused with his slightly older cover-artist namesake Allen Anderson, reached the peak of his popularity in the last two decades of the Twentieth Century, with audacious novels like those in his Harvest of Stars series (1993 – 1997), which rivaled Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) in their exploration of deep time and elaboration of philosophical concepts. Anderson, American born but raised and educated in Denmark, began, however, in the pulps, particularly Planet Stories. Luce has rescued from the Planet Stories archives Swordsman of Lost Terra (November 1951 – cover by Allen Anderson), The Sargasso of Lost Starships (January 1952 – cover by Allen Anderson), and Captive of the Centaurianess (March 1952 – cover by Allen Anderson, which might or might not be related to the story). All three titles belong to Luce’s double-novel line.

Swordsman of Lost Terra

Even in his early work, Anderson’s noticeable style tasted of the “flinty” quality that Jorge Luis Borges once attributed to the Nordic languages – no doubt due to Anderson’s fluency in Danish and his knowledge of Old West Norse, which in the mid-century still belonged in the curriculum of the Danish schools. It is possible that as early as 1952 Anderson had already familiarized himself with Danish novelist Martin A. Hansen’s non-fiction masterwork, Orm og Tyr (Dragon and Ox, 1952), portions of which had appeared earlier in article form. Hansen’s study of Danish culture from the Iron Age to the Late-Medieval Period powerfully informs Anderson’s Corridors of Time (1965), but its spirit seems already to hover over the earlier work. Swordsman – set in a terrestrial far-future, when the fading of the sun has brought the equivalent of Fimbulwinter to all but the equatorial regions – partakes of the atmosphere of Snorri’s Edda, with its prophecies of doomsday in ice and fire. Anderson names the great horned dray-beasts that pull the carts of the Killorn tribe, tyrs, no less. The hero, Kery, has a Celtic-sounding name, but the name of the Killorn chieftain, Bram the Red, suggests Scandinavia. A wise man invokes a version of the Ragnarök to explain how the world has come to its parlous straits: “The barbarians all think the world was born in flames and thunder many ages ago. But some of our thinkers believe that this creation was a catastrophe that destroyed that older world I speak of.” There is an ancient device, a set of pipes, by playing which, after much conscience-driven reluctance, Kery saves the day.

Where Reed’s Empire of Jegga responds to A Princess of Mars by subverting Burroughs’ Romantic tropes systematically, Anderson’s Captive of the Centaurianess spoofs the planetary-romance genre by reducing it to a caricature. The title already implies the sexual role-reversal, on which the humor depends. Captive shares with Reed’s Empire the plot-point that aggressive Martians stand ready to extend their implacable empire over the solar system. By gifting the Centaurian Amazonocracy with an improvised faster-than-light drive, which enables the Amazonocracy’s wooden spaceships to navigate between solar systems, the hero, with the help of his girlfriend and her cohorts, thwarts the Red Planet and preserves freedom. By nature lazy, he little minds the incessant devotion of the imposing heroine. Anderson’s ability to satirize his own genre demonstrates his conscious control over its plot-devices and their meanings. He pokes fun deftly at the standard devices because he knows them to be robust enough to survive his lampooning. The devices themselves embody archetypes of storytelling that address deeply seated human needs, like that ones that Hansen identifies in Orm og Tyr in his interpretations of Iron-Age symbolism.

I Remember Lemuria Original Cover

I would not assert that “The Shaver Mystery” has any particular literary merit, nor would Luce, who invokes the phrase “genius of ineptitude” in reference to it. Merit of some kind “The Shaver Mystery” must nevertheless possess, to judge by its unexpected persistence beyond its original Pulp-Era manifestation during Raymond A. Palmer’s tenure as editor of Amazing Stories, from 1938 to 1949, and then as a staple in other magazines in the 1950s. Much of Fred Nadis’ recent biography of Palmer (1910 – 1977), The Man from Mars (2013), is taken up with discussion of what amounted to the Palmer-Shaver collaboration. Richard Toronto has published two books on the “Mystery,” The War over Lemuria and Shaverology (both 2013). Nadis and Toronto tell the following story: In September 1944, Richard Sharpe Shaver (1907 – 1975), Detroit welding specialist, sometime art-student, and one-time Michigan Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital resident, sent Palmer a letter outlining his discovery of the root-language of all languages, “Man-Tong,” asking Palmer whether he would run it in Amazing’s correspondence columns. The letter appeared in the next issue. It set off a controversy that eventuated in Palmer’s acceptance of Shaver’s Warning to Future Mankind – Shaver himself claimed it was not fiction but God’s own truth – entitled on publication and after considerable rewriting by Palmer I Remember Lemuria (March 1945). On Palmer’s say, Shaver got Gibson’s thoroughly creepy cover, which his amateurish but strangely compelling prose had effectively provoked.

Thereafter “The Shaver Mystery” dominated Amazing, to the delight of many but to the disgust of some, for the next five years. Nadis in his biography of Palmer compares Shaver to H. P. Lovecraft, who “also wrote stories of strange civilizations living beneath the planet.” The comparison is just, but it requires a qualification: Shaver is Lovecraft convinced that his fantasies are realities; Shaver’s character is moreover without so much as a trace of the Rhode-Islander’s sexual prudishness, verging indeed quite frequently on the pornographic. Toronto’s comparison in The War might seem extravagant: “Shaver’s facts were what placed him among other historical figures like William Blake, Pythagoras, Galileo, Luther, and Emanuel Swedenborg, all of whom dispensed similar facts that came from auditory and visual hallucinations. Put succinctly, Shaver heard voices.” Toronto places Shaver, not by aesthetic ranking, but by typological affiliation: Shaver belongs among eccentrics and visionaries who externalize their alienation creatively; he is, of course, less coherent than the remarkable people whom Toronto’s comparison names, but like them, he registers the fractured reality of his historical condition – his sense of an epoch. I stress the creative aspect of Shaver’s psychosis, in respect of which he stands at the opposite pole from his contemporary, so similar to him in other ways, L. Ron Hubbard.

Shaver Mystery Book V

The genres that Luce’s enterprise recuperates are forms of escapism. “The Shaver Mystery” is escapism on steroids. But the critic must judge escapism in context, according to the character of that from which it seeks escape. The fictional narratives, which Shaver claimed as fact, identify that from which one desperately wishes to escape, but they do so by baroque indirection. Shaver’s programmatic statements, which Palmer regularly published and which Luce resurrects in his up-until-now six volumes of Shaver material, address the issue directly, in their author’s blunt prose. As in Reed’s Empire of Jegga, readers find themselves in a universe that the author has retro-conceptualized, returning it from modern multidimensional indeterminacy to the ancient Ptolemaic image of a delimited cosmos with earth at the center. In the Classical view, being at the center, which implies also being at the bottom, of the cosmos is not a bad thing because the cosmos as a whole is good. But as Hans Jonas famously pointed out in his study of The Gnostic Religion (1958), rebellious mystics in the Late-Antique centuries radically re-valued the cosmos, declaring it, not a glorious Creation, but rather a wretched prison-like construction wherein the soul, which came from beyond the cosmos, was trapped.

Many people in the Twentieth Century regarded this world as a wretched prison-like construction from which they longed to fly – and for abundant good reason. Shaver was one. In a Fantastic editorial entitled “In Defense of the Shaver Mystery” (July 1958), Shaver writes: “If you see all life through the witch’s glass of willful blindness to all things good and true and beautiful, then the truth about life on Earth is a dull and drab repetition of everyday things, of course.” Like the Gnostics, Shaver borrows the theme of “willful blindness” from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It follows that, “the average man [must] go through life in a sort of blind man’s bluff, with all good things hidden from him, and his eyes only able to accept the usual, the known, the ugly, the necessary, the workaday everyday inhumanity of living as it is, somehow.” Supposing that Shaver’s adjectives correspond to an asymptote of rising acuity, they possess considerable interest. Ugliness is merely a midpoint in the scale, with “the workaday everyday inhumanity of living” constituting the non-plus-ultra of living hell.

Expositing his Gnostic, “everything-you-know-is-wrong” theory of reality, Shaver invokes the subterranean labyrinths that figure so centrally in his weird version of life and the world. As in so many other pulp stories, ancient technologies play a role, along with the flying saucers, which Shaver also takes care to incorporate: “There are many kinds of saucers… Some are from our own caverns, and to us these are the most important ones.” Maleficent forces are plundering a heritage that modern people, in the blandness of their delusion, disdain to own. The UFOs “are all busy freighting away into Space the fantastic, unbelievable gadgetry of the Elder caverns, things built and stored before the Flood by our own forebears.” The conformism and narrow-mindedness of the masses indicate in Shaver’s analysis the equivalent of the Biblical Fall. Tens of thousands of years ago, the sun shifted phases and began emitting toxic radiation, which has gradually poisoned the solar system. Beings exposed to this radiation become deros – “deranged robots.” Many living people are deros, but the worst deros are remnants of the Lemurian super-race who did not flee the solar system when the sun entered its toxic era. These, dwelling secretly in the caverns, delight in kidnapping and torturing human victims.

As in Platonism and in the degraded Gnostic version of Platonism, so too, in “The Shaver Mystery,” knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, is the key to salvation. Under the demonic dogmatism of the deros, knowledge obeys a rule of radical restriction such that, “it is a fantastic apparition to meet unawares a truth whose boundaries happen to overreach the boundaries of our knowledge” until “proof itself becomes… an insult and an outrage.” Unlike Hubbard’s Gnosis, Shaver’s saving wisdom requires no cult, but each prophet is a voice crying in the wilderness. “It is such a still small voice” but the wakeful man will “listen for it” and “respect what it says.” In a restatement of the ancient oracular saying, “To know that voice is to know yourself as you would have been if your birthright had not been stolen from you, long ago.” If much of Dianetics seemed like a mountebank exploitation of “The Shaver Mystery,” as it might well be, one should remember that Shaver also had a brilliant successor – namely Philip K. Dick, whose masterpieces Ubik (1969), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), and VALIS (1982) owe a direct debt to I Remember Lemuria and The Return of Sathanas (1945).

Luce’s catalogue encompasses many more titles, in both his single- and double-novel lines, than the ones that I have discussed, but the titles that have come under discussion constitute a nucleus around which the others arrange themselves. There is a good deal of “Cold War” and post-apocalyptic science fiction, such as Milton Lesser’s Slaves to the Metal Horde and Irving Cox’s One of Our Cities is Missing, the latter paired with Empire of Women. As the catalogue grows, Luce begins to publish books in series. One such is the “Lost World – Lost Race” series, with entries like James DeMille’s Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), Howard Browne’s Forgotten Worlds (1948), and Pierre de Benoit’s Atlantida (1919). Technically not part of the series but belonging to it thematically is Don Wilcox’s Ice Queen, paired with The Sargasso of Lost Starships. Luce offers plenty of “hard science fiction.” He is beginning to expand into detective and crime fiction.

I am tempted tinconclusion to side with the genre writers by indicting modern civilization for being a “Flatland” civilization – two-dimensional, banal, narrow-minded, and self-regarding its vision of existence, quite as Shaver contended. And why should I not? A symptom of modern insipidity is that the modern mentality never goes questing in its own Plutonian Depths, to borrow the provocative title of Coblentz’s mediocre novel. At the moment of writing, remote vehicles are orbiting the asteroid Ceres and approaching the planet Pluto for a close reconnaissance. My long-deceased friend and Jack-of-Many-Trades Reinhold Kieslich (1900 – 1981) – tenore buffo and assistant stage-director at the Dresden State Opera in the 1930s, reluctant Wehrmacht translator during WWII, Allied Prisoner-of-War-Trustee, co-inventor of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg Trials, Latin instructor at the Punahou School in the 1960s, and lifelong Anthroposophist – a man who had experienced the Twentieth Century’s Plutonian Depths – once said to me: “Shooting a rocket into space should be the equivalent of sending a probe down into the psyche.” Should be – but it rarely is. The Dawn and New Horizon probes barely make the evening news. But sixty years ago and more, in Reed’s Empire of Jegga, Anderson’s Lost Swordsman of Terra, and yes even in Shaver’s I Remember Lemuria, doughty explorers (penny-a-word hack writers, as they were called) sent probes down into the psyche. Gregory Luce is to be congratulated for bringing their work to our collective attention.

[This article previously appeared at The People of Shambhala.]

10 thoughts on “Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

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  3. Not really sure what exactly you are driving at here… but I would say authentic popular or folk culture, meaning produced really by and for the lower educated, without much interference from elites, tends to be surprisingly healthy and even wise.

    It tends to have only one glaring flaw: cardboard villains, especially in case of monsters. Instead of describing them as autonomous beings having their own goals and desires that make sense for them, they look like being entirely tailored around what the heroes and heroines hate and fear. Instead of following their own desires or values, they look like following the anti-desires and anti-values of the heroes and heroines. This is similar to the popular – not theological, but popular – conception of the Christian Satan: AFAIK the theological Lucifer is is simply proud and vain, the popular Devil is simply highly optimized to be everything people hate, fear or harms them. At some level, mythological monsters and popular-religion devils overlap.

    This is why “morally ambiguous” fiction can be good, even though that is far more elitist. It is not necessarily some kind of po-mo nihilist stuff, for example A Song Of Ice And Fire is really good at presenting villains as people, with their own goals and values, not simply having the goal of randomly harming heroes. Real-world villains are far more similar to a Tywin Lannister or a Cersei than to a cackling evil wizard in a Conan type story.

    However the issue with the elitist “morally ambiguous” school is that they get heroes wrong. Usually they don’t have any – don’t have heroes whose motivations and values would be fully acceptable. This is not too realistic – everybody is a good guy in his own story, but nobody has an own story the reader could really believe and buy in to? Real life has some truly good people. There are firemen out there who really want nothing from their career but to save people.

    The point I am trying to make is that elitist fiction gets villains righter, but popular / folk fiction gets heroes righter. Since the influence on the reader, especially the child reader, comes from the heroes, they can be considered healthier and wiser. They are characters whose own story about them being good is actually correct. Just… never think that kind of villains really exist, not even symbolically.

    • You’ve understood me well enough. Thank you for reading the essay. I would only add that there is a robustness, an elan, in the old “commercial” fiction and art that is not present nowadays in in the productions of culture. The Age of Gay Marriage and Transsexualism, of doctrinaire homogeneous schooling and Three-Dimensional Television, is a sterile age.

      • Are you familiar with the Classics Illustrated comic books? My father read them as a child.

    • Wurmbrand: Yes. Hansen was an extraordinary writer. I recommend Paradise Apples and Lucky Kristoffer, the latter his major work of fiction. But Orm og Tyr is his masterwork. Hansen regarded himself as a successor to Soren Kierkegaard, which in any number of ways he was. Isn’t it remarkable that an American genre-writer turns out to be a reader and conscious adapter of Hansen to commercial fiction? I’m suggesting, I guess, that the fictioneers could be better scholars than the professors, or anyway better educated.

      Bruce: I remember the “Classic Comics.” My “pulp fiction” indulgences are of a different order and come from an earlier period. However, David Reed, the author of Empire of Jegga, wrote comic-book scenarios for EC and DC in the 1950s. So there’s a connection.

  4. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2015/07/08 | Free Northerner


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