Paraphernalia: Into and Out of Time’s Abyss
By Mark Plummer
4 June 2012
The Selhurst Triangle lacks the mystical and paranormal associations of its better known Bermudan relative. It's an area of scrubland just north of Croydon where it shades into south London, the confluence of several railway lines running out of London towards assorted commuter belt stations, Gatwick Airport, and the south coast, and it does not—at least so far as I know—have any reputation for mysterious disappearances. Even the railway companies do not claim it exerts a supernatural influence on their services, although were they to do so it would be no less plausible than many of the explanations routinely conjured to justify why the 17:57 to Dorking is 14 minutes late.
A shame, really, as it would be simpler to claim that while I was travelling home from the office the other day I was under the mental control of some anomalous localised phenomenon, perhaps mind-rays emanating from the super-scientific creations of a Shaver-esque race of south London cavern dwellers.
The train had ground to a halt in the Triangle without explanation—badgers on the line in Carshalton, probably—when it suddenly occurred to me that I was immersed in a copy of Ray Cummings's 1931 novel The Exile of Time. I'm forty-eight years old and do I really want to be investing even a couple of hours of my life in a work of pre-Campbellian sci-fi pulp? Was this entirely rational? Wasn't it far more likely that the Deros were making me do it?
But no, the simple truth is that I have an abiding fondness for the works of Ray Cummings, something that dates back over twenty years to the chance purchase of a 1960s Ace reprint of Tama, Princess of Mercury (originally serialised in Argosy, 1931). Jack Dean and his colleagues are under attack by Mercurians:
From the edge of the nearby forest a narrow beam of blue-green light came with a hiss, like a tiny lightning bolt darting over us.
A potentially deadly situation for sure, but I was most impressed with Jack's response to this threat:
I leaped up.
Yes, that's exactly what I'd do if a narrow beam of blue-green light was darting over me.
Raymond King Cummings (1887-1957) was the prolific author of over 600 novels and stories in various genres. John Clute, writing in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, speaks of "his rather roughshod prose and routine conceptualizing" of which the Tama books are typical. He concedes that "there will never be a Cummings revival" although "at the same time, in the hindsight now afforded by a considerable passage of time, his numerous contributions can be recognized as honourable and sustained in their context. He is securely embedded in the history of the field." I like that, "honourable and sustained." I tell myself that's why I read books like Wandl the Invader (Astounding, 1932), another title that was reprinted by Ace, this time as half of one of their Doubles. The cover is, I think, one of the finest the genre has ever seen. A young woman, clad in some kind of high-collared pink jump suit and what appear to be wedge-heeled shoes with turned up toes, has been backed up against a wall by an alien being which is indeed toe-curling. This remarkable creation must have sprung fully formed from the imagination of the uncredited artist (the SFE says it's Ed Valigursky). He certainly cannot claim to have been merely representing the author's words:
Inside was a great round thing of gray-white [on the cover it is pink] . . . a little tentacle with a flat webbed hand [it has no hands] . . . a gash upended for a vertical mouth [it is horizontal] . . .
This is a particularly good value volume for jacket art because flip it over and you'll find an original publication, I Speak for Earth (Ace, 1961) by "Keith Woodcott" (John Brunner). Its tag line is "The Man with Seven Faces" although that's somewhat undermined by Ed Emshwiller's cover picture which quite clearly shows six faces.
I sometimes feel I should have grown out of this kind of thing, and yet I returned from Olympus, the 2012 British national science fiction convention, with the inevitable small stack of books including several products of science fiction's founding fathers, the books and stories that emerged from the white hot crucible of a genre-in-the-making which probably make Editor Harrison weep for literature. (Have we lived and fought in vain?)
There were several Edgar Rice Burroughs volumes, again the 1960s Ace editions which are just that little bit smaller than a regular A format paperback, with Roy Krenkel covers and titles in that characteristic spiky font. And of course there was Ray Cummings. Aside from the aforementioned The Exile of Time, there were a couple of others including the Wandl . . . precursor Brigands of the Moon (originally Astounding, 1930). No odd aliens this time, although it still sports a compelling cover illustration—by the mighty Emsh again—of a man and woman clad in fishbowl helmets hurling giant ball-bearings from their aerial surfboard. "A Masterpiece of Interplanetary Adventure" indeed.
But my post-Eastercon luggage jammed these assorted slim time-capsules from before the Golden Age alongside recent works from Lavie Tidhar, Paul McAuley, and star Strange Horizons columnist Genevieve Valentine, and I was thinking about this just yesterday on a Docklands Light Railway train out in, funnily enough, London's Docklands.
I'd been touring and attending a meeting at the ExCeL exhibition and conference centre, a vast facility, part of which will house the 2014 London Worldcon if the bid is successful at Chicon 7 in September this year, as seems likely given the lack of any opposition. In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I'm part of the bidding group, and sorry if this sounds like a PR piece; but from the elegant curve of the Aloft Hotel by the east entrance to the cross river cable-car service linking the centre with the 02 dome, it's a region redolent of the future and specifically of a future envisaged on the covers of countless science fiction magazines. It feels like an appropriately science-fictional landscape for a science fiction convention. And alongside these futuristic constructions, the driverless DLR trains run to the towers at Canary Wharf but continue into Tower Gateway station which is right by a nine-hundred-year-old Norman fortress. And amidst all these new developments the old dock cranes stand sentry duty beside the water—the dock itself closed to commercial traffic in 1980—as a reminder of what this region once was.
And that's a feeling I often get from the British Eastercon, this desire to keep up and move forward with the new while maintaining a connection with what's gone before, both in science fiction and fandom. I like to maintain a foot in both camps, and believe it should be possible, at least so long as they don't move too far apart. Gleaming towers and dock cranes.