Wednesday, October 29, 2014

James Blish of the Jungle [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

James Blish won his place in Science Fiction history through the critical and the popular. On the critical side, his novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo for Best Novel of 1959, telling the tale of a Jesuit priest and his struggle with religious belief in an age that includes space flight and aliens. On the popular side he wrote the first novelizations of Star Trek episodes along with the first new novel, Spock Must Die in 1970. Whether you enjoy his original classics like Black Easter or Cities in Flight or are just a trekker, James Blish left his mark on SF. But every good SF icon has to start somewhere. You would not be surprised to know Blish wrote for the Pulps: Super Science Stories, Cosmic Stories, Astonishing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, none of these would be hard to believe. But Jungle Stories?

Blish sold two stories to Jungle Stories, "The Snake-Headed Spectre" (Summer 1949) under the pseudonym VK Emden and its sequel "Serpent Fetish" (Winter 1948-49) under his own name. Confusingly, the sequel appeared first.

"The Snake-Headed Spectre", a 112 page novella, begins with Kit Kennedy, known by the local tribes as K'tendi, being hired to lead a group of arrogant Europeans into the jungle on a mysterious quest. These outsiders are lead by Paula Lee, a beautiful but cold Englishwoman, and the fat and toady Stahl. Along for the ride are Bleyswijck and his marines. The local Africans are lead by Tombu, prince of the Wassabi and friend of K'tendi.

The safari does not go well as the major players all try to take control. Stahl boorishly strikes Tombu and the Africans are close to deserting when they discover a strange plain and then an unknown mountain, higher than Everest. The people who live beyond the plain play a loud work drum, frightening the locals. Kit and Tombu leave the party to scout ahead and run into Manalendi, the giant python. The snake is curious about Kit and they become friends after a fashion. The Europeans are captured by the strangers, who are cannibals, and Kit, Tombu and the giant snake go in search of them.

What the rescuers find in the jungle under the mountain is a village surrounded by a palisade and slaves who are working a strange mine. These poor devils are covered in sores and are missing fingers. Finding Stahl and Paula, Kit discovers the safari's real purpose, to investigate the appearance of radioactive pitchblende on the black market. Since the substance is lethal to mine, Stahl had suspected that slave labour was being used. Kit also discovers the man behind the operation is none other than Bleyswijck. The marine is in league with an Arab woman named Nanan, who acts as high priestess to the local Rock God. To save Paula and Stahl, Kit boldly walks into the village, with Tombu and Manalendi the giant python at his side, to challenge the king of the tribe, N'mbono. They fight on the giant drum with spears. The desperate battle ends with N'mbono dead and Kit now king of the tribe. During the conflict, Kit uses the drum's rhythm to send a message to the Wassabi warriors far away, asking for help.

Overthrowing Bleyswijck and Nanan, Kit's victory is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a triceratops, one of the night shapes rumored to live in the area. The drumming has infuriated it, causing it to crash through the log palisade. In the confusion, the Europeans depart. Paula, her husband dead, is very sick but throws herself on Kit: "...I want someone to make me back into a woman again..." The two become lovers. In the sequel it is suggested they lived together in the jungle a short while but split. Both stories were combined, refitted and republished in 1962 as the novel The Night Shapes. In the novel version, Blish inserts a short reunion conveniently at the end, and Paula returns to Ktendi to live happily ever after .

"Serpent's Fetish" is much shorter than its prequel. It finds K'tendi and his friend Tombu facing a second safari of whites invading their jungle, looking for dinosaurs in the Valley of Dragons, for rumours of Kit and Paula's first expedition have leaked out. Kit Kennedy tries to tell the invaders to leave but they won't. Kennedy knows it is not enough to simply kill the whites, for more would follow and the local tribes would be punished. Instead he concocts an elaborate plan to dispel the rumours of dinosaurs living in the jungle. To do this he pits Tombu's tribes against his neighbor, knowing the two armies would meet near the valley. He also gets a witch doctor to bring the rains early so that the lightning will start a forest fire near the dinosaurs, driving them out. The two armies then join forces to drive the beasts back into the valley before Kit seals it forever with dynamite. The safari and all those after will hear that the dinosaurs were dispersed into the jungle, making them near impossible to find.

There are some mysteries that surround Blish's jungle tales. First off, why was the sequel published first in the Winter 1948-49 issue then followed by the longer prequel in the Summer 1949? The use of the pseudonym VK Emden seems unnecessary if Blish had already published the sequel under his own name. One has to remember that pulp publishing was fast and loose. Perhaps the Winter issue needed a hole filled and Jerome Bixby (fellow SF author and editor) may have plugged it with the shorter sequel? It's confusing, but much of the Pulp business was. Unless an editor survives today to recall what happened, no one left any real evidence for us to sift through. Pulps were ephemera and not worth documenting.

Blish is of the HR Haggard school of jungle writing, presenting a more realistic version of Africa than Edgar Rice Burroughs does. Blish is familiar with Swahili and the customs and actions of Tombu and his people are less stereotypical than much of what appeared in Jungle Stories. K'tendi is not Tarzan, swinging through the treetops naked. Like Allan Quatermain, he wears clothes and carries a large bore rifle. How Blish learned about Africa I don't know. Looking at his bio I was prepared to see he had spent time in Africa, perhaps in the war, but he served in 1942 as a medical technician in Fort Dix. No jungle adventures there. Ultimately, he was a Science Fiction writer from New Jersey, so I have to assume he was a good researcher.

Blish's novel version is a weird combination of 1940s sexism and the growing freedoms of the 1960s. Paula Lee throws herself at Kit like any Pulp heroine while Blish inserts graphic (and gratuitous) descriptions of female circumcision and other details that do not further the plot. While you can make the argument that the idea of the "white hero" is racist (part and parcel of the genre), the relationship between Kit and Tombu is one of virtual equality. (This said Tombu hides Paula from Kit as a joke and Kit is willing to set Tombu's village against another in battle. Strange friends!) The sense of humor between the two friends is much more endearing than the icy cold romance with Paula Lee.

Kit's weird alliance with the giant snake Manalendi is also one of the story's best features. It's not surprising that their meeting was chosen for one of the edition's covers rather than a dinosaur picture. Despite the presence of dinos in the book, there are few good scenes with them. (To misquote Jurassic Park: "Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your... in your dinosaur novel, right? Hello?") Again I suspect the fact that Blish was writing for Jungle Stories and not Thrilling Wonder is to blame. The editors would tolerate a small amount of dinosaura, but the major portion of the story would have to be a "jungle" story. The legend of "Mokele-mbemba" is irresistible to a Science Fiction writer and James Blish does as good a job as any (and better than some, ie: 1985's Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend). Ultimately, Kit Kennedy is an odd but charming part of Jungle Pulp history.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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