Normally vacation trips are great opportunities to catch up on reading. My recent San Diego trip, however, was so social I didn’t get anywhere near the reading done I expected. But of course I still found time on the plane, plus I’ve had another week’s worth of reading—
THE WORLD’S DESIRE by Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard (all rights to the gloriously hallucinogenic Vincent di Fate cover reside with the current owner) is an old-school fantasy in which characterization is stock (Mighty Warrior, Good Girl, Bad Girl) but the story is nonetheless interesting: a widowed Odysseus sets out to find his first love, Helen of Troy and winds up meeting her in Egypt, just as some foreign god is inflicting plagues upon the country because Pharaoh refuses to let the god’s people go. This wildly off-the-wall mix (and did I mention the core characters are all reincarnates doomed to re-enact the same triangle over and over) was a lot of fun to reread. However I have to take off points for the deus ex ending in which The Son We Never Knew Odysseus Had shows up and unwittingly kills his dad—true, it’s a classic Greek-tragic concept, but it doesn’t work when the son just shows up out of nowhere.
THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES is a shorter and better William Morris fantasy than Well at the World’s End: protagonist Birdalone is kidnapped in infancy by a witch, raised on the edge of a haunted wood, then escapes by boat to begin her adventures (given C.S. Lewis was a huge Morris fan, I can see the influence of the islands Birdalone visits on Voyage of the Dawn Treader). The book becomes slower and more conventional as it goes along, though I might have liked it better if I’d been in the mood for a slow read.
XICCARPH collects Clark Ashton Smith’s various extraterrestrial fantasies, such as the adventures of the wizard Maal Dweb in some alien solar systems, tragic lovers facing “The Doom of Anterion,” Martian explorers unearthing “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (which is an insanely creepy story despite the stock nature of the monster) and an unsuccessful poet visiting a planet where he’s “The Monster of the Prophecy” (surprisingly, this one has a happy ending). As always Smith writes with style, but he’s a heck of a storyteller too.
A SCOURGE OF SCREAMERS by Daniel F. Galouye has late-20th century Earth grappling with the “Screamies,” random bursts of pain that drive humans mad, sometimes for years. The protagonist discovers (as readers learn early on) that this is just a side-effect of our minds acquiring cosmic awareness, but he still has to decide whether the aliens lurking among us or the security service hunting them down is the side to trust (it should have been obvious a lot sooner). Readable, though in some ways too close to Galouye’s Lords of the Psychon in its concepts.
HOW RACE IS MADE: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses by Mark M. Smith looks at how non-visual methods of distinguishing black from white became increasingly important as interracial sex made it steadily harder to do it by skin color. This led to both setting legal standards for how much blood makes you black (I hadn’t realized how relatively recent some of the One Drop laws were) and to reliance on non-visual cues such as the supposedly universal and innate disgusting black odor, plus plain old knowledge of local families (which made railway travel a tense issue, as it was easier for someone to “pass” if they came from outside your neighborhood). These arguments came under fire from opponents of both slavery and Jim Crow, pointing out for instance that if blacks smelled so bad, they’d hardly make acceptable domestic servants. I read this for background on Southern Discomforts and it’s definitely useful, but good in its own right.