Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sword & Wonder! ~ A Review of "Swordsmen in the Sky"

I've gone on about pulp many times on this blog to the point that most are probably sick of it. By now you're either well aware of how good it is or you're rolling your eyes and stubborn in your unwillingness to read anything from before 1980. Either way you've heard me bang on about it a lot. But there is one book I wanted to review to really drive home how great this old stuff is.

So here is a perfect example of what is great about those old adventure stories condensed into one tiny 200 page paperback. Released by Ace Books in 1964, edited by Donald Wollheim, cover by Frank Frazetta, and with stories by Poul Anderson, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and Otis Adelbert Kline, this small anthology is the entire package. It is also available for cheap on amazon. If you want a good sampler of pulp's best, you can't get much better than Swordsmen in the Sky.

Here you get stories centered on the core of wonder and excitement. It is like Edgar Rice Burroughs never left us. The stories are all uniform in intent and style,  with clear protagonists and antagonists, marvelous settings and fantastical sights, and all feel as if they could have been written at the same time.

But they were not.

Whereas it is painfully easy to tell stories released in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and (especially) the '10s apart from other eras, pre-1960s fantasy all has uniform love of the good and beautiful, and hatred of the ugly and evil, with an eye on Higher Things. These works have a stronger feel of timelessness to them than stories meant to cater to current trendy lingo and political trends. Each one of these five stories was originally released between 1933 and 1951, and the near two-decade gap really doesn't show to a new reader. They all feel very much as if they could have been written specifically for this anthology. It is an impressive feat that Mr. Wollheim accomplished here.

Genre doesn't matter. Sword & Sorcery, Science Fantasy, or whatever meaningless category you want to shoehorn these stories into, is irrelevant. They are pure adventure and are focused on one thing: delighting and uplifting the audience to higher places. These were all written in the clear style and influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs which means plenty of wonder, romance, and action, to go around. This style predates any pointless genre gulags that were invented later. It's all about the action and adventure.

Enough about that. It's time to talk about the stories.

The first story is also the newest. Swordsmen of Lost Terra by Poul Anderson, released in 1951, is a story about Celtic-like tribes battling each other for supremacy in a world where the planet doesn't rotate on its axis. It eventually turns into a tale not too dissimilar from Burroughs with derring-do and evil schemes to thwart the heroes. There's also a magical (or is it?) bagpipe and more blood and carnage than you can shake a stick at. I have been repeatedly impressed with everything I have read by Mr. Anderson and am floored at how easily he could flow between meaningless genre boundaries as if they didn't (and they don't) matter. His thought process is one to consider for one writing action and adventure tales. I believe this originally ran in Planet Stories. If you like John Carter, and I can't imagine why you would't, this is for you and is a great piece to begin with.

Second in the anthology is People of the Crater by Andre Norton, from 1947. A pilot joins and Antarctic expedition during peacetime, which seems simple enough. What starts as a mere investigation soon becomes an adventure of alien technology in a forgotten world. This was the author's first published genre work and it is easy to see why she soon became as popular and beloved as she was. Even if not typical of what would make her popular, this story shows a deep understanding of the sort of romance and wonder that Burroughs perfected and illustrates perfectly why it came to dominate so much of popular entertainment over the past century. Even now so far removed from its creation this story shows just how much was lost when wonder was ejected from genre stories for "realism" and screwdrivers. They literally don't make 'em like this anymore.

Leigh Brackett's The Moon That Vanished, originally published in 1948 in Thrilling Wonder Stories, is next. It's a Venus story with plenty of action to go around! This one starts out in a dive where a man named David Heath is drunk out of his gourd and wishing he was dead. Heath has lost his love and is killing himself over it when he is given a task to guide a temple maiden and her guard to the Moonfire. The Moonfire is a place Heath had been to once before: a mysterious location that can apparently turn mortals into gods. So why didn't Heath take it for himself? Oh, you'll see. This is the best story in the collection and one of the best pulp stories I have ever read. Action, adventure, fantasy, and romance fill this story's relatively short length. There's also some terrific character development to had and an ending that is very powerful. It goes up there with Black Thirst by C.L. Moore as one of my personal favorites, and I would recommend this collection for this story alone. It's that good.

Following that comes the shortest story in the collection, A Vision of Venus by Otis Adelbert Kline, which had first been put out in 1933. I've heard this described as a slight effort, and while it does not compare with the other stories in the collection, it fits in perfectly with the purpose of the anthology. In seven short pages the author goes through every beat of a Burroughs tale filled with fantastical adventure, wonders, and romance, and doesn't miss a step. Only a professional could manage to encapsulate that much in such short a space between much longer tales. The story is what the title says: Dr. Morgan gets a vision of a far off place of fantasy beyond his world and finds something far beyond him. As a piece of adventure, this story wildly succeeds and is a perfect fit for this anthology.

Ending off is a story from the World Wrecker himself. Edmond Hamilton's Kaldar, World of Antares which came out in 1933, is an adventure like only he could do. A man named Merrick is transported to a new world where he instantly becomes leader of a race of men on a planet with multiple red moons (and one green) where Spider-Men from beyond the mountains threaten to destroy the people. He is their prophesied savior, and falls into the role in a way that surprises even him. One of the weapons Merrick uses is a sword that happens to be powered by light that destroys whatever it slices. It's a light-sword of some kind. Now that's a weapon for a pulp! The story is lightning fast with a fascinating world and a scope that only a someone like Hamilton could muster in such a short length. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended: I wanted more! As the last story here, it is the perfect choice to end the anthology.

What is fascinating about these stories is how hard they are to put in a box. I've seen some try to state that they are fantasy... until a certain magical device is "explained" and then it instantly becomes science fiction. I have seen the exact reversal applied to other stories as well. This is silly. Instead of attempting to classify and straight-jacket tales of wonder and excitement with genre labels that clearly don't fit it is easier to see that these stories are part of a tradition. These are older than John W. Campbell's influence--even the ones written when he was gate-keeping!

Here's a bit of truth: none of the stories here were advertised as Science Fiction or Fantasy. You will not find those words in any of the product descriptions for this anthology. What they are advertised as are "sword-and-wonder adventures" from "expert writers of interplanetary derring-do" which is incredibly accurate to the breathtaking tales included within. Some version of the word "adventure" is used five times to advertise this to the buying public. The only time Science Fiction appears here is in the biographical entry for Donald Wollheim. Fantasy is not used a single time. Not even as an adjective for the many uses of adventure.

So then what are these stories? Surely they have to be called something. Easy answer: they are Adventure stories. What else would they be? Action & Adventure is a genre without boundaries where any exciting thing can happen and wonder is paramount. These stories epitomize that freewheeling spirit Burroughs made his own.

Each of the five tales attempt to encapsulate big and all-encompassing themes of mystery, ineffable terror and danger, romance, wonder, adventure, and whiplash motion, all in a short length. Burroughs had attempted to plug into those gigantic feelings and notions at the same time he is looking into the face of concepts and beings way bigger than our simple small worlds. These are stories that attempt to bottle that awe and excitement for an audience that can get just as excited reading about it as the author does writing it. These are stories of the gigantic, tales that can't be contained.

And that joy is infectious.

I would be hard pressed to find anyone who read a collection like this and didn't find themselves inspired and excited by the end of it. Unless they are dead inside, or expecting more from fiction than to uplift and instill wonder, then this should brighten even the darkest cynic's day. This is exactly what pulp has always meant to do, and maybe that's why some people just don't like it. Maybe this is why they tried to bury it.

Regardless of that, Swordsmen in the Sky is one of the best and most exciting anthologies out there. If you have not these stories before, you could do far worse than reading them here. This is the type of book that could start a revolution of the imagination.

What else is reading for?

Highest recommendation.

In other news, I have released a short story for free for readers of my newsletter. It is the tale of a vigilante in a superhero world who comes across dark forces beyond powers. You can sign up and get it for free, or buy it for a buck on amazon. Your choice. Either way, thank you for reading this post and I will see you on the next one!


  1. This book is a real find for anyone who likes adventure. The authors whose work is collected in this anthology are some of the best, period. These stories are great samples of their writing and great entertainment.

    You won't find better.

    Thank you, Mr. Cowan, for including that link; this book is just what I've been looking for.