Like most readers, I have a large stack of books in my to-be-read pile. Some have sat there for an embarrassingly long time. I winnowed this pile down a little when I moved house recently, and one of the categories for removal was books that must have been recommended to me at the time I bought them, but I can’t now remember why.
One of these, which I decided to keep, is today’s subject. It’s a thin collection of ten stories* that were mostly published in the early 1950s. I didn’t recognize Cogswell’s name, but it turns out he’s not quite as forgotten as I’d imagined. His one novel, for example, is part of the Star Trek universe, and therefore survives in a fanbase’s memory better than the average stand-alone novel is. I was also surprised that most of the stories in this collection have been anthologized once or twice, a few in anthologies I’d already read. And The Wall Around the World itself has appeared almost a dozen times in anthologies of fantasy as well as science fiction.
This blur of genre lines doesn’t go unremarked. The collection opens with two introductions (by Anthony Boucher and Frederik Pohl) that both praise Cogswell for his blend of science fiction and fantasy. This is most obvious in The Wall Around the World, where the teenage protagonist Porgie lives in a medieval magic-friendly place surrounded by an enormous wall, too high for even the most powerful broomstick to fly over. But Porgie thinks there’s a limit to what can be done with pure magic, and after giving up a plan to trap eagles to carry him into the air, he begins learning through trial and error how to build a glider. It’s a nice example of technological experimentation in the face of adversity (from bullies, adults, and the seeming nature of reality), and the final line is an excellent joke in an otherwise serious story.
(I feel I should talk about this story more, given that it’s the most famous one in the collection. But I feel a little less favorable about it because two days ago I read a hilarious Robert Sheckley story that played the boy-in-fantastical-setting-wants-to-do-something-without-magic so well as a comedy. It’s called The Accountant, and it’s about Mr. and Mrs. Dee worrying that their son doesn’t want to learn magic anymore, he wants to join the titular profession. It’s very charming and well worth reading, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an accountant.)
Most of Cogswell’s other stories are more light-hearted. Other genre-crossing includes The Masters, where the last man on Earth happens to be a Dracula-style vampire. He’s initially overjoyed when a spaceship lands only to discover the pilot is a robot. (“You lout,” she hissed. “You’ve chipped my enamel!”) Others are more clearly fantasy in the sense of magic in a modern setting. There’s a fun one called Wolfie where a man thinks he’s figured out the perfect murder: briefly turn into a werewolf and attack the victim on a snowy day, to make sure the incriminating tracks are clearly those of a wolf.
And you know that subgenre of stories where someone goes into an eclectically-stocked shop they’ve never seen before and buy some magical artefact? (John Collier’s The Bottle Imp, Theodore Sturgeon’s Shottle Bop, though you’ve more likely seen the parodies in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music or the Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer finds the Monkey’s Paw. TV Tropes calls it ‘The Little Shop That Wasn’t There Yesterday.’) Thimgs is predicated on the victim believing such shops are real, and hires the protagonist to track down one of these places and buy their wares. The protagonist thinks he’ll just pass off some useless brick-a-brac as a magical artefact, but wouldn’t you know it, the assistant he sends out just so happens to go into a strange shop they hadn’t seen before…
Then there’s The Specter General, a light-hearted science fiction novella about an army that’s been waiting to be deployed for five hundred years, and is now onto its sixth generation. It’s a hard life, ploughing and raising crops in your spare time while devoting fourteen years to the Tech Schools where you memorize circuit diagrams and engine mechanics without ever seeing a working circuit, or even believing that the grounded spaceships ever flew. Meanwhile someone’s pretending to be the Inspector General, the envoy from the Empire, despite the fact that they’ve had no actual contact from the Empire in five hundred years, and in all probability the conflict is long since over. Now this sounds like a futile Carpet Makers-type story, but the way the story is told is everything, and this one has a healthy degree of hijinks. So the story is mostly from the point of view of a new lieutenant, freshly in on the conspiracy, who’s trying to thwart an inept coup d’état by unenlightened officers trying to close down the Tech Schools and turn the place into a more conventional settlement. And, of course, now’s the perfect time for a spaceship to finally turn up.
Now, none of these stories are essential reading. (Very few are.) I’m not telling you to rush out and track down a collection that was last published in the 1970s. But they are fun. Sure, the point of a few of the stories escaped me, but the hit to miss ratio is better than most collections. Besides, several of them passed the ‘I read them, then tried to describe them to other people’ test, which is my usual indicator for things I put on this website.
I’m also spurred to write this because of a quote on Futility Closet a few days ago: “There is something essentially ridiculous about critics, anyway: what is good is good without our saying so, and beneath all our majesty we know this.” — Randall Jarrell, an early 20th Century poet
I have multiple issues with this. But my main problem is that a critic reviewing something good isn’t just passing judgement over something and giving it a thumbs-up. A good review exists not just to be read, but to encourage other people to seek out what is reviewed, or to make it stick in their minds when they come across in on a library bookshelf or a Netflix queue. So promoting a story or an author you might not have heard of, like Theodore R. Cogswell, seems like a worthwhile enterprise. Signal boosting, I think the young people call it.
Then again, next time I plan to talk about Moby-Dick, so there goes that theory.
*In my copy one story, Prisoner of Love, has all of its pages torn out except the first and last. Given the title, I guess it was an attempt to censor the volume, though given Cogswell’s writing style I doubt it contained anything prurient. As the story hasn’t been reprinted outside of this collection, I haven’t read it. This irks my sense of completism.
The Wall Around the World (collection) by Theodore R. Cogswell
Availability: print only
Length: 160 pages
First published: 1962 by Pyramid Books, last reprint 1977
Translations: German, as Die Maur um die Welt und andere Stories, 1963, Moewig
The Accountant by Robert Sheckley
Availability: print, e-book
Length: 3,000 words
First published: F&SF Magazine, July 1954
Where to find it: Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley, collection, 2012, NY Review of Books
Citizen in Space, collection, 2014, Gateway / Orion
The Masque of Manana, collection, 2008, NESFA Books