Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Phantoms of Reality" by Ray Cummings

Of the three stories I've read from this issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science so far, this one has afforded me the most amusement. The prose is the purplest, the science the craziest, the part where this is really a fantasy story with a thin gloss of science fiction, the racial stereotyping the most blatant, and oh, the homoeroticism is the...homoeroticismiest?

Let's see, where to begin? Plot synopsis?

Charlie, a Wall Street broker of some kind, is recruited by his friend Derek into a crazy scheme where they vibrate themselves right out of this world into a parallel world which is all medieval in the Hudson River Valley. But where they speak English, of course, because...parallel world? Duh? And where obviously they're going to recognize the innate superiority of men from our world because...colonialism? Because people always recognize white Wall Street brokers as the best men ever?

(Well, actually, Derek turns out to be the long-thought-dead heir to an usurped throne, although how he vibrated himself into our world in the first place is really never addressed.)

At any rate, as soon as Derek says "Henchman?", Charlie says "You're on! And may I describe your physique some more?" There is a lot of describing of Derek's physique, and moments like this one:
"I stood trembling with eagerness, as I know Derek was trembling." At a certain point, I was wondering if the author was trying to pack as much suppressed homoeroticism in as humanly possible. But then, of course, they end up with women. Bah.

Of course, the women could easily be named "Whore" and "Madonna" but Cummings went for the totally more subtle "Sensua" and "Blanca." They are described in the story like this:

"The Crimson Sensua, a profligate, debauched woman who, as queen, would further oppress the workers. And Blanca, a white beauty, risen from the toilers to be a favorite at the Court."
 
And boy, this is where race rears its head, none too subtly. Sensua is typed as having "coarse, sensuous beauty," a "pagan woman of the streets." By saying that one might expect to find her "flaunting the finery given her by a rich and profligate eastern prince," it's not hard to imagine that she is from the Middle East. 

And in contrast, there is Blanca, "a slim, gentle girl in white, with a white head-dress." 

Don't worry too much about her, she'll be murdered in seconds. Fortunately, there is a pure, white, backup named Hope. Hope actually gets some stuff to do, but the dichotomy between good and bad women, and the way race is conflated into that is pretty much going on out in the open.

Interestingly, however, this fantasy world as a whole doesn't seem to differentiate between genders for the most part. When Cummings describes the "toilers" aka the serfs, it's in fairly gender neutral terms, and both men and women seem to do the same work. 

After a palace revolt, Derek seizes the throne, marries Hope, and Charlie goes back to his life of suppressed masculinity on Wall Street. Why do I say suppressed masculinity instead of sexuality? It's both, I suppose. But studying masculinity as I do, this is a prime example of that late 19th/early 20th century idea that men have lost something in becoming "civilized," become something less than men, and that they need to reclaim it through daring deed, violence, and test. But, of course, given the chance to test themselves against less "civilized" men who are held up as epitomes of masculine power, the civilized man prevails - mostly by being more violent than the violent. 

Derek gets to lead the perfect life, taking up his throne (because every man could totally be king, if he just vibrated himself into the right plane of existence?) But poor Charlie gets the shaft, relegated to being a Wall Street nobody again. 

And did I mention the prose was purple? I'll just leave you with this last little gem: 

"The gauntlet of the unknown flung down now before me, as it was flung down before the ancient explorers who picked up its challenge and mounted the swaying decks of their little galleons and said, "We'll go and see what lies off there in the unknown.""

3 comments:

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  2. Interesting that Cummings so early just about nailed the basis of string theory.

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    1. I don't know a ton about string theory - if it's the vibrations, then pretty much every 1930s SF writer predicted it - there are vibrations as far as the eye can see!

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