Congo Song, Stuart Cloete, 1944, Collins, Toronto
This is the final post on the books I picked up on a recent trip to Ontario to visit family. I have to admit my purchase of Congo Song, was based entirely on the lurid cover and the equally lurid synopsis on the back cover. While I could see it falling in line with my interest in gene or pulp fiction the SF element seemed absent. Then I looked Stuart Cloete up join Wikipedia and found the following information.
"Cloete was among the pioneers of the by-now voluminous literary subgenre depicting the aftermath of nuclear war. His 1947 novelette The Blast is written as the diary of a survivor living in the ruins of New York (published in 6 Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin, 1954)."
Wikipedia also noted that "He was educated in England at Lancing College, a school which at present gives out a yearly prize in his honour to a student who excels in literature and creative writing."
In 1943 Cloete also published a short story called "Congo", which appeared in the anthology Things With Claws, I mentioned this title in my post on horror anthologies with covers by Richard Powers on my HPL blog,
I was born in Windsor so a review from the Windsor Star on the back of Congo Song is an added bonus. I did notice editions with a more Harlequin inspired cover by George Meyers for anyone offended by Congo's sailor cap. Having read the two short stories, I suspect I will not read Congo Song anytime soon, if ever.
"Congo"; reprinted from Story Mar.-Apr., 1943 "Congo " seems not unlike the typical scientist goes to the jungle, odd stuff happens tale, that could often be found in early pulp magazines like Argosy, Amazing Stories or Weird Tales. Professor Le Grand, his assistant, our unnamed narrator, and the Professor's young blonde, pregnant wife, Helena Magrodvata, who we are told is of Graeco-Russian extraction have come to Africa to study rubber trees. In due course Helena has a baby boy who unfortunately dies of a snake bite. Helena is inconsolable, on the verge of madness until a female gorilla is trapped by the natives. She is pregnant and Le Grand, who is something of a man of all seasons, he has also been experimenting with a serum against tropical diseases on himself, his assistant and his wife, delivers the baby by Cesarean. Of course Helena immediately decides to raise the gorilla. At this juncture the narrator notes "Again, what did we know of Helena, with her mixed blood, her strong instincts, and her veins full of experimental serums?" (142) Within the year the entire party returns to Brussels and some 8 years pass. The gorilla now named Congo has been raised as a human infant complete with sailor suit. I think we can all see where this is going.
Congo as noted above is pretty typical of the pulp tales of the period, marred by hints of misogyny and racism which would probably become even more intrusive in a longer work. The characters are fairly one dimensional and despite the fact that Cloete is South African the description of Africa lacks the depth of atmosphere we might get in other stories set in exotic locations in works by Rider Haggard, Robert Howard, Henry Whitehead or Jack London.
"The Blast", 1947 original version published in COLLIER'S, April 1946. It is interesting to read a nuclear war story written within a year of the end of WWII. Certainly Cloete, at least for the purposes of his story, saw things very differently that an author writing in the 1960's or 1990's might. " Immediately after the war, an arms race begins, " There was only a state of fear. There were only rumors-stories that Russia and Spain were only a year behind us in the atomic race. These two countries were, of course, at opposite ideological poles and were a constant threat not only to each other, but to the world. "(10) as well there are Nazis in South America, and an ineffectual UN monitoring program that is stymied because countries have begun to produce miniaturized atomic weapons. Our unnamed narrator, a writer of South African descent, living in New York at the time of the blast is starting his record of events some twenty years after the blast. By his estimate the current year is 1972. The actual blast damage he witnessed was quite localized with damage outside the area caused mainly by falling debris or fires so much of the city is left intact. After the initial explosions, retaliatory attacks are launched until the entire world in involved. Shortly after the nuclear attacks, a disease called the Red Death, possibly an out of control bacteriological weapon, wipes out most of the survivors. Now the narrator, a man in his seventies lives alone in New York. The first half of the story is quite interesting. One quibble I would have is that it appears once the bombs dropped a version of prohibition era Chicago appears. "For forty-eight hours, cars roared through the streets and tommy guns spat from the cars." (14) but this chaos ends as the population crashes. The narrator although saddened by the death of his wife, and the fact he ate his pets, a dog and a kinkajou, seems mostly untouched by the demise of everyone else, indeed a cozy catastrophe soon breaks out. The term cozy catastrophe was coined by Brian Aldiss in The Billion Year Spree, when I reread Aldiss’s description in the now The Trillion Year Spree he characterizes it this way “ The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” (316) And except for occasional bouts of loneliness Cloete's New York seems cozy. He has moved to a cave located beneath the Chelsea Hotel for warmth, where he has accumulated great paintings including a Poussin, Renoir, Vermeer etc. books and wine. New York has come to resemble the island in Swiss Family Robinson where every animal Cloete has ever heard of, mostly escapees from local zoos roam freely leopards, tigers, polar bears etc., have all successfully multiplied. Colette obviously has given his world building a lot of thought and he likes lists. There are also mutants, enormous mink five feet at the shoulder and eighteen feet long and gigantic wolves weighing half a ton. Since our narrator likes to hunt he has breed packs of huge dogs that he rules with an iron fist and makes the best it. "Everywhere there are small woods, clumps of trees, and little streams and rivers. There are large numbers of flowers, many of them completely new, at least new as wild flowers. Varieties of roses which usually had to be budded now grow wild, as do gladioli, dahlias, tulips and every other kind of bulb. Hyacinths, daffodils and crocuses cover large patches in solid mats of color; they lie like scatter rugs on the green floor of the city; and nothing more beautiful could be imagined than coming across a great striped Bengal tiger asleep on a carpet of purple crocuses in the first warm afternoon of early spring, or seeing a red and white wild ox standing belly-deep in orange gladioli." (22) It does sound nice, but into this Eden a worm or rather two appear for in our narrator's seventy-third year, he sees two young blonde girls, early twenties actually, armed with spears and mounted on horses, the one animal his New York lacks. He avoids contact but it is the knowledge that he is not the only survivor that encourages him to begin writing down the record of his experiences.
Spoilers and Quibbles.
It is with the introduction of the young women that things really go south for me. They are travelling as part of a all male Native American hunting party in case interpreters are needed. The girls, daughters of the white Indian agent and his wife who died in the blast where adopted by an "Indian squaw". Later a prospector joined the tribe and "instructed the girls in their mother tongue and in his version of history, geography and mathematics. They knew the multiplication tables and could add subtract, divide and multiply-arts which made them valuable to the Indians, who called them in when such obscure calculations were necessary." (59) Our narrator is captured but eventually wins the natives over in part because of his skill with large calibre hunting rifles something they apparently lack the intelligence to master. "I was, faced with an ethical problem. The Indians, who had discovered heavy rifles similar to mine in some of the stores they had entered, wished me to instruct them in their use. I could see nothing to be gained by such instruction, so I tried to explain to them that this was white man's magic and so strong that it had destroyed all the white men in the world but me, turning its forces against them in retribution for their own misuse of its power." (63) When the recoil from one of the rifles breaks the collar bone of a young men they learn their lesson and make our narrator a member of the tribe. This also apparently entitles him to the "girls' who despite having been raised in the tribe since infancy, prefer a seventy-three year old racist jerk to any of the young men they grew up with. I think my problems with the second half of Cloete's "The Blast" are pretty clear. Written in 1946 it treats the Native tribe as first contact savages meeting Columbus or Cortez for the first time, no war veterans here, its all bows and arrows, spears and a few Springfields. In Clifford Simak's A Choice of Gods, the earth is also mostly unpopulated and one of the Native American tribes has returned to a more traditional lifestyle. But this is depicted as a conscious choice, a young woman of the tribe unhappy with this lifestyle is allowed to leave to begin using the last remaining library to further her education. Colette's native's are apparently incapable of learning by observation, the rifle, or picking up concepts like mathematics, content to leave the intricacies of such magical knowledge to whites. There is also an element of middle aged wish fulfilment, Heinlein anyone, and, I suspect, a real fear of racial mixing that insists that the old white guy gets the girl(s).