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Reviews by Leah A. Zeldes

The Confessions of Artemas Quibble

by Arthur Cheney Train

Written in 1911 by Arthur Train, onetime assistant district attorney for New York county, later known for his humorous stories about the fictional lawyer Ephraim Tutt, "the best-known lawyer in America," these fictional reminiscences describe early 20th-century law as recounted by Artemas Quibble, a successfully shady New York criminal lawyer.

The story is most interesting in the beginning, when Quibble recounts his early life and how he came to practice law, rather than later when it settles into a series of anecdotes about his cases and pettifogging legal slight of hand. But there's not enough action or humor to sustain it all the way through.

Reviewed on 2015.12.23

The Ultimate Weapon

by John W. Campbell, Jr.

As editor of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell was a huge influence on the then new field of science fiction, but as a writer, he wasn't nearly as good. Originally serialized as "Uncertainty," this 1936 novel is a classic example of nuts-and-bolts SF — much more of it is explaining how things work than anything like character development.

The explanations are usually delivered as lectures from the hero, Buck Kendall, a millionaire scientist who joined the Interplanetary Patrol on a bet.

I suppose this "Beware the coming invader!" tale could be seen as a kind of prediction, based on the menacing factors that led to World War II: When his men are killed in a strange, brief encounter with a vast and powerful alien starship, Kendall can't get his superiors to believe in the threat, so he resigns and revisits the matter as an influential multi-millionaire. Of course, they listen to him then.

That's about the end of anything that's not building and testing weapons of destruction against the coming invasion. The junior scientists of the day might have found it fascinating, but passages like, “The secret of perfect reflection lies at a molecular level in the organization of matter,” and “He's developed a system, which, thanks to the power we can get in that atostor, will sextuply ionize oxygen gas,” don't do much for me.

I'm sure the science and engineering were as accurate as 1936 could postulate, and somebody with a better physics education than I have might be interested to see how close Campbell came, although even I can tell that much of it is dated. Anybody can see that having your year 2300 space patrol communicate by Morse code, sketch drawings on paper instead of using a camera, and carry half-dollar coins is dated. I overlook things like that in better stories, but this one doesn't have much else going for it.

There is a certain amount of action as we see how far the aliens get in destroying "Solarian" stations around the solar system before the Earthmen (no women in this!) triumph, and that's no spoiler because what else would you expect in a 1936 story?

Reviewed on 2015.12.22

The Candidate

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Much of the text of this absorbing 1905 novel about a presidential campaign shows how little American politics has changed, or perhaps what it has reverted to. Candidates no longer campaign cross country by train; the "West" no longer begins east of Chicago; and election news is no longer carried by telegram, but Wall Street robber barons who know little of the worries of the people, and care less, try to dictate policy to the candidate for the sake of their own vested interests using their fat purses as carrot and stick just as they did more than a century ago; news media are today as nearly partisan and prone to slanting the truth; and pomposity and bombastic rhetoric abound.

The presidential candidate in this case is Jimmy Grayson, a relatively young man from the West, who makes up as an orator what he may lack in experience in office. He travels with his wife and their niece Sylvia Morgan, both of whom assist the campaign, plus a retinue of reporters, one of whom, John Harley of the New York Gazette, becomes increasingly important to the campaign, and to Sylvia, who, regrettably, is already engaged to marry a much older man, a prominent supporter of her uncle. Although Grayson is his party's nominee, his party is greatly divided on various issues, among them the influence of financiers. This and other questions of what is right vs. what is politically expedient to keep the party together and win the election come up again and again.

U.S. politics at the outset of the 20th century were aligned differently than today. (Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was president then, opposing monopolies and promoting land conservation, but the GOP moved so far rightward after his second term that he founded the Progressive Party.) However, whatever the parties stood for then — they are not named in this novel — anyone reading will certainly find parallels to the present day in passages like these:

“It was a gathering of the great, moneyed men of the party, eager to see the attitude of (the candidate) upon affairs that concerned them intimately, and prompt to take action in accordance. They were the guardians of ‘vested’ interests, interests watched over as few things in this world are, and they were resolved to see that they took no harm....

“They were men of power, men whose brief words went far, and they held in their hands strings that controlled many and vast interests when they pulled them, and their hands were always on the strings.... They worked, by choice and by opportunity, in silence and the dark....

“(The public) heard the candidate tell of mighty corporations, of a vague and distant place called Wall Street, where fat men, with soft, white fingers and pouches under their eyes, sat in red-carpeted offices and pulled little but very strong strings that made farmers on the Western plains, two thousand miles away, dance like jumping-jacks, just as the fat men wished, and just when they wished. These fat men were allied with others in Europe, pouchy-eyed and smooth-fingered like themselves, and it was their object to own all the money-bags of the world, and gather all the profits of the world's labor....”

“The conversation was exclusively commercial and financial. (The financiers believed) the whole science of government pertained to the development of trade, and it was the business of a people, as well as of a man, to stick to the main point. It was for this reason, too, that Mr. Crayon incidentally let it be understood that he did not value a college education. He had several university graduates working for him on small salaries, while he had never been inside the walls of a university, and that was the beginning and end of the matter; there could be no further discussion.”

Reviewed on 2015.12.18

The Man Who Would Be King

by Rudyard Kipling

The 19th century abounded in books about the royalty of obscure little principalities, which let young girls dream about becoming princesses. This is the boys' equivalent, in which a pair of British ne'er-do-wells knocking about the Raj decide to make for the frontier of Afghanistan with a plan to set up as rulers over the unsophisticated natives. They get what they deserve. To me, the narrator, a journalist, is the most interesting character, though he's very much in the background.

Reviewed on 2015.12.09

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