The Black Flame by Stanley G. Weinbaum
Although Kentucky-born sci-fi author Stanley G. Weinbaum is today considered a seminal writer in his chosen field, his actual career was, sadly, an exceedingly brief one. After making a huge splash with his short story “A Martian Odyssey,” featuring the truly alien, ostrichlike Tweel, in the July ’34 issue of Wonder Stories, Weinbaum shifted into high gear, creating some two dozen short pieces and three novels before succumbing to cancer in December ’35, at the age of 33. His entire career, thus, spanned a mere 18 months. I had previously enjoyed The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum, which contains half of those short stories, as well as his terrific posthumous novel The New Adam (1939). A lucky day for me, then, when I snagged still another posthumous work by this marvelous writer, The Black Flame, in its original Fantasy Press hardcover edition from 1948, and for a mere six bucks, at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand. (It is a beautiful hardcover book, with stunning illustrations by one A.J. Donnell.)
The Black Flame consists of two linked novellas that Weinbaum had never been able to sell, cobbled together to make a perfectly paired, 240-page whole. The first novella, “Dawn of Flame,” originally appeared in a 1936 memorial volume that the author’s friends had compiled, while the second, “The Black Flame,” appeared in the very first issue of Startling Stories in January ’39. Today, readers will invariably wonder why the author was never able to market these two wonderful pieces while he lived, as they are both elegantly written, fascinating stories, replete with well-drawn characters, a far-future setting, mind-blowing instruments of superscience, and yes, even a few love stories thrown in, for good measure.
The novel is a post-apocalyptic one that begins some 300 years after ¾ of Earth’s population had been wiped out, due to both wars and plague. In Part 1, “Dawn of Flame,” the year is 186 (of the second Enlightenment). The reader encounters a young mountain man of the “Ozarky” region, Hull Tarvish, who sets out to see the world. That world, for the last 80 years or so, has been ruled from the city of N’Orleans by Joaquin Smith and his half-sister Margaret, sometimes called Black Margot. The two rulers have been endowed with immortality by one of their cohorts, the scientist Martin Sair, and, as Weinbaum’s story begins, are in the process of consolidating their empire. Hull enters into a failed battle against the Immortals’ army, falls in love with mountain girl Vail Ormiston, and later meets the Immortal brother and sister after the doomed Battle of Eaglefoot Flow. Margot, a bored, taunting, voluptuous beauty, takes a liking to the husky country youth and uses all her tempting wiles to seduce him, while Tarvish plots to foment rebellion and vainly resist those advances.
Part 2, “The Black Flame,” takes place 660 years later, in the year 846. Joaquin and Margot still rule (!), but now from their vast metropolis of Urbs (in an unspecified area of the former United States), which contains 30 million people. Into this far future age awakens one Thomas Connor, who had been electrocuted for involuntary manslaughter back in the 1930s. But that electrocution, miraculously, had only put Connor into a state of “electrolepsis.” In a disturbing segment, Connor awakens, a living skeleton, and digs his way to the open air, his coffin long since crumbled away after a millennium in the ground. Connor is nursed back to health by Evanie Sair, a distant relation of the Immortal Martin Sair. As in Part 1, Connor falls in love with this normal country girl, gets involved in a failed revolution against the Urban rulers, and is ultimately brought to the capital city, where he meets Smith and Black Margot, now known as the Black Flame. Margot, we find, is even more bored and unhappy with her unending life than ever, and is drawn to the strong and resolute 20th century man. The two enter into a decided love-hate relationship, while Evanie looks on in contempt, and her anti-government plotting continues…
Although Weinbaum had seemingly been trying, in The New Adam, to pen a book that could aspire to the realms of “the great American novel,” but with a few sci-fi elements thrown in, The Black Flame finds the author reveling in the science fiction arena in which he had recently made such a splash. His compulsively readable book is just brimming with touches of the superscience that so appealed to readers of the 1930s. Thus, we are given the Erden resonators, which can explode guns and gunpowder from afar; pistols that emit ionic beams and electric discharges; Eartheye, a mirror contraption atop Mt. Everest that enables close-up examination of the moon and Mars; Paige deflectors, a surefire protection from metallic bullets; vitergons, an electric field of sorts that Master Smith is able to send out to harass his enemies; and the Sky-Rat, Margot’s sleek cruiser with which she takes Connor on a trip into outer space. And then there are the metamorphs, a race of amphibianlike mutants that has arisen as a result of failed attempts by others to replicate Martin Sair’s immortality-inducing hard radiations.
Weinbaum adds convincing detail to his story to flesh out his future world, and so, we are told of the “hot-house cities of Antarctica under their crystal domes,” and the new artificial sea that has been created in the Sahara. Visiscreens are of course ubiquitous, and Weinbaum even has Connor watching something called “the vision,” which strikes the reader as being very much like a two-foot-wide television set. The author even evinces a startling knowledge of atomic power as well as the A bomb, the latter of which is detonated in the book’s exciting conclusion, although it is a far different A bomb than the one the world actually witnessed in 1945. Rather, Weinbaum’s atomic bomb, “instead of venting its force in a single blast, kept on exploding as successive billions of atoms shattered,” and Connor is able to even walk through this gamma-storm nightmare to save Princess Margot, suffering only some bad burns! The reader can only marvel.
Weinbaum was a wonderful author, and if The New Adam had proved a challenging read, with its densely written philosophizing and literary allusions, The Black Flame seems made for compulsive page turning. The book’s central character, the Flame herself, is nicely nuanced, conflicted and almost tragic: a centuries-old woman with the body of a 20-year-old; the mind of a seasoned politician, campaigner and scientist; and the wistfulness that only 800 years of friendless sterility can bring. Although she is continually teasing and taunting the men who come into her life, the reader — just like those poor, helpless males — cannot help but be drawn to her. Weinbaum’s style ranges from pure pulp — as when Connor thinks it would have been “better never to have emerged from under the prison than to live again, loving a mask of beauty hiding a daughter of Satan” — to beautifully rendered words of wisdom, as when Connor tells Margot, “I concede your beauty and your brilliance, but Evanie is sweet, kind, honest, and lovable. One loves character, not characteristics…” And then there is this wonderful nugget, delivered by Master Smith; some words of wisdom that the America of today would do well to consider:
Civilization grows out of differences. No race can produce a high culture by itself. There must be an exchange of ideas, and that means that there must be differences…
To be honest, Weinbaum does make a few slight flubs in his work here, such as when Connor tells Evanie that Aristotle had predated him by 25 centuries. But if Aristotle had lived from 384 – 322 B.C., shouldn’t that be more like 23 centuries? (I know, picky picky and who cares, right?) The other flub that Weinbaum makes here is not so much a mistake as a statement guaranteed to tick off a lot of people. He mentions that the Earth forests of the year 846 are virtually insect-free, thanks to the manufactured Feliphage parasite that had wiped out all cats, thus enabling the insect-eating birds to thrive. I can almost sense all the cat lovers out there sharpening their own claws as they read this. But other than these two very minor goofs, The Black Flame is a splendid read that all fans of Golden Age sci-fi should enjoy immensely.
I now find myself wanting to get my hands on that third novel of Weinbaum’s, still another posthumous affair, The Dark Other (1950), in which (I believe) a man has a second brain growing in his head (as opposed to the central character of The New Adam, whose brain was divided into two discrete, independently functioning halves). Sounds good to me! Stay tuned…
I will never forget reading Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” as a 12 year old, when I swiped my father’s copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame short story anthology. It made an indelible impression on me, and was my favorite story in the collection at that tender age.
Can you imagine, Tadiana, how the readers back in 1934 must have felt?
Wow, I had no idea Stanley Weinbaum only lived to age 33 – that’s really a shame considering how prolific and promising he was!
A shame, indeed, Stuart, and a very great loss to the field….