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[June 16, 1962] Picking Up Charles Finney (The Circus of Dr. Lao)


by Victoria Lucas

I am so honored to be taking up space here!  The Traveler thought enough of my letters to the editor that he asked me to become a regular contributor.  In my letters I mentioned how I’ve just graduated from Stanford and am going back to my old job in the Drama Department at the University of Arizona, and my mother’s home, where I’m typing on an old portable Smith-Corona that has seen far too many papers, dissertations, theses, and so on as I’ve struggled to work my way through college. 

Last fall I tacked up on my bulletin board (unfortunately in the sun) a short column of news about somebody with whom I sometimes work in Tucson little theatre–Bob Hammond, a French professor at the University of Arizona who once won a Fulbright to Paris and never recovered.  He writes his plays in French and English and translates from each language into the other.  The blurb introduced Hammond as one of four playwrights who formed a producing group for their work.  One of the other playwrights was a fellow by the name of Charles Finney who was supposed to produce a play of his this year. 

The article reminded me that I may have met Finney as I house-managed and assistant-directed Bob’s plays.  Or I might have seen him in his workplace, the newspaper building downtown, where he has been editor of the Arizona Daily Star for 32 years (I spent my Saturdays at the Tucson Daily Citizen my senior year in high school helping to put out the “Teen Citizen,” a section of the paper.) So when I ran across The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories I picked it up.  It’s edited by Ray Bradbury and published by Bantam Books, first out 1956.

In the very first sentence of his introduction to this book of short and long stories, Bradbury asserts that the works in this book “are fantasies, not science-fiction.” He goes on to list some adjectives and statements that contrast science fiction and fantasy as genres (or at least his idea of the genres).  Then, in two short, strident paragraphs, like trochees in a poem, he argues:

“Science-fiction balances you on the cliff.

Fantasy shoves you off.”

This book of short stories (and one long one) conforms to that opinion.  At least the shoving-off-cliffs part.

Charles Finney’s novella The Circus of Dr. Lao is on the cover and first in the book.  Finney uses figures of mythical people and animals to produce what seems like an almost metaphorical story of Abalone, Arizona, which apparently is what Charles Finney calls Tucson.  He began the story while he was in the US Army in China in 1929, and it has seen numerous editions since it was first in print in 1935. 

Lao Tzu (or Laozi, or Lao Tse or …) is a mythical/historical figure who is said to be the author of the Tao Te Ching, a book of philosophy, and the founder of Taoism (Daoism), variously a religion and a philosophy.  The presence of this part man part myth as the owner of a circus is better understood when you see who and what the circus animals and people are: a medusa, a sea serpent, Apollonius of Tyana (15 to 100 AD, a Christ-like figure who incongruously wears and uses a cross), a satyr, a Roc chick, Sphinx, Chimera, and so on.  The real venerable philosopher (Dr.) Lao did not preach withdrawal from the world but discernment and enjoyment of what is in it, apparently here containing the inventions of the human imagination that might include himself (does that tangle your nervous system?)

These animals and humanlike entities do not mix well, and they look strange marching through the town of Abalone as circuses used to do.  They are so bizarre that the people of Abalone do not know what to make of them, and they argue incessantly about whether one of the circus figures is a bear, a “Russian,” or a man.  Finney doesn’t even settle the matter in his ending “Catalogue” of characters, questions, and other matters at the end.

I cannot recommend this story enough.  Although Bradbury calls it fantasy, it fits in no genre, has no particular moral, steps in no one else’s shoes.  I am only familiar with one other book of Finney’s, The Unholy City, which seems to me again to be without identifiable genre, one that calls out human foibles but does not condemn them.  Both books are funny but not laugh-out-loud funny.  Their humor emanates quietly from human (and mythic) limitations and self-aggrandizement.

What I find most amusing is the way the good (or not-so-good) doctor can change in an instant back and forth from a stereotype of an ignorant and hysterical “heathen Chinee,” misplaced letters “L” and all, to a calm, philosophical global traveller speaking perfect English. 

In one scene, he “came dashing up, ‘Whatsah mattah Glod damn college punks come this place?’ …’You no savvee nothing here.  Glet to hell out!  This my show, by Glod!'” Eventually he “glets” them out by shouting, “Hey, Lube!  (instead of the circus/carnival rallying cry, “Hey, Rube!”).

A little later he expounds on his Hound of the Hedges (supposedly a living dog made out of vegetable matter).  He begins with “Epitomizing the fragrance of grassplots, lawns, and hedgy, thickset places, this behemoth of hounds stands unique in the mysterious lexicon of life.”  Elsewhere he maintains his innocence of fraud by saying “You see: I no fool you.  This place no catchum fake.” 

(In my experience, some clever people conceived in foreign lands or looking still foreign in this one use this ability to believably imitate their stereotypes in order to maintain their privacy and ward off unwelcome demands.)

As the show goes on, there are casualties, mainly from the Medusa’s ability to turn people to stone, but Dr. Lao is almost killed himself.  He survives, though, and just as he came to town by no visible means (not by truck or train), he leaves with his menagerie the same way.

“I am a calm, intelligent girl.” Miss Agnes Birdsong reassures herself.  “I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street.” Circus of Dr. Lao

“When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu

The rest of the book consists of short stories of varying length.  The first, Nigel Kneale’s story The Pond, seems to me to have congealed around a particular idea the way the white of a boiled egg encircles the yolk.  Anything I say about it will probably spoil the ending of this extremely short story, so I will just state that it is of frogs and men.

The Hour of Letdown by E. B. White pits men against an artificial brain.  One that likes to get drunk after a hard job well done.

So far humans aren’t doing very well.  Let’s see how things go with Roald Dahl’s The Wish.  Hmmm.  Imagination 3, human beings 0. 

And “The Summer People”?  Well, I know Shirley Jackson’s work, and her imagination tends to the … let’s just say she’s well known for The Haunting of Hill House, a ghost story.  A couple lucky enough to have a summer home decide to stay there after Labor Day, something they’ve never done before.  Be prepared for unending suspense.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of the next story, is taught in school as one of America’s first, most celebrated authors.  He is probably best known for his book The Scarlet Letter (1850), about fictional events 200 years earlier in Puritan Boston, where an adulteress is forced to wear a red letter “A” on her dress.  This story, Earth’s Holocaust, dates from 1844 and is strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose work Hawthorne probably would have read.  Its moral: beware of reforms, because evil will spring forth anew.

Loren Eiseley is an anthropologist, not a writer of fiction, but this story (essay?) was published in 1948 in Harper’s Magazine, when he was head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania.  “Bone hunters,” he writes, “are listeners.  They have to be.”  He hears about Buzby’s Petrified Woman (the story title) while hunting for fossils, and he has to find out if it’s “a bone.”  Because it’s in this collection I would think it’s fantasy.  Because it’s Eiseley I’m inclined to believe it’s a memory.  You judge.

Oliver La Farge is also an anthropologist, but he wrote recognized fiction.  This story, The Resting Place, also became part of his collection A Pause in the Desert (1957) (Oh, I wish they hadn’t misspelled “Chinle”–with an extra “e.”  It’s one of my favorite spots.) So I do understand “the old man’s” obsession with Navajo country.  Its beauty is formidable, its mystery eternal.  This story does not challenge that view.

Threshold is by Henry Kuttner – an author with more pseudonyms than anyone else I know.  His most frequent one was Lewis Padgett, a name he used when he wrote with his wife C. L. Moore, but apparently Kuttner attributed this story to himself.  Kuttner is notable for his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, the inventor of the world of Cthulu.  If you have read or read about Lovecraft’s work, you can guess the atmosphere and maybe one of the few characters in this story, which has been described elsewhere as “horror.”  Apparently the husband-and-wife team of Kuttner and Moore did not have two egotists on it, because Kuttner writes here, “egotists cannot live together.”  Beware: this is the second time a devil has appeared in this book.  Third time’s a charm.

In James H. Schmitz’s Greenface a barking dog begins to “churn up the night” as the owner of a fishing camp tries to decide how to deal with a green horror that has driven away his campers–and his girlfriend. 

The Limits of Walter Horton features this quote by author John Seymour Sharnik: “Even if one accepted Horton’s rare talent as the purest sort of inspiration, that didn’t explain what was happening.” 

What if, while you are woolgathering, you are really not all there?  What if part of you is truly in the place and time you are thinking about, and the you in the present has somehow diminished?  Maybe this story, The Man Who Vanished by Robert M. Coates, would be the result.

For me, the stories in this book are uneven in quality and interest, but however you can get it, I absolutely recommend The Circus of Dr. Lao.  If you like Galactic Journey, you’ll like Finney.

[September 29, 1961] Slim Pickings (October 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction)


by Gideon Marcus

Each month, I look forward to my dose of new science fiction stories delivered in the form of digest-sized magazines.  Over the decade that I’ve been subscribing, I’ve fallen into a habit.  I start with my first love, Galaxy (or its sister, IF, now that they are both bi-monthlies).  I then move on to Analog, formerly Astounding.  I save The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for last.  This is because it has been, until recently, the best of the digests– my dessert for the month, as it were. 

These days, the stories aren’t as good.  Moreover, this time around, the latter third of the magazine was taken up with half a new Gordy Dickson short novel, which I won’t review until it finishes next month.  As a result, the remaining tales were short and slight, ranging from good to mediocre.

In other words, not a great month for F&SF, especially when you consider that the novels they print seem to be hacked down for space (if the longer versions that inevitably are printed in book form are any indication).  Nevertheless, it is my duty to report what I found, so here it is, the October 1961 F&SF:

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who is not exactly a science fiction author but dabbles in the arena, leads with Harrison Bergeron.  It’s a deceptively juvenile satire against Conformity and Communism, and while it may not impress upon first reading, it stays with you.  Four stars.

One of my favorite new authors is Rosel George Brown, and I have to give her credit for being willing to take chances.  The Ultimate Sin, however, is a bit avante garde for me.  Something about a social misfit interstellar explorer who finds a planet where gravity depends on whim rather than mass, and where the entire ecology is a unit, its pieces constantly consuming each other and exchanging knowledge in the process.  I didn’t like it at first, but as with the first story, I found it engaging in retrospect.  Three stars.

Charles G. Finney’s The Captivity isn’t science fiction at all; it’s more an analysis of captivity on humans, particularly when they discover that they aren’t really captives at all.  What is there left to push against when external forces are removed?  Only each other, and themselves.  Three stars.

Robert E. Lee at Moscow is Evelyn E. Smith’s attempt at satire this issue.  She’s produced some real doozies, but this one, an extreme logical extension of turning our political ambassadors into cultural ambassadors, falls flat.  There is a laugh-inducing line on the last page, however.  Two stars.

The half-posthumous team of Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth bring us The World of Myrion Flowers, which tells the tale of a driven Black philanthropist whose attempts to raise a cadre of Negro executives end unhappily.  The moral: it’s best when a disdained class doesn’t have too clear an idea of what the favored class thinks of them.  I can only imagine what insanity I would derive from having telepathy while living in 1930s Germany.  Three stars.

Isaac Asimov hasn’t written much fiction lately, and when he does, it tends to be old fashioned.  So it is with The Machine That Won the War, a very slight computer-related piece that probably got accepted more out of respect for the author than for its quality.  Two stars.

Meanwhile, George Langelaan, the Paris-born Britisher who penned The Fly in ’57 brings us The Other Hand, a macabre story of digits that move as if possessed, compelling their owners to strange activities.  Rather overwrought and archaic.  Two stars.

If Asimov’s fiction fails to impress, his fact remains entertaining.  That’s About the Size of It is all about the comparative sizes of Earth’s animals, all done logarithmically for easy data manipulation.  It turns out that people are medium-biggish creatures, all things considered.  Four stars.

The Vat is Avram Davidson’s latest, featuring a bit of alchemy and misadventure.  Short but readable.  Three stars.

Grendel Briarton’s latest pun, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIV, is as always, perhaps a bit more.

And that leaves us with Dickson’s Naked to the Stars (Part 1 of 2), which I’ll cover next week.  All in all, a 3-star issue that will not revulse but neither will it much impress.  Faint praise, indeed.

Farewell, older brother (June 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction;5-14-1959)

We live in such exciting times that it’s no wonder science fiction is flourishing.  It seems not a month goes by without some kind of space shot, and yet we’re still perhaps years away from the first manned orbit (not to mention a lunar jaunt).  Science fiction lets us see the headlines of tomorrow long before they are thrown onto our doorstep.

Of course, not all science fiction deals with space, and not all science fiction magazines deal exclusively in science fiction.  The latter half of this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction comprises naught but fantasies.

Not that this is a bad thing.  With Berlin under siege, Israel and its neighbors barely restrained from coming to blows, Cuba in the throes of revolution, any kind of escape is a welcome one.

Most of the rest of this month’s ish is taken up by Philip Jose Farmer’s The Alley Man, a gritty, rambling story that is as hard to take as it is to put down.  It spotlights the grubby life of the what may be the last of the Neanderthals consigned, like the rest of his race, to survive off the scraps cast off by the superior Homo Sapiens Sapiens.  Not that Old Paley is any dumber than us.  Quite the contrary.  While he has the rough manner and speech as might be expected of the lowest of the lower economic class, he is a fine raconteur and rather wise. 

No, what did in the Neanderthals 50,000 years ago, was the loss of their chieftain’s sacred headpiece (and the fact that Neanderthals were worse shots with the bow and arrow).  Over the millenia, the Neanderthals have slowly dwindled away, until just one remained (though it appears there are plenty of half-breeds and quatroons around).  Old Paley is a garbage scavenger who lives with a half-Neanderthal woman called “Gummy” and a physically blemished former socialite intellectual named Deena with a fetish for rough treatment.

Enter Dorothy, the aide of a physical anthropologist, who befriends Old Paley to study him.  It becomes clear over the course of the story that she becomes rather attracted to him (in part due to the powerful stench of the Neanderthal, like “a pig making love to a billy goat on a manure pile,” but laden with powerful pheremones), but theirs is not fated to be a happy relationship.  In fact, the resulting love quadrangle is all kinds of dysfunctional and, ultimately for Old Paley, fatal.

But you can’t deny it’s well-written and compelling.

There are three remaining odds and ends: an interesting article on orbits, Satellite Trails by Ken Rolf, about not just the course satellites take around the Earth, but the interesting and sometimes unintuitive patterns they make to ground observers (something like Ptolemy’s epicycles); Charles Finney’s Iowan’s Curse, a cautionary tale about the karmic danger of being a Good Samaritan; and Robert Young’s Production Problem, a short-short about a creativity shortage in the far future.  They fill the pages, but are not particularly noteworthy.

I think that leaves us at an uninspiring 3.5 or so for the issue.  The lead story is very good, and Alley Man is worth reading, I suppose, but the rest is lackluster.

But you can decide for yourself!  And should.  Until next time (and do stay tuned–I have many interesting updates to come).

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