In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
The science fiction world was robbed of a major talent when early star Stanley G. Weinbaum died from cancer at the age of only 33. His stories had taken the magazines by storm, and writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were quick to sing his praises. One of his rare longer works, The Black Flame, did not appear until after his death, and even then, in a significantly revised form. It was not until 1995 that a copy of the original manuscript was located, allowing Tachyon Books to put it out in the form intended by the author.
Weinbaum was always known for his vivid characters. There was often romance in his stories, and both men and women were endowed with realistic personalities. It turns out that before he wrote science fiction, Weinbaum also wrote a romance novel under the pen name Marge Stanley. The Black Flame was a rare tale for its time. Despite being set in the far future, at its heart it is a love story, a tale of a man torn between two women: Evanie, a young woman from a small town, and the beautiful, talented, and immortal Margaret of Urbs, the sister of the Master who rules mankind. But the book is also full of interesting speculation regarding a post-apocalyptic future, the impact of immortality, and more than a little action and adventure.
The Black Flame is the sequel to another story, “Dawn of Flame,” which follows the adventures of the main character Margaret in her early days, when the immortals were engaged in a struggle to preserve mankind from extinction. My one complaint about the new Tachyon edition is that it would have been nice to have the earlier tale included, especially since it is now so hard to find.
About the Author
Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-1935) had a short but highly acclaimed career as a science fiction writer, unfortunately cut short by his early death. I previously reviewed an excellent anthology of his work, The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum, and you can find more biographical information in that review. You can find a number of Weinbaum’s stories available to read for free on Project Gutenberg, including his famous story “A Martian Odyssey” and its sequel “Valley of Dreams.” And I recommend you do so, as they are great stories, with some of the most compelling and interesting aliens ever depicted in science fiction.
The Behind the Scenes Story of The Black Flame
The introduction written by Sam Moskowitz for the Tachyon edition of the book is an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the early days of science fiction publishing. Moskowitz (1920-1996) was a fan, historian, editor, and author, whose fanzine articles were later assembled into books that chronicled the infant days of the genre.
Moskowitz introduces us to Weinbaum’s agent, Julius Schwartz (1915-2004, SF fan, agent, and editor, primarily known today as an editor of Superman and other DC comics). Schwartz had labored in vain to find a home for The Black Flame, but it was a tough sell. Being a love story, it did not fit the norms of the pulps, and was not immediately purchased by the science fiction magazines at the time. The magazines considered their primary audiences to be teenaged boys, most of whom were not thought to be interested in romance. Also, at 60,000 words (short for a novel by today’s standards, but long for the pulps), The Black Flame was a longer tale than many magazines were willing to accept. When it finally appeared in Startling Stories in the January 1939 issue, it had been cut by 12,000 words, with another 6,000 words significantly revised. The Black Flame was widely acclaimed by a science fiction community still reeling from the news of Weinbaum’s untimely death, and was republished in 1948 in a combined edition with the prequel story, “Dawn of Flame.” There was even a single-issue fanzine produced by a female fan titled “Black Flames,” a sign of how the character resonated with women.
But there were still a few people who remained aware there was another, longer (and by their account, better) version of The Black Flame. The original manuscript of the story (as an artifact, with no publishing rights attached) was put up for auction at the First World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York in 1939. It was purchased by Forrest Ackerman (1916-2008), a fan, collector of science fiction memorabilia, editor, and literary agent. Unfortunately, it later disappeared from his home, probably in the hands of one of the many fans who visited him. Years later, however, the son of Weinbaum’s remarried widow, Margaret, discovered a carbon copy of The Black Flame in a trunk he inherited, and sent it to Moskowitz, who determined it was a copy of the original version. This led to the publication in 1995 of The Black Flame by Tachyon Books, for the first time featuring the author’s preferred text.
The Black Flame
In the first paragraph, we learn that the protagonist, Missouri native Thomas Connor, is 24 years old, a successful engineer, and about to be executed in the electric chair for murder. Just as I was wondering how Weinbaum could make this a sympathetic character, we find that the killing was a crime of passion, Connor having just found a man having sex with his wife. We’re then told how his wife lied on the stand in order to get the charges upgraded from manslaughter to murder, thus giving the reader a chance to feel sorry for Connor, who is quickly put to death. But just as quickly, we find from Connor’s viewpoint that he is waking up. He literally rises from the grave, thin, emaciated, but very much alive. It turns out there is a form of suspended animation, called electrolepsis, induced by an electrical charge of just the right voltage and duration, and coincidentally, that is what Connor received.
Electrolepsis is used by investors of the future who are willing to risk the dangers of the process, hoping that they can sleep a century, then reap the compound interest of investments made before their procedure. But Tom has not just slept for a century—he has slept for about a thousand years. He was executed in 1934, and learns that shortly thereafter, civilization was destroyed, and mankind nearly exterminated by a series of wars waged using weaponized diseases and atomic weapons. It is now year 846 of the “Enlightenment,” during which mankind has worked to reestablish civilization. This plot device, putting a contemporary viewpoint character into a future world, has been used by a host of authors and produced characters ranging from Rip Van Winkle to Buck Rogers, and Weinbaum handles it smoothly and competently.
Tom finds himself in the cottage, and care of, a “sorceress” named Evanie. There has been some drift in the language, and Weinbaum uses phonetic spelling to show the new pronunciations. Fortunately, when Tom begins to understand those around him, Weinbaum abandons the practice, which had quickly become grating. Tom’s impression that this new world is less advanced than his own is soon overturned by a series of surprising revelations. Criminals had been sterilized for centuries, and criminal tendencies and even insanity have been bred out of the race. The term sorceress is not an indication of a belief in magic; instead it is simply their word for a scientist or healer. Their village is served by a small atomic-powered fabrication device that can produce just about any instrument or tool anyone would desire. The people of the village share almost everything in common, living in socialistic simplicity. The central government, based in the massive super-city called Urbs, is ruled by a small cadre of immortals, led by the Master and his sister, Margaret of Urbs, the eponymous “Black Flame.”
Tom is surprised that the village pays very little in taxes to the central government, but the population chafes at even this small burden. They hate the central government, and hope to someday overthrow it. They pepper Tom with questions about ancient technologies. Fields that prevent gunpowder from exploding have made firearms obsolete, but using tiny atomic charges, they are able to reinvent pistols, rifles, and even machine guns. Tom has no dog in this fight, but he has begun to develop feelings for Evanie, and if it is her cause, he decides impulsively it is his, too. During the experimentation that produced immortality for some, different branches of humanity arose, including aquatic amphimorphs, and forest-dwelling metamorphs. They are wild and impulsive, and Tom finds that Evanie is one-eighth metamorph, adding an interesting dimension to her personality.
The story of the uprising is engaging and exciting, but I will make a long story short by saying it fails, and Tom and Evanie fall into the Master’s hands. The Master is especially interested in Tom’s knowledge of ancient engineering principles, many of which had been lost during the apocalyptic times. Evanie remains stubbornly opposed to the immortals, but Tom finds the situation is not as it initially seemed. The Master might be a despot, but he is a benevolent despot, a brilliant man who does his best for humanity. His sister, the Black Flame, who is assigned to work with Tom to record his knowledge, is clever, intelligent, and witty. He increasingly finds her more and more attractive, and the reader does as well, as she is a richly realized character. She can also be temperamental and moody, as Weinbaum does a great job imagining the mindset and restlessness of someone who has lived for centuries. Tom is increasingly torn between these two fascinating women, and I’ll leave my recap there so as not to spoil any surprises.
The story moves along at a good pace, engaging the reader with plenty of action, twists, and turns. The “man out of time” plot is an old one, but is used effectively. The science, with the exception of some outdated ideas about how atomic power works, is pretty well thought out. The characters are what really stand out, feeling real and well rounded. This is especially impressive when you compare the story with others from its era, a time when it seemed cardboard and clichés were the most common materials used in crafting characters. My one disappointment is that in the end the political message ends up being somewhat distasteful, as the book suggests tyranny is acceptable as long as the right sort of people are in charge.
The Black Flame is a great story, and it is no surprise that fans remember it fondly, as they do pretty much all the stories Stanley Weinbaum wrote in his tragically short career. It is heartening to see that it has finally appeared in the form the author intended. If you get the chance, it is definitely worth seeking out. In fact, any book or story you can find with the name Stanley G. Weinbaum on it is worth seeking out.
And now I’d like to hear from you: If you’ve read The Black Flame, I’d be interested in your thoughts. Or your thoughts on any of Weinbaum’s other works, for that matter.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.