Not Recommended Reading.

Eliot Weinberger (see this LH post) has a piece so titled in the 7 September 2017 LRB (subscriber-only, but I think non-subscribers can access three articles a month) that begins thus:

The Whirling Eye (1920) by Thomas W. Benson and Charles S. Wolfe
A psychiatrist, visiting an insane asylum, discovers his old friend Professor Mehlman, who declares that he has been unjustly incarcerated merely because he is in love with a Venusian. Mehlman had constructed a giant telescope in the Andes to observe life on Venus. In the course of his studies, he had become smitten by the sight of a beautiful Venusian female, whom he kept watching.

A Weird Appointment
(1901) by Harry S. Tedrow
At the local diner, a waitress tells the narrator that a Martian has moved into town. Going by the name of Miss Dora Wolf, she is part of a team studying human institutions. Miss Wolf’s particular interest is the post office.

The Thought Girl (1920) by Ray Cummings
Guy Bates, since childhood, has been in telepathic rapport with a girl who lives in the Realm of Unthought Things. That world contains all the inventions that have not yet been invented in this world. When they are invented here, they disappear there. Guy enlists the aid of Thomas Edison to travel to the other world and bring the girl back.

There follow twenty more similarly bizarre descriptions; my first thought was that they were invented, but Google Books quickly disabused me of that notion. I’ll quote a few that especially entertained me:

The Secret of Japan (1906) by George W. Draper
Takasuma, a Japanese-American scientist, invents a machine that makes people invisible. His friend Fowler accidentally steps in front of the ray. Fowler is extremely unhappy being invisible, and Mrs Fowler is not pleased. Takasuma promises to restore him, but can’t be found. Fowler eventually tracks him down in Japan, where the scientist has been creating invisible soldiers to fight in the Russo-Japanese war. Takasuma apologises for abandoning his friend, but says that his nation came first.

A Psychical Experiment (1887) by B.F. Cresswell
Mark Darrell cannot decide which of two sisters to marry. One is beautiful but not bright, the other brilliant but plain. His scientist friend Ernest Marshall has invented a technique for transferring personalities and offers to experiment on the sisters. It is a success, but the super-sister he creates – beautiful and brilliant – rejects Mark, having decided to devote her life to entomology. He marries the now plain and not bright sister.

The Man who Met Himself (1919) by Donovan Bayley
Richard Panton falls down the stairs and is separated from his subliminal self, which takes the form of a midget. With this loss, Panton himself shrinks and becomes an identical midget. They argue. The midget Panton beats the subliminal midget to death and regains his usual size. Fortunately, Mrs Panton has been away the whole time. When she returns, everything is normal.

A Hand from the Deep (1924) by Rombo Poole
Simon Glaze has lost his arm in an accident and is being treated by Dr Whitby. Now he is acting strangely, suddenly curling up or leaping back. Something is growing out of his stump and his head is changing shape. Dr Whitby, assuming the regenerative abilities of lower life forms, has injected Simon with lobster extract, and Simon is turning into a lobster.

The Elixir of Hate (1911) by George Allan England
Granville Dennison, who is terminally ill, rushes to the French villa of Dr Pagani, ‘Il Vecchio’, who has invented an elixir of life. Dennison steals the elixir. His health is restored, but he finds himself growing increasingly younger. He falls in love with Il Vecchio’s niece, but is soon too young for her. Exploring the villa, he discovers that the scientist has murdered scores of people for his experiments. He vows revenge, but must kill Il Vecchio before he turns into a baby.

I close with a quote from the first couple of pages of Solarion (1889) by Edgar Fawcett (“Kindly Dayton and egotistical Stafford are both in love with Celia Effingham. Stafford steals the work of the dying Professor Klotz of Strasbourg, who has been stimulating the brain with electricity. He experiments on a puppy, which becomes an extremely intelligent, psychologically astute talking dog, Solarion…”), freely available at Google Books:

This nook which he had chanced on among the mighty Swiss Alps just suited him. Veils of vapor were hurrying away from noble green mountains on every side of him, as he trod the pale smooth road fringed with splendid pines. Some of the great peaks were not very far off, though you did not get a view of any snow clad summit unless you made a certain little détour for the purpose. Hugh had chosen this especial spot because it had seemed to him the least sublime in a country of sublimities and exaltations. His pension was quiet and not badly kept for one of so meagre a size. He was not at all a hater of his fellow-Americans, and yet it pleased him to have found lodgement where he met only a few stout, commonplace Teutons, with a light sprinkling of bourgeois French. […]

Soon a lank waiter came shambling in, to take the new guest’s order. A sallow smile lit his fat blond face the moment he recognized the new-comer.

Ach, mein Herr, ’habe die Ehre,” he began, with his most cordial gutturals. “How can I serve you this evening?”

His most cordial gutturals! Now that’s what I call writing!


  1. Allan from Iowa says

    Ray Cummings was an assistant to and technical writer for Thomas Edison before he became one of the early science fiction authors. Wikipedia does not consider The Thought Girl to be important enough to mention in his article.

  2. SFReader says

    Invisible ninja-soldiers in Russo-Japanese war and beautiful, brilliant entomologist sister are my favorites.

  3. Haun Saussy says

    The story about the Venusian girl (“The Whirling Eye”) seems to be stolen from Charles Cros, “Un drame interastral” (1872).

  4. I am eager to know what Miss Wolf found out about the Post Office.

  5. Yeah, this lot is a bit pathetic. But we can salvage it by wrapping it all up and serving as a script for TV series.

    Professor Mehlman constructed a giant telescope in the Andes to observe life on Venus. His experiment was a success, he even fell in love with a Venusian girl, but wasn’t careful enough to keep it to himself and ended in a mental institution.
    In fact, Mehlman haven’t observed Venus at all, but rather the Realm of Unthought Things. The inhabitants of that realm grew alarmed over the years about losing many useful implements and are especially aggrieved by the loss of postal service. They send one of they own under the name of Dora Wolf with a machine turning people invisible (the thing that they would rather not have over there) with the idea to turn postal workers invisible an create institutional chaos. The hope is that Earthlings abandon the post office and it can be reclaimed back in the Realm.
    Reading about postal mishaps Prof. Mehlman wises up to his true discovery and escapes the asylum by turning into two dwarfs and confusing the staff. He then kills one version of himself and returns to his normal size. In order to fight Ms. Wolf he buddies up with Ernest Marshall who perfected the technique of personality transfers [we should fill in some backstory here] and tries to create a superhero. Inadvertently he drinks elixir of reverse (and accelerated) aging and now has to harry up before he is too young.

    Enough to begin with and then we can rummage more far fetched and forgotten plots. I didn’t include a man becoming a lobster because I don’t like it. the other stuff is merely asinine, but this one is mean. Also Kafkaesque.

  6. These are mostly short stories rather than novels/novellas? High Concept can work, but the author must finish the tale before the reader turns into a baby. I once read the start of Ray Cummings’ “The Girl in the Golden Atom”, which is “The Whirling Eye” with a microscope instead of a telescope.

  7. These are mostly short stories rather than novels/novellas?

    On the contrary, looking at them on Google Books, they’re all novels.

  8. AJP Crown says

    The post office Martian is 80-something pages. Not exactly War & Peace.

  9. Hey, they needed subway reading back then too.

  10. John Cowan says

    Even today, the official definition of novel for the purpose of the Hugos and other sf awards is a piece of fiction with 40,000 words or more. Because of the reluctance of ordinary publishers to touch “that Buck Rogers stuff”, novels were typically published in four consecutive installments of a particular sf magazine, and even 10,000 words is a lot for a magazine publisher to allocate to a single work. If the novel went beyond four monthly installments, it was too likely that the reader would have forgotten the beginning long before reaching the end.

    Nowadays, of course, sf and fantasy novels are longer than average instead of the reverse, with typical word counts of 90-120,000 words for first novels by unknowns. Successful series authors can easily go up to 175,000 words, and the longest GoT novel is up around 430,000, because. Tolkien, of course, wrote half a million words (divided only because of paper shortages), but his publisher was doing it for the prestige and expected to take a bath.

  11. AJP Crown says

    The Man who Met Himself (1919) by Donovan Bayley
    Richard Panton falls down the stairs and is separated from his subliminal self, which takes the form of a midget.

    Last night I saw upon the stair
    A little man who wasn’t there.
    He wasn’t there again today.
    Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

    WH Mearns, one version of Antigonish, 1899.

  12. I’ve loved that little quatrain for as long as I can remember; I must have read it in an sf story and I’m sure I made myself obnoxious by quoting it constantly. I didn’t have “Oh” in the last line, though (I think my version was “Gee, I wish…”).

  13. AJP Crown says

    I love its humor which I bet has a Greek name. I was wondering if Donovan Bayley had based his story on it. There are several slightly different versions, according to Wiki. I didn’t like the comma after the Oh, but I forgot to remove it. It’s better with no Oh at all.

  14. I love the idea of the entomologist sister. Why settle for marriage, when you could have a career!

  15. Exactly!

  16. AJP Crown says

    It worked out well for the other sister too. Kafka could have used an entomologist sister character.

  17. Trond Engen says

    Moa: I love the idea of the entomologist sister. Why settle for marriage, when you could have a career!

    But it was having the looks as well as the brains that made that possible.

    AJP: It worked out well for the other sister too. Kafka could have used an entomologist sister character.

    I’d rather have the protagonist turning into an insect to attract the beautiful entomologist, but instead he is caught by the plain sister, who pins him up and sends him to her sister. He ends up as the central piece in her scientific collection, with a Linnean name commemorating that old admirer it for some untangible reason reminds her of.

  18. Trond Engen says

    I also want a certain ambiguity to that ending, with the plain sister discovering and classifying the rare species after having read her beautiful sister’s books and expanding on her work, and the beautiful sister being given the credit for it by the scientific community.

  19. Now you need to write the book.

  20. AJP Crown says

    It’s time Cinderella was rewritten with beautiful stepsisters while she, studious and ugly, meets and in the end rejects a handsome young entomologist so she can run off to the town and pursue a career in local politics.

  21. John Cowan says

    I usually say “I wish, I wish” in the last line of “Antigonish”. But of course nowadays when I repeat the poem the last line is generally “I think he’s from the CIA.”

    As for subverted Cinderella stories, see The Paper Bag Princess (1980), in which the princess rescues the snobby prince from the dragon, then conquers the dragon by persuading him to fly too far and burn too much, so that he falls asleep (presumably for a long time). The prince scorns the paper bag she is wearing (her clothes were all burned by the dragon) and tells her to come back when properly dressed. She calls him a bum (a toad in non-US editions) and goes off to have a good life without him.

  22. January First-of-May says

    I once read the start of Ray Cummings’ “The Girl in the Golden Atom”, which is “The Whirling Eye” with a microscope instead of a telescope.

    The start perhaps is, but the rest of the story goes in quite different directions. (In particular, the protagonists do end up meeting the titular girl.)
    Apparently it used to be several novels at one point, which is why it is (apparently) much longer than 40 thousand words.

    Of course “The Whirling Eye” itself (as far as I can tell) is just Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” with a telescope instead of a microscope; in neither story does the narrator actually meet the girl (she is only observed).

  23. Too bad that beautiful genius lady decided to become an entomologist instead of a carcinologist. Then she could have researched the turning-into-a-lobster guy!

  24. Stu Clayton says

    A plot twist ! I see season one taking shape.

  25. Yes, there’s lots of good material here. Needless to say, I want a cut of any profits. My lawyer will contact you.

  26. John Cowan says

    Ah well, Lobsters (like Tortises) are insects, at least according to the Station Master.

  27. SFReader says

    Invisible ninja-lobsters

  28. Invisible ninja-lobsters

    Now, there’s a killer elevator pitch.

  29. SFReader says

    Invisible ninja-lobsters from Mars

    That should do it

  30. David Marjanović says

    Lobsters (like Tortises) are insects

    Fun fact: Insects are crustaceans – though not terribly close to lobsters within the group.

  31. And Lenin was a mushroom.

  32. (If I type “Lenin was” into the Google search box, that’s the first hit!)

  33. John Cowan says

    Bureaucrat: “If you were right, then you would understand why I would neither confirm nor deny such a statement. If you were wrong, you might not understand why, but I still intend to neither confirm nor deny your hypothesis.”

    Citizen-lawyer: “Then it comes down to this. I confirm that I am not a radish (which may not know its rights, but I do). And I deny that I am a mushroom, to be kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. Good day.”

    Etiam si surmea Graece nescit, ego scio ‘A radish may know no Greek, but I do’ was a saying of the Emperor Augustus. The MS reading sormea is often amended to soror mea, but that makes no sense: his sister was a woman of some education and certainly knew Greek. Surmea ‘Egyptian radish’ seems far more likely.

  34. Lars (the original one) says

    Insects are crustaceans — is that settled, and what does it even mean? The ‘crustaceans’ as usually defined are paraphyletic, says WP, but like the insects safely contained within Arthropoda; but do crustaceans + insects form a clade? And if they do, can that clade take over the name Crustacea?

  35. David Marjanović says

    The ‘crustaceans’ as usually defined are paraphyletic, says WP

    Paraphyletic precisely with respect to the insects. (And perhaps the extinct euthycarcinoids, which might be the insects’ closest relatives.)

    can that clade take over the name Crustacea?

    It could, but people prefer either Pancrustacea or Tetraconata.

  36. Lars (the original one) says

    So the statement is technically incorrect? A pity, it would be a nice conversation derailer for the arsenal.

    (“Should I take your little monkey and go feed the dinosaurs in the park?”)

  37. John Cowan says

    It’s incorrect only if you associate crustacean with the paraphyletic group (which in ordinary language we certainly do) rather than the clade. Names are but names, and humans are but fish.

    As for little monkey, my daughter calls her elder son that all the time, and she’s no biologist.

  38. If Professor Takasuma hadn’t left so precipitately, he could have been very helpful to Mr Darrell simply by turning both sisters invisible. With beauty no longer relevant, Darrell could have married the brilliant plain one, and her invisibility would also have been an advantage to an entomologist – you could hold a newly captured specimen in your cupped hand and still look at it to identify it, or sneak up on an interesting butterfly without scaring it away.

    Similarly, the elixir of Il Vecchio would presumably also have reversed the process of crustaceanisation, to the huge relief of Mr Glaze.

  39. Lars (the original one) says

    @JC: I don’t blame her.

    And if even the phylonomatologers are letting Crustacea die a paraphyletic death, what other association is there?

    Also what sort of fish would that be? I’ve heard it bruited about that the bony fish could actually be a side branch of the lobe finned fish and not vice versa, but maybe it’s not important — Eugnathostomata seems to consist of all living species that you’d call a fish, plus the tetrapods (and nothing else) so that would be a suitable node to attach the ‘fish’ designation to if you want both otters and sharks to be fish.

  40. Lars (the original one) says

    Do I mean comprise here? There are lots of extinct species under Eugnathostomata too, of course, so there is a fine nuance here. “Eugnathostomata seems to comprise all living species that you’d call a fish, plus the tetrapods (and nothing else, even in the fossil record).”

  41. Stu Clayton says

    The way I use the word “comprise” is this: “X comprises [list]” implies nothing as to whether the list is exhaustive, i.e. contains everything that is an X. “X consists of [list]” means the list is exhaustive. In German I use umfaßt for “comprises”, and besteht aus for “consists of”.

    There are bound to be people who will bitterly dispute that umfassen and “comprise” mean what I use them to mean. But that’s OK, because I don’t say what these words “mean in general”. Instead, I say what they mean when I use them.

    Language is the house of being. It’s also the floorplan of being, and the wallpaper and matching sofa of being.
    David Weinberger

  42. John Cowan says

    I understand comprise to be exhaustive (unless something like etc. is present in the list, of course), equating it with comprehend (of which it is a doublet). I don’t use it myself, preferring is composed of, because there is a tendency to use comprises and is comprised of in the same sense (from the collective to the particulars).

  43. PlasticPaddy says

    @jc 9 July
    I really dislike the R. Graves emendation “surmea” and see no reason to contest the point that the string “graece” or “grece” (in what in all manuscripts is corrupt text) is an interpolation or instruction that a Greek quote is missing or shall be inserted , so there is no need to amend text to replace octavia with someone or something who or which does not scire “graece”. Sisters are a recurring theme in the text (esp. 8 where incest is mentioned) and Octavia may have had a more favorable opinion of Claudius than her brother and Livia had. What scholar (Graves is a bit speculative) supports this emendation?

  44. Graves is a bit speculative

    Good lord, is this Robert Graves of I, Claudius fame we’re talking about? If it is, he’s not a scholar, he’s a poet who liked to dabble in scholarship (like Ezra Pound), and “a bit speculative” is wildly understated. I’ve never understood why people take seriously anything he has to say about goddesses or anything else. He wrote some good poetry, though.

  45. The Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics edition of Apocolocyntosis doesn’t even mention the Graves theory in its note on the passage:

    No satisfactory sense has yet been obtained from the s-family’s soror mea, though the very obscurity of an allusion to Octavia makes it adaptable to almost any theory. Ball 209 offers a counsel of despair: ‘The point … very likely depends on some fact unknown to us.’ Russo, dissatisfied with his own attempt to explain this ‘difficile e poco sensata allusione‘ (100), grew increasingly convinced of the correctness of his own conjecture sura mea Graece nescit = “even if my calf does not know Greek, I do: the knee is nearer than the calf’ (sura = κνήμη). This conjecture keeps the proverb in the sphere of the lower limbs and yields verbal wit of a kind; but it lacks connection with the larger context, the focal point of which is Claudius and his apparent belief that murder begins at home.

    Sonntag and Buecheler bracketed Graece as a gloss. It is not an indication of omitted Greek, for which the MSS regularly use Graecum, e.g., at 8.1: see the apparatus. The word whose mutilated transliteration is offered by the primary MSS is probably σφυρόν = ‘ankle’, even further away from the knee than the calf, and likely to take a view of things diametrically opposite to that of the head.

    There may be a further allusion to Claudius. σφυρόν = ἀστράγαλος (Hesychius s.v.) = talus = anklebone = the four-sided rectangular die. Augustus was an addict of the game, but Claudius had actually written a manual on the subject, and his association with it is prominently advertised in the satire: 12.3. v.v.30f.; 14.4; 15.1.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    A subsidiary reason that I gave up on reading Count Belisarius (the main reason being that it was, surprisingly, remarkably boring) was his explanation of the hero’s name as deriving from Beli Tsar “White Emperor”, an etymology so mind-numbingly stupid in so many ways that I never managed to regain my willing suspension of disbelief. I blame Laura Riding (credited with – also evidently daft – linguistic advice in the intro to I, Claudius IIRC.)

    Agree about the poetry, though.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    A further objection to Graves’ theory is the fact that Egyptian radishes, after centuries of Ptolemaic rule, would certainly have known Greek. Augustus would have been well aware of this.

  48. John Cowan says

    “Just because the world’s biggest fool says it’s raining, doesn’t mean the sun is shining.”

    In his article on p. 38 of Classical Philology 70:1 (Jan., 1975), Thomas A. Suits, who was no crank, mentions Graves’s reading (in a footnote on p. 40) as “worthy of serious consideration” before putting forth his reading sura mea ‘my calf’ (of the leg), which makes sense in connection with the Greek proverb that follows: ἔγγιον γόνυ κνήμης ‘the knee is closer than the shin’. The reading will doubtless continue to be disputed.

  49. But just because the world’s biggest fool says it’s raining frogs doesn’t mean we should take it seriously. There is no evidence for Graves’s reading but his fevered imagination. And scholars sometimes like basking in reflected light from Famous People.

  50. Stu Clayton says

    The knee is not closer than the shin to the foot. And they are equidistant from their midpoint. What a load of learnèd donkery

  51. John Cowan says

    I doubt if anyone thinks of the seat of the self as being the feet.

  52. Well, foot fetishists, perhaps.

  53. Stu Clayton says

    The seat of the self is the rear end.

  54. Well, if you use posterior analysis. But you may want to buttress your point so it doesn’t rest purely on assumptions.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    I think Stu is fundamentally mistaken.

  56. Trond Engen says


    Oh, right! That explains this:

    The termini at St Aubin’s and St Helier’s seem to have taken the St Pancras station for their model their arched roofs springing from the platforms at least they are as much like the St Pancras station seined pancrustacean as a baby shrimp is like an overgrown cray fish.

    Richard Rowe: Jersey Notes in Good Words, vol. 12, for 1871

  57. Lars (the original one) says

    I think we are talking about Pancrustacea (Zrzavy & Stys 1997) so what Rowe meant by the word in 1871 is an open question — also what plural do the specialists use for φῦλον / phylum? I assume phyla, but I just found a site that has phylum as the plural as well…

    The crustaceans that don’t include insects seem to be Multicrustacea (Regier, Shultz, Zwick, Hussey, Ball, Wetzer, Martin & Cunningham 2010) now.

  58. Lars (the original one) says

    Well, no, Multicrustacea seems to be intended as a proper clade, leaving out one fifth of the traditional crustaceans and presumably the insects with them. The WP pages for Crustacea and Multicrustacea are using totally different trees for most of the subdivisions, however, so I gave up on finding out what the difference is.

  59. David Marjanović says

    I didn’t even know about Multicrustacea. Probably the name doesn’t have a definition, so comparing its meaning across different trees may not really be possible.

    However, ref. 4 of the Pffft! article contains this epic sentence in the abstract:

    “We obtained support for three epic pancrustacean clades that likely originated in the Cambrian: Oligostraca (Ostracoda, Mystacocarida, Branchiura, and Pentastomida); Multicrustacea (Copepoda, Malacostraca, and Thecostraca); and a clade we refer to as Allotriocarida (Hexapoda, Remipedia, Cephalocarida, and Branchiopoda).”

    I have no idea what’s up with that. Anyway, Hexapoda is insects in the wide sense (with springtails and all).

    I assume phyla, but I just found a site that has phylum as the plural as well…

    I’ve only seen phyla.

    We do use femora instead of femina for femur, though; and I don’t think that’s for fear of confusing it with fēmina “woman”.

  60. John Cowan says

    So did the Romans; even in Classical times, femina was archaic. Wikt says there is no secure PIE source.

    In most contexts, though, the English plural is femurs, and all dictionaries give this first.

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