Sci-Fi Saturday 5/14/22

There have been good science fiction movies and TV shows going at least back to Metropolis. Of course, there is always Sturgeon’s Law, so we’ve also had ten times as many that were bad in one way or another. A few were memorably awful; a few are remembered as classics.

When it comes to fantastical material, I’m convinced books are best. Animation is a distant second, and live action can often be a mistake, depending on the material. Too much realism in visualizing the fantastic collapses the wavefunction of our imagination.

But our imagination is the best part, and it needs exercise!

Keying off imagination, I’ll start with an old friend I just re-read: Topper (1926), by American novelist Thorne Smith (1892–1934). Some 40 years ago, because I really liked the movie adaptation, I bought Topper and some of Smith’s other novels. They’re all delightful, fantastic romps! Topper is the most well-known and, as just indicated, was adapted into a movie with Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young (in the title role).

Somewhere in the 1980s I loaned Topper to a friend and lost touch with her before she had a chance to return it. I haven’t read it since I bought it, so when I saw it as an Apple eBook for only $2.99, it was a no-brainer — had to own it again (even though I’m pissed at Apple and trying to boycott their products and services).

Last week, I had books on hold at the library; I needed a break from wading through Penrose (it’s hard work!); I’d finished Nicole Halpern’s Quantum Steampunk; and I’d finished Paul Beatty’s Tuff. What to read now? I know: Topper!


Most of Thorne Smith’s work was published during Prohibition, and a distinguishing characteristic of these books is the vast amounts of alcohol people consume. Bootleggers, speakeasies, and informal booze-soaked parties, all are recurring motifs in these stories. The major characters spend a great deal of time inebriated. (These are comic social satires, by the way.)

Topper charts the sudden course change of Cosmo Topper, a successful banker, from his staid and respectable life through a life-changing chaotic, romantic romp with a (possibly married) ghost. (She argues, if the vow was “until death does us part” then it would seem the deal is off. He, however, is not persuaded.)

From the movie. Left-to-right: George Kerby (Cary Grant), Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), Marion Kerby (Constance Bennett).

When the book begins, Cosmo Topper is disgruntled with his successful life. It’s bland, and his wife Mary oppresses him with her uptight ways and nervous stomach that seems to interfere with any shred of fun they might have. On a lark, he buys a second-hand sport car — the very one that belonged to George and Marion Kerby, notorious rakish party animals about town, until they introduced the car forcefully and fatally to that old oak just across the bridge. But the car is fine now!

Fine, but haunted by George and Marion Kerby, the latter of whom takes an instant shine to Topper (who is utterly discommoded by every aspect of this).

George takes off in a huff, Cosmo and Marion meet two other ghosts (and their little ghost dog), and the four of them spend the summer partying in New England. Much to the horror of just about everyone they encounter.

The ending is very sweet, and I won’t spoil it.

I will mention that the story treats Topper’s wife, Mary, well. She hates what she’s become and, with Cosmo vanished to parts unknown, resolves to change and grow. It makes for a very happy ending all around.


The movie, released in 1937, takes much liberty with the story, but the gist is there. Here, after they crash, George and Marion believe they’re stuck on Earth, rather than going to Heaven or Hell, because they’ve never had enough responsibility to be judged good or bad. They decide, as a good deed, they’ll help Topper (their staid banker) have a more exciting life.

From the movie: Clara Topper (Billie Burke) and Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) sitting down to breakfast. Wilkins, the butler (Alan Mowbray), in the background.
(And, yes, she is Glinda the Good Witch.)

It’s been decades since I’ve seen it, but I don’t recall there being other ghosts than George and Marion (let alone a ghost dog). My memory for those kinds of details is all but non-existent, though. It’s a fun movie, a classic. It was fun to read the book again.

§ §

I was using the app to scan my library’s Recently Added list when something about one book caught my eye. Don’t think it wasn’t the title or cover, since I’d never seen it before. Astonishing as this seems to me, it’s possible it was the author’s name.

Astonishing, firstly because I’m terrible with details like names (or dates), and secondly because I haven’t read either of my two Barry Hughart books in many, many years.

Whatever it was, it caused me to open the book’s description, which mentioned Master Li and Number Ten Ox. That rang a very loud bell. The book, Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1990), was listed as #3 of a series, and I was sure I recognized the two shown as #1 and #2.

I went and checked my library. Sure enough, there were the first two books, Bridge of Birds (1984) and The Story of the Stone (1988).

As just mentioned, I’d never read the third book (or even knew it existed, to be honest), so it was a nice find. I decided to re-read the first two before reading this one.

Hughart (who died at age 85 in 2019) only ever published those three books. Bridge of Birds won awards and was highly regarded by those who encountered it. After re-reading it, I would say rightfully so. In context and style, it’s a fantasy magic story that takes place in “an ancient China that never was.” In plot, it’s a detective story, a murder mystery.

The main character is old Master Li Kao, whose self-introduction always includes “and I have a slight flaw in my character.” He’s old enough to fondly recall his 90s, but he’s spry and active, perhaps because of all the wine he consumes. Number Ten Ox (so named because he’s huge and strong) is Master Li’s assistant, the narrator, and supposed documenter of the tale.

In other words, once again, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as, respectively, a notorious but brilliant Chinese scholar and a Chinese peasant with unrivaled muscles. In an ancient magical China that never was. I’ve always considered that first book as a special taste treat, something quite different from the usual fantasy stories.

The Story of the Stone is… more of the same. A new mystery, a new plot, but the context is so strongly stylized that it’s like putting new words to the same melody. My memory didn’t flag how I reacted to it back in 1988, but it’s possible I never bought book #3 because I lost interest.

Or never saw it in the bookstore; I get the impression the later books didn’t sell well.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen was another verse to the same tune. To be honest, I’m not sorry this one never joined my collection.

The plots are all fun and interesting enough, but the second two just didn’t grab like the first one because they were just extensions of it. (Reminds me of the band, Boston.)

According to his Wiki page, Hughart blames incompetent publishers, but having read all three books in succession, I think the truth might be that he was just a one-hit wonder.

§ §

Apple eBooks offers a large series of MEGAPACK books — meaty collections of short stories, novellas, and even short novels. They come in a variety of genres, and I’ve bought several science fiction ones. They’re usually dirt cheap and a pretty good value.

Last week I started working my way through The Second Science Fiction MEGAPACK. The second story in the collection is The Marching Morons (1951) by C.M. Kornbluth! I finally got to read the source text for the movie Idiocracy.

When I posted about the movie, I wrote it “takes its central premise from” the story. Other than that central premise (that in the future humans will be unbelievably stupid because the stupid breed more children) the plot of the movie is rather different from the short story.

There’s no Maya Rudolph role, for instance, and the male character from “our time” is a smart and shifty real estate developer, not the dumbest soldier in the army (but a genius in the future).

What’s a really funny difference is that, with his help, Earth solves its problem by adapting the B-Ark idea from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They convince millions of people to buy land. On Venus. (But they don’t have rockets that actually work, so… do the math on that.)

Another difference is that, in the story, smart people realized what was happening and formed a cabal of the highly intelligent. But rather than ruling the world from on high, they’re stuck with making everything work and never get a chance to rest or pursue their own interests.

§ §

Terry Pratchett and Discworld showed up in the two previous posts, and here they are again. There is a series of Discworld-themed science books co-authored by Terry Pratchett, mathematician Ian Stewart, and scientist Jack Cohen:

  1. The Science of Discworld
  2. The Science of Discworld II: The Globe
  3. The Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch
  4. The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day

Courtesy of my local library, I’ve read the first two. Each consisted of chapters alternating between a Discworld tale (I assume written by Pratchett) and Stewart and Cohen writing about science (keying off what happened in the previous chapter).

Note that these books are not, as is sometimes the case, examining the science (or magic) of the fictional reality. The science is about our world, our reality. The Discworld stuff is just a clever framing for fans to enjoy.

The books explore different topics. The first is about the origins of the universe, of the Solar system, of life, and of humanity, although that last bit happens quickly (and is expanded upon in the later books).

The second focuses on the importance of story (a topic dear to my heart). “The Globe” in the title refers to both the Earth and the famous theatre.

The third and fourth, according to Wikipedia, deal with evolution and belief, respectively.

The Discworld story continues from the first book to the second (and I assume to the rest). The Wizards at the Unseen University have decided to create a non-magical universe (because, why not). They’re surprised to find that, in the absence of magic, narrativium, and other important elements, this new universe seems to run on its own logic. They discover, for instance, that stuff tends to clump into balls, which is unexpected for people living on a flat world.

I enjoyed these okay (just okay). It was fun to read a new Discworld story, but most of the science stuff was familiar territory, which made me tend to skim. Some interesting bits, though. Enough to keep me skimming for more.

I will say there probably isn’t much value in these if you’re not already a fan of Discworld. There’s a strong presumption you already know the characters and context.

§ §

Apple eBooks have featured twice in this post. Here’s a third:

I found a version of Island (1962), by Aldous Huxley, for $0.99. They have another version that was, like, $14.99 or something. Makes me wonder if the copy I bought is okay, but it appears to be.

I just finished reading the library book, so it’ll be a while before I re-read it, but this time I can highlight parts. (I can highlight library book text, of course, but when I return the book, they go away.)

Stay off the B-Ark, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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