Three Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair

three_worldsThree Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair (1964)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was a mainstay of the major pulp magazines and maintained a prolific career from 1946 to the late 60s (between the 70s and early 80s she produced only one novel and a handful of stories). Previously, I found myself disenchanted with her work as I struggled through the Wicca-inspired ramblings of Sign of the Labrys (1963). However, I thought I would give her short fiction a try and snagged a copy of the 1964 Ace Double #M-105 that contained her collection Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) and her best known novel Message from the Eocene (1964).

Three Worlds of Futurity contains five stories from her most prolific period – the late 40s-early 60s. Although the majority do not rise above their fellow pulp ilk, ‘The Rages’ (variant title ‘The Rations of Tantalus’ 1954, revised 1964) shows a measured and incisive feminist inspired vision and the unusual subject matter of ‘Roberta’ (1962) suggests St. Clair’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects. Most of the stories contain evocative imagery although the delivery rarely transfixes. Also, although most of the main characters in St. Clair’s stories are men, women scientists and pilots (etc) populate the pages. I suspect one could make a case that her characters do not fit neatly into the pulp mode.

Somewhat recommended for fans of pulp (of which I am obviously not).

‘The Everlasting Food’ (1950): Published originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ‘The Everlasting Food’ is a mostly forgettable story with some intriguing, and turbulent imagery. Richard Dekker, Earth-born, employed as a oceanographer on Venus chooses a controversial surgery to save his native Venusian (an “almost-mytheical Sanedrin”) wife Pamir Dekker. The result is catastrophic for Pamir loses her “Seeing” ability. Of course, as is often the case with telepathy in pulp SF/F, the ability to the non-telepathic is beyond basic comprehension. Initially all seems well, Pamir smiles (an empty smile) but claims she no longer needs to eat. Soon Pamir runs away with their half-Venusian son. The story soon devolves into a chaotic quest to find the boy. Standard pulp fair with little to distinguish it from its dime-a-dozen Thrilling Wonder Stories brethren.

‘Idris’ Pig’ (variant title: ‘The Sacred Martian Pig’) (1949): Published originally in Startling Stories, ‘Idris’ Pig’ tells a comical story of a mostly immobile unusual pig-like creature with a rank smell… George, on his friend’s death bed, is bequeathed the object and the mission of its original courier: “he was greeted by a fishy smell and a feeble oink. Inside was a small blue animal, some twenty centimeters long, regarded him comatosely” (p 43). This creature with its comatose gaze soon embroils George in an elaborate plot involving Martian cults and general mayhem. Silly and outrageous, ‘Idris’ Pig’ is very much what you’d expect from a late 40s pulp story.

‘The Rages’ (variant title: ‘The Rations of Tantalus’) (1954): First published in Fantastic Universe, ‘The Rages’ is by far the best story in the collection. Although the premise is a standard one – future over-medicated world – St. Clair’s measured way telling, paranoid undercurrents, and human-centered vision make it worthwhile. Harvy and his wife Mara lead a chaste life – i.e. “they had lain side by side for nearly a thousand nights and, except for a handful of times in the first years of their marriage, nothing had ever happened” (p 76) – controlled by drugs. Harvy, addicted completely to euphoria pills, finds himself excited by his wife, not for her attractiveness, but as her “tunic was the exact shade” of his pills.

The state claims the euphoria pills are completely safe and necessary to prevent rages. However, lab experiments on rats and the mental state of city’s hostels occupants indicate the devastating damage caused by the “final rage”. Harvy spends his time fantasizing about increased allotments of pills however a sequence of events cause him to question their effects. Does he have the willpower to overcome his addiction or will he too turn into a twitching wreck on the hostel floor…

There’s more to ‘The Rages’ than the ubiquitous drugs are dangerous message. Drugs do not only create non-sexual states of pleasure that detached society from the importance of sex but are also used to prevent menstruation (and odor and sweat). Drugs are powerful means to control women. However, St. Clair is quick to point out that Harvy himself is the one who must be controlled, his eventual lusts almost cause him to rape another woman. ‘The Rages’ is the most trenchant of St. Clair’s pulp stories I have encountered. Recommended.

‘Roberta’ (1962): First published in Galaxy Magazine, ‘Roberta’ is a disturbing story of a man from Vega named Mr. Dlag who comes to Earth collect “imitation things”.

“That was what interested me most, you know, when I came to Earth – realizing how many Earth things were imitations. Insects that imitate other insects. Plants that imitate other plants. Plants that imitate plants. Plants that imitate rocks. And half your your artifacts imitate other things. It’s amazing. There are almost no imitation things on Needr, my home.” (p 116)

And the “imitation thing” in this case is Roberta, who used to be Robert. Mr. Dlag paid for Robert’s sex change so he could have her in his collection. And Roberta, who constantly talks her to her “male” predecessor, is compelled to kill the collector. Remember, this is the 1960s treatment of transgender topics… I am not sure whether this is a positive, or negative portrayal, or somewhere in-between. For example the above passage seems to indicate that such “imitations” (obviously not the word we would use today), although occurring in life do not replace the original state. But then again, St. Clair puts those words in the mouth of an alien. And, the story follows this format as Roberta talks constantly with Robert. As a story, the idea of a collector looking for a transgendered individual disturbs. I do not know what to make of it.

Recommended for scholars studying gender and transgender topics in SF.

‘The Island of the Hands’ (variant title: ‘Island of the Hands’) (1952): First published in Weird Tales, ‘The Island of the Hands’ is a story of obsession. Dirk compulsively searches for his wife, who disappeared while talking to him on the radio on her solo flight across an ocean. The search and rescue expedition encounters an island where a simulacrum of Dirk’s wife, with subtle differences, resides. Rather, the simulacrum is his projection of what he wished his wife looked like… All the characters are soon transfixed by the Island of Hands and its miraculous powers. But, will Dirk still be able to find his wife? A fun story, with some cool images, that moves in all the right directions.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St Clair

signofthelabrysSign of the Labrys, Margaret St Clair (1963)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Margaret St. Clair was one of a handful of prolific women SF authors who started publishing short fiction in the late 1940s – her first SF story was ‘Rocket to Limbo’ for the November 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s she published eight slim novels, mostly Ace Doubles (paired with authors such as Philip K Dick and Kenneth Bulmer). Regardless of her earlier publishing prowess – by the publication date of Sign of the Labrys she had four novels in print and somewhere around 125 short stories – Bantam Books felt the need to include the following back cover:

WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!

ORIGINAL! BRILLIANT!! DAZZLING!!!

Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel. Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel. Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites…

FRESH! IMAGINATIVE!! INVENTIVE!!!

Unfortunately, Sign of the Labrys is a disappointing read. The post-plague world is dark and creepy and for the first half an uncanny (palpable) tension permeates. But, ultimately the fantastic setting, revisionist stance on the normal pulp gender dynamics, are weakened by a disjointed (verging on amateur) narrative filled with Wiccan “craft” practices and references. As other reviewers have pointed out, one could easily substitute the Wicca magic with the pulp SF staple “psi-power” and I agree completely. I suspect Margaret St. Clair felt more comfortable with the short story form. Sign of the Labrys has all the same flaws as other works produced by short story writers who tried their hand at novels in the 1950s and 1960s (Robert Sheckley comes to mind). Individual scenes are transfixing but the transitions, characterizations, and thrust of the work all verge on inarticulate.

Vaguely recommended for fans of pulp science fiction.

Sign of the Labrys takes place in a bizarre world at indefinite point in the future wrecked by a serious of yeast plagues that afflicted both humans and plants: “When the yeast cells escaped from the scientists who had been working with them, and started the great plagues, it was not only the sorts that were deleterious to human beings that escaped. Our domestic animals died too – the mortality was even higher among them – and our food plants too were affected” (p 8).

In a world where “nine-tenths” of the population was wiped out, either accidentally or purposefully to prevent a nuclear war (this is never entirely clear), a strange society develops. As if a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, the remaining individuals retreat into isolation: our main character, Mr Sewell ruminates, “it is odd how much we dislike contact with each other nowadays” (p 1). Large swathes of the country, in fear of nuclear war, had been fitted with massive underground complexes stocked with huge stores of food meant for survivors. Instead, survivors of the plague often wander the subterranean depths (the surface contains little living matter) consuming whatever canned food pillaged from the stores they wish. A few work at “jobs” whose sole purpose is to keep people occupied: disposing the dead bodies or moving boxes from one end of a warehouse to the other and back. Mushrooms harvested from moist clefts in the artificial cave walls, not afflicted by the yeast plagues, provide the sole “fresh food.”

On some of the levels of the underground complexes contain societies of VIPs who had retreated to their shelters early. They have deluded themselves into believing that the enemy released the diseases and that there is a war going on the surface. Due to the side-effects of the plague, revulsion for your common man, the VIPs pop pills and while away there days gambling and indulging in sexual experimentation. While on other levels scientists, who live mostly in isolation, still experiment on the surviving lab rats.

It is into this doomed world that Mr Sewell lives must find his way. He lives near the surface. Occasionally he works burying the bodies or moving boxes – he derives most of his enjoyment from harvesting mushrooms. His life is transformed when a member of the skeleton governmental body, the FBY, approaches his living space in the fallout shelter and asks if he knows a woman by the name of Despoina. She is supposedly a witch, or perhaps a sower of a particularly virulent strain of the yeast plague. FBY’s interest is nebulous and unclear. Soon Mr Sewell starts to believe that Despoina might be real – especially after he finds a mysterious ring, and the sign of the Labrys carved in his favorite mushroom hunting area.

He is swept into a quest downward towards the deepest levels of the fallout shelter. Women move in and out of the narrative who seem to always know slightly more than he does. Margaret St. Clair purposefully recasts the standard pulp narrative. Mr. Sewell is not the “I need to change the world” proactive hero, rather he is desperately naive and needs everyone else’s assistance figuring out his part in the puzzle. The women scientists he encounters, Despoina herself, are the real forces who know what is happening in the world and have a plan to try to fix things. Soon Sewell realizes that his quest that mirrors a Wiccan ritual of initiation. But what is his role? And what will happen after the initiation?

“We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world. But we cannot be content with a bad world” (p 94). And Despoina has a plan…

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Change the Sky and Other Stories, Margaret St Clair

changetheskyChange the Sky and Other Stories, Margaret St Clair (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

Name a male science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s not a difficult task: most of the big names were writing then – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, EE Doc Smith… Not to mention a host of others. Now name a female science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s much harder. Le Guin wasn’t published until the 1960s. There was Andre Norton, who was first published in the 1940s. Likewise for Leigh Brackett. And Joanna Russ, whose first story saw print in 1959. But what about a woman described as a “renowned author” with “a long and distinguished career in the science fiction field”? Renowned authors do not, as a general rule, get written out of genre history, but these days Margaret St Clair is virtually forgotten. None of her novels are acknowledged as “classics”, though some might know of her 1963 novel, Sign of the Labrys. She was neither nominated for, nor won, any awards. And it took over a decade for some of her stories from the 1950s to be collected.

Change the Sky and Other Stories contains eighteen stories originally published between 1951 and 1961. They appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy Magazine, Startling Stories, Future and The Science Fiction Quarterly – all major sf magazine titles. According to isfdb.com, she was hugely prolific – I count nearly 80 stories published during the 1950s alone. It seems astonishing that an author with that level of output, published in major magazines, should pretty much disappear from the history of the genre. Judging from the stories collected in Change the Sky, her obscurity is not due to the quality of her fiction. While few stand out especially, they are no better and no worse than what was published at the time – and, in some cases, are a good deal more interesting than was typical for the period.

The title story, ‘Change the Sky’ (1955), shows a frequent 1950s sf penchant for unsupported premises. A man who is told he can no longer travel between planets approaches an artist and asks him to build him his perfect virtual world. He will see out the rest of his days in it. Though the concept of virtual worlds is surprisingly prescient – here they appear to operate more by magical technology than computer science – the end of the story is somewhat predictable and banal.

‘Beaulieu’ (1957) is an old story, recast in the colours of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse or Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief. A woman picks up a man in her green sports car and offers to take him to the eponymous place. It’s a fantasy locale of his, and St Clair drops a few leaden hints than the woman is a Valkyrie; but the atmosphere of the story is more interesting than its plot.

‘Marriage Manual’ (1954), on the other hand, is a piece of 1950s sf silliness. It’s not about a “marriage manual” of course; it’s about a sex manual. In this case, the manual belongs to the alien dorff, who apparently love to boast of their “erotic possibilities”. Somehow, their means of sex requires an energy source that human beings want in order to power their worlds. But the dorff won’t give up a copy of their marriage manual. At least, they won’t until Bill disappears, and George discovers he has undergone a transformation into a female dorff…

Surprisingly, ‘Age of Prophecy’ (1951) is quite a nasty piece. In a post-apocalyptic California, various prophets have formed religious groups, which operate like small independent states. Unlike the other prophets, however, Benjamin has real powers. He is manipulated by Torbit into founding his own religious group, and later into attacking a redoubt of hated scientists in Pasadena. But the attack goes wrong, and Benjamin learns who his true friends are. There’s a level of biting cynicism and anti-religious feeling to this story that is surprising given the time it was written.

‘Then Fly Our Greetings’ (1951) is another post-apocalypse story, but in this story a device which causes humans to hate the presence of others is co-opted by the military and used… but backfires. Global society crashes, but something new eventually forms in its place. It’s not an especially convincing premise, and made worse by the attempts to explain it.

The most recent collected story in the book is ‘An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas’ (1961). A reverend begins a campaign to return to the old non-commercialised Christmases of yore, without all the neon lights and fancy illuminations. This draws the ire of PE&G, and their secret masters “on the far side of 3,000 A.D.”, so they send one of their agents to neutralise the reverend. But she falls in love with him, and the two of them end up battling the magic of PE&G for survival. A bizarre mix of sf and fantasy, it first appeared, unsurprisingly, in the December issue of Galaxy Magazine. It was later republished in 1994 in an anthology of Christmas genre stories edited by David G Hartwell, Christmas Magic.

One of the more unsettling stories in Change the Sky is ‘Stawdust’ (1956), and it’s unsettling because it makes little real sense. Aboard a starship – which is pretty much in all respects like an ocean liner – passengers and members of the crew have been transforming into stuffed dummies. Miss Abernathy is clearly responsible for it, but she does not how she is doing it or why. And neither does the reader. These days we’d likely describe ‘Stawdust’ as a mood-piece.

‘Thirsty God’ (1953) is a typical 1950s sf “little tailor” story. A human on Venus hides from some angry “plunp” in a shrine, knowing they will not violate it. But the god within the shrine is real, and the human is changed by the encounter.

There are many stories in science fiction like ‘The Altruists’ (1953). The “slurb” are so eager to please that their world is a paradise for human visitors. But one human has an entirely different experience and discovers the cause of their altruism. His paradise becomes a prison.

‘Shore Leave’ (1974) is another piece of sf silliness. A ship lands on a planet and its alien crew rush out to experience sex with the natives. The aliens are metamorphs and can adopt the shape of their sexual partners. When they return, they discover they each experienced something completely different – different types of partners, different types of sex; and this is anathema to them as they abhor diversity and worship Sameness. It’s not difficult to figure out that the aliens have landed on Earth, and that they are extremely small and their native sexual partners were insects. ‘Shore Leave’ is original to Change the Sky, which no doubt explains its topic – it’s unlikely such a story would have seen print during the 1950s.

In ‘The Wines of Earth’ (1957), a Californian vintner is approached by a quartet of strange visitors, who readily admit to being tourists from another world. They are interested in Earth’s wine, but the best he can offer them in no way compares  to the best they make themselves. There’s a nicely elegiac tone to the story.

‘Asking’ (1955) is one of the collection’s odder pieces. A female robot – and one of only two female protagonists in the entire collection – approaches a robot mechanic for repair. But the mechanic quickly discovers she is human – which she had not known herself. Later, she returns – and she has adopted all the arrogance of the humans over their robot servants. She has been looking for answers to the questions posed by the human who had told her she was a robot. So the mechanic offers her some moonshine… This is one of two stories in Change the Sky in which the answer to the human question is found in a bottle of grain alcohol.

Perhaps the most successful story in the collection is ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1959). Bloom’s Sportsman’s Emporium remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is because there is a creature of darkness hiding in the cellar, and whoever takes the graveyard shift must be eternally vigilant in order to prevent its escape. The story first introduces a few typical customers of the Emporium, and suggests there is something slightly magical about the goods they buy – even going so far as to present a customer who confuses the word “wyvern” for “werewolf”. Another customer is described as “Under the coat, he surmised, she would be spindle-shanked, heavy-breasted and knobby-kneed, with her shoulder gnawed and eroded by the constant tug of shoulder straps”. I’m pretty sure no male writer would ever use the latter half of that description.

A number of the stories in Change the Sky are almost ahead of their time in the way they cross genres. Though presented as science fiction, they happily mix outright fantasy, or present a more slipstream aspect. ‘Fort Iron’ (1955) is the latter. In a desert somewhere, a young officer is assigned as adjutant to the eponymous fort. Everything is slack and lackadaisical, and when he tries to inject some discipline and effect some repairs to the crumbling fort, it has unforeseen consequences. The fort is under attack, slow attack, but by what, and how, is never explained. In many respects, ‘Iron Fort’ would not feel wholly out-of-place in a twenty-first century anthology.

‘The Goddess on the Street Corner’ (1953) is about precisely that. A down-and-out finds Aphrodite living rough on the street and takes her home to look after and worship her. The brandy she needs, however, costs much more than the cheap sherry he normally drinks, and eventually he has to pretend Aphrodite’s faded powers are returning and affecting his life. Few genre stories deal with poverty, and while this one feels in parts a little Capra-esque, it treats its subjects with sensitivity.

Another piece of 1950s sf silliness is ‘An Egg a Month from All Over’ (1952). A man collects eggs and hatches them. They’re delivered to him by post by the Egg-A-Month Club from all over the inhabited galaxy. An egg belonging to a mnxx bird is sent to him, the club mistakenly believing it to belong to a chu lizard. It hatches with fatal consequences. The ending is done well, but the central premise is so daft it robs it of any impact.

‘The Death of Each Day’ (1958) is a science fiction staple: the war is over but everyone continues to fight because they’ve forgotten how to stop. In this particular case, that’s because they’re tranquilised every night and wake up believing the decade-long war has only been running for a day. And that the now-vanquished enemy is still out there to be attacked. But Miriam was wounded, and she’s no longer on the drugs, and when Dick goes to visit her in the hospital – which is suspiciously deserted – she persuades him of the truth.

The final story, ‘Lazarus’ (1955), has a group of journalists being given a guided tour of the JuiciMeat factory, which manufactures cultured beef, pork and veal. They grow each product in rotation in a single giant vat, which starts making strange burbling and thumping noises as the journalists are shown around. Then something strange, and not especially plausible, happens…

It seems strange that an author as prolific as St Clair should now be so obscure. Perhaps she never wrote a novel which captured readers’ fancy to the same extent as some of her contemporaries, but her frequent presence in the magazines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s should at least have given her name some longevity. Admittedly, she did not hide behind a male or gender-neutral pseudonym, but neither did she write genre fiction that might perhaps have made male readers of the time uncomfortable. Of the eighteen stories in Change the Sky, only two have a female protagonists, though most feature women – well-drawn women, usually with agency – in secondary roles. The female customer in ‘Graveyard Shift’ may be subjected to the night clerk’s male gaze, but the details are not typically those a male writer would think to use. Miriam in ‘The Death of Each Day’ is dying of radiation poisoning but she pushes Dick to break free of the drug-induced lie in which he is living. Mazda, the PE&G agent who marries the reverend in ‘An Old Fashioned Bird Christmas’, is the one with the knowledge and the power that drives the story.

Change the Sky is very much a collection of 1950s science fiction stories. Most of them are based on outdated premises, or use a style of storytelling no longer in vogue. They are historical documents for the most part, but they’re more interesting than many other historical documents of the same period. St Clair may have been hugely prolific, but she had a good eye for detail. While many of the stories are somewhat forgettable, one or two do deserve a longer shelf-life than they seem to have been given.

Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Clair

Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Clair (1963)
Review by Martin Wisse

The back cover blurb on this book has to be seen to be believed:

Women are writing science-fiction!
Original!Brilliant!!Dazzling!!!
Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel.

Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel. Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites…
Fresh!Imaginative!!Inventive!!!

I mean, really. It wasn’t even as if women sf writers where that uncommon when Sign of the Labrys was published: Leigh Brackett, CL Moore, Katherine MacLean, Zenna Henderson, Judith Merril and Andre Norton, to name just a few, all wrote before 1963. Margaret St. Clair herself had debuted in 1946 and written quite a few short stories, as well as several novels before Sign of the Labrys. Still, the blurb did what it was supposed to do: got me to buy this novel and read it.

It is not even half as lurid as the blurb made it out to be. Sign of the Labrys is in fact a solid old-fashioned science fiction story. It’s pretty well written, better than the standard of the time. Most pre-New Wave science fiction writing is somewhat bland: the writing is there only to further the plot or to show off as efficiently as possible the neat idea the writer has thought of. In contrast, St Clair’s writing is almost lyrical in places, a pleasure to read. She has also spend enough time on characterisation to make her protagonist come to life.

Her protagonist, Sam Sewell lives in a post-apocalyptic world, a world where horrific yeast-based diseases have killed off most people. These diseases either escaped or were deliberately released from a military laboratory as an alternative to global nuclear war. Needless to say this has traumatised Sam, as it has most survivors. People avoid each other, are emotionally stunted and shell-shocked. This in contrast to far too many post-apocalyptic stories, where the survivors are either having a whale of a time playing with all the neat goodies left behind after the disaster or are busy creating the perfect new world on the smoking ruins of the old…

The plot starts one day when Sam is contacted by an agent of the FBY, the Federal Bureau of Yeast, who wants to know about the woman he is supposed to live with, one Despoina, who is suspected of being a Sower, someone who deliberately releases deadly neurolyic strains of yeast, a “blind massmurderer”. Sam is puzzled and upset by this request, as he can barely tolerate other people and certainly doesn’t live together with anyone…

From this moment on Sam’s world gets gradually stranger, as he is driven to go on a quest to find Despoina and so learn the truth of his world. To do so he literally has to go deep underground in search of buried secrets…

Despoina in the meanwhile is not quite what the FBY agent told Sam. Sam soon learns she is a Witch, though not the sort of witch Sam first thinks of, the stereotypical old hag who rides a broomstick. What she is, is what we now would call Wiccan, something that the title of the novel hints of already. A Labrys is a double headed ritual axe, as used in Minoan religious rites in ancient Greece and later adopted by neopagans. Sam Sewell, as you may guess, has to be initiated into Witchhood and Despoina is the person who has to lead him to the Craft. Witches have of course superhuman powers and they need Sam to help better the world. Their opponents being the FBY, who are busy trying to establish a dictatorship.

The infusion of what at first seemed a fairly standard science fiction story with a dose of Wicca worked pretty well. If necessary, you can ignore all the Wicca mumbo-jumbo and just think of it as psionics. In short, quite an interesting little novel which doesn’t deserve its main claim to fame being the ludicrous backcover blurb.