What if our pleasure in life is wallowing in the minutiae of our favorite subject? I follow a lot of YouTubers and most of their channels are about going deeper and deeper into a beloved special interest. When we are young we pursue pleasures of the flesh, but as we get older we follow our Alice of interest down a rabbit hole. This lets us find our true tribe, our people.
I feel like I’m among a few survivors of a tribe that is dying out. I lament that our culture and language are disappearing. My tribe is those beings who grew up reading science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. I know that tribe was never very large and that all the various tribes of pop culture eventually fade from the collective memory of the present. But this sense of passing is why I find myself enjoying recursive science fiction so much now. Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction, and quite often it remembers the genre’s past. And to enjoy such stories requires either a direct experience of the past or a good education about that past.
One of the funniest recursive science fiction stories I’ve ever read is one that seems to parody/remember more of the genre than any other recursive science fiction story I’ve read. The story is “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden (Eric Pelletier 1899-1979). Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since this story has been reprinted, meaning if you want to legally read it, it will require tracking down a used copy of F&SF for September 1980, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction 24th Series edited by Edward L. Ferman in 1982, or Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. If you have a free account with the Internet Archive you can check out The Best of F&SF 24th for one hour. Since this story hasn’t been reprinted in 30 years, and its author has been dead for 43 years, I hope their heirs won’t mind me offering you a pdf copy. (If you do, let me know and I’ll take it down, but I doubt if six people will read it.)
Of course, not everyone will find this story funny or meaningful. It depends on you knowing a good deal about the genre’s history. I thought I’d review the story by providing links to the pertinent bits of history that knowing will let the reader appreciate the story.
The story is an exchange of letters between Oginga Nkabele, a young man from Africa studying in America, and Edward L. Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Nkabele, from the tribe of Diolas in Senegal, Africa, was educated by French and Belgian missionaries who he refers to as the Holy Ghost Fathers. One of his teachers, Father Devlin brought three steamer trunks containing over five hundred pulp science fiction magazines from 1936-1952. Nkabele has read these magazines so thoroughly that he’s even memorized some of his favorite stories. Nkabele feels he’s an expert on science fiction and decides to become a rich science fiction writer while in America.
Unfortunately, the stories he submits to Ed Ferman are modeled on the writing styles that were heavily criticized for bad writing when they were new and are now so out of fashion as to be glaringly awful. Ferman is appalled by Nkabele’s stories and rejects them immediately. Nkabele feels the rejection letter is a mistake and keeps pestering Ferman with more letters. In fact, he never accepts any rejection and keeps trying to convince Ferman his stories are brilliant and will make him famous and promises they’ll help sell more copies of F&SF.
Through the exchange of letters, two fun plots emerged. One is a horror tale for SF magazine editors which is hilarious if you’re not an editor, and the other is about how the genre has changed drastically from its past which is still wistfully nostalgic for some.
First, it’s important to know the magazines Nkabele admires. It’s notable that Father Devlin did not subscribe to Astounding Science-Fiction, the magazine revered until recent decades (another irony of this tale). Nkabele’s favorites are:
- Amazing Stories
- Famous Fantastic Mysteries
- Planet Stories
- Startling Stories
- Super Science Stories
- Thrilling Wonder Stories
Nkabele’s favorite writers are Richard Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but is also a fan of Robert Moore Williams, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Eric Frank Russell, P. Schuyler Miller, and Raymond Z. Gallum. Although not specific to this story, if you know about The Shaver Mystery you’ll have a sense of the kind of thinking fans of these magazines pursued.
Most telling of all is that Nkabele’s favorite editor is Raymond A. Palmer. That’s quite revealing. Young science fiction writers today want to erase the memory of John W. Campbell, but when I was growing up, science fiction fans wanted to forget Ray Palmer’s impact on the genre.
To understand Nkabele’s taste in science fiction, even more, is to know the names of the three stories he keeps submitting:
- “Astrid of the Asteroids”
- “Slime Slaves of G’Harn”
- “Ursula of Uranus”
The magazines Nkabele loved were the ones that appealed most to adolescents featuring exotic interplanetary adventure stories told in purple prose. The exact kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was fighting against in our Golden Age of Science Fiction. But Nkabele considers his science fiction the actual Golden Age of Science Fiction. Over the decades, different generations have defined their own Golden Age of Science Fiction. Youth always reject the past. Nkabele can’t fathom why Ferman is rejecting his Golden Age.
It helps to know a little about Edward L. Ferman since he’s a major character, but it’s very important to know about Harlan Ellison. Ferman panics and gives Nkabele Ellison’s address and phone number to get rid of him. Ferman tells Nkabele about Ellison’s legendary SF anthology Dangerous Visions. Now Harlan Ellison starts writing letters and Eric Norden parodies Ellison’s writing style in an over-the-top style that wasn’t far from Ellison’s own. They even rope in Isaac Asimov. Norden does a great job of making each letter writer sound like a distinct personality. Sometimes the epistolary caricatures aren’t so flattering and it’s a wonder Norden didn’t get sued by Ellison who was known for his litigious wrath.
It also helps to know about BEMs – Bug Eye Monsters – especially SF covers that showed BEMs running off with mostly naked Earth women. BEMs in SF anticipated the whole abductee theme of UFO fanatics. And Ray Palmer turned his SF magazines into UFO fanaticism.
Parodying science fiction has been around for a long time, and Norden mentions a classic, Venus on a Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a character in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. But I’ll have more to say about such other fun novels and stories soon.
I’m not sure how many current SF readers will enjoy “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden. Is the pop culture that it skewers too oldy moldy? I tend to think the people who will enjoy it most are the people of my tribe.
James Wallace Harris, 7/24/22