In 1982, about three decades after the end of the series, Isaac Asimov returned to the universe of Foundation by penning a new novel, Foundation's Edge. I was immensely pleased by this turn of events and read the book with great relish -- that is, until I realized that this wasn't at all like the Foundation stories I'd loved. I suppose it was inevitable that, after so many years, Asimov would have changed as a writer. Foundation's Edge was thus the product of an older, different man than the ones that he'd written back in the late '40s and early '50s. As science fiction goes, Foundation's Edge isn't a bad book, I suppose, but it's not the kind of sci-fi I was looking for in 1982; what I wanted was more of the stuff Asimov had written years before. To my way of thinking, Asimov had forgotten what made the original Foundation stories so fun and that disappointed me.
I bring all this up because Clark Ashton Smith's "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" reminds me a lot of Foundation's Edge. Set in his prehistoric continent of Hyperborea, the story was first published in the March 1958 issue of Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy. Prior to this, the last Hyperborean tale appeared in 1933 -- a span even longer than the time between the last Foundation story and Foundation's Edge. It's not a bad fantasy tale; indeed there is much to recommend it. Yet, it lacks, for me anyway, a certain something present in Smith's other Hyperborean tales and, a result, I find it less satisfying than its predecessors.
The short story is a first-person account by the comic rogue Satampra Zeiros, previously seen in "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," who begins this story thusly:
Let it be said as a foreword to this tale that I have robbed no man who was not in some way a robber of others. In all my long and arduous career, I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, sometimes known as the master-thief, have endeavored to serve merely as an agent in the rightful redistribution of wealth. The adventure I have now to relate was no exception: though, as it happened in the outcome, my own pecuniary profits were indeed meager, not to say trifling.It's a solid opening paragraph, one that succinctly introduces the character of the narrator and the reliability of his narrative. Satampra Zeiros then lays out the broad details of the adventure of which he spoke.
Often I think of Vixeela, my one true love and the most adroit and courageous of my companions in burglary. She has long since gone to the bourn of all good thieves and comrades; and I have mourned her sincerely these many years. But still dear is the memory of our amorous or adventurous nights and the feats we performed together. Of such feats, perhaps the most signal and audacious was the theft of the thirty-nine girdles.
These were the golden and jeweled chastity girdles, worn by the virgins vowed to the moon god Leniqua, whose temple had stood from immemorial time in the suburbs of Uzuldaroum, capital of Hyperborea. The virgins were always thirty-nine in number. They were chosen for their youth and beauty, and retired from service to the god at the age of thirty-one.
The girdles were padlocked with the toughest bronze and their keys retained by the high-priest who, on certain nights, rented them at a high price to the richer gallants of the city. It will thus be seen that the virginity of the priestesses was nominal; but its frequent and repeated sale was regarded as a meritorious act of sacrifice to the god.Again, this is good stuff, filled with the kind of mordant exoticism that one expects from Smith. It's a good set-up for what any regular reader of the man would expect to be a whimsical fantasy filled with black humor.
That's not what we get, though. Instead, "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" reads almost like mundane crime fiction, albeit set in an unusual locale. The writing often crackles with wit, yes, but gone are the wry insights into the human condition. Gone, too, are instances of magic, monsters, or fantasy of any kind. It feels almost as if Smith's heart wasn't in it anymore -- or, perhaps, he'd forgotten what it was that made the original Hyperborean stories so enjoyable.
I can't blame him for that, since the Hyperborean stories had a troubled publishing history, rejected again and again and rarely cited by fans as being their favorites of Smith's work. It's possible that, years later, when he returned to the setting he decided to "fix" the problems of his earlier work by penning a more "grounded" tale, lacking in the weirdness and whimsy of his previous efforts. Such a pity.