Monday, September 17, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles

When I was a child, among my favorite science fiction books were those of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. I adored these books more for their grand scope than for their central gimmick -- psychohistory -- which, even as a kid, I considered to be absurd. My only complaint about the series was that it ended prematurely. According to Asimov's original plan, the period between the fall of the first Galactic Empire and the establishment of a second would be a thousand years. The Foundation stories would chronicle the efforts of the eponymous organization to see that the second Empire occurred on schedule. Unfortunately, the stories ended about halfway through the millennium and I was left wanting more.

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.


  1. I remember I had a similar reaction with the last of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Gray mouser stories.

  2. Felt the same about the Foundation and Lankhmar stories.

    Later Foundation books were ok, but in my hazy memory seem to lack the grand vision of the first few.

    After fofcing myself to the end of a four book collection of Fafhrd and Mouser stories got rid of the last couple.

  3. I love funny and bit goofy names like Vixeela, they are sort of echoes of fantasy that was not grim and serious epics all the time.

  4. I see they are looking at publishing 1895-1933 scifi under a RADIUM AGE scifi label:

  5. "I adored these books more for their grand scope than for their central
    gimmick -- psychohistory -- which, even as a kid, I considered to be

    James, I am surprised that a lover and a scholar of history such as yourself has such a small regard toward "psychoistory", wich is the science-fiction version (so "fictional") of the only scientific and compehensive aproach to history study.

    Asimov was born russian, his parents fled from the revolution, but him, as a scientist, had admitted the superiority of the materialist approach to history.

    Psychohistory is the exaggerated (in terms of "quantity of considered elements") version of materialsm. Mine is not a political post. Is a "lover of history" post (...and sorry for my english...).

  6. It's worth remembering that Asimov hated writing the original Foundation stories for various reasons (at least beyond the first few). It's no surprise that he did not want to repeat the experience and as an older writer felt confident to treat the setting in a new way which he could live with at the typewriter.

  7. Dear James and Readers,

    It just might turn out that something resembling Asimov's psychohistory is not absurd after all!

    I have found a group that takes Asimov's "psychohistory"
    vision seriously enough to just possibly have actually developed it.
    Their version involves a progression of new systems
    of mathematics to express "the psychohistorical equations", and a derivation of seven "simultaneous" equations of psychohistory, for various
    facets of human social evolution, each of which can be iterated forward to make
    predictions about the future development of each facet.

    The group's websites are:

    The URL for the group's "psychohistorical dialectical equations" is --



  8. Eregion,

    I agree!

    There's even a group who may have claims to have derived a system of seven 'psychohistorical dialectical equations' --

  9. James,

    Something like Asimov's psychohistory may not be "absurd" after all.

    Indeed, something like Asimov’s psychohistory may have recently
    become a reality “here on Earth”: I have found a group that claims to
    have derived a system of seven psychohistorical equations, using a new
    mathematics that their founder, “Karl Seldon”, discovered, and that
    allegedly reconstruct humanity’s past on this planet, and that
    ‘pre-construct’ its future. See –

    – and which give the locations of their offices as “Stars’ End, NY” and “Terminious, CA.”