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It’s OK to Just Have Fun: War-Nymphs of Venus by Ray Cummings


It’s OK to Just Have Fun: War-Nymphs of Venus by Ray Cummings

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It’s OK to Just Have Fun: War-Nymphs of Venus by Ray Cummings


Published on October 11, 2022


In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Science fiction is always changing, and early on the genre saw a major shift away from lurid tales of pulpy space adventure. Ray Cummings was a major voice in those early pulp days of the 1920s and 1930s, and though critics may have seen him as left behind by the changing field, he kept writing stories throughout the 1940s for a magazine called Planet Stories. This was exciting stuff: stories of murder aboard spaceliners, space pirates, people abducted by aliens, and prospectors on other planets finding more than just minerals. Cummings’ stories may have been old-fashioned and a bit repetitive, but they sure were fun. And now they have been collected in an anthology named after the best tale in the book, the luridly titled “War-Nymphs of Venus.”

I found War-Nymphs of Venus in an internet search after reading and enjoying Cummings’ Brigands of the Moon, promptly put it on my wish list and forgot about it. That Christmas, however, it appeared under the tree. I was surprised my wife would buy something with such a lurid title, but she said simply, “I thought it would make you happy.” The book is a nice, professionally assembled trade paperback, released by an outfit called Black Dog Books, and editor Gene Christie deserves credit for putting out a reprint anthology that is very well laid out and error free.

The stories in the anthology all appeared in Planet Stories magazine between the years of 1940 and 1948. This period of Ray Cummings’ career is described in an article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by saying, “he was never capable of adapting himself to the changing times, either scientifically or stylistically.” And there is truth to that. But the statement dismisses the fact that he was very good at writing fast-paced adventure tales—and Planet Stories magazine was a perfect venue for such tales.


About the Author

Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was an American science fiction writer, a major contributor in the early days of the field. He had worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison for several years, which gave him credibility on scientific issues. His early work “The Girl in the Golden Atom,” published in 1919, was a story about a man shrinking himself down to find a civilization (and a beautiful girl) living on an atomic particle. It put Cummings on the map, and he recycled that idea many times during his career (including for Marvel Comics, thus making him the father of the “Quantum Realm” featured in the recent Ant-Man movies). I reviewed his space pirate adventure Brigands of the Moon here, and you can find more biographical information there. Quite a few of Cummings’ stories and novels are available to read for free on Project Gutenberg, including “War-Nymphs of Venus” and other tales.


Following the Critics

As a young boy reading Analog in the mid-1960s, it was clear to my young mind from reading John Campbell’s editorials that science fiction had reached its perfect form in the pages of his magazine. The primitive adventures of the past, the days of pulp magazines and scientifiction, had been cast aside, and his authors were now producing the perfect blend of science and storytelling. Of course, as I got a little older, and read more widely from different sources, I found the science fiction field was not quite so cut and dried. By the 1960s, many authors felt the genre was getting stale, and in a movement called the New Wave, were beginning to experiment with new storytelling techniques and sensibilities. They felt their more modern efforts were superior to the stodgy tales found in Analog. There was a good bit of animosity displayed by the old timers toward the newcomers, and vice versa.

And every few years, something came along that critics and fans dubbed the next big thing; new styles, new themes, or new ideas. New subgenres of science fiction and fantasy emerged. And there was always an argument about which was best, the new or the old. In my young adulthood, I tried to keep up with the trends, reading what the various critics told me was the best of the field. But eventually I realized that I shouldn’t put so much stock in what other people thought. After all, I had been discouraged from reading older stuff by folks like Campbell, but after being exposed to it, wish I hadn’t listened. The old stuff was fun. I liked space opera and planetary adventure, and didn’t always need rigorous science in my fiction. In fact, one good thing the movie Star Wars brought to the field was the idea that space opera and planetary romance were cool again. So now, I read what I like whether it’s new or old, and don’t pay as much attention to buzz about what the latest thing might be.


War-Nymphs of Venus

There are certain features to the typical Cummings story that I may as well address up front rather than call it out each time it occurs. His scientific ideas were heavily rooted in concepts that were fashionable early in his career, including the idea that modifying magnetic fields could be a key to antigravity and reactionless space drives. His space suits and ships were described as having two layers or hulls with an electrical field between them to keep the vacuum from interacting with the atmosphere, a peculiar notion. A fair number of his adventures involve small and uncharted planetoids, about 500 or 600 miles in diameter, as yet undetected, but with earthlike mass, which would give them earth-normal gravity and the ability to hold an earthlike atmosphere. This doesn’t make sense, as even a small object with that kind of mass could be detected based on its impact on the orbits of other bodies.

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He also held to the idea, common in the days of planetary romance, that Earth-like climates would prevail throughout the solar system, ranging from Sahara-like heat on inner planets to Arctic-like conditions on the outer planets. Cummings saw similar biology extending throughout the solar system, with human or human-like intelligent life everywhere, and some species able to interbreed with humans. When he speculated on unusual life forms, they were often fanciful in nature. And the stories have a streak of colonialism to them. His characters felt they had a right to take anything they want, anywhere they discovered it, and native species were often portrayed as primitive and superstitious. Following pulp conventions, Cummings always featured male protagonists in his work, and female characters were love interests, although to give him credit, the women were often interesting characters in their own right, and seldom play passive roles.

The book opens with a nice introduction by Tom Roberts which gives a history of Planet Stories magazine. It also cleared up a mystery for me, explaining why stories from that magazine were copyrighted by the “Love Romances Publishing Company.” It turns out the publishers were saving money by using legal paperwork from another defunct magazine.

In the first story, “Monster of the Asteroid,” a young man and his girlfriend are kidnapped by a mysterious “Physical,” a humanoid serving as a living extension of a creature called the “The Supreme One.” This being lives on one of Cummings’ small planetoids, and is kidnapping Earthlings, Martians, and Venusians to breed improved servants. But the Supreme One doesn’t anticipate the tenacity and cleverness of these captured people. The ensuing carnage is horrifying, but our plucky couple is able to escape back to Earth.

“Phantom of the Seven Stars” is a mystery aboard the space liner Seven Stars. There is a mysterious “Phantom of the Starways” leaving ships adrift and full of bodies. Our hero is an intrepid young Interplanetary Patrol (IP) officer who by the end of the second paragraph is already attracted to a pretty young passenger. The plot of this tale is very similar to Cummings’ earlier novel Brigands on the Moon. The beautiful woman has a brother and father who may be space pirates, and much of the action takes place near the mysterious Asteroid 9, another typical Cummings planetoid. There are lots of twists and turns, desperate fights, and at one point, a long fall in a spacesuit down to the surface of the planetoid. The pirates have an innovative cloaking device and new ray beams, but despite their technology, they are no match for the determined young IP officer.

“The Man Who Killed the Earth” is an anomaly in the collection, a gloomy short story about rich and evil man who doesn’t want anyone to be happier than him. He is so twisted he decides to eliminate humanity, only to find the accomplishment doesn’t satisfy him.

The next story, “The Girl from Infinite Smallness,” is a story like the one that put Cummings on the map early in his career, “The Girl in the Golden Atom.” A young man shrinks down to a tiny world the size of an atom, finds a woman to fall in love with, and helps her people fight off evil revolutionaries.

“Revolt of the Ice Empire” is another story set on one of those tiny planetoids, this one a frozen mass called Zura. John Taine, a plucky young prospector, is looking for xalite, an element that makes atomic engines possible. He finds a race of primitive natives, ruled by a beautiful young woman. It turns out she is the daughter of a human explorer long ago lost in space. There is a traitor aboard Taine’s ship, but he is able not only to prevail, but win the heart of the ice queen.

“Space-Liner X-87” is another adventure aboard a space liner, this one delivering a precious substance to the moon. In this story, Cummings introduces the Shadow Squad, an organization of undercover agents that enforces laws throughout the solar system. The Shadow Squad uses the initials SS, an unfortunate choice, as the Nazis would soon forever taint those initials. This story recycles a lot of ideas from Brigands of the Moon. Again, we have a resourceful young agent who finds time not only to defeat revolutionaries aboard the liner, but to fall in love with a beautiful young woman along the way.

In “The Star-Master,” an alien woman from Venus, Venta, comes to Earth for help, and runs across two deer hunters, one of who fortunately happens to be a Shadow Squad agent. All three of them are then captured by tiny humanoids and taken to Venus, which was in the process of being conquered by an evil Earthman with a secret rocket program, a bitter man from a Central European country conquered by the Anglo-American Federation (the story, written during World War II, predicts the victory of the Allies). There are all sorts of strange variations of humanoids on Venus, which makes the battle for control of the planet interesting. Apparently the Venusians can interbreed with humans, because one of our heroes ends up marrying Venta.

“The Flame Breathers” takes the reader on a voyage to the mysterious planet Vulcan, inside the orbit of Mercury. The theories that such a planet existed had been discounted in the real world, but the possibility of a mystery planet so close to the sun was too interesting for Cummings to stay away from. An expedition finds the planet, discovers that it is hot but habitable, and also rich with allurite, a rare radioactive element. They find the wreckage of a previous failed expedition, mysterious and deadly flame beings, and savage creatures called Orgs. And there are also human natives, one of them being the obligatory beautiful young woman. There are battles, betrayals, and discoveries, and a last-minute escape to return to Earth.

The story “Juggernaut of Space” features a different type of protagonist in Robert Rance, a radio science reporter. An astronomer friend shows him a giant crimson comet hurtling toward the Earth, and shortly thereafter he is kidnapped along with a random assortment of people from New York (in addition to Robert, there are his crime reporter friend, a stage actress, a financier, and an alcoholic). They awaken on a strange red world, in the custody of humanoid automatons, the Radaks, who are minions of “The Great Mind,” a tiny creature with a huge, bulging head. The planet is home to an enslaved race called the Lei, as well as to a creeping red horror called the “Deathless Thing.” But as is often the case in these tales, even though the kidnapped humans were randomly selected, their resourcefulness and courage undermines (or perhaps I should say under-minds) the Great Mind, and they are able to prevail.

In “Space-Wolf,” on far-away Titan, prospector Solo Morgan comes under fire from an antique slug-throwing gun. He is surprised to find his assailant is a beautiful woman. Nada is the daughter of a biologist who was experimenting on animals, a man missing for years. He has died, and since then, Nada has been living with his collection of talking animals, in constant peril from local creatures called goths. And as if that threat isn’t enough, space pirates attack Solo, Nada, and the menagerie, in an attempt to secure whatever riches Solo may have found. The talking animals are an interesting twist, and as you might imagine, by the end of the tale, the threats are overcome, and Solo is solo no more.

“Gods of Space” brings prospector Roy Atwood to the unexplored Planetoid-150, hunting the precious mineral xarite. He finds the planet covered with strangely colored forests, with a breathable atmosphere, and (surprise!) a beautiful young human woman named Ah-li, goddess of the Marians. The planetoid is also inhabited by deadly amoeboid creatures called genes. There is a revolt among the Marians, a mystery to be solved regarding the origin of Ah-li, and an escape to be made from the slimy genes, but it all works out quite neatly in the end.

Allen Nixon is hunting gators in the Florida Everglades when he is kidnapped by strange six-inch-tall humanoids in “The Little Monsters Come.” They (of course) take him to their far-off planetoid, where they are experimenting with a formula that will grow them to human size so they can conquer the Earth, with Cummings again displaying his propensity for tales that play with shrinking and growing. Before he can go home, Nixon must battle the leader of the expansionist faction of the aliens (expansionist both figuratively and literally), who grows well beyond human size with the growth formula. The only way Nixon can defeat him is by taking the formula himself and engaging in a battle of giants.

The final story of the book, “War-Nymphs of Venus,” is the best of the lot. A young man, Kent, and his friend Jack are fishing for tarpon off Florida when he hooks a beautiful young blonde woman dressed in a metallic shift, one who swims like a fish. He dubs her Nereid because she reminds him of a sea nymph out of ancient legend. Her father was a human scientist trying to communicate with other planets. He succeeded in rousing the attention of Venusians, who kidnapped him and brought him back to their planet. There he married a local woman, and they had a child, Nereid. Now, the evil mechanistic Gorts are attempting to conquer the planet, and Nereid decided to steal a one-person ship and enlist the help of her father’s people. But the ship, which could have given humans the secret of space flight, is lost, sunk beneath the sea. Then a combination spaceship/submarine appears—the Gorts have followed Nereid, and soon kidnap her, Kent, and Jack, and take them back to Venus. Soon they are caught up in a struggle for control of the planet, which culminates in a giant battle that reminded me of the one staged in the James Bond movie Thunderball. It is submarine versus submarine, diver against diver, with Nereid and her fellow nymphs going to war with the enemy. Cummings is always good with his action scenes, and this is evocative and exciting.


Final Thoughts

The stories in War-Nymphs of Venus may not be scientifically accurate, or even plausible, and they aren’t inhabited by the most complex characters. They have elements that date them, and sometimes in awkward ways. But they are fast-paced and a whole lot of fun. Cummings has a way with action scenes that brings them to exciting life. And in a world where too much is dark and serious, sometimes it’s good to just read something enjoyable.

So I’ve said my piece, and its time to hear from you: What are your thoughts on fiction from the old days of the pulp magazines? If you have suggestions for other stories and authors you have enjoyed, I’d love to hear them.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

About the Author

Alan Brown


Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.
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