The Man Who Found Zero a review by Mark Squirek
The Man Who Found Zero Review
The folks who created the adventure and science fiction comics of the 1930s and ‘40s had to read something when they were growing up. There had to be something that inspired their minds and fired up their imaginations to create beings who come from other planets, characters who can fly and others who have power rings. Of course many read fables and myths, stories such as Aladdin and the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.
But in the then current world, in the modern writing of the 1890s, there was something new for a kid or avid reader to seek out. This was the time of the rapidly expanding world of magazines and the very earliest days of what we now know as pulps. In this world there was one place to go where the stories were out of the bounds of normal experience and broke through the confining bounds of the gravity of this world.
For a reader growing up at the turn of the twentieth century who wanted something different, something strange and something challenging, the magazine Black Cat was the one to read. Earlier this year Black Dog Books released their second anthology devoted to "speculative fiction" and fantasy dating from 1896-1915. The Man Who Found Zero holds ideas and works that, over one hundred years since they first saw publication are as fascinating and enjoyable as anything written today.
Black Cat was one of the very first pulp magazines as well as one of the most successful. Editor Gene Christie (who also did the bang-up job on assembling the first volume in this series as well) addresses exactly how popular it was in his introduction: "Its success spawned numerous incredibly blatant imitations, including The White Elephant, The Blue Mule, The White Owl, and others that lasted only a few years." In a testament to its strength, individuality and longevity, Black Cat, the original and best of the breed lasted until 1920.
Like the first volume in this series, The Space Annihilator and Other Early Science Fiction from The Argosy, The Man Who Found Zero is packed with stories by authors whose names have drifted into the ephemeral world of forgotten writers who never got past a few publications. As Christie points out in his introduction, some of the names may actually be pseudonyms to begin with.
Still, Black Cat had its stars. Jack London had his first story published in its pages. Henry Miller sold stories to them, as did O. Henry, Damon Runyon and fantasy legend Clark Ashton Smith. The magazine was a lightning rod for people who had something original and stylish to say. This was not a magazine of lightweights. To be published in Black Cat meant something.
In this second volume of stories from that fabled era of publishing, Black Dog has reprinted London's memorable "A Thousand Deaths." Opening with the stark and very real images of a man "...Drowning in San Francisco bay because of a disastrously successful attempt to desert my ship." In eight fascinating pages London takes us through the man's choice to desert and tells us just enough to allow us to become involved before ending his tale at exactly the right moment.
What is fascinating in this wonderfully complied reprint series is the way so many of the stories seemed to foreshadow or hint at what was coming in the next few generations of writers. Christie mentions several telling examples in his introduction.
Most interesting among the works he mentions is Ethel Watts Mumford's "When Time Turned." Christie makes a very clear point for this story as a predecessor to F. Scott Fitzgerald's much better known "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (and Christie does address the similarities of the recent film as well) or George Allan England's 1911 novel, "The Elixir of Hate."
This is just one curious example of what inspired other creators down the line. There are a few other examples, but the main reasons to read this skillfully assembled anthology is the quality of the stories themselves. They are the real time machine. Work such as this is the building blocks for everything that follows.
At the time of their publications magazines are beginning to rise as the most wide-spread forms of communication in America. Literacy is on the rise and those who can read want something that will make their brains click and snap. Black Cat delivered. To have stories from that long forgotten magazine in print, and done is such a professional and respectful manner, not only gives a comic fan a look at what inspired the science fiction and fantasy aspect of comic books, but it allows the reader to see what people over a hundred years ago found captivating and interesting.
When it comes to reading material written that long ago there are stylistic and occasionally embarrassing deviations from what we find in the work of today. Often the science or logic can seem simple or at worst, downright wrong. More often than not, these concerns are swept away by the skill and energy of the writer.
Some of the stories may take a little work, there are words and phrases that can stop you in your tracks as you try and figure out exactly what is meant, but if you make that effort the rewards are that much greater.
Consider how much of what is written today will look to someone reading it a hundred years from now. With technology and communication moving so incredibly fast, what is current today is often outdated in ten years.
The Man Who Found Zero is a richly awarding anthology that is guaranteed to give you thrills and also introduce you to something you may have never thought of before, that the answer to the future may be in the past.
Over the past decade the readership for original pulps has taken off. Black Dog is one of the best reprint and anthology houses around. The care and time they take in restoring and cleaning the stories and magazines that they use as source material shows in the final product. Each paperback and hardcover they publish is a work unto itself.
This review originally appeared at Scoop. Read it on their page here.
To learn more, or purchase a copy of this book visit of our The Man Who Found Zero listing.