White Lily: Chinese Takeout

White Lily by John TaineWhite Lily by John Taine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWhite Lily by John Taine

For fans of mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote science fiction under the pen name John Taine, the acquisition of titles in this modern era can be somewhat problematic: Of the author’s 16 sci-fi books, only three of them are currently in print. This reader had previously experienced Taine’s first novel, The Purple Sapphire (1924), as well as his fifth, The Greatest Adventure (’29), had hugely enjoyed them both and wanted to read more … lots more. I had also managed to lay my hands on Taine’s final novel, the marvelously titled G.O.G. 666 (’54), in its original hardback, but am planning to leave that 16th title for last. Unfortunately for me, Taine’s three works of sci-fi that are currently in print, from the fine folks at Armchair Fiction, are the very ones that I happen to already own. It figures, right? Thus, the problem of acquiring those other 13 titles, which, thanks to the wonder of the Interwebs, really isn’t that big of a problem at all, right? Coming to my immediate aid, and allowing me to cross off two titles at once, is the 1966 paperback from Dover Publications that gives us a pair of Taine novels, Seeds of Life (’31) and White Lily (’30), in one volume. This volume, for some inexplicable reason, presents the novels in reverse chronological order, and I — being a stickler/borderline OCD wacko regarding such matters — decided to tackle White Lily first; I will hopefully have some words to say about the other novel at a later date.

White Lily, it seems, made its initial appearance in the Winter 1930 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly (a companion of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the original sci-fi pulp magazine), which gave readers one complete new novel in each issue. That Winter ’30 issue also included three short stories, one of which was “Dirigibles of Death” by A. Hyatt Verrill, whose novel The World of the Giant Ants had been featured in the Fall ’28 issue. Readers surely did get their 50 cents’ worth from Amazing Stories Quarterly, which lasted for 22 issues, from Winter ’28 till Fall ’34. But getting back to White Lily: This novel, Taine’s seventh, would not be reprinted for another 36 years, until Dover chose to resurrect it, and it has not seen another reprint in the 54 years since! Strangely enough, the book was substantially rewritten by Taine and released as a hardcover volume in 1952 with the more spoilerish title The Crystal Horde, so I suppose that this is another title that I might reasonably cross off my list. And really, it is a mystery to me just why Taine would feel the necessity of revising White Lily, which strikes this reader as being just fine the way it is. Combining Asian high adventure and apocalyptic sci-fi in one heady mix, the book works marvelously well on both fronts.

Taine’s novel splits itself fairly evenly into three discrete sections, and opens with a trio of mind-boggling mysteries. In Los Angeles, Isabel Lane, the wife of army captain Robert Lane (biologist Eric Lane had been our hero protagonist in The Greatest Adventure; I suppose that Taine just liked that name!), is awoken one night by the sound of crashing glass while having a terrible dream. In her 4-year-old’s bedroom, a terrible stench emanates from the Easter egg hidden under her son’s bed; an egg powerful enough to knock unconscious anyone who approaches it. Meanwhile, on Capt. Lane’s transport ship on the Pacific, a sudden something rips the vessel in two, causing a tremendous loss of life on the high seas. And shortly thereafter, two grizzled prospectors in the California desert hear a tremendous crash, see a gigantic, crystalline, purple and green octopus thing filling the sky, and find their poor burros ripped to shreds. Discerning a vague connection between the three odd events, 60-year-old retired geologist Jonathan Saxby (who is described as resembling Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick, but who brought to mind, for this reader anyway, Edmund Gwenn’s Harold Medford character from the sci-fi film Them!) decides to investigate, during the course of which his lab assistant, Yang, is completely melted (!) by … what?

In the novel’s second section, Saxby journeys, on a hunch, to China, where Capt. Lane has been sent with his men to protect a group of missionaries in the isolated western province of Kansu. It seems that an elderly Muslim named Hu has been stirring up trouble, goaded on by Russian provocateurs Markoff and Liapanouff, and is on the brink of starting a jihad there. Hu’s 18-year-old granddaughter, the eponymous White Lily, does her best to avert the bloodshed, but to no avail. In a startling scene of tremendous violence, hundreds of Christians are herded into Hu’s cave system and hurled into the bottomless chasms therein. Saxby and Lane & Co. get involved in this awful carnage, while author Taine manages to keep the suspense quotient high by withholding any mention of Saxby’s suspicions. It is only after the jihad ends and the Russian agents are taken care of (both of their demises are memorable, and Markoff’s fairly spectacular) that we enter the novel’s final section, in which the solution to the central mystery is finally given to us. (Those who don’t wish to learn more should probably stop reading HERE).

In this final section, crystalline life-forms as large as skyscrapers — some of which feed on minerals, others of which feed on cellulose — threaten to overwhelm the planet. The armed forces of the U.S. and other countries stationed in nearby Shanghai are marshaled, but are given a hard time since the crystalline mountains tend to release a noxious gas when shattered, a gas that has a devastating effect when it comes in contact with minerals or cellulose. Truly, things do not look too good for the carbon-based life-forms of planet Earth …

In the indispensable reference volume The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, it is mentioned that Taine “loved to do things on a grand scale, and most of his novels end with catastrophes which overwhelm whole continents,” and that is surely the case with the three Taine novels that I have experienced thus far. In The Purple Sapphire, the energies from an ancient gizmo of superscience spread across a wide swath adjacent to Tibet; in The Greatest Adventure, prehistoric plant spores threaten to overwhelm Antarctica … and beyond. And in White Lily, those mountains of inanimate yet locomotory crystal lay waste to a goodly chunk of the Chinese mainland. These are wonderfully menacing creations by author Taine, causing rock, plants and living creatures to crystallize on contact, and encasing those poor soldiers as a fly might be trapped in amber. For this reader, they brought to mind the gigantic mineral shards in the 1957 sci-fi film The Monolith Monsters, although Taine’s creations are far, far more lethal. Could that film’s story line by Jack Arnold, also featuring silicon-draining life-forms, have been inspired by Taine’s novel of 27 years earlier? I guess we will never know.

Taine’s book throws in some interesting philosophical speculations as Saxby begins to wonder whether or not, given mankind’s savage and bellicose bent, the crystalline life-forms might indeed be superior to us. The book is also pleasingly cynical when it comes to the uselessness of war, and the transparent lies that world governments resort to in order to maintain amicable relations. Its two main characters, Saxby and Lane, are well drawn and interesting creations. Saxby, up in years though he is, is said to drink three bottles of wine every night with his dinner (!) and is yet capable of standing up to a great deal of physical punishment, as is shown amply here, especially when he undergoes torture at the hands of the truly villainous Markoff. Lane, it should be added, proves himself to be more than a mere man of action, ably keeping up with Saxby’s theorizing and even contradicting him on occasion. Surprisingly, White Lily, for whom the book is named, turns out to be a rather minor character, who does not even figure in the story’s final third. Taine’s decision to name the novel after her is a questionable one, and indeed, The Crystal Horde really is a much better title, although it does tend to telegraph the book’s central nemesis.

I might also add that, similar to those two earlier Taine books that I have read, this one stakes a claim to some degree of literary sophistication with its numerous references to such sources as Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Rudyard Kipling, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the writings of the Muslim creed, and the Christian Bible. Happily, Taine’s ability as a wordsmith seems to have grown greatly in the six years since his first effort, and White Lily turns out to be quite finely written, indeed. Take, for example, this passage, in which Hu’s caverns are described:

… For fifty black miles or more the vast caverns of Kansu honeycombed the limestone mountains with a chambered labyrinth of calcite corridors and pillared halls, each shadowy antrum loftier than the nave of a great cathedral, curiously carved and hollowed from the living rock by water seeping drop by drop down to the subterranean rivers for ages. A tattered tracery of stalactites depended from the arched ceilings of these silent halls like the bleached banners of long forgotten armies, and massive pillars of all but transparent whiteness soared from the undulating pavements to bell out and vanish in the banners. Through some of these halls the distant rumor of rushing water echoed drowsily, but most were as soundless as the midnight of a desert. In others the oppressive stillness palpitated with a deeper silence, as if the blackness fell away to a bottomless void. These were the ‘forbidden caves,’ where the faithful never wandered …

Whew! Not bad for a mathematician, right? And if you think Taine’s description of a mere cave system is impressive, just wait till you see what he is capable of when describing those crystalline marauders, and the remarkable havoc that they bring about!

Suspenseful, colorful, beautifully written and, ultimately, jaw-droppingly awesome, White Lily really does make for one wild ride. My sole problem with the novel, indeed, was the somewhat implausible explanation that the author gives us for the crystalline monsters’ origin, but if you can swallow that, you’re home free. Speaking for myself, Taine is currently more than a solid 3 for 3 with this reader. And now, let’s see if this streak can continue, as I dive into this Dover edition’s other offering, Taine’s ninth novel, Seeds of Life

Published in 1930. John Taine (Eric Temple Bell, 1883-1960) was an accomplished mathematician and, as John Taine, a science fiction author. Seeds of Life is the 1931 tale of the creation of a superman through radiation. 1930’s White Lily (later rewritten as The Crystal Horde) is an adventure involving crystalline lifeforms.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. “…see a gigantic, crystalline, purple and green octopus thing filling the sky…”

    Wow.

    I don’t think I want to read this, though. I do understand that it’s pulp and “of its time” but the depiction of Asian characters bothers me.

    And, I got distracted by “Dirigibles of Death!”

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