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Two evenings with the Queen of Zamba

I have always loved Lyon Sprague De Camp’s books – both alone and in tandem with his pal Fletcher Pratt, both as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. De Camp & Pratt’s Castle of Iron was the very first fantasy I read, and then I tried to track down and read any book that had Lyon Sprague De Camp’s name on the cover.

This hunt for books was not helped by the fact that Italian SF/fantasy editors did not share my enthusiasm for Lyon Sprague De Camp’s work, or for him as a person – one of them actually celebrated De Camp’s death, and later would say that he “spat on the man’s grave”.
Because, you know, Lyon Sprague De Camp desecrated the purity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Or something.

(full disclaimer – while I believe that Howard’s work at his best was impossible to emulate, and think De Camp’s Conan pastiches are well below par, I also believe that without De Camp’s work to keep Conan in print, Howard’s work today would be a niche interest for very few connoisseurs – like it happened to many other pulp writers)

One of the holy grails of De Camp’s opus, back in the ’80s and early ’90s was his Viagens series, and in particular his stories set on the planet Krishna. Only one of the volumes had been published, The Queen of Zamba (originally published in 1949), in a very old minor book line, with the title of Il Pianeta dei Folli (Planet of Madmen), and it was damn hard to find.
It also had an ugly cover (and yes, the image is small, but it’s the best I was able to find).

As my interest in planetary romance and space opera grew, the frustration of not finding the Krishna books grew likewise – but the books were hard to find in English too, and very expensive when one was able to find them. I was only able to find a novelette, in the two-novelette collection The Virgin and the Wheels. Not much, really.
Then, ebooks came along, and the estate of Lyon Sprague de Camp and Gollancz started reprinting all of the man’s catalogue.

So yesterday, as a gift to myself for writing 5000 words of a ghostwritten novel, a 3000-words horror short story, I went and bought myself two bucks of The Queen of Zamba in ebook, and it instantly jumped at the top of my to read list.

For the uninitiated: the Viagens series imagines a future in which Brazil holds a sort of monopoly of space exploration – the name comes from Viagens Interplanetarias (Interplanetary Travels) the name of the agency that controls human movement in the galaxy. You can thank World War III for that state of affairs.
Of the many inhabited planets in the Viagens series, Krishna (orbiting Tau Ceti) is the venue for a series of tongue-in-cheek planetary romances, in which Earthlings have to travel the continents and nations of the planet. The Krishna natives are human like and mammalian (the females very mammalian) but lay eggs (an obvious reference to Burroughs’ Martians) and have antennae on their foreheads and pointy ears. Their society is more-or-less medieval, and they are subject to a careful embargo on the part of the Viagens, something akin to Star Trek‘s Prime Directive.

Despite his taste in headgear as exhibited in certain photos, Lyon Sprague De Camp was one of the most civilized individuals ever to set pen to paper, and his attitude tinged his stories, in which the primitive is never romanticized, and a certain benign cynicism informs the actions of his characters. People that would rather fight dirty and survive than die heroically, but most of all would rather avoid the fighting altogether, and enjoy good food and good company. In this, Lyon Sprague De Camp’s protagonists share more than one trait with Jack Vance’s – and indeed, while reading The Queen of Zamba, I was often reminded of Vance’s picaresque adventures, and individuals like Cugel the Clever.
Vance is more baroque in his descriptions, more oblique in his humor, but there is certainly a common ground between the two writers; which probably explains why I am enjoying this book so much that – having this morning pitched successfully three articles to a magazine – I went and celebrated by buying the second Krishna novel, The Hand of Zei.

Because sometimes blue-haired oviparous pinups with antennae are just what we need to distract ourselves from our daily routine. The fact that Lyon Sprague De Camp’s women are usually tougher, more competent and much more intelligent than his male protagonists is also a plus.

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