The Science Fiction Author Who Taught Shaggy Dogs New Tricks

37 MinutesReginald Bretnor is likely to be the remembered as the first science fiction author to not only create an entirely new form within the genre, but to also write well-received books on military theory and translate into English a seminal 18th-century scientific study of cats.

I only recently discovered Bretnor’s work, while perusing a stack of well-preserved editions of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the mid-1950s that I acquired at Balticon in trade for three Mattel Shogun Warriors (in the original boxes). No doubt the dealer with whom I traded thought he had made out like a bandit in the transaction, but in acquiring a complete run of several years’ worth of Golden Age literature in pristine shape that, not incidentally, took up considerably less shelf space than the trio of aged plastic robots, I felt right to to claim the upper hand in the deal.

Reginald Bretnor

Reginald Bretnor, father of the feghoot

Anyway, as I read my way through the issues, savoring with delight the brilliant short-story writing skills of that bygone age, I came across my first Bretnor. It was, as were many of his stories, to be found at the foot of a page, at the end of a longer story. “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot,” it was called — a delightful, if brief, fantasia about a hale-fellow-well-met (Feghoot) whose travels had taken him to a planet where he solved an intricately explained problem with a most atrocious pun.

Naturally, I was hooked.

Turns out this Bretnor fellow wrote quite a few chapters in the adventures of Mr. Feghoot — to the point where, today, the term “feghoot” is the accepted label for humorous vignettes that end with bad puns. A noteworthy distinction for any science fiction author, certainly. But Reginald Bretnor — born Alfred Reginald Kahn in Vladivostok, Russia in the waning days of Tsar Nicholas II — was hardly limited to that precise form. His short stories, which are often characterized by first-person narratives, unexpected-yet-foreseeable-in-hindsight concluding twists, and brilliantly memorable character names (Dr. Christopher Flewkes, Maximus Everett, Ambrosius Goshawk). He is also renowned for a series of short stories featuring his anti-hero Papa Schimmelhorn. Bretnor’s fiction appeared in all the major science fiction magazines of the day, as well as publications as wide-ranging as Esquire, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Southwest Review, and, apparently, Today’s Woman.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

If you like Mr. Peabody, you will love Ferdinand Feghoot.

In addition, Bretnor’s wide-ranging interests included military theory (on which he wrote several studies) and literary theory of science fiction (for which he invited his many author friends to contribute, persuading them over a glass of well-matched wine following one of the sumptuous dinners for which Bretnor was renowned). His fascination with felines — which inspired one of his most famous short stories, the aptly-named “Cat” — led to his undertaking to translate into English, for the first time, the first known study ever written on the subject, Les Chats (1727) by M. Moncrif.

In researching this entry for 37 Minutes, I came across a most interesting, if little-known, anecdote about Bretnor’s early life that I believe explains much of what followed. It seems that shortly after arriving in San Diego from the collapsing Russian Empire in 1917 (following a brief stop in Japan, owing to it being somewhat more hospitable to refugees than the ice-cold Bering Sea), Bretnor’s parents, eager to assimilate their child into the new culture as quickly as possible, began referring to their son as Jack, which sounded quintessentially American.

Now, in those days, San Diego was home to a thriving expat community of refugees who had fled the carnage of the First World War. This bumptious environment offered young Jack many opportunities to learn the ways of his adopted country, and soon he was enrolled in a school for Russian refugee children that was run by a French tutor by the name of Fernand Nauplait. At first Jack thrived in the school, but within a year the school acquired a new headmaster, a dour Prussian by the name of Johann Ohlwerk, and the once-boisterous reading and debate of the classics was replaced by rote memorization and recitation. At first Nauplait, who had been demoted to the teaching staff, resisted the new pedagogical approach, but soon he too relented. Jack, whose imagination and creativity had already begun to manifest through the production of short stories that foreshadowed his later work, withered under the tedium.

His parents, particularly his mother, a former governess from England, became concerned for the mental welfare their son and decided ultimately to pull him out of the academy in favor of San Diego’s public schools. When asked the reason she desired to withdraw her son, Mme. Kahn replied, matter-of-factly:

“Why, because Ohlwerk and Nauplait make Jack a dull boy, of course.”

Channel 37 thanks Fred Flaxman’s indispensable, which was perused extensively in the preparation of this entry.

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