Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales by Deb Houdek Rule

This is a collection of four speculative fiction short stories on the general theme of “Vikings” from the small label press Variations On a Theme.

Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

“Viking -Trojan War” is an after-action report about 8th Century Viking raiders suddenly materializing on the USC campus due to the Temporal Physics department getting a bit careless.  The narrative voice is apparently one of the college administrators, and sudden bits of informality suggest that this is the draft version of his or her report rather than the final one.  Lightly humorous.

“The Last Ship” is set in Greenland during the 15th Century, after the supply ships from Norway stopped coming.  A shepherd sings an old song from the pagan times, and one last ship arrives.  Did she call it, or was the ship doomed to begin with, and the survivor less monster than alien?

“Season of Marvels” is closer to the fantasy side.  Kieran, Irish slave of Einar the Earless, wants his freedom.  And in this Icelandic winter where marvels and dark magic are on the rise, he might be able to get it.

“Borealis”, on the other hand, is more inclined to science fiction.  An orphan boy who forms a bond with a cat (possibly psychic in nature) is drafted by a secret organization.  That organization drops him without a briefing on a planet with a Norse-like culture that’s been stagnating for centuries.   Culture shock ensues.

This last story has the most potential to be turned into a full novel, or even a series, as Brock deals with Chimaera and its mysterious goals.

They’re all decent stories, with four very different moods.  The paperback is perhaps a bit overpriced for the size, but I see the Kindle version is inexpensive, or free if you already have Kindle Unlimited.

Consider this one if you like Viking-themed stories, or as a gift for someone who does.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: You Can’t Eat Peanuts in Church and Other Little-Known Laws

Book Review: You Can’t Eat Peanuts in Church and Other Little-Known Laws by Barbara Seuling

Laws have a purpose.  It is not always a good purpose, but track them to their passage and you will usually see the reasoning behind them.  With the passage of time, that purpose is obscured, and many laws passed to deal with a pressing but temporary need seem arbitrary and pointless.

You Can't Eat Peanuts in Church and Other Little-Known Laws

It is often difficult to repeal such laws; perhaps they happen to favor a particular special interest group, or include provisions that specifically forbid a simple repeal, or they might be helpful if a criminal can’t be charged for their important crimes.   So it’s often the case that these statutes linger on the pages of lawbooks even decades after everyone began ignoring them.

This slim 1970s volume features a few hundred of these obscure laws from around the United States.  They are accompanied by humorous illustrations of people breaking the laws.  In the hardcover version, these illustrations were by Ms. Seuling; the paperback quietly replaced them with ones by Mel Klapholz.

Many of the laws do come off as funny, such as the city ordinance which forbids frightening hats.  Others are just outdated, such as the one requiring a person to walk in front of an automobile to warn of its approach.  Some laws can have their purpose divined if you know your history, such as one about “laundresses” which is clearly aimed at prostitution, and a San Francisco ordinance aimed at Chinese cultural customs.

This is the sort of lightly humorous book sold in tourist traps and hospital gift shops as gifts for people in need of quick entertainment you don’t need to think about too hard.   So there’s no citations or bibliography for further research.  And it’s been forty years, so some of these laws may finally be off the books.

There are probably new books with the same basic premise, so the main reason to look this one up is the illustrations.  Check garage sales and used book stores.

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow by Howard Fast

There have been several books titled The Edge of Tomorrow, none of which have anything to do with the recent Tom Cruise movie, which borrowed most of its plot from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill.  (I think you can see why there was a title change.)   This particular volume contains seven science fiction stories by the author of Spartacus and other fine historical novels.

The Edge of Tomorrow

“The First Men” starts in 1945, as Harry Felton is discharged from the Army following World War Two.  His anthropologist sister sends a request for him to stay in India for the purpose of finding a child allegedly raised by wolves ala Mowgli.  He finds her, but she is mentally unable to function except as a very smart wolf.  Similarly, the South African boy raised by baboons is essentially a furless baboon.

Then the actual idea behind Jean’s research is revealed.   Children at an early level of development raised by animals can never be more than animals.  Children raised by flawed human society will never surpass ordinary humans.  But what would happen if a group of highly intelligent infants from around the world were raised under utopian conditions by enlightened scientists?

Harry helps gather the children for this experiment, which must be carried out in complete isolation from the outside world.  In 1965, he is called in by the government.  It seems all communication with the creche has been lost, and a zone of nothingness has sealed off the area.  Does he know what’s going on?

As it happens, Harry has a sealed letter from his sister for just this moment.  In it, she reveals that the experiment was highly successful, and the children have taken the next step in mental evolution.  Hyperintelligent and telepathic, they are preparing to bring the children of humanity up to their level as fast as they can expand their zone of influence.

Harry’s government contact reacts badly.  Not that I can blame him, given the implications.

Some readers may be squicked by discussion of sex among the upraised youngsters.  At the time this was written, 1959, certain readers might have been more upset with the idea that all the races of man were equally capable of being uplifted.

“The Large Ant” has a writer on vacation instinctively swatting what appears to be an oversized insect to death.  Upon realizing it’s no ordinary insect, he takes it to a museum.  It’s not the first specimen they’ve gotten of this type.  And given that every human that’s encountered them has immediately defaulted to killing them, we can no longer assume that peaceful contact is possible.  Heavy on the infodump.

“Of Time and Cats” has Professor Robert Clyde Bottman, who teaches physics at Columbia University, help out a fellow professor with a defective experimental circuit.  As a result, he ties a knot in time, and multiple iterations of himself keep appearing.  That gets fixed, but not before his friend’s cat also ties a knot in its own timeline.  The best story in this volume, with a humorous touch.

“Cato the Martian” posits a civilization on Mars that has become aware of Earth due to the radio and television waves of the last few decades.  One of the members of the Martian Senate is alarmist about the potential for the violent Earthlings to escape their home world and invade Mars.  He’s been saddled with the insulting nickname Cato, after the Roman politician who wanted to destroy Carthage.

But Cato has taken the name as his own, and gradually won over most of the Senate to his cause.  His plan is to drop atomic bombs on the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to make them think the other has attacked, and start World War Three.   Turns out the plan has one fatal flaw….

“The Cold, Cold Box” is a chilling tale of a Board of Directors meeting where they discuss whether or not to continue committing the crime that has brought them to be de facto rulers of the world.  By rights, they should turn over power to the person they act on behalf of, but things are running so smoothly without that person.  And to be honest, that person was kind of a jerk anyway.   A look at how easy it is to salve your conscience with the other good you’ve done.

“The Martian Shop” concerns the opening of three stores allegedly selling products from Mars.  It’s really more of a vignette than a story, going into great detail about how the shops were set up, the merchandise they had, how bizarre the shop personnel were, etc.  Then there’s a couple of paragraphs at the end revealing what the shops actually are.  Between this story and the Cato one, I’m beginning to see where Alan Moore gets his ideas.

“The Sight of Eden” is the final story.  An exploratory mission from Earth lands on what appears to be a paradise planet.  One that is mysteriously empty.   Still, this is the first sign of an inhabitable world they’ve found, and the first sign of other inhabitants of the universe.  Then they meet the caretaker and learn why the place is empty.  Downer ending.

Overall, decent writing but too reliant on infodumps, and I’ve seen most of these ideas done better.  But if you enjoyed Spartacus and want to see what else Howard Fast wrote, this is a handy start.

Book Review: Next Year in Havana

Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Reading Copy from a Read It Forward giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product, due out 2/6/18, may have minor changes.

Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of one of the richest families in Havana, constrained by family tradition and the patriarchal society.  Her father supports president Fulgencio Batista in order to protect their sugar industry interests, but Elisa is becoming increasingly aware of the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the government.  Still, are the 26th of July movement and the other revolutionaries truly the way forward?

In 2017, Marisol Ferrera takes advantage of the partial thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States following the death of Fidel Castro and her job as a lifestyles journalist to travel to the land her family has long been exiles of.  Though she knows what Cuba was from the stories of her grandmother and other relatives, Marisol has little idea of what that country is like now.  More, she’s about to discover a family secret hidden all these decades.

The author, Chanel Cleeton, is herself the descendant of Cuban exiles, which inspired this dual romance book with political thriller elements.

My mother has told me of meeting Cuban exiles back in the late 1950s who eagerly hoped for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Batista so that they could go home and rebuild their country.  They hoped that Castro would keep his promises of reform and that Cuba would rise to be the prosperous, modern nation it had once been.  Mom lost touch, and has no idea what happened to them.

Elisa, nineteen, is whisked out of the house in secret by her more daring sister Beatriz to go to a party in a less prosperous part of the city.   While Beatriz meets with their disowned brother, Elisa meets an earnest lawyer, Pablo, who it turns out is an ally of Che Guevara.   They begin a forbidden courtship, kept apart by social status and the explosive political climate.

Marisol is twenty-six, and a bit more worldly wise than her grandmother had been.  Her shoes still cost more than the average Cuban makes in a year.  Elisa’s best friend Ana had been forced to stay in Cuba, and has managed to make a small living as a restaurant owner.  Ana’s grandson Luis is a history professor who also helps out at the restaurant, and becomes Elisa’s tour guide.  As Elisa learns more about her grandmother’s life before exile, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Luis.

The descriptions are lush, with many glowing descriptions of landscapes and food.

Elisa’s section of the book seems surer-footed, perhaps because the passage of time has made the political outcomes clearer and that allows the author to weave the events together more closely.  Marisol’s section seems designed to appeal to the viewpoint of Cuban expatriates and their loyalists, and I have to wonder how much it would ring true to Cubans who actually live in Cuba.  The political thriller elements seem more forced in that section.

Torture is mentioned, and the results are seen.

I think this book will go over well with people who are heavily into historical romance as a genre and appreciate political thriller elements sprinkled in.  It’s also nice to read a book with Cuba as a setting; I’ve only had a handful of those.  (Check my back reviews for Mingo Dabney.)

The edition coming out in 2018 appears to be designed to be a book club selection, as there are discussion questions in the back.  Also, the sequel starring Beatriz, Elisa’s sister, is already in the works and there is a chapter from that.  (And from that excerpt, it looks like more my thing.)

Book Review: The Mystery Men of Mars

Book Review: The Mystery Men of Mars by Carl H. Claudy

Dr. Isaac Lutyens, Professor of Physics and Higher Mathematics, has created what amounts to a gravitic engine.  His first thought was to create a spaceship in his attic and orbit the moon.  This being successful, Dr. Lutyens decides that the next step is to visit Mars.  Brilliant but not in the best of health, the professor decides that he needs some assistants for the journey.

The Mystery Men of Mars

Dr. Lutyens’ vaguely worded jobs advertisement to the students nets 137 applications (college students needing spare cash then as now) from which he selects two.  Alan Kane is nearly as smart as Dr. Lutyen’s, holds three undergraduate degrees in science, and is currently pursuing his doctorate.  Theodore Dolliver is strong as an ox, can cook, and has come to University City to finish his education after several years of wandering the globe.  They also just happen to be orphans with no current romantic attachments.

Dr. Lutyens nicknames Alan and Ted “Brains” and “Brawn” respectively and fills them in on his plans.  Though the younger pair are skeptical of the viability of the journey, both of them are eager to take part in the adventure of being the first men on Mars.

This is the first book in the “Adventures in the Unknown” series by Carl H. Claudy (1879-1957), first published as a serial in The American Boy magazine in 1931.  In addition to his science fiction in what we would now call the young adult field, Mr. Claudy was also a noted Freemason author and worked for DC Comics for a short period.

The author clearly did a bit of actual research for the story, as the characters discuss when the Earth and Mars will be closest, making their voyage shorter and thus more convenient.  Constant acceleration and the effects of increased/decreased gravity are also discussed.  On the other hand, it’s a good thing the mission didn’t require extra-vehicular operations, because the protective gear described would have been woefully inadequate.

Our protagonists are not on Mars more than an hour when they are captured by the local inhabitants, who they at first mistake for robots.  Most of the Martians are in fact full-body cyborgs, whose brains have been cloned from either a Lesser Brain or the Master Brain, and infused with the information needed to fulfill their role in Martian society.  The non-cyborged Martians are of the insect-like race that inhabited Mars’ surface eons ago.

The Martians have long since abandoned most fleshly emotions, with their highest calling being “the good of all.”   The humans soon grasp that their one advantage over their captors is that they are violent and have guns, giving them long-range killing capability.  While the Martians certainly have no qualms about killing, there has not been war or murder on their planet for millenia, so they don’t grasp what the Earthlings are willing to do to escape.

Indeed, the Martians are quite unable to understand that when they tell the humans that their brains will be placed in cyborg bodies to serve the good of all, this horrifies the humans and makes them even more determined to escape.

The professor, whose health has been failing, does not survive the escape attempt, forcing Alan and Ted to leave the planet on their own.  Something goes wrong with the ship upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, and the young men  are forced to ditch it in the sea.

As it happens, Dr. Lutyens left no records of his research or plans for the gravitic engine anywhere that anyone can find.  Nor did he tell anyone but his assistants about the spaceship or his plan to visit Mars.  And the men brought back no proof of their story, so the world disbelieves and mocks their eyewitness testimony.  And that’s where the book ends.

There’s some interesting ideas here, especially the cloned brains in robotic bodies with both strengths and weaknesses.  But the characterization is of the thinnest, and priority is given to exciting adventure and gosh-wow technology.  There’s also short shrift given to the morality of killing aliens; they don’t mind, why should our heroes?

If the concepts mentioned are up your alley, or you just enjoy fiction set on Mars, this might be worth looking up.  For others, there are much better early science fiction works to look up.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution by Richard Beeman

After the last book I reviewed, I felt I needed something a bit more intellectually challenging to recharge my brain cells.  Thus this volume, which contains not just the annotated text of the United States Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, selections from the Federalist Papers, and a short history of how these things came about.

The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

The troubles started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which England won, but at high cost, and the British government was broke.  Parliament decided that as the American colonists had gained the most with the new lands taken from the French, they should be willing to help pay for them with raised taxes and trade restrictions.

Unlike the West Indies (where Alexander Hamilton was from), the Continental colonies had not yet been able to buy seats in Parliament to represent their interests; and they’d thought that their successful help in the war would have changed that.  So it was like a teenager who’s helped Dad with a big project and is expecting more autonomy as a result being told, “No, son, money’s tight, so I’m cutting your allowance and you  can’t hang out with your friends at the mall any more.”

The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown and therefore deserving of all the rights and privileges of free Englishmen.  Parliament and the British government considered the colonists wayward children to be taken in hand.  When the colonials protested against “taxation without representation”, the children were backtalking their rightful elders, and the proper response was to put them back in their place.

Part of the issue was that the British Constitution was “unwritten”, cobbled together from documents like the Magna Carta, court decisions, and acts of Parliament.  Thus it was vulnerable to being altered at any time the government felt they could get away with it.  Such as in this situation.  After all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament, and thus no voice to speak for them.  What were they going to do, declare independence?

Feelings and actions escalated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Still mostly loyal British subjects, the colonists kept trying to find diplomatic solutions even as protests escalated and started breaking out into violence.  The British government reacted by cracking down even harder, and demanding obedience, not negotiation.

By the time the Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from the various American colonies, convened, the Colonies were already in a state of rebellion, with British troops on the ground fighting them.  Faced with this reality, they decided that it was time for a Declaration of Independence, explaining to the world why they were rebelling.  The reasons listed are one-sided–the colonists were no longer trying to be fair-minded or conciliatory.

Of course, once you’ve declared independence (huzzah!) you then have to govern yourself (drat!)  The thirteen colonies had learned the perils of too-centralized government that didn’t understand local issues.  But without the unifying tie of British rule, the colonies were like thirteen small countries that had very different priorities.  Some had large populations, while others were tiny.  Some had already begun industrializing, while others had agriculture as their main economic activity.  And the sticking point that caused the most argument, slavery.

While some forms of slavery had been legal in all the colonies during the preceding centuries, by the mid-Eighteenth Century, economic changes and philosophical/religious movements turned against the practice, especially in the Northeastern colonies, some of which had actually banned owning people as property!  Meanwhile, the Southern colonies had made their economic system and culture highly dependent on chattel slavery, and particularly on enslaving people of African descent.  And they had their own religious movements to promote the idea.

With all those disagreements in mind, the Articles of Confederation for the newly independent United States of America were more like guidelines than rules, and gave responsibilities to the central government without the power or funds to actually do those things.  It didn’t work at all well.

Faced with the possibility that this alliance would fall apart, a Constitutional Convention was formed, supposedly just to amend the Articles.  But it was hijacked by delegates who wanted to create a whole new written Constitution with a central government that was strong enough to do necessary things, but bound by checks and balances to prevent tyranny.

Many, many compromises later, including some shameful concessions to slavery, a Constitution was made, and proposed to the States.  Notably, an enumerated Bill of Rights of the citizens was not included, for two reasons.  First, what would become known as the Federalists feared that if some rights were enumerated in the Constitution, that would block un-enumerated rights from being extrapolated.  (See, for example, the arguments for and against women having a right to make decisions about their own reproductive systems.)  And second, everyone realized that it would take more months of arguing to agree on a Bill of Rights, and the delegates were already sick of each other.

Instead, it was promised that a series of amendments to provide a bill of rights would be the first business of the new United States Congress, to be voted on by the states.

What we now call the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay as both propaganda to convince the States to adopt the Constitution, and to explain their interpretations of how the Constitution worked.  For example, judicial review by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of acts of Congress wasn’t spelled out in the Constitution, but Hamilton argued that it would be part of their natural function.  (And in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court agreed.)

Once Congress convened under the new United States Constitution, the amendments we now call the Bill of Rights were indeed a top priority.  More amendments have come along since, each with its own consequences and controversies.

The annotations by Richard Beeman, a professor of history and Constitutional scholar, explain in plainer language what each part of the Constitution is about, and why they’re important.  He also discusses the controversies and alternative interpretations that have arisen over the years.

After the main history section, Mr. Beeman discusses various important Supreme Court cases that have altered the interpretation of the Constitution.  (He admits that other cases could have been included.)

The book ends with suggested further reading on the various subjects presented–after all, you don’t want to take just one scholar’s opinion on these important matters.  There is no index or endnotes.

This is a good condensed and portable edition that will be valuable any time you need to know what the Constitution and related documents actually says.  All American citizens should have a copy of the Constitution handy, so I highly recommend having a book like this, if not necessarily this book,  on your shelf.

And now, let’s have a video of someone reading the Declaration of Independence out loud.

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man by Paul Feval fils

Sir Eric Palmer, the world’s greatest detective, is about to retire on his daughter Grace’s eighteenth birthday.  He’s looking forward to taking up gardening in Cornwall and becoming a full time grandfather (Grace is beautiful and accomplished, surely a suitable young gentleman will snap her up quickly.)  But he’s abruptly called in by Scotland Yard.

Felifax the Tiger Man

A baffling series of weird incidents in Benares, India have come to the British government’s attention.  There are rumors of a “tiger man” in the area who might be a threat to the colonial government.  Would Sir Eric please look into this for them?

So the noble detective (and Grace, having invited herself along) depart for India to learn what they can.  It turns out there really is a tiger man, dubbed “Felifax” by a certain Brahman priest.  This encounter is inconclusive, but back in London, a series of bizarre murders suggest that Felifax is more bloodthirsty than previously shown.

This book is by a second-generation French author of pulp-style adventure fiction, and translated by Brian Stableford, who also provides an introduction, postscript and end notes.  Per Mr. Stableford, Mr. Feval was a very fast writer who didn’t do a lot of planning ahead.  In this book in particular, the “Sherlock Holmes meets Tarzan” genre clash produces some plot issues that are clumsily handled, and require authorial juggling to resolve by the end.

It’s difficult to discuss this volume without going into heavy spoilers, so I will sum up here, and then go on to a spoiler section.  It’s an interesting read with some cool ideas, some bad ideas, and uneven execution.  Content warning for rape and torture.  Recommended for people who like the more out-there pulps.

SPOILERS from this point on–you have been warned.

The Tiger Man’s origin story is not quite what you might have expected from my using the word “Tarzan.”  Rather than being raised by tigers, young Rama (his real name) is the result of a bizarre mad science experiment.  The priest Sourina and an English doctor artificially inseminate beautiful temple dancer Siva with tiger semen.  This does not quite work, and the result is hideously deformed and stillborn.

However, the English doctor invokes Lamarckian genetics, and has Sourina make Siva  have dubiously-consented sex with handsome young Brahman Rao.  The result of this pairing is a human-looking baby with faint brown stripes, unusual strength and speed, and the scent of a tiger.  Sourina murders Rao and has Siva imprisoned as soon as the baby can survive without her, then raises “Felifax” with tigers in his temple of Kali.  (The English doctor is deported from India for unrelated bad behavior.)

When Felifax reaches adulthood, he seeks freedom in the jungle, but also begins a campaign of terror against Sourina to get the priest to release Djina, a young girl who’d been raised in the temple with him.  These actions set off the plot with Sir Eric.

The first half of the book takes place in India, and the depiction of Benares (now Varanasi) owes more to stereotypes and imaginative fiction than to reality.  If it’s any comfort, the second half in England is equally dubious, as it has Newgate Prison and transportation to Australia surviving into the 1920s and a British man doing the “kiss on the cheek to show respect” thing no Englishman of the time would have done.

There’s a bit of period sexism and racism, though the latter is undercut when Sir Eric has to back up his fine words about all men being brothers when Grace falls in love with Rama.

There’s also a scene where the narration becomes creepy as it points out that Djina has the hots for Rama, she’s very attractive, and thirteen is considered of marriageable age in India–but not to worry, eighteen year old Rama thinks of her as a sister.  Thanks, narration.

To keep the story from ending early, Sir Eric is laid up with illness for most of the first half, then retires to Cornwall in the second half.  So the murders (which are nicely inventive) are investigated by a new character, Inspector Sullivan.  He’s introduced as the world’s second-greatest detective and the personally chosen successor of Sir Eric.

And he does great for a couple of chapters.  But then the author remembers that he has to bring Sir Eric back to tie up the plotline, so Sullivan rapidly degenerates into a complete stooge.  (And then the narration pretends it knew this all along.)  He spends some time pursuing a petty criminal named Blood-drinker (it’s never made clear if that’s the man’s actual name or an alias) who happens to be innocent of these particular crimes, then fastens on Felifax, who’s in town with the circus.

Meanwhile, there has been no mystery for the reader, as we know that the evil priest Sourina is the real master of the circus, and is carrying out his vengeance against the British occupiers of his homeland.  Sir Eric figures out the truth, though Sourina escapes in a sequel hook.

One of the most disappointing bits is that although Rama gets to show off his powers on various animals, the author goes to great lengths to prevent him from ever ripping a human opponent apart with his bare hands.  I mean, seriously, you have a tiger man with an anger-triggered super mode, and he never gets to kill anyone?

Oh, and meanwhile, Grace has developed a cure for smelling like a tiger, which allows her and Rama to hook up.

There are lots of individual scenes that are good, but the novel as a whole doesn’t hold together.   Read it for the good bits.

 

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