Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups Volume 2 edited by Julius Schwartz

The dedicated rotating team-up series was a huge boon for DC Comics and Marvel back in the day.  A top-selling character anchors the book (in this case Superman) and rotating guest stars got a chance to shine.  Some appearances were to promote their own new series, others were to wrap up a plot of a recently canceled book, even more were to make sure DC kept the trademark on a less active character in house, and a few were just because the writer had a cool idea for a story.

Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups #2

Volume 2 covers from 1980 to 1982, including the first annual and issue #50.  We start with a three-parter introducing Jim Starlin-created villain Mongul and his quest for a Warworld of his very own.  One of the problems with writing Superman team-ups is creating menaces that both challenge the Man of Tomorrow and allow the guest star to contribute.  Mongul tended towards the “stronger than Superman” end, so it’s a good thing the guest stars were the Martian Manhunter, Supergirl and the Spectre.

On the opposite end of the scale is Issue #39’s team-up with Plastic Man, where they fought dueling villains Toyman and Dollface.  This one required heavy use of Kryptonite to slow Superman down.  Some nice Joe Staton art, and a Karl Malden joke.

#41 brings us the cover story, which is not so much Superman teaming up with the Joker, as the Joker wanting revenge on the Prankster after the very similar villain double-crosses him during their team-up.  The whole story feels very much like Martin Pasko took a Los Angeles vacation and decided to work the location into a paid script.  The story sidelines Batman with an injury as this is not World’s Finest.

#42 has one of the weirder crossovers, with the Unknown Soldier, a disguise expert (real name unknown) who died in World War Two.  The Paul Levitz script is based heavily on the paranoia about nuclear war being imminent so common in the early 1980s before the Soviets blinked.

The Global Guardians had been introduced in the Superfriends tie-in comic book, but issue #46 of this series brought them into the main DC continuity.  A fun issue with some interesting wizard villains from different cultures.

#47 was a crossover with the Masters of the Universe tie-in comic book DC was doing at the time.  He-Man mentions that his mother (who is originally from Earth) had told him tales of Superman.

Annual #1 has a rare team-up of the Golden Age Superman with the then-current Man of Steel.  Their versions of Luthor change places, but still fail to overcome the other Supermen; but then they head to Earth-3 and team up with that world’s evil Ultraman (who becomes stronger from Kryptonite exposure.)  Our heroes must team up with Alex Luthor, who becomes Earth-3’s first superhero at the request of Lois Lane.  (This is a bit confusing as named characters on Earth-Three have flipped morality…so does this mean that regular Lois is evil?)

And we wrap up with #50, which has Superman team up with…Clark Kent?!  Alien science has separated the two, making Superman lose touch with humanity, while Clark loses much of his timid persona.  They must work together to save an alien world and California, before finding a way to merge again.

As with all the Showcase volume, these reprints are in black and white.  This is only a bit of a problem in the Plastic Man story as one of the running gags of that character is that he can look like anything and you can only spot him by his costume colors.

Sadly, the decision to concentrate only on the Superman stories means that we don’t get to see the “Whatever Happened To…?” backup stories that gave some closure to obscure characters.  Some of these were small gems–I was especially affected by the sad yet stirring tale of the Crimson Avenger, who will remain in the Land of the Remembered.

Overall, the writing quality is good to excellent, with art to match (with a couple of clunkers.)  Worth looking into if one of your favorites got a team-up slot.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

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