Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955 edited by Leo Margulies

Fantastic Universe was a digest-sized science fiction and fantasy magazine that ran from 1953 to 1960, originally coming out from King-Size Publications.  Its quality is considered to have fallen off after 1956, with lesser stories and more emphasis on pseudo-science articles, but this particular issue is from the “good” period.

Fantastic Universe October 1955

We open with a brief essay by Frank Belnap Long, inspired by the Kelly Freas cover and talking about the mythic figure of the Horned Man.  None of the other stories are related to the cover.

“Star-flight” by Sam Merwin Jr. concerns a young woman named Francesa Hawley-Bey, a student at a Martian university.  She’s in her early twenties, but has the physical development of a nine-year-old.  She learns that she is the product of a centuries-long breeding experiment to create near-immortality.  Why, you ask?  Well, it turns out that there’s no such thing as faster than light travel.  Humanity can build ships now that get really close to light speed (something that’s been kept from the general public), but it will still take immense amounts of time to reach the stars.

The scientist who’s been working on these new ships is being hunted because he doesn’t want to give one planet (Earth in this case) a monopoly, as their government wants to use the new technology merely to strip-mine the rest of the solar system.  He, it turns out, is secretly the only other immortal and has been waiting thousands of years for a co-pilot so he can get back to galactic civilization.

The general skeeviness of Fran having her entire life manipulated so that humanity can eventually go to the stars is overwhelmed by the particular skeeviness of the romance subplot between her (remember, physically nine) and her thirty-something college dean.  In fairness to the dean, there are hints he might have been brainwashed into this, but eww.  Also note, romance only–this isn’t that kind of story.

“The Nostopath” by Bryce Walton is about a man named Barton who is all too happy to be assigned to a remote one-man watch station during war with aliens.  He didn’t like it much on Earth, with all those people, and his annoying family.  At first, he greatly enjoys the solitude.  After some months, however, he starts craving some company, and sends a message off to HQ with suggestions.

Headquarters think that Barton’s ideas are jolly good, and soon, a small, carefully selected group of people joins Barton on the asteroid station.  This includes Barton’s wife and child, who have learned from his long absence to really appreciate him.  They all get along swimmingly, and Barton’s World is a model community.

Which is great, until the war is over, and the military wants Barton to come back to Earth.  And for some reason, the crew of the pickup ship doesn’t have orders to let anyone come with him.  Chilling ending as we learn what’s really going on.

“An Apartment for Rent” by Ruth Sterling focuses on the title apartment, which is quite nice.  However, since the sudden death of the long-time inhabitants, the rental office has been unable to find anyone who will stay in it for more than a month, despite the housing shortage.  The rental manager thinks the new couple he’s meeting might just be the ones who will fit the apartment.  They do seem rather taken with it…and might be staying forever.  It seems the housing shortage is worse than you might have thought.  Slight but amusing.

“Rafferty’s Reasons” by Frederik Pohl takes place in a dystopian future which has achieved full employment by banning most technology.  Except for teaching machines that will beam necessary job skills into your head.  Rafferty is a bookkeeper who used to be an artist (art was declared “not a real job”) and hates his boss, Girty, who is high up in the political structure of the New Way.  He’s reached the breaking point, and is determined to strike back any way he can.  Downer ending.

Girty is a thoroughly hateable character, with a combination of “bad boss” and “bad conservative” personality traits that make Rafferty’s reasons understandable.

“Hawks Over Shem” by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp is the centerpiece of the issue.  It’s a rewritten version of Mr. Howard’s story “Hawks Over Egypt” that Mr. de Camp translated into the Hyborian Age setting so he could make Conan the Cimmerian the star.

Asgalun is ruled by a king who is, well, nuts.  The main thing protecting him from being overthrown is his army, but his three main generals are feuding with each other and jockeying for power.  One of the generals, Othbaal, has a checkered path in which he sold out his own mercenaries for a massacre.

The sole survivor of that massacre was Conan the Cimmerian.  He’s finally made it to Asgalun to seek vengeance.  But as fate would have it, first Conan accidentally gets involved with an assassination attempt on a man who turns out to be Mazdak, one of the other generals.  Conan would not have interfered, but the assassins decided they didn’t want any witnesses, and our barbarian protagonist isn’t just going to lie down and die.

Mazdak is grateful to Conan, and Othbaal dying fits into his own plans.  So the pair teams up to infiltrate Othbaal’s palace so that Conan can have his revenge.  Othbaal’s concubine Rufia wisely runs away as her unwanted master is disposed of.  Unfortunately for her, it’s currently illegal for women to be out in the street at night, and she runs into King Akhirom in disguise.

As it happens, fleeing murderous barbarians is not a defense under the law, and so Rufia is about to be executed.  Then she gets a brilliant idea, playing into Akhirom’s delusions of grandeur, and getting him to declare himself a god (and herself his first worshiper.)  That saves her neck for the nonce, but now God-King Akhirom is determined to push the new religion on the entire city.

Chaos ensues, and Conan is recognized as Amra, the famous pirate with a reward on his head!  How will he escape a city gone mad?

Note: child sacrifice and implicit rape are part of the story.

This story has been reprinted several times as part of Conan collections, so should be relatively easy to track down.

“Pink Fluff” by Craig Rice is set in an old house that an architect and his family have recently moved into.  There’s currently some amount of marital discord, not made any easier by the appearance of the title substance, which seems to have no visible source, and vanishes just as mysteriously when you aren’t looking.  And it’s getting thicker….

It is painfully obvious to say that this is a “fluff” story, but yes.  It is.

“Run Around the Moon” by Matt Carter takes place in small-town Minnesota.  An astronaut who accomplished many great feats of exploration is retiring to his family farm.  A humble man and solitary by nature, he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet.  But Lars Hendricssen hasn’t counted on just how famous he’s become.

Lars is the biggest thing to come out of that little town, and they want to exploit it to the hilt.  Tourists and sightseers, professors and legislators, all want a piece of Lars’ time and personal space.  Plus, there’s space-happy kids trampling all over his flowerbeds and being loud and enthusiastic all day.

Fortunately, one of Lars’ old crewmembers comes for a visit, and he’s got an idea for a project to keep the kids busy for a good long time.

I’m a sucker for Minnesota-set stories, and I like the humor in this one.

“Universe in Books” by Hans Stefan Santesson is his first review column for FU.  He would later become editor of the magazine.  He likes the more intellectual sort of science fiction, rather than the space opera whiz-bang stuff.

“You Created Us” by Tom Godwin is about a secret community of atomic mutants created by the tests in the Nevada desert in the late Forties/early Fifties.  The protagonist has a metal plate in his head, and this allows him to realize that the lizard people are there, despite their mental powers.  Perhaps he should not have gone into their lair alone.

This is the sort of thing that might have been turned into an Outer Limits story back in the day.  It’s very much a product of the fear of nuclear war.

A different sort of doomsday scenario is seen in the final story, “Weather Prediction” by Evelyn E. Smith.  George is terrible at remembering numbers, particularly telephone numbers.  So when he claims to have called the weather line and been told that rain is coming, his wife Elinor and her friends laugh.  It’s going to be warm and clear!  Until it isn’t.  And then George tells them the rest of the prediction…but who did he actually call?

Some sticklers for religious dogma might object to the ending.

An interesting issue, but a couple of the stories leave a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Anime Review: Hataraki Man

Anime Review: Hataraki Man

Hiroko Matsukada is an “editor” at Jidai, a weekly magazine.  What this means in practice is that she researches and writes articles, as well as working with at least one outside author who submits a serialized novel for the magazine.  At 28 and still single, Hiroko sometimes worries that she’s missing out on a woman’s “proper” existence–she and her boyfriend Shinji haven’t had sex in months due to their conflicting schedules.  But when the deadline looms and her creativity is engaged, Hiroko enters “Hataraki” (hard-working) mode, shutting everything else out, and the thrill of being published makes it all seem worthwhile.

Hataraki Man

This 11-episode anime was based on a short manga series by Moyoco Anno (Sugar Sugar Rune) which has also been turned into a live-action TV drama.  Each episode focuses on Hiroko or one of the people in her life (including her masseuse!) as they deal with their work and personal issues.  For example, the photographer who would much rather be taking pictures of nature, but is stuck as a paparazzi, taking scandalous shots because that’s what sells magazines.

Many episodes compare and contrast Hiroko with other characters.  Hiroko has a relatively brash, serious approach that comes off to Japanese people as “masculine” as opposed to, say, her co-worker Yumi Nogawa, who projects a pliant, traditionally feminine image to succeed in the world of sports reporting (what often gets denigrated as “feminine wiles.”)  Hiroko also often clashes with rookie editor Kunio Tanaka, who is laid back and tries not to let his job take over his life, but often turns in slipshod work and evades responsibility.

Towards the end of the series, Hiroko’s relationship with Shinji hits a crisis point at roughly the same time she gets a huge career break that will decide if she’s going to be on the fast track for promotion.

Hiroko smokes and drinks (as do other characters) and grouses about the sex she’s not having.  We see her topless a couple of times (the camera angle keeping the audience from seeing too much.)  Sexism is a running theme, both in direct actions by Hiroko’s male co-workers, and the question of whether fitting into a gender role or defying it is a better life plan.

Overall, it’s a reasonably realistic look at working in the world of magazine publishing, full of little epiphanies and setbacks.  Even Hiroko’s large successes don’t come without their costs, and the ending is bittersweet.

Bonus feature–here’s the ending theme from the live-action version!

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

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: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

Book Review: Republic of Thieves

Book Review: Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Note:  This is the third book in the Locke Lamora series, and this review will contain spoilers for the first two.  If you haven’t already read them, you may want to check out my review of the first volume, The Lies of Locke Lamora.

We return again to the adventures of conman and thief Locke Lamora, and his best friend and hatchetman Jean Tannen in a fantasy world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy.  Following the events of the second volume, Red Seas Under Red Skies, the pair have been lucky to escape with their lives.  And even that is increasingly dubious as Locke suffers a seemingly incurable poisoning.  When even the last frail hope is shattered, he’s at an even lower point than ever before.

The Republic of Thieves

It’s at this point that the bondsmage Archedama Patience arrives with an offer that is difficult to refuse.  She will remove the poison in exchange for Locke helping her to fix an election in the city-state of Karthain.   While her connections to the Falconer, the bondsmage who Locke crippled in the first book, ensure that he cannot truly trust her, it’s that or a horrible death within days at best.  Better to take that six-week extension and hope to outwit her in the meantime!

Karthain is ruled, in its way, by the bondsmagi, but their rules prevent them from using magic to control the election directly–and its outcome will send one faction of the magi ascendant over the other.  So a clever fellow like Locke is needed to pull all the tricks necessary to win.  However, there’s another problem.  The opposition learned that Patience was hiring Locke, so they’ve acquired the services of the only other person as devious as he–the love of his life, the beautiful and treacherous Sabetha.

There are actually two plotlines, the current-day one and the story of Locke and Sabetha’s young relationship, which culminates in a performance of a play entitled The Republic of Thieves.

We learn considerably more about the bondsmagi this go-round, and see that while they are not at all pleasant people, they do have reasons for their actions, and the Falconer was going well out of his way to twist his remit to greater evil for his own pleasure.  The cycle of vengeance might be less vicious if he hadn’t given it a firm push.

Locke is a bit more likable in this volume, perhaps because his primary opponent is one of the few people he actually feels some loyalty to, and their battle is primarily one of wits rather than violence, though some of that comes in too.

People who have triggers should be aware that there’s some fairly graphic talk of rape, and an attempted rape.

Some minor characters turn out to be the sort of people I actually care about, but they are unlikely to appear as more than a cameo in any other volumes–Locke doesn’t have many living friends.

The back and forth between current and past plotlines can get annoying–I actually skipped ahead when a particularly juicy twist came at a cliffhanger moment, which may or may not explain a lot about Locke’s abilities.

The final chapter is a long set-up for a sequel hook, which will presumably figure in later in the series.

Overall, I liked the cleverness of the election hijinks, and the sparks between Locke and Sabetha, but the next book is likely to go to more gloomy territory, and I do not think I want to follow it there unless Locke develops higher motives.

Book Review: Conquest of Earth

Book Review: Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot twists beyond a certain point.

Today Kor Danay is a Man.  It is the distant future, when Sol has become a red star, and Kor has completed nineteen years of intense mental and physical training to become a Scarlet Sage of the Brotherhood of Man.  Only six out of a class of one hundred have managed to attain the abilities of instantaneous teleportation over galactic distances, moving so fast time seems to stand still, reading minds, etc.  And Kor is the first initiate ever to survive taking the extra credit option of summoning stellar fire to the surface of a planet.

Conquest of Earth

But Kor and his four surviving classmates (one other tried the extra credit option) are bound by oath to conceal their Dragonball Z-level powers from the world.  For the Men are not the masters of Earth.  Earth, and all civilized worlds, are under the control of energy beings called the Trisz, who may or may not be multiple manifestations of a single mind.  The Trisz have been slowly draining Earth of its water, and under the guise of benevolent protection have turned humanity into a servant race.  If the Trisz knew just how powerful the Men really were, they would simply destroy Earth, which wouldn’t necessarily kill the Men, but would eliminate the People the Men want to free.

So as far as the rest of humanity knows, the Men are just philosopher-priests with maybe some holy miracles once in a while, though few people ever see even one.  Kor is shipped off to be the new head priest of No-Ka-Si, in the desert that was once known as Kansas.  There he must match wits with the treacherous Brother Set of the Blue Brethren (those students of the Brotherhood who washed out before the training became lethal) and the beautiful Lady Soma, who leads a double life.

The Trisz want Kor eliminated as their Prognosticator (a powerful computer that can predict the future but only in vague rhyming couplets) has indicated he might be a danger to them.  After some cat and mouse games, Kor makes the Trisz think he is dead and moves into the Organization of Men, the Brotherhood’s even more secret branch.  While investigating a young, untouched planet for possible colonization, Kor undergoes a shocking tragedy.

That tragedy begins a new phase in Kor’s life, that ends with another tragedy, one that gives him the information he needs to free the galaxy of the Trisz.

This 1957 novel appears to have first been a three-part magazine serial, judging by the abrupt changes between acts.  The middle section is the weakest, as it contains a lot of psychobabble philosophy while not much actually happens.  Brother Set is a fun character, but vanishes after the first part.

The idea that humans have untapped mental and physical powers that a chosen few can manifest with the proper training and mindset was a popular one in science fiction during the 1940s and ’50s, though few works carried it to this level.  The story plays with this a bit; Kor has difficulty empathizing with the humans he’s supposed to be saving due to the fact that he’s just better than them in every way.  And concealing his powers causes him issues; he could make himself invulnerable to heat and grime, but that would tip observers off that it was possible.

The romance angle is…lacking.  Apparently, a real Man just has to do whatever he was planning to do anyway, and women will be attracted to his Manliness; Kor never has to work at a relationship.  Lady Soma has some interesting potential, but tosses away her advantages to help Kor out.  After that, she’s just a sidekick who doesn’t do anything useful on page.

Once Kor really gets to unleash towards the end, the prose picks up as the author clearly enjoyed that bit.

Overall, a forgettable book with a few good scenes.

SPOILERS beyond this point.

There’s a phenomenon in fiction that comic book fans call “fridging” after a particularly notable example.  It consists of a female character dying or suffering for the sole reason of  motivating the male main character to do something, usually revenge.  In this situation, the story is not about the woman at all, but about the man’s deep pain and sorrow at losing her or having her relationship with him threatened.

Conquest of Earth is notable in that it does this twice, first by having Lady Soma randomly eaten by the Trisz, who are apparently completely unaware of who she is and why they might want to kill her.  Then the cavegirl Eldra, who is carrying Kor’s child for bonus rage points, is killed when the Trisz invade her planet.  Both women seem to exist solely to make emotional connections to Kor (doing all the relationship work themselves) so he’ll feel bad when they die.

But that’s not all!  Once rescued from Eldra’s planet, Kor realizes that he has been subconsciously manipulating probability to bring about a future in which he eliminates the Trisz.  In other words, he himself was responsible for the Trisz killing both his love interests to advance his main goal.  Kor doesn’t seem particularly upset by this revelation, either; now he can save the universe!

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Wonder Woman Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Wonder Woman Volume 4 Edited by Robert Kanigher

Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero in comics, nor even the first not to be a male character’s sidekick.  But she was the first to get her own ongoing solo series, and designed to be an equal to the male superheroes of the time.  Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston specifically to address issues raised by the violence in comic books and the overwhelmingly male superheroes.  Dr. Marston, a psychologist and one of the inventors of the polygraph, had some…interesting…ideas about the role of women in society, and the place of sexuality.

Wonder Woman Volume 4

This resulted in stories that were themselves psychologically interesting, especially in retrospect, with their themes of bondage and loving submission.   After Dr. Marston died in 1947, the new writers, most notably Robert Kanigher, tended to water down the more esoteric elements in favor of fantastic adventure and mythological monsters.  Unlike most characters published by what would become DC Comics, Wonder Woman was not created as “work for hire” under the standard contract, but would revert to Dr. Marston (or later, his estate) if DC did not publish her book on a regular basis.  Thus she continued to be published throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s when superheroes had gone out of fashion for a while.  As such, she became one of DC’s most recognizable characters, even if the management often treated her as an afterthought.

This black and white reprint volume covers 1965-68.  At this point, Wonder Woman (as Diana Prince) was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Intelligence division, serving under her love interest, Colonel Steve Trevor.    Steve is infatuated with Wonder Woman, but dismisses his mousy secretary Diana, little dreaming they are one and the same.  Steve is kind of a dolt.

The first story in the volume is a two-parter, pitting Wonder Woman against one of her most dubious villains, the hideously racistly depicted Communist Chinese monstrosity Egg Fu.  This giant egg-shaped mad scientist actually manages to kill Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor–thank goodness for Amazon science!  They’re then afflicted with a condition that prevents them from touching each other, but still manage to defeat the Red menace.

This is followed by a metafictional story that featured the first of a series of retoolings the Wonder Woman comics would undergo.  Robert Kanigher (face unseen) eliminates ninety percent of the supporting cast that had been built up, including such luminaries as Wonder Tot, and announces to a waiting crowd that starting next issue, it’s back to the Golden Age!

Sure enough, the next few issues are set in the 1940s with artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito imitating the art style of the period.  it’s not a very good imitation.  Several of the villains who hadn’t been seen since Marston’s death appeared, but stripped of some of their more interesting aspects.  For example, Cheetah’s alter ego and insane jealousy of Wonder Woman are dropped, making her just another costumed gang leader.

Dr. Psycho loses his creepy mind control powers and abusive relationship with his wife–this version is a “forever alone” misogynist who hates women for their reactions to his grotesque appearance and small stature.  He’s so twisted up inside that even when Wonder Woman shows him genuine compassion, Dr. Psycho is unable to process it as anything other than a feminine trick to hurt him more than ever.

Rather abruptly and without announcement, the series is suddenly taking place in the 1960s again.  Despite this, the revised Golden Age villains appear no older than before.  The volume cuts off just before the next big retool, in which Wonder Woman loses her powers and becomes martial arts secret agent Diana Prince (aka the “white pantsuit period.”

As you might have guessed, this is not a highly regarded point in Wonder Woman’s history.  Robert Kanigher, who had been writing the series for nearly two decades at this point, often seemed like he was phoning it in on the stories.  The villains range from mediocre (Mouseman, whose power is that he’s very short, is presented as a serious threat to WW) to offensive (Egg Fu and his brother/clone/replacement Egg Fu the Fifth) and even the classic villains are often stuck with lackluster plots.

Steve Trevor is a horrible love interest; the relationship worked in the Golden Age (to the extent it did) because of Marston’s understanding of the nuances he was trying to convey.  The nadir of that in this volume is a story in which Steve gets control of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, and attempts to force her to marry him.  (He eventually decides that impressing her by beating up some crooks was more important than safety and accidentally dropped the rope.)  His most endearing trait is that despite several villainesses falling in love with him on sight, Steve remains completely loyal to WW.

Wanting to impress Wonder Woman is a common theme among the men in this volume, Steve, his boss General Darnell, would be superheroes, villains, even space gorillas!  A slight variation on the theme has nebbishy Paper Man falling for Diana Prince because she’s the only woman who’s ever been kind to him.  (When she nearly blows her secret identity by repeating the same phrasing Wonder Woman used while fighting the villain, he interprets this as WW trying to poison Diana’s mind against him.)

This volume is mostly for completeists.  something to slog through because you want to read every Wonder Woman story.  Check your library.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

“Doll Face” Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a burlesque queen who wants to move into Broadway productions.  When slightly snobbish producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) scorns her audition because Doll Face isn’t “cultured”, her manager Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keefe) comes up with the idea of making her seem more accomplished by having her write an book.

Doll Face

The problem there is that Doll Face has no idea what to write, even if she were lettered enough to try.  Mike assures her that this will not be an issue, as he will hire a ghost writer to help her create an autobiography.  This writer is top-seller Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne), an intellectual who loves lofty vocabulary and has no interest in burlesque.  He does, however, take an interest in Doll Face.

Frederick turns out to be willing to fudge the facts considerably to make Doll Face’s biography more interesting (moving her birthplace from Brooklyn to Arden Hills, for example.)  His smooth talk and kindness also make him a strong contrast to the overbearing and uncouth Mike.  Cynical and sarcastic friend of the main couple Chita (Carmen Miranda) sees where this is going and tries to head it off to no avail.

In a subplot, singer-songwriter Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to woo showgirl Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart), who only has eyes for Mike, who only likes Doll Face.

Mike tries to cancel the autobiography when he thinks enough publicity has been  milked out of it, Doll Face disagrees, and they quarrel.  When a bizarre coincidence makes it appear that Doll Face and Frederick are having it on, Mike dumps Doll Face.  This leads to misery for everyone, but the show must go on….

This 1945 musical was based on the play Naked Genius by Louise Hovick (better known to most of us as Gypsy Rose Lee.)   The name change was one of the many alterations required by the censors; the burlesque seen in the film is toned way down (though there are still some risque costumes on the ladies by the standards of the 1940s.)  There’s a brief mention of World War Two in one of the songs.

The music is quite good, and Perry Como is terrific as a singer to no one’s surprise.  There’s a couple of especially good lines, too.  “Do you always swim with your top hat on?”  “Only in opera season.”

Less good, especially by modern standards, is Mike.  He engages in “playful” aggression towards Doll Face, and advises Nicky to beat Frankie up, or at least threaten to, to gain her affection.  (Sadly, threats of force are shown to work on Frankie.)  Mike also prefers to do all the thinking for the couple, and gets sore when Doll Face decides otherwise.  This makes Frederick much easier to root for as a love interest, despite him having some controlling tendencies too; he at least will let Doll Face have her head.

Chita Chula is mostly in the story for her big number “Chico Chico (from Porto Rico)”, but is not portrayed stereotypically by the script–the character could have been any ethnicity.  And she scoffs at the idea she’s anything like Carmen Miranda.

The script is rather lackluster, but the musical performances are good, so it’s an enjoyable watch outside the cringeworthy bits.  If you’re watching it with younger viewers, you may need to talk to them about the kind of boyfriend Mike is and why that behavior isn’t appropriate.

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