Magazine Review: If May 1961

Magazine Review: If May 1961 managing editor Frederik Pohl

If was a science fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1974.  It was considered a “second tier” magazine due to frequently low sales, but that should not be confused with “second-rate.”  By 1961, If had become a sister magazine to Galaxy, publishing in alternate months.  Under editor Frederik Pohl, this magazine tended to publish newer writers and more experimental stories, while Galaxy on average worked more with popular established authors.  The cover for the May 1961 issue is “The Commuters” by Jack Gaughan, which has nothing to do with any of the stories.

If May 1961

The lead story is “That’s How It Goes” by J.T. McIntosh.  An overpopulated Earth needs millions of colonists for new worlds.  But it’s only hundred thousands who volunteer.  So most colonists are those who’ve broken laws or rules.  Serious criminals are sent to hellholes like Roc, which is almost certain death.  But for relatively pleasant worlds like Aperdui, which just needs a lot of hard work, any rulebreaker will do.

Thus the seven candidates in the colony office are an actress who wore a see-through nightie on screen, two gluttons, a man who made too many shoes for his quota, a fellow who took a call from his girlfriend and let a food vat die, his girlfriend and the phone operator who let the call go through.  The operator gets a temporary stay, but the rest are shipped off to the new planet to start a farm.

One of the gluttons kills himself because he can’t face life on just enough food to work, and is replaced by an experienced farmer.  We follow the fortunes of the group through their ups and downs, some succeeding and making Aperdui a decent place to live, others dealing with heartbreak.

At the end, one of the colonists becomes a recruiter back on Earth, facing the same sort of involuntary exportees he once was. There’s a picture of a woman skinny-dipping in the distance, her back turned towards the “camera.”  Notably absent from the story is the notion that Earth should perhaps limit its population by other means than emigration.

“Out of Mind” by William W. Stuart concerns a control freak bureaucrat who takes a “vacation” on a planet where the natives have illusion powers that make the place seem ideal, whatever that means to the individual viewer.  Many visitors never leave.  But Screed is ready with anti-illusion pills and a satellite that will disrupt the natives’ powers.  He’ll soon have them whipped into shape as a proper member of the galactic civilization!

Much of the story is Screed being set up to think it’s his idea to go to the planet.  It’s pretty clear his wife (who he allots fifteen minutes of scheduled sex a week) is in on the scam.  It’s a well-deserved fate, but the ending is telegraphed.

“A Science Faction Story” by Theodore Sturgeon is an article on making money from going to space.  Specifically, the then-new idea of communications satellites, a business opportunity that can only be achieved through spaceflight, as opposed to being (Earth activity) in SPACE!

“The Connoisseur” by Frank Banta is set on a generation ship that has forgotten its past, and its goal.  A collector of rare items barters for a child bride with such things as the control knobs which used to be on the navigation panel…before the ship inhabitants killed the last navigator.  No happy ending here, kids.

“Seven Doors to Education” by Fred Saberhagen is an interesting piece about a  swimmer who finds himself undergoing a series of tests to unlock doors to escape wherever it is he’s trapped.  Pete Kelsey’s family didn’t believe in education, and he’s wound up with a steady but dead-end job sorting letters in the Chicago post office.  Now he has to learn, and learn fast if he wants to avoid drowning.  A bit of an infodump at the end, but Pete is faced with a decision that feels meaningful.

“The Useless Bugbreeders” by James Stamers has some interesting features.  The narrator is an advocate for alien species who don’t want the expansionist Earthlings to destroy their homes for the ease of space travel.   He must defend them to a panel of judges who are none too thrilled considering the wacky things that happen.

In this case, his clients are the Bugbreeders, who are masters of creating specialty microbes.  He’s brought along one of their scientists to perform some demonstrations.  Unfortunately, poor prior planning causes each of the demonstrations to have predictable bad consequences.  It looks like the Bugbreeders may lose their asteroid home, but there’s one last twist.  This is one of those stories where the advocate and the client should have gone over the testimony in advance.

“Science Briefs” is a set of short science fact developments as of 1961, including a look at radiation therapy to treat cancer.  Fascinating stuff for science fans!

“Cinderella Story” by Allen Kim Lang concerns Orison McCall, a Treasury agent infiltrating a bank where weird things are going on by being hired as a secretary.  Such things as most of the bank’s employees wearing earmuffs in mid-summer and the invertebrate farm upstairs.

Eventually, Orison learns that she’s stumbled onto an alien power struggle.  The story is marred by most of the male characters treating Orison as a romantic target (and the other major female character assuming Orison is her romantic rival on the strength of Orison being pretty.)  This is especially irksome with the male lead Dink Gerding, who very specifically will not accept that “no” means “no”, orders for his date at restaurants, and jumps straight from first date to marriage proposal.  Naturally, Orison is deeply in love with him by the end of the story.

“The Flying Tuskers of K’Niik-K’naak” by Jack Sharkey rounds out the issue.  It’s a comedic tale about a pompous Great White Hunter being outfoxed by his native servant…in SPACE.  It’s overdone, the narration pushing the hunter character well beyond pompous into actively abusive.

The Saberhagen story is the best in this issue, but the McIntosh story is also pretty good.  You can find all the issues of If on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Book Review: The Big Time | The Mind Spider and Other Stories

Book Review: The Big Time | The Mind Spider and Other Stories by Fritz Leiber

Have you ever noticed that something isn’t in the place you last remembered putting it?  That an event you remember happening one way is described as happening a different way in  the history books?  Perhaps you have suddenly felt that you weren’t even  the person you thought you were?  Maybe you’re going insane…or maybe it’s the Change Wars.

The Change Wars are fought over the entire breadth and depth of time and space, two factions known as Spiders and Snakes battling to have the course of universal history go their way.  It’s not precisely clear what the two sides want, if one is good and the other evil or if human morality even applies, or what the victory conditions would be.  It is known that both sides lift people out of their own timelines shortly before their deaths to become Doublegangers, to act as Soldiers or Entertainers or other, more obscure occupations relevant to the Change Wars.   This Ace Double is largely concerned with those Doublegangers and how the Change Wars affect them.

The Big Time

The Big Time is set in The Place, a building-sized rest station outside of normal time-space.  A number of Entertainers are quartered there to help Soldiers recover physically and emotionally between Change War battles.  Our narrator is Greta Forzane, who died in the Nazi invasion of Chicago in the late 1950s.  This makes her affair with Erich von Hohenwald, formerly an Oberleutnant in the army of the Third Reich, rather fraught.  It doesn’t help that his idea of fun sex involves giving her bruises.

If one side or the other manages to score a major victory, the Big Change can have effects on the Doublegangers’ original timelines, giving the Doublegangers phantom memories.  Erich was snatched from his personal timeline when he died on a Norwegian battlefield, but now he has memories of having lived long enough to become the hated Commandant of Toronto.  And if the Big Change makes the original person die before they “originally” did, it kills the Doubleganger.

Thus, each time The Place’s Door opens, the Change Winds may bring nightmares or even death.  This time it has deposited six Soldiers of varying start times, two of which are aliens (but from within Earth’s solar system) and one a warrior woman from ancient Crete.  The problem begins with a new recruit, a British poet from World War One, who has some idealistic notions bordering on mutiny.

While everyone is reacting to his incendiary rhetoric, somehow The Place undergoes Introversion, being completely cut off from normal space-time.  And the only device that can open it back up has vanished, despite a lack of plausible hiding places.  Oh, and just to add to the pressure, an atomic bomb has been activated and will kill everyone within thirty minutes.

This novel won the Hugo for Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) in 1958 after being serialized in Galaxy Magazine.  One of its interesting features is that it’s a “bottle episode” taking place in only one location, a large stage-like area with curtains separating different parts, and most of the action placed in the reception area.  I could easily see this being adapted for an (expensive) play or a juiced up episode of The Outer Limits.

As it is, there are almost too many characters, and a couple of them turn out to be red herrings who get almost no development.  Once they’re whittled out, the tension rises considerably.

Sex is only alluded to, and Erich never hits Greta during the story, but it’s clear that it’s an expected part of her (and the other Entertainers’ ) job if that’s what the Soldiers need to unwind.

There are a lot of interesting ideas going on here; it’s certainly worth hunting down for science fiction fans.

The Mind Spider and Other Stories

The Mind Spider and Other Stories makes up the other half of this Ace Double, six short stories from about the same publication years.

“The Haunted Future” says it’s set in the early 21st Century, but the timeline works better if it’s the middle 21st Century.  The peaceful community of Civil Service Knolls rests outside of New Angeles.  It is almost time for the annual Tranquility Festival, when the locals celebrate how nice and quiet it is in their bedroom community.   Yes, everything is smooth going in this happy village.

Except that the community members are snapping into violent insanity at an alarming rate, and now some people are claiming that a creature of darkness haunts the sky and peeps in their windows.  Judistrator Wisant is trying to keep these disturbing facts from becoming more widely known, but when his own daughter stops wearing clothing and starts stabbing pillows, some begin to wonder about Wisant’s stability.

This is a cautionary tale about a society that has pursued tranquility and conformity too far, until insanity has become the only escape into individuality.  It’s leavened by humorous touches–Bermuda shorts and sandals are now mandatory men’s business attire.

“Damnation Morning” is  the first of three Change Wars stories.  A man is recruited by the Spiders, and must flee an unknown doom.  Once again, the mysteriousness of the Spiders and Snakes’ true natures is emphasized, particularly with the twist ending.  (Content note: suicide.)

“The Oldest Soldier” starts in a liquor store as old soldiers swap stories.  Max has the best stories, but they can’t be true, can they?  Except that when one of his drinking companions accompanies Max home, there’s something crouched on the fire escape that is not of Earth, and Max realizes that he must return to his unit.  This one was clearly Lovecraft-influenced.

“Try and Change the Past” has a Snake recruit get a rare opportunity to alter his own death.  Turns out the universe has ways of preventing that, which makes the Big Changes even more impressive.  An impressive use of contrived coincidence.

“The Number of the Beast” is a change of pace.  The police chief of High Chicago must discover which of four telepathic aliens murdered a peace delegate from Arcturus, all the aliens being sworn to silence on the matter unless the Young Lieutenant correctly divines the guilty party.  If he guesses correctly, the assassin will give itself up truthfully.  But if he guesses incorrectly, the falsely accused alien’s race will declare war on the Earthlings.  The Young Lieutenant consults his retired predecessor on this mystery.  You have all the clues they do; can you divine the true meaning of the Number of the Beast?  Some casual sexism.

“The Mind Spider” rounds out the book with the tale of the telepathic Horn family.  Five mutants who can communicate with each other mentally, the Horns are horrified to discover that there is a sixth telepathic presence on Earth.  Horrified because it is not human, and because it was imprisoned in Antarctica for the crime of stripping planets of their life-supporting environments.  It has waited eons for telepaths it can summon to free it.  One of the Horns manages to get a mind shield up in time, but can he stop his relatives without killing them?

“Try and Change the Past” is perhaps the best of these stories, and “The Number of the Beast” more of a logic puzzle than anything else.

If you can get this in the Ace Double form, swell.  “The Big Time” has been reprinted separately; the other stories may take a bit more tracking down.

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper

Comic Book Review: The Drained Brains Caper written by Trina Robbins, art by Tyler Page

Megan Yamamura wants a pet. Unfortunately, the young poet’s (she specializes in haiku) father is allergic to all fur-bearing animals, so she’s thinking maybe a tarantula, which is fuzzy but not furry might be the best bet.

The Drained Brains Caper

She’s been looking all over her new city of Chicagoland and having no luck when she comes into the pet supply store Raf Hernandez is manning the counter of. The young computer whiz is helping out his mother, but the store’s policy is clear–they sell pet supplies, not animals.

Megan has other problems. One of the reasons her family had to move was because she’d been expelled from her old school (a total overreaction to a minor offense) and she now has to spend the summer at Stepford Academy. The students and teachers there are all smiling zombies, and the meat-laden school lunches (anathema to vegetarian Megan) have unusual effects if overeaten.

Raf is the only person her age she kind of knows in the neighborhood, so she has to turn to him when her father ignores the warning signs that something’s not right at Stepford Academy. (In the tradition of middle-school stories, Mr. Yamamura is totally oblivious to what Megan tells him and only listens to other adults.) The kids are soon joined by Bradley, a talking dog, and must stop the mad scientist, Dr. Vorschak, before she can bring the entire city under her sway.

This is the first volume in the Chicagoland Detective Agency series of children’s graphic novels. Trina Robbins is a long-time comics creator, and her writing here is decent if perhaps a bit shortcut-heavy. There’s not much mystery here, but then the detective agency hasn’t been formed yet. The detective himself doesn’t come in until halfway through, and he just happens to have known what was going on all along.

The city of Chicagoland is about 90% Chicago (it has the El and the Cubs), but presumably isn’t just Chicago so that the creative team can shove any odd buildings or fictional organizations they want in.

There’s some slapstick violence, and Dr. Vorschak engages in unethical animal testing as well as unethical human testing. But in general, this should be suitable for middle-school readers.

Recommended to fans of things like the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.

Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status.  It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series.  Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest.  He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.”   (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program.  When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel.  Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.

Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands.  (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.)  Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.

Which  brings us to the volume at hand.  Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.  But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick.  The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run.  Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.

This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn.  In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy.  Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos.  (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)

Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim.  The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent.  While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.

The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator.  After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run.  #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself.  At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas,  (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)

Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon.  They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.)  This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.

There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson.  She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas.  Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.

Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.

Trivia note:  A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.

In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned.  In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other.  (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.)  There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.

The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)

Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth edited by Essel Pratt

Kaiju (“strange beast”) is primarily a subgenre of the monster movie that became codified in Japan.  They’re mostly gigantic monsters that are nigh-unstoppable by conventional armaments, and run around destroying cities or fighting other giant monsters.  The seeds of the story type were sown in the original King Kong movie, but it was Gojira (“Godzilla”) that codified it, and inspired most of the later examples.

Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

This is a collection of sixteen short stories and poems on the theme of kaiju, all appearing here for the first time.  The book opens with “Call of the Vailathi” by John Ledger, a poem that cautions that even when the kaiju is on your side, it is still a destructive force.  …At least it has a rhyme structure, that’s good.  The closing tale is “Unleashed in the East” as fracking releases a monster from the Java Sea, and two airline pilots must make a decision between saving themselves and saving the world.

I really enjoyed “The Wolf and the Rabbit” by Alice J. Black, in which a disaffected pub worker connects with another random survivor, and finds the will to do what must be done in this crisis.  If the monster seems too easily dispatched, there are hints it wasn’t the only one.

Also good is “Frankentop” by Amanda M. Lyons, which is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that both wants to be loved, and to protect itself.  Unfortunately, the latter is easier than the former.  Internet references abound.

“I Awoke…Wutoomba!” by Roy C. Booth homages the Marvel monster comics of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Jack Lieiber, writer of fantastic fiction, travels to a South Seas island and runs into an assortment of stock characters, including the title monster.  This one is mostly going to please Marvel fanboys who get all the in-jokes.

Most anthologies have a dud or two, but seldom to the level of “The Plastic Centipede” by R.T. Sirk.  The monster itself is a cool idea, a giant centipede made of discarded mannequin parts and the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims.  But spellchecker typos, misplaced commas, badly structured sentences and characterization by telling, not showing make this story come off like the first draft of a fanfic, rather than a professionally published story.  This is clearly a failure of editing, as these banes of small press publishing should have been caught early on.

“A Day at the Racetrack” by Essel Pratt is also sub-par, as waste in a stock car racetrack’s inner pond turns animals giant-sized.  Regional stereotypes are played for broad humor, as are potty jokes.

The rest are decent enough stories.   Due to the very uneven quality, I would recommend this book only to kaiju fanatics or fans of a particular author for that one story.

 

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

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