Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

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