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.

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.

Book Review: Steal the Sky

Book Review: Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe

Detan Honding and his partner Tibal (“Tibs” to his friends) are rogues.  They steal and swindle for a living, moving frequently from place to place on the Scorched Continent.  To keep ahead of their victims, yes, but also for more important reasons.  Just now they’re stuck in the city of Aransa with a busted flyer.  When Detan tries to raise the needed funds, he finds himself hired to steal the airship Larkspur from its owner, former Imperial commodore Thratia.

Steal the Sky

Ripka is the city watch captain of Aransa, tasked with keeping the peace and punishing criminals.  She’s wary of Thratia’s ambition to become warden of the city.  While the Valathean Empire technically rules the Scorched Continent, Thratia may be trying to bring the city under direct Imperial control, which would mean more hardship for the selium miners the city’s economy is based on.  Worse, the reason the warden’s chair is open is that someone, probably a shapeshifting doppler, murdered the previous warden.  Ripka needs to track down this dangerous killer before they strike again.

Pelkaia is an illusionist; “doppler” is an Imperial word, and she considers it an insult.  Aransa has taken the last of her children; she’s got a list of those responsible, and they must all die.  And if a few other people die in the process, that might be okay with her.   Pelkaia is missing a few vital pieces of information, however.  Her vengeance may be misaimed, and that could cost all of Aransa dearly.

These people’s lives are about to collide as each of them attempts to achieve their own goals while thwarting the plans of those they consider enemies.

The Scorched Continent is an interesting fantasy setting.  A large landmass in tropical latitudes, it suffered a massive geothermal event that turned it into a volcanic wasteland.  As a result, the heat is oppressive even on a good day and much of the land is unable to grow more than scrub.  However, the volcanoes are the only known source of selium, which is a buoyant gas (like helium) but is also psychically sensitive, being able to be moved and shaped by those who are “sel-sensitive.”  Selium has many uses, including creating airships, so most of the major settlements on the Scorched Continent are near volcanoes so they can be mined.

And this has also affected the society they live in.  Sel-sensitive people are in a minority, and anyone known to have some talent in that area is drafted into working with selium in some manner, regardless of the social status they were born into.  The government “takes care” of them, but it takes permanent injury to be able to leave the job.  Detan has faked the loss of his sel-sense because he has a deadly “deviant” talent.  The Empire is rounding up any deviants for their researchers to experiment on, and he suffered enough the first time he fell into their hands.

The first comparison that comes to mind is the Locke Lamora books; I like the characters better in this one.  There’s much less of a cynical cast to the personalities; most of these folks are acting for what they believe is a good cause and care for people outside their immediate circle.  The villains are that way because they allow their personal ambitions to treat people who aren’t useful to them as expendable.  Detan’s selfishness is less about pleasing himself than protecting others from his dangerous temper.

There are multiple tight viewpoints, so at any given point we only learn what the current point of view character knows about events.  Detan, Ripka and Pelkaia swap out being the main protagonist, with one chapter near the end being from the viewpoint of a surprise character.

There’s a fair amount of violence, and Detan has medical torture in his backstory.  Tibs has what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service when the Empire solidified its hold over the Scorched Continent  by suppressing the native Catari (of which Pelkaia is one.)

I found the world-building interesting, and there is already a sequel out.  This book was enjoyable, and I recommend it to fantasy fans looking for something new.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue edited by John P. Gunnison

Planet Stories was a science-fiction pulp magazine published between 1939 and 1955; it specialized in interplanetary action and daring-do.  (See my review of Planet Comics, its sister magazine that started publishing about the same time.  Covers tended to the formula of busty, scantily-clad (by the standards of the time) woman, handsome hero and bug-eyed monster.

High Adventure #143: Planet Stories

The stories in this reprint are from 1951 & 1952, by which time the general quality of the stories had improved and science fiction itself was trending towards more mature writing.  Most of the SF pulps that survived did so by switching to a digest format on somewhat better paper; Planet Stories was unable to make that transition.

“Zero Data” by Charles Saphro is a bit different from the usual for the magazine in that while interplanetary travel exists, it takes place on Earth.  Police officer Jason has been trying to get the goods on crimelord Lonnie Raichi for years.  But no matter what new crime-fighting equipment the police labs produce, Lonnie always escapes detection.  By 2009, he’s become THE Launcelot Raichi and the higher-ups of Government City are putting heavy pressure on Captain Jason to simply stop investigating.

Lonnie ascribes his success to his “Triple Ethic”, one of the tenets of which is paying the right people to produce solutions to his problems.  For example, the head inventor of the police labs was on his payroll, creating ways to beat the latest anti-crime technology before delivering that technology to the police.

Captain Jason has the last laugh, however, figuring out what Lonnie is after, and using the low-tech approach of being there in person with his human eyes.  He’s realized that Lonnie has never bothered learning the scientific principles his crime suit operates on.

“Thompson’s Cat” by Robert Moore Williams demonstrates the wisdom of bringing a housecat on your rocketship.  An exploration crew finds a planet devoid of life, looking like everyone died in a sudden attack by unknown enemies, but with no radioactivity or battle damage to the buildings.  On the way back to Earth, crew members start dying of something that turns their skin green.  The captain locks the ship into a course for the sun–if they can’t figure out the cause before they fry, at least Earth won’t be contaminated.  A fairly simple puzzle story, though raising some questions about the alien life cycles.

“The Slaves of Venus” by Edwin James is closer to the traditional “planetary romance” formula Planet Stories was known for.  A political figure exiled from Earth and Mars arrives on Venus to free it from the tyrannical interplanetary government.  Except that he himself is one of the former dictators who has been overthrown.  The actual hero unites Venus’ barbarian tribes to stop the slave trade and has a romance with the dictator’s naive daughter who bought into her father’s narrative.

“Evil Out of Onzar” by Mark Ganes has a shapeshifting intelligence officer assigned to bodyguard a scientist who has developed a new wrinkle on hyperspace travel that would make it easier for one side of the galactic war to win.  He fails, but manages to hook up with the scientist’s lovely daughter, herself a brilliant scientist (Planet tended to have pretty competent heroines who were of actual use to the hero once he saved them.)   Onzar turns out to be an important choke point in the hyperspace system, and an ideal place for an ambush.  Unfortunately, it’s run by a dictator who is himself bent on conquest.

The best character in the story is Pyuf, an amiable and hard-drinking fellow who has many jobs, not all of them legitimate.  Sadly, he leaves the tale about halfway through.  There’s also an interesting social divide between gold-obsessed males and religious females on Onzar.

“The Virgin of Valkarion” by Poul Anderson is in the “Barbarian Worlds” setting.  Humanity went to the stars, but the planets became cut off from each other and fell into more primitive societies.  Eons have passed since then.  Alfric, an outlander, comes to Valkarion, last vestige of an empire that once ruled the planet back when it had oceans.  He’s directed to a particular tavern, and the girl that comes with his room is of far too high quality to be an ordinary prostitute.

Turns out she’s Hildaborg, queen of Valkarion, whose husband just died–there’s a prophecy that Alfric fits to an uncomfortable degree, and she wants in on the ground floor.  The priest Therokos, on the other hand, wants to break the prophecy and rule himself.  (The title is a lie.  There is no virgin in the story.)

This could easily be fantasy; the only hints of SF are the alien planet thing and hints that Alfric’s sword is technological in nature.

“The Big Pill” by Raymond Z. Gallun finishes the issue with a colony on Titan.  It’s just suffered a tragedy due to defective equipment shipped in by Space Colonists’ Supply, Inc.  The current owner values profit over safety, and has blocked more modern equipment from being imported thanks to his monopoly.  Some of the colonists have a plan to make conditions on Titan better…using a descendant of the hydrogen bomb.  They must work against the clock as the corporate jerk is determined to see them all under his thumb instead.

Overall, this is a fun issue for pulp SF fans, which is better on the sexism front than much of the contemporary material.  (There’s some Mighty Whitey moments in “The Slaves of Venus” that  may be off-putting.)

 

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: The Emperor’s Soul

Book Review: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Shai is a Forger, an artist with the mystical ability to change the past of objects; mostly used to create copies of other artworks, but with larger implications that cause fear and loathing in the minds of others.  When she is captured while trying to substitute a Forgery for an important Imperial artifact (due to her patron making his own escape too early), Shai expects that she will be put to death.

The Emperor's Soul

But fate intervenes.  It seems that the Emperor has been attacked by a rival faction.  He survived, but with brain damage that reduced him to a vegetative state.  The arbiters, fearful of losing their place if the rival faction takes over, offers Shai a deal.  If she can use her Forgery skills to restore the Emperor’s mind and memories, they’ll let her go free.  Shai realizes that they in fact would never allow her to live with the knowledge of the Emperor’s true state.  But perhaps agreeing will allow her to buy time to come up with an escape plan–and if she succeeds, the Emperor’s soul will be her masterpiece!

This novella is by Brandon Sanderson, who you may know from the Mistborn series or his work finishing The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed away.  This is the closest he can get to a short story, so he says.  It has his trademark interesting magic systems, and some fascinating characters.

The primary relationship in the story is between Shai and Gaotona, an elderly arbiter who is both keeping an eye on Shai to make sure she is doing the job, and also acting as a test bed for her “stamps” that allow her to temporarily change a person’s memories.   Through their conversations, we learn how Shai’s magic works, her motivations and some of her background, as well as the real reason she was in the Imperial palace to begin with.

The conversations also contrast Shai to the government-approved “Rememberers” who use similar magic to mass-produce knockoffs of period pieces from the era the current regime wants to emulate.  Gaotona comes to understand Shai’s  sense of artistic pride and creativity, while she learns to appreciate his integrity and loyalty to the Emperor.  Also, we delve into the personality of the Emperor, his good qualities as well as where he fell short, and the Empire has suffered as a result.

There’s also some blood magic in the plot, which may be a little too intense for more sensitive readers, but aside from that, while this was written for adults, I don’t think it unsuitable for junior high students on up.

The book is well-written, has a mostly-likable main character (though she is a criminal by profession) and bits of an interesting Imperial China-like setting (the story takes place in the same world as Elantris.)  I’d recommend it to fantasy fans, especially those that might be intimidated by longer works and trilogies.

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