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.

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.

Book Review: Infinity Two

Book Review: Infinity Two edited by Robert Hoskins

Infinity was a series of paperback science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books in the early 1970s.  Its primary draw was that all the stories were new, not having been previously printed in magazines.  By this point, science fiction writers were allowed to mention sex and other controversial topics (thank you, Dangerous Visions) but they did not always do so in a healthy manner.

Infinity Two

The introduction, “The Alien Among Us”, talks about ecology and pollution, and the possibility that some force is trying to kill off the human race.

“Murphy’s Hall” by Poul and Karen Anderson is one of the more experimental pieces, tying together several failed space missions and the miserable life of a boy left behind on Earth.  Depressing ending, but one that seems all too plausible now.

“The Monster in the Clearing” by Michael Fayette is an Adam and Eve story, with a computer giving instructions on how not to screw up humanity’s second chance.  The National Rifle Association is one of the things the new god plans to ban.  However, when did humans ever do what they were supposed to?

“The Scents of IT” by J.F. Bone stars Xar Qot, a member of the Mallian species, which are essentially sentient lobsters with a society based on cannibalism.  When a couple of pesky visitors come to the planet, Xar Qot sees a way to help his human ally George Banks, and advance his own ambitions.  I’m going to talk about this story and some possibly triggery subject matter in the Spoilers section below.

“The Road to Cinnabar” by Ed Bryant is another experimental piece, this one about a labor organizer in a far future city that seems to be dying.  The ending is kind of blah, with a bit of philosophy.

“The Technological Revolution” by James E. Gunn is a horror piece when a woman’s labor-saving devices all go on the fritz at once.  Is there a conspiracy of the machines to kill her, or is the ghost of her Luddite grandmother running a false flag operation?

“Elephants” by K.M. O’Donnell is a depressing piece about the last circus performance of the universe–very stylistic and fatalistic.

“The Other Way Around” by Howard L. Myers is set in the Dark Ages, as a teller of tales tracks down Merlin.  Merlin is not what you’d imagine, and he’s discovered a terrible truth about time travel.  Also kind of depressing.

“Legion” by Russell Bates continues the trend of depressing stories as a multiple transplant recipient is unable to cope with what has happened to him.

“Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!” by William F. Nolan is at the other end of the seriousness spectrum, as a frog eats a bunch of growth pellets and grows to kaiju size.  Now the government needs to try to solve the problem.  The story abruptly moves from New York to California and backin a nonsensical way, and the ending is an anticlimax.

“Timesprawl” by Anthon Warden is back to depressing.  A recently unemployed man gets the chance to relive the last year of his life, which he plans to use to take revenge–but there’s an icky twist.

“In Entropy’s Jaws” by Robert Silverberg has a telepath come unstuck in time with random fugues of flashback and flashforward.  Unlike some of the other stories here, Mr. Silverberg makes the experimental format work well for him.  Probably the best story in this volume.

“Reunion” by Arthur C. Clarke closes out the book with the return of the human race’s true progenitors.  It seems they have a cure for the plague that made them flee millenia ago…but will the Earthlings want it?  Edgy then, kind of silly now.

Overall, a mediocre collection, I’d recommend it to Silverberg completeists and garage sale pickups and not much else.

SPOILERS

So, “The Scents of IT“.   Mr. Bone was a professor of Veterinary Medicine, which may explain the focus on alien biology.   This is clearly meant to be a silly pun-based story, but it turns out to be really problematic by today’s standards.  We learn that the evil feminists have triumphed and turned humanity into a matriarchal society (more like a thin veneer of matriarchy over an egalitarian  society, really.)  George Banks laments that social conditioning prevents him from just raping the woman he wants.

The woman in question is Shirley Copenhaver, who despite being so pretty even sentient lobsters can tell, refuses to give George Banks (or any other man) the sex he deserves.   Banks is also upset with her because she’s an ethnologist who does her job, studying alien cultures and writing books about them.  Which indirectly resulted in the destruction of one such culture when a corporate entrepreneur read the book and realized how to commercially exploit them.  Why Banks doesn’t blame the entrepreneur  who actually did the deed is unclear.

Xar Qot realizes that the pheromone male Mallians exude that allows them to dominate and predate upon the more numerous females also works to some extent on human women.  So he sets up a situation where Banks can “seduce” (commit chemically-assisted rape) Copenhaver, as apparently Banks doesn’t consider this to be rape.

The next day,  when Copenhaver has recovered her senses and is understandably furious at Banks and Xar Qot, she walks into an ambush and is chemically-assisted raped again.  This makes her fall in love with Banks and give up her career to be his housewife.   Banks and Xar Qot  then mass-produce the pheromone which the men of humanity use to overthrow the matriarchy and install a patriarchy, as is the proper status of society.  Happy endings all around!

Well, except for gender-queer human Hector Marks, who is eaten alive just before he can finish his book on Mallian culture.

This story is…wow.  Just no.   I am aware it’s supposed to be comedy, but the passage of time has spoiled the joke.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic books were still a very new thing in 1940, and the publishers were still trying to figure out what there was a market for.  Science fiction themes seemed popular, so Fiction House created the pulp-inspired Planet Comics to appeal to fans of rockets and aliens.  This volume collects the first four issues, including some of the advertisements.

Planet Comics, Vol. 1

After a brief introduction by Carmine Infantino, which is mostly about the fact that he had nothing to do with any of the included material, we get right down to some luridly colored adventures.  Dick Briefer was the artist on “Flint Baker and the One-Eyed Monsters of Mars”, the first story in the volume and perhaps the most complex.  Mr. Baker has designed and built a spaceship, but no sane people want to go on a trip to Mars with him.  So he pulls political strings to have three murderous mechanics freed from Death Row if they’ll volunteer for the voyage.

After takeoff, it’s discovered that Mimi Wilson, a reporter for the New York Globe, has stowed away on the ship.  Flint is quickly *ahem* convinced to let her stay aboard.  The three convicts tell their stories, and amazingly, all three of them were actually guilty.  The first one does claim self-defense, but the second decided to shoot his sister’s fiance at the altar on the grounds that he was “rotten.”  The third man, Grant, claims to have been forced to murder by a mysterious man with hypnotic powers.  Hmm….

It turns out that Mr. Baker’s is not the first expedition to Mars.  As the ruler of the light side of Mars and his daughter Princess Viga explain, the Earthmen were criminals, and exiled to Mars’ dark side (protip:  Mars does not have a “dark side”) where even now they plot to conquer the peaceful Martians.  The word “they” turns out to be misleading.  Their leader, Sarko, has murdered the others and seized control of an army of one-eyed monsters.

There is a fierce battle, during which the named women are captured, and the King of Mars gives up.  The Earthmen are made of sterner stuff and infiltrate the enemy headquarters.  Sarko is planning to kill Viga to prevent any opposition to his eternal rule, and is going to give Mimi immortality to be his Empress.  Turns out that Sarko was the man who forced Grant to murder and then left him in prison to rot–they both wind up dead.  But more adventures next month!

Other standout characters are the Red Comet, a mystery man who can shrink and grow at will thanks to a special belt, Amazona, last woman of a superior Arctic race, and Auro, Lord of Jupiter, who was raised by a saber-tooth tiger.  Spurt Hammond is not so special in and of himself, being a standard two-fisted space pilot, but he battles the Lunerzons, woman warriors of the Moon with a vaguely Chinese culture, who are easily defeated when their leaders both get the hots for Spurt.

Art by Dick Briefer
Just look at this car. Is it not magnificent? Art by Dick Briefer.

 

The design aesthetic is very pulp SF, which leads to some fascinating spaceships and cityscapes.  But much of the art is crude, and some of the stories have lazy pages of big panels with little art in them.  Often the stories are disjointed and somewhat nonsensical; this is most obvious with the Fletcher Hanks “Tiger Hart” piece which is apparently a medieval story with a couple of word balloons edited to make it happen on Saturn.

There’s no real depth of theme in these stories, just plenty of action.  Be warned, there’s some period racism (seriously, a global invasion by what appear to be Eskimos?) and sexism.  For most people, I’d recommend checking to see if you can find this through your public library.  Only the most fanatical Golden Age collectors (like me) are likely to want to own it.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

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