Comic Book Review: Snake Tales

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett

Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis.  Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories.  And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.

Snake Tales

As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best.  The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story.  “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.

This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks.  It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.

“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds.  Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience.  And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?

In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair.  Some standouts include:

“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale.  Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure.  In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners.   Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.

“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story.  Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia.  Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal.  Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband!  (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)

Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder.  But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin.  It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?

“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon.  A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water.  It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.

Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo.  The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished.  When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well.  Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals.  Disturbing ways.

This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images.   Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.

The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.”  The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here.  There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.

Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories.  Check it out from your library!

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1 Edited by Craig Yoe

EC was not the only publisher putting out lurid horror comics during the brief period between the post-World War Two decline of superhero books and the installation of the Comics Code.  Others quickly followed in their footsteps.  Robert Farrell was one of those who got on the bandwagon with his company that was eventually called Ajax Comics.  His most successful horror title was Voodoo, which ran long enough to fill three of these collected volumes.  This volume covers issues 1-6.

The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Mr. Farrell was big on recycling, so several of the stories in these early issues are repurposed from the “jungle” subgenre comics that were also popular at the time.  One of the prominent character types in that subgenre is the “jungle goddess”, a woman (usually white) who acts as guardian to her patch of tropical rainforest.  The first story in the volume, “The Shelf of Skulls” features Olane of the Banishing Islands somewhere in the South Seas.  The frame story is of a wealthy man who collects skulls; his wife (who is planning to murder him with her lover) finally gets him to show her the collection.

Mark Trent is a rather cruel person, and insists on telling her how he acquired the latest addition to his collection.  It seems he was involved in a feud between Olane and a headhunter.  Trent was given the skull of the headhunter in exchange for a promise never to return to the islands.  But there’s a twist–Trent’s got a new hobby, and his wife is not going to like this one at all!

The “jungle goddess” thing gives Olane the chance to be a much more active heroine than was the norm at the time, especially in the horror genre.    There are technically no supernatural elements in this first issue; all the menaces turn out to have rational explanations.

“Zombie Bride” in issue #2 is as close as this volume comes to actually featuring voodoo.  The zombies of Haiti are intelligent undead under the control of a master zombie, who can make more from living humans by a special ceremony.  A man must make a chilling choice when he discovers that his lovely wife has been turned into a zombie.

In issue #3, “There’s Peril in Perfection!” is a rather sexist tale about an expert in beauty who creates a robot to be “the perfect woman.”  Unfortunately, he is unable to handle it when Cynara begins to have emotions that make her all too human, and tragedy ensues.  All blame is placed on the woman, and not the men who made her that way.

Issues #4 and on were almost completely straight up horror as the inventory stories ran out.  Most of the art and writing was done by the Iger Shop, which had a factory-like approach to churning out stories for their client publishers.  Most of the credits are unknown, and two or three artists might have collaborated to finish a single tale.  Some stories come off very well, while others are uneven.

The volume ends with “She Wanted to Know…the Black Future.”  College student Lila Simmons is taking a minor in the occult, and decides to try out one of the spells in the old books she’s been reading.   Theoretically, it will allow her to see into the future.  But when Lila performs the ritual, she sees only the face of Death!  What does this portend?  Well, what do you think it portends?

Like many Pre-Code horror books, these stories are filled with women in form-fitting or scanty outfits, and some rather racist treatment of non-white people (but not to the vaudeville-level some Golden Age comics used.)

This doesn’t rise to the levels of EC stories, but is still grisly stuff to be enjoyed by fans of old-fashioned horror.  I found this copy in the library, and you may be able to do so as well.

 

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows  by Meg Kassel

Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town.  The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived.  But there are some disturbing signs.  There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.

Black Bird of the Gallows

Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first.  She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door.  The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.

This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie.  And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.

There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence.  Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.

On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw.   Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself.   Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.

Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.

At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece.  The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.

Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.

A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook.  (Yes, of course this is a series.)

Overall…I’m not the audience for this book.  It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either.   It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.

Let’s have a video of crows being annoying!

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955 edited by Leo Margulies

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

Fantastic Universe October 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some sticklers for religious dogma might object to the ending.

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

 

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Book Review: The Sundered Worlds

Book Review: The Sundered Worlds by Michael Moorcock (also published as The Blood Red Game)

In the distant future, Jon Renark comes to the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Migaa, where the criminals and misfits of the galaxy have gathered.  It’s the closest world to where the Shifter System will at some point appear, their one chance to escape the rigidly ordered society that rules humanity.  For the Shifter System normally exists outside the universe as we know it, orbiting into it sideways from time to time.

The Sundered World

Jon Renark has also come to go to the Shifter System, but with a nobler cause.  He is a Guide Senser, a powerful psychic able to detect the shape of things, down to the very atoms of a human body or up to the location of every star in the galaxy.  And he has learned that the universe is contracting at a rate faster than the speed of light.  Renark has a hunch he’ll find answers in the Shifter…somehow.

Gathering up his two best friends, technician Paul Talfryn and former prince Asquiol of Pompeii, as well as Asquiol’s current squeeze Willow Kovacs, Renark makes the dangerous journey to the Shifter when it appears.

Within the Shifter System, the normal physical laws don’t seem to consistently apply, and the visitors are immediately attacked by beings they will learn are called the Thron, absolute xenophobes whose lust to destroy all other intelligent life is indirectly responsible for the existence of the Shifter in the first place.  Renark and his crew are rescued by ships from the exile planet Entropium.

Entropium, filled with the refugees of a dozen different universes, has one governmental law–do what you like, as long as you don’t try to tell anyone else what to do.  It’s not a happy place, but everyone has to get along, as the other planets are worse, and there’s no leaving the Shifter system once you’re inside.  Talfryn and Willow decide to play it safe and stay, leaving Renark and Asquiol to planet-hop within the system to learn the truth of the multiverse!

This book is some of Michael Moorcock’s earliest published work, cobbled together from two novellas.  It’s primarily important because it introduced the Multiverse concept he’d use heavily in his future work.  Later editions have a bit of editing to fix the multiple typos in this first U.S. printing, and to tie the story into his Eternal Champion cycle.

It’s not much like Moorcock’s more famous New Wave fiction, being space opera in the tradition of E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This story is all about the big concepts, and characterization is told, not shown.  In the first half of the story, Willow seems to exist solely to be a female character.  She’s quickly consigned to the galley (and never does finish cooking a meal), then dumped on the first alien planet, not to be seen for a while.

There’s a bit of mild humor in a side character who’s a parody of “beat” musicians, on Entropium since the galactic government outlaws his kind of music.

In the second half of the story, Renark and Asquiol return from the Shifter System changed both mentally and physically by their discovery of the nature of reality.  It’s impossible, it turns out, to save their home universe, but they can preserve large portions of galactic humanity by getting them on spaceships fitted with dimensional drives, and emigrating en masse to another universe.  Renark stays behind for vague reasons, and is the last living mind as the universe shrinks to zero.

The new universe is already inhabited, and while Asquiol tries to negotiate with the natives, the story focus switches to Adam Roffrey, a rebellious type who’s barely stayed within the law up to this point.  Now he deserts the rest of humanity, piloting his ship to the new position of the Shifter System.

Turns out Roffrey is the husband of the madwoman Mary the Maze, briefly met on Entropium in the first half of the story.  She’s been missing a long time, and until now Roffrey hadn’t known where.  Roffrey retrieves Mary, and as an afterthought Talfryn and Willow, and heads back to where he left the rest of humanity.  An understated love triangle begins.

Meanwhile, the natives of the new universe have proved to be hostile, but they’ve challenged the invading humans to a game to determinate who will be master.  The Blood Red Game consists of teams beaming disturbing mental images at each other until one side collapses. (The cover illustrates a hallucination caused by the Game.)  The humans are losing badly, but Mary the Maze may be the key to victory!

Overall, some great concepts with two-dimensional characters who do things because that’s what the plot says they do.  Mostly for Moorcock completists, and even for them I’d recommend the later revised editions.

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: 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.

Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

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