Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter…Time Master

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter…Time Master written by Jack Miller

After the success of Jack Kirby creations The Challengers of the Unknown in 1959, DC Comics took a chance on two other quartets of non-powered adventurers in the pages of Showcase, their try-out comic.  The more successful of these was Rip Hunter’s team of time travelers.  He is introduced as already having invented a Time Sphere, and with the aid of his friend Jeff Smith built two of them.  The only people he’s trusted in his secret laboratory are his girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her kid brother Corky.

Showcase Presents: Rip Hunter...Time Master

In the first Showcase appearance (#20, May 1959) Rip and Jeff take one of the spheres on its maiden voyage to the Mesozoic Era, 100 million years in the past.  Unfortunately, it turns out that two criminals stumbled on the lab some weeks before while the team was absent, realized this could be big, and planted a listening device.  The crooks force Bonnie and Corky to take them back to the same era as the first pair, planning to mine deposits of gold, silver and diamonds they know the location of in the present.

Between dinosaurs and active volcanic terrain, the six time travelers have a series of exciting escapes and daring deeds to accomplish before they can return to the present.  The tired and sore criminals are dismayed to find their hard-won sack of minerals empty–turns out you can’t bring any objects from the past forward.  (This rule was eventually quietly ignored, but no one ever thought to abuse that capability thereafter.)

Much like the later Doctor Who, the second storyline went straight to aliens as Rip and his pals investigated the origin of Atlantis.  Another pair of Showcase issues followed shortly, and in 1961, Rip Hunter got his own series.  Writer Jack Miller did some research to come up with interesting time periods, but historical accuracy was clearly not a high priority.  Each issue followed a three-part structure as a mystery from the past surfaced and the crew checked it out using a Time Sphere.  Often complications would arise due to the never-stated but obvious rule that they cannot change the past; attempts to do so would fail, meaning the team has to come up with a new plan.

Characterization is thin; all four main characters are brave and adventurous.  Rip is the main history expert, and a very good shot; as the Comics Code prevented him from killing humans, he would use trick shots to bring down awnings and such.  Jeff appears to be the mechanic; he’s the one who does the repairs on the Time Spheres and is slightly more muscular looking than Rip.  Bonnie and Corky appear to have no special skills beyond being backup sphere pilots.  Bonnie is a bit nervous at times, and Corky knows less history than the others, so is the recipient of infodumps.  Guest characters have just enough personality to fulfill their plot purposes.

Aliens and hidden civilizations are rife in these stories, and monsters appear frequently.  Magic is sometimes mentioned but almost always turns out to be fake or actually alien technology.

There are several art teams in the early going, the most notable of which features Joe Kubert.  Eventually it settled down to William Ely, who is decent enough, but perhaps could scale back the worry lines on some of the characters.

My favorite of the stories is their battle against the gods of Mount Olympus, which features Jeff being transformed into a griffin!

Later versions of Rip Hunter have shed the rest of his team; Legends of Tomorrow fans will likely find this early Rip nearly unrecognizable.

Recommended primarily to fans of more straightforward time travel stories as there’s seldom the creative abuses of the concept that have become common in literature since.

Anime Review: Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

Anime Review: Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

Arsène Lupin III, alleged French-Japanese descendant of the famous 19th Century criminal Arsène Lupin, is a master thief.  If he says he’ll steal something, Lupin the 3rd most certainly will.  A master of disguise, able to open any lock, and possessed of great cunning, he steals treasures and hearts with equal ease.  Lupin usually works with gunman Daisuke Jigen, swordsman Goemon Ishikawa and femme fatale Fujiko Mine, though they aren’t always loyal to each other–particularly Fujiko.  The gang is perpetually pursued by the dogged Inspector Koichi Zenigata of the ICPO.  Now Lupin the Third has come to Italy; what is he up to this time?  Is he really just there to get married?

Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

This Italian-Japanese co-production is the latest anime series based on the Lupin the Third manga by Monkey Punch.  The manga in turn was loosely based on the original Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc.  Back in the 1960s, Japan didn’t enforce international copyright, so when the Leblanc estate finally found out about the manga, they couldn’t block it or insist on a cut of the profits, but were able to tie up international rights, meaning that most Lupin III products overseas had to use other names like “Rupan” or “Wolf.”  (The original Lupin stories entered the public domain in 2012.)

The series begins in the small independent republic of San Marino, as Lupin marries bored heiress Rebecca Rossellini as part of a plan to steal the greatest treasure of that tiny country.  However, it turns out that Rebecca has her own plans, and with the aid of her faithful manservant Robson turns the tables partially on the master thief.  Since he never formally consummated his marriage with Rebecca, but neither is he formally divorced from her, Lupin decides to stay in the Italian area for a while.

One of his thefts brings Lupin into conflict with Agent Nyx of MI-6, who has superhuman hearing, among other gifts.  Nyx turns out to be a less than enthusiastic agent, who wants to retire from spying to spend more time with his family…but MI-6 needs him too much.

Things take a SFnal turn when it turns out there’s a virtual reality/shared dream device out there which ties into the return of Italy’s most brilliant mind, Leonardo da Vinci!  Lupin, his allies and adversaries must figure out how to survive the Harmony of the World.

The series is largely comedy, but with serious moments, and some episodes are  very sentimental indeed.  (This contrasts with the original manga, which had a darker sense of humor, and a nastier version of Lupin who would not hesitate at murder or rape to get his way.)   All of the major characters get focus episodes that explore their personalities and skills.

Placing the entire series on the Italian Peninsula (with brief excursions to France and Japan) gives it a thematic consistency that previous Lupin series have lacked, and this is all to the good.  Having new recurring characters also allows a bit more variety in plotlines for the episodes.  Mind, Rebecca can get annoying from time to time and feels shoehorned into a couple of episodes.  (A couple of Rebecca-centric episodes were removed from the Japanese broadcast order.)

While the primary appeal will be to existing Lupin the Third fans, this series does a good job of filling newcomers in on everything they really need to know.  If you enjoy stories about clever gentleman thieves with a soft spot for pretty ladies, this one is for you.

Here’s a look at the Italian version of the opening theme!

Book Review: The Transplanted

Book Review: The Transplanted by John Bodnar

This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.)    It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it.  Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Transplanted

The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.”  The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in.  Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.

It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go.  This isn’t a book for the casual reader.

The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves.  Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse.  One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland.  (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)

Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs.  This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.

There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.

Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration.  For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a ministeer can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.

This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival.  The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness.  Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.

Water~Stone Review #18

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of.  One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry.  I don’t have a good answer for that.   “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story.  “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.

The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May.  He talks about how he structured his first book.

From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison.  It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making.  “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses.  It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.

The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”.  An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further.  They may be beaten down, but not permanently.  “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.

The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out.  There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece.  It’s so-so.

There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me.  The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.

This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did.  I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.

 

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982 edited by Isaac Asimov

The Hugo Awards are given out every year by the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon.)  This series of books from 1986 collected the winners in the three short fiction categories: Novella  (17,500-40,000 words), Novelette (7,500-17,500 words) and Short Story (less than 7,500 words.)  Anything over 40,000 words is considered a novel.  The volume is organized by year, in the order from longest to shortest, giving a kind of wave effect.

The Hugo Winners Volume 5

“Editor” Isaac Asimov spends much of the introduction detailing the history of the science fiction magazine Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, of which he was the figurehead.  It’s relevant because 1980 was the first year a story from that magazine won a Hugo.

“Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longyear was that story.  Two soldiers from opposing sides are stranded on a deserted island–one of whom is a pregnant alien.  To survive, they must work together, and come to respect each other and bridge the gap between their cultures.   This one was made into a movie, and Hollywood inserted an actual mine run by enemies.  Perhaps this was necessary as the emotional climax of the story is a three-hour recitation of family history, but Mr. Longyear was not well pleased.   It’s an excellent story.

“Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin is a chiller about a man who collects exotic pets.  The Sandkings of the title are hive-mind creatures vaguely reminiscent of ants.  They come in sets of four colored “castles” which have wars until only one remains.  Simon Kress, however, is a cruel man and does not want to wait for his pets to war in their own time.   How does it end?  It’s by George R.R. Martin, how do you think it ends?  An outstanding application of horror sensibilities to science fiction.

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” is also by George R.R. Martin, the first time an author had ever won two of the short categories in the same year.  An inquistor for a future Catholic church is sent to stamp out a heresy that venerates Judas Iscariot (and dragons.)   The inquisitor finds it a particularly appealing heresy, well-crafted and visually attractive.  But that’s not the real trap–there’s a more dangerous heresy underneath.  Of note is that the heretics have vandalized the local equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia so that those doing research would find supporting evidence for the heresy.

Also in 1980, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke took home the novel Hugo, and Alien won Best Dramatic Presentation.  Barry B. Longyear was also picked as Best New Writer.

“Lost Dorsai” by Gordon R. Dickson is as you might suspect set in his Dorsai Cycle, a story universe where the resource-poor planet Dorsai makes its employment credits by hiring out its inhabitants as top-notch mercenary soldiers.  This story tackles the question of what happens when a Dorsai decides that he will not kill humans under any circumstances.  Even when he’s one of a handful of people in a fortress surrounded by bloodthirsty revolutionaries.   What does make a man a hero, anyway?

“The Cloak and the Staff” is also by Mr. Dickson, making him the second author to win two of the short categories in the same year.  Both he and Mr. Martin had won the third short category previously as well.  The Aalaag are superior to Earthlings in every way, and hold our planet in an unbreakable grip.   Even if somehow humans managed to rise up and kill all the Aalaag on Earth, the vast Aalaag Empire would simply wipe out the inhabitants and replant.  Courier Shane knows this better than almost anyone else, and yet he finds that he’s sparked a resistance movement with a bit of graffiti.   He manages to save one rebel for the moment, but there’s noting more he or anyone can do….

“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak concerns an archaeologist who goes back to the dig site of some cave paintings one last time.  He discovers the title grotto, and its connection to one of the dig workers.   It’s a rather sad story about a man who wants one person to know the truth before he leaves again.

Also in 1981, The Snow Queen won Best Novel for Joan D. Vinge, Best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back, and Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P.  Somtow) was Best New Writer.

“The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson concerns an expedition to Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, which turns deadly due to a moment of inattention.

A bit of context for our younger readers–the turn of the 1980s is when role-playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, went from an obscure hobby to a cultural phenomenon.   The usual cultural conservative distrust of anything new that kids get into converged with the 1980s “Satanic Panic” in which people sincerely believed there was a worldwide network of Satanists abusing children and performing human sacrifices.  So many people worried that RPGs would either teach children how to perform actual black magic (see Jack Chick’s unintentionally hilarious Dark Dungeons for an example of this thinking) or make impressionable teens unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and thus act out their violent pretendy fun times on real people.  This last one was a bit more plausible; most roleplayers know that one guy who takes the game way too seriously, akin to the sportsball fans that have violent temper tantrums when their team loses.

Mr. Anderson’s story works with the latter concept; it never uses the phrase “role-playing games” as those died out during a bad time in human history–the future equivalent is “psychodramas.”  Three-quarters of the expedition have been playing in the same game for the last eight years as their larger ship has been headed to Saturn.  In the future, psychiatry has been replaced by pharmacology to balance brain chemistry, and no one thought ahead about the possible consequences.  So when the players find themselves in a fantastic landscape that suits their story, they fall into a semihypnotic state acting out the play, and miss the real danger.

Mind, Poul Anderson also shows the strength that can be drawn from imagination, as the fantasy helps sustain the strength of the survivors, even as they know they must not succumb to it and ignore what must be done.  One of the flashbacks is about the significant other who doesn’t “get” role-playing games, and is unable to distinguish between in-character romance and an actual affair between players.  She forces the player to choose between her and the gaming group–it does not turn out the way she hoped.

“Unicorn Variations” by Roger Zelazny is more in the fantasy realm than straight science fiction.  When a species goes extinct, a new species comes to take its place.  And in a future where extinctions have become even more common, the unicorns have grown impatient to replace humans.   But one human bargains with the unicorn representative.  If he can beat it in a game of chess, the unicorn will not directly hasten the extinction of humans.  Unicorns, as it turns out, are very good at chess…but the human turns out to have a surprise backer.   If you have your chessboard handy, play along!

“The Pusher” by John Varley, is set in a future with relativistic space travel and time dilation.  That is, time on ship passes more slowly than for those standing still.  Six months on board is thirty years back on Earth.  Ian Haise, a “pusher” (starship crewmember) doesn’t want to entirely lose touch with those on the ground, so he has a scheme to befriend children so that when he returns decades later, they will remember him and welcome his return.  It’s an uncomfortable story, as Haise’s methods are strikingly similar to those used by a pedophile to “groom” victims.

1982’s Best Novel was Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, Raiders of the Lost Ark took home the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and the Best New Writer was Alexis Gilliland (who beat out David Brin!)

This collection really strikes a chord for me as it’s in my early adulthood, and I read most of these stories first-run.  It looks “modern” to me in ways that early SF doesn’t, and the field was becoming more diverse (even though all these stories happen to be by white guys.)   It’s worth finding just for “Sandkings” if you’ve never read that story, but the others are good as well, especially “Enemy Mine.”

Oh, and “Sandkings” was also loosely adapted for an Outer Limits episode.  Enjoy!

 

Book Review: Ben-Hur

Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Judah of the house of Hur is a handsome and wealthy seventeen-year old Judean, saddened by the death of his father, but still possessed of a wise mother and sweet sister.  He’s initially pleased when his Roman friend Messala returns to Jerusalem from several years being educated in Rome.  But Messala has learned the wrong lessons, sarcasm and arrogance, and blasphemes Judah’s deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.  The two young men quarrel.

Ben-Hur

Judah resolves to become a soldier, but this ambition is detoured when he accidentally drops a roof tile on the new Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus.  Gratus, with the connivance of Messala, chooses to interpret this as an assassination attempt, seizes the Hur property, imprisons Judah’s relatives, and sentences Judah to the slave galleys for the rest of what is assumed to be a very short life, without an actual trial or legal conviction.

Three years later, The rowing and a certain amount of cleverness has turned young Judah into a physical marvel, and he catches the eye of a wealthy and prominent Roman admiral.  When he subsequently saves the admiral’s life (and it’s established he was never legally enslaved in the first place), that worthy adopts him as a son to learn Roman combat skills.

Some time later, Judah returns to the East, equipped for vengeance on those who wronged him, they who will learn to fear the man called “Ben-Hur.”  But maybe Judah isn’t actually the important character here.  Maybe he’s just a side story in “a tale of the Christ.”

This 1880 novel was a huge seller for former Union general Lew Wallace, who was governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, and later became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which allowed him to actually visit the area he’d written about.)  Indeed, it became the best-selling novel of the Nineteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian fiction titles of all time.  You may remember the 1959 movie with Charlton Heston.

So, how does it hold up?  To be honest, it’s aged badly.  The story moves at a crawl for most of the book, with pages upon pages of excessive description.  In fairness, when this was written, the reading public didn’t have years of movies and television shows to give them instant mental pictures of the exotic localities and clothing of ancient Judea, so Mr. Wallace needed to go into details of setting and costume.

Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t even show up for the first eighty pages, as we are treated to a retelling of the Nativity which focuses on the viewpoint of Balthasar, the Egyptian wise man who eventually befriends Judah.  The first chapter is actually a very good example of scene-setting, placing us in a desert in the middle of nowhere, with a white camel that has neither bridle or reins, ridden by a man who gives it no direction at all.  When the camel stops, the man prepares a tent with places for two others.  Two white camels, similarly not guided by human hand, approach from different directions to this rendezvous in the trackless desert.  Their riders dismount, and the three men greet each other with a prayer in their three native tongues–and all of them understand each other perfectly!

The second chapter reveals one of the difficulties for the modern reader, as the characters do not so much talk to each other as declaim at each other, making the dialogue a chore to get through.  On the other hand, this is about as much characterization as we get for the Three Wise Men in any adaptation, so that’s nice to have.

The section where we meet Mary, mother of Jesus, is also interesting.  Mr. Wallace takes a vague description of King David as artistic license to portray Mary as beautiful by Nineteenth Century America standards–blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned with delicate features.  He goes into great detail about her face, her clothing, her movements and speech…and never once mentions in the narration or in dialogue that she’s nine months pregnant at the time.  There’s just suddenly a baby a couple of chapters later that she claims to be the mother of.

I should point out that despite the archaic nature of the writing, there is a good story going on here that was lifted out for the movies.  If the reader is patient, there is much to enjoy.

One plotline that didn’t make the 1959 movie is the existence of Ben-Hur’s other love interest, Iras.  She’s the daughter of Balthasar (he presumably married late in life; there’s no mention of her mother), beautiful, musically gifted, learned in poetry and capable of acting on her own initiative.  She makes a good contrast to Daddy’s girl Esther, who is more modest and self-effacing, and Iras takes an early lead in the romantic triangle.

However, Iras’ motivation is largely based on the notion that the Jewish Messiah will be an earthly king that Judah will serve, and become powerful thereby.  The notion of a spiritual savior, so dear to her father Balthasar, doesn’t appeal.  So when Jesus turns out to be more the latter than the former, Iras falls back to her other interests.

This is pretty much Bible fanfiction, so those who don’t like “God-talk” or having a Christian viewpoint forced on them are likely to dislike this book.  Some readers might see homoeroticism in certain passages, as Judah is so handsome that even other men notice, and Messala outright uses classical allusion to hint he’s attracted.

All that said, this is an important and influential book; if you’re willing to put up with its difficulties.  On the other hand, you could just watch the movies for the chariot race.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

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