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: Steal the Sky

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

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

Steal the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Review: Sheriff of Cochise/United States Marshal | The Lone Wolf

TV Review: Sheriff of Cochise/United States Marshal | The Lone Wolf

Frank Morgan (John Bromfield) was the Sheriff of Cochise County in Arizona and then became a United States Marshal in a series that ran from 1956 to 1960.  While the show was Western-flavored, it was more police procedural than cowboy show.

Sheriff of Cochise

I watched four episodes, two from the first part and two from after the retool, on DVD.

  • “The Red-Headed Visitor”  An auto mechanic is missing, and turns up murdered.  Suspicion initially rests on his pharmacist brother in law, with whom he’d quarreled, but the sheriff suddenly realizes that a tourist at a local resort is a known criminal.   The audience knows this from the beginning, as we see the redhead buy blond hair dye, and the mechanic make a gesture that disparages the visitor’s masculinity.
  • “Bank Robbery”  Exactly what it sounds like.  Two clever robbers have hit several banks, but take a little too long to case their next job.  This makes the tellers suspicious, and the sheriff comes up with a trap.  Neither plan goes right, but this is a cop show.
  • “Rest In Peace”  A guard implicated in an armored car robbery is shot and left for dead.  Things get complicated at the hospital when two women show up, both claiming to be his wife.  (One of them is lying.)  In a desperate attempt to escape, the criminals kidnap a deputy marshal.
  • “The Diner”  Two escaped convicts try to track down a third member of their gang who they believe is holding out money on them.  It turns into a hostage situation which predictably doesn’t end well for them.  The diner of the title appears at the beginning; the cook is an ex-con the escapees pump for information.

It’s an average TV show of its period, most interesting for its time capsule qualities and the fact that it was largely shot in Bisbee, Arizona and locals can probably spot many of the buildings.

The Lone Wolf was Michael Lanyard, a jewel thief turned private detective.  He was created in 1914 by Louis Joseph Vance, starred in a number of books, and then over twenty movies and a radio show.

The Lone Wolf

What we’re concerned with here is the television show, with Louis Hayward as the title character, which ran 1954-1955 and also ran in syndication as Streets of Danger.  None of the episodes I saw mentioned the jewel thief past, although it was clear there was some shadiness.  This version carried a unique medallion that served as his calling card.  The DVD had five episodes.

  • “The Las Vegas Story”  The Lone Wolf is hired to find a man who’d been falsely accused of murder and convince him to come in for a trial.  It’s more complicated than that.  Highlights include DeForest Kelly as a murder victim, and a tense but overlong chase scene set inside Hoover Dam (I’m guessing they had to pay big bucks for the location shoot and decided to milk it.)
  • “The Beverly Hills Story”  Michael Lanyard is surprised to discover that he is now a married man, although he does have a gap in his memories of Reno.  Mrs. Lanyard certainly knows more about him than she should!  The real game is blackmail.
  • “The Oil Story”  The Lone Wolf is called to Oklahoma.  It seems a violent criminal has kidnapped his son from his ex-wife.  Lanyard goes undercover as a roughneck (badly, he doesn’t have the hands of an oil worker) and seeks out the rest of the story.  The father has a black servant who looks embarrassed to be in this role, like the actor was desperate for a paycheck and this was the best work he could find.
  • “The Karachi Story”  Most of the story takes place in India, as the leader of a religious group has asked Lanyard to protect his son.  Seems there are two factions in the sect, the one that builds hospitals and soup kitchens, and the one that wants to spend all the money improving the living standards of the priests.  All well and good, but there are also two Michael Lanyards!  Identity confusion abounds.  All the South Asian people are played by white Americans in brownface.
  • “The Stamp Story”  A valuable stamp has gone missing, believed stolen, and Lanyard is called in to find it for the mysterious collector “Deep River.”  Much fun is had with the antics of an eccentric stamp dealer and another stamp collector who’s blind.  The blind man’s daughter has a rare hairstyle, I don’t know the actual name, but it frosts the forelocks into curly horn shapes.

Mr. Hayward portrays the Lone Wolf as a bit cynical, willing to flirt with women but seldom going further, and a vicious in-fighter.  The series is old-fashioned, but has its charms.

TV Review: Public Defender

TV Review: Public Defender

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”  The office of the Public Defender is a special government department that  specializes in handling the cases of indigent defendants.  The first such office was opened in Los Angeles in about 1914.

Public Defender

This series, which aired in 1954-55, was intended to raise awareness of the work of public defenders, who at the time were relatively few in number and were primarily used for cases where the death penalty was possible.   The stories were purportedly based on actual cases, but several of the episodes just say that all the characters are fictional.  Reed Hadley played Public Defender Bart Matthews, who narrated each episode, but was not always the focus character.  Each episode ends with a tribute to a real life public defender

I watched four episodes on DVD.

  • “Badge of Honor”  We open at the funeral of a police officer. Mr. Matthews recalls the decedent, a rookie cop who makes a mistake during an arrest, then tries to cover it up with a falsified arrest report.  His conscience bothers him, and he confesses to Mr. Matthews, who must find a way to see justice is done, but not cost the policeman his job.  At the end, we find out that the cop died a hero years later, having served with honor since that one mistake.
  • “Let Justice Be Done”  The focus this time is on a deputy public defender who must defend a cop-killer.  But not just any cop-killer, but the one who killed his best friend.  In real life, the attorney would be allowed/expected to recuse himself due to this conflict of interest.  But for the sake of the story, Mr. Matthews deliberately assigns him the case as some sort of lesson in justice.
  • “Eight Out of One Hundred”  A young Polish immigrant is accused of stealing jewelry from her mother’s employer.  Mr. Matthews’ investigation is hindered by the police department being sore at him for giving a speech in which he pointed out that his office gets acquittals for about eight percent of their clients.  This case is one of those eight, as the employer was hitting on the woman, and she refused him.  He was also engaged in wage theft, supposedly paying the mother a living wage, but using various fees and charges to claw back 70% of it.  To add insult to injury, he’s also fond of misquoting the Bible.
  • “Behind Bars”  It’s discovered that a woman in prison is there under an assumed name, which she used to avoid bringing trouble to her ex-husband and their daughter.  A witness claimed she’d murdered her landlady in a fit of alcoholic rage.  When the defender tracks down the ex, he reveals that the woman was not a violent drunk, but an extremely timid one.  It’s soon discovered that there were other important details that hadn’t come out at the trial, such as that the landlady was already dying, and the witness had a grudge, as he’d tried to force himself on the defendant.

The writing is decent, but too earnest for modern tastes; the scripts do backflips to avoid criticizing the police or the justice system.  I enjoyed “Eight Out of One Hundred” the best.  Be aware that 1950s attitudes are rife in this show, from the frequent smoking to the expected gender roles.

TV Review: Man with a Camera

TV Review: Man with a Camera

Mike Kovac (Charles Bronson) is a World War Two veteran who works as a freelance photographer.  He’s a tough fellow who’s known for getting the shots other shutterbugs can’t make.  As a result, he’s often called in to help investigate incidents for newspapers and private citizens.  Mike is aided in this by a number of trick cameras, such as a miniature camera disguised as a lighter.

Man with a Camera

This 1958-1960 series was the only television show Charles Bronson played the lead in; after that his movie career took off, as well as guest roles on many TV shows.  His looks served him well here, coming across as a tough, working-class fellow who can’t be intimidated.

Most of the series took place in New York City, but the two episodes I watched on DVD take place out of town, so are absent Mike’s normal supporting cast.

“Two Strings of Pearls” takes place in Rome, where Mike has just finished covering the Italian election.  At the airport, he spots a woman he knows from an ocean trip several years before.  She, however, doesn’t appear to recognize him and has a completely different name.  Mike decides to stay in Rome long enough to see what’s going on.   Romantic scenes do not appear to be one of Mr. Bronson’s strengths in this series.

“Missing” involves the disappearance of a police officer’s wife in San Diego.   The officer doesn’t want to involve his own department as she was formerly mixed up with a criminal gang, and the scandal of their marriage has only just died down.  Investigating the slim clues available, Mike finds a lead in her recent visit to Tiajuana in Mexico.  The climax is an intense  fight in a car wash.

Both episodes feature the advantages of Mike’s close relationship with law enforcement, his photographs allowing suspects to be identified.

A similar series might do well in the current day; the technology may have changed drastically, but not the difference one dedicated person can make with it.

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

The small, isolated Kingdom of Sessalie is about to celebrate a wedding.   Princess Anja is about to marry the High Prince of Devall, which is not only politically advantageous, but a love match.  But on the eve of the wedding, Anja goes missing.

To Ride Hell's Chasm

It falls to the leader of the Highguard,  silver-haired Taskin, and the captain of the lower city garrison, the “desert-bred” Mykkael, to find the princess, and discover the motives of those that would prevent the marriage.

This is a standalone novel by Janny Wurts, author of the massive The Wars of Light and Shadow.  She is also the cover artist, which at least means that the cover is appropriate to the story.

Mykkael, as it turns out, is vastly overqualified for his position under normal circumstances, despite a bum knee and deep manpain from what he considers his greatest failure.    In this crisis situation, however, he may be just slightly underqualified.   It’s kind of a given that if a place with an ominous name is mentioned, that no one has survived a trip through, that our hero will have to go there.  And given that place name is in the title?

Mykkael faces considerable ethnic prejudice due to his appearance, even though he was not raised in that culture, and the enemies of Sessalie take full advantage of this to discredit his warnings, even spreading misinformation that the defenses against evil magic he recommends will strengthen the demons.  There’s also the persistent mispronunciation of his name by nobility, and it becomes a point of characterization who drops the mispronunciation and when.

The main female character, Anja, comes off well, despite the plot not exactly working in her favor.  A trek through insanely dangerous wilderness while pursued by monsters is not what she was trained for.  If she has a difficult personality at times, it comes across as an understandable reaction.

One thing that struck me as I was reading through was that a major character didn’t seem to have a name.  Eventually, I realized that no one in that character’s category was ever actually named, which may have been meant as foreshadowing.

There’s quite a lot of business involving horses, as several (non-magical) horses become important characters later in the book and much attention is given to their care and injuries.  The ride through Hell’s Chasm, once if finally happens, is grueling and exhausted this reader.

The story is wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly in the final chapter.  It feels like the author really wanted to make sure the book had a seriously final ending so it wouldn’t turn into a trilogy or series.

There are several maps at the beginning, a glossary, an appendix explaining how demons work in the setting, and a brief biography of the author.

Trigger warning:  Taskin is forced by politics to lash Mykkael at one point, making sure to draw blood.  In general, a lot of time is taken describing Mykkael and other people’s wounds.

This is a good starting place if you have been curious about Ms. Wurts’ work, but reluctant to start a long series.

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