Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1 by Yasuo Ohtagaki

The time is Universal Century year 0079.  The place is Thunderbolt Sector, formerly the orbital space colony Side 4 before it was destroyed in a battle between the Principality of Zeon and the Earth Federation.  Now this sector is heavily littered with debris, and afflicted with random electromagnetic discharges that gave it its name.  It’s a key point in the supply lines for Zeon, and as such is guarded by the deadly snipers of the LIving Dead division.  Their top sniper is Chief Petty Officer Darryl Lorentz.

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Assigned the task of clearing out the snipers and cutting the supply lines is the Moore Brotherhood, survivors of Side 4.  It’s clear to everyone aboard their mothership that the Federation considers them expendable, but this sector used to be their home.  Their ace is Ensign Io Fleming, an eccentric young man who used to belong to Side 4’s nobility.  This battlefield will come down to the clash of these two men.

The Mobile Suit Gundam franchise was the progenitor of what’s called “real robot” mecha stories.  It aimed for greater plausibility than previous giant robot stories by introducing weapons that ran out of ammunition and engines that used fuel.  It also had the giant robots being devised initially as powered spacesuits for space colony construction, and evolving from there, only to be repurposed as military weapons.  And to explain why these huge targets weren’t just hit with missiles from miles away, the original creators came up with “Minovsky Particles” that temporarily block radio and radar signals in war zones, requiring the mecha to get up close in order to hit opponents.

In addition, the Gundam series of series depicts the futility and waste of war; sympathetic characters die, the “good guys” don’t always win, and sometimes it can be tough to tell which side of a conflict are the good guys anyway.

Thunderbolt takes place in the “Universal Century” timeline established in the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, and is a side story happening at approximately the same time.  Numerous orbital colonies have been built, as well as other colonies further from the Earth, and some of them have prospered to the point they’d like to be independent.  Also, humans have been born in space with ill-defined psychic powers that better suit them for life in outer space; these are often referred to as “Newtypes.”

The Principality of Zeon, a militaristic colony, has decided to go beyond independence and conquer Mother Earth, as it is their destiny to rule over all space.  They have a lot of Germanic influence, and their government is basically Space Nazis.

But that doesn’t mean individual people working for Zeon are evil.  Daryl’s family were apparently merchants who worked for Zeon in another country before the war, but weren’t actually Zeon citizens.  So when Zeon and its collaborators were kicked out of there, the Lorentz family found themselves trapped in a refugee camp.  Zeon had a “service guarantees citizenship (would you like to learn more?)” program, so Daryl joined the military.

Daryl got his legs blown off in combat, and as a reward, his family was moved out of the camp and into an apartment, and his sickly father is finally being treated in a hospital.  But full citizenship only comes with completing military service, so Daryl was fitted with prosthetic legs and reassigned to the Living Dead division, snipers who have all lost body parts and been fitted with prostheses.  They’re all well aware that they’re being used as test beds for experimental upgrades (and aesthetics are not a big concern to the Zeon brass), but that’s life in the military, and at least scientist Karla Mitchum seems to care about them as human beings.

Daryl loves cheesy J-pop music and deals with phantom pain.

Io Fleming, by contrast, loves free jazz and practices drumming in his cockpit when not in combat.  He was uncomfortable as a young noble on Side 4, preferring the freedom of piloting small planes.  Io’s uncomfortable with the idea that he must seek revenge for his destroyed homeland, even if he does have some lingering resentment about that.  He’s rude, bucks rules whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and makes a point of taunting Daryl about his prostheses.

But he is much nicer to his sole male friend Cornelius, and Acting Captain Claudia (who used to be his girlfriend before her promotion made that impossible.)  Despite his disdain for his own social class, Io is despised by Executive Officer Graham, who blames the nobility of Side 4 for its destruction.  And there are hints that there’s more to Io’s issues than we see in this volume.

The art is detailed and when we see faces, it’s easy to tell people apart.  However, the very busy debris fields and multiple giant robots can make for confusing layouts, especially since the black and white art doesn’t have the color cues that would make the machines more distinguishable.

This volume is primarily set-up of the main conflict and the various characters’ subplots, interspersed with exciting giant robot combat.

This manga was originally published in a seinen (young men’s) magazine, though the only strong indicator of that in this volume is a flash of one character’s pornography in an unguarded moment. There’s also the standard violence associated with war stories.  Viz rates this as “Older Teen.”

This story relies heavily on the reader’s presumed familiarity with the background established in the original Gundam series, so I would recommend it only to those fans.  It would not be the best first introduction to the world.

There’s an anime adaptation, of course, and here’s the trailer for that.

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident by James A. Zarzana

It’s a Marsco world.

The Marsco Dissident

Much has changed by the last years of the 21st Century.  The rot started to set in with the Abandonment Policy (euphemized as “Divestiture”) where countries with prosperous sections and not-so-prosperous bits split off the not-prosperous sectors as “another country now, not our responsibility” and shoved any citizens they didn’t want to keep for whatever reason into the new Unincorporated Zones.  (It’s implied that even the United States did this on an unofficial basis.)  The new rich countries became the Continental Powers, while the castoffs became PRIMS.

Meanwhile, an IT startup ambitiously named “Marsco” grew into a cross between Microsoft, the Union and Pacific, and United Fruit Company.  Yes, it did eventually get to Mars, and its innovative finger disc cybernetic implants became the new status symbol.  As part of its philanthropic aims, it became the primary benefactor of PRIMS, providing food rations, some medical care, etc.

A Luddite movement also grew, primarily among the PRIMS who found themselves shut out of the modern world, starving and ridden with cure-resistant diseases.  It also found favor among some in the CP, and even associates of Marsco itself.

Eventually, the Continental Powers decided that Marsco was too powerful, and tried to nationalize it.  This was a huge mistake as the megacorporation had designed all their computers, had its own armed forces and the advantage of operating from space.  They even got PRIM armies on their side.  If that wasn’t enough, the more violent strains of the Luddites took advantage of the chaos to destroy or infect any high technology they could reach.

Now, Marsco rules what’s left of Earth’s population, just as a temporary measure until the locals can get back on their feet.  Except that it’s been a generation, and Marsco control doesn’t seem to be going away, and the Unincorporated Areas aren’t getting any better.  Certain people are beginning to realize that Marsco isn’t the solution anymore, it’s the problem….

This book is the first in a series planned for four volumes, the “Marsco Saga.”  It’s serious about the “saga” part; months or years often pass between segments of the story and I suspect by the end we’ll be reading about the grandchildren of the current characters.  It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction book that fits more into the “future history” subgenre than action.

The dissident of the title is Dr. Walter Miller, formerly one of Marsco’s most brilliant engineers, but now on an extended sabbatical  on his independent farm/research facility in what used to be the Sacramento Valley.  The first few chapters concern a visit to him by his daughter, Professor Tessa Miller, who teaches at a Marsco academy.  Her journey across Sac City to his grange has some interesting world-building, but then there’s no sign of a plot for a while.

Abruptly, we switch to a shuttle in the asteroid belt, and an entirely different set of characters for several chapters.  Not all of the crew or passengers manage to survive the sudden emergence of plot.

And then, it’s months later in a different part of the asteroid belt, and an Independent colony views the arrival of a mysterious Marsco deep-space craft with justifiable suspicion.  This part introduces another of our protagonists, Lieutenant Anthony “Zot” Grizzoti is one of the crew of the Gagarin, and Tessa’s ex.  He’s a specialist in hibernation technology, and knows things he can’t reveal.

Some time later, we’re in the SoAm Continental Zone, as Father Stephen Cavanaugh goes to the camp of the Nexus, the most violent of the Luddite factions, in order to retrieve two boys they’d lured away from his school for PRIMS.  A former student of his, Pete Rivers, is one of the Marsco Security personnel that escorts the priest to the area, but from there Cavanaugh must proceed on his own.   This is the tensest part of the book and could stand on its own as a novella.

With most of the characters now introduced, the story moves forward.

The best part of the book is the world-building.  Mr. Zarzana has done a lot of research, and worked out the details of the Marsco world.  The book comes with a glossary (there are some mild spoilers in this section) due to all the specialized terminology and future slang.  While some of the steps to reach this setting are dubious, it all hangs together well enough once it’s there.

However, a lot of the information is delivered in professorial lectures (Dr. Zarzana himself is a professor of English), which can get tedious.  A little fun is had with the delivery by having a precocious child do some of the lectures to show off to adults.  But too often, it comes across as “As you know, Bob….”

Many of the more interesting characters are in the book too little and some of them won’t be returning later.  I found the Tessa/Zot romance bits tepid and was irritated every time it came up.

The primary active villain, Colonel Hawkins, is planning to avenge the Continental Powers’ defeat and is working with others who want to change the balance of power, and haven’t realized just how obsessed he is.

Marsco has a lot of classism (Marsco associates on top, Sids (people who trade with Marsco) in the middle, and PRIMS on the bottom and treated as barely human), but little racism–one of the associates suddenly breaking out racist slurs shocks his colleagues and is taken as an indicator of his actual age.  Casual racism is more common among the Earth-bound.

There’s a lot of talk about rape, (including a possibly fake story about mind control rape) and a couple of attempted rapes onscreen .  Prostitution is rife in the non-Marsco areas. There’s bursts of violence, some of it dire.

This book is self-published, and the latter half starts having spellchecker typos (“site” for “sight” several times) which suggests that with books this size, the proofreader should take the job in smaller chunks.

Overall…it’s a decent beginning, but not really satisfying on its own.  A lot will depend on the next part expanding on the themes and subplots satisfactorily.  Consider this if you like detailed world-building.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image by John Brunner and Bruce Duncan, respectively.

Belmont Books was a minor publisher of paperback books with a specialty in speculative fiction, which lasted from 1960 to 1971.  Apparently in an effort to mimic the success of Ace Doubles, they produced a series of “Belmont Doubles” that tucked two novellas into one book, but without the reversed printing that made Ace’s books distinctive.  This particular volume was printed in 1968.  While the two stories have little in common, the cover blurb does a good job of linking them.

Father of Lies | Mirror Image

“Father of Lies” is by John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) and features a group of seven amateur parapsychologists.  After a failed attempt to find a “Nessie” type creature in another loch, one of them interests the others in investigating a circle of land in England that seems to have dropped off the memory of everyone outside it, to the point that the maps don’t match what can be observed of the territory.

The team learns that after a certain point into “the Blank Space” modern technology doesn’t work.  The people inside seem to be in a medieval social stasis, and one of the team who happens to have studied older forms of English is told by the locals that there’s an ogre about.  When another of the group, Miles, enters from a different direction, he learns that there’s also a dragon.  He also sees modern tire treads heading into the territory and decides to investigate–then vanishes!

There’s some fascinating Arthurian stuff going on, and a couple of exciting scenes involving the ogre and dragon.  Plus, Miles meets a naked modern woman named Vivien who’s about to become a human sacrifice.  The tension is high in places.  The title does come into play, but not as you would normally expect it to.

The characterization is kind of lacking; two of the seven parapsychology team never show up in person or have lines, and most of the rest get one personality trait each.  Miles and Vivien aren’t much better off, getting “bookish fellow who finds his inner hero” and “modern independent woman with no identifiable skill set but is very brave.”  The villain is also kind of shallow, childishly evil.

The ending is kind of abrupt, with the reveal of what’s been going on in a rushed infodump after an important character dies.

“Mirror Image” is by Bruce Duncan, which turns out to be a pen name for Irving A. Greenfield (Only the Dead Speak Russian).  Go-go dancer Trudy Lane drops dead in the street, but when she’s autopsied an hour later, the doctor finds that she’s been dead over seventy-two hours.  New York police detective Luis Santiago is saddled with this bizarre case, which only gets weirder when another Trudy Lane body shows up cut in half and stuffed in trash cans.

Meanwhile, America’s most advanced nuclear submarine, the Triton, sails out on a secret mission.  There’s some concern about Petty Officer Second Class Warren Hall, who got a “Dear John” letter just before going on shore leave.  He disappeared for several hours during the night, but they do know he was seen with a go-go dancer named…Trudy Lane.  Hall admits that he spent time with her, but lies about another man he was seen with at the Mermaid Club.  Odd.

The reader is not left in suspense long.  (Imagine that meme with the guy from  the History Channel saying “ALIENS”.)  Yes, aliens are invading the Earth and replacing certain people with robots under their command.

The best parts of the story are the bits from the perspective of the Hall robot, which has the parts of Hall’s memories the aliens considered essential, but doesn’t really grok human behavior.  It’s not quite to the level of “Hello, fellow humans.” but Hall keeps doing or saying things that set off people’s uncanny valley instincts.

The aliens appear to have some form of mind-control ability as well, but this is inconsistently portrayed.  The lead alien’s exposition is deadpan enough that it’s almost funny.

It’s a decent enough story, but again the characterization is lacking, and thus the parts that should be thrilling as the submarine is taken over fall flat.

Mostly I recommend this for the John Brunner completist as the previous published version of “Father of Lies” in  Science Fantasy #52 (April 1962) will be even harder to find.

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