Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.

Headstrong

And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Years ago, Schuyler Jarvis (Louis Jordan) was a young entertainer who fell in love with a woman named Lovey Lynn (Bea Griffith.)  She liked him plenty too, but her mother disapproved because Jarvis was a poor man, and forced Lovey to break off the affair.  Lovey was married to a wealthy gentleman and had a daughter named Honey Carter (also Bea Griffith) while Jarvis married some other woman and had a son named Louis Jarvis (also Louis Jordan.)

Reet, Petite, and Gone

Lovey passed some time back, and Schuyler, now quite wealthy in his own right, is on his deathbed.   He’s determined to marry his bandleader son to Honey, and sets up his will to ensure this by specifying the exact physical dimensions of the woman Louis must marry to inherit the dough.

Crooked lawyer Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker) sees an opportunity to profit and alters the will to make it appear that the required woman matches the description of his secretary Rusty (Vanita Smythe.)  He also heads off Honey and her friend June (June Richmond) at the airport, attempting to get them to fly back to New Orleans.  (June is a savvy woman and keeps the bribe he gives them so the girls can use it as the first month’s rent on an apartment.)

Talbot initially gets away with it because Schuyler passes away before Louis can get back from the radio station he’s performing at.  He’s repulsed by Rusty and wonders if perhaps he can skip the inheritance.  His manager Sam Adams (Milton Woods) reminds him that they’re about to put on a Broadway show, and the money would sure come in handy.  Then the show biz men get an idea.   They’ll scout for another woman with the same dimensions as Rusty but more palatable by claiming it’s a beauty contest/audition for the show.

This doesn’t go so well, apparently Rusty is unique among women.  However, Honey hasn’t been able to find a job and winds up at the Jarvis mansion to audition.   She doesn’t match the altered criteria either, but she’s able to remind Louis of who she is, and the two hit it off well.

Talbot manages to get one of the show’s backers to bail out, now making it absolutely essential for Louis to inherit if he doesn’t want to close the show before opening and become box office poison.  Things are looking pretty dire, and Louis must make his marriage decision before midnight.  At the last moment, Dolph the aged butler (David Bethea) reveals that he’s been holding a trump card….

This is another “race” picture,  where the cast and crew are all black, designed to air in segregated theaters.    This gave actors who normally got stuck with roles as maids and comic relief the chance to shine.   It’s also a musical and as such a showcase for Mr. Jordan and his Tympani Five band.  As such, there are multiple swing numbers, three of them before the plotline even starts!

Ms. Griffith was apparently not a particularly good singer, so the film avoids her breaking into song as much as possible.  Instead, we’re treated to a couple of fine numbers by June Richmond.  (She’d actually have made a better female lead, I think, but was too heavy-set for Hollywood to give her that role.)

The fan service is heavy in this film–the showgirl costumes and bathing suits are at least plot-relevant, but there’s a scene of Ms. Griffith in her underwear when she didn’t need to be.  (Really obvious when Ms. Richmond is in the same scene, fully clothed.)  Mr. Jordan’s taste for fine-looking ladies is treated as being a lovable scamp.  But the next to last song in the movie is a misogynist screed “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman?”, that really jarred when the finale is “If It’s Love You Want, Baby, That;s Me.”

As such, if you are watching this with younger viewers, you might want to discuss the harmful effects of casual misogyny

The Mill Creek edition of this movie cuts off just before the resolution of the plot; the Internet Archive print is complete, but has much worse picture quality.

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