Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol by Kurt Mahr

Following clues retrieved from the distant past, Perry Rhodan continues to search for the secret of immortality.  Accordingly, the crew of Stardust II is searching a particular sector of the galaxy for structural anomalies.  Soon, they discover a particular signal coming from a supergiant planet which is quickly dubbed Gol.  Despite the misgivings of his Arkonide allies Khrest and Thora, Rhodan orders a landing.  Once there, Rhodan and the others must brave the bizarre inhabitants and lethal environment of Gol to find the next clue left by the mysterious guardian of the secret.

Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

The Perry Rhodan series has been published weekly since 1961 in Germany, with over 2800 novellas in the still-continuing original continuity, as well as numerous spin-offs.  The first installment, written by series creators K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernsting, had the first moon landing happen in 1971.  U.S. Space Force Major Perry Rhodan and his crew find a stranded alien spaceship captained by the impetuous beauty Thora, assisted by frail scientist Khrest.  While Arkonide technology is eons ahead of Earth’s, their society has become stagnant and decadent, and it is soon arranged for a trade of alien science for the exploration assistance of the vital Earthlings.

Rhodan swiftly (but not entirely without opposition) unites Earth, and then leads it against an invasion of more hostile aliens.  With that out of the way, he’s free to search for immortality.  It’s not much of a spoiler to say that he eventually finds it and he and several of his allies become immune to aging, allowing for the vast timescale of the series.

This volume (which translates Issue #16 of the German edition) is part of the Ace Books reprint series which ran from 1969-1978, translated by Wendayne Ackerman and edited by her husband Forrest J. Ackerman.  At this point the series was published monthly as a “bookazine”, with a film review column (this issue was First Spaceship on Venus) and letters section.  Sadly, the vast majority of the series has never been officially translated into English.

Kurt Mahr (pen name of Klaus Otto Mahn) was trained as a physicist, which gives his technobabble a feeling of verisimilitude.  It’s clear that he enjoyed trying to figure out what conditions might be like on a 900+ gravities planet and how the heck our heroes were going to get around on it.  The inhabitants of Gol are energy beings who exist primarily in a higher dimension and provide a unique hazard to the three-dimensional humans.

This story is in the pulp SF tradition, heavy on the exciting things happening, light on characterization.  Rhodan is very much the omni-competent hero, inventing a new branch of physics during one of the chapters to solve a technical problem.  The person who shows the most personality is Thora, whose back and forth with Rhodan suggests that she’s sweet on him but not willing to admit it even to herself.  There’s no overt sexism in the text, but the gender ratio of the crew is such that there are only two named women in a crew of at least one hundred.

There are several mutants with psychic powers in the crew of the Stardust II; the majority of them are Japanese (though I am dubious about the name Tanaka Seiko for a male characters.)  It’s not made clear in this volume if this is due to the atom bombs giving that area extra radiation or just coincidence.

The novella concludes with a bit of a cliffhanger; Rhodan has succeeded in finding the next place to go, but the ship’s new location isn’t anywhere in known space and they have no idea how to get back.

While this is an exciting, fast-paced read, the series is hard to find, being decades out of print.  Recommended primarily to fans of German science fiction of the old school.

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory by Thomas E. Sniegoski

Disgraced doctor Jonas Chapel, on the run from the mob in Mexico, stumbles across a mysterious skeleton dripping a fluid that turns humans into monsters.  Soon thereafter Chapel’s back in New York, teaming up with the very gang boss who’d ordered the hit on him to take over all the gangs in the city.  Or so mobster Rocco Fazzina thinks, but Dr. Chapel’s ambitions are larger than that.  Only the masked man known as the Lobster and his few agents are aware of the Satan Factory and the threat it poses to all human life!

Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

The Lobster is a character first appearing in the Hellboy comic books by Mike Mignola.  He was a vigilante of the 1930s, dead in the present day, and had become known at “Lobster Johnson” through a series of ever less accurate fictionalizations.  For the purposes of this book, the body of the story is a previously unknown manuscript that predates all other fictionalizations, and may have been written by an agent of the Lobster himself.

That agent (under the alias Jacob Hurley) is a former police officer who’d been framed for corruption when he dared speak out against it, and after several years in prison, released to become an unemployable homeless man.  He’s recently been recruited by the Lobster to keep an eye on the city’s underbelly.  As this is the twilight period of history after the start of the Depression but before the end of Prohibition, there is a thriving Hooverville for Jake to get information from.

As a new agent of the Lobster, Jake serves as the viewpoint character to introduce us to the team.  We also get scenes from the viewpoint of the Lobster, but these are all directly connected to his fight against crime and tell almost nothing about his personal life beyond dark allusions to tragic events that motivated him to become the Lobster, and perhaps gave him his “not a normal human” status.

The Lobster is much in the Spider mode, branding fallen foes with his lobster claw emblem, and killing scores of monsters as well as any gangster that crosses his path (that isn’t killed by something else.)

We get a bit more insight into the backgrounds of villains Chapel and Fazzina, and how they got started on their paths to darkness.  By the end, however, there’s almost nothing left of Dr. Chapel’s original personality as the owner of the skeleton starts taking him over to spread its army of monsters.

This book is very much is the pulp tradition with lots of fast moving action and not much time spent on introspection.  Also in the pulp tradition, there’s a glitch–as I hinted at above, “Lobster Johnson” was a name attached to the Lobster only much later than the purported date of the manuscript, and yet the narrative slips and calls him that a couple of times.

Primarily for Mike Mignola fans who didn’t get enough of the Lobster in the comics, but should also go well for fans of pulp heroes in general.

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One edited by Ian Sattler

DC Comics has produced many fine characters in its superhero books over the decades, including iconic super-villains.  It can be a lot of fun watching the bad guys do things when their specific hero isn’t around to stop them.  Thus, in 1976, we got the first DC series dedicated to the adventures of a super-villain group.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Several baddies are invited to a “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco by  means ranging from a rock with a note wrapped around it to an intergalactic sub-space message.  There they are met by a clone of the Paul Kirk Manhunter (even in the 1970s we had characters with convoluted backstories) who claims to have gone mercenary and now works for their mysterious “benefactor.”  The assembled villains are ambushed by a robotic version of the Justice League, and easily smash them, demonstrating the power of numbers.  Then Gorilla Grodd and Copperhead are sent on an initiation mission, which goes south and Copperhead is captured by the police.  Still, the fun is just beginning!

Since the Comics Code was still in effect at the time, the villains could never be allowed a full victory, and in the second issue we meet Captain Comet, DC’s first mutant superhero, who hadn’t appeared since the 1950s.  It was explained he had been out in space, and unaware of current events.  The Society decides to dupe him into working with them–it doesn’t actually work because he’s out of touch, not stupid, but since it is revealed at this point that the Society’s secret benefactor is the evil New God Darkseid, who none of the villains particularly want to serve, Captain Comet winds up teaming with the Society anyhow.

Once the Darkseid situation is resolved, the various members of the Society come up with their own evil schemes, and Captain Comet proceeds to be a thorn in their sides.  This volume collects the first ten issues, and an alternate version of the first issue with slightly different characters and a significantly different plot.

Company politics resulted in three different writers in ten issues, as well as no steady art team.  Series creator Gerry Conway was the most frequent author.  This also affected the casting; some editors at DC wouldn’t let iconic villains associated with their heroes be used, so the Society was heavy on Flash foes (because Mr. Conway was also writing the Flash), relatively obscure characters such as Copperhead and the Earth-2 Wizard, and featured a new person in the role of Star Sapphire, replacing Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s long-time love interest Carol Ferris.

Lex Luthor does show up for one issue, but it’s a very poor showing for him, winding up arrested by ordinary police officers.  Longer lasting was Funky Flashman, a non-powered grifter and entrepreneur who is believed to be Jack Kirby’s satire on Stan Lee’s less stellar qualities.  (His appearance is changed in this series to more closely resemble how Stan Lee looked in the Seventies.)

Sales were never particularly good on this title, and it would get cancelled in the DC Implosion, but it’s a fun look at the bad guys as they were at the time.  (The alternate first issue plays up Captain Cold’s would-be ladies’ man trait, which was his main characterization point at the time.)  Recommended to DC Comics fans and fans of the Flash TV series.

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

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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