Book Review: Tiger by the Tail

Book Review: Tiger by the Tail by Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992) was a medical doctor and science fiction/fact author.  His professional training often showed in his stories, perhaps best exemplified by the novel Star Surgeon.  He also wrote The Bladerunner, about a dystopian future where medical care is rationed.  Hollywood optioned the title and stuck it on a Philip K. Dick story.

Tiger by the Tail

 

This book is a collection of nine SF short stories originally published in the 1950s, when speculative fiction was getting more psychologically complex.

“Tiger by the Tail” leads off with store detectives watching in amazement as a shoplifter blatantly stuffs merchandise into her pocketbook.  Far more than could possibly fit into it.  It ends with an existential threat to the entire universe.  The story is exposition heavy, but pays off when an iron bar moving a centimeter becomes a horrifying event.

“Nightmare Brother” is the longest story.  A man finds himself walking down a long tunnel without knowing where he is, how he got there, or even who he is.  And the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train!  He escapes that peril, only to find himself in a worse situation, over and over.  Why is this happening to him?!  Some dubious psychology, and a hint of Fifties attitudes towards women.

“PRoblem” involves a public relations man called in to sell the public on allowing extradimensional aliens to take temporary refuge on Earth while their babies are born.   The aliens are almost designed to cause revulsion in humans, and their personalities are irritating.  And then he finds out their real dealbreaker.  I get the feeling this one was written around a typo.

“The Coffin Cure” involves a cure for the common cold.  Dr. Nourse ignores clinical testing procedures that he would certainly have been familiar with in real life so that the cure can be released to large portions of the public by an overenthusiastic project leader named Coffin.  A few weeks later, the side effects start showing up.  (And they’re fairly logical side effects.) Phillip Dawson, the man who actually came up with the cure, must now find a cure for the cure.   Very Fifties sitcom treatment of his marriage.

“Brightside Crossing” is a grueling tale about a disastrous attempt to cross the surface of Mercury.  Since then, we have learned that Mercury does in fact rotate, so there’s no one “bright side.”  That said, it’s an adventure story with some thrilling moments.

“The Native Soil” likewise is not viable because of new information about Venus.  For the purposes of this story, it’s covered in deep, deep mud–some of which has unparalleled antibiotic properties.  A pharmaceutical company is trying to mine that mud with the dubious aid of the natives.  The enterprise is not going well, and even a top troubleshooter from Earth is about to give up until he finally realizes what’s really going on.

“Love Thy Vimp” has Earth invaded by the eponymous vermin-like aliens.  They cause trouble wherever they go, are vicious and cruel, and nearly impossible to kill.   Barney Holder, a mild-mannered sociology teacher, has been assigned to a task force to get rid of the accursed things.  One vimp has been captured, but experiments reveal no way of stopping it.  Barney must ferret out the vimps’ one weakness.  Fifties sitcom marriage stereotypes pop up again, but this time the nagging wife is an actual plot point.

“Letter of the Law” involves a conman who tried to bilk a group of aliens, only to run into their biggest taboos.   Now he’s on trial for his life, and has to be his own lawyer on a planet where truth is an unknown concept.  The human government emissary isn’t exactly thrilled to be helping.  And even if the conman succeeds, his neck might still be on the chopping block.  Satisfying ending.

“Family Resemblance” isn’t a science fiction story per se, but a comic tale of a hoax designed to make it appear that humans evolved from pigs.  Some groan-worthy humor in this one.

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories that have become dated either through scientific advances or social change.  Worth looking up at your library.

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944 edited by Mary Gnaedinger

Famous Fantastic Mysteries ran from 1939 to 1953 as primarily a reprint magazine.  It was originally published by the Munsey Company to feature the many speculative fiction stories they’d published over the years in their non-specialist magazines like Argosy, to cash in on the now thriving SF magazine market.  They’d had many fine stories over the years, such as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and had new art commissioned for the stories from excellent artists, especially Virgil Finlay.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

At the end of 1942, Munsey sold the magazine to Popular Publications, which changed the reprint policy to only stories that had not appeared in magazines before.  They also switched the magazine to a quarterly schedule for the duration of the war.  So the March 1944 issue was still early in their new policy, and the letters column reflects this, with several readers still arguing “no magazine stories” was a bad idea.

Back before internet archives, interlibrary loan, or even “Best of the Year” collections, tracking down a particular half-remembered story was an exercise in frustration, so this reprint magazine was a godsend and sold well.

This issue has only two long stories (short novels), but they’re both indeed famous.  Cover honors go to G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.”

Syme is a philosophical policeman, part of a secret unit of Scotland Yard.  As ordinary police officers deal with ordinary crime, a philosophical policeman deals with philosophical crimes that threaten to corrupt or destroy society.  After a debate on what constitutes true poetry with a man named Gregory, Syme finds himself in a position to infiltrate the controlling council of Europe’s anarchist conspiracy.  But has he bitten off more than he can chew, and who or what exactly is the remarkable Mr. Sunday?

As the subtitle suggests, the story runs on dream logic, and has many nightmarish qualities.  The pursuer who moves slowly but cannot be escaped, the eyeless face, and the story’s biggest twist, which is famous but I won’t actually spoil in this review just in case.

Chesterton was a fervent Catholic, and his depiction of Anarchism as a philosophy may not be entirely accurate or fair.  But it still leads to some hilarious moments in the person of Gregory, who tries to disguise himself as authority figures only to fail because he can only act out the negative stereotypes he has of them.  And this moment, which commentators on the internet will surely identify with…

“I am afraid my fury and your insult are too shocking to be wiped out even with an apology,” said Gregory very calmly.  “No duel could wipe it out.  If I struck you dead I could not wipe it out.  There is only one way by which that insult can be erased, and that way I choose.  I am going, at the possible sacrifice of my life and honor, to prove to you that you were wrong in what you said.”

While the story starts out mostly plausible, the events become more and more unlikely, until the final scenes are almost hallucinatory.  We finally learn most of the truth about Mr. Sunday, or at least what he wants us to know about him.

Some of the story’s digs at society may take knowledge of pre-World War One English culture to fully appreciate, but as an extended philosophical jest, it’s amazing.

“The Ghost Pirates” by William Hope Hodgson is about a sailor named Jessop, and the strange events aboard the ship Mortzestus.  He hears even before shipping out on her whispers that the boat is ill-starred, but it’s going the direction he wants, and paying well.

At first, the rumors seem unfounded, but soon odd things are happening.  There are too many shadows, some not cast by any living thing.  Secured items become unsecured when no one is looking, and the sails behave as though there is wind, even when the air is calm.

When the ship is past the point of no return, the weird happenings turn dangerous, and then deadly.  The ship has lost sight of its course, and there are shadows following it in the water….

Mr. Hodgson was a sailor himself for several years, and the story is soaked in authentic detail and nautical terminology.  Having a dictionary handy for some of the obscure terms is recommended.  For those who love sea tales and ghost tales, this is a well-told treat.

Both of these stories are in the public domain, and can be found free on the internet, or in your library.

The magazine also has a tribute to Abraham Merritt, who had long been a mainstay of its pages, and had recently passed away.

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Comic Book Review: Headache

Comic Book Review: Headache written by Lisa Joy, art by Jim Fern

Sarah Pallas is a 19-year-old girl who’s been institutionalized due to recurring nightmares in which her mother is murdered.  She’s also Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy.  Her relatives are the Greek gods, and they want her out of the way while Zeus plans the end of human civilization.  Sarah must escape from the asylum, recover her memories and thwart her father’s plans–but whose side is her uncle Hades really on?

Headache

This graphic novel reimagines the Greek gods as a secret family of immortals who change with the times, blending in with each new era, and currently residing in Manhattan.  (Apollo’s a movie star.)  They squabble and feud, but most of them are down with the coming world war for one reason or another.  Athena objected, so she was given amnesia and locked away–now that she’s back, it’s necessary to kill her.  Death isn’t permanent for gods, more like a long quiet vacation, but it would put her out of the way long enough for Zeus’ plan to succeed.

To be honest, this is more of a graphic novelette, and feels very stripped down.  Events happen bang bang bang, and characterization is sparse.  (Surprisingly to me at least, Aphrodite is the most complex character in the story, resentful of her position as the goddess of love and beauty–indeed, sick unto death of it.)  Sarah is more action film heroine than anything else, with her ability to kick butt in hand-to-hand combat prioritized more than her brains.  (The author’s prior work is in action TV.)  And then there’s her “bad boy” thing for Hades….

Persephone shows up just long enough to explain that her marriage to Hades is in name only, which theoretically makes Sarah and his mutual attraction okay as long as you ignore the part where she’s sleeping with her uncle.  Erm.  Diana’s characterization is reduced to being sexually attracted to her twin brother Apollo and resentful that he doesn’t reciprocate.

The art is decent, but feels pedestrian; the fantasy sections could use a little more “pop.”

Mildly recommended to fans of modern retellings of Greek mythology, especially if you preferred the “fighty” bits of Buffy to the “talky” bits.

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Michael Merriam

Disclaimer:  My copy is an uncorrected proof; there may be changes in the final product (I am hoping for many less spellchecker typos.)

Many years ago, Richard Martz ran afoul of the law forbidding children who have both mage and fey blood from being born.  His lover and her unborn child were executed in an overreaction by the local magical community, and he overreacted in turn, wiping them all out.  Now he is cursed, his magic crippled and longing for death, but unable to die.

Dark Waters

Richard’s buried himself in an electronics repair job in Minneapolis.  His employer died recently, and Richard is surprised when that man’s daughter, Holly Ellefson, turns up in his apartment that night.  It turns out that she herself is a mage/fey combination, her powers and heritage hidden by her mother’s spell…which was tied to her father’s life.  Now that Holly has no blood relatives, her disguise is fading, and her powers emerging.  She need magical training, and protection from those who would murder her to keep the law.

Richard accepts, but his price is that if he saves her life, Holly must take his.

“Urban fantasy” is a subgenre of fantasy that is generally set in something like the modern day, in real world places (usually cities) and has a theme of magic co-existing with technology and mundane life.  Often, the magical world is hidden from  normal people (see for example the Harry Potter series.)  In this case, the story takes place a century or so in the future, after the magical community suffered a disaster that exposed it to the normal humans.

To protect themselves, the magical community provides magical technology that does not rely on the now nearly exhausted fossil fuels.  Only the wealthy can fully afford this, so much of the rest of society is reverting to earlier technology.  General Mills and the Basilica still stand, but Nicollet Island and the Sculpture Garden are ruins.  There’s a magical Council that polices their own community, and has considerable influence over the normal human government.

This book was sparked by a random premise generator, and that origin peeks through the cracks from time to time.  As the cover suggests, it follows the standard Hollywood formula of middle-aged looking male lead, twenty-something looking female lead; though he’s over a hundred years old, and she’s in her forties chronologically.  (Also, the cover is early in the story–Holly is less conventionally attractive by the end.)  There’s also something of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, as the free-spirited Holly helps Richard overcome his deep man-pain.

The Mississippi River plays a fairly large part in the setting of the story, and provides the title.

Content advisory:  There’s several gruesome deaths, a couple of which are basically shrugged off by the end (they’re only non-magical humans after all.)  Late in the book, there’s a on-screen sex scene.

It’s an okay book, but mostly of local interest.  The setting could use more thought, and a less formula plot.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no resemblance or connection beyond the title.

Book Review: Danger in the Dark

Book Review: Danger in the Dark by L. Ron Hubbard

Yes, it’s another of those L. Ron Hubbard reprints; thanks, discount bin!

This time, we have three fantasy stories, none of which have anything to do with the cover.  (It’s actually illustrating “Returned from Hell” by Steve Fisher.)

Danger in the Dark

“Danger in the Dark” is set in the Mariana Islands east of the Philippines.  Billy Newman was suckered into buying an island with a copra plantation.  Unfortunately, a series of disasters, including a smallpox plague, have come to Kaisan Isle, something the natives ascribe to the evil spirit Tadamona.  Billy naturally spurns this explanation as the foolish superstition it would normally be.  But this time, Tadamona is real, and it has a bone to pick with the arrogant white man….

While it’s a neat twist on the “superior white dude overcomes native superstition” plotline, it’s still pretty darn ethnocentric–only Billy and the half-white girl Christina are willing to do anything to thwart Tadamona, while the natives have decided to surrender completely to their unseen nemesis.  And the ending restores the “natural” superiority of white people.

“The Room” takes place somewhere in rural America.  Uncle Toby, the local veterinarian, has disappeared.  His nephew Joe has been tagging along on the rounds for years, despite his crippled leg, so starts filling in at doctoring animals.  Eventually, Joe becomes aware that the study he has inherited from Uncle Toby contains objects not of this Earth, and that might have something to do with his uncle’s disappearance.   Nothing is ever really explained, the story ends when Joe and his Aunt Cinthia disappear as well, gone no one knows where, and the house eventually burns down.  I had to look at the dates to see that it was not a poor attempt to imitate one of Ray Bradbury’s pastorals.   Mr. Hubbard’s style is not suited to this sort of story.

“He Didn’t Like Cats” is the tale of Jacob  Findley, an otherwise blameless fellow who doesn’t like felines.  One day a cat crosses his path, and a momentary impulse makes Jacob kick it–into traffic.  The incident quickly becomes an obsession, and it’s not clear whether the cat is taking supernatural vengeance, or if it’s just an overactive conscience, but Jacob will never sleep well again.   There’s some light comedy to stretch out the story as Jacob becomes the focus of a love triangle without ever grasping that fact.   Mr. Hubbard is a bit too heavy-handed with the humor.

There’s a preview of the next volume, “The Crossroads”, a glossary and the usual potted material.

This is easily the weakest example of Mr. Hubbard’s work I have seen in the Galaxy Press reprints; very skippable.

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