Magazine Review: Other Worlds April 1952

Magazine Review: Other Worlds April 1952 edited by Raymond A. Palmer

Other Worlds was a science fiction digest-sized magazine that began publication in 1949.  Raymond A. Palmer was both the publisher and editor, and thus had a freer hand in choosing what to put in the magazine than most pulp editors.  Mr. Palmer (whose name was borrowed for the secret identity of DC Comics’ second Atom as a tribute) had previously been the editor of Amazing Stories, where he had relied heavily on stories from the Shaver Mystery cycle.

Other Worlds April 1952

In this issue’s editorial, Mr. Palmer discusses The Mature Mind by Harry Allen Overstreet, and flatters his readers (and to an extent all science fiction fans) that they are among the few who possess mature minds.  Not blindly embracing the Shaver Mystery, or L. Ron Hubbard’s little philosophy experiment (you know the one), but not blindly rejecting them either.

I am of the mind that we should take this with a large grain of salt.   Painful experience has taught me that I and other science fiction fans are also vulnerable to swallowing nonsense whole, especially when we flatter ourselves on being smarter than the average person.

The story content begins with “The Golden Guardsmen” by S.J. Byrne, part one of two.  This turns out to be a sequel to Prometheus II.  In that previous novel, reporter Stephan Germain battled the forces of Nicholas I, Emperor of the New Russian Empire.  Stephan was captured and surgically altered into a powerful psychic in an attempt by Nicholas I to use the persuasive man to conquer the world.  It didn’t work, as Nicholas’ allies, aliens we would call demons, were opposed by the ancient gods (more aliens.)

At the end of Prometheus II, Nicholas I and his henchman Pavlovich were spinning into empty space on an out of control ship, almost certainly dead.

We begin this story a few years later on the planet Mars.  There’s a trade meeting of the nomadic free Martians at an oasis marked by a crystal pyramid.  Among those in attendance is Trinha Llih, daughter of the greedy but lazy merchant Grlahn.  Trinha has reached marriageable age, and is not displeasing to the eye.  She knows that her father will sell her to the first man who offers a high enough price.

Like many young women in that situation, Trinha does not want to be auctioned off to some lout and spend the rest of her life in menial labor.  She dreams of the fairy tale she heard as a child, in which a girl just like her turns out to be a princess in exile, and a handsome prince from Pahn (Earth) rescues her, taking her to his palace in the stars.

When two strange men stagger out of the desert, one quite handsome and possessed of both supermartian prowess and magical weaponry, Trinha sees her chance.   True, her “prince” is rather older and more ragged than she had hoped, but he is a ruler from Pahn.  Trinha is more than willing to help him against her superstitious people.

Unfortunately for Trinha, her “prince” turns out to be Nicholas I, who survived crashing on Mars.  He’s here at the oasis to meet Izdran of the Thousand Lives, the being that more or less rules Mars.  Emperor Nicholas, after securing Trinha’s vow to serve him, gives her to Pavlovitch, who is in need of some intimate healing if you know what I mean.  (Nicholas himself is only interested in stealing Stephan Germain’s wife Lillian.)

Izdran is one of the few remaining survivors of the Nrlani, a species so powerful and evil that the Ancients had to blow up their entire planet (now known as the asteroid belt) to stop them.  He’s been carefully building an army of telepathic robots and brainwashed Martians for millenia.  Now that the ancient gods have finally left the solar system, Izdran is willing to ally with Nicholas I to conquer Earth, key world in controlling the area.

Naturally, Nicholas I and Izdran plan on betraying each other the moment it’s convenient.  They’re both fully aware of this.  What Nicholas hasn’t counted on  is that Trinha now hates him with the fury of a thousand exploding suns, and plans to kill him the moment she sees an opening.

Meanwhile on Earth, Stephan Germain and his friends have turned control over the world back to the individual nations.  But since the ancient gods left Germain in charge of protecting Earth, he would like the United Nations to give him the power to take over any time the Earth is in danger from outside forces.  Forces that only he can detect.

Understandably, some of the various national governments are reluctant to give emergency powers to someone who could declare an emergency any time he felt like it.   Even if some of them have ulterior motives, Stephan acknowledges that they have a point.  He knows that he is completely trustworthy and that he and a handful of other enlightened souls are Earth’s last best hope, but he can’t demonstrate that without revealing a whole host of secrets the world is not yet ready for.

Germain’s forces detect that something is up (Izdran’s invisible war fleet) and Stephan sends his wife Lillian into hiding for her safety.  This proves to be absolutely the wrong move, and now Stephan is dangerously vulnerable as the Nicholas I/Izdran alliance strikes!

There is some good world building in the early chapters, and Trinha is a sympathetic character.  I felt for her when Trinha’s fairy tale prince turned out to be a louse.

Other characters don’t get nearly as much development–Nicholas and Izdran are sneeringly evil while Pavlovitch is a touch less ruthless, being more reluctant to dispose of possibly useful people.  Germain and his bunch are generically heroic.

One bit that struck me odd was when the heroes cited falling church attendance as evidence that something evil is going on–when all gods and devils were revealed as just powerful aliens in the previous volume.

I can’t give a full rating to the story as this is only the first half.

If this story sounds like your cup of tea, I am happy to report that both Prometheus II and The Golden Guardsmen were reprinted a few years ago and you can probably find them on bookstore websites.

Next up is “Tradition” by J.T. McIntosh.  Alan Gladwin was a mechanic out in the sticks, and doing all right for himself until a swindler took him for everything.  Problem:  The crook headed straight for Pluto, outside the extradition zone.  Solution:  stow away aboard the Space Navy ship Arachnid, blasting off for Pluto as part of a routine exercise.  Perhaps Mr. Gladwin should have done some research first.

For when the stowaway is caught, it turns out to be Space Navy tradition to execute stowaways by firing squad.  Oh, it seems that Mr. Gladwin has survived the firing squad?  Because all the blasters were blanks?  Then the next tradition is impressing the stowaway for a five year hitch in the Navy!  And just in case he was thinking of jumping ship on Pluto, forget that.

The Arachnid isn’t going to Pluto.  It’s headed to Venus to check up on the possible location of the Wreckers, a ruthless pirate gang.  It had to be secret because the Wreckers have a inside man somewhere in the Space Navy command.

But despite the derailment of his initial plans, Spaceman Second-Class Gladwin is not just a survivor, but the sort of person who falls upward.  As soon as he starts understanding how things are done, Gladwin rapidly finds himself Spaceman First-Class, and soon the most junior officer.  It’s all down to tradition, you see.  In the end, it’s Sub-Lieutenant Gladwin who figures out how the Wreckers are doing it and saves the day.  By the end of his five year hitch, he might very well be Admiral Gladwin!

One tradition of the Space Navy I like is that men and women are treated as equals (at least theoretically), which gives a nice frisson to Gladwin’s relationship with Lieutenant Crisp.  While she learns to appreciate his luck and/or skill, Lt. Crisp never has to be incompetent to allow Gladwin to shine.

I think fans of Irresponsible Captain Tylor would like this story.

Finishing out the fiction is “The Guardian of Eden” by Richard Ashby.  Ham actor and playwright J. Marty Reed and his long-suffering troupe are engaged to put on an entertainment for the Servant of Tombola, a mining center asteroid.  It isn’t going well until Marty drunkenly buys a device for creating plays that are exactly tailored to one person’s interests.

The Servant reluctantly agrees to have the device used, and the results are tabulated.  There’s an issue, though.  The Servant’s ideal female lead looks nothing like either of the actresses in the Reed troupe.  Oh, there’s an  advertisement for a free sample gynoid with overnight delivery!  What luck!

The artificial woman Eden arrives, and is perfect.  Now the play can begin!  But it quickly becomes clear to the reader, if not Marty, that something suspicious is going on….

J. Marty Reed is a classic unreliable narrator, so caught up in himself and what he thinks is important that he misses vital clues and the real feelings of those around him.   It got a bit uncomfortable for me after a while.

Then it’s off to the lively letters section (again, Mr. Palmer was his own publisher, so was only bound by postal regulations in what he could say in replies.)  Two of the more interesting letters have to do with religion; one asking that OW not print stories disparaging Christianity, the other asking that it not print editorial material disparaging Mr. Hubbard’s philosophical experiment.  Mr. Palmer defended his right to do both.

“The Man From Tomorrow” is an uncredited short-short, a utopian piece about simplified living.  It has an end date of 1985, and well, that did not happen.  “Fun With Science” is about imprecision in mathematical terms.

“Science Fiction Book Reviews” covers four classics of the genre: Farmer in the Sky, Seetee ShockThe Dreaming Jewels and The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  It was a good month for science fiction!

And finally, there’s a biography of noted science fiction artist Hannes Bok.

That last one may make this issue a must-have for those with an interest in science fiction art.

A pretty solid issue altogether, though not a standout.

And since I mentioned Tylor, let’s see a bit of that show:

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Book Review: Legacy

Book Review: Legacy by J.F Bone

Sam Williams used to be a combat medic, until he got a little careless and had half his face radiated off during the Gakan “punitive expedition.”  After a punch-up with a pencil-pusher who got a little personal about Sam’s appearance, the battling medico was invalided out and sent back to Earth.  Except that a “clerical error” got him stranded on the desolate mining world of Arthe instead.

Legacy

While waiting for his paperwork to clear up, Sam gets his face partially fixed (the radiation damage prevents a complete restoration with the available technology), and joins the planetary police force.  As it happens, Arthe is having a problem with a drug named Tonocaine that is hideously addictive and drives the user out of their mind.  Soon, Dr. Williams is going undercover as a full-time doctor to find the source of the narcotic.  What he doesn’t know is just how big this drug ring is…or their terrifying true purpose!

Laser Books was a short-lived science fiction imprint from Harlequin (better known for their category romance) and edited by Roger Elwood.  They had a very standardized packaging–a precise length requirement, covers by Kelly Freas, and a bowdlerization clause in the contract that allowed Mr. Elwood to remove elements Harlequin did not approve of without consulting the author.  That last bit angered some writers when they saw the finished product.

Dr. Jesse Franklin Bone was a military veterinarian (Lieutenant Colonel) as well as a science fiction author, and he does a reasonably good job of making Sam Williams convincing as a doctor/fighter.  What Sam isn’t very good at is being a detective–he keeps making impulsive judgments, which land him in hot water (often admitting these mistakes in the narration!)

There’s definitely an E.E. “Doc” Smith influence here with the description of Tonocaine, and the legacy of the title, an alien object so fearsome yet desirable it is known only as “The Power.”

Much is made of Sam’s love interest Sofra being a virgin before marriage, in a way that may make modern readers cringe a bit.  (Meanwhile, Sam’s virginity or lack of same comes up not at all.)

While actual sex is not on-stage, it’s made clear that prostitution is rife in the mining town where much of the action takes place, and an even nastier trading community Sam spends some time in.  A subplot concerns a man who has impotence (never directly called that) who beats women half to death as a substitute.  Sadism is treated as an evil trait.

There’s a lot of regular violence in addition to the sexualized variety mentioned above, including a lovingly described and brutal hand-to-hand struggle at the climax that goes on for pages.

Also, what SF fans call “fantastic racism.”  The “natives” of Arthe are human colonists who were isolated for a couple of thousand years, became severely inbred, and adopted a primitive nomadic lifestyle.  There’s a substantial subculture of “Breeds,” people who are the offspring of liasons between the natives and more recent visitors from off-planet and considered inferior by both.  At the beginning of the book, the lizard-like inhabitants of Gakan are referred to by ethnic slurs.

All that said, Dr. Williams running around like a medical version of Jonah Hex is kind of cool and this is definitely a men’s adventure book.  Worth having for the Freas cover, if nothing else–check used book stores and garage sales for this and other Laser Books.

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