Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

Blood bank worker Mizuki (no relation) is sent to investigate a report of tainted blood provided by his business, which has turned a hospital patient into the living dead.  Narrowing down the possibilities, Mizuki is startled to learn that the blood donor put down his, Mizuki’s, address!  It turns out there are squatters in the abandoned temple out back of his house.

The Birth of Kitaro

These squatters are yokai, a married couple who are the last of the Ghost Tribe.  Once, the Ghost Tribe was numerous, and lived all over the country.  But as humans encroached on their territory, the Ghost Tribe was forced first into the wilderness, then underground.  Over the years, their numbers have dwindled, until these two and their unborn child are all that remain.  The wife sold her blood to buy medicine, as both of the yokai are ill.  Out of pity, Mizuki agrees to keep their secret until the baby is born.

Months later, Mizuki visits the temple to find both of the yokai dead, and buries them.  But their child, Kitaro, lives, and Mizuki adopts him, even though he is repulsed by the sight of the little monster.

GeGeGe no Kitaro is Shigeru Mizuki’s best known work, a horror manga for children.  According to the introduction, he took inspiration from Hakaba  Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), a kamishibai (paper theater) performance series that had been popular before World War Two.  Most of the records of the series were destroyed during the war, but Mizuki took what was known and refashioned it for 1960s children.  It was an enormous hit, and there have been numerous anime adaptations.

This volume collects “best of” stories from the Kitaro series, rather than have them in order of publication.  Thus, Kitaro’s character design is very different in the first chapter, before he’s learned to groom himself.  Eventually, Kitaro is kicked out of Mr. Mizuki’s house to fend for himself with the aid of Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad), the animated eyeball of his deceased father.

The remainder of the stories in this volume guest star Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a filthy, greedy fellow who constantly tries to find ways to profit from foolish humans and other yokai.  Often, he’s personally responsible for the peril that Kitaro must deal with, but other times Nezumi Otoko just finds a way to chisel some extra yen from the situation.

Another recurring character that makes an appearance is Neko Musume (Cat Daughter), a part-feline girl who is Nezumi Otoko’s natural enemy.  Kitaro uses her to convince the rat to give back all the money he’d swindled from a group of humans to grant them a form of immortality.  In this early story, Neko Musume is much less pretty than later adaptations make her.

In the early chapters, Kitaro isn’t too fond of humans due to being bullied for his hideous appearance and strange behavior; as he gains a heroic reputation the humans become friendlier and Kitaro reciprocates.  However, he knows that he can never be fully welcome in human society and wanders away at the end of most stories.

There’s a variety of yokai in this series, the most difficult to defeat is the gyuki (bullheaded crab), because anyone who kills the gyuki, becomes the gyuki!  Kids tend to be important in the stories, either as potential victims or the ones who call Kitaro in.

At the end of the volume are pocket descriptions of the yokai in this volume, and activities for kids like a maze and word search puzzle.

Keeping in mind that what the Japanese consider suitable for children varies from what many American parents will accept (there’s some rear male nudity, and people die), this would be a great gift for a horror-loving elementary school kid.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow by Howard Fast

There have been several books titled The Edge of Tomorrow, none of which have anything to do with the recent Tom Cruise movie, which borrowed most of its plot from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill.  (I think you can see why there was a title change.)   This particular volume contains seven science fiction stories by the author of Spartacus and other fine historical novels.

The Edge of Tomorrow

“The First Men” starts in 1945, as Harry Felton is discharged from the Army following World War Two.  His anthropologist sister sends a request for him to stay in India for the purpose of finding a child allegedly raised by wolves ala Mowgli.  He finds her, but she is mentally unable to function except as a very smart wolf.  Similarly, the South African boy raised by baboons is essentially a furless baboon.

Then the actual idea behind Jean’s research is revealed.   Children at an early level of development raised by animals can never be more than animals.  Children raised by flawed human society will never surpass ordinary humans.  But what would happen if a group of highly intelligent infants from around the world were raised under utopian conditions by enlightened scientists?

Harry helps gather the children for this experiment, which must be carried out in complete isolation from the outside world.  In 1965, he is called in by the government.  It seems all communication with the creche has been lost, and a zone of nothingness has sealed off the area.  Does he know what’s going on?

As it happens, Harry has a sealed letter from his sister for just this moment.  In it, she reveals that the experiment was highly successful, and the children have taken the next step in mental evolution.  Hyperintelligent and telepathic, they are preparing to bring the children of humanity up to their level as fast as they can expand their zone of influence.

Harry’s government contact reacts badly.  Not that I can blame him, given the implications.

Some readers may be squicked by discussion of sex among the upraised youngsters.  At the time this was written, 1959, certain readers might have been more upset with the idea that all the races of man were equally capable of being uplifted.

“The Large Ant” has a writer on vacation instinctively swatting what appears to be an oversized insect to death.  Upon realizing it’s no ordinary insect, he takes it to a museum.  It’s not the first specimen they’ve gotten of this type.  And given that every human that’s encountered them has immediately defaulted to killing them, we can no longer assume that peaceful contact is possible.  Heavy on the infodump.

“Of Time and Cats” has Professor Robert Clyde Bottman, who teaches physics at Columbia University, help out a fellow professor with a defective experimental circuit.  As a result, he ties a knot in time, and multiple iterations of himself keep appearing.  That gets fixed, but not before his friend’s cat also ties a knot in its own timeline.  The best story in this volume, with a humorous touch.

“Cato the Martian” posits a civilization on Mars that has become aware of Earth due to the radio and television waves of the last few decades.  One of the members of the Martian Senate is alarmist about the potential for the violent Earthlings to escape their home world and invade Mars.  He’s been saddled with the insulting nickname Cato, after the Roman politician who wanted to destroy Carthage.

But Cato has taken the name as his own, and gradually won over most of the Senate to his cause.  His plan is to drop atomic bombs on the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to make them think the other has attacked, and start World War Three.   Turns out the plan has one fatal flaw….

“The Cold, Cold Box” is a chilling tale of a Board of Directors meeting where they discuss whether or not to continue committing the crime that has brought them to be de facto rulers of the world.  By rights, they should turn over power to the person they act on behalf of, but things are running so smoothly without that person.  And to be honest, that person was kind of a jerk anyway.   A look at how easy it is to salve your conscience with the other good you’ve done.

“The Martian Shop” concerns the opening of three stores allegedly selling products from Mars.  It’s really more of a vignette than a story, going into great detail about how the shops were set up, the merchandise they had, how bizarre the shop personnel were, etc.  Then there’s a couple of paragraphs at the end revealing what the shops actually are.  Between this story and the Cato one, I’m beginning to see where Alan Moore gets his ideas.

“The Sight of Eden” is the final story.  An exploratory mission from Earth lands on what appears to be a paradise planet.  One that is mysteriously empty.   Still, this is the first sign of an inhabitable world they’ve found, and the first sign of other inhabitants of the universe.  Then they meet the caretaker and learn why the place is empty.  Downer ending.

Overall, decent writing but too reliant on infodumps, and I’ve seen most of these ideas done better.  But if you enjoyed Spartacus and want to see what else Howard Fast wrote, this is a handy start.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

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

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

The Book of Van Vogt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1 by Otis Frampton

Life is not good for Oddly Normal (who was named after her great-aunt.)  As the product of a human/witch marriage, her green hair and pointed ears make her stand out in her small town elementary school.  She’s constantly bullied and treated as a freak.  Worse, her parents seem oblivious to just how miserable she really is.

Oddly Normal Book 1

This comes to a head on Oddly’s tenth birthday, when none of the kids her parents made her invite bother to come, only using the moment to further bully her.   And then her parents refuse to understand the situation, coming up with excuses for how this isn’t actually happening.  It’s no wonder that Oddly makes a wish that they would both disappear.  It’s slightly more of a wonder that the wish seems to work, as she’s never shown any magical aptitude before.

While trying to work out what actually happened, Oddly’s aunt takes her to Fignation, the “imaginary” world Oddly’s mother came from.  She enrolls her niece in Menagerie Middle School, and Oddly thinks that maybe here she won’t be treated like a freak.  Small hope of that–though there do seem to be some kids who aren’t completely horrible.  Of course they’re the unpopular, uncool ones.  Worse, at least one of the teachers seems to be out to get Oddly for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.

This Image comic book series is by one of the people who creates the How It Should Have Ended webtoons.   The first volume collects the first five issues, out of six published as of this writing.

A lot of kids will identify with Oddly; feeling like they’re persecuted for their minor differences; and quite a few older readers will remember the same feelings.  It’s made Oddly a somewhat surly loner who’s only sympathetic because she’s the underdog.  Given some power, she could easily turn Carrie on her peers.  (The sixth issue shows that Oddly has more in common with her mother in that respect than she might have guessed.)

The other characters are fairly stock, with no one really stepping outside their stereotypical roles yet.  The series is also suffering from considerable decompression, and the first five issues feel less than a complete story, or even a full five chapters.

I’d say that it would be a good idea for Oddly to succeed at something soon, or show some useful skills or personality traits.  As is, she’s just a victim and pinball, bouncing from one miserable event to the next.

The art isn’t bad, but the writing needs to step up.  Keep an eye on this series, and if it improves come back and read this.

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