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.

Book Review: A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction

Book Review:  A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction by John Callahan and Barry Cord, respectively

While most of the Ace Doubles (two short books fused together and printed upside down from each other) I’ve read are science fiction, Ace also put out mysteries and westerns in the format.  This book is one of the Westerns, and is volume M-100, first of the 45¢ series.

A Man Named Raglan

A Man Named Raglan takes place during the Civil War, as Nevada Territory becomes a state.  Wells Fargo shotgun rider Dan Raglan isn’t much fussed about it.  He did his bit for the Union up until his leg took a bullet at Chancellorsville, and that’s the end of the war for him, thank you.  His stagecoach driver partner Steve Munson is more concerned.  Munson’s a loyal son of the South, and doesn’t like how it’s getting whipped, and Nevada’s coming in on the side of the North.

Neither of them is pleased when they’re ambushed by road agents claiming to be Confederate irregulars here to confiscate that sweet Wells Fargo moneybox for the war effort.  When it turns out Wells Fargo hadn’t sent any cash on this trip, the owlhoots have to settle for robbing the passengers instead.  They had the drop on Raglan through the robbery, but as the robbers are departing, one’s horse shies, and Raglan has a chance to bring his rifle to bear.

Raglan is about to squeeze the trigger when the road agent’s mask slips–and he recognizes the man as Bob Worden, kid brother of Elizabeth Worden, the woman Raglan is courting.  Raglan hesitates just long enough for Bob to regain his balance and escape.

Munson is furious and accuses Raglan of cowardice.  the two men have a fist fight that reflects well on neither of them, but female passenger Lil Shannon seems to sympathize more with Raglan.  Raglan refuses to identify Bob, even when crack Wells Fargo agent Ben Nasmith asks him directly, so he’s out of a job.

Elizabeth isn’t particularly grateful about Raglan shielding her brother, as she doesn’t believe Bob could have been involved in the first place.  Oh, and the gang Bob was with has realized that Raglan can finger one of their members, and wants the former shotgun rider dead to prevent that.  For a man who thought his war was over, Raglan’s got a lot of fighting to do!

This is a decent enough Western, and I like how Raglan’s bum leg realistically causes difficulty for him.  He spends a good half of the time laid up in bed one way or another.

Less good is some historical sleight of hand that allows Raglan (and by extension the reader) to admire his Confederate foes, considering them honorable men fighting for an almost worthy cause.  There is zero mention of slavery, and not one black person appears, despite Virginia City’s actual demographics at that time in history.  The latter was typical of Westerns in the 1960s, but it sticks out like a sort thumb because of the storyline.

From Raglan’s perspective, there’s a mystery element to the story, but savvy readers will figure out the big twists well ahead of him.

Gun Junction

Gun Junction is set in Texas.  The small town of Fulton has been taken over by Luke McQuade’s gang of outlaws.  They lynched the sheriff, beat the deputy so bad he’ll never come back, and murdered the U.S. Marshal who came into town to avenge the sheriff.   Also, for some reason, they seem intent on preventing the Desert Line Railroad from being finished.

Deputy Marshal Matt Vickers is the next lawman to ride into town, though he comes incognito.  He’s brought two other men, ex-Ranger Doc Emory, and hard-bitten Kip Billens, the brother of the murdered sheriff.  Each of the men carries his own burden of secrets, and not all of them will leave Fulton alive.

This is a dark-themed and brooding story, and is better about delivering its twists than its partner.  (The book’s blurb did give a bit too much away.)  Overall, it’s better-written, too.

Both books use the “protagonist interrupts jerk who’s hitting on an uninterested woman who then takes an interest in the protagonist” cliche–Gun Junction plays it out better as while the young woman in question does fancy Matt Vickers, she’s fully aware he’s not a good long-term marriage prospect.  Also, both books have the phrase “don’t make war on women.”

I am given to understand that Gun Junction was later reprinted separately, and that may be a better bet than trying to track down the relatively rare Ace Double printing.

Magazine Review: Science Fiction Stories January 1960

Magazine Review: Science Fiction Stories January 1960 edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes

Science Fiction Stories was a minor SF magazine published as Science Fiction starting in 1940, then under a couple of different titles until 1943 when it and its stablemate Future Fiction were cancelled due to paper costs.  It was revived in 1950 and ran until early 1960, when the distributor abruptly chose not to carry any magazines by publisher Louis Silberkeit.  (Some of the remaining material was published by his next venture, Belmont Books.)  “The Original” on the cover was not part of the magazine’s name, but meant to tie back the 1950s edition to the 1940s version.

Science Fiction Stories January 1960

“The Coffin Ship” by Bill Wesley leads off the issue with a passenger in suspended animation aboard a spaceship waking up alone.  Cy Munson is in way over his head; he knows nothing about science or the ship’s technology, having barely squeaked through college on a football scholarship.  But he was picked for his newspaper’s representative from the circulation department because he was the only person available who could pass the rigorous physical requirements to go on the expedition to Capella.  It’s unclear how far in the future this is supposed to be; the newspaper publisher claims “no one’s done any actual reporting in fifty years” but he’s clearly supposed to be an excitable Perry White type so may be exaggerating.

Cy is unable to figure out the ship’s controls, location or how to awaken any of the crew; he finally decides suicide is better than staying alive alone for an indefinite period.  Happily, his suicide method proves to be the smartest thing he could have done.  He may not be book-smart but Cy has some common sense.

The illustration by Emsh makes it appear that the passengers were frozen topless, and we are only spared female nipples by light streaks on the glass.  This is not mentioned at all in the story.  (Cy is completely able to avoid the ickier impulses recently seen in the movie Passengers.)

“The Plot, The Plot!” is an editorial by Mr. Lowndes, in which he discusses the idea that science fiction won’t be recognized as real literature until it unshackles itself from stories that are entirely driven by plot, as opposed to character exploration and development.

“Day of the Glacier” by R.A. Lafferty is that author’s first published science fiction story.  The newest Ice Age begins on April 1, 1962, and the majority of Earth’s population is caught by surprise as the planet freezes over.  Climatologist Dr. Erdogic Eimer and three planeloads of his colleagues and families aren’t quite as surprised, as they knew this was about to happen, and made arrangements to get to a particular valley that will remain survivable for the duration.

But their calculations were a day off, and they’re also surprised to discover that someone got to the valley before them.  It turns out that the Communists decided to take advantage of April Fool’s to launch their takeover of North America.  They nuked the ICBM launching sides and simultaneously murdered the most anti-Communist Congresspeople so their “Peace Party” puppets can seize control of the Federal government.  But those nuclear explosions caused just enough atmospheric disturbance to start the Ice Age a day early.

Only Soviet climatologist Commander Andreyev had also worked out what was about to happen, and had just enough pull to get a military expedition sent with him to the valley a few days before the disaster he predicted but was not taken seriously about.  Will the future civilization be Red?

The story’s not all that good, but I can see Mr. Lafferty’s trademark humor and tall tale tendencies in it.  There’s a touch of casual sexism, of the “women are not as smart as men but are much more practical” variety.

“Puritan Planet” by Carol Emshwiller concerns a man named Morgan and his cat, whose spaceship has crashlanded on a planet named Brotherhood.  Unfortunately, the one access hatch is now buried in the ground, and Morgan will not be able to get out without outside help.  Worse, the planet was colonized by religious fanatics, who are forbidden to directly kill infidels but need not rescue them either…and they’ve already heard him swear.  Morgan has an ace up his sleeve, if only he can figure it out.

Carol Emshwiller happened to be married to Ed Emshwiller, the artist known as Emsh, and is a noted SF writer in her own right.  That said, this is a slight story and nowhere near her best.

“Once In a Blue Moon” by Norman L. Knight is a reprint from 1942.  This novella is set in the far future, during the second expansion of humanity among the stars.  The first expansion was a rush job, and new diseases and invasive species ran rampant.  The new expansion is much more cautious, and a special expedition has been sent to the planet soon to be known as Kenia to determine if it’s safe to allow colonists to come there.

One of the expedition members is Ilrai, a Martian novelist seeking material for his next book.  He is distrusted by expedition leader Counselor Sarrasen, as Martians are naturally telepathic to a high degree, while Sarrasen is a telepathic null, unable to send or receive.  The friction between them is an important subplot.

The expedition members are startled to discover that they are not the first human to reach the new planet.  They’re especially freaked that linguist and railroad hobbyist Mattawomba is a black man.  Evidently the first expansion had segregated spaceships, and their end of the galaxy was settled exclusively by white folks.  Only the long-lived Ilrai, who’s been to Earth, has seen black people before.  (After a couple of pages, Mattawomba’s skin color ceases to be an issue.)

Turns out that Mattawomba is the sole survivor of a colony ship that was headed elsewhere when plague broke out.  His lifeboat landed on the nearest habitable planet, and Mattawomba was able to ingratiate himself to the natives with his knowledge of steam engines.  This raises new problems.  First, the expedition is now quarantined on Kenia until it can be proved Mattawomba isn’t contagious, and second, he’s violated regulations regarding giving advanced technologies to aliens.

The story reaches its main climax when a hunting trip goes horribly wrong, and Commander Sarrasen gets lost in the Kenian wilderness.  He has to rely on crewmates that he has underestimated or actively hated to save him.

This tale being from 1942 explains a lot, and it is quite good for when it was written.   It’s exciting once the main action gets started, has some nice imagery, and has a neat bit at the end where there isn’t a title drop.  Y’see, while there is a blue moon in the story, the title phrase is no longer in the farflung humans’ vocabulary.  So one of them fumbles when that wording would be appropriate.

On the other hand, there’s one of those shoehorned romance subplots that are the bane of pulp adventure stories.

The issue finishes with the letters column.  (Mr. Lowndes was known for being enthusiastic about engaging with readers.)  Several of the letters reference a previous editorial about the declining number of fan letters in recent years.  They suggest that the elimination of fan club spotlight areas was part of that.  Another letter mentioned having sent in a subscription check.  Alas, the writer would only get two more issues.

A minor issue, of most interest to the Lafferty collector.

 

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Anime Review: Active Raid

Anime Review: Active Raid

The year is 2035 in an alternative history Japan, and the city of Tokyo is rapidly recovering from the Third Quicksand Disaster, which turned much of the metropolitan area into quagmires.  Powered armor units called “Willwear” have helped the reconstruction immensely, and are spreading into other industries, but there are people who use Willwears for crime.  Thus the Metropolitan Police have created the Fifth Special Public Security Section to battle Willwear crime.  The focus of this series is on Unit 8, a collection of oddballs and marginal officers who are assigned to a difficult part of the city and wear special prototype Willwears.

Active Raid

Assistant Inspector Azami Kazari has been assigned to the Eighth to run an assessment on them for Internal Affairs, but being a young idealist, her plan is to whip the oddballs into shape as respectable police officers.  She soon discovers that her strait-laced ideas may be less useful in the field than the more laid-back attitudes of the rest of the team, especially as a series of unusual crimes hits the city.

This recently-concluded 12-episode science fiction anime is available legally on Crunchyroll as of this writing.  It bears some resemblance to Patlabor, a classic series about an oddball collection of future cops who use special weapons to deal with criminals using similar technology.  However, it’s crammed into much less time than the earlier series, so the characterization is shallower, and there’s no breather episodes that allow the writers to stretch their worldbuilding legs.  Most of the unit get one episode that focuses on them, and in a couple of cases have a single line in any other episode.

The opponents are Logos, which is not so much an organization as three temporarily allied teen hackers whose motivations clash, and who initially act through pawns with seemingly random crimes.  The real problem is Japan’s social ills, and ultimately, while combat is important it is understanding that saves the day.

A source of humor in the early going is that despite their destructive reputation, the Eighth actually does follow regulations; they have to get authorization from the government to pursue a criminal, to fire weapons, etc.  And since several different governmental agencies have jurisdiction (at least one of which hates the Eighth) the unit commander spends much time trying to navigate the bureaucracy while incidents are ongoing.  And of course, when the hostile governor finds an excuse to close down the Eighth, he does, playing into the hands of Logos.

A Jim Jones-style mass cult suicide is part of the backstory.  There’s also a few fanservice scenes, as the police must strip to underwear to don their Willwears.

This is an enjoyable but disposable series, worth a look if you like powered armor stories with some comedy.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road by Bob Boze Bell

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 66 Kid

Bob Boze Bell has been a rock musician, cartoonist, radio host, magazine publisher and other interesting jobs.  And he spent most of his youth in Kingman, Arizona, where his father had gas stations on Route 66.  This is his memoir of those years.

It’s a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photographs and Mr. Bell’s paintings.  Fortunately, he has many family pictures and old clippings to illustrate his anecdotes and historical tidbits.  It’s a fascinating (if possibly biased) look at life in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s.  Mr. Bell is an accomplished writer, and his prose is excellent.

Note that this is not a comprehensive book about the highway itself; it primarily covers the Kingman area and how Route 66 affected Mr. Bell’s life.

At a suggested retail price of thirty dollars, this book is good value for money if you’re interested in Arizona or Bob Boze Bell.  Others might want to see if their library has it for borrowing, as it is a handsome volume.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to close without a reference to the famous song, so here it is:

Magazine Review: High Adventure #127: Masked Rider Western

Magazine Review: High Adventure #127: Masked Rider Western edited by John P. Gunnison

High Adventure is a pulp reprint magazine, reprinting stories (and sometimes whole issues) from the adventure magazines of the 1930s and 1940s.  They switch up so that no two consecutive issues are the same subject, although certain character series recur frequently.  In this issue, it’s stories from Masked Rider Western in 1944-45.

High Adventure #127

The Masked Rider (no relation to the Japanese Kamen Rider) was a fairly transparent copy of the Lone Ranger.  He too wandered the Old West in a mask with his faithful Native American companion, fighting crime and saving the innocent.  Unlike his model, however, the Masked Rider will shoot to kill when he feels it necessary.  He’s also rougher of language, and will smoke and drink a bit while in disguise.

That disguise is Wayne Morgan, wandering cowpuncher; while only the Yaqui brave Blue Hawk knows that the Masked Rider and Wayne Morgan are the same person, even he does not know the Masked Rider’s true identity.  Mind, since Wayne is a two-fisted paladin of justice himself, it isn’t much of a disguise.  The two sides of our hero spend a lot of time repeating what the other person supposedly told them.

The two Masked Rider stories bookend the magazine.  “Dead Man’s Ranch” by Larry A. Harris begins with a man named Bill Maitland escaping prison in Mexico.  He soon reunites with his wife, and the son he has never seen.  They then light out for Texas, so that Bill can claim some hidden gold, and seek revenge on the brother who framed him all those years ago.   As they’re crossing the Rio Grande, however, the treacherous ferryman murders Bill and his wife.  The Masked Rider saves the son.

The Rider is in Diablo Basin on a seemingly unrelated matter, a war between the local cattle ranchers, and a bunch of nesters led by the fanatical Jeremiah Pearson.  The mysterious Vigilantes might belong to either of the feuding parties, or work for a third force.  Add in a lawyer who seems to be buying up water rights, and a pair of starcrossed lovers, and the situation is dynamite!

To be honest, I found this story needlessly complicated, the pieces stuck together with bits hanging out to make it more difficult to resolve.  As a result, the ending seems forced, and some characters nothing but red herrings.

“War in Massacre Basin” by Charles N. Hecklemann finds the Masked Rider in the appropriately-named area looking into the supposedly accidental death of an old friend.  The most likely suspect for that and other killings is a land-grabbing rancher named Daken, but the Rider soon finds himself at a loss when Daken is murdered, apparently by new villain in town Pegleg Boeing.

This story works in its complications much better, I think.  It makes sense that a man as vile as Daken would have made enemies elsewhere.  And much of the difficulty in solving the case comes from the very sensible suspicions of one of the ranchers about people who go about in masks.

“Judge Colt’s Clerk” by Oscar J. Friend features a law clerk in a corrupt county who’s managed to bring in a ringer judge.  Short and sweet.

“Hangrope Reprieve” by Gunnison Steele (probably a pen name) is about a man on the run for a crime he did commit, but it was self defense.  He stops at a saloon for a quick meal, but soon finds himself defending a young woman….  Adequate of its kind.

“Texas John Alden” is by Robert E. Howard writing as Patrick Ervin.  Those more familiar with Mr. Howard’s Conan stories may find the humorous tale of a cowpoke attempting to fetch another fellow’s bride from a hostile town a little offputting.  Especially as Breck Elkins cheerfully kills and beats his way across the landscape.  Essentially, he’s a Howard barbarian hero played for laughs.  The Western dialect is thick in this one.

I don’t read nearly enough old-fashioned Westerns, so this issue was a treat.  People as don’t like Westerns should skip it.

 

Movie Review: Union Pacific (1939)

Movie Review: Union Pacific (1939)

The Civil War might still be going on, but the United States has to consider what will happen after the war.   Government approval is given to build railways that will link the eastern half of the country with the western,   The eastern end of the line is being built by the Union Pacific railroad company, while the Central Pacific company is heading east from California.

Union Pacific

A financial speculator, Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker), has a plan to manipulate the Union Pacific’s stock to his profit by delaying the completion of the line.  To this end, he hires Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to run a saloon/gambling hall/bordello that will travel along with the construction, getting the workers drunk, disorderly and perpetually broke.  He also authorizes Campeau to take any other measures necessary to delay the line.

Several years later, the Union Pacific construction is way behind schedule, and the company brings on troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), a former Union captain and engineer to see if he can’t speed things up.    To Jeff’s surprise, Campeau’s right hand man is his old war buddy Dick Allen (Robert Preston), who’s turned professional gambler.  Dick is wooing the lovely Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), whose rolling office serves as post office and tea shop for the railroad laborers.

Mollie takes a shine to Jeff, but is frustrated by his apparent failure to catch on to her interest.   He’s far too busy trying to shut down Campeau’s operation with the aid of his comic relief sidekicks Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff) and Leach Overmile (Lynne Overman.)

Barrows is pressured into loaning the Union Pacific money so that they can meet a delayed payroll.  He orders Campeau to make sure that the payroll does not arrive, and the vice lord has Dick pull off the train robbery.    Sadly, the job does not go smoothly, and a guard is killed.

Some convoluted circumstances later, Campeau’s gambling hall is permanently shut down and the payroll money returned.  However, to cover his part in the robbery, Dick has pressured Mollie into marrying him, only to find out that’s not going to help, and he must flee.

A little later, a train carrying Jeff, Mollie and (secretly) Dick is ambushed by Indians.  All but those three die before the Army can come and rescue them.  In recognition of Dick’s courage and assistance, and their old friendship, Jeff allows him to leave peacefully, and in return Dick tells Jeff of Barrows’ treachery.

More excitement later, the two rail lines meet at Promontory Summit, and the final act unfolds.

Yep, it’s another Cecil B. DeMille epic, this time a Western.   Along with Stagecoach, it’s credited with elevating the Western to A-movie status from its usual B-movie roots.  It also reflects the growing desire of Hollywood in the late 1930s to unite the country symbolically.  This theme is foregrounded in the opening title card, and brought back at the end by the image of a modern train on the Union Pacific tracks.

As always with DeMille, it’s a big, exciting movie, though much less bawdy than some of the others I’ve reviewed.  The saloon girls are barely in the movie, and never do anything more suggestive than ask Jeff if he’s lonely.

Plenty of gun fighting and fist fighting though, and a couple of exciting train crashes.

There’s a bit of DeMille’s usual religious theme; Mollie deliberately removes her cross when she feels forced to lie, and prays for people’s safety.  The hasty wedding is Catholic, and she feels bound by it.  She’s a feisty lass, but sidelined after the Indian attack.

An older Irish woman reveals that she had a child that morning, and is already back at work because her husband certainly wasn’t going to be helping out.

The Native Americans are not communicated with, shown as bloodthirsty and baffled by the things of civilization.  Jeff objects to one being shot early on because it will lead to white deaths, not because he’s a human being and it’s murder.  Fiesta is a comical Mexican stereotype, but has the advantage of being a superb whip handler; and partnered with the Southern stereotype of Leach.  (“The last time I saw General Grant, I was lying in a patch of blackberries, taking aim at him.”)

The racism and dubious history aside, this is another blockbuster movie worth looking into.

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