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.

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

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

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

The Best of Judge Dredd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Strip Review: Still Pumped from Using the Mouse

Comic Strip Review: Still Pumped from Using the Mouse by Scott Adams

Dilbert is an engineer who works for a poorly-managed mid-size corporation.  His co-workers are hostile, his boss is pointy-haired, and Dilbert himself is less than competent with anything other than engineering.  Such as dating.

Still Pumped from Using the Mouse

The Dilbert gag-a-day comic strip has been running since 1989; this collection is of strips from 1992-1993.  While details of corporate culture have changed (one set of strips has Dilbert carrying a plethora of electronic devices that would now all be contained in his smartphone), much of its office-based humor is still relevant.  And funny.

Perhaps the most evocative sequence is a little girl named Noriko discovering how badly adults have messed up the world, and so her generation will have to spend most of their time working to fix the damage.  If Dilbert ran in real time, Noriko would be one of the Generation Y workers desperately trying to stay afloat now.

Noriko rebels against the system. Art by Scott Adams
Noriko rebels against the system.
Art by Scott Adams

The art is…adequate; it’s easy to tell most of the named characters apart.  The strength is in the gags.  There’s a fair amount of sexism by Dilbert and his male co-workers; it can be difficult to tell how much of that is them being jerks, and how much the author’s now-outdated attitudes.  (Women are still under-represented in the engineering field, but not as badly as they used to be.)

Unsurprisingly, I found this volume in the lunchroom reading shelf at work, to which it will return so that others may enjoy it.  It’s certainly aged better than many of the trendy management fad books of the same era!

Book Review: The Green God

Book Review: The Green God by L. Ron Hubbard

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

The Green God

This is another in the line of pulp reprints put out by Galaxy Press, and continues their tradition of excellent physical quality.  I should also give a shout-out to GP’s distinctive shipping materials.  This time, the focus is on adventures in the exotic land of China.

“The Green God” is an exciting tale of Lieutenant Bill Mahone of Naval Intelligence.  It seems someone has stolen a jade idol, and the city of Tientsin has erupted in riots.    There’s a minimum of exposition, and the lieutenant is in constant danger from the first sentence.  Among other things, he is buried alive according to the customs of the local Chinese.

Bill takes quite a beating over the course of the story, and it eventually becomes a bit much for him still to be moving, even by pulp standards.  There’s some on-screen torture, so be advised.

“Five Mex for a Million” is novella length, and requires a bit of explanation for the title.  A “Mex” was a Mexican peso, which was used as a trade coin with and in China from 1732-1949.  As it happens, Captain Royal F. Sterling has five Mex and a small silver coin in his pockets at the beginning of the story.

That’s not very much money for a man on the lam for murder (it was self-defense) from the Chinese military.   He goes to the Thieves’ Market in Peking to buy local clothes for a disguise, but sees a mysterious chest and purchases it on a whim.  The chest carries the ideograms for “Good luck”, “Long life” and “Happiness.”  The contents of the chest?  That would be a spoiler, but it leads Captain Sterling on an adventure to Outer Mongolia.

This story has a bit of romance, rushed though it may be.  Sandra Kolita starts the story as a damsel in distress, but pulls her own weight quite well once Royal gets her out of the initial fix.  Just don’t ask for realistic character development for anyone involved.

Both stories treat the Chinese as superstitious at best, and expendable fanatics at worst.  This was typical of pulp stories of the time, but is still jarring to modern readers.

There is also a preview of “Spy Killer”, the lead story in the next volume.  Violent sailor Kurt Reid jumps ship when he’s falsely accused of murder, but on land he may be in more danger from Varinka Savischna, sultry Russian spy.

There is a glossary of terms that may be unfamiliar to 21st Century readers, which should be helpful to most.  As with all volumes in the set, the book is fitted out with the stock prologue and author biography.  Because the book is such a fast read, and the repeated material makes it even shorter than it looks, casual readers may want to check their library or used book stores.

Still, this is exciting stuff, with non-stop action–great for a night’s escape from the everyday world.

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