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: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Book Review: Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure by Tyler Tork

Disclaimer:  I received a free download of this book to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Doctor Dead: A Percy & Quincey Adventure

Percival “Percy” Drew and his cousin Quincey Harker are enjoying an afternoon at San Francisco’s waterfront in 1904.  Until, that is, the young fellows are kidnapped.  It seems that the mad scientist Dr. Benoit believes the albinistic Quincey has a rare blood type that will enhance the endurance of zombis.   The boys must find a way to escape before Quincey is drained dry, or they are themselves turned into the living dead!

This young adult novel is set on an alternate Earth where some of Victorian fantastic literature is real, though often in a different form than the original stories.  (Dracula turns out to have been heavily fictionalized; among other things, Wilhemina Harker is not nearly as decent a person as in the novel.)  It’s fun looking for all the shout-outs.

The book is divided into four adventures, each building on the last.  The boys do escape Dr. Benoit in the first segment, but their elders make poor decisions that come back to bite everyone when Benoit turns out to have taken precautions in the event of being dosed with his own serum.

Most of the story takes place from the viewpoint of thirteen-year-old Percy, with only short sections from the viewpoints of Quincey and Native American (called “Indian” in-story) girl Mary when Percy’s not available to narrate.  Percy is very  bright and something of a mechanical genius, while fifteen-year-old Quincey is more interested in the medical field.

Mr. Tork has done his research on such topics as the manufacture of soft drinks in 1904, so it was a bit of a shock when one of the characters is said to have read H.P. Lovecraft, who would not be published for another decade.

There’s some period racism and sexism; thankfully the boys are only a bit ignorant and not malicious.  It feels at times that the book has trouble fitting in the YA category–a brothel is an important location in the plot, yet no prostitutes are ever “on screen”, nor indeed is it ever explained what goes on in a brothel.

Things become more difficult for our young heroes when a broken time machine comes into the plot; at least one of the adults who are nominally their allies cannot be trusted not to abuse such a device, so they have to keep it a secret from as many people as possible.  This prevents the boys from getting reliable help at various junctures.

There are some quirky supporting characters, and plenty of action to keep the plot moving quickly.  While no sequel is available, there are hooks for an expedition to the Galapagos Islands and a search for lost treasure, so if sales on this book pick up, they may yet be published.

Recommended primarily to teenage boys who’ve read some of the books this volume shouts out to.

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One edited by Ian Sattler

DC Comics has produced many fine characters in its superhero books over the decades, including iconic super-villains.  It can be a lot of fun watching the bad guys do things when their specific hero isn’t around to stop them.  Thus, in 1976, we got the first DC series dedicated to the adventures of a super-villain group.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Several baddies are invited to a “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco by  means ranging from a rock with a note wrapped around it to an intergalactic sub-space message.  There they are met by a clone of the Paul Kirk Manhunter (even in the 1970s we had characters with convoluted backstories) who claims to have gone mercenary and now works for their mysterious “benefactor.”  The assembled villains are ambushed by a robotic version of the Justice League, and easily smash them, demonstrating the power of numbers.  Then Gorilla Grodd and Copperhead are sent on an initiation mission, which goes south and Copperhead is captured by the police.  Still, the fun is just beginning!

Since the Comics Code was still in effect at the time, the villains could never be allowed a full victory, and in the second issue we meet Captain Comet, DC’s first mutant superhero, who hadn’t appeared since the 1950s.  It was explained he had been out in space, and unaware of current events.  The Society decides to dupe him into working with them–it doesn’t actually work because he’s out of touch, not stupid, but since it is revealed at this point that the Society’s secret benefactor is the evil New God Darkseid, who none of the villains particularly want to serve, Captain Comet winds up teaming with the Society anyhow.

Once the Darkseid situation is resolved, the various members of the Society come up with their own evil schemes, and Captain Comet proceeds to be a thorn in their sides.  This volume collects the first ten issues, and an alternate version of the first issue with slightly different characters and a significantly different plot.

Company politics resulted in three different writers in ten issues, as well as no steady art team.  Series creator Gerry Conway was the most frequent author.  This also affected the casting; some editors at DC wouldn’t let iconic villains associated with their heroes be used, so the Society was heavy on Flash foes (because Mr. Conway was also writing the Flash), relatively obscure characters such as Copperhead and the Earth-2 Wizard, and featured a new person in the role of Star Sapphire, replacing Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s long-time love interest Carol Ferris.

Lex Luthor does show up for one issue, but it’s a very poor showing for him, winding up arrested by ordinary police officers.  Longer lasting was Funky Flashman, a non-powered grifter and entrepreneur who is believed to be Jack Kirby’s satire on Stan Lee’s less stellar qualities.  (His appearance is changed in this series to more closely resemble how Stan Lee looked in the Seventies.)

Sales were never particularly good on this title, and it would get cancelled in the DC Implosion, but it’s a fun look at the bad guys as they were at the time.  (The alternate first issue plays up Captain Cold’s would-be ladies’ man trait, which was his main characterization point at the time.)  Recommended to DC Comics fans and fans of the Flash TV series.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: China Dolls

Book Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

It is 1938, the tail end of the Great Depression, and San Francisco is trying to shake off its blues with a World’s Fair on Treasure Island.  They’re going to need a lot of employees for that, and the prospect of a job draws Grace Lee all the way from Ohio.  She’s from a small town where her parents were the only other people of Chinese ancestry; all these other people who look kind of like her is a bit of a shock.

China Dolls

It turns out that the World’s Fair can’t use a Chinese dancer, but there’s a nightclub called the Forbidden City that’s hiring, and they only want Chinese.  On her way there, Grace gets some help from Helen Fong, a young woman from a traditionalist family, and when they arrive, they meet Ruby Tom, a vivacious woman who’s changed her name because Japanese-Americans have an even tougher time getting good jobs than Chinese-Americans.

The three women try out together, and although only two are chosen at that time, they form a life-long bond.  However, each of them has secrets in their past, and those combine with their ambitions to turn them against each other as well.  World War Two in particular raises the stakes, and their careers and friendship may never recover.

This book is loosely based on real life Asian-American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, and there’s an interview with some of those real people at the end of the paperback edition I read.

Grace makes a good viewpoint character for the first part of the novel; her parents were very insistent on her being “American” so she’s a complete newcomer to Chinese-American culture and the full array of prejudice faced by Asian-Americans outside of her small town.  The reader learns along with her.  Helen and Ruby also have sections from their viewpoints, but at first are concealing details from the reader as well as their friends–we don’t learn some important information about Helen until nearly the end of the book.

Some of the behavior of the protagonists is pretty shabby, and a couple of the betrayals go well beyond what would break most friendships permanently.  Some readers may find it impossible to believe that the characters even speak to each other after what happens.

All three protagonists also have romantic difficulties.  Mistakes are made, and attitudes change over the years.  One of the characters winds up in a relationship that’s considerably less than ideal from just about every angle.

As you might have guessed, period racism and sexism play a considerable part in the story, as well as period homophobia.  Grace’s backstory involves domestic abuse.  There’s some use of period slurs, lampshaded towards the end by a modern-day (1980s) college student asking pointed questions about the attitudes of the past.

I’d recommend this book to people curious about the “chop suey circuit” that Asian-American performers were shunted into during the Twentieth Century–the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition is designed for use by book clubs.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle edited by John P. Gunnison

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine has two stories by renowned adventure writer H. Bedford-Jones, both from the pages of People’s.  People’s was a Street & Smith publication that ran from 1906 to 1924 under varying titles, all of which had “People’s” in them.  It appears to have been a generic adventure story magazine, and notable for covers that were more picturesque than lurid, unlike many of the later pulps.

High Adventure #144: Captain Battle

“Captain Battle” has a main character whose name is both more and less unlikely at the same time.  His birth name is Captain Cathenach, the family one being an old Gaelic term for “battle.”  He’s investigating rum-running and other criminal activity in the Pacific Northwest towards the end of World War One.  The main villain of the story is “Yellow” Hearne, a criminal mastermind who has decided to get out of the rum-running business just as Prohibition is making it really profitable as he has even bigger plans.

What brings these men into direct conflict is that they both have an acquaintance with wealthy businessman Philip Nichols…and his beautiful daughter Faith.  Hearne wants to marry Faith, by hook or by crook, but would prefer she do it voluntarily, and as long as the manly Captain is around, that’s too much competition.   Hearne uses the implication that he is a government agent several times in the story to get his way.

Captain Cathenach is also in love with Faith, but has a number of secrets that get in the way.  First, he is actually a government agent undercover as a wealthy eccentric.  Second, under another name, he’s wanted for jewel robbery and murder.  Those he could probably clear up for Faith, but his third secret, the one that keeps him from revealing his true feelings to the maiden, is that he’s going blind!

There are a number of twists and turns, including a mid-story shocker when Cathenach gets a head wound and becomes a simple-minded amnesiac.

There’s some period racism in the story, with Cathenach being of the “my best friend is Chinese” type.  Sexism is more of the setting related type; Faith is plucky, but not expected to fend for herself in dangerous situations.

“John  Solomon-Retired” is another long story, this one featuring recurring character John Solomon, a Cockney ship’s chandler (a dealer in ship supplies and equipment.)   The hero of the story is Ralph Carter, an American salesman who finds himself at loose ends in Java.  Mr. Solomon  enlists Ralph in a favor the older man is doing a Chinese secret society.

It seems that Miss Wilhemina Bergen owns a spice plantation that hasn’t been able to sell its crop due to the Great War sapping trade.   Herman Stoppel, a “half-caste” (mixed race) trader, has been trying to gain control of the plantation for some reason as yet unknown.  Wing Fu, the secret society representative, went to college with Miss Bergen’s late brother, and has determined that Captain Stoppel thinks he can make two million American dollars from something on the plantation.  It’s unlikely to be the nutmeg, even if the American market is in dire need.

Mr. Carter is sent to the plantation to pretend to be a rival potential buyer, to see if he can figure out what’s going on and protect Miss Bergen’s interests.

Once again there are many twists to the story, with much of the later action taking place on John Solomon’s tricked-out ship, and then on Stoppel’s own craft.  There’s a series of plans and reversals until the final paragraphs.

Again, some period racism, though meaner to the mixed race people than to the Chinese person.  Miss Bergen has competence in her background, she’s been running the plantation for the last two years since her brother died, but has no action skills.  Stoppel turns out to want to marry Miss Bergen–and not to gain the money, either!  She is pretty racist in her response to that.

Both are exciting adventure stories with plenty of action and a bit of romance (somewhat more believable in the first story as the characters have known each other for some years.)   They are, however, products of their time and this may not appeal to some readers.

 

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.

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