Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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

Oliver Twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Eight

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Eight by Makoto Yukimura

Warning:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes in the series.  If you have not read those, you may want to refer to my earlier reviews instead.

Vinland Saga Book Eight

Thorfinn Thorsson has finally arrived back in Iceland after more than a decade away.  His sister, now a wife and mother herself, tells Thorfinn that he’s of an age when he should get married and settle down.  Snoggi the fisherman has five lovely granddaughters of the right age, and is looking for an heir.  Thorfinn admits that the life of a fisherman is not a bad one, but he has other plans.

Thorfinn has seen much bloodshed and suffering–and caused some himself.  With his new pacifist ideals, the young man wants to mount an expedition to Vinland, to build a community without war or slavery.  The problem is, that expedition will need a lot of front money, and where will he get the funding?

Thus this epic tale of the Viking age enters another phase.  It has changed considerably from its initial plotline of vengeance seeking, though as we will see, that theme has not entirely vanished.

The only fellow around with deep enough pockets is Halfdan the Chainer, who has built up a fortune by lending money to small holders, then making them his thralls if they do not pay up.  He is not without his own form of honor, but is a hard man.  Halfdan also has his own concerns.  His not quite as bright son Sigurd is soon to be married to Leif’s sister-in-law Gudrid.

Gudrid was a child bride, and widowed before the marriage could be consummated.  That was something of a relief to her, as Gudrid has always resented the gender roles of her society.  She wants to be a sailor, exploring the wide world, not a wife to stay home and tend the household.  But now Leif’s family is entering an alliance with Halfdan, so she’s being forced into this arranged marriage.

When Thorfinn approaches Halfdan with the proposal for the Vinland expedition, Halfdan tries his favorite game of breaking men’s  pride.  But Thorfinn has no pride to break.   So Halfdan decides on a new game.  He gives Thorfinn a cargo of narwhal horns, of minimal value in Iceland, but priceless in far-off Greece.  If Thorfinn can survive the journey and return with a good profit, Halfdan will support the expedition.

As Thorfinn, Einar, Thorfinn Bug-Eyes, and Leif prepare to cast off for the journey, they are joined by Gudrid.  The wedding night…did not go well, and she needs to leave pronto.  With great reluctance, she is allowed to board.    Her not actually dead husband Sigurd soon figures out what happens, and sets out in pursuit.

The vengeance theme comes back as the travelers stumble across Karli, an orphaned infant that none of the locals will take in lest the killers of Karli’s family target them as well.  After all, when Karli is grown, he will be honor bound to kill the killers.  There’s some comedy when it turns out that none of the group know how to take care of a baby, even Gudrid.  She has to explain basic female anatomy to Thorfinn, who had never gotten around to learning before.

And then there’s a cliffhanger, as Thorfinn faces vengeance from his own murderous past.

The art and characterization continue to be top notch, the humorous moments working well to offset the dramatic themes.

There’s less violence than in the previous volume, but it’s just as intense and horrifying when it does occur.  Gudrid’s wedding night is borderline; Sigurd doesn’t want to rape Gudrid, but he doesn’t think to check how she feels about having sex.  (It doesn’t get further than him opening her outer clothing before she reacts badly.)

Period sexism is pivotal in Gudrid’s plotline.  (It’s not mentioned in-story, but her mannish taste in clothing would have been grounds for divorce if she kept wearing such after the wedding.)  But we also see the point of view of women who fit better into Icelandic society.

By changing up the story direction every few volumes, this series remains fresh and interesting.  Highly recommended.

Let’s have a Viking video!

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

Magazine Review: If May 1961

Magazine Review: If May 1961 managing editor Frederik Pohl

If was a science fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1974.  It was considered a “second tier” magazine due to frequently low sales, but that should not be confused with “second-rate.”  By 1961, If had become a sister magazine to Galaxy, publishing in alternate months.  Under editor Frederik Pohl, this magazine tended to publish newer writers and more experimental stories, while Galaxy on average worked more with popular established authors.  The cover for the May 1961 issue is “The Commuters” by Jack Gaughan, which has nothing to do with any of the stories.

If May 1961

The lead story is “That’s How It Goes” by J.T. McIntosh.  An overpopulated Earth needs millions of colonists for new worlds.  But it’s only hundred thousands who volunteer.  So most colonists are those who’ve broken laws or rules.  Serious criminals are sent to hellholes like Roc, which is almost certain death.  But for relatively pleasant worlds like Aperdui, which just needs a lot of hard work, any rulebreaker will do.

Thus the seven candidates in the colony office are an actress who wore a see-through nightie on screen, two gluttons, a man who made too many shoes for his quota, a fellow who took a call from his girlfriend and let a food vat die, his girlfriend and the phone operator who let the call go through.  The operator gets a temporary stay, but the rest are shipped off to the new planet to start a farm.

One of the gluttons kills himself because he can’t face life on just enough food to work, and is replaced by an experienced farmer.  We follow the fortunes of the group through their ups and downs, some succeeding and making Aperdui a decent place to live, others dealing with heartbreak.

At the end, one of the colonists becomes a recruiter back on Earth, facing the same sort of involuntary exportees he once was. There’s a picture of a woman skinny-dipping in the distance, her back turned towards the “camera.”  Notably absent from the story is the notion that Earth should perhaps limit its population by other means than emigration.

“Out of Mind” by William W. Stuart concerns a control freak bureaucrat who takes a “vacation” on a planet where the natives have illusion powers that make the place seem ideal, whatever that means to the individual viewer.  Many visitors never leave.  But Screed is ready with anti-illusion pills and a satellite that will disrupt the natives’ powers.  He’ll soon have them whipped into shape as a proper member of the galactic civilization!

Much of the story is Screed being set up to think it’s his idea to go to the planet.  It’s pretty clear his wife (who he allots fifteen minutes of scheduled sex a week) is in on the scam.  It’s a well-deserved fate, but the ending is telegraphed.

“A Science Faction Story” by Theodore Sturgeon is an article on making money from going to space.  Specifically, the then-new idea of communications satellites, a business opportunity that can only be achieved through spaceflight, as opposed to being (Earth activity) in SPACE!

“The Connoisseur” by Frank Banta is set on a generation ship that has forgotten its past, and its goal.  A collector of rare items barters for a child bride with such things as the control knobs which used to be on the navigation panel…before the ship inhabitants killed the last navigator.  No happy ending here, kids.

“Seven Doors to Education” by Fred Saberhagen is an interesting piece about a  swimmer who finds himself undergoing a series of tests to unlock doors to escape wherever it is he’s trapped.  Pete Kelsey’s family didn’t believe in education, and he’s wound up with a steady but dead-end job sorting letters in the Chicago post office.  Now he has to learn, and learn fast if he wants to avoid drowning.  A bit of an infodump at the end, but Pete is faced with a decision that feels meaningful.

“The Useless Bugbreeders” by James Stamers has some interesting features.  The narrator is an advocate for alien species who don’t want the expansionist Earthlings to destroy their homes for the ease of space travel.   He must defend them to a panel of judges who are none too thrilled considering the wacky things that happen.

In this case, his clients are the Bugbreeders, who are masters of creating specialty microbes.  He’s brought along one of their scientists to perform some demonstrations.  Unfortunately, poor prior planning causes each of the demonstrations to have predictable bad consequences.  It looks like the Bugbreeders may lose their asteroid home, but there’s one last twist.  This is one of those stories where the advocate and the client should have gone over the testimony in advance.

“Science Briefs” is a set of short science fact developments as of 1961, including a look at radiation therapy to treat cancer.  Fascinating stuff for science fans!

“Cinderella Story” by Allen Kim Lang concerns Orison McCall, a Treasury agent infiltrating a bank where weird things are going on by being hired as a secretary.  Such things as most of the bank’s employees wearing earmuffs in mid-summer and the invertebrate farm upstairs.

Eventually, Orison learns that she’s stumbled onto an alien power struggle.  The story is marred by most of the male characters treating Orison as a romantic target (and the other major female character assuming Orison is her romantic rival on the strength of Orison being pretty.)  This is especially irksome with the male lead Dink Gerding, who very specifically will not accept that “no” means “no”, orders for his date at restaurants, and jumps straight from first date to marriage proposal.  Naturally, Orison is deeply in love with him by the end of the story.

“The Flying Tuskers of K’Niik-K’naak” by Jack Sharkey rounds out the issue.  It’s a comedic tale about a pompous Great White Hunter being outfoxed by his native servant…in SPACE.  It’s overdone, the narration pushing the hunter character well beyond pompous into actively abusive.

The Saberhagen story is the best in this issue, but the McIntosh story is also pretty good.  You can find all the issues of If on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.