Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Movie Review: Stage Door Canteen

Movie Review: Stage Door Canteen (1943)

A troop train carrying soldiers to a base near New York City has typical troopers California, Dakota, Jersey and Tex on board.  Only Jersey has a steady girl, and he’s hoping they have some time before being shipped overseas to see her.   California’s never even kissed a girl, and Dakota has sworn off romance for the duration.  Tex would like a new girl, but it seems unlikely.

Stage Door Canteen

Meanwhile, several young hostesses get ready to work at the Stage Door Canteen.   This is a special servicemen’s club set up near Broadway where celebrities volunteer their time and talent to entertain the troops.  One of the women, Eileen, is less interested in the volunteer work than in being noticed by a Hollywood or Broadway scout, so she can advance her acting career.

Our troopers get passes as their ship is not ready to leave, so they come to the Stage Door Canteen.  Despite the restrictions (the hostesses are there to lend a friendly ear and dance partners to the lonely soldiers; no physical affection or outside dating allowed) Dakota and Eileen find romance blossoming.  Too bad there’s a war on!

This 1943 film is a tribute to the real-life canteen, and can be fairly described as star-studded.  Musicians like Count Basie and Benny Goodman,  comedians like Ed Bergen and Harpo Marx, and many cameos from performers like Lunt & Fontanne and Johnny Weismuller.  In real life, the canteen probably didn’t feature all these people at once, but all of them did appear at the Stage Door Canteen or the West Coast Hollywood Canteen at one time or another.

The story is paper-thin, only there to connect together the music and comedy acts.  The music is first-rate, and the format allows a variety of musical genres, from swing to religious.  The comedy is a bit more dated, and younger viewers may find themselves lost trying to figure out who some of these people are.  The wartime setting is often mentioned, with as many different types of servicemembers crammed in as possible, including the Allied forces.

That leads to a bit of puzzlement at one point where Chinese airmen are set to sail to China–from New York City.  (There are some mild ethnic slurs towards the Japanese.)

The film is long by 1940s standards, over two hours, but is in the public domain so you can probably find a good version online or on cheap DVD.  Highly recommended for fans of any of the artists involved–your kids may want to skip right to the music bits.

In fact, let’s have a moment with Gracie Fields singing “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

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

The Elfstones of Shanarra

Long ago, before even the rise of the old humans, the good and evil faerie creatures had a great war.  At the end of it, the evil beings who would go down in legend as “demons” were sealed away in a dark dimension by the Forbidding, a barrier maintained by the tree known as the Ellcrys.  The elves have long protected the Ellcrys, through the rise of the humans, the Great Wars, the creation of the new human races, and even through the reign of the Warlock King.

But now the Ellcrys is dying, and the Forbidding with it.  Already a few demons have slipped out, and eons of imprisonment stewing in their own hatred have done nothing to improve their temperaments.  One of their first acts is to slay all the Chosen, those elves who could be used to replant the Ellcrys and restore the Forbidding.

The last Druid, Allanon, seeks out trainee healer Wil Ohmsford and renegade elf teacher Amberle to go on a perilous quest to find the mysterious Bloodfire while he and the elves fight a delaying action against the demon hordes.   Wil and Amberle gain and lose companions along the way, while Ander Elessedil, second son of the Elf King, must muster the armies of elves and their allies on the homefront.

This was the second of the Shannara books, and generally considered an improvement over the first as it moved away from the Tolkein-derivative plot and themes of the previous volume.  It’s worth noting that the Shannara books were the first fantasy doorstoppers to become big hits when first written–The Lord of the Rings took quite a while to find acceptance.  As such, they opened the floodgates for other weighty tomes of magic and monsters.

Wil and Amberle are reluctant heroes, to say the least.  They have careers they’re much more interested in than gallivanting off to save the world.  Wil suspects that Allanon isn’t being entirely truthful about the nature of the quest (which is correct) and Amberle has her own reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, although we don’t find out the full details until nearly the end.

Allanon is fallible; he has lived too long by secrecy, and feels compelled not to reveal certain details, which means that those who’ve been burned by him before do not trust him.  He is overconfident in his ability to predict the enemy’s moves, and misses an important clue that hampers everything the good guys try to accomplish.  And he realizes very late in the story that all the secrets needed to fight future problems will die with him if he doesn’t find an apprentice soon.

Ander is a more traditional heroic figure, who steps out of his brother’s shadow to become a competent and charismatic leader when his country needs him.

Female roles are a bit iffy; while the Roma-like Rovers have aspersions cast on them for treating their women as servants at best, there are no women in the councils of the elf kingdom  or any other place shown–no woman rises above the post of innkeeper in this story.   Other than Amberle, the only prominent woman is Eretria, a fiery Rover girl who takes a fancy to Wil, and is primarily characterized by her attempting to get him to reciprocate.  Wil has to be repeatedly reminded to consult Amberle on plans he makes for both of them.

This book is also the one that started the Shannara tradition of bittersweet endings; Mr. Brooks has no hesitation about killing off major characters.

Overall, a good epic fantasy novel slightly hindered by the author’s then blind spot about female characters.  Worth looking up if you somehow missed the Shannara series in the past.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

Book Review: Tigerman

Book Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

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

Tigerman

Mancreu is dying.  This island in the Arabian Sea was once a quiet backwater, last colonized by the British Empire.   But a combination of industrial waste and volcanic activity have made the island a biohazardous ecodisaster waiting to happen.  A UN mission is just waiting for the final orders to evacuate the locals, and the British government has sent a final Brevet Consul to be the last watchman.

That man is Sergeant Lester Ferris, late of the British army in Afghanistan, a light duty for a man who’s seen too much war.  It’s a quiet post, having tea in the afternoon, making friends with a comic book-loving local boy, settling minor disputes and bidding farewell as those who choose to leave the island early trickle away.  And of course he very deliberately does not notice the Fleet of ships offshore, the ones who are taking advantage of a legal black hole to do things not allowed on land or sea.

But murder comes calling on Mancreu, and the situation seems to need something more than diplomacy.  It needs a hero straight out of the comics, larger than life and gifted with strange abilities.  Lester Ferris could be that hero, if he is willing to become Tigerman.

Good stuff:  The pacing of the book never feels rushed, without being too drawn out.  Even in the early expository bits, it doesn’t feel too slow or sloggish.  There are some lovely turns of phrase, justified by most of the people on the island having learned English from movies, and thus talking like characters, and by the atmosphere of Mancreu making everyone a little crazy.

Sergeant Ferris becoming Tigerman is almost plausible; he has “a very particular set of skills”, access to all sorts of interesting equipment, and just enough odd coincidences happening to him that he can believe this is something that needs doing.

The book managed to blindside me with a twist towards the end that’s not entirely original, but works well here.

Not so good stuff:  While I realize that American pop culture has steamrollered the world’s imagination, the fact that a British man in his forties makes no references whatsoever to British pop culture is weird.  I know for a fact that there is a long tradition of British comic books–Billy the Cat would seem to be an appropriate thing for Sergeant Ferris to think of when he becomes Tigerman.  But no, it’s American comics, American TV and movies.  I have to wonder if this book were deliberately written to appeal to American readers who might not get the references.

Some readers may find the “quirky” a little too thick for their tastes.

The book is due for official release 7/29/14.  I would recommend it for those seeking something a bit more “modern literature-like” in their superhero fiction.

Anime Review: Matchless Raijin-Oh

The fifth-dimensional Jaku Empire (literally, “the Evil Empire”) has decided to conquer the third dimension, starting with Earth.  Good thing Earth has a powerful guardian spirit named Eldoran.  Or perhaps we should say had a powerful guardian spirit, as Eldoran blocks the invaders’ one-shot superweapon at the cost of crippling himself to a near-death state.

Matchless Raijin-Oh

Eldoran has a back-up plan.  He bestows the remainder of his power, in the form of giant robots that combine into larger giant robots, on a class of fifth-graders who are in school on Saturday doing make-up work.  The military isn’t too thrilled with the fact that the world’s fate is in the hands of a bunch of pre-teens, but the Earth Defense Class is the only ones who can use the mighty Raijin-Oh against the weekly monster attacks.

Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh was a 1991 anime series for children, the first of the “Eldoran Trilogy.”  It falls into the “super robot” subgenre of the mecha genre, which means that it generally ignores questions of practicality and treats the laws of physics as mild suggestions.  (As opposed to the “real robot” subgenre where they at least handwave explanations as to how the mecha work in realistic terms.)

There are eighteen kids in Class 5-3, nine boys and nine girls of varied size, shape, social status and personality, so it’s easy for most viewers to have a favorite.  And all of them are important.  Sure, some of them get much more screen time, but even if your job is just to pull the transformation lever, no one else can do that, so if you go missing, the team will lose.

The kids who get the most screentime are:

  • Jin, the pilot of Ken-Oh, a swordsman mecha, and lead pilot of Raijin-Oh when the robots combine.  He’s a typical boys’ anime lead, spiky-haired, hot-blooded and book-dumb.
  • Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh, a bird mecha.  He’s a handsome and diplomatic lad, and a hit with the girls.  Asuka likes being treated well because of his looks, but doesn’t really grok why being liked by women is a thing.
  • Kouji, the pilot of Juu-Oh, a lion mecha.  He’s a dreamer and UFO nut, who’s a bit timid, but is better at understanding people than his two buddies.
  • Maria, the class leader.  She’s an all-rounder who’s good but not the best at many skills, and coordinates the Command Center when monsters attack.  Her only flaw is a bit of a temper, mostly caused by Jin’s antics.  (The series is clearly setting Jin and Maria up for a romance in their teens.)
  • Tsutomu, the class nerd.  He’s the one who handles technical issues and discovering new powers for the robots.

While the adults are shut out of being able to save the day, Mr. Shinoda (the homeroom teacher), Miss Himeji (school nurse) and the Principal (who is skilled in kung fu) often are able to help the kids out with real-world problems.  Even the General eventually is a bit helpful, though he never completely warms up to the notion that military might is not the answer.

Over on the villain side, the leader is Belzeb, who is literally heartless.  Instead, he has an evil fairy named Falzeb living in his rib cage.  He’s assisted by the bumbling Taida, a chubby, childish fellow who isn’t really cut out for the villain lifestyle.   The monsters start out as akudama (“evil balls”), round bits of darkness that are scattered around the landscape.  When activated by the word meiwaku (“troublesome”, “annoying” , “problematic”) then turn into a small monster that takes its theme from whatever was described with the code word.

Thus we have things like a pollution monster, a flu monster, a superhero monster (that one had some serious “which side am I on?” issues) and so forth.  At some point, Falzeb would energize the monster, turning it into a larger, more powerful version, and Raijin-Oh would need to fight it.

The plots do tend to be formulaic.  One of the children has a spotlight subplot, such as being afraid of dogs.  The monster may or may not relate to that subplot, but generally defeating the monster will also resolve the subplot.  There’s plenty of stock footage of the various uniform changes, robot launches and transformations and special attacks.  One episode about halfway through is a clip show, though it does answer a few pertinent questions.  (The robots combining to form Raijin-Oh takes less than three seconds real time, not the over a minute it looks like in the stock footage.)

Some of the spotlight episodes are more disappointing for fans of those individual characters, as Jin has his own secondary subplot, meaning that the character whose spotlight it is gets even less time.

The series is being brought to the U.S. by Anime Midstream, a small independent company formed for the purpose.  They’ve titled it Matchless Raijin-Oh and five volumes are currently available on DVD.  The disks have both subtitled and dubbed versions, with the dub being done mostly by enthusiastic amateurs.  (It’s okay, but not quite up to professional standards.)

The series is kid-friendly, but parents should be aware that Japan has different standards for how much nudity is acceptable for children (we see a couple of naked butts in a non-sexual context) and some old-fashioned ideas about physical discipline of children are on display.  (Jin’s  parents especially believe in the usefulness of a good smack to the head.)  The blooper reels are less kid-friendly; the worst words are bleeped out, but parental no-nos are still heard.

If your kids already enjoy loud exciting action cartoons, please consider supporting this small business.  Older anime fans may find it a bit childish, but there’s still plenty to love.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

Book Review: Native Silver

Book Review: Native Silver by Blake Hausladen

This is a sequel to Mr. Hausladen’s Ghosts in the Yew and will contain some spoilers for the earlier work.

Native Silver

Prince Barok has brought the sleepy backwater province of Enhedu from a shameful place of exile to a thriving young nation in little over a year with the help of his wife Dia, alsman (head servant) Leger and former bodyguard Geart.    Meanwhile, the Zoviyan Empire is crumbling as its Exaltier, Barok’s father, is weakening and the remaining sons jockey for position.

There’s no time to rest on laurels, as Enhedu’s enemies are already within the country, striking a terrible blow, while Barok’s own plans have much of his support elsewhere.    Even as the Zoviyan Empire suffers from the multiple schemes of its various leaders, an even worse threat is rising from a place long forgotten.

Good news first:  this volume is much improved over the first.   Surprisingly, one of the ways this is done is by introducing more first-person narrators with multiple points of view.   While this technique did not work well in Ghosts in the Yew, here it’s easier to tell the narrators apart.

Also, there is less of the piling up of bad traits to indicate who we should see as a bad person.  Most of the opponents seem more like actual people, even the ones who have had their personalities wiped by magic.

There is less lull time, with the plot moving forward in almost all sections, and short time skips over quiet periods.  On the other hand, this makes some events seem a bit too rushed.  The magic system takes a much more prominent place in the story, which makes the Hessier (who were nigh-invincible in the previous volume) less of a threat, and a new super-Hessier variant is introduced.

There’s not a lot of time spent on recaps, so readers who had not read the previous book may be more confused than not.

There are many illustrations, the most useful of which are several maps making it easier to follow the action.  (The deluxe edition of this book comes with color maps–recommended for collectors!)  The reproductions of hand-written letters are less helpful, especially for readers with weak eyesight.   Once again, this volume could use a glossary, and since many new characters are introduced, a dramatis personae.

The author is unafraid to kill characters off, some dramatically, others abruptly or off-stage.  This includes main characters.

One nice touch; the Zoviyan Empire is misogynistic, while the ancestral Edonians treated women much better, but it’s pointed out that “The Edonians worshiped their women, but they did not listen to them.”  Our protagonists are better at that last bit, and may survive where the Edonians did not.

There are some spellcheck typos, which is a shame in an otherwise professionally produced small press book.

I can recommend this volume much more than the first in the series, and if the author continues to improve at this rate, the next volume should be well worth it.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

Book Review: The Green God

Book Review: The Green God by L. Ron Hubbard

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

The Green God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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