Book Review: Ready Player One

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is a gunter.  That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday.  Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap.  Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.

Ready Player One

It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death.  James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in.  The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.

Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich.  However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate.  Until, of course,  Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.

In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge.  The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target.  To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes!  He may even need to go…outside.

This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings.  I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s.  One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.

The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division.  IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks.  (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.)  IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.

Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills.  His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets.  A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.

Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others.  At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.

Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so.  There’s also references to offpage sex.  It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.

Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Manga Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1 by Yasuo Ohtagaki

The time is Universal Century year 0079.  The place is Thunderbolt Sector, formerly the orbital space colony Side 4 before it was destroyed in a battle between the Principality of Zeon and the Earth Federation.  Now this sector is heavily littered with debris, and afflicted with random electromagnetic discharges that gave it its name.  It’s a key point in the supply lines for Zeon, and as such is guarded by the deadly snipers of the LIving Dead division.  Their top sniper is Chief Petty Officer Darryl Lorentz.

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt 1

Assigned the task of clearing out the snipers and cutting the supply lines is the Moore Brotherhood, survivors of Side 4.  It’s clear to everyone aboard their mothership that the Federation considers them expendable, but this sector used to be their home.  Their ace is Ensign Io Fleming, an eccentric young man who used to belong to Side 4’s nobility.  This battlefield will come down to the clash of these two men.

The Mobile Suit Gundam franchise was the progenitor of what’s called “real robot” mecha stories.  It aimed for greater plausibility than previous giant robot stories by introducing weapons that ran out of ammunition and engines that used fuel.  It also had the giant robots being devised initially as powered spacesuits for space colony construction, and evolving from there, only to be repurposed as military weapons.  And to explain why these huge targets weren’t just hit with missiles from miles away, the original creators came up with “Minovsky Particles” that temporarily block radio and radar signals in war zones, requiring the mecha to get up close in order to hit opponents.

In addition, the Gundam series of series depicts the futility and waste of war; sympathetic characters die, the “good guys” don’t always win, and sometimes it can be tough to tell which side of a conflict are the good guys anyway.

Thunderbolt takes place in the “Universal Century” timeline established in the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, and is a side story happening at approximately the same time.  Numerous orbital colonies have been built, as well as other colonies further from the Earth, and some of them have prospered to the point they’d like to be independent.  Also, humans have been born in space with ill-defined psychic powers that better suit them for life in outer space; these are often referred to as “Newtypes.”

The Principality of Zeon, a militaristic colony, has decided to go beyond independence and conquer Mother Earth, as it is their destiny to rule over all space.  They have a lot of Germanic influence, and their government is basically Space Nazis.

But that doesn’t mean individual people working for Zeon are evil.  Daryl’s family were apparently merchants who worked for Zeon in another country before the war, but weren’t actually Zeon citizens.  So when Zeon and its collaborators were kicked out of there, the Lorentz family found themselves trapped in a refugee camp.  Zeon had a “service guarantees citizenship (would you like to learn more?)” program, so Daryl joined the military.

Daryl got his legs blown off in combat, and as a reward, his family was moved out of the camp and into an apartment, and his sickly father is finally being treated in a hospital.  But full citizenship only comes with completing military service, so Daryl was fitted with prosthetic legs and reassigned to the Living Dead division, snipers who have all lost body parts and been fitted with prostheses.  They’re all well aware that they’re being used as test beds for experimental upgrades (and aesthetics are not a big concern to the Zeon brass), but that’s life in the military, and at least scientist Karla Mitchum seems to care about them as human beings.

Daryl loves cheesy J-pop music and deals with phantom pain.

Io Fleming, by contrast, loves free jazz and practices drumming in his cockpit when not in combat.  He was uncomfortable as a young noble on Side 4, preferring the freedom of piloting small planes.  Io’s uncomfortable with the idea that he must seek revenge for his destroyed homeland, even if he does have some lingering resentment about that.  He’s rude, bucks rules whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and makes a point of taunting Daryl about his prostheses.

But he is much nicer to his sole male friend Cornelius, and Acting Captain Claudia (who used to be his girlfriend before her promotion made that impossible.)  Despite his disdain for his own social class, Io is despised by Executive Officer Graham, who blames the nobility of Side 4 for its destruction.  And there are hints that there’s more to Io’s issues than we see in this volume.

The art is detailed and when we see faces, it’s easy to tell people apart.  However, the very busy debris fields and multiple giant robots can make for confusing layouts, especially since the black and white art doesn’t have the color cues that would make the machines more distinguishable.

This volume is primarily set-up of the main conflict and the various characters’ subplots, interspersed with exciting giant robot combat.

This manga was originally published in a seinen (young men’s) magazine, though the only strong indicator of that in this volume is a flash of one character’s pornography in an unguarded moment. There’s also the standard violence associated with war stories.  Viz rates this as “Older Teen.”

This story relies heavily on the reader’s presumed familiarity with the background established in the original Gundam series, so I would recommend it only to those fans.  It would not be the best first introduction to the world.

There’s an anime adaptation, of course, and here’s the trailer for that.

Book Review: Three In One

Book Review: Three In One edited by Leo Margulies

According to the introduction by the editor, this book came about because there were three long science fiction stories in the to-publish pile, too long for short-story collections but too short to be their own paperback.  The cover by Emsh is a good choice with the three intelligent species cooperating in some vacuum-suited endeavor.  It doesn’t precisely match any of the stories inside, but gets across the ideas of “three” and “science fiction” nicely.

Three In One

“There Is No Defense” by Theodore Sturgeon takes place in a far future when the races of the Solar System have devised a weapon so fearsome it is only known as the Death.  This won the war against the Jovians, but so horrified everyone that there is now a complete ban against it, sponsored by the interplanetary Peace organization.

Now an invader ship has entered the system.  It will not communicate.  Its movements are seemingly random, as are its attacks with the power to slag small moons.  Its defenses seem to make it immune to any normal weapon, and it retaliates instantly and overwhelmingly to any attack.  And this is just one ship, presumably a scout for the main invasion.

It appears that there is no choice but to un-ban the Death, regardless of the damage to the Peace movement’s ethical standing.  But what if the invader is immune to the Death?  What then?

The story fudges on the difference between pacifism and passivism (as a lot of stories not written by pacifists do), but does show respect for the pacifist’s point of view.  The invader’s secret will be more easily guessed by modern readers than the characters in the story, I think.

“Galactic Chest” by Clifford D. Simak is contemporary to 1956, when it was published.  A Midwestern reporter chafes at his daily assignment of writing puff pieces for the Community Chest (a charity organization, forerunner of United Way; you may have seen the Monopoly cards.)  He wants to become a foreign correspondent and cover international stories!

The newspaper editor (nicknamed “the Barnacle”) doesn’t seem to be helping, sending our protagonist off on a series of stories that seem to be wild goose chases.  Finally told point-blank by the Barnacle that good reporters find their own stories, the reporter looks again at those and other incidents and notices a pattern.  A pattern reminiscent of brownies (the creatures, not the confections.)

This light-hearted story is closer to fantasy than science fiction, just substituting aliens for elfin creatures.  A couple of the “helpful” things they do come across as disturbing (they are okay with euthansia), but overall it’s a happy ending.  The main characters drink heavily (a bartender supplies a clue to what’s going on), and it’s strongly implied that the reporter and his love interest engage in hanky-panky before marriage.

“West Wind” by Murray Leinster is set in Eastern Europe of the then near future, though country names are very carefully not used.  Igor is a proud citizen of a small, militarily weak country.  They have atomic power plants, true, but their neighbor to the east has actual atomic bombs, enough to turn Igor’s country to glass.  The country to the east is large and militarily powerful, and has already bullied Igor’s country into ceding over one of its provinces to them.

Now the eastern nation has demanded another border province.  The President of Igor’s nation has agreed to cede this province as well, without a shot fired, just all the citizens evacuated.  The President did warn that any soldier entering the province would be doing so at their own risk, but that was a bluff, right?

Igor is incensed.  He knows full well that the aggressor nation will not be satisfied with this bite of territory; they will soon find some excuse to demand more, or even invade outright!  Igor decides to hide from the evacuation teams with a radio transmitter (he’s a news broadcaster by profession) so that he can send messages back to his people to shame them into resisting the invaders.

Igor doesn’t even get one broadcast off before he’s caught by the invaders and arrested as a spy.  As the only living resident of the province, the eastern nation believes he must know something about what the President meant in his speech.  Igor makes up some stories under torture, but he has no clue whether or not the veiled threat was a bluff, or what trap could possibly have been laid.  The only comfort he has is an old nursery rhyme about the West Wind protecting his homeland.

There are some evocative scenes in this one, from the solitude Igor faces in the abandoned province, to a chilling calculus as the eastern dictators decide how many of their own troops need to die to make their planned invasion look like a fair fight.

The reveal itself seems unlikely given advances in our knowledge of that field of science; to quote Morbo, “it does not work like that!”

This is mid-level work by a trio of excellent authors, worth looking up if you are a fan of any of them.  It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted recently so try used book stores and libraries.

 

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Magazine Review: Science Fiction Stories January 1960

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

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

Science Fiction Stories January 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Most Star Wars fans are aware that director George Lucas based much of the look and feel of the first movie on classic Hollywood films and especially the thrilling chapter serials.  But have you ever considered what A New Hope would sound like if it were a big-budget film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age?

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Someone certainly did, and put together a version that might have appeared on old time radio as part of Lux Radio Theater.  LRT was a weekly broadcast hosted by famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille that adapted recent movies for the radio, often with the actual stars of the movie reprising their roles.  You should be able to find episodes downloadable or streaming at various sites on the internet.

For this performance, there is a star-studded cast (provided by voice impersonators):  Mickey Rooney as Luke, Humphrey Bogart as Han Solo, Katherine Hepburn as Princess Leia, Bela Lugosi as Darth Vader, and so on.  (Rin Tin Tin as Chewbacca!)  It was recorded live; there’s some obvious microphone feedback towards the beginning and some of the cues are a teensy off.  Much of the story is carried by the narrator, who fills in what we’re supposed to be seeing.  (Saves on special effects!)

The story follows the familiar film, plus or minus a scene or two.  The dialogue has been altered at a few points to allow in-jokes for the “actors.’  (Bela doing the Dracula “bleh!” for example.)   Some of the impersonations are better than others; in fairness, some voices are easier to imitate.  As a purist when it comes to historical fiction, I was jarred by a couple of words being used that hadn’t been coined by the 1940s, even in science fiction.

It’s a lot of fun, and recommended to both Star Wars and old time radio fans.  On the down side, this recording had a limited number of copies made, and is now out of print, so may be difficult to track down.

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

It is the close of the Twentieth Century, and the United Nations has achieved two major goals.  There is now a permanent scientific base on the moon, and a way has been found to safely and humanely contain Earth’s giant monsters on a remote island dubbed Kaijuland (Monsterland in the dub.)   World peace also seems to have been achieved but no one directly says so.

Destroy All Monsters
It took most of the movie to get here, but at last we have all the monsters!

Of course, it would be a pretty dull monster movie if the status quo remained that way, so shortly after a UFO is seen lurking near the moon base, a mysterious gas cuts off all contact with Kaijuland.  Soon, the monsters that should be on the island are spotted in capital cities around the world, destroying property and causing death…except in Tokyo.  That arouses suspicion since Japan is the closest large land mass near Kaijuland, and all the monsters normally gravitate there.

Captain Katsuo Yamabe and the crew of the spaceship Moonlight SY-3 are assigned to investigate.  They are shocked to discover that the staff of Monsterland (including Captain Yamabe’s sweetheart Kyoko Manabe) are now cheerfully directing the monsters to attack using previously unknown technology.  It turns out that aliens called Kilaaks are responsible.  The Kilaak have decided to colonize Earth and they’re not keen on human civilization.

Most of the movie is Captain Yamabe and his allies investigating the Kilaak threat and attempting to find some way of breaking their mind control over humans and monsters, with sporadic monster attacks to spice things up.  But in the final reel, we are treated to the kaiju battle action we’ve been waiting for, as Godzilla and the other Earth monsters go up against the Kilaak and space monster King Ghidorah.

This 1968 film is considered one of the weaker entries in the Godzilla franchise, as the writers had largely run out of good ideas, and the monsters weren’t really scary anymore.  The plot is thin and the acting minimal.  But it’s got that cool monster battle at the end, with Minilla actually being useful for a moment.  I also appreciate the optimistic future in which humanity lives and lets live with its giant monsters.

As of this writing, both subbed and dubbed versions are up on Crunchyroll, and recommended to kaiju fans as a pleasant popcorn movie.

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

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