Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg

As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years.  It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized.  A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.

2000 AD #2020

“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue.  We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook.  Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances.  Coincidence?  Plague?  Terrorist plot?  It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.

This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster.  A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city.  Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.

“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city.  What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target.  This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.

Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea.  The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones.  So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo.  Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models.  Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.

2000 AD #2021

The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode.  Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past.  They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.

We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell.  First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants.  A threat that must be eliminated.  The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole.  He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair.  And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.”  And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.

I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.

2000 AD #2022

“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial.  A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded.  An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers.  When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns.  On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm.  Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory.  The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.

“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them.  The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans.  Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.

2000 AD #2023

“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse.  Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division.  After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.

The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’  War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli.  Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology.  It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun.  It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them.  This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.

“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death.  Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise.  We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven.  Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.

2000 AD #2024

There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts.  “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever.  Anything.  “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world.  Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time.  The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense.  I liked the first story better.

There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan  in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD.  Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.

2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory.  I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness.  Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.

As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently.  worth looking into if you can afford it.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Comic Book Review: 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.

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

Anime Review: Erased

Anime Review: Erased (Japanese title Boku Dake ga Inai Machi “The Town Without Me” or “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”)

The year is 2006, and Jun “Yuuki” Shiratori is on Death Row for the abduction and murder of three children back in 1988.  Very few people still believe that he’s innocent, considering the substantial circumstantial evidence against him.  One of them is Satoru Fujinuma, a struggling manga artist and part-time pizza delivery driver.   Satoru feels somewhat responsible for failing to save the other children (including one of his personal friends) and not convincing the adults that the simpleminded Yuuki was not the killer.  As a result, Satoru has had difficulty moving forward in life.  But he’s about to get another chance.

Erased: the Town Without Me

It turns out that Satoru has been blessed/cursed with a power he calls “Revival.”  When a tragedy strikes that he could avert, Satoru’s timeline reruns over and over until he fixes the problem.  Unfortunately, this usually works out badly for Satoru himself, so he is made even more frustrated by it.

Satoru’s mother drops by for a visit, and witnesses an event that sparks memories–for the first time she is able to realize that Satoru was right back then, and makes the connection to who the killer really was.  Except that the killer recognized her too, and murders her, framing Satoru for it.  Revival kicks in–

–And Satoru wakes up as his eleven year old self in 1988, before the murders began.  He determines that he needs to stop the killings to change the future, starting with saving the pretty but aloof Kayo Hinazuki, one of his classmates.  But how?

This 2016 anime series was based on a manga by Kei Sanbe, condensing 44 chapters into 12 episodes.  A couple of subplots were axed, the endgame is speeded up, and the events reworked a bit so that each anime episode save the last ends on a cliffhanger.

Satoru starts the series as an unenthusiastic person who worries that he’s a hollow shell; he helps people with his Revival power not out of any interest in helping them, but because it’s the right thing to do.  Over the course of the plotline, as he meets or re-meets people who genuinely wish him well and assist him, Satoru lightens up and learns that he doesn’t have to shoulder burdens alone.

This is important when it comes to Kayo; her situation is more complex than Satoru initially realizes, and working alone he can only delay her death, not stop it.  This results in a reverse Revival, as he must return to the future to gather more clues.

There’s some use of cultural allusion.  A reproduction of The Last Supper painting gives some quick foreshadowing, and the Ryuunosuke Akutagawa story “The Spider’s Thread” is something that the killer uses as a metaphor.  As a child, Satoru was heavily into the superhero shows of the time, and some real ones are mentioned.

Content warnings:  Child abuse is an important part of the 1988 section of the plotline, and domestic violence more generally.  Yuuki is framed as a pedophile by the killer swapping out his porn collection (we see some scantily-clad women on magazine covers.)  And of course the serial killing.  I’d rate this for senior high students and up.

Recommended for those looking for a thriller with fantasy elements and a bit of comedy (child Satoru with adult Satoru’s memories often makes slips of the tongue.)

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