Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Review: Shadow of Heaven

Book Review: 'Shadow of Heaven' by Bob Shaw

4 / 5 Stars

‘Shadow of Heaven’ was first published in 1969 as a fix-up by Avon Books; this version (125 pp) was released in 1974 by UK publisher New English Library. The cover artwork is by George Underwood.

The novel is set ca. 2092, in a USA marked by overpopulation and eco-disaster. A World War started in 1992 led to the deployment of a particularly powerful formulation of herbicide, which devastated the world’s crops; now, the teeming, overcrowded masses of humanity must derive their meager nourishment from the oceans. Progress in restoring greenery to the massive fields of dirt that once were farmlands is a slow and uncertain endeavor.

The one exception is the International Land Extension U. S. 23, or ‘Isle’. Resting three miles up in the air over the Atlantic, courtesy of powerful antigravity pulsars, the Isle is a fifteen-mile long platform on which crops are grown by robots. The produce from the Isle is shuttled down to earth via a massive elevator. The produce derived from the Isle is so small that it constitutes only the rarest of treats to the population of the USA; but the government recognizes its psychological value and willingly budgets the considerable funds necessary to operate the Isle.

As the novel opens Victor Stirling, a newspaper reporter, discovers a startling bit of information while researching a story: his half-brother, Johnny Considine, has been officially declared a Missing Person. Although he has not spoken to Considine is some time, Sterling retains a sufficient sense of familial duty to make inquiries about his brother’s disappearance. These lead to contacts with a renegade political group, and rumors that Considine has done something thought impossible: traveled to the Isle.

Victor Stirling decides to access the Isle via a clandestine route; he arrives and finds a community of fugitives living among the greenery of the Isle. But this discovery comes with its cost, for as Stirling is to learn, once you travel to the Isle, you can’t go back………..

‘Shadow of Heaven’ is one of the better sf novels of the late 60s / early 70s that I’ve read. While the premise is a bit contrived, it’s imaginative, and the world of the Isle is carefully sketched and made sufficiently believable to support the straightforward narrative. For a novel published during the height of the New Wave era, Shaw’s prose is particularly clear and devoid of self-indulgence, and makes for an engaging read.

This one is worth picking up.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville
Script by Roy Thomas, Art by David Wenzel
from The Savage Sword of Conan No. 41 (June 1979) / Marvel / Curtis magazines

Based on a poem by Robert E. Howard, this Solomon Kane backup feature offers some good artwork from David Wenzel, who ably illustrated a number of Kane stories for the Marvel black and white comic magazines.....

Richard Grenville (1542 - 1591) was a British sea captain who, once when dining with a group of Spanish naval captains, displayed his machismo by chewing and swallowing his beverage glasses, pretending to ignore the blood running out of his lacerated mouth - ! 

During the Battle of Flores (August 31 - September 1, 1591) which took place near the Azores, his ship the Revenge attacked a numerically superior Spanish fleet; after much combat, which at one point saw the Revenge simultaneously attacked by five Spanish ships, Grenville was severely wounded. His crew (Robert E. Howard's poem places Solomon Kane among them) surrendered after Grenville was struck down. He died of his wounds two days later, aboard the Spanish flagship.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: Flashing Swords 5

Book Review: 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' 
edited by Lin Carter

3 / 5 Stars

'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' (250 pp) was published by Dell in December, 1981.The striking cover art is by Richard Corben.

This is the fifth and final volume in the 'Flashing Swords' series that began in 1973.

Like the other volumes, this one features commissioned stories, but editor Carter, in his Introduction, states that for No. 5, he chose to go outside the membership of the SAG -the organization of sword-and-sorcery writers from whom he previously drew stories - to solicit entries from writers who are not usually associated with the genre.

[All of the stories in 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' were written in 1981.]

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Tower of Ice, by Roger Zelazny: when he avoided writing avant-garde New Wave prose, and instead stuck to traditional modes of storytelling, Zelazny could write some good stories, and this novelette - featuring his 'Dilvish the Damned' character - is very good. The narrative is fast-paced, the dialogue crisp, and the setting imaginative. This is the best entry in the anthology.

A Thief in Korianth, by C. J. Cherryh: in the squalid, violent streets of the waterfront district of the city of Korianth, a young pickpocket named Gillian steals from someone better left alone. This story is overwritten, particularly in terms of devoting too much prose to analyzing the main character's inner turmoil. But the plot is sufficiently engaging that I finished the tale.

Parting Gifts, by Diane Duane: an elderly sorceress is given a dangerous task, on the one night of the year when the Devil and his servants are free to roam the land at will. While this story's plotting and pacing are reminiscent of the stories of Ursula K. Leguin, 'Gifts' is well-written in its own right, and the second-best tale in the anthology.

A Dealing with Demons, by Craig Shaw Gardner: Ebenezum the mage and his trusted servant Wunt come to the aid of a king who cannot access his treasure-room. This is a 'humorous fantasy' story, reminiscent of the Jack Vance 'Cugel' tales. It's competent, if not remarkable.

The Dry Season, by Tanith Lee: in a drought-stricken foreign city, a forthcoming human sacrifice draws the attention of a conscience-stricken legionary. Lee's use of an overly figurative prose style - light is colored Ochre, sunsets are colored Apricot, hair is a Black Fleece, when crickets stop chirping it is like a Heart Suddenly Faltering, an impasse in a conversation is a Lacuna - sets too large a burden on the narrative, which is otherwise interesting.

Summing up, 'Flashing Swords #5: Demons and Daggers' is like the preceding four volumes in this series: some good stories, some mediocre ones. But the entry by Zelazny is a good argument for picking this volume up.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Mind of Her Own

A Mind of Her Own
by Bruce Jones
from Alien Worlds No. 2, May 1983 
Pacific Comics

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Plague King

The Plague King
by Chuck Dixon (story) and Don Perlin (art)
from Savage Sword of Conan No. 159, April 1989 

Although much of the content of the 1980s issues of Savage Sword of Conan still adhered to the increasingly tired sword-and-sorcery adventure format, there were those occasional backup stories, hidden in the final pages of each issue, that veered away from the formulaic approach and offered something a bit more imaginative. 

This short tale from the April 1989 issue of SSoC, written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Don Perlin, is set in the King Kull era. But its downbeat plot, suffused with gritty realism, makes it stand out as something apart from the usual frenetic sword-swinging and 'By the Gods !' exclamations........

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

First Maitz: Selected Works by Don Maitz

First Maitz
Selected Works by Don Maitz
Ursus Imprints 1988

If you read sf and fantasy books at any time in the late 70s, 80s, or early 90s, then it's highly likely that at least one of those books featured cover art by Don Maitz (b. 1953).

Raised in Plainville, Connecticut, Maitz attended the Paier School of Art in Hamden, from which he graduated in 1975 - the same year he got his first commercial art assignment, for Marvel comics.

A year later, Maitz provided the cover artwork for the Science Fiction Book Club's The Book of Skaith, as well as cover art for the Dell paperback Flashing Swords 3: Warriors and Wizards, launching his prolific career as a cover artist in the sf and fantasy genres.

'First Maitz' provides artwork from Maitz's career through 1988; many of the featured pieces were commissioned by DAW Books and will be very familiar to anyone with experience with that publisher's catalog from the late 70s through the 80s.

One thing that is quickly apparent from looking through 'First Maitz' is that the author is very adept both at composing artwork with a more abstract, figurative aspect, as well as art with a more realistic tenor. Maitz's work is very much allied to that of the classic illustrators such as Maxfield Parish and N. C Wyeth. 

Each of the reproductions of Matiz's paintings is accompanied by a text description offering details of the processes by which Maitz came up with the composition and design of the illustration, as well as preliminary black-and-white sketches and the occasional reference photograph. 

Maitz makes clear that reading the book he has been assigned to illustrate is a vital component of rendering satisfactory cover art, although this action - along with all of the others associated with producing commercial art - can lead to anxiety as deadlines come due......

cover art for Flashing Swords 4, Dell, 1977

'First Maitz' (96 pp) is a well-made book; the artwork is reproduced on a finer grade of paper stock, pages are sewn into the binding (not glued), and the quality of the reproductions is very high. Copies can be had from the usual used-book online vendors for very reasonable prices. If you're a fan of fantasy and sf art, or a fan of novels in the genre from the 70s and 80s, then you may well want to get a copy of 'First Maitz'.
cover art for The Green Gods, DAW Books 1980

The Pirate, Captain Morgan Co., Baltimore, MD

cover artwork for four novels in the Bard series, Ace Books, 1981 - 1987

cover artwork for The Shadow of the Torturer, Pocket Books, 1981

cover artwork for Electric Forest, DAW Books, 1979

cover artwork for Fane, Pocket Books, 1981

cover artwork for The Purgatory Zone, Ace Books, 1981

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Book Review: Helliconia Spring

Book Review:'Helliconia Spring' by Brian Aldiss

2 / 5 Stars

‘Helliconia Spring’ first was published in hardback in 1982; this Berkley paperback (433 pp) was released in November, 1984. The cover artist is uncredited.

‘Helliconia Spring’ is the first volume of the trilogy; later volumes are ‘Helliconia Summer’ (1983) and ‘Helliconia Winter’ (1985).

[During the 70s and early 80s, lengthy novels were a linchpin of general fiction publishing; 600+ page tomes from James Michener (Centennial, Chesapeake) and James Clavell (Shogun) were bestsellers. Science fiction came rather late to this aspect of publishing, with Dune (1965) and Dhalgren (1975) the only representatives, until the advent of the early 80s, and ‘Helliconia Spring’.]

The premise of the Helliconia series is straightforward: the planet circles its two binary suns at a leisurely pace; so leisurely, in fact, that a ‘year’ is equivalent to 2,592 days, and winter lasts for the equivalent of nearly 600 Earth years. The ecology of Helliconia is thus geared towards enduring, and then exploiting, protracted periods of cold and dark followed by abundant sunshine and warmth.

The human inhabitants of Helliconia (their presence on the planet is never explained, but they are presumed to have evolved from a race of Helliconian primates known as ‘protognostics’) share the planet with a humanoid race of goat-people called phagors; there is frequent enmity between the two races.

Winter life for the humans on Helliconia is nasty, brutish and short. Technology is at the bronze-age level, and misery and squalor are simply part of existence.

Much of the narrative of 'Helliconia Spring' deals with the lives of the people of the village of Oldorando, who live in ignorance and superstition among the ruins of a previous civilization - one established centuries ago during the Great Summer, only to disintegrate with the coming of the Winter.

The main plot revolves around the personal melodramas and political conflicts of a large cast of characters, who must struggle with the psychological and social traumas triggered by the massive environmental changes accompanying the advent of Spring. An overarching plot device deals with the impending arrival of a large phagor army, whose leader seeks to burn Oldorando to the ground.

The events of the main narrative are regularly interspersed with pedantic expositions on the environmental science of Helliconia, and its plant and animal life.

I found ‘Helliconia Spring’ to be ponderous and unrewarding. The plot had just enough momentum to keep me from tossing the novel aside due to boredom, but that’s it’s only saving grace.

The book is badly overwritten; much of Aldiss’s prose has the self-conscious leanings of an author who is determined to be ‘literary’:

A heat message thrilled along the five hundred-mile length of the glacier, as it spilled down from the airless plateau of High Nktryhk to the excoriated valleys east of the Oldorandan plain, drawing out ancipitals from its eaves and crevices.

Using ‘excoriated’ to describe a valley is just one of the steady stream of thesaurus-derived, awkward phrasings that mark the prose style of ‘Helliconia Spring’. Readers will need to gird themselves to encounter such words as ‘eotemporal’, ‘ripicolous’, ‘hypogean’, ‘expatiate’, ‘renasence’, ‘exsiccated’, ‘obtend’, and Aldiss’s favorite adjective, ‘cthonic’.

I can’t help comparing ‘Helliconia Spring’ to another high-profile 80s sf trilogy: Harry Harrison’s ‘Eden’ series, which started just two years later, in 1984. 

Harrison’s trilogy is just as ambitious as Aldiss’s in terms of its creation of a planetary ecology, and the maintenance of a complex cast of characters. But the quality of Harrison’s prose, and the overall readability of the ‘Eden’ trilogy, are markedly superior to ‘Helliconia’.

Summing up, only die-hard Aldiss fans are going to want to invest the time and effort into reading ‘Helliconia Spring’ and its sequels. All others can pass on this title. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Captain Sternn

Captain Sternn
by Berni Wrightson
from Heavy Metal magazine, June 1980

One of the best comics to appear in the early issues of Heavy Metal magazine was 'Captain Sternn: Featuring Hanover Fiste', by Berni Wrightson, that appeared in the June, 1980 issue. its eight pages combine brilliant artwork with an offbeat plot that keeps the reader guessing till the very last panel.

Captain Sternn is - outwardly- the epitome of the clean-cut, morally upright hero, but as the story unfolds the satiric humor underlying his depiction gradually is revealed. 

The artwork has a dynamic quality that I've yet to see equalled in any of the comics I have read in the 36 years since the strip first was published. 

Here it is: Berni Wrightson's 'Captain Sternn'.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Freejack issue 3

Official movie adaptation
Issue 3, June 1992
Chuck Dixon and Clint McElroy (writers), Ernie Stiner (pencils), Tony De Zuniga (inks)
NOW Comics