Saturday, September 23, 2023

Book Review: The Shockwave Rider

Book Review: 'The Shockwave Rider' by John Brunner
0 / 5 Stars

In the 1930s the American author John Dos Passos (1896 – 1970) wrote three novels, referred to as the ‘U.S.A. Trilogy’, which relied on an experimental prose style. With these novels, Dos Passos adorned the traditional, main narrative with insertions of vignettes: a ‘Newsreel’ consisting of headlines and excerpts from newspapers; stream-of-consciousness musings, labeled as ‘Camera Eye’; and song lyrics. Dos Passos intended these ancillary materials to give a more expansive quality to the narrative, placing the adventures of his characters within the larger context of the world around them, including events such as World War One, labor unrest, and the Roaring Twenties (Dos Passos, an ardent Communist, intended the trilogy to be an indictment of Capitalism).

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.K. writer John Brunner had made a career out of writing a large portfolio of conventional science fiction short stories and novels, but with the advent of the New Wave movement, he eagerly embraced constructing new science fiction novels on the template of Dos Passos. 

Beginning with ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ in 1968, followed by ‘The Sheep Look Up’ (1972) and ‘The Shockwave Rider’ (1975), Brunner received considerable critical praise for his presentations. However, the reading public was less enthused, and by the early 1980s, Brunner had reverted to more traditional narratives.

Having read ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ in the early 80s, and finding it a bore, I was not expecting much from the March, 1976 mass-market paperback version of ‘The Shockwave Rider’ (Ballantine Books, 280 pp., cover art by Murray Tinkelman).

In his Acknowledgement, Brunner states that Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book ‘Future Shock’ was the inspiration for ‘Shockwave’, and indeed, at one point in the novel a character references ‘Toffler’s Law’, namely, “the future arrives too soon and in the wrong order.”

Brunner’s novel explores prominent Future Shock tropes, such as the universal identification card; the replacement of traditional long-term employment, and living in one locale for lengthy periods of time, by a nomadic lifestyle; and the risk of experiencing abrupt, intense nervous breakdowns (‘overload’) due to a surfeit of information.

The protagonist of ‘Shockwave’ is a man named Nickie Haflinger. Abandoned at a young age by his parents, Haflinger’s innate genius is recognized by a secretive government think tank called the Tarnover Institute. Tarnover’s purpose is to raise savants who can guide society through the era of Future Shock. Repulsed by the amorality of the Tarnover system, Haflinger escapes the institute and, a man on the run, slips from one identity to another as he negotiates an early 21st century America (as envisioned by Toffler).  

‘Shockwave’ is a dull and plodding book. The narrative is divided into two storylines. One, set in the present, deals with the efforts of Tarnover personnel to subject Haflinger to a 'humane' interrogation, in the hopes of persuading him to disclose the particulars of a computer virus, or 'worm', he has uploaded to the Net. 

The other storyline, interwoven with the first, is a flashback, dealing with Haflinger’s adventures following his escape from Tarnover. There are protracted discourses that present the near-future USA of Future Shock to the reader, and introduce a love interest named Kate Grierson. 

Much of the book is constructed around lengthy dialogue passages in which Brunner, using his characters as mouthpieces, expounds on sociological and psychological topics. These dialogue passages have a pedantic quality that quickly becomes numbing. 

With the third Book, titled ‘Splicing the Brain Race’, Brunner has an opportunity to inject some excitement into the narrative, as Haflinger and his allies prepare to bring down the government via his ‘worm’. But alas, this section also is afflicted by overwriting and wooden dialogue:

“Our society is hurtling in free fall towards heaven knows where, and as a result we’ve developed collective osteochalcolysis of the personality.”

What few moments of excitement arise in ‘The Shockwave Rider’ are scant, and limited to the later chapters, when rival biker groups decide to attack the Ecotopia where Haflinger is residing. And, when a covert, federal operative sets out to nuke the 'resistance'. Combined, these segments take up less than three pages and have a perfunctory quality.  

The ‘mixed-media’ insertions into the novel – which range from a few sentences to several pages – are more like distractions, than enhancements, to ‘Shockwave’.

The verdict ? ‘The Shockwave Rider’ is yet another New Wave Era dud. While it may be said to prefigure some of the themes of cyberpunk, beyond that, it has little to recommend it. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Art of Ron Cobb

The Art of Ron Cobb
Titan Books, 2022
'The Art of Rob Cobb' (208 pp.) was published by Titan Books in 2022. Like all the Titan titles it's a well-made hardbound book, measuring 9 1/4 inches by 12 1/2 inches.
The book is 'produced' by two women, Rachel Meinerding and Nicole Hendrix Herman, who make up the 'Concept Art Association', an organization "....committed to elevating and raising the profile of concept artists, their art and their involvement in the entertainment industries." The text is written by Jacob Johnston.

Prior to the publication of 'The Art of Ron Cobb', the only book dealing with Cobb's works was 'Colorvision', a 1981 trade paperback that, being long out of print, was very expensive. I was fortunate to pick up a copy back in the early 1980s.
'The Art of Ron Cobb' opens with a Forward by James Cameron, followed by a brief biographical sketch. Cobb (1937 - 2020) was born in Los Angeles but made Australia his home. Early in his career he earned recognition as a cartoonist for the Los Angeles Free Press. When his friend Dan O'Bannon asked Cobb to contribute a spaceship design to the 1973 indie film Dark Star, Cobb found his calling: providing art design and direction for films, particularly science fiction films. Cobb assisted with the creation of some of the aliens in the famous 'cantina' scene aliens in Star Wars, and came to the fore when O'Bannon hired him as an art director for Alien.  Cobb's work on Alien made his reputation among Hollywood producers and directors and set him on the path as one of the premiere art designers of the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 20002.
The book's core is a chronological overview of Cobb's work in film and video game art conception and design, starting from Dark Star and going all the way to The Sixth Day (2000). These chapters are illustrative of how Cobb contributed, in larger or smaller ways, to many of the blockbuster films of the 80s and 90s.

Another chapter deals with Cobb's work in the video games industry.
Also receiving attention are Cobb's contributions to commercial art in the form of magazine covers and LP record covers. Then there is a chapter devoted to Cobb's cartoons for the Free Press.
The text is filled with anecdotes and reminiscences from major film industry figures, such as Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, and Paul Verhoeven, and these give insights into the processes by which Cobb envisioned the sets and images that were used in big-budget productions. it's quite clear that Cobb was a go-to creator for many productions, and his approach to a functional, engineering-based concepts of future technologies had a tremendous influence on science fiction cinema and television.

Then, too, I was unaware of Cobb's presence in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. I had no idea that he was the originator of the iconic 'Ecology' flag / symbol.
While 'The Art of Ron Cobb' is a worthwhile book, it's not perfect. Perhaps its biggest weakness is that it's devoid of pictures of Cobb's 'finished' designs as they appeared in the films. This may be because the Concept Art Association was unwilling to pay fees to studios to use copyrighted material. 
It's also true that there is memorable content in 'Colorvision' that, arguably, deserved inclusion in 'The Art of Ron Cobb'. Again, it's not clear if this was due to difficulties in securing permission for reprinting such materials, or if Concept Art Association was disinterested in 'recycling', so to speak, previously presented artwork. 

In my opinion, then, the definitive collection of Cobb's commercial and studio works remains to be published. However, until such time as that takes place, 'The Art of Ron Cobb' is a good overview of Cobb's contributions over the course of his very successful career. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Book Review: Quag Keep

Book Review: 'Quag Keep' by Andre Norton
4 / 5 Stars

'Quag Keep' first was published in hardcover in 1978. This DAW Books paperback edition ( No. 353, 192 pp.) was issued in September, 1979, with cover art by Jack Gaughan.

In his 2022 history of TSR and the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, Ben Riggs notes that by the late 1970s D & D was no longer an obscure 'war game', but a rising (and lucrative) pop culture phenomenon. So it wasn't that unusual that Andre Norton and DAW Books would arrange to publish a novel derived from the D & D world. Indeed, in her acknowledgements, Norton thanks 'E. Gary Gygax', creator of the '....war game, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS'. Interestingly, Norton also thanks DAW editor Donald Wollheim, who apparently was an avid collector of 'military miniatures'.

'Quag Keep' (the 'quag' in the title is a reference to 'quagmire') is framed as an intersection between 'our' world, where young people are playing D & D, and the world of D & D itself, particularly the Greyhawk setting. In the opening chapter Norton introduces us to some D & D players, one of whom, Martin, is entranced by a miniature warrior figurine of unusual fidelity. When Martin grasps the figurine, the action immediately shifts the narrative to a tavern in Greyhawk, where we are introduced to Milo Jagan, the warrior upon whom the figurine is based. In due course Milo, along with six other greyhawk Denizens, is summoned to a meeting with a mysterious wizard known as Hystaspes.

Hystaspes informs our party that they are under a powerful geas, the resolution of which will require a long journey, through dangerous territories, to the inhospitable Sea of Dust. There they must confront the agency that has erected a strange barrier against any type of sorcerous oversight. What lies behind the barrier, and what danger does it present to the world of Greyhawk ? It will take all of the skills, courage, and resourcefulness of Milo and his fellow party members to overcome the challenges in their path, and complete their rendevouz with the mystery awaiting them in the wastes of the Sea of Dust............

'Quag Keep' is a solid fantasy novel and deserving of a Four Star Rating. While the premise of an interaction between D & D Youth and the game world they vicariously inhabit is a bit contrived, for the most part, the book reads as a straightforward D & D adventure (indeed, I would argue that leaving out the references to 'our' world would have strengthened the novel). 

While Norton takes her time in getting the plot underway (nothing of note happens until page 68), once the party ventures a sufficient distance from Greyhawk the action sequences, which are well-written, come with sufficient frequency to avoid the dilatory quality that marks so many of Norton's non-franchise novels. Norton clearly understands that with 'Quag Keep', she is writing a novel based on a 'war game', and combat is to be an integral component of the narrative.

The concluding chapter is the weakest in the book. It fuses 'our' world with that of Greyhawk, but in an inconclusive fashion, indicating that Norton, Gygax, and DAW intended to compose additional, licensed novels featuring this roster of characters. Perhaps because of Norton's increasing ill-health, no additions to the Quag Keep storyline appeared until 2006 when a sequel, 'Return to Quag Keep', representing a collaboration between Norton (posthumously) with Jean Rabe, was issued.

(For another review of 'Quag Keep', readers are directed to this 2020 piece at

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Robot Psychosis

'Robot Psychosis' at the Paperback Palette
The posts at the Paperback Palette website are infrequent, but when they do arrive, they are full of content.

Currently up is a retrospective of vintage paperback covers, all of them from books dealing with robots and AI. It's well worth checking out.

Quite a few titles that were unknown to me, but seem like they would be interesting reads.........

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Complete Book of Wargames

The Complete Book of Wargames
by The Editors of Consumer Guide with Jon Freeman
Fireside / Simon and Schuster, 1980
I played wargames in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. At the time I wasn't aware of this book, and looking through it nowadays transports me back 45+ years to an era when there were no computers, no internet, phones were rotary-dial, and when you went to the more higher-end hobby stores and department stores, you would see Avalon Hill games on the shelves. And in the pages of magazines like National Lampoon, you'd see ads from Strategy and Tactics magazine, aimed at the under-40 male demographic.
Being a publication of Consumer Reports, which usually covered things like automobiles, appliances, lawn tractors, hi-fi equipment, and other items, 'The Complete Book of Wargames' has a rather low-budget printing quality. 

In 1980, the year the book was published, the tabletop gaming enterprise was gaining the attention of Wall Street and other entities, mainly through the rising popularity (and notoriety) of Dungeons and Dragons.
'The Complete Book' opens with some chapters that provide an overview of the field, the design and conception of wargames, and how to play a wargame, using as an example a game called Kassala, concocted for this book. These sections work quite well in explaining things to a novice.
The core of the book is 11 chapters that provide reviews of selected wargames, as categorized by the time period covered by the game. 

Things start with ancient-era warfare, proceed through medieval times to the Napoleonic Wars, and then on into the conflicts of the 20th century, including Cold War 'what if' scenarios. An entire chapter is devoted to science fiction and fantasy games.
If you were a wargamer during the Baby Boom era then you're sure to see some favorites mentioned in the pages of 'The Complete Book'. For me, it's seeing Panzerblitz, Sixth Fleet, and Invasion America that brings back memories.  

The book does a pretty good job of covering games from a gamut of publishers, from the major companies Avalon Hill and SPI, down to the smaller, indie publishers like TSR, Metagaming Concepts, and Game Designer's Workshop (among others).
The rating system for each game is pretty well thought-out and useful, avoiding the fanboy attitudes that tended, back in those days, to muddy the waters. The reviews present a 'complexity' score (a '9', for Avalon Hill's Gettysburg, is the highest score given in the book) that reflects when a game has a steep learning curve and perhaps best is left to the most hardcore gamers.
The book's final chapter addresses 'Computers and the Future of Wargaming'. At this stage (i.e., 1980) of computer development, the term 'microcomputers' was used for what we now call PCs, and the field was defined by text adventures like Zork. But the authors of the book were confident that over time, more and more titles would be released on computers (which of course turned out to be quite true).
Who will want to read 'The Complete Book of Wargames' ? To be honest, it's too outdated to appeal to gamers under 50, who nowadays are preoccupied with card-based games like Magic: The Gathering and video games like Baldur's Gate 3. So, it's only Baby Boomers who remain an audience for the book, and likely as a source of nostalgia rather than as a guide for purchasing of wargames. But then again, who am I to say what is happening in the recreation rooms of the Old Folks Homes...........?! 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Face the Fire

'Face the Fire' by Dan Fogelberg
from the album Phoenix (1979)
Singer / songwriter Dan Fogelberg (1951 - 2007) is best remembered for his somewhat insipid ballads that were high on the top 40 charts in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as 'Leader of the Band', 'Longer', and my favorite Christmastime weeper, 'Same Old Lang Syne'. 

But on his 1979 LP 'Phoenix', on the track 'Face the Fire', Fogelberg showcased his skill as a guitarist with a great, hard rock solo that was rather out of keeping with his persona as a 'mellow' California-style folk / country rock artist.

'Face the Fire' was part and parcel of a 1979 antinuclear movement that arose after the Three Mile Island disaster. Featuring prominent singer-songwriters, such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, and Graham Nash, the Musicians United for Safe Energy performed concerts throughout 1979 to advocate for 'No Nukes'. Fogelberg was one of the performers at these concerts. 
Jackson Browne (left) and Dan Fogelberg (right) at the Washington D.C. 'No Nukes' concert, May 6, 1979

Monday, September 4, 2023

Book Review: Of Men and Monsters

Book Review: 'Of Men and Monsters' by William Tenn
1 / 5 Stars

I remember buying this book back in September 1978, convinced by the great Boris Vallejo art that it was an action-based sci-fi novel. In reality, to my disappointment, ‘Of Men and Monsters’ (December 1975, 251 pp.) was an exemplar of deceptive marketing by Ballantine / Del Rey: a novel from 1968, repackaged for the 1970s with a more attention-getting cover. 

‘William Tenn’ was the pseudonym of the UK-born writer Philip Klass (1920 – 2010) who began publishing short stories in sci-fi pulp magazines in the late 40s. Tenn published a story called "The Men in the Walls" in the October 1963 issue of Galaxy magazine and later expanded the story into a novel, titled 'Of Men and Monsters', released in paperback by Ballantine Books in June 1968. 

Additional paperback editions since have been issued by a number of US and UK publishers; according to the ISFDB, most recently in 2011, by Gollancz.  

‘Of Men’ is set on a future Earth that has been invaded by a race of giant aliens, with humanity reduced to scrabbling out a precarious existence as vermin within the walls of the alien domiciles. The aliens, and their intentions, never are clearly described, reflecting an effort on Tenn’s part to present them as omnipotent figures whose nature essentially is incomprehensible to humans. The narrative is centered on the adventures of a boy named Eric, who, in the opening chapters of the novel, embarks on a manhood ceremony that involves leaving his tribe’s territory to filch food from the aliens.

Eric's efforts soon come to naught, as he is among a number of tribesmen captured by the aliens, caged in a research facility, and used to validate formulations of 'pest control' sprays (the 'pests', of course, being humans). This segment of the book is Tenn's rather blunt way of informing those more dull-witted readers (who up to this point may be unaware that the novel is satire) exactly what type of sci-fi novel they are reading.

I won’t disclose any further spoilers, save to say that Eric manages to find both allies and an escape plan, and a strategy by which Humanity may persevere in an otherwise indifferent universe.   

Tenn clearly designed his novel to be a mordant rebuke of the sci-fi stories and novels of the pulp and postwar eras, in which plucky humans relied on ingenuity and courage to overcome their oppression at the hands of technologically and militarily superior aliens. In ‘Of Men and Monsters,’ the struggles of its human protagonists fail to do more than attract incidental notice by the aliens; indeed, humanity’s efforts are so inherently futile that they make a mockery of classic sci-fi tropes. Since it is intended as a rather ponderous exercise in allegory, ‘Of Men’ is dull. Action sequences are comparatively rare, and subordinate to overly plentiful dialogue passages which allow Tenn to sermonize, in an oblique fashion.

The verdict ? ‘Of Men and Monsters’ deserves a One Star Rating, nothing more. In the interests of fairness I will note that Joachim Boaz, over at the 'Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations' blog, gave the novel a 4 of 5 Star Rating. I also note that Rob Chilson’s 1989 novel ‘Men Like Rats’ is a homage to ‘Of Men and Monsters’, but, perhaps because Chilson’s novel is more action-oriented, I found it moderately more entertaining than Tenn’s book......... 

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Penthouse magazine September 1970

Penthouse magazine 
September 1970
Time to step back to September, 1970, where the number one single in the U.S.A. is 'War' by Edwin Starr. 
Let's take a look at the latest issue of Penthouse magazine. 

This seems apropos in light of the fact that on September 4 and 5, 2023, the A & E channel will be airing a two-part series, titled 'Secrets of Penthouse', about the magazine and Editor Bob Guccione:
In his Editorial for the September, 1970 issue, Guccione expresses glee at the magazine's success, which had been publishing in North America for one year. Guccione noted that circulation and advertising were up, which boded well for the future. And he was right.

This issue is only 98 pages in length, but of course the magazine was to grow in size with the passage of time. The advertising includes record club memberships, Lee corduroy slacks and jackets ($11 and $12 each, respectively) and the ill-fated Ford Pinto.......
Among the Letters to the Editor is one from a G.I. serving in Vietnam, where large numbers of Americans were continuing to face injury and death while 'Vietnamization' proceeded.
Max Gunther provides an article about government surveillance.......1970s paranoia in the dawning stages !
We have a portfolio featuring Pet of the Month Tina McDowell, a shapely 20 year-old who works as a greeter at the Penthouse Club.

This issue goes Highbrow with a 'Penthouse Symposium' interview with up-and-coming writers, among them D. Keith Mano (1942 - 2016), whose 1973 sci-fi novel 'The Bridge' I reviewed here
Let's close with a feature about the 1970 film 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls', by nudie director Russ Meyer. Lots of topless action with this 'sequel' to 'Valley of the Dolls'.

That's how it was, 53 years ago.............