Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Crucible

Book Review: 'Crucible' by Robert R. Chase
3 / 5 Stars

'Crucible' (182 pp) was published by Del Rey in July, 1991; the striking cover painting was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

'Crucible' is the sequel to Chase's 1986 sf novel 'The Game of Fox and Lion' (which I reviewed here). 

While not disclosing any spoilers, 'Game' dealt with an interstellar conflict between the human worlds and rebellious faction of genetically engineered Manimals, referred to as 'Bestials'. 

A pivotal act in the conflict was the decision by the human worlds to enlist a super-genius, a Roman Catholic cleric named Benedict, to command their fleet.

In 'Crucible', Benedict returns, this time as the leader of a combined team of Bestials - now referred to by the politically correct term 'Gens' - and humans, assembled to crew the starship Crucible on an exploratory mission to a distant star system. The cruise of the Crucible is a 'kumbaya' mission, designed to show that both Homo sapiens and Gens can set aside their enmity and work together for the good of both races. 

As 'Crucible' opens, the lead character, a young woman named Shoshone Mantei, is abruptly woken from cryosleep. A disaster has befallen the ship: one of the fusion engines is damaged and off-line, and Mantei is needed to aid the small team of other revived crewmembers in carrying out emergency repairs.

Benedict has been revived as well, but he has been temporarily blinded as a result of the explosion that damaged the fusion engine. Despite his blindness, Benedict's uncanny intellectual abilities are all that stands between the loss of the ship, and a successful crash-landing on the nearby water world of Thetis.

The desperate efforts of Mantei and the rest of the crew, as well as Benedict's guidance, see the Crucible safely afloat on the chill waters of Thetis. But as the crew struggles to repair the ship, treachery and deceit become manifest. There are some among the crew - both human and Gen - who have no intention of fostering warming relations between the races. For them, murder is the necessary means for seeing that the conflict is re-ignited. 

It's up to Benedict, and Shoshone Mantei, to expose the conspirators. But tensions are growing aboard the Crucible, and time is running out......... 

'Crucible' is a readable, if not particularly exciting, 'hard' sf novel. It's probably not necessary to have read 'The Game of Fox and Lion' prior to reading 'Crucible', but it will help in making out the backstory.

Most of the suspense in 'Crucible' derives from the cat-and-mouse games between the conspirators and the crippled, but still formidable, Benedict, whose subtle stratagems are always revealed just in time, and just in place, to keep the expedition from disintegrating into internecine warfare. 

The main weakness of the novel, as far as I was concerned, was its rather preachy sentiment: a sf variation on the theme of how getting to know the 'stranger' is the key not only to overcoming racial prejudice, but to coming to terms with your own identity as a human being. 

[To be fair, this dramatized, humanistic approach to storytelling was part and parcel of 80s and early 90s sf, as witnessed in works such as 'Ender's Game' and 'Enemy Mine'.]

Summing up, if you've read 'The Game of Fox and Lion', it's worth picking up 'Crucible'. Those unfamiliar with the first volume may find 'Crucible' rewarding, if they like sf in the classic, Analogue-style mold.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Worst of Eerie Publications

The Worst of Eerie Publications
by Mike Howlett
IDW / Yeo Publishing,September, 2014

In late November 2010, just in time for Christmas, Mike Howlett's The Weird World of Eerie Publications: Comic Gore That Warped Millions of Young Minds hit the store shelves and brought instant nostalgia and pleasure to Baby Boomers, aficionados of pop culture, and horror fans.  

Weird World, lavishly produced but affordably priced, was the equivalent of a coffee table book.......albeit a coffee table book devoted with unstinting enthusiasm to the gruesome, degenerate black and white horror magazines published in the 60s and 70s by schlock magazine magnate Myron Fass.

While Howlett's book was a great homage to the Eerie comics, the fact that old copies of those black and white magazines are selling for $10 and up an issue, means that getting one's hands on the material is difficult, if not impossible.

In a kind and sensible world, the entire lineage of the Eerie comics would be issued in black and white trade paperback compilations, similar to the Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase volumes. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened.
Fortunately, just in time for Christmas 2014, comes Howlett's follow up to Weird World.....and it's The Worst of Eerie Publications, a 'best of' compilation of 21 of  "...the most outrageous and blood drenched tales...."  from the Eerie lineup.

If you are among those who have yet to have procured a copy of Weird World, and thus are unaware of the story of Eerie comics, in The Worst Of, Howlett provides an Introduction about Countrywide Publishing and its owner, the eccentric Myron Fass; Eerie Publications editor Carl Burgos, the creator of The Human Torch; and the artists - Dick Ayers, Chic Stone, Ezra Jackson, and Oscar Fraga, among others -  who did the spectacularly gruesome full color covers, and interior comics, for Horror Tales, Tales of Voodoo, Witches Tales, Tales from the Tomb, etc.

The 21 stories showcased in The Worst of Eerie were selected by Howlett to represent the different graphic art styles of above-mentioned artists, ranging from the 'clean' linework of Chic Stone, to the darker, heavily colored style of Ruben Marchionne.

And, of course, Howlett also selected the stories that epitomized the gleeful, unapologetic  devotion to gore and grue that made the Eerie line stand out from the more sedate presentations of the Warren, Skywald, and Marvel black and white horror magazines.

If you have the good fortune to have read those cheap, offensive, and tasteless comics back in the 60s and 70s, and consequently were warped for life, then you're obviously going to have no choice but to get a copy of The Worst of Eerie Publications. It's a quality hardbound book, with nice color separations, as well as reasonably priced, and it's available at your usual online retailers.

And while you're at it....pick up an extra copy, and pass it off to some grade-school kids at the local playground.......after all, it's never too late to warp another generation of impressionable young minds......

Happy Christmas 2014 !

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Utah Book and Magazine

Utah Book and Magazine
327 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City, Utah

Keeping me entertained during my hour-long visit was the owner, Peter, and his sidekicks, Queer Bob and a guy who went nameless, never being addressed and rarely getting to speak.  I'm telling's almost indescribable. 

Hearing this guy [Peter] rail on every tiny incident of the day was priceless, just absolute gold.  A lot of the vitriol was directed at their absent acquaintance "Mike" who was nonetheless addressed in the second person.  They weren't quoting previous conversations, they were talking TO the guy as if he were there.

"You're gay, Mike!  You need to come out of the closet, man."
"Get your head out of your ass, Mike!"
"Get your priorities in order, Mike."
"People are trying to help you, Mike.  You've got to get off your ass and meet them halfway."

review by David R., Yelp

Last month I visited Salt Lake City to attend a conference on the grounds of the University of Utah. I took the light rail downtown to South Main Street. After first stopping at the presentable Eborn bookstore on South Main, where the slim selection of sf paperbacks all were grossly overpriced, I went south a few blocks and crossed the street to Utah Book and Magazine, a legend among used bookstore patrons, and patrons looking for sf, fantasy, and horror paperbacks, in particular.

When I first stepped into the underlit interior I thought I had intruded into a hoarder's place of residence. The entire shop is crammed with books and paraphernalia such as magazines, old toys, comic books, and, in a clearly marked side room, vintage porn - !

I found two lengthy shelves devoted to sf and fantasy paperbacks. Needless to say, there were lots of Piers Anthony, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert books, but a little bit of searching also revealed gems of hard-to-find books from DAW, Del Rey, Ballantine, Panther, and Sphere. Over the course of two days I left Utah Book and Magazine with 12 great books, for which I paid about $28. And I hadn't even spent any time at the horror and general fiction shelves, nor in the comic book section in the back of the store 

As the reviews (including one by the author of the 'Too Much Horror Fiction' blog) at Yelp reveal, part of the magic of shopping at Utah Book and Magazine is listening in to the conversations between the owner and his wife / girlfriend, and various hangers-on. 

While I was paying for my books a vagrant (one of the many making their home on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City) tried to come into the store, but Peter quickly booted him out with a loud and declarative 'WE'RE CLOSED !' After that, Peter launched into a monologue about how the goddamn winos are always trying to come in to the store to either get out of the elements, or pee, but never to actually purchase a book.

The bottom line, is that if you are ever in the vicinity of downtown Salt Lake City - if you're at the airport, and you've got 3 or more hours to kill before your flight - then hop on the Green Line Light Rail car at the airport, get off at the Gallivan Plaza Station on South Main street, and walk a half-block south to Utah Book and Magazine. 

And if you find yourself buying more books than you can carry, well, see if Peter can get you an empty box to pack your haul in, so you can visit the post office and ship your purchase home to yourself.......

Sunday, November 16, 2014

TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids

TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids
Archie Comics / Tandy Corporation
March, August, October, 1984

My local comic book store got in a large pile of old, 1980s comics, and lying within the pile was this giveaway book, published by Archie Comics in 1984. It was a part of the Tandy Corporation's efforts to promote the TRS-80 personal computer, sold by Radio Shack.

Whenever I look around today and see junior high and high school kids sitting with their smartphones, I feel like tossing them a copy of 'Whiz Kids' to let them know how it was, 30 years ago.....

The TRS-80 was first introduced in 1977, and by 1984, had been upgraded to the Model 4:

One of the more surreal aspects to the 'Whiz Kids' comic is that the artists, Dick Ayers and Chic Stone, were regular contributors to the super schlocky, deranged Eerie Publications black and white comic magazines...... !

I won't belabor the plot of 'Whiz Kids', which deals with an effort by a criminal gang to hold an entire museum hostage. Schoolchildren Shanna and Alec use their knowledge of computers - and Tandy products - to foil the gang.

What is interesting is the promotional blurbs for the TRS-80 that occupy much of the narrative.

In these pages, Shanna demonstrates how to boot up the TRS-80's word processing program, 'Scripsit' :

The demonstration is interrupted by the arrival of ace reporter Judy Baker, who shows off her 'portable' PC, the TRS-80 Model 100 (the machines we know as laptops really didn't exist back in 1984).
Judy also demonstrates a primitive modem - the 'acoustic coupler' !

That's how you communicated with other electronics, through phone lines, back then.....

Later on in the story, the class takes a trip to the museum (the same museum where the crime gang are plotting to hold everyone hostage). There, Mr. Anderson walks them through an exhibit devoted to explaining the operating principles of the modern computer:

To defeat the criminals, Judy Baker, Alec, and Shanna make use the Judy's Model 100 and acoustic coupler to send word to the authorities:

The criminals are of course soon brought to justice, thanks to Judy, Alec, and Shanna. As the comic ends, the kids eagerly rush to boot up their Model 4s....along with the 'Network 3 Controller' software, which enabled up to 16 TRS-80s to be locally networked for learning purposes.

If you read 'Whiz Kids' back in the Summer of '84 and wanted a Model 4, well, how much did you have to shell out ? Depending on the memory and floppy drive capacity, anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000....compared to today's PCs, this was quite a bit of money at the time. And it didn't include peripherals, like a printer or modem. But still, it was competitive with IBM's PC Jr, which retailed for $670 - $1270, and it was even more affordable than the Apple MacIntosh ($2495).

In case a new Model 4 was beyond your means, Radio Shack had less costly merchandise that allowed kids to experience the thrills of modern electronics and computing....

That's how it was in those ancient days......nowadays, a single smartphone has more computing power than the TRS-80. Who knows what the next 30 years will bring ?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: Count Zero

Book Review: 'Count Zero' by William Gibson

4 / 5 Stars

‘Count Zero’ was first published in hardback in 1986; this Ace paperback edition (246 pp) was released in April, 1987. The cover artwork is by Richard Berry,

‘Count’ is the second volume in Gibson’s so-called ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, with ‘Neuromancer’ (1984) the initial volume, and ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ (1988) the third volume. 

Thus, ‘Count’ is set in the same locales as Neuromancer, but several years after the events in that book; some of the characters in Neuromancer, as well as in several of Gibson’s short stories (such as ‘Burning Chrome’), make oblique appearances in ‘Count’.

Count Zero opens with quintessential cyberpunk prose, prose that revived sf writing from the doldrums into which it had fallen by the time of the mid-80s:

They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street named Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Kush-Oil Hotel.

It’s not disclosing spoilers to relate that Turner, a mercenary who specializes in supervising the defection of high-level scientific researchers from their corporate overseers, recovers from his attempted murder. He then gets recruited for a particularly dangerous defection job, one calling for a secretive operation in the remote Arizona desert. Turner suspects someone on his team of black market mercenaries, hackers, and medics is probably a saboteur, but he isn't certain as to their exact identity......and H-hour draws ever closer........

Bobby Newmark, aka ‘Count Zero’, is a young wannabe cyberspace cowboy who lives in his mother’s apartment in a seedy neighborhood in New Jersey. As the novel opens, Count Zero is trying a new hacking program that recently has gotten loose on the streets of the Sprawl. To Newmark’s dismay, it turns out that this is no ordinary hacking program, and when counterintrusion software, or ‘black ice’, mounts a response, Count Zero finds himself jacked into his Ono-Sendai deck, paralyzed, drooling, peeing his pants, and seconds away from dying…….

In Paris, Marly Krushkova, the former owner of a small art gallery, is contacted by the cyberspace avatar of the world’s richest man, Josef Virek. Virek hires Marly to find one Joseph Cornell, the reclusive genius who has crafted an unusual series of diorama-style artworks, artworks that command astronomical prices. As Marly sets out to track down Cornell, she discovers that someone else is interested in locating the artist….interested enough to commit murder…..

In ‘Count Zero’ these three plot threads eventually coalesce to illuminate corporate conspiracies, casual violence, and the manipulations of cyberspace by entities unknown.

As with 'Neuromancer', 'Count' is not the easiest read; it offer's Gibson's dense, descriptive prose, crammed with neologisms and idioms. Readers will need to accustom themselves to Gibson's idiosyncratic approach to writing; for example, passages describing a desert landscape or a neighborhood of the Sprawl or the depths of cyberspace may be lengthy and adjective-filled, while important plot developments are related in clipped, casual sentences that are easily overlooked. 

However, as the second novel from Gibson, 'Count' stands out as a worthy sequel to Neuromancer, proving that Gibson was no one-hit wonder and that cyberpunk would have an impact on sf equivalent to, if not greater than, the New Wave movement. It remains an important contribution to the cyberpunk Canon.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Last of the Dragons

Last of the Dragons by Carl Potts

‘Last of the Dragons’ was a six-part comic serialized in Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine, starting with the December, 1982 issue (No. 15) through to October, 1983 issue (No. 20).

‘Dragons’ was one of the best, and perhaps the best, comics to appear in the entire run of Epic Illustrated. It not only took advantage in the interest in all things Japanese that marked the early 80s, but it featured a very well-organized and engaging storyline from Carl Potts, one that works in ancient Chinese and Japanese mythology, ninjas, Asian philosophy, violent combat, and, of course, dragons. 

Potts delivered outstanding artwork. Inker Terry Austin ably supported Potts’s pencils, while Marie Severin showed what she could do as a colorist when given quality color separations and the opportunity to print on ‘slick’ magazine-style paper. 

This Epic Comics graphic novel (64 pp), published in 1988 in large format on quality paper, compiles the complete ‘Dragon’, as well as offering an afterward section in which photographs and bio sketches are provided for all the contributors.

Anyone with an interest in fantasy with an Asian / Oriental flavor, or a graphic novel of high quality, will want to pick up a copy of ‘Last of the Dragons’. Copies are available from your usual retailers for very reasonable prices.