Monday, April 6, 2020

Book Review: Ta

Book Review: 'Ta' by John Robert Russell
4 / 5 Stars

John Robert Russell (1927 - 2007) published three sci-fi novels in the 1970s: 'Cabu' (1974), 'SAR' (1974), and 'Ta' (1975).

'Ta' (207 pp) was published by Pocket Books in April 1975 and features a cover illustration by Mike Gross.

On the planet Ta, things aren't going well for the aristocrats in the Northern cities. The supply of sap from the Takusa plant has been curtailed, with severe consequences for the economy, since the sap - a remarkable natural plastic - is processed for myriad uses, including building materials, textiles, and fuel.

Mako, the leader of the aristocrats, has decided on a drastic measure: dispatch a force of swordsmen to the Southern Marshes of Ta, where live the barbarians who harvest Takusa sap. Mako believes that some casual beheadings and mutilations of the barbarians will force them into increasing their exports of sap to the cities of the North. 

The only problem is that the aristocrats, although fond of boasting of past glories as fighters and heroes, lack anyone with sufficient bravery and martial spirit to lead the swordsmen.

Tanee, the seductive Priestess and ally of the aristocrats, offers a solution: using her ability to project her consciousness across the gulf of interstellar space, she will find a warrior and transfer his mind and soul into the body of a Ta swordsman named Kengee.

Kenneth O'Hara is just another New Yorker trying to make a comfortable living in the Big Apple. Although a veteran of the Vietnam War, O'Hara spent his service as far from the fighting as possible, in the rear echelon. He has subsequently earned a living as a thief, con man, and gigolo.

One day a bewildered O'Hara finds himself waking up in a cave on the planet Ta, in the body of the warrior Kengee. Tanee tells him he is forever stranded on Ta, so he might as well go about making himself useful if he is to continue living........and this means leading the expedition of swordsmen against the Southern Marshes.

Kenneth O'Hara soon discovers that Ta is the strangest place imaginable.......and strangest of all are the Takusa plants, who seem to be the botanical embodiment of Playboy Bunnies........?! 

Can O'Hara / Kengee please his aristocratic masters.....stay in the good graces of the Takusa plants.....and avoid death at the hands of the Caste of the Assassins ? Even for a gifted deal-maker and con man, it's a tall order.........

'Ta' is a comedic sf novel, akin to those many comedic sf novels written by Ron Goulart and Robert Sheckley during the 1970s. I've never been a big fan of comedic sf, but Russell's novel is markedly superior to those of Goulart and Sheckley. It's humor is uniquely sarcastic, genuinely funny, showcases Un-Woke attitudes of the 1970s, and often had me laughing out loud. The plot is fast-moving and never short of twists and turns.

The only reason I didn't give 'Ta' five stars is that the final chapters rely too much on last-second escapes and fortuitous coincidences, giving the narrative a contrived note. But if you are interested in a fun read, then 'Ta' has my recommendation.

Friday, April 3, 2020

RIP Juan Gimenez

R.I.P. Juan Gimenez
November 16 1943 - April 3 2020

Humanoids has issued a press release stating that the Argentinian artist Juan Gimenez has died at age 76 from coronavirus. He was hospitalized in Argentina on March 22 and never recovered.

Gimenez was one of the most skilled artists to be featured in Heavy Metal magazine during the 1980s. 'Timescooter' (October 1985), 'Primabel' (Fall 1986), and 'Garbage' (Spring, 1987) all were memorable, and counterbalanced the magazine's discouraging turn towards printing English translations of inane 'Atom Style' comics from the likes of Daniel Torres and Joost Swarte, or the crudely scrawled black-and-white comics of Peter Kuper.

He later gained fame for his illustrations for the comic book series The Metabarons and for his own sci-fi series, The Fourth Power. 

Below is 'A Matter of Time', from the October 1984 issue of Heavy Metal magazine.

Thorgal: The Lost Drakkar

'The Lost Drakkar'
from Thorgal: Child of the Stars
Ink Publishing / The Donning Company, 1986

In the mid-80s, the Norfolk, Virginia-based publisher The Donning Company released a set of English translations of selected Thorgal albums de bande dessines

At 9 x 11 1/2 inches, the Donning Company English translations adhered to the same dimensions of the original albums, and used glossy paper, making them superior to the Cinebook translations of the Thorgal series currently in print.

'Thorgal: Child of the Stars', first published in France in 1984 as L'enfant des étoiles, contained a trio of Thorgal origin stories; the lead story, 'The Lost Drakkar', is scanned here. The exceptional artistry of Grzegorz Rosiniski is very much evident in the scenes of the storm-lashed sea, and the stricken expressions of the hapless Viking sailors.......

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: Drowning Towers

Book Review: 'Drowning Towers' by George Turner

1 / 5 Stars

George Turner (1916 - 1997) was an Australian author who published a number of scf-fi novels during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Many of these novels featured eco-catastrophe themes. 'Drowning' is the first Turner novel I've ever read.

I'm going to state up front: this book isn't very good. It was a chore to finish. 

First published in the UK in 1987, titled The Sea and Summer, this U.S. paperback version (387 pp.) was issued by AvoNova in December 1996. 

'Drowning' starts off on an awkward note by having an overly complicated narrative structure. It opens with a prologue set some 1,000 years in the future, a prologue intended to frame the main narrative (which is set in the mid-21st century). The prologue deals with the efforts of an actor named Andra to comprehend the lives of the residents of a since-submerged 'Towers' district of the city formerly known as Melbourne. Andra has ambitions to write, and perform in, a play based on the experiences of one particular Towers family.

Andra consults with an archeologist named Lenna, who in turn provides him with the draft of a novel she has written, a novel based on her retrieval of artifacts from said Towers. Andra and Lenna have philosophical discussions about the Fate of the Earth and the Role of Man in damaging the environment. Howevermuch author Turner intended these passages to adumbrate the major themes and concepts of the main narrative, they come across as overwritten and superfluous.

The narrative then moves to the primary plot, which relates the adventures of a group of Melbourne residents in AD 2041 (these are the people whose 'real life' records Lenna has used to compose her draft novel, which Andra is in turn using to write his it ?). We are introduced to the Conway family: Dad (his first name is never disclosed), Mum Alison; older son Teddy; and younger son Francis.

Global Warming has brought with it a rise in the sea levels and economic and ecological disaster; Australian society has been divided into two classes, the Haves (referred to as the 'Sweet') and the Have-Nots (the 'Swill'). The Sweet enjoy lives much like those of the middle class in the late 20th century, while the Swill are housed in 70-storey buildings - the Towers of the book's title - that make Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green public housing projects look like paradise. The precarious socioeconomic structure of this dystopian Melbourne is governed by a secretive cabal of Sweet bureaucrats.

While the Conways have the good fortune to live as Sweet, fate is unkind, and soon they are forced to leave their comfortable existence among the Sweet and relocate to the Fringe, a slum district adjoining the Towers. There, they are forced into a partnership with one Billy Kovacs, the conniving, ruthless 'Boss' of Tower Twenty-three.

While the description of the downfall of the Conway family and their adjustment to their Reduced Circumstances has an engaging, Dickensian quality to it, the narrative then drops into stasis, and the novel transitions into a labored recounting of the maturation of Teddy and Francis and their efforts to reintegrate themselves into Sweet society. Additional characters and introduced, and their emotional and psychological interactions with the Conways are related using awkward descriptive prose and wooden dialogue. 

Layered onto these interactions are additional dialogue passages through which author Turner delivers lectures on the willful ignorance and arrogance of 20th century Man, and his role in bringing about the collapse of the ecosystem and thus, the cruel existence of the Swill. 

In the novel's closing chapters, the narrative finally resurfaces with the introduction of a Conspiracy against the Swill and the need for hard decisions on the part of Teddy, Francis, and their contacts among the bureaucracy of the Sweet. However, these closing chapters are just as overwritten as the preceding content, and I found the novel's denouement underwhelming.

The verdict ? In my opinion, the 'Drowning Towers' tries, but ultimately fails, in its intention to be an engaging eco-catastrophe novel. The plodding quality of its character-driven narrative requires too much patience on the part of the reader. The truth is, other writers have done this sub-genre of sf better, such as Trevor Hoyle with his 1983 novel 'The Last Gasp'.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Closing universities was a good idea

Why closing colleges and universities probably was a good idea
'Miss Manners' column, Washington Post, December 18, 2019

Sunday, March 29, 2020

'Good Lord' from Bizarre Adventures issue No. 20

'Good Lord !'
by Marv Wolfman (story), Dave Cockrum and The Crusty Bunkers (art)
from Bizarre Adventures (Marvel / Curtis)  No. 20, Winter 1980

Writer Wolfman intended this neat little 8-page comic to be a homage to the sci-fi strips of EC Comics in the 1950 and I think it succeeds very well, thanks to some great artwork by Cockrum and The Crusty Bunkers (the artist cooperative founded and managed by Neal Adams).

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Those Guys

Those Guys !
(Que Tipazos)
Metal Hurlant (Spanish edition) 1981

Ummmm.....yeah. It's a French thing, I guess.

As far as I can tell, this photo feature - also titled 'Strip tease of the Humanoids' - never appeared in Heavy Metal. But it did appear in the inaugural issue of Metal Hurlant in Spanish, published by Editorial Nueva Frontera in 1981.

Readers of Metal Hurlant / Heavy Metal from the late 70s and early 80s may well recognize (along with Moebius, of course) some of the major contributors to the magazine during that era. Jean-Claude Gal ('Conquering Armies') apparently was too shy to want to show his face........

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Thorgal: Wolf Cub

Wolf Cub
by Grzegorz Rosinski (art) and Jean Van Hamme (writer)
Cinebook, 1990 / 2010

'Thorgal' is a very popular Franco-Belgian comic book (album de bande dessinee) that has, unfortunately, never gotten the exposure it deserves in the U.S.

Thorgal started as a serial in 1977 in Tintin magazine and graduated to its own album in 1980. As of 2019, 37 issues have been published (along with more than 10 spin-offs), and 27 have been translated into English.

In the U.S., the Thorgal comics are published by the British firm Cinebook, who are (at present) probably best-known for issuing the series of English-language compilations of the Valerian comic books. 

According to its website, Cinebook has published 22 Thorgal paperbacks since 2009, and while only a few of these are available for purchase in the U.S., all 22 are available from amazon in its Kindle format. ('Big Planet' comics, a comic book shop located in the greater Washington DC area, apparently is the sole U.S. brick-and-mortar retailer for Cinebook publications).

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to get a set of five of the Cinebook Thorgal graphic novels from eBay for a reasonable price, hence my review of 'Wolf Cub'. 

The Thorgal comics are set in the Middle Ages, mainly in Northern Europe (some stories take place in more exotic locales). Adopted as as infant by a Viking clan, and reared as one of their own, Thorgal is a less brawny, more intelligent version of Conan the Barbarian. His adventures often involve supernatural forces, of both good and evil origin.

Cinebook's format for the English translations has its problems. The most obvious is the size; most albums de bande dessinees are 12 x 9 inches in dimension, but inexplicably, Cinebook made its Thorgal lineup only 10 x 7 1/4 inches. It also put a $11.95 price tag on the books. This combination of small size and steep pricing have severely hampered the marketing of the Thorgal series in the U.S.

So we come to 'Wolf Cub' (48 pp), first published in France in November 1990 as Louve ('She-wolf'), with the Cinebook version issued in 2010.  

As 'Wolf Cub' opens, Thorgal is travelling for home aboard a Viking ship, accompanied by his pregnant wife Aaricia and son Jolan. Their ship is accosted by a psychotic Viking chieftain named Wor The Magnificent, who wants Thorgal to join him on a raid of a Saxon village. Thorgal is repulsed by Wor's lust for sluaghter and refuses to a join the raid. 

This refusal sets in motion a sequence of events that will see Thorgal's family endangered by the Wor's brutish followers. But Thorgal will have an ally.......a mysterious hunchback with supernatural powers, and a deep hatred for Wor........... 

One thing that is immediately apparent in any Thorgal comic book is the high quality of the artwork by Polish artist Rosinski. He is adept at depicting human faces / expressions, and in rendering medieval landscapes, villages, clothing, buildings, ships, and other objects with a high degree of accuracy and period authenticity.

Writer Van Hamme also deserves kudos for producing stories that are easy to follow while at the same time providing twists and turns that prevent them from becoming too formulaic. In an era in which so many U.S. comics are badly overwritten and over-plotted, it's refreshing to sit down with a comic writer who can craft a narrative that sits comfortably within the 48 page format. 

Summing up, 'Wolf Cub', like the other four Thorgal comics I have read, is a high-quality entry in the wider genre of sword-and-sorcery. Whether you come across the printed versions, or elect to acquire the digital versions, this is a series well worth looking out for.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Jane Birkin in 'Don Juan'

Jane Birkin in 'Don Juan'
still from the 1973 movie

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Four

Book Review: 'Nebula Award Stories Four' edited by Poul Anderson

2 / 5 Stars

'Nebula Award Stories Four' first was published in hardback in December, 1969. This Pocket Books mass market paperback edition (230 pp) was published in January 1971. The cover art is by Paul Lehr.

I have learned through experience that these 'Nebula Award' compilations, particularly those issued during the New Wave era, contain a lot of duds. So it is with this compilation, which features stories first published in 1968 and 1969 in anthologies such as Orbit, and magazines like Galaxy.

Reflecting the political tumult of the late 60s, in his Introduction, editor Anderson remarks on the conflict within the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) over two petitions that sought signatures: one for the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and one against it. Anderson apparently was pro-involvement, but maintained goodwill with his other SFWA colleagues..........

This edition of 'Nebula' includes a Foreward from one Willis E. McNelly, a professor in the English Department at Cal State Fullerton. Back in the late 60s offering a course in sci-fi was the height of hipness for English Department faculty (well, almost as hip as a course in Afro-American Studies or Latino Studies). McNelly assures the reader that sci-fi, as showcased in the Nebula Award Stories collections, is gaining ground as a Legitimate Genre of Literature:

Indeed, if the editors of the Saturday Review or The New York Times Review of Books had read some of the Nebula nominee novels published during 1968, they might have discovered that the gap between so-called mainstream fiction and first-rate science fiction is narrowing.........even the case hardened iconoclasts who occupy the pages of the New Yorker might be unable to detect the gap at all. For example, John Barth's Giles Goat Boy is science fiction, but no reviewer bothered to mention that fact. Barth's McLuhanesque Lost in the Fun House was also science fiction - a non-novel, perhaps, or even an anti-novel, or a non-book, a piece of mclunacy, but science fiction nonetheless- a fact ignored by every reviewer who tried to make conventional, representational mainstream sense out of Barth's fragmented vision.   

(Claiming that 'fabulist' or 'unconventional' novels by authors like Barth, Barthelme, Vonnegut, and Pynchon represented science fiction, and by so doing bestowed upon the genre greater legitimacy as a Literary Endeavor, was a much-employed maneuver by the New Wave community.)  

Anyways, enough about tiffs in the world of Highbrow do the stories in compilation Number Four stack up ? 

My capsule reviews of the contents:

Mother to the World, by Richard Wilson: Martin Rolfe, aged forty-two, is healthy, smart, and virile, and ready to repopulate the planet in aftermath of World War Three. However, the Last Woman on Earth is a twenty-four year-old, mentally retarded housemaid named Cissy...........

While its 'provocative' nature has considerably lessened in the 51 years since it saw print in Orbit 3, this story remains a legitimate Nebula awardee for best novelette 1968. It is written in a straightforward style (devoid of New Wave affectations) and has an ending that avoids contrivance, while endeavoring to deliver a humanistic message

The Dance of the Changer and the Three, by Terry Carr: the planet Loarr is home to aliens composed of energy, who communicate via stylized movements and flashing colors. Three such aliens embark on an existential quest, which an observing Earthman cannot fully understand.

Carr plainly intended this story, with its 'far-out' aliens, as a rebuttal to those critics of sci-fi that claimed that the genre was all about space squids lusting for human females. Unfortunately, 'The Dance' is too overwritten, and too underplotted, to be anything other than yet another New Wave tale that tried too hard to say something Profound.......... and wound up saying nothing much at all.  

The Planners, by Kate Wilhelm: at a primate research facility in inland Florida, psychologist Dr. Darin researches a method for imparting enhanced intelligence to chimps. There is hope that the method can be used to aid humans.

This story won the 1968 Nebula for best Short Story, but it hasn't aged well (aside from describing human and animal experiments that would be considered cruel and unethical by contemporary standards). As with her other stories from this era, Wilhelm adopts the New Wave affectation of inserting text passages - that represent the personal fantasies of the lead character - into the narrative without demarcating these passages by use of italics, or offsetting with asterisks. Accordingly, it is left to the reader to sort what is 'real' from what is 'unreal'. This experimental approach to prose isn't helped by an underwhelming denouement that revolves around coming to terms with a loveless marriage......a favorite neurosis of the late 1960s ! 

Sword Game, by H. H. Hollis: satirical tale of a nerdy, disheveled Professor of Mathematics who finds a nubile coed willing to sleep with him. After a while, this palls, and the Professor schemes of a way to get rid of her. 

This story has little, if any, merit as a sci-fi tale, but it is a telling symbol of the wish-fulfillment sought by the membership of the SFWA who, in 1968, were non-Woke, middle-aged white men consumed with the knowledge that the Sexual Revolution was raging all around them, and they were too old and hapless to fully indulge in its lubricious joys............

The Listeners, by James E. Gunn: a melodrama set in the near future about MacDonald, the project director of a program that uses an upgraded version of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to scan the galaxy for transmissions originating from alien civilizations. MacDonald's Latina wife Maria has taken to relying on sleeping pills to fall asleep; this is alarming. The story's major point seems to be that any human endeavor, if it is noble enough, is legitimate. 

This story has a rather pedestrian plot, which revolves around the bureaucratic and managerial aspects of maintaining a scientific endeavor of questionable worth. In order to impute a Literary Quality to his story, Gunn regularly inserts italicized excerpts from famous poems and plays and novels in their native Spanish, German, Italian, and Latin; the story has a two-page Appendix which provides English translations. I finished reading 'The Listeners' thinking that the text devoted to these quotations could have been deleted, in order to free up space to try and give the narrative a more impactful outcome.

Dragonrider, by Anne McCaffrey: somewhat awkwardly, in order to fill out the page count for this anthology, it incorporates part two of McCaffrey's novel (which won the 1968 Nebula for Best Novella). Part One, which was the novella 'Weyr Search', was published in Nebula Award Stories Three (Pocket Books, 1968). My thoughts on the whole Dragonriders of Pern series are posted here.

In Memorium: this curious little Appendix contains small-font, half-page obituaries devoted to those science fiction writers who died in 1968 - 1969. Some of the more recognizable names include Anthony Boucher, Rosel George Brown, Groff Conklin, and Mervyn Peake. Some of these essays provide interesting little insights, often into the mindset of the obituary composer. For example, in his essay on Aaron Wyn, the publisher of Ace Books, Donald Wollheim states:

He was a man to be respected, of high intelligence, undoubted literary quality within strict limits, but always a tough, opinionated businessman for whom few ever acquired a warm affection.

Wolheim plainly detested Wynn, and this was Wollheim's chance to get in a posthumous dig !

Summing everything up, the blunt reality is that only the McCaffrey and Wilson entries have stood the test of time in the 50+ years since the publication of 'Nebula Award Stories Four'. I can't recommend this anthology to anyone, save those who are particularly drawn to the New Wave era and its content.