Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Book Review: The Penal Colony

Book Review: 'The Penal Colony' by Richard Herley

5 / 5 Stars

Richard Herley (b. 1950) published his first novel, 'The Stone Arrow', in 1978 in the U.K. He followed it up with two more novels in what came to be known as 'The Pagans' trilogy. 'The Penal Colony' first was published in the U.K. in 1987; this Ballantine Books mass-market paperback version was published in the U.S. in June 1989. 

'The Penal Colony' was made into a 1994 feature film, titled No Escape, starring Ray Liotta.

Herley continues to published novels, mainly as ebooks, in the drama, suspense, and crime genres.

'The Penal Colony' is set in 1997, when the U.K. government - no doubt inspired by the film Escape from New York - has decided to convert some of its offshore islands into maximum security prisons. The rules on these islands are simple: 'once you go in, you don't come out'. A variety of high-tech surveillance and monitoring measures ensure that one ever escapes, save as a corpse bobbing in the cold Atlantic.

As 'Colony' opens the protagonist, Anthony John Routledge, is delivered to the island of Sert. Charged with the rape and murder of a young woman, Routledge - like the other inmates sent to Sert - is a 'Category Z' prisoner, condemned to live the rest of his life on the windswept island. 

The 500 inmates on Sert have set up two competing, and antagonistic, societies. One society, lodged on the southern tip of the island, is simply known as The Village, and is run by an overlord known as The Father. The other society, lodged on the northern end of the island in Old Town, is run by the most powerful and ruthless of the Category Z prisoners.

Sick and disoriented from the drugs used to pacify him for transport from the mainland to Sert, Routledge, upon awakening in a hut in The Village, is given a cruel choice: if he can survive for 6 days on his own outside the confines of The Village, he can petition to be admitted to its society. Otherwise, he will have no choice but to take his chances at the hands of the felons lodged in Old Town.

Completely unprepared for the reality of life in the Penal Colony, the hapless Routledge must struggle to survive in the wilderness of Sert.......where both the Wild Men - who eke out an existence in the inhospitable terrain - and the violent residents of Old Town are perfectly happy to use any 'New Meat' for their own depraved purposes.......

I first read 'The Penal Colony' when it was released in paperback in 1989 and thought it a very good novel, and in the ensuing 31 years my opinion hasn't changed: it's a genuine 5 Star awardee. 

Richard Herley's prose style is declarative and unadorned, and his plotting straightforward, propelled by sharp episodes of violent action. The brutality of life lived under the rule of criminals who think nothing of casually disposing of one another lends a note of intensity to the struggles of Routledge and, by extension, the society making up The Village, the sole outpost of sanity on Sert.

The novel's ending avoids contrivance; there are no conveniently-timed Pardons to be issued by the UK government, and no clandestine escapes by helicopter. Indeed, salvation from Sert, if it can be gained at all, requires a uniquely cerebral type of desperation.

While both hardcover and softcover versions of 'The Penal Colony' now are hard to come by, if you see a copy available for a reasonable price, it's well worth picking up. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Richard Hescox: Science Fiction and Fantasy art

Richard Hescox
Science Fiction and Fantasy art
from The Deceiving Eye: The Art of Richard Hescox
Paper Tiger, 2004

I had posted some of the art from this book back in May, 2016, but I thought it seemly to post some additional content, if only to start the New Year off on a colorful note.......

Song of the Siren, 1992

Shai's Destiny, 1984

The Emigrants, 1987

Fire Lord, 1988

Lost on Venus, 1990

Life Force, 1988

Mission: Tori, 1989

Mounting Up, 1997

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book review: Amazon Planet

Book Review: 'Amazon Planet' by Mack Reynolds
3 / 5 Stars

'Amazon Planet' (190 pp.) was published by Ace Books in 1975. The cover artist is not identified, but may be Robert Pepper.

This book falls within Reynolds' 'United Planets' series of novels, most of which feature the machinations of an intergalactic troubleshooting agency called 'Section G'.

As 'Amazon Planet' opens, our protagonist, a rather bland and diffident bureaucrat named Guy Thomas, is on assignment to the planet of Amazonia. His mission: negotiate with the Amazonian leadership for trade in valuable minerals and metals with select member states of the United Planets.

Circling the planet in the S.S. Schirra, the cargo ship that provided him transport, Thomas is regaled by the crew with stories of Amazonia's female-dominated society, one where men are little more than chattel and kept in a kind of 'male' purdah. When a team of Amazonians arrive aboard the Schirra to arrange for his transfer to the planet, they more than fulfill the stereotyped image of Amazonian warrior-women, and Thomas is warned to follow their every instruction lest he be kidnapped........and forced to endure a Fate Worse than Death.

Once on the ground, Thomas reveals he is not quite what he seems, and in fact possesses an ulterior motive: he is to clandestinely meet with a dissident group known as the Sons of Liberty. The Sons are made up of men who desire freedom and emancipation from the strictures of female rule, and they hope that the United Planets will support their cause.

Although Thomas finds the leaders of the Sons of Liberty to be underwhelming personalities, he agrees to plead their case to the United Planets. But it turns out the Amazonian leadership have their suspicions about Guy Thomas, and his real purpose for traveling to their planet, and they are quite comfortable with using any and all methods of interrogation to learn the truth behind his actions..........

Dallas McCord Reynolds, who used the pen name Mack Reynolds (1917 - 1983), was an author who wrote sci-fi to earn a living. During the nearly four decades (1950s - 1980s) he was active as a writer he published over 200 novels and short stories, some of these posthumously. Inevitably, some of this content was less than polished, and I have to assign 'Amazon Planet' to that category.

The narrative moves at a good pace, but in its later chapters takes on the character of a crime novel, as revelations about the true nature of society of Amazonia are paired with rather contrived action sequences that display an unimaginative attitude towards plot resolution. There are regular passages of a pedantic nature which illuminate Reynolds' stance on political theory and economics (such as, for example, the concept of basing an industrial society on the hour of labor, rather than currency, as a medium of exchange). I can't say I found these passages to be particularly engaging.

Summing up, 'Amazon Planet' is a workmanlike sci-fi adventure that stays comfortably within the boundaries of the genre as it stood in the mid-70s. I finished the book with no burning desire to pursue other Section G novels by Reynolds, although dedicated fans of his works may have a differing opinion.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Karen Carpenter: Makin' Love in the Afternoon

Karen Carpenter
'Makin' Love in the Afternoon'
from Karen Carpenter (1980)
You can't go wrong with the bouncy pop sound of this track from Karen Carpenter's one and only solo album, which was recorded during 1979 and 1980, and featured contributions from a lineup of accomplished musicians. It's the very embodiment of how well-produced, frothy, and feel-good a pop song from that era could be. 

The story goes that A & M record executives Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss considered the album unmarketable, and refused to release it. Not until 1996 (Carpenter died in 1983) was 'Karen Carpenter' released.

'Makin' Love in the Afternoon' features backing vocals by Chicago's Peter Cetera, and a fine saxophone solo.

In my opinion, the song - and indeed, all of the songs on the album - compare very well to the material being released by today's female vocalists.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Wind by Kilian and Caza

by Philippe Kilian (story) and Caza (art)
from Heavy Metal magazine, January 1998

Even during the Kevin Eastman years and their emphasis on softcore porn, Heavy Metal occasionally would publish some worthy material, such as this existential treatment from writer Philippe Kilian and Caza.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Book Review: Cheap Thrills / An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines

Book Review: 'Cheap Thrills / An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines' by Ron Goulart
4 / 5 Stars 

What was to become known as the great Nostalgia Craze of American popular culture was underway and gathering steam when, in 1970, Tony Goodstone published The Pulps: 50 Years of American Pop Culture, a well-produced hardbound book that combined color prints of pulp magazines covers, black-and-white illustrations from the magazine interiors, and reprints of selected pulp stories.

The indefatigable Ron Goulart (b. 1933), himself a fan of the pulps, followed up in 1972 with Cheap Thrills, his own hardbound exploration of the magazines.

Like Goodstone's book, Goulart provided an overview of the different categories of pulps, highlighting some of the more prominent authors, editors, and characters. However, unlike Goodstone, who brought a 'this stuff is so campy, but hey, it's nostalgic' attitude towards the subject, Goulart was more affectionate in his treatment of the pulps.

In 1973 Ace Books released a paperback version of Cheap Thrills, retitled An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines (192 pp.). The paperback version contains a section of magazine covers reproduced in graytone. Cheap Thrills covered the genre from its origins early in the 20th century, to the decline and eventual cancellation of the pulps in the early 1950s.

In 2007 the Hermes Press released a 8.4 x 10.8 inch trade paperback version of Cheap Thrills, with additional text and illustrations.

Copies of all three editions of Cheap Thrills can be had for affordable prices, but the 2007 Hermes Press edition is the best of them in terms of illustrations and content.

I found Cheap Thrills to be very readable, filled with little bits of info and anecdotes that help illuminate not just the pulps, but American pop culture as a whole. Goulart starts the book off with an overview of the growth of the magazine market in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then segueing into chapters devoted to the different pulp genres: heroes, The Shadow, Doc Savage, crimefighters, secret agents, cowboys, Tarzan and barbarians, and science fiction. In the Hermes Press edition these chapters are crammed with reproductions of the magazine covers and interior illustrations.

My one complaint about this section of the book is that whoever took the photographs inadvertently wound up cropping many of the covers...........?!

The closing section of the Hermes Press edition reproduces in their entirety the letters mailed to Goulart in response to his inquiries to pulp editors and writers for their reminiscences of the era. Along with insights into how the pulps operated, it's illuminating to see what it really meant to type a letter in 1969, years before word processor programs and PCs and personal printers became something we now take for granted.

The interviews with pulp authors make clear that during the depths of the Depression writing for a penny (or sometimes a half-penny) a word was a route to financial security (or even wealth, for some practitioners) for men (and more rarely, women) who were seeking to escape the pervasive hard times then gripping the nation.

Summing up, if you are a fan of the pulp era and its heroes, interested in American history and pop culture, or interested in the art of magazine illustration, Cheap Thrills is worth picking up.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Totem El Comix: Especial Concurso

Totem El Comix: Especial Concurso
(Totem comics: Special Contest)
art by Federico Gonzalez

This striking illustration by the artist Jose Luis Escalante  was used to demarcate a 'sampler' insert of comics from the Spanish magazine Totem El Comix that appeared in a 1987 issue of the Zona 84 Especialo Concurso (which loosely translates into 'special contest' or 'special competition' in English). 

Like Zona 84, Totem El Comix was published by Toutain and was aimed at the same readership that Heavy Metal magazine addressed in the U.S.A., albeit with greater emphasis on 'erotic' material.

The above illustration was part of the short comic, titled 'A Key Prisoner' (Un Llave Prisoniera) that was drawn by Escalante and written by Federico Gonzalez, and published in the Especialo Concurso. I've posted it below. It's unfortunate that an English translation never was made............

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Book Review: Killbird

Book Review: 'Killbird' by Zach Hughes
3 / 5 Stars

'Killbird' (170 pp) was published by Signet in June, 1980. The cover illustration is by Ken Kelly.

'Zack Hughes' was the pen name of the U.S. author Hugh Derrel Zachary (1928 - 2016). In addition to science fiction, Hughes / Zachary also wrote softcore porn (A Dick for All Seasons, 1970) and horror (The Revenant, 1988) novels.

'Killbird' belongs to the sub-genre of sci-fi novels in which the representative of a post-apocalyptic world gradually comes to an understanding of the circumstances by which the Ancients (or the Forerunners, or the Gods, or the Exalted Ones, etc., etc.) have left behind various artifacts in the landscape. These artifacts offer both danger and opportunity to those brave enough (or foolhardy enough) to violate the taboos and warnings of the Seers and Wise Women.

In this case, a tribesman named Eban contests for the favors of the comely Yuree, the headman's daughter. In so doing, his actions make him an outcast. In his subsequent wanderings of the wilderness he encounters regions of 'evil' (i.e., radiation), 'dragons' (i.e., ancient war machines) and the abodes of the Giants (i.e., the high-tech constructs of the since-departed Ancestors). 

During the course of these explorations Eban comes to greater awareness of the ambiguous nature of the Gods (particularly their aerial weapons, the Killbirds of the book's title) and what this portends for the fate of himself and his people. The book's closing chapters provide an explanation of the nature of Eban's world, as well as some tie-ins to the wider universe defined in Hughes's previous novel The Legend of Miaree (1974).

Although 'Killbird' doesn't bring anything particularly imaginative to the post-apocalyptic genre, within its relatively short length it is smoothly written, well-paced, and avoids contrived revelations in its denouement. In this regard, it's a solid three-star title.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2000 AD Graphic Novels

2000 AD Graphic Novels

It's sometimes possible to find these older graphic novels, featuring various 2000 AD titles, on the shelves of used bookstores.......usually for no more than five or six dollars each. 

Over the past month, I purchased the three pictured above by carefully peering at the shelving in the graphic novel section of the stores; these 2000 AD books are easily overlooked due to their thin page count (usually 64 pages). 

Published by Titan Books in the 1980s, these graphic novels are sized at 11 x 8 3/4 inches, which more closely approximates the dimensions of the original 2000 AD comics than the sizing used for American-made graphic novels. And by reproducing the black-and-white artwork on a higher grade of paper, it's readily apparent how skilled the 2000 AD artists were in their draftsmanship, particularly in terms of linework and shading.

art by David Roach for 'Anderson: Psi Division', originally printed in 2000 AD Prog 614, February 19 1989

So, if you are fan of British comics, comic art in general, and 80s pop culture, then it's worth your while to keep an eye out for these old-school 2000 AD graphic novels.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Book Review: Starkadder

Book Review: 'Starkadder' by Bernard King

4 / 5 Stars

‘Starkadder’ (244 pp.) was published by the New English Library in April, 1986. The cover artist is uncredited.

Bernard King (b. 1946) is a UK writer who published a number of well-received horror / fantasy novels during the 80s. None of these novels were published in the US, so finding them can be a bit complicated. 

A Google search for information about his writing was not overly informative, but King apparently also published nonfiction works on Scandinavian history, as well as ‘The Way of the Runes’, a 2002 guide to using rune magic for improving life and health.

[note: I suggest NOT reading the Kirkus Reviews entry for 'Starkadder', as it contains spoilers.]

This is the first volume in the so-called ‘Starkadder’ trilogy, the other volumes being ‘Vargr-Moon’ (1986) and ‘Death-Blinder’ (1988).

The novel builds on King’s knowledge and familiarity with Scandinavian myths and legends; it is based on Starkad, a hero from Norse mythology and the subject of a number of Skaldic poems. King also works in aspects of the 13th century Ynglinga Saga, which deals with the Norse gods and their involvement in human affairs. 

‘Starkadder’ is set in medieval Sweden, under the mythological Ynglinga dynasty. The dynasty’s current monarch, King Oli, is a psychopath, albeit one whose declining health does not prevent him from ruthlessly torturing to death any member of his court suspected of conspiring to overthrow the throne. 

Starkadder, one of Oli’s soldiers, is a disruptive force in the fate of both gods and men. Cursed by Thor to not only live three hundred years, but to commit an act of deepest treachery in each century, Starkadder’s elderly appearance belies the fact that he is invincible in combat, and the most feared killer in all of the North. As the novel opens, a world-weary Starkadder longs for death, which will only be awarded to him when he commits his final act of treachery. 

King Oli’s greatest fear is that Starkadder’s treachery will involve removing Oli from the throne. To this end, Oli maneuvers to have Starkadder dispatched by a mercenary named Angantyr, who wields a magical dwarven blade called Tyrfing.
Little does Oli know that the confrontation between Starkadder and Angantyr will set into motion events that will determine the ultimate fate of the Norse peoples, in an era in which the missionaries from the South are jeopardizing the existence of the Old Gods by spreading the doctrine of the White Christ. Will the machinations of mortal men, as well as the machinations of Odin, the Norns, and the malevolent Dvalin, King of the Dwarves, bring about the act of treachery that will set Starkadder free from his curse ? 

I found ‘Starkadder’ to be a solid four-star fantasy novel, one with a strong underpinning in historical reality. Author King’s descriptive passages are very successful in providing the reader with a sense of the landscapes and societies of medieval Scandinavia, and the influence held by the Norse pantheon upon the populace. The interaction of the supernatural with the natural is worked into the narrative in an understated, but effective manner and the novel’s denouement stays true to the plot rather than employing contrivance.

The verdict ? If you like your medieval fantasy novels to be suffused with a note of gritty reality, then ‘Starkadder’ will satisfy. While paperback and hardbound copies of the book can be rather pricey, they are worth acquiring, as - presumably - are the other two volumes in the series.