Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: The Year 2000

Book Review: 'The Year 2000' by Harry Harrison

3/5 Stars

The Year 2000 (1970), edited by Harry Harrison, is a collection of SF stories set in time at the turn of the millennium. It’s an interesting, if uneven, look at the genre in the beginnings of what would eventually be called the ‘New Wave’ era.

By 1970 the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, which had embodied the more traditional, optimistic Futurism in US pop culture, was five years gone and starting to (literally and figuratively) go to seed. The Apollo moon landing, and films such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, still presented technology as an exciting phenomenon. However, by 1970- the same year that Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ appeared - attitudes were rapidly changing, and technology (and its effects on society) was being regarded with considerably more ambivalence. Thus, the majority of the stories in this anthology have a downbeat, melancholy tenor, perhaps the reflecting the angst over the end of the 60’s and the dawning realization that the oncoming 70’s would be a much different decade in terms of Peace, Love, and Understanding.

Fritz Leiber’s ‘America the Beautiful’ sees a young British academic traveling to a United States that seems like something out of Tomorrowland; hypersonic shuttles from London to Dallas, automated cars and freeways, plenty of clean, cheap energy, social and racial harmony, etc., etc. But there’s an undercurrent of unease…something about The Commies (!?)…the story comes across as a limp effort at political commentary, and confirms my belief that Lieber was one of the more overrated authors of his day.

The next story, ‘Prometheus Rebound’, by Daniel F Galouye, was so poorly written that I thought at first it was a heavy-handed parody of the writing style of the pulp magazines of the 30’s. However, Galouye’s self-penned biographical sketch is written in the same style as his short story, leading me to believe he was indeed writing with a straight face….egad !.

Chad Oliver’s ‘Far From This Earth’ is a low-key but effective tale of a middle- aged Kenyan man confronting the advent of modernization in his country and with it, some Western-style spiritual anomie. Of course, given what’s actually going on in Kenya these past few years, such a scenario- steady employment, frame houses, flush toilets, a robust, tourist- fueled economy - cruelly seems ‘too good to be true’.

In Naomi Mitchison’s “After the Accident” an unspecified nuclear disaster has led to a world of mutants, chromosomal aberrations, and strict governance of reproduction. The nameless protagonist decides to advance space colonization via selective breeding. The story’s oblique writing style (and vague references to the issue of abortion) may have been very much ‘In Style’ in 1970, but upon reading it today, one can’t help but conclude that an interesting premise is wasted on a too-diffuse narrative.

Mack Reynolds’s ‘Utopian’ deals with an ardent revolutionary who wakes up from a session of suspended animation to find himself in 2000. The ideals he has fought for have all come true, but...in a world of universal brotherhood and abundance, what, exactly, is wrong ? A rather low-key, but engaging, take on the concept of whether a ‘perfect world’ is all it’s cracked up to be.

Brian Aldiss contributes ‘Orgy of the Living and the Dying’. Set in an impoverished region of India in the midst of severe drought and famine, the story serves as an apt bellwether for the Population Bomb / Eco-Catastrophe mood then a-rising in SF circles. The lead character is something of an Ugly European, offered a chance to be an unlikely hero. This is one of the more effective and well-paced entries in the anthology.

Bertram Chandler’s ‘Sea Change’ is really a nautical adventure with a thin coating of SF. If you’re like me and you aren’t all that thrilled by SF stories incorporating terms like ‘fo’c’sle’, ‘jib’, ‘tacking’, and ‘top’sil’, then you will find ‘Change’ to be a rather unremarkable entry.

‘Black is Beautiful’ by Robert Silverberg and ‘American Dead’ by editor Harrison are two stories dealing with race relations and the rise of Black Power. Back in 1970 it was considered very stylish for white intellectuals to sympathize with black revolutionaries – there was nothing more chic than mentioning at a cocktail party that you were ‘down’ with some Black Panthers. So both tales adopt an approving tone towards the Black Power scene. 

Silverberg’s story looks at New York city in 2000; it’s basically a majority-black metropolis, and one young brother isn’t too happy with the presence of the occasional white tourist. Harrison’s story posits a race war being carried out in the South, with the black protagonists akin to the Viet Cong insofar as waging a guerilla war against Whitey is concerned. Both stories are probably a bit too politically incorrect for the welfare of contemporary readers, but are interesting, effective portraits of racial ferment back in ’70.

‘Take It or Leave It ‘ by David Masson is essentially a mediocre pastiche of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’; the story is set in a dystopian England, and the first-person narrator relates his adventures in a Nadsat-style argot. The storyline is obtuse and clumsily constructed – future events are disclosed to the reader as italics passages interweaved into the narrative proper- and the story collapses under the weight of trying too hard to be Hip and Edgy, a failing that would prove to be too common in future New Wave entries from many different authors.

Things are quite wacky in J. J. Coupling’s ‘To Be A Man’; a hero returning from a southeast Asian war is actually a cyborg whose entire body (save for his brain) is of artificial construction. His efforts to regain his old life in America ca. 2000 are related with some male chauvinistic, Penthouse Forum –style humor. Needless to say, such a tale wouldn’t be likely to appear in any modern compilations, particularly with the advent of a large female audience for SF.

‘The Lawgiver’ by Keith Laumer is a competent, if not very original, drama about a politician who must choose between aiding a family member, or compromising his integrity as a public servant, in a future US in the grip of a population control campaign.

‘Judas Fish’, by Thomas Scortia, also adheres to a Population Bomb theme; the world is in anarchy as too many people struggle for too little food. The narrator is manning a deep-sea laboratory where he manipulates schools of fish to freely swim into massive nets for easy harvesting; it appears some other denizens of the deeps aren’t happy with this arrangement and have malevolent intentions for the future of humanity.

Overall, 'The Year 2000' has its share of readable stories and if you find it on the shelf of your used bookstore and you're a fan of new Wave SF, you'll want to get a copy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas 1978: 'Bring on the Bad Guys' by Stan Lee

3 / 5 Stars

When ‘Origins of Marvel Comics” was published in 1974 by Simon and Schuster, there were no such things as ‘graphic novels’ on the store shelves. Indeed, comic books were still mostly relegated to appearing on the wire racks stationed in drug and ‘five and dime’ stores; the idea that a reputable book store would stock a healthy supply of comic books was quite unusual. The revolution in comics retailing that would result in the creation of small shops devoted to selling both new and old comics (as opposed to ripping off their covers, returning them for credit, and then tossing the coverless comics in the trash) was still several years away.

Comics companies and their publishers were aware that in Europe, ‘graphic novels’, in which several issues of comics were compiled between hardboard or trade paperback covers, were a very common form of retailing and such books were often handsomely produced. But most publishers in the US still considered comics to be a ‘kids’ publication, and the thought of devoting effort to reprinting them in a higher-priced, ‘legitimate’ book format didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

Somehow, Stan Lee was able to persuade Simon and Schuster to enter the field of ‘graphic novels’, if only under the guise of a sort of ‘nostalgia’ trip aimed at Baby Boomers entering their forties and fifties. And, by ’74, some weekly comic strips from the 1930s (or even earlier) were seeing print again in nice hardbound editions designed to appeal to the Nostalgia Craze market then existing in the US.

‘Origins of Marvel Comics’, which did nothing more complicated than reprinting some old Marvel ‘origin’ stories on quality paper stock, sold quite well; so well, that a ‘Son of Origins’ was soon issued. Next came ‘Bring on the Bad Guys’ (1976) which turned out to be one of my Christmas presents for 1978.

Things start off with some very early Fantastic Four issues (1962) and the first appearance of Doctor Doom; there’s a follow up short from 1964 that fleshes out Doom’s origins more fully. Next comes a classic Steve Ditko adventure for Dr. Strange as he meets the Dread Dormammu. Then there’s some classic Jack Kirby artwork for two Thor adventures, dealing with Loki and the Absorbing Man.

A Captain America story, involving the Red Skull, is another Kirby classic (how did that guy produce so many exemplary comics despite the fact he was illustrating three or four books a month ?!). Spider Man ‘s entry is a rather brief and underwhelming fight with the Green Goblin. The Hulk takes on The Abomination in a story drawn by Gil Kane. The book ends with the Silver Surfer taking on Mephisto; John Buscema does a great job with the art but, as happened all too often with this character, there’s so much over-emoting dripping from Lee’s script that the story tends to collapse under its atmosphere of fervid angst.

‘Bad Guys’ contains sections of text bracketing each story where Lee provides his comments on how the villains came to be; in a (rare ?!) contrite or conciliatory mood, he actually points out that many of the featured characters were joint creations. 

(By ’76 Jack Kirby had returned to doing some work for Marvel, so maybe Lee thought it prudent to give some credit to Jack, lest the atmosphere in the Marvel offices get too tense following the appearance of ‘Bad Guys’ on store shelves).

Within a few years after I got ‘Bad Guys’ for Christmas ‘78, you could see graphic novels starting to appear more frequently on the shelves at chain stores like Waldenbooks. Certainly not in the numbers and variety you see today, but it was a start.....

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas 1974 and 'Panzerblitz' by Avalon Hill

Christmas 1974. The concept of using a computer to play ‘video’ games is still something theoretical and esoteric, an idea entertained by a few visionary electrical engineers and programmers in university and corporate labs.

The idea of a ‘personal’ computer, while discussed in these same arenas, is also something possessing a ‘ what if ’ quality. Indeed, any computer smaller than a large IBM mainframe machine is labeled as a ‘microcomputer’, and buying a kit, building a microcomputer, and learning enough machine language to run it, is solely a job for hobbyists.

So, one of the bigger nerd hobbies remains that old standby, board gaming. And one of the biggest companies in the board gaming business is Baltimore’s Avalon Hill, maker of a large line of popular wargames, including Afrika Corps, Anzio, and Luftwaffe, among others.
Avalon Hill’s wargames are played on colorful mapboards overlaid with hexagonal grids, and the playing pieces are almost always small, fingernail-sized squares of cardboard with symbols or images printed on them. Battle outcomes are decided by rolls of dice, and consulting a chart providing the outcome of select rolls for select combinations of attacking and defending units.

The wargame I really want for Christmas is ‘Panzerblitz’. Like others in Avalon Hill’s ‘bookcase’ line of games, rather than a flat box akin to that of Risk or Monopoly, it comes packaged in a handsome slip-cased box designed to stand on one’s bookshelf. By the standards of the time it’s expensive, too, and with a bunch of siblings also clamoring for their presents of choice, it’s the only major present I’m going to get.

So it was a thrilling feeling to open the box up on Christmas morning ’74 and take out the thick cardboard sheets containing the rows of game pieces, all waiting to be carefully punched out and placed on the folding mapboards, which were so new they made a crinkling noise when you opened them up. Since Panzerblitz was based on the tank battles between the Russians and Germans during the second world war, many of the game pieces featured detailed silhouettes of all the various tanks, armored cars, and artillery pieces used in that front. The manual helpfully provided detailed information and statistics on each piece, so you knew that a Russian JS-III tank had a particular gun diameter, range, and armor rating. Poring over the descriptions of the tanks and vehicles you were entitled to command on the battlefield was an engrossing experience all on its own.

Unfortunately, for me at age 14, Panzerblitz was too complicated. It was really aimed at an audience of players or college age and older. My brother and I tried playing a few games using the ‘official’ rules and quickly gave up; even the most trivial of encounters was governed by a bewildering series of regulations. We settled for a very simple, basic set of rules, but this lost much of the game’s nuances and turned it into a kind of advanced ‘Risk’. Panzerblitz lost its appeal after a few weeks, and the excitement of Christmas faded as the lengthy upstate New York winter began to inexorably grind on through January.

I continued to be interested in wargames even if Panzerblitz was something of a dud, and over the ensuing years I took up playing a variety of titles from Avalon Hill and SPI. However, by the early 80s, as I went through college, I began to lose interest in wargaming and ceased playing. For its part, the industry was uncertain in its approaches to dealing with the advent of PCs and the glimmerings of computer-based gaming, and by the mid 80s the predominance of board-based wargaming was fast dwindling.

Nowadays I have a lot of fun playing the more casual PC games such as the ‘Command and Conquer’ series, and even some of ‘Total War’ games. But I still have that Christmas 1974 copy of Panzerblitz sitting on a shelf somewhere in my house.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: 'Day of the Beasts' by John E. Muller (Robert Fanthorpe)

2/5 Stars

Day of the Beasts’ (1966) is a short (142 pp) pulp SF novel by ‘John E. Muller’, which is the pen name used by the British writer Robert Fanthorpe. According to the Wiki entry for Fanthorpe, he has written 250 books, many churned out on a monthly basis in the 50s and 60s for the schlocky British ‘Badger’ books imprint. This US paperback edition is rather low-budget in terms of cover illustration and production values, but in the spirit of investigating ‘vintage’ SF paperbacks I decided to pick it up.

‘Beasts’ takes place some time in the future, when the US and the USSR are engaged in a cold war competition to colonize the planets. The novel’s hero is one Brad Norton, a square-jawed American space pilot and scientist, who is investigating a top-secret government project taking place at an enormous installation in the southwest. The project is chaired by a Dr Mendel, and involves construction of a novel spaceship capable of interstellar flight. However, before the spacecraft can undergo its preliminary tests, a strange event takes place: a powerful tornado mysteriously appears in the nearby desert and, seemingly guided by some intelligence, pummels the test site.

Hardly have the dismayed scientists confronted the destruction of the spaceship when a monster resembling a giant spider (? !) is sighted in the surrounding landscape. Soon it becomes clear that earth is under attack from some alien force, and batches of supersize creatures are creating havoc in major metropolitan areas. Is the attack originating from the stars ? Or, as Brad Norton suspects, from earth’s future ? Will Brad be successful in divining the location of the enemy and putting a stop to their nefarious plans ?

‘Day of the Beasts’ is hardly a 60s SF classic, and as a low-carb pulp adventure, it sort of scrapes by. The writing isn’t great – practically every line of dialogue has an adverb appended to it (many characters can’t help but speak ‘tersely’ or ‘heavily’ or ‘thinly’ and carry out actions ‘feverishly’). Many passages suffer from poor syntax, and require several re-reads in order to figure out which subjects and objects given verbs are referencing. The monsters are vaguely described, and I had trouble believing them capable of physical destruction equivalent to that generated by nuclear bombs (!). The plot doesn’t expend too much effort in explaining why the earth is under attack in the first place, and a sub-plot involving a kind of alien doppellganger seems to be tossed in as a few pages' worth of filler before being abandoned.

However, the last 20 pages do succeed in generating some suspense, abetted somewhat by the author’s decision to keep the narrative sufficiently ambiguous in terms of an inevitable triumph of good over the forces of evil.

I can’t recommend ‘Day of the Beasts’ to readers looking for a particularly memorable SF book with old-school flavor, but those seeking light diversion may want to give it a try if they see it on the shelves.

Note: this book is not to be confused with another 'John E. Muller' / Fanthorpe title 'Mark of the Beast'

Friday, December 5, 2008

Marvel Comics magazine: 'Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze' (June 1975)

4/5 Stars
June 1975. Summer and its rising heat and humidity is arriving in the upstate New York town where I live. The radio at the house next door is playing Pilot’s ‘It’s Magic’. Also in heavy rotation is a song called ‘The Hustle’ by Van McCoy; it’s supposed to be getting a lot of attention in places called discotheques, where wealthy people go to dance and consume frou-frou drinks.

On the shelves at the drug store on Harry L. Drive in Johnson City is a Marvel magazine designed to cash in on the upcoming movie ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’. Since I’m a big fan of Doc, and the Bantam books are still coming out on a regular basis, well, I shell out my hard-earned dollar and grab it.

The first half of the magazine is taken up with a black and white comic titled ‘The Doom on Thunder Island’, illustrated by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga and written by Doug Moench. 
It’s a well-written story (although there are a bit too many speech balloons for comfort) and, freed from the constraints of the Comics Code, more gritty and violent than a color comic book counterpart would be. The story starts in suitably ‘apocalyptic’ fashion as a NYC skyscraper is reduced to rubble by a mysterious lightning bolt. Doc and the Fabulous Five are recruited to investigate, and wind up dealing with a psychotic genius on his island redoubt.

The larger page size allowed by the magazine format also gives Buscema – one of Marvel’s more talented artists in that era- more freedom to compose the panels in a fashion designed to highlight some great action sequences. The Fabulous Five are integrated in the story and serve as more than simple window-dressing, and there’s even a few panels devoted to yet another squabble between Monk and Ham. There’s also a bit of pathos invested in a sub-plot that borrows a theme from ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’. 

All in all, ‘Thunder Island’ is a very competent adventure and it’s too bad the magazine was a one-shot (Stan Lee was constantly tinkering with releasing various incarnations of b & w comic magazines throughout the 70s in a single-minded effort to encroach on James Warren’s territory – the one area of comic publishing Marvel never really succeeded in dominating).

The rest of the magazine is devoted to a text article (‘The Man Who Shot Doc Savage !’) in which George Pal is interviewed about the upcoming movie; it features some stills of Ron Ely as Doc; stills of the supporting cast; and some stills of various sets and production locales. In the interviews Pal comes across as articulate and well-versed in ‘Doc ‘ lore.

Unfortunately, when I actually did see the feature film ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’ later that summer, it was a real disappointment. The special effects were cheap and unconvincing, there was a surfeit of static, dialogue-heavy sequences in order to cover up the deficiencies of a too-low budget, and the entire production was steeped in a winking, ‘this-is-corny-as hell- but –we love –it’ attitude. 

In his book ‘James Bama: American Realist’ (2006; page 111) author Brian Kane cites a fanzine interview conducted with Ron Ely by Tahir Bhatti, in which Ely stated his belief that a new team of executives installed at Warner Bros. deliberately under-budgeted the production, in order to ensure the film would be a flop. This was presumably a strategy to discredit their predecessors at the studio, and to demonstrate how badly things were being handled at Warner. 

I must confess some skepticism at this theory; the fact of the matter was that Pal, and director Michael Anderson, show every evidence of having sought to create a jokey, ‘campy’ picture that tried and failed to leverage the Nostalgia craze then gripping popular culture. Whether a massive increase in the film's budget could have resulted in a memorable film is doubtful. Indeed, it was not until ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was released some six years later that Spielberg and Lucas demonstrated how to make a film that referenced the thirties in a clever way, without sliding into parody.

Note: post updated on February 2, 2009 to include corrections, provided by B. M. Kane, regarding the 'Doc Savage' movie and Ely's thoughts on its production difficulties

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

When A Fanboy Goes Too Far No. 1

When a Fanboy Goes Too Far (1st in a series)

Those whacky Goreans !

(from the December 2, 2008 'Daily Mail' (UK))

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review: The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series V, edited by Gerald Page

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Horror Stories' edited by Gerald W. Page
3 / 5 Stars

DAW’s ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’ entries tended to be hit-or-miss affairs. I picked up eight or nine of them from the mid-70’s to the early 90’s. In general, you would find three, maybe four good stories in each volume, with the rest of the contents unimpressive.

This was due in large part to flaccid editing by Gerald Page, and after him, Karl Edward Wagner. Both editors preferred to feature stories from the same narrow pool of writers, such as the highly over-rated Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Grant, and Stephen King. Both editors were reluctant to select any stories with overt gore or violence, and were overly willing to accept sub-par efforts from ‘name’ authors. The result was that many ‘Year’s Best’ volumes contained tepid and unremarkable entries.

‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V' (1977), edited by Page and containing stories appearing in print in 1976, is actually one of the better volumes. It starts on a promising note with a great cover illustration by Michael Whelan.

The first story, Jerry Sohl’s ‘The Service’ isn’t really a horror tale per se, and arguably doesn’t belong in this anthology. I will admit that it’s a well-written and effective take on providing unique assistance with confronting one of life’s major stages.

The second story, ‘Long Hollow Swamp’, by Joseph Payne Brennan, is a moody and atmospheric monster tale and one of the better stories in the collection. Also well worth reading is H. Warner Munn’s ‘The Well’, featuring a ‘shock’ ending (so be careful thumbing through the book so you don’t glimpse the last sentence and spoil the story for yourself).

Arthur Byron Cover’s ‘The Day It Rained Lizards’ is one of his better short stories and touches on a feckless young man’s doings with a teen witch in the suburbia of the ‘Swingtown’ era (nowadays it would be labeled as an ‘urban fantasy’, but back in ’76 such a term didn’t exist).

Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Sing A Last Song of Valdese’ is one of his best works. The fantasy setting is artfully combined with a subtle, unfolding story of atrocity and overdue revenge. Like Munn’s tale, ‘Valdese’ features a surprise ending, so take care in glancing through the pages.

Tanith Lee’s ‘Huzdra’ is another strong entry and also successfully melds a surprise ending and a fantasy setting. Her intensely descriptive writing style lends itself better to the short story format than the novel (cough…The Birthgrave…cough).

The last story in the collection, Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘Where the Woodbine Twineth’, is set in the North Carolina backcountry, but doesn’t feature his well-known character Silver John. It’s a low-key but memorable tale of witches and charms and could well have served as the inspiration for Mike Mignola’s recent Hellboy three-issue series ‘The Crooked Man’.

The rest of the stories weren’t all that memorable. The (predictable) Fritz Leiber story, ‘Belsen Express’, the (predictable) Charles L. Grant entry ‘When All the Children Call My Name’, and Robert Bloch’s ‘A Most Unusual Murder’ are all rather dull. Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ didn’t strike me as one of his better short tales. David Drake’s ‘Children of the Forest’ mixes fantasy with subdued horror but goes on a little too long, and fails to provide a strong ending, making it seem a bit vague compared to the entries by Lee, Wagner, and Munn.

So what’s the verdict ? I recommend picking up ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V’. It’s got a larger-than-usual panel of good stories, along with some (inevitable) weaker entries. The book serves as a good snapshot of where horror fiction stood at the midpoint of the 70s.