Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: No Room for Man

Book Review: 'No Room for Man' by Ralph S. Clem, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander

4/5 Stars

‘No Room for Man’ , with its minimalist, abstract cover illustration and slightly larger-than-mass market-paperback size, was conceived and published for use as a textbook. Editor Martin H. Greenberg (University of Wisconsin) is of course the ‘Martin Greenberg of 1000 anthologies’ fame, while co-editors Ralph Clem and Joseph Olander of Florida International University also were / are active in producing SF anthologies for both popular literature and classroom purposes.

‘Room’ is a rather curious anthology; it was published in 1979, by which time the ‘Population Bomb’ phenomenon pretty much had run its course and was in fact rapidly dwindling. It could be argued that ‘Room’ appeared at least five years too late. By ’79 the impact of Paul Ehrlich’s work, and that of fellow Bombers like William Vogt, Garrett Hardin, William and Paul Paddock, and Hugh Moore, had receded from the public consciousness, although it still resonated in the consciousness of what is now called the ‘international development’ community.

Without bogging down in an extended treatise on political or social controversies, how does ‘Room’ stand on its own as an SF anthology about overpopulation ? Quite well, in fact. [All of the stories in the anthology previously appeared in print between 1955 and 1976].

The book opens with J. G. Ballard’s ‘Billenium’, still a very effective tale despite appearing way back in 1962. It’s a deftly written look at the sociology and psychology of overcrowding; in a real sense it is the precursor to Ballard’s later novel ‘High Rise’.

Brian Aldiss contributes ‘Total Environment’, in which 500 young Indian couples are shut away in a sizeable structure and left to their own devices for more than a quarter-century as part of a (rather unethical) experiment to see how humans adapt to severe crowding. As the first 25 years approach expiration, a scientist is sent inside the structure to investigate what appear to be ESP powers among the teeming, fecund inhabitants. Nowadays the story would be considered VERY politically incorrect and would enrage Indians (marasmic Hindus in particular) as much as the spectacle of Richard Gere kissing Shilpa Shetty . The narrative suffers from abrupt jumps from one set of characters to another, all in the absence of adequate exposition about the why and wherefore of the Environment experiment. Despite these flaws, it still has a kind of voyeuristic appeal…something that the tourists of ‘Slumdog’ Bombay (Mumbai) must feel !

Two of the stories in the collection served as the basis for later novels. Harry Harrison’s ‘Roommates’ was expanded into ‘Make Room ! Make Room !’ which in turn became the basis for the feature film ‘Soylent Green’. ‘Roommates’ is a great overpopulation story, that’s all there is to say. Robert Silverberg’s ‘In the Beginning’ was later expanded to the novel ‘The World Inside’. ‘Beginning’ deals with a far-future society in which 75 billion people live their entire lives distributed among the floors of 3 km – tall skyscrapers, or ‘urbmons’. The story focuses on the psychological trauma experienced by a young woman who faces moving from one urbmon to another. In my opinion the story was a bit too subdued; the almost-magical advanced tech of the urbmon world has the effect of depleting the narrative of any real tension.

Cyril M. Kornbluth contributes ‘Shark Ship’, in which the near-future earth deals with overpopulation by creating vast fleets of crowded ships that endlessly sail the seas harvesting plankton to feed and clothe the multitudes on board. For at least the first half of the tale it’s a well-envisioned setting, and the thin margin for life or death aboard ship is effectively communicated. Unfortunately, the story’s second half takes a rather bizarre and obtuse turn into late 50’s ‘beat’ phrasing and social satire. One of the weaker entries in the anthology.

Mr. Population Bomb himself, Paul Ehrlich, contributes ‘Eco-Catastrophe !’ in which he lays out a fictionalized course of events that sees the world going through mass starvation and ecological collapse in the 1970’s and Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy as President ! Whether or not one is a devotee of the Bomber philosophy, it’s an effective essay, and some might argue it retains its relevance today, forty years after first appearing in print.

Frank M. Robinson cleverly depicts an ultra-polluted LA megalopolis in the early 21st century in ‘East Wind, West Wind’. Things are so bad that smoking a cigarette is a misdemeanor and owning a carton a felony ! People lurch around the streets in the dim light of mid-afternoon choking and pulling on gas masks. Someone out in the Hollywood Hills is in possession of an illegal internal combustion engine vehicle and the narrator is on the case. ‘East Wind, West Wind’ effectively communicates pollution paranoia ca. 1970 and it’s one of the better stories in the collection.

Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Census Takers' deals with a near-future world in which overpopulation is solved via radical means. The main storyline contains enough inherent drama, yet Pohl subtracts from it by including a rather contrived Sci-Fi subplot that leads to a not-so-surprising ending.

Maggie Nadler’s ‘The Secret’ is among the best entries in the anthology. In a near-future, overcrowded world where parents are permitted no more than two children, can someone get away with breaking the rules ? ‘The Secret’ takes place entirely within the apartments and hallways of a dingy tenement, and involves a small cast of characters, but nonetheless delivers a harrowing example of how people under stress can commit the most quietly vicious of acts.

‘Statistician’s Day’ by James Blish deals with England in 1990, after the world-wide Famine of 1980 led to the implementation of mandatory birth control. It’s one of the few SF stories I’ve ever read that references the Chi-Square test - ! As is typical with Blish, the tale has an understated tone, and seems a bit lacking in energy compared to some of the other entries in the anthology.

How can an illiterate Third Worlder, whose single recreation in an otherwise drab existence is sex, be persuaded to remain chaste during his wife’s fertile period ?

This line of dialogue from ‘Triage’, by William Walling, unapologetically signals a story that bases its narrative on the Population Bomb ethos. Set in the near future, when Ehrlich’s Eco-Catastrophe has indeed come to pass, Dr Victoria Duino helms the UN Department of Environment and Population (UNDEP), where she is forced to make routine decisions as to whether or not to deliver food aid to starving millions in Egypt and other squalid hellholes. Duino is a sympathetic character despite having to play God on a continuous basis; her battles with factions on the conservative and liberal sides of responding to the Eco-Catastrophe define the story's narrative.

‘No Room for Man’ closes with two very brief (i.e., two-page) short-shorts. Theodore Cogswell’s ‘Probability Zero !’ is a humorous look at the statistical fallacy of back-calculating from one’s family tree in order to arrive at an estimation of the number of people alive in preceding generations. ‘Doll’s Demise’, by George Guthridge, examines the psychology of child-bearing in the context of population control efforts, and in its oblique way reminds the reader that appeals to common sense and logic may be fallible in the absence of an understanding of the whys and wherefores of reproduction.

All in all, ‘No Room for Man’ is a very readable and informative anthology, and it’s too bad it was never released in a mass-market paperback format. It’s an interesting take on the latter years of the Population Bomb era, and readers of SF at that time may find some nostalgia within its pages. And anyone curious about how writers dealt with one of the first ‘Eco-Catastrophe’ themes of modern pop culture will find worthy material here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: 'Firelance' by David Mace

4 / 5 Stars

‘Firelance’ (1986; 314 pp) is a near-future military SF novel that takes place nine weeks after a nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Bloc. The resultant devastation- billions dead, cities little more than mounds of ashes- is compounded by the advent of ‘Nuclear Winter’, with essentially the entire surface of the earth gripped by perpetual darkness, freezing temperatures, strong gales, and snow.

Nonetheless, elements in what remains of the US government are determined to continue the conflict and to do so, the ultra-modern battleship ‘Vindicator’ is dispatched to cross the Atlantic and loose volleys of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto the Soviet mainland.

The Vindicator is a 56,000 ton ‘Nemesis’ class ship, with advanced electronics gear for navigation, self-defense, and missile targeting; it comes with a complement of F-28 ‘Skycat’ VTOL fighters to repel enemy air attacks. In short, it’s the ideal ‘Doomsday’ weapons platform and needless to say, whatever remains of the Soviet armed forces are intent on sinking it before it reaches the cruise missile launch point in the North Atlantic.

The main plot line follows the Vindicator as it sets off on its mission and faces threats from Russian submarines, aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, with at-sea operations hampered by the abysmal weather and the knowledge that there are few, if any, allied forces left to offer assistance.

There is a large cast of characters, including Captain Bedford, commander of the Vindicator; Gloria Craze, the ship’s psychologist; David Drexel, a British contractor; First Officer John Boyce; and Bradford Kylander and Eileen Jenninger, members of the national security cabal that has given the ship its mission.

The narrative shifts from one character to another as a plot device to inform the reader on various aspects of naval combat, post-apocalyptic political maneuvering, the meteorology of nuclear winter, and the moral and ethical implications of committing what is essentially racial suicide.

Firelance is in many ways very similar to the technothriller bestsellers written by Tom Clancy throughout the 80s (‘Red Storm Rising’ is perhaps its closest analogue). Practically every other page contains a mini-treatise on some aspect of military technology; there are lots and lots of acronyms, and episodes of combat are relayed in a dry, quasi-clinical style. The prose is often dense and overly descriptive, and the insertion of numerous sub-plots and tangential incidents means the novel takes too long to get to the anticipated resolution of the main plot.

However, as a Britisher and a European, author David Mace is determined to avoid infusing his novel with the optimistic, ‘Team USA’ rah-rah spirit of the Clancy, Harold Coyle, or Larry Bond novels.

Firelance’s setting is unrelentingly bleak and depressing and is more akin to Ralph Peters’s novel ‘The War in 2020’. The Navy officers manning the Vindicator are by no means militaristic zealots, but they are so well inculcated in the military ethos of following orders that it takes some time for them to fully grasp what the Vindicator is designed to accomplish. By the time the ship is underway many of them begin to question the absurd nature of their mission, and their ambivalence contributes to the tension surrounding the action aboard the Vindicator. There are no real winners in what will be the last battle of the last war.

Firelance’s downbeat attitude will probably not have much initial appeal to the Clancy school of technothriller fans, but if they stick with it, I think they’ll find the book is rewarding in its own understated way.

Author Mace published a number of books in the 80s and early 90s. All are out of print but some, such as ‘Demon 4’ and ‘Nightrider’, are available for reasonable prices at amazon.com and other used book outlets. The author has an unpublished novel, ‘Celestial Rain’, available at his website.

Monday, February 16, 2009

OMAC by Jack Kirby (first issue, September - October 1974)

I remember buying the first issue of OMAC in a corner drugstore in the small upstate New York town of Hancock in the late Summer of 1974. All through the early 70s Jack Kirby had been producing some great books - such as 'Kammandi' and 'The Demon' - so I was interested in giving OMAC ('One Man Army Corps') a try. As with his other DC titles, Kirby's OMAC was ably inked by Mike Royer.

Along with the first three pages of the comic, I’ve scanned an advertisement for what appears to be a steal of a deal for some toy soldiers (in reality they were all 5 mm thick, super -cheap plastic things), and an essay (in lieu of a Letters Page) by Kirby in which he lays out the philosophy behind OMAC. It’s an interesting read, and a quasi – nostalgic look at pop culture in the ‘Future Shock’ era of the early 70’s. Kirby is channeling many of Alvin Toffler’s concepts with the scripting of OMAC, most revolving around Toffler’s contention that the pace of technological change was moving so fast that mankind would have increasing problems absorbing these events and handling them responsibly.

According to its Wiki entry, OMAC only lasted eight issues before being canceled. The hero / concept still pops up occasionally in various DC titles. A 200-page hardbound collection of the Kirby OMAC issues was published by DC in July of 2008 and is available at amazon.com.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: 'Emphyrio' by Jack Vance

4/5 Stars

‘Emphyrio’ (1969) is DAW book No. 365 and was published in 1979. It features a striking cover illustration by Gino D’Achille. I decided to pick it up in the used bookstore after seeing it listed as a ‘overlooked classic’ in a list of such novels by Scott Cupp at the SF Site.

On the planet of Halma, in the city of Ambroy, a small cohort of idle aristocrats, the Lords, rule over the majority lumpen proletariat. Technology is deliberately kept at a primitive stage; artists and craftsmen may not duplicate their work using any kind of manufacturing process. All laborers are required to pay 1.18 per cent of their income to the Lords, who dwell apart from the populace in ornate towers (‘eyries’), and enjoy access to space travel to other planets in the federation. Anyone who deviates from the social order risks accusation of ‘irregulationary’ behavior, and punishment, through a sort of mind-wipe process, is quickly imposed by the authorities.

Ghyl Tarvok is the son of a wood carver named Amiante. As he comes of age in Ambroy, Ghyl becomes more aware of the unequal distribution of wealth in his society, its strictures on advancement, and the legends of a rebel named Emphyrio, who in the distant past acted against the overlords and was executed for his efforts to bring change to Halma.

When Ghyl reaches adulthood, he contrives to leave Halma, embarks on a life as a space pirate and searches for the truth underlying the strange social order on his planet of origin. Did Emphyrio really exist ? Are the dissipated and parasitic Lords the genuine rulers of Halma ? Do the answers to his questions lie on the legendary planet Earth ?

Emphyrio is an engaging novel, and I feel that it is one of Vance’s best. The first half of the book is devoted to a rather slow-paced exposition on the world of Halma and city life in Ambroy. A number of interesting and varied characters are presented, and the legal, religious, and economic mores of life under the Lords is explained in detail. Vance’s prose is descriptive and involves his usual expansive catalogue of adjectives and neologisms, but the storyline flows smoothly. There are bits of satirical humor (on Halma, the god Finuka is worshipped by rituals of hopscotch). Other passages are more thoughtful and melancholy in tone, and reflect a culture slowly dying from economic and political stagnation. Ghyl’s rebellion against the Lords is a natural outgrowth of his increasing dissatisfaction over the injustices of Halma’s social order, rather than a melodramatic ‘give me liberty or give me death !’ revelation.

The book’s second half deals with Ghyl’s adventures on other worlds, a confrontation with the Lords, and his search for the truth behind the legend of Emphyrio. The action picks up quite a bit, as if making up for rather leisurely tenor of the first half. One suspenseful incident describes a hairs-breadth exposure to one of the more unpleasant capital punishment methods (depicted on the DAW book’s cover) I’ve ever read in an SF novel. The only strained note in the narrative takes place in its last few pages, when the ultimate revelation about the Halma social order is disclosed to the reader; Vance’s plotting here comes across as a bit rushed and a bit too contrived.

While 'Emphyrio' appeared at the beginnings of what would eventually be called the New Age of SF, it really doesn’t fit too neatly into that category. It also doesn’t fit well into the ‘classic’ space opera mode. It’s an offbeat tale, and I recommend adding it to every SF fan’s collection.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Judge Dredd: 1984 Annual

In early 1985 (I think…maybe it was Fall 1984 ?) a comic book shop, located near the front entrance to Louisiana State University on Chimes street, was going out of business. I wasn’t much of a comics fanboy, but I decided to stop in and see what was for sale. I found some hardbound Annuals for a British superhero named Judge Dredd, as well as a b & w paperback edition of ‘The Cursed Earth’, featuring the same character, and decided to pick them up.

I liked Judge Dredd. He exemplified dry, sarcastic British humor, particularly where things like mutants were concerned. This was during the Claremont Era of the X-Men at Marvel, where the mutants were depicted as quasi-saintly beings, who starred in overwrought, heavily moralistic plots that revolved around the struggle for civil rights among these ‘different’ people. In the Dredd comics, the mutants inhabiting the radioactive wastelands between Mega City One (i.e., New York city) and the west coast were uniformly depraved and hostile creatures, delivered to the reader accompanied an unashamed ‘yuck’ factor.

Far from sympathizing with the mutants who trespassed into Mega City One, Judge Dredd and his fellow lawman were intent on arresting and deporting them, or in the case of the more violent ‘mutie’ criminals, exterminating them ! What a welcome, politically incorrect change from the Mutant storylines in Marvel.
Also in contrast to many of the Marvel and DC titles at the time, the Dredd comics were more violent, and less inclined to be preachy on social issues. Judges and perps died in spurts of blood; there was little remorse on the part of participants on either side of the law; criminals were presented as genuinely evil people, rarely as the warped products of an unjust and uncaring society obsessed with consumerism.

Since the 2000AD line didn’t have to observe a British counterpart of the Comics Code (which still constrained most US comics, save ‘special’ publications like the Epic line, even in the mid-80s), the writers and artists had greater leeway to depict the near-future in a grim and sardonic manner. This fitted nicely with the less polished, sometimes crude, but often exuberant artwork that was used in the Dredd tales.

Nowadays the unique atmosphere of the Dredd / 2000AD line of comics has dissipated quite a bit, with the advent of dedicated lines of non-Code titles like ‘The Punisher’ and other of Marvel’s ‘Max’ comics. But well-written, engaging Dredd stories still pop up now and then, such as the teamups between Dredd and Batman, or the Dredd Vs Aliens series from Dark Horse. Dredd (and his Brit writers) always bring some memorable humor to these encounters.

I’m posting images of the front cover of the 1984 Dredd annual, as well one of the stories it features: ‘The Other Slab Tynan.’

Monday, February 2, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine: January 1979

Nowadays, ‘Heavy Metal magazine is very different from what it was thirty years ago. It’s aimed more at fanboys raised on ‘Lady Death’ or ‘Shi’ comics, manga, anime, and other onanistic geek- culture entries.

But back in the late 70s and early 80s, Heavy Metal was one of the few outlets for comics and graphic art that was too ‘adult’ for mainstream publication in the comics issued by DC and Marvel. Most of the contents of each issue were translations of material appearing in the French magazine ‘Metal Hurlant’. Occasionally some homegrown American comics would appear in its pages.

Heavy Metal rarely got much in the way of advertising; some record labels, or perhaps a rolling paper manufacturer, might buy a page or two; as a result, the magazine was essentially subsidized by the successful sales of its parent, The National Lampoon.

Heavy Metal was aimed at a core audience of stoners; back in the late 70s a ‘nickel’ bag of pot cost only 10 bucks, and it was expected that after getting high, you’d open up a copy of Heavy Metal and peruse it while listening to some music of the same genre.

Although at a cover price of $1.50 it was comparatively expensive, I started picking up the magazine in late ’78 and followed it on a monthly basis until mid-1980. Some of the material was very good; a lot of it was mediocre. 

For example, much was made of the appearance of serialized comics by Moebius (the pseudonym of French artist Jean Giraud), but the ballyhooed ‘The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius’ was plainly a toss-off by Giraud, who at that time was busy moving into concept art and design for motion pictures (‘Alien’) and obviously tired with the low recompense –to-effort economics of comic drawing and writing.

Over time I became disenchanted with the inclusion of too much serialized material in the pages of Heavy Metal and I ceased buying it. But I did hang on to those 1979 issues, (although I didn’t slip them into plastic sheet protectors and store them in a cool, dry place).

While the 70s Heavy Metal had its share of cheesy T & A woven into many stories, it was also willing to print more downbeat, horror-themed tales than would appear in the contemporary edition of the magazine. Thanks to the magazine’s high production values, this stuff remains attention-worthy even in the age of computerized art layout and coloring.

Along with the front and back covers (done by Jo Ellen Trilling and Kevin Johnson, respectively) of the January 1979 issue, I’ve excerpted one such grim SF tale, a three-page installment of ‘1996’, a series by French artist Chantal Montellier.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book Review: 'The Legacy of Heorot' by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes

4/5 Stars

Not too far in the future, Earth successfully sends a starship (the Geographic) to colonize a habitable planet near the star Tau Ceti. The planet – named ‘Avalon’ – features an Earth-type atmosphere, water, flora, and a smattering of innocent fauna. In short, it’s Paradise.

The colonists are among Earth’s Best and Brightest, and as soon as they’re thawed from hypersleep, they get to work erecting dwellings, farms, and laboratories on a large island called ‘Camelot’.

Among the colonists’ team is an assistant navigator, square-jawed security officer, and former soldier with a “…face like sun-cured leather”, Cadmann Weyland. With the colonization of Avalon proceeding smoothly, and (seemingly) no hostile aliens or Bug-Eyed Monsters to fight, Weyland’s function on the planet is increasingly marginalized.

‘The Legacy of Heorot’ (1987) (the title refers to the splendid hall of King Hrothgar in the epic poem ‘Beowulf’ ) starts off rather slowly, as Weyland finds himself a bit adrift. He can’t help being caught up in the petty soap operas ensuing from the colonists’ desires to begin populating the planet with the aid of the women of their choice. The biologists, agriculturalists, and engineers of the colony team find themselves preoccupied with their labors, while Weyland is reduced to pleading for work details to restore torn fencing.

Then… one night ‘something’ rips up one of the colony’s dogs. Soon after, ‘it ‘ gets loose among the livestock. Some chickens are savaged in an awful manner. The colonists are worried, but not too worried. Maybe some Avalonian equivalent of a weasel is harassing the newcomers. Maybe Weyland is inflating the thing’s threat level, just so he won’t wind up cleaning out stables or weaving baskets to earn his keep. After all, there’s been no sign of any animal on Avalon that is large enough, or vicious enough, to pose a threat to the colony.

Or is there ?

‘Heorot’ is an SF adventure that made me cheer for the monsters from its early pages. I doubt this was the intent of the authors, but the petty rivalries among the colonists over women, status, and job assignments, that occupy the novel’s earlier pages, made me start to dislike them. Intensely. I couldn’t wait for the monster promised on the book’s back cover to finally show up and start munching.

As the main character, Weyland is presented as such a prideful, prickly, and uber-macho hero that quickly I lost any empathy for him. I also wanted Mary Ann – Weyland’s sweet, but brain-damaged, paramour – to get shredded by the monster. I wanted Sylvia, Terry, and Carlos to be devoured. In fact I wanted ALL the colonists to be monster food !

[I found the sequel, ‘Beowulf’s Children’ (1996) offered up an even more unlikeable panoply of colonists as potential monster victims.]

I can’t say much more about the plot without giving away too many spoilers, but the advent of the monster is tied to the ecology of Avalon, which the humans have unwittingly altered, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

Other reviews tend to laud the authors’ decision to inform their monster biology and ecology with a learned extrapolation from an unusual species of earth amphibian.

Personally, I found this tended to constrain their monster design; while formidable, the Avalon creature is not particularly terrifying. But since the colonists neglected to carry phasers, mini-nukes, or railguns aboard the Geographic, in fairness they can’t be pitted against genuinely apocalyptic creatures.

Overall, ‘Heorot’ is a well-written, intelligent thriller; once the monster action gets started it recedes just long enough for the colonists to catch a breath, and Weyland to start getting his testosterone re-fueled. Anyone seeking an engaging SF adventure will want to read it.