Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review: 'Slow Fall to Dawn' by Stephen Leigh
(first book of the 'Neweden' trilogy)

3/5 Stars

‘Slow Fall to Dawn’ (1981; 165 pp) is the first book in the so-called ‘Neweden’ trilogy by author Stephen Leigh. The other volumes are ‘Dance of the Hag’ (1983) and ‘A Quiet of Stone' (1984). The paperback version of ‘Dawn’ features an artistic picture of two men surveying the fossil skeleton of an extinct animal (but unfortunately the artist is uncredited).

‘Dawn’ takes place on the backwater planet of Neweden, whose sociopolitical structure revolves around an elaborate guild system, representatives of which vie for power in an Assembly ruled by a ‘Li-Gallant’ named Vingi . While the planet has access to high technology items, such as vibro blades, laser pistols, force fields, and anti-grav, it is shabby and quasi-medieval in character, with everyone wearing cloaks, making do with humble buildings constructed of natural materials, and negotiating cramped, trash-strewn cities on foot rather than by personal aircar or hovercraft.

Rather than experience the disruptive effects of war or criminal enterprise, the guilds have agreed to settle serious disputes by use of an assassin guild called the Hoorka. Once a contract has been made, the victim is notified and given 12 hours to evade the assassins; if he or she survives until the following dawn, they are granted their life. About 15 % of the intended victims survive a Hoorka contract, so the odds are in the assassin guild’s favor. Only successful assassinations result in public disclosure of the contractor.

The main character in the novel is the Gyll the Thane, the leader of the Hoorka, a middle-aged man who founded the guild and has steered it into a position of some influence in the politics of Neweden. As the story opens a duo of Hoorka fail to kill their target, a guild chief named Gunnar. The survival of Gunnar necessarily leads to tension with the man who issued the contract for his extirpation: Li-Gallant Vingi. The resultant narrative is mainly focused on the various intrigues and machinations of the Hoorka, their disgruntled client Vingi, and the director of a galactic Federation outpost on Neweden, Dame d’Embry, who has her own reasons for wanting to see the Hoorka gain access to contracts elsewhere in the Federation.

A major sub-plot deals with the Thane’s confrontations with Aldhelm, his protégé, over the future of the Hoorka; as age grips the Thane he becomes less certain of his abilities to lead the guild, but is Aldhelm the best choice for a successor ?

The setting of a senescent world gripped by antiquated politics and religious beliefs, with technology serving as an uneasy accessory to relations with a distant, unsympathetic Federation, readily calls to mind the novels of Jack Vance. This is not a bad thing. Author Leigh writes with an ornate, but very readable, style, and while the book doesn’t possess a particularly action-filled narrative, enough things keep unfolding over its brief course so as to hold the reader’s attention. In this regard ‘Dawn’ offers a better read than many contemporary SF novels twice its length. I finished the book curious to move on to the second volume of the trilogy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Checkered Demon (in Space; No. 3, 1979)

I picked up this copy of The Checkered Demon from ‘Charms Boutique’ in upstate New York in the early 80s. Back then ‘underground’ comix (a variant spelling of ‘comics’) were still regarded as clandestine literature, and you found them on the racks at ‘head shops’ that sold hippie clothes, incense, and ‘paraphernalia’ (i.e., pipes, bongs, and roaches). Interestingly, ‘Heavy Metal’, the closest kin to the comix, didn’t appear in these shops; since it was a ‘slick’ magazine published by the National Lampoon, it was eligible for shelf space among other magazines in more respectable retail outlets.

Steve Clay Wilson (b. 1941) was unique among the underground cartoonists for his intricate drawings and perverted, ultraviolent imagery. Most of his work provoked considerable ire even from those sympathetic to the underground comix scene. Sadly, in November 2008 Wilson suffered a serious head injury through circumstances unknown and is undergoing a lengthy rehabilitation.

Wilson’s favorite character was the Checkered Demon, who usually encountered pirates, lesbians, and aliens in his sanguinary travels. This particular issue No. 3 (it lacks a formal title) was first published in 1979 and sees our hero having all sorts of crazy adventures in outer space. While the front and back covers are reasonably ‘safe’ to post online, it’s difficult to find more than a few interior pages that I can post without earning an ‘Adult Content’ warning from Google Blogger….so, the pages I have posted are PG-13. However, they display Wilson’s peculiar genius to good effect. Along with the Demon himself, the strips feature recurring characters ‘Star-Eyed Stella’ and ‘Ruby the Dyke’.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Bridge

Book Review: 'The Bridge' by D. Keith Mano

2/5 Stars

‘The Bridge’ was published in hard cover in 1973; this Signet paperback (192 pp) appeared in 1974. It has a luminous green-yellow cover painting (the artist is unfortunately uncredited), a somewhat unusual color scheme (at the time, and even today, paperback marketing personnel consider green to be a ‘slow-selling’ color).

The novel opens with a Prologue set in a near-future USA, with a large armada of people driving dilapidated automobiles to a large religious festival in the New York City region called the ‘Feast of the Eater’. The Feast celebrates a rather eccentric religious doctrine founded by one Dominick Priest, who lived nearly a hundred years ago. It is apparent that the nation is recovering from something called the ‘Age of Ecology’, in which technology and civilization were stymied, if not outlawed; Priest appears to have been instrumental in the downfall of this Age, and in ushering in a new attitude that embraces technology and humanism.

The novel’s main narrative then commences:

It’s New York City, July, 2035. The United States (and, presumably, the rest of the world) has collapsed due to the coming of the Age of Ecology, and its society is in the grip of Jainism run amok. Mankind is considered a foul disease, a infection loose in the Ecosystem. Any human interference with nature is strictly forbidden. No animal can be killed, no trees chopped down, no lawn mowed, and even mosquitoes must be allowed to feed till repletion if one is not fortunate enough to be wearing a repelling ‘insect suit’. People must drink a synthetic, watery nourishment called the ‘E-diet’, since the consumption of other living things is a moral outrage. One of purposes of the E-diet is the cessation of urination or defecation, acts which pollute the earth with products of Man.

Even breathing is regulated, as it can result in the death of inhaled bacteria, fungi, and viruses; people are forced to wear filter masks and communicate by sign language, since speech is a form of noise pollution.

Dominick Priest is a 40 year-old rebel who remembers the good life he had a child, before the eco-maniacs assumed power. Imprisoned in the ruined grounds of Yankee Stadium for threatening a Guardsman, Priest and his fellow inmates learn they are being freed. However, their freedom is perverse, in that the ruling power has decreed that all inhabitants of the US are to be given cyanide pills and ordered to commit suicide by July 20.

Priest is determined to not only defy the suicide order, but to journey from the crumbling, overgrown ruins of the city to the upstate town of New Loch where he was raised and where, he hopes, his wife Mary and his infant child await his return.

The Bridge chronicles Priest’s adventures as he confronts a disintegrating civilization overgrown with vegetation, wild animals, hostile Guardsmen, and swarms of voracious insects. On his trek he encounters people engaged in nihilistic acts of violence and debauchery. Priest is hardly a hero in the traditional sense; he is emaciated, sickly, and partially deranged by the narcotic contained in the E diet (for purposes of maintaining a tractable society). Will Priest succeed in his quest ? How will his experiences lead him to become the leader of the new world order ?

D. Keith Mano had a buzz around him in the early 70s, publishing a number of novels, many available at and other used book retailers. Most of his novels dealt with themes of religion, and the conflicts of Believers with increasingly secular, agnostic societies. ‘The Bridge’ is certainly tailored as a satirical examination of eco-worship gone out of control, as well as positing how future Christianity might mold itself in the aftermath of an eco-catastrophe.

Unfortunately, Mano’s writing gets in the way of his interesting premise. Practically every third sentence is larded with similes and metaphors and other instances of overly purpled prose:

Sunlight slanted across the windshield, brushed its tawny film of dust, and made opaqueness.

The decks of the huge stadium hung slack-jawed, astonished.

In those days Helga Priest had been a burly woman, chestnut braids spiraled on her head, the bit of a wide, dull drill.

Eighteen-inch toadstools squatted, boles muscular as hurdler’s calves, caps canted, rouged at the center.

The barn had burned. Its silo seemed a lit flare. Hot gases had accumulated there. The hemisphere cap was shredded; in flame shapes it held an image of the explosion. Sebastian Priest’s house had caught. The roof had been trepanned by fire, then doused by sudden rain; black soot stalactites oozed down the walls.

I’m willing to tolerate a highly figurative writing style in small doses – such as in short stories – but subjecting a reader to a novel’s length of this stuff is punishing.

There is a good adventure novel at the heart of The Bridge; but the reader must work hard to find it under the layers of turgid prose.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: 'The Prometheus Crisis' by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)

4/5 Stars

Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson were established fiction writers throughout the 70s, particularly in the SF and thriller genres, and collaborated on a number of bestsellers, including ‘The Glass Inferno’ (1974) (fire in a high-rise building), ‘The Prometheus Crisis’ (1975) (nuke plant meltdown), ‘The Nightmare Factor’ (1978) (disease on the loose) and ‘The Gold Crew’ (1980) (nuclear missile sub psychodrama).

‘The Prometheus Crisis’ was arguably the first widely-read novel since Lester del Rey’s ‘Nerves’ (1956) to address the issue of a disastrous accident at a nuclear power plant. The novel may have been influential in the creation of the 1979 film ‘The China Syndrome’, much as ‘The Glass Inferno’ led to the 1974 box office hit ‘The Towering Inferno’.

My copy of ‘Crisis’ is an August 1976 Bantam paperback with a double-page cover in which the first cover page features a cut-out to provide a peek at the second cover page illustration, a printing scheme often used for high profile releases at the time. The interior cover painting is certainly luridly effective, depicting as it does a stream of people fleeing a burning nuclear installation, but the artist is (unfortunately) uncredited.

The nuclear plant in question is the Prometheus four-reactor facility located in the fictional California seacoast town of Cardenas. As the story opens, the facility’s manager, a square-jawed engineer named Greg Parks, is doubtful that the plant is ready for safe operation, and his assistant, Bernard Lerner, agrees. However, Western Gas and Electric, the electrical consortium responsible for funding the plant’s construction, is anxious to bring it on line, particularly as the President will showcase the use of nuclear power as an answer to the Energy Crisis. For the book’s first half, the plot revolves around the conflict between Parks and the Western Gas higher-ups over whether Prometheus can be brought ‘on stream’.

There are two subplots that also take share space with the main narrative. One is a 70s Disaster Novel staple: romantic tension between nurse Karen Gruen, a Willowy Brunette, and engineers Parks and Lerner, who are vying in their own uniquely manly ways for her affections. The other subplot deals with a murder of the local physician, its relevance to the Prometheus facility, and the search for whodunit. These subplots are the book’s only real weaknesses, as in my opinion they don’t do much other than pad out the novel’s length. Things can seem more than a little contrived when, in the midst of some calamity, the narrative takes a detour to give Parks and Lerner a chance for some verbal fencing over Nurse Karen’s affections.

Indeed, the real disaster action doesn’t take place until almost half-way through the book, as – in the style of 70s thrillers – the authors spend the first half of their novel in taking a deliberate approach to fleshing out their characters and the setting, presumably with a ready eye towards a screenplay for a 2 ½ hour feature film. Once things do get into a 70s Disaster Groove (I’m not disclosing any spoilers to say that things go badly wrong at the Prometheus facility and Southern California confronts a destructive cloud of radiation), the narrative becomes genuinely engaging and readers will be turning the pages as they would for any well-written thriller. It’s clear from the novel’s first page that there will be a disaster; what will keep the reader engrossed is the fate of the characters and the unfolding of the catastrophe (‘who will survive, and what will be left of them ?!’).

Scortia and Robinson plainly did their homework and the machinations that lead to the Crisis and its aftermath are well within the grounds of reality. The efforts of the plant personnel and the federal government to cope with a nuclear catastrophe are believable, without straying into hyperbole or exaggeration. While overly technical expositions into engineering and physics are avoided, the authors provide enough background material on the principles of nuclear fission and reactor design to enable the reader to understand the hows and whys of the forthcoming disaster. The authors also show considerable skill in creating a large cast of main, and supporting, players and letting the narrative deal with their fates as events unfold, without shifting too much attention away from the crisis at the center of the novel.

Today, some 34 years after it was first published, ‘The Prometheus Crisis’ remains one of the best fictional accounts of a nuclear disaster.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine April 1979

This April 1979 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ is noteworthy for featuring a preview of the Fox SF-horror blockbuster ‘Alien’. The film, which had a budget of close to $ 10 million ( a lot of money back in 1979) was due in theatres in early Summer. 20th Century Fox was obviously hoping to cash in on the momentum generated by ‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, and other SF films of the past two years that had yielded unprecedented box-office receipts.

Being chosen to publicize the film was a real coup for Heavy Metal, which had been in print for two years, but was still struggling to gain advertising and some perception of legitimacy among the ‘mainstream’ print media. That Fox executives had decided to give a somewhat obscure ‘stoner’ magazine the licensing rights for their marquee film for the year had to be encouraging to the magazine’s owners, The National Lampoon. Indeed, by selecting Heavy Metal to showcase their film among what would come to be labeled the ‘fanboy’ crowd, Fox was engaging in a marketing practice that was still comparatively innovative at the time. Nowadays, nobody blinks when directors and cast associated with a high-budget SF or fantasy blockbuster appear at various Comic-Con shows to preview clips and take questions from the audience. But the idea of dispatching Ridley Scott or Sigourney Weaver to speak at a geek gathering would have gotten a Fox marketing exec fired back in ‘79.

Along with some pages from the Alien preview, I’m posting ‘Pyloon’, a tongue-in-cheek homage to SF illustration, with art by Ray Rue and a script by Leo Giroux, Jr. I’m sure readers will find at least one archetypal image that they recognize as cribbed from the visual library of pop culture and SF. The art is very good, particularly when one realizes that computer-generated color separations were still years away.

Also posted is a advertisement for a board game, ‘John Carter of Mars’ , by SPI, one of the leading publishers (along with Avalon Hill) of war games, and other hex-based board games, during the 70s. This is what you got when you went ‘gaming’ way back then. ‘Space Invaders’ had still not appeared in my hometown in upstate New York in April of ’79, and the idea of playing games on ‘micro-computers’ was something electrical engineers thought about in their spare time, when they were hypothesizing about home entertainment in the 21st century.

Rounding out our look at the April ’79 issue are the front cover by Clyde Caldwell (‘The Brain Cloudy Blues’), and the back cover by Larry Elmore (‘Gidget Meets the Squirrel Dogs from Outer Space’).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review: 'Rad Decision' by James Aach
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)

3/5 Stars

‘Rad Decision’ (2006; 348 pp.) is a self-published novel about an accident at a fictional nuclear power plant (‘Fairview Station’) in Indiana in May, 1986, just a few weeks after the real-life Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union. Author James Aach worked at a nuke plant as an engineer for more than 20 years, so he certainly knows the ins and outs of nuclear power plant operation.

The main character is an engineer and plant manager named Steve Borden; his adversary is an undercover KGB agent named Vitally Kruchinkin, who has procured a job at the plant under the alias ‘John Donner’. There is a rather large cast of supporting characters.

The first half of the novel is basically concerned with familiarizing the reader with the operation of the power plant; the point of view continuously shifts from one character to another as a narrative device to expound on the function of various components of the reactor . A number of diagrams are used, in sequentially labeled fashion, to help teach the reader about the plant design and operation. A chart of radiation dosages is also provided. These are among the book’s strongest features, and indicates a real desire on the part of the author to avoid losing the reader through an overly technical description of the Fairview Station plant. Thus, by the mid-way point of the narrative, even readers who opened the book with only a limited knowledge of how nuclear reactors work should be suitably enlightened. 

This is good, because from this point on the narrative arc shifts to an act of sabotage and the increasingly dire consequences for the plant, its workers, and the population of the surrounding area. The book’s final 100 pages are genuinely suspenseful as Steve Borden and his co-workers try to halt a meltdown and saboteur Kruchinkin attempts to escape.

As a self-published book, ‘Rad Decision’ has its share of problems that would have been corrected by a commercial publishing house editor. A major problem is the book’s layout; it provides too few, and too loosely defined, Parts and Chapters. Most of the text is divided and subdivided and sub-subdivided into sections demarcated by rows of asterisks. Many of these subsections are only a page or two in length; some are simply a single paragraph. Some are set in a particular time and represent flashbacks, while others are set in the present.

To further complicate things, many of the subsections deal with characters and individual plot lines that may or may not intersect with those of the main characters. The continuous jumping from one character to another, one scene to another, makes it difficult for the reader to grasp any continuity of plot. Maintaining so many narrative lines, tenses, and dialogue sections would strain the abilities of even seasoned writers.

A commercial editor would have combined many of these overly parsed sections into unified, discrete chapters featuring a consolidated group of characters, thus making the narrative more comprehensible and polished.

In summary, ‘Rad Decision’ is worth a look from readers who are interested in a nuclear disaster novel that may not have the polished writing of, for example, Scortia and Robinson’s ‘The Prometheus Crisis’ (1975), but does offer a learned overview of just how and why a catastrophic accident could take place.

Monday, April 6, 2009

'The Breathing Earth'

There are a number of websites that display continuously updated information on things like traffic densities, national population, birthrates, infant mortality, and other demographic statistics. One of the more elegant – and disturbing - of these sites is ‘The Breathing Earth Simulation’ maintained by David Bleja. The site’s dashboard provides the viewer with a world map, with subdued brown, maroon, and ochre hues, all color-keyed to depict CO2 emissions.

There are also little starbursts, representing births and deaths, constantly popping up for various nations. There is a world population counter in the lower right of the dashboard that updates how many people have been born, and how many have died, since you first accessed the web page.

‘The Breathing Earth’ can lead observers into a kind of Zen-like trance, as the little world population counter turns over, and the birth and death starbursts wax and wane in countries like Brazil, India, and China. Over time, you will get a creepy feeling as the implications of those changing numbers and little icons start to seep into your consciousness.

‘The Breathing Earth’, needless to say, would have been a great teaching tool back in the late 60’s – early 70’s when the Population Bomb era was in full swing. I can’t help but imagine how Ehrlich, Moore, the Paddocks, and Commoner may have reacted if they had been able to watch ‘The Breathing Earth’ simulation back in, say, ’72. I’m sure it would have had a troubling, even traumatic, psychological effect.

For today’s citizens, most of whom are unaware of the population problem confronting many nations in the 21st century, ‘The Breathing Earth’ is an absorbing way to present a complex environmental and political topic without being didactic.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: 'Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth' by Rob Sauer

2/5 Stars

‘Zero Population Growth’ was a population control advocacy group founded in 1968 by entomologist Paul Ehrlich (author of the best-selling ‘The Population Bomb’), Charles Remington, and Richard Bowers. It quickly became a very ‘in’ thing among academic and intellectual circles to join ZPG, and to participate in rallies, teach-ins, and lobbying campaigns that urged the citizenry to ‘just have two’ (children). Eventually the movement gained sufficient traction in the popular culture to lend its title to a feature film, 1972’s ‘ZPG’, starring Oliver Reed. Even leftist folkie Pete Seeger- always ready to capitalize on the Issue of the Moment- turned out a bit of doggerel titled ‘We’ll All Be A-Doubling’ (!) as the theme song for ZPG.

Alas, like many other groovy 70s phenomena, ZPG lost momentum as the decade wore on. As exemplified by Allan Chase’s massive 1980 book ‘The Legacy of Malthus’, attacks against the Population Bombers for being racists and elitists gathered strength, and the movement lost influence and prestige. Nowadays ZPG operates as ‘Population Connection’; still a reasonably effective lobbying group, but with a profile decidedly less prominent than in those heady days of the early 70s.

‘Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth’ is an anthology of Eco-catastrophe stories assembled by ZPG staffer Rob Sauer and published by Ballantine books in 1971. Paul and Anne Ehrlich were SF fans, and they provide an introduction stating that genre tales about overpopulation can be valuable tools for demonstrating what could happen if measures are not taken to implement population control. The ‘ship’ metaphor is of course derived from the potent ‘Spaceship Earth’ iconography of the Apollo moon missions.

The book has five Parts, with several stories in each Part, along with framing commentary by the editor. A Bibliography of stories and novels for further reading appends each story, and there is a listing of nonfiction ecology and overpopulation books provided at the book’s end.

Since there simply weren’t enough SF Eco-catastrophe tales available at the time, Sauer had to incorporate some non-SF stories in order to provide the anthology with sufficient material. These include stories by Doris Lessing, Moshe Shamir, and Emilio Belaval. The latter author’s ‘The Purple Child’ is a particularly grim, but effective, account of poverty and childbearing in rural Central America.

Some of the SF entries are old standbys, such as J. G. Ballard’s ‘Billenium’ and C. M. Kornbluth’s ‘Shark Ship’. Other stories represent products of the ‘speculative fiction’ movement fashionable in SF circles from the late sixties to the late seventies. Unfortunately, Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, ‘The Other’ by Katherine MacLean, and Norman Spinrad’s ‘The Big Flash’ haven’t aged all that well, and come across as trying too hard to be Arty and Profound.

Other entries that possess even less kinship with mainstream SF are ‘Food Farm’ and ‘Golden Acres’ by Kit Reed, and ‘Consumer’s Report’ by Theodore Cogswell. These stories are more in the vein of social satire than efforts to depict an overpopulated, future earth.

‘Population Control, 1986’, by Horacio Paredes, is an interesting entry; first appearing in ‘Atlas’ magazine in 1970, it’s a rare tale about the Population Bomb by a ‘third world’ writer (Paredes is a Filipino author). ‘Population Control’ is a brief but competent tale of drastic measures taken to curtail population growth in India and the Philippines.

Alice Glaser’s ‘The Tunnel Ahead’ is a dystopian vision of the US in 2100 AD with a population of 1 billion. The cherished Retro-SF fantasy of an 8 – lane superhighway with auto-controlled, teardrop-shaped cars speeding into and out of a Mongo cityscape (a la ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is given a cruel twist.

‘Student Body’ by F. L. Wallace is genre SF set on the earth-like planet Glade; it’s one of the more clever attempts by an author to design a rational tale around an alien ecology.

Other entries include several short-short stories by Frederic Brown and Wayland Young and some unremarkable tales by Roger Zelazny and Ray Bradbury.

All in all, ‘Voyages’ is of interest less for its qualities as an SF anthology, and more as a example of how fiction writers in the early 70’s were addressing the prominent social and environmental issues of the forthcoming decade. It’s also a glimpse into the Zero Population Growth movement at the height of its influence. Anyone curious about the literature spurring the advent of Earth Day, and the environmental awareness movement, may want to give ‘Voyages’ a look.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

'Population: The New Pollution' tee shirt !

Available from zazzle.

The perfect wardrobe choice for those times when you're feeling nostalgic for those exciting ZPG days of the early 70's.

Also great for wearing to Indian weddings, your local Quiverfull group's Bible study session, or a Natural Family Planning teach - in !