Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Alien: The Illustrated Story' by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson

‘Heavy Metal’ magazine scored a genuine coup by winning the licensing rights to 20th Century Fox’s science fiction thriller ‘Alien’. The magazine made the most of this bounty by arranging to publish a number of books dealing with the film, including ‘The Book of Alien’, a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production; and ‘Alien: The Illustrated Story’. With art by Walter Simonson and story by Archie Goodwin, Alien: The Illustrated Story was a larger size ‘graphic novel’, released in the Spring of 1979, prior to the film’s debut on May 25. As such, it contained spoilers, so that before I saw the film I knew what was going to happen….

Sections of ‘Alien’ were serialized in the May and June issues of Heavy Metal, and I’ve scanned some of those excerpts for presentation here. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the book’s contents by presenting the ‘Alien-specific pages’. I will say that the book stays true to the film’s script, while at the same time successfully presenting the material in a memorable and distinctive way. Unfortunately, comic adaptations of subsequent Alien films (I’m thinking of Dark Horse’s Alien3 effort in particular) have strayed from this attitude, and have tended to come across as sub-par efforts to cash in on the licensing rights.

Suffice it to say that the ‘Alien’ graphic novel does a great job of communicating the film’s creepy, and sometimes gory, nature. Simonson is adept at presenting H. R. Giger’s unique style of ‘bio-mechanoid’ artwork throughout the book, starting with the careful illustration of the ‘Alien’ title. The one area where the comic falls a bit short, is in mimicking the very dark and drizzly look of the film’s spaceship interiors; but this was in the days before computer graphics programs were available for creating the more complex color and texture schemes such fidelity would have required.

The ‘Alien’ creature is so much a part of pop culture mythology nowadays that it is perceived in a kind of amiable light (as it sometimes appears in the Brewster Rockit: Space Guy’ comic strip), but back in 1979 the creature was a genuinely scary thing. In fact, when Kenner released the first ‘Alien’ toy in ‘79, kids were so frightened by it that some stores actually removed it from their shelves, forcing would-be buyers to ask the store managers for the toy to be brought up from the stock room - !

Fans of the film and comic art in general may find it worthwhile to add ‘Alien: The Illustrated Story’ to their collection. It’s an interesting and worthwhile effort at the sort of synergistic marketing that’s commonplace nowadays for every and all Summer Blockbusters, but back in ’79, it was a bit novel and innovative. 20th Century Fox had undoubtedly learned of the immense power of cross-marketing after the tumult two years earlier of ‘Star Wars’, and was aware that the fans of that film would be lining up for ‘Alien’, as well as happily handing over cash for associated memorabilia.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: 'Life With Lancelot', by John T. Phillifent

2/5 Stars

John T. Phillifent (1916 – 1973) was a British author who published a number of SF novels and short stories in the 1970s, some under the pen name of John Rackham. ‘Life With Lancelot’ (1973) is part of Ace Double No. 48245, with ‘Hunting on Kunderer’ by William Barton, serving as the other portion of the book. At 132 pp in length ‘Lancelot’ consists of three stories: ‘Stainless Knight’, ‘Logical Knight’, and ‘Arabian Knight’.

Lancelot Lake is a janitor on a space station in the Galactic Federation; Lake is prone to spending most of his waking hours engaged in Walter Mitty-style ruminations. His life gets a major turnaround when he foolishly commandeers control of a damaged spaceship, and fails to prevent it from crashing on the surface of the planet of the Shogleet, technologically advanced creatures who are able to shape-shift, and become invisible, among other useful traits. The Shogleet revive the dying Lancelot, and using his brain’s imagery as a guide, re-create him as the physical embodiment of the Lancelot of mythology: not too bright, but strong and handsome.

Lancelot returns to the Federation and enrolls as a trouble-shooter for worlds where the cultures are lodged in a feudal or medieval state. A ‘Prime Directive’ prohibits the overt intervention of the Federation, except as a covert operation cloaked in the guise of the existing technology.

Each of the three stories sees Lancelot dispatched to a different planet, where he must intervene to prevent rouge Federation agents, or their loosed technology, from disrupting the normal order of the host society. The main focus of ‘Lancelot’ is humor, as our witless hero blunders about the landscape, getting into various combats with medieval knights or dissolute Arabian caliphs. Phillifent tends to center each tale on sophomoric humor derived from encounters between Lancelot and a series of lubricious females. Overall, the book reads as a gently sarcastic take on SF and fantasy clichés, and owes more than a bit to Harry Harrison and his writings.

‘Life with Lancelot’ is mildly entertaining, but that’s about it. If readers stumble upon it, that’s fine, but I don’t believe it’s worth a deliberate search in the used bookstore catalogues.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review: 'World's Best Science Fiction 1970' by Donald A. Wolheim and Terry Carr

2 / 5 Stars

‘The World’s Best Science Fiction 1970’ (Ace Books, 1970, 349 pp) is edited by Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr, and features a cover with an abstract design by John Schoenherr superimposed on a rather garish, but attention-getting, pink color scheme. There are interior line drawings by Jack Gaughan. 

All of the stories in this chunky (349 pp., 9 pt type) anthology were published in 1969, many in magazines such as ‘Analog’, ‘Galaxy’, and ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’.

As one might expect for stories seeing print in the late 60s, the influence of the New Wave movement is strong. The majority of the stories eschew ‘traditional’ SF topics, and instead focus on issues of psychology, anthropology, and sociology, with attendant focus on characterization and mood, rather than descriptive passages centered on technology or hard science. Most of the authors display a conscious effort to adopt a New Wave diction, using figurative, often obtuse, prose styles. Sometimes, this works, but more often, it doesn’t.

My capsule reviews of the contents:

Richard Wilson’s ‘A Man Spekith’: the Last Man on Earth is a hippy DJ aboard a space station. A boring tale that hasn’t aged well.

‘After the Myths Went Home’ by Robert Silverberg: less SF than mythic-inspired ‘speculative fiction’, but the ending gives the story enough of a jolt to be rewarding.

‘Death by Ecstasy’, by Larry Niven: a ponderous effort to meld a police procedural with SF elements. Too long and too dull.

Alexei Panshin’s ‘One Sunday in Neptune’: disaffected spacemen decide to explore Neptune. Tries to say something Profound about the Human Condition, but ends up being Boring.

‘For the Sake of Grace’, by Suzette Haden Elgin: one of the better stories in the anthology; on a planet where women are subjected to appalling social customs, a befuddled patriarch confronts a rebellious daughter. The references to Islam are unsubtle and effective.

James Tiptree, Jr, ‘Your Haploid Heart’: some knowledge of High School genetics required; but in essence a competent adventure story dealing with alien societies, strange approaches to reproduction, and racial conflict.

‘Therapy 2000’ by Keith Roberts: in a near-future, overcrowded society, a man is slowly going insane due to the constant bombardment of noise. The prose is too dense, and the story too slow-moving, to be very memorable.

‘Sixth Sense’ by Michael Coney: in a near-future world in which everyone is telepathic, a bed and breakfast owner on the English coast hosts bickering couples. Well written, although the SF content is light.

Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy and His Dog’: still politically incorrect, still mordantly amusing, 40 years after first seeing print.

‘And So Say All of Us’, by Bruce McAllister: A schizophrenic displays esp powers that catch the interest of the Defense Department. A pedestrian story.

‘Shadow Ship’ by Fritz Lieber: an amnesiac, elderly bartender prone to hallucinations encounters intrigue aboard a decrepit spaceship peopled by drug addicts. Lieber’s earnest effort to write prose that’s very arty, and very ‘New Wave’, is in reality clumsy and obtuse.

Ursula LeGuin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, about two irascible miners on an earthquake-prone planet who discover their new work mates are a ‘clone’ consisting of five males and five females. LeGuin’s intent is to explore the psychology of alienation, very New Wave-y; as a straightforward SF tale, the story does work.

The concluding entry is Norman Spinrad’s much-anthologized ‘The Big Flash’, which cynically mixes atom bombs, group psychology, and the power of rock music. Of all the entries, it best represents the New Wave ethos, without sliding too far into self-indulgence or excessive artiness.

Taken all in all, ‘World’s Best SF 1970’ displays the effects of the New Wave movement on the genre and its more salient authors. Some coped with the changes to writing and publishing brought by the New Wave era better than others. There are only three or four genuinely notable stories in this anthology, so I really can’t recommend it, save to those readers with a particular interest in late 60s SF.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Book Review: 'The Hunters' by Burt Wetanson and Thomas Hoobler
3/5 Stars

‘The Hunters’ was first published in 1978; this Playboy paperback edition (223 pp.) was issued in 1979. The cover painting, evoking the box-office hit ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, is by V. Segrelles.

In the small town of Bear Paw, Montana, a strange couple appear in town one day and give a 'Saucer Cult' presentation to skeptical townspeople: a journey to the stars, true enlightenment, and spiritual fulfillment, are theirs for the taking. Many townspeople are deeply moved by the presentation and the next morning, they gather in the town square in preparation for the Journey. An unusual silver bus arrives, and the couple welcome the earthlings aboard. The bus moves smoothly and silently out into the countryside, ultimately arriving at the ruins of a ghost town from the 19th century. The passengers debark, climb to the top of a nearby hill, and witness an enormous flying saucer.

The people from Bear Paw are amazed and awed by this display of technology and when the vessel lands, they prepare to board, singing hosanahs to the Star People. But it suddenly becomes unpleasantly clear that the aliens aboard the saucer are not benevolent. In fact, they are looking forward to sport….of the hunting kind. And the townspeople of Bear Paw are their quarry.

‘The Hunters’ is a pulp SF novel that was plainly written to cash in on the marketing excitement of ‘Close Encounters’ and the attendant UFO craze of the late 70s, as well as SF thrillers like ‘Alien’. The movie ‘Predator’ was still 9 years in the future, and it’s unclear if ‘Hunters’ influenced Jim and John Thomas, the screenwriters of Predator. Unlike the alien featured in Predator, in ‘Hunters’ the aliens are more humanoid in appearance and possess unique personalities; they also lack the impressive firepower and cloaking technology of the Predator. But they nonetheless remain formidable adversaries.

The townspeople are the usual motley collection of stereotyped individuals. We have some Commune-derived hippies; a quarreling married couple; an Indian couple fond of giving portentous, ‘Black Elk Speaks’ – style speeches to the unworthy Palefaces; a family of crazed Christian fundamentalists; the town drunk; and BadAzz Mofo Sam Tolliver, who can’t pass up a chance to mess with Whitey whenever there’s a lull in the action.

Authors Wetanson and Hoobler have a tendency to write lame passages of dialogue, much of it dealing with homespun philosophy and psychodrama, for the townspeople to engage in at inopportune times. I often found myself exasperated by the witless nature of some of the characters. But the encounters between human prey and alien hunter come with enough frequency and bloodshed to move the story along at a good clip despite these literary drawbacks. In its last 20 pages the narrative is genuinely engrossing, and the authors refrain from tipping their hands in terms of indicating who will ultimately triumph.

Readers interested in an entertaining, if not particularly original, SF adventure may want to give this book a try.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book Review: 'Omni's Screen Flights, Screen Fantasies' by Danny Peary

3/5 Stars

Omni magazine was started in 1978 by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. As a ‘slick’ magazine devoted to both SF and science reporting, the magazine was an instant success, attracting larger advertisers that may have been hesitant to buy ad space in Penthouse. Omni paid high rates for its fiction, and a number of critically acclaimed pieces appeared in its pages.

‘Omni’s Screen Flights, Screen Fantasies’, edited by Danny Peary, was published in 1984, at the high point of Omni’s success. It’s a compilation of essays and interviews dealing with SF cinema. I’m not sure if any or all of the essays originally appeared in the pages of Omni, or if they were specially commissioned for this book.

‘Screen Flights, Screen Fantasies’ is divided into three parts: ‘Perspectives’, ‘Journeys into the Future’, and ‘The Creators’. There is an introduction by Harlan Ellison. The book is heavily illustrated with b & w stills and has two sections of color plates, which feature stills, posters, and concept art.

Most of the 41 essays or interviews are well-written and interesting. They cover SF cinema from the early, early days- there is an interview with Buster Crabbe about his work in the ‘Buck Rogers’ serials of the 30s – to 1982 and ‘Blade Runner’. There are interviews with Sigourney Weaver, Leonard Nimoy, Michael Crichton, and Ridley Scott, as well as essays by well-known SF authors such as Harry Harrison, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, and Robert Sheckley. In general, the questions asked of the interviewees are intelligent, well – presented, and devoid of fanboy excess.

It’s possible to learn some little-known tidbits about the making of many famous SF films, such as in Harrison’s essay ‘A Cannibalized Novel Becomes Soylent Green’ in which he reveals that he was a pain in the ass on the set of the movie, handing out copies of his novel ‘Make Room ! Make Room !’ to cast and crew, and urging the producers to make various changes to the film (Harrison was contractually prohibited from making changes to the script, which he had not written). Of course, to Harrison’s regret the ending of the film took an illogical detour from his novel, but it’s a testament to the willingness of the film cast and crew to listen to his suggestions, that the film nonetheless remained a good piece of story-telling.

‘Screen Flights’ is understandably dated, in that the coverage ends ca. 1982 - 1983, but those interested in SF films of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s may want to pick it up.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: 'The Night-Comers' by Eric Ambler

5/5 Stars

While I remember seeing novels by Eric Ambler on the shelves of libraries during the 60s and 70s I never really paid them much attention, thinking that Ambler was something of a poor-man’s Alistair MacLean or Len Deighton. But I read a recent essay by Theodore Dalrymple in which he praises Ambler for his fiction, and ‘The Night-Comers’ in particular:

The book I wanted was a first edition, not much sought after I should imagine, of a novel by Eric Ambler, the English thriller-writer now nearly, though undeservedly, forgotten, at any rate by people younger than fifty. He was a master of prose, and his writing is worthy of close study by aspiring writers. He could convey the atmosphere of an alien land of which the reader knew nothing in simple, but accurate, euphonious and rhythmically beautiful language. Although – one is tempted these days to say because – he had not attended university, his work is also intellectually astute.

So I thought I would give the book a try:

Steve Fraser is a British engineer assigned to assist with the construction of a dam in the island of Sunda, one of the many in the Indonesian archipelago. As the novel opens, Fraser is on his way to the major Sundan city of Selampang, where he will make arrangements for air travel to Jakarta and from there, back home to England.

The novel takes place in the early 50s, after the Indonesian region has won its independence from the Dutch. The ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ and the sanguinary antics of Suharto and Sukarno are still nearly a decade off, but the political situation in Sunda is hardly stable. A warlord named Sanusi has split with the ruling party of President Nasjah, and set up his own ‘revolutionary’ government inland. It appears that the Nasjah government is incapable of eliminating Sanusi, and an uneasy balance of power is being maintained between the former ‘freedom fighters’. The island of Sunda may seem placid on the surface, but violence and anarchy lurk just below the seemingly normal everyday activities of the populace.

En route to Selampang, Fraser befriends an Australian pilot named Jebb, who offers his apartment for Fraser’s use. Jebb also introduces Fraser to a young Eurasian woman named Rosalie, who works as a ‘hostess’ at a local club. Fraser gets set to enjoy what looks at first glance like a pleasant few days in Selampang. But he hasn’t counted on matters coming to a head between Sanusi, the rebellious commander, and the Nasjah government. And the building where Fraser is staying happens to be the first target for any coup attempt….

‘The Night-Comers’ is a very well-written suspense novel that also says some interesting things about the chaotic world of post-colonialism ca. the early 1950s. The mentality of erstwhile primitive people who suddenly find themselves confronted with the task of governing a nation of differing ethnic and regional groups is communicated with a clarity that could be well studied by legions of doctoral students, and foreign affairs professors, laboring on their own erudite analyses of Third World Liberation:

The first hint of trouble came three days later from the construction department. Captain Emas had attacked and badly beaten-up one of the men working in number three bay of the power house. Questioned about the incident, Captain Emas stated that the man had been insufficiently respectful. The following week two more men were beaten-up by Captain Emas for the same reason. The truth emerged gradually. It appeared that Captain Emas was organizing a construction workers’ union, and that the men who had been beaten-up had shown a disrespectful reluctance to pay dues. The secretary and treasurer of the union was Captain Emas.

Sundanese officials are peculiarly difficult to deal with, particularly if you are an English-speaking European. The first thing you have to realise is that, although they look very spruce and alert and although their shirt pockets glitter with rows of fancy ball-point pens, they have only the haziest notion of their duties.

“…I know these people. Mostly they are quiet and gentle. In the kampongs you will see a boy of twelve run to his mother and suck her breast when he is frightened or hurt. They smile a lot and laugh and seem happy, though they are also sad and afraid. But some are like those madmen nobody knows about, who have devils inside them waiting. And when there are guns to fire and people to kill, the devils come out. I have seen it.”

Of course, in 1956 Ambler had no idea that just nine years later, in 1965-1966, more than 500,000 Indonesians would die in a brutal civil war between the Sukarno government and the Indonesian Communist Party. But he clearly relayed in his fiction a belief that the copious bloodshed associated with the Indonesian war for Independence against the Dutch was not an end, but rather a beginning, of third world revolutionary mayhem. And that Islam, and the desire for an Islamic state, would be a catalyst for violence.

I recommend ‘Night-Comers’ to anyone who is looking for a literate adventure novel, and I’m going to be keeping an eye out for further writings by Eric Ambler.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine: May 1979

This month’s cover is ‘The Wizard of Anharitte’ by Peter Andrew Jones, and the back cover is ‘Centaur’s Idol’ by Clyde Caldwell.

I’ve scanned two shorter entries (that hopefully won’t imperil my Blog’s ‘PG’ rating with Google):

One entry is ‘Night Angel’, by Paul Abrams, definitely a trippy ‘stoner’ tale with some moody, effective artwork.

The other entry is one of Philippe Druillet’s occasional non- Lone Sloan pieces to show up in Metal Hurlant, ‘Dancin’ Ball’. (I’m not sure how well the thin-line, rather spidery pen-and-ink artwork will appear onscreen even with a 200 dpi scan, but I want the pages to load in a reasonable length of time). ‘Ball’ is a very cool take on futuristic bikers and wanton violence with a cynical twist of an ending.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: The Swarm

Book Review: 'The Swarm' by Arthur Herzog
4/5 Stars

During the early 70s there was considerable alarm (or, depending on how one looks at it, sensationalizing) in the mass media over the forthcoming advent of ‘Africanized’ or ‘killer’ honeybees to the US. This strain of bees had been introduced to Brazil in 1957 and had displaced the native bee population en route to expanding over much of that country. Throughout the succeeding decades the Africans had advanced northwards to occupy Central America, and it appeared that before the 70s ended they were likely to colonize the southern US.
The Africans are better at honey production than native bees, which pleases beekeepers; however, the Africans are also more aggressive in defending their hive and thus more likely to sting (hence the nickname ‘killer’ bees).
‘The Swarm’, which takes as its premise a catastrophic invasion of the US by killer bees, was therefore very timely when it appeared in hard cover in 1974. This Signet paperback edition was published in 1975; the cover features an ominous illustration of bees with glaring yellow eyes and protruding stingers (the artist is uncredited).
‘The Swarm’ appears to have been author Herzog’s first fiction book, and he wisely chose to emulate the Michael Crichton approach towards writing it by adopting a detached, documentary-like prose style and leavening the text with graphs, instrument readouts, computer-drawn maps, and other realistic-looking, ‘scientific’ graphics. The book takes place entirely in the present tense; there few flashback sequences; extended monologues and soliloquies are absent; and the narrative is made to unfold in an unadorned and fast-paced manner.
The hero of the story is an environmental scientist in Washington DC named John Wood, who is the first to recognize that a report of a fatal bee attack in upstate New York is something out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, Wood is unsuccessful in getting his administrators at the National Academy of Sciences to share his trepidation. It’s only when further bee attack reports appear in the media that Wood is allowed to carry out a deeper investigation, which reveals that African bees have in fact colonized the US. But these Africans are not just ‘ordinary’ killer bees; they are a race of mutants, physically larger, able to sting multiple times without dying (unlike ‘normal’ honeybees), and to make matters worse, they have succeeded in incorporating a toxin into their venom that makes them a ‘one sting, one kill’ adversary.
Following the revelation of the African presence, it’s a race between Wood and his colleagues to come up with strategies to limit the spread of the bees before they expand their range from their isolated bastions in the rural areas to the nation at large. As with Crichton’s ‘Wildfire’ program in ‘The Andromeda Strain’, the scientists in ‘The Swarm’ set up their own research facility in a covert government installation, and much of the narrative in the novel’s middle sections revolves around the researching of methods to combat the bees. The situation becomes critical when the bees begin to reproduce at an accelerated rate, and the prospect of enormous swarms of bees emerging from the woods to invade the cities becomes disturbingly real. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s clear that the battle between Man and Bee will be a take-no-prisoners affair, and victory over the insects is by no means certain….
Arthur Herzog wrote a number of successful thrillers with an SF basis (‘Earthsound’, ‘Heat’, ‘IQ83’) throughout the 70s and 80s. In recent years he has expanded his topics to mysteries, some humorous novels, and even a how-to book: ‘How to Write Almost Anything Better and Faster !
‘The Swarm’ is a well-written SF thriller that, like Crichton’s work, both informs and entertains the reader. The underpinning science is stretched a bit for dramatic purposes, but never becomes too contrived or otherworldly. The narratives moves quickly, with chapters short and to the point; remarks on ecological and environmental issues are inserted when relevant, but never subject the reader to tedious hectoring or preaching.
How well did ‘The Swarm’ foretell the future ? Well, it was not until 1990 that a colony of African bees was detected in Texas, but by 2008 they had been reported from across the South. Severe, sometimes fatal attacks by African bees are now a fact of life in Arizona, Florida, and southern California. One of the more disturbing features about the African honeybee incidents is the large number of stings (100 is not unusual) delivered to the hapless victims.
There is some uncertainty as to whether the African bees will continue to advance northwards into the Midwest or middle Atlantic regions, or be deterred by the colder climate. Only time will tell….

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Population Board game 1971

'Population' board game (Urban Systems, Inc., 1971)

So, it’s a rainy Autumn night late in 1971. There’s nothing much on the TV, your Carole King ‘Tapestry’ LP record has been played to death, and you’re a bit downhearted after reading, say, Paul Ehrlich’s paperback ‘The Population Bomb’. What do you do for fun ? Well, you can pull out the board game ‘Population’ and play out a grim scenario of overpopulation and eco-catastrophe in the comfort of your living room !
There’s a lengthy review of the game, as well as some interesting information about the company that designed and sold it, Urban Systems, posted at So I won’t go into too much detail over the game per se. It’s a great piece of early 70’s techno-design, with its futuristic ‘checkbook’ font, and very 'hip' chiaroscuro-inspired cover illustration. ‘Population’ is an entertaining example at how the over-riding eco-concern of the day was co-opted by the popular culture, but in a rather engaging, and even cerebral, manner.