Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review: 'The Starless World' by Gordon Eklund

2/5 Stars

By the mid-70s Paramount had finally begun to realize that the pop culture phenomenon that was Star Trek had only begun to be harnessed for profit. When Bantam exhausted the novelizations of the show scripts in its bestselling series by James Blish, Star TrekStar Trek 12, new content was clearly necessary. Thus the ongoing juggernaut of novelizations began, and continues to this day. ‘The Starless World’, by Gordon Eklund, is one of the early novelizations and appeared in 1978. The cover artist appears to be Vincent DiFate.

The Enterprise is on a routine survey mission to map black holes within the vicinity of the Galactic Core when it is approached by a shuttlecraft affiliated with the Rickover, a starship that disappeared from Starfleet records 11 years previously. The pilot of the shuttlecraft is a deranged man named Thomas Clayton, a former friend and student along with Captain Kirk at the Starfleet Academy. Clayton babbles nonsense about a Sun God named Ay-nab.

Soon after its encounter with the shuttlecraft, the Enterprise finds itself trapped by an immeasurably powerful tractor beam, which pulls the ship into a Dyson Sphere: an enormous artificial globe that harbors within its interior an Earth-like planet named Lyra. Lyra is the size of Jupiter, with artificial moons, and a sun, orbiting its bulk. The Enterprise takes up orbit around Lyra and Kirk and company Beam Down to the surface to investigate.

Not only do the Enterprise crew discover that the planet contains a small city, Tumara, but it is populated by furry little humanoids who utter the sort of enigmatic banalities that all simpleton aliens habitually make in Star Trek stories. This of course makes Kirk’s job of finding out what it going on harder than usual. Add into the mix some stranded Klingons; some zombie-like wayward Rickover crew members called ‘Strangers’, and the fact that sooner rather than later the Dyson Sphere and its contents are going to collide with a black hole, and you have what seem to be the ingredients for a memorable drama.

Unfortunately, ‘The Starless World’ disappoints. Its 152 pages really fail to offer much in the way of excitement or suspense. To be fair to author Gordon Eklund, plots for a franchised property like Star Trek need to follow strict guidelines (this isn’t Slash Fiction, after all) but much of ‘World’ revolves around themes that are derived from several of the series’ original episodes (‘The Apple’, ‘For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky’, and ‘The Paradise Syndrome’ come readily to mind). The narrative tends to expend its energies meandering from one puzzling encounter to another, all the while trying to set things up for a closing Revelation that is more than a little contrived.

I can’t recommend ‘The Starless World’ to general-audience SF readers, and I suspect that even Trekkies will find it underwhelming.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Comic Review: 'The Thing From Another World' (PartTwo) Dark Horse Comics (1991)

In the second issue of this two-parter features another stellar cover by John Higgins.

In the pages I've excerpted, MacReady meets up with Nauls, the other survivor from the American Antarctic Research station ravaged by The Thing. The problem is, MacReady can't tell if Nauls has been infected or not...and to complicate matters, representatives of an Argentine research station have decided to enter the picture....

This two-part series is one of the better handlings of a licensed property by Dark Horse comics (something they do not always do with their other licensed properties), with superior art and story, and well worth searching for in the used comic marketplace.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review: 'The Witcher' by Andrzej Sapkowski

3/5 Stars

I don’t usually pick up contemporary fantasy titles, but I decided to get ‘The Last Wish’ (originally printed in 2007; this Orbit books paperback, 2008) after having played the computer game ‘The Witcher’, which is based on the character created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

Geralt of Rivia has been raised from a young age to be a Witcher: one who tracks and kills monsters for a fee. He plies his trade in a medieval world where humans are the dominant race, and dwarves and elves are relegated to eking out a living in the slum districts. Magic is carefully rationed and primarily the responsibility of the Wizard caste, although Geralt can use certain spells if needed. While his Witcher training has given Geralt superhuman powers of combat and endurance, his pale complexion, mutant eyes, and cynical disposition often lead other humans to regard him with suspicion and mistrust.

The Last Wish is a collection of episodic adventures, linked by an overarching storyline (‘The Voice of Reason’).

The first episode, ‘The Witcher’, introduces Geralt and sees him tasked with eliminating a woman transformed into a striga, a bloodthirsty monster from Eastern European legend. In ‘A Grain of Truth’, Geralt encounters a beast with refined manners and a violent girlfriend. ‘The Lesser Evil’ pits our Witcher against a vengeful bandit girl, and ‘A Question of Price’ deals with the fulfillment of vows spoken in extremis. ‘The Edge of the World’ takes place in a remote rural district where a demon has been harassing some peaceful farmers. The final story, ‘The Last Wish’, involves a genie loosed from a bottle, with fateful consequences.

Overall, ‘The Last Wish’ offers well-written, if slow-paced, tales that depart from the fantasy clichés that so dominate the publishing market these days. Sapkowski demurs from siting Geralt in a ‘traditional’ fantasy landscape driven by Epic Quests involving the Fate of the World. Rather, The Witcher’s adventures take place in mean small towns, ruins crumbling along the sides of little-used dirt paths, and castle dinner parties hosted by conniving royalty. The confrontations Geralt finds himself involved with are small-scale, never involving legions of Orcs facing off against squadrons of Heroes, but nonetheless bitter and intense.

I intend to read succeeding volumes in the Witcher Saga; I hope that the Eastern European mythology and culture that make understated appearances in the first book will expand over time, as they help give the novel a bit of unique flavor. Readers looking for a fantasy character and setting that stand apart from the formulaic material displayed on the retail shelves may find ‘The Last Wish’ worth investigating.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Book Review: 'The Day Before Tomorrow' by Gerard Klein

1/5 Stars

Gerard Klein (b. 1937) is a French SF writer. This novel was originally published as Le Temps n'a pas d'Odeur (‘Time Has No Scent’) in 1963 (1967 ?). The DAW books (No. 11) version was titled ‘The Day Before Tomorrow’ and issued in 1972. The translation to English was done by P. J. Sokolowski, and the cover illustration was done by Josh Kirby.

Far in the future, the galaxy is ruled by an authoritarian Federation. One of the means by which the Federation retains power is to utilize time travel to disrupt the course of civilization on those worlds that may, at some time in their development, threaten the Federation’s hegemony. To accomplish this, teams of seven men, wearing super-spacesuits and carrying ray guns, use time-travel technology to arrive in the past of the targeted planet. There the ‘time team’ uses covert tactics such as assassination, hypnotic control, or simple sabotage, to ensure that no rival to the Federation will ever emerge from the hapless planet.

On the most recent Federation mission, a time team headed by Coordinator Jorgenssen is dispatched two hundred and fifty years into the past of the planet Ygone. Since the planet is inhabited by a human-like race of lotus eaters at a rudimentary level of technology, Ygone seems hardly equipped to pose any threat to the federation. But the time team intend to carry out their orders destroy the planet’s capital city of Dalaam.

However, once on-planet, the team finds itself subjected to ambush from an unseen enemy wielding technology too advanced for the Ygonians to have developed. Barely escaping the ambush, the team finds themselves stranded, their equipment inoperable, with no way to return to the Federation. Jorgenssen makes a decision to visit the city of Dalaam and speak with the residents: what, exactly, is the mystery underlying Ygone and its inhabitants ? How did a people lacking any sort of technological prowess manage to deactivate the advanced weaponry of the time team ? Is there a link between Ygone and the long-vanished inventor of time travel, Archimboldo Urzeit ? Will Jorgenssen and his time team find themselves forced to choose between saving the Federation, or saving their own lives ?

‘The Day After Tomorrow’ starts off with a reasonably entertaining premise, but from the book’s mid-point on to the final sentence, whatever momentum the narrative has achieved begins to dissipate as the author engages in labored philosophical discourses. What initially seems like a time travel adventure promising some degree of technical ingenuity quickly lurches into a ponderous exposition on the nature of reality, destiny, and free will. The reader gets barraged with insipid stretches of dialog that try too hard to be Profound:

“But reality can include everything, even paradoxes. Or, rather, in reality there are no paradoxes.”

I won’t disclose much else about the plot in this short (128 pp) novel, so as not to spoil things. But ‘Day’ didn’t do much for me: author Klein was trying to cook up something like a Herman Hesse novel with SF machinations, and the result was half-baked…..

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 18 (May 1973)

Through the magic of eBay I’ve been able to get the Amazing Adventures comics from the early – to – mid 70s that featured ‘Killraven’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ storyline. I’ll be excerpting selected pages from each issue, No. 18 thru No. 39.

I’ll start things off, naturally enough, with Amazing Adventures No. 18 (May 1973) which introduces the War of the Worlds narrative and the character of Killraven. Gerry Conway wrote the script and Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin shared the artist duties.

I’m posting some of the pages that depict how the ‘second’ War of the Worlds came about, and led to the Martians' conquest of the early 21st century Earth…I remember reading these pages while thumbing thru the book way back in the spring of 1973 at the 7 - 11 in Elmira Heights, New York. 'War of the Worlds' had a very downbeat, intense approach when compared to most of the other books on the rack in those Comics Code Authority days.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: 'The Thing' by Alan Dean Foster
Comic Review: 'The Thing From Another World' (Part One) Dark Horse Comics (1991)

Back in July 1982 I went to see John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Ritz Theater on Clinton Street. The film had rather quickly gone from the first-run theaters to the second-run theaters like the Ritz, which offered admission for –if I remember correctly – only $ 2. Part of the reason for the film’s lack of success was the fact that ‘E.T.’ was out at the same time and everyone was going to see the kiddie film with the lovable alien, rather than the gross-out spectacle of The Thing. In today’s era of Saw movies the blood and guts aspect of The Thing may seem a bit subdued, but back in ’82 they were considered pretty intense .

Ironically, in the decades since its release Carpenter’s film has emerged as a classic of SF cinema while ET has dwindled in reputation. It’s fine with me; I thought The Thing was a great movie, and second only to Escape From New York among Carpenter’s best films.

Allen Dean Foster’s novelization of The Thing (Bantam Books, February 1982, 196 pp.) was released in advance of the feature film. The book has a suitably creepy cover, by an uncredited artist, depicting the creature pushing itself up through the snow.

I won’t divulge much about the storyline in order not to spoil things for those who have yet to see the movie. The novelization offers some expansion on various scenes in the film, as well as depictions of minor events not present in the film. There’s a bit more exposition on the possible nature of the creature and its spaceship, and the first possession of a camp member by The Thing occurs differently from what is depicted on screen. Some of this extra material is padding, and could have been excised without harming the narrative. But overall the novelization remains true to the filmed version.

In 1991, nearly a decade after the movie was released, Dark Horse comics, which had seen quite a bit of financial success in releasing comics based on licensed properties like the Alien movies, produced a two-part sequel to the film, titled ‘The Thing From Another World’. The first issue featured a brilliant cover, and interior art, by the British artist John Higgins.

The script, by Chuck Pfarrer, picked up where the film left off, with MacReady (Kurt Russell’s character) being carried over the icepack by Childs, the other survivor, and left in the care of a Japanese whaling ship called the Misaki Maru. MacReady regains consciousness and heads back to what remains of his Antarctic Research outpost in order to confront Childs and eliminate any vestiges of The Thing. It turns out some other people have an interest in the destroyed research outpost, and MacReady will have quite a bit of explaining to do…to men with guns and skeptical attitudes.

I’ve provided some interior pages from Part One here, and I intend to provide some pages from Part Two in an upcoming post. ‘The Thing From Another World’ is a great two-part comic, with memorable art from Higgins (who draws monsters better than any other artist out there), and belongs in the collection of any fan of the Carpenter film.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jonah Hex: 'Six Gun War' Part Two (Issue 45)

In ‘Jonah Hex’ issue No. 45, it’s part two of the six-part ‘Six Gun War’ story.

In this issue ‘El Diablo’, a DC western comic character from the early 70s, makes an appearance. While I’m never too thrilled when DC’s editorial staff finds some excuse to shove grade B cast members into supporting roles in various storylines, hopefully in ‘Six Gun War’ Diablo will be a muted presence at most.

This issue also features an (off-panel) molestation / abuse sequence, involving female bounty hunter Tallulah Black, that is one of the more creepy incidents in the Jonah Hex tales. Needless to say the story arc is building towards a gun battle, and attendant slaughter, of epic proportions by the time part six sees print.

I’ve posted two pages in which El Diablo confronts Jonah….while the latter is casually flicking a maggot off the wounds on his face incurred when he was buried alive in the previous issue…. !

Monday, July 6, 2009

Book Review: 'Assassins From Tomorrow' by Peter Heath

2/5 Stars

‘Assassins From Tomorrow’ (1967; Lancer books) is the second of the ‘Mind Brothers’ adventures, the first volume being ‘The Mind Brothers’ (1967), and the third, ‘Men Who Die Twice’ (1968). 'Peter Heath' (sometimes Peter Heath Fine) is the pseudonym of writer Robert Irvine , who has written several mystery novels featuring a private eye named Harry Lake.

‘Assassins’ is really more of a ‘superspy’ genre novel than a genuine SF adventure, not unusual given that such themes were very popular in 1967. The book’s prose style is very much that of the 60s private eye novel, resolutely clipped and world-weary:

The road north from Houston to Dallas runs long and straight. In fact, it is the Texas version of the superhighway; a four-lane concrete dragstrip for air-conditioned, high-powered cars. Jason had one, too. A rented job from the ‘We Try Harder’ people. He clipped along through the early-morning sunlight at a steady eighty-five miles per hour, listening to a bigot preach the latest word from the radio gospel of true hate. Next to Los Angeles, he decided, the Southwest had more kooks per acre than all the rest of the world combined. Yet most of them weren’t bad people- just out of step with some of the harsh realities of the twentieth century.
After you got used to the heat, the first thing you noticed was the smell of Mexico. A greasy pungence that attacked the nose until its membranes were deadened to the odors of poverty, pain, and human sweat. Then the eyes took over. They showed you the difference between the richest country in the world and one of the poorest. They showed you the clean well-paved calle that ran through the center of the tourist district. They showed you the shops full of straw baskets and badly carved Aztec wooden gods and the neon invitations to bars that specialized in vibrating the libido.
Jason wandered through the narrow empty streets of Puerto Vallarta with the sun cooking his thoughts into a meaningless batter.
Jason walked back to the jeep and sat on the fender. He smoked a cigarette. He smoked another. Then he got inside, started the engine, and turned around. He sat for a long time with the engine running, looking at the sea. It had nothing to say. Nothing at all.

The ‘Mind Brothers’ are a young mathematician named Jason Starr; Adam Cyber, a man from 50,000 years into the future who has time-traveled back to the 60s determined to prevent humanity from making the mistakes that made his original home a wreck; and a young genius (and off-hours folk singer) named Mark Brown. The Mind Brothers operate as a sort of three-man U.N.C.L.E. or IMF; independently wealthy, they have access to their own Learjet, the latest in computing technology, and the means to drop their everyday consulting work in order to pursue cryptic events the world over.

‘Assassins From Tomorrow’ deals with a secretive, technologically advanced organization named 'Sutra' that works to prevent people from asking too many questions about the J. F. Kennedy assassination. When Mark Brown ventures to Dallas to ask precisely those sorts of questions, the Mind Brothers soon tangle with the mysterious enemy. Can Jason, Mark, and Adam Cyber expose the nefarious intentions of Sutra and save the earth ?

‘Assassins’ is cheerfully meant to be a short (160 pp), entertaining, but not very deep, adventure. It succeeds in this goal. The narrative moves along at a fast pace; outlandish events take place within a span of just two or three pages; there are all sorts of plot contrivances that dissolve into silliness if one pays too much attention to them. The writing style will probably provoke some eye-rolling from modern readers, but I imagine those familiar with the Travis McGee novels of the same era will feel right at home. Readers looking for a groovy 60s adventure with some SF trappings will like ‘Assassins’, but those yearning for a more sophisticated entry in the genre will want to look elsewhere.

Friday, July 3, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine July 1979

The July 1979 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine featured Richard Corben and Rick Courtney’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ as the front cover and Caza’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ on the back cover.

This was another so-so issue. The final episode of Corben’s ‘New Tales of the Arabian Nights’ finally saw print. Some interesting b & w pieces- ‘Attila the Frog’ by Don Lomax and ‘The Great Trap’ by Sire – appeared, as did a full color tale from Gray Morrow: ‘Stingaree: Eight Belles’. But other entries, ‘Citizens Beware’ by Mark Fisher, or ‘Zooks’ by Vaughn Bode, were underwhelming.

Probably the best entry in the issue was ‘…Rears Its Ugly Green Head’ by Michael Hinge and Neal Adams. With its psychedelic art style, ‘Rears’ calls to mind Peter Max and the 60s Pop Art scene. The complex rainbow coloring displayed in the panels must have taken several months to complete, since this was well before the advent of computer graphics. Enjoy !

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock

4/5 Stars

…He sighed. “But you know, I think I’m not meant to be here.”
“Oh, nonsense.”

“No, it’s true. This is 1903 – or a 1903 – but it - it isn’t my 1903.”

Thus says Oswald Bastable, Nomad of the Time Streams, in Michael Morcock’s 1971 novel ‘The Warlord of the Air’.

Oswald Bastable is a Captain in the British Army in northern India in 1902. He and his troops are sent to the state of Kumbalari, in a remote part of the Himalayas, to confront a local bandit named Sharan Kang. When a parlay with Kang goes badly, Bastable finds himself lost within an ancient temple, named Teku Benga, filled with mysterious passageways that may lead to other dimensions and other eras. An earthquake releases a strange vapor, which in turn puts Bastable into a deep sleep. When he awakes, it is to find himself alone in the ruins of Teku Benga, his clothes crumbled into dust, and the area devoid of signs of life.

Bastable hears a strange sound approaching his location and is astonished to see a massive airship, bearing the livery of the ‘Royal Indian Air Service’ and the Union Jack. His frantic cries to the airship are answered, and Bastable ascends into the gondola to find a group of puzzled British officers. It turns out the year is 1973, and no one has been seen among the ruins of Teku Benga for nearly 70 years. Bastable realizes that somehow, the vapor that he encountered in the ruins of the temple has kept him in suspended animation for decades, and he is still a young man in a future he would otherwise never have lived to see.

Upon his return to civilization, Bastable is awed by the sight of modern cities, monorails, electric lights, and steam-powered motor cars. The entire world seems safe and prosperous under a benevolent Rule Britannia. Bastable soon obtains a job working aboard one of the large airships plying the skies and comes to relish a life spent traveling from one exotic locale to another in Her Majesty’s service. But then fate intervenes, and Bastable learns that the world’s social and political order is not what it appears, and desperate characters are conspiring to bring about revolutionary change. Will Bastable stand with the anarchists, or against them ?

‘Warlord’ was a seminal novel in terms of promoting and mingling steampunk and alternate world adventures into one book. In its depiction of a parallel world ruled by an ever-enduring British Empire it echoed the theme of Ronald Clark’s earlier proto-steampunk novel ‘Queen Victoria’s Bomb’ (1967), but Moorcock was much better at assembling a fast-paced adventure tale. ‘Warlord’ is instrumental in paving the way for the new genre of alt-future Rule Britannia media, particularly in comics and graphic novels, from Brian Talbot’s ‘Heart of Empire’ series , to the ‘Scarlet Traces’ books by Ian Edginton, and more recently, Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ series.

‘Warlord’ is very much a product of the late 60s – early 70s, in that it presents a Rule Britannia in a less than salutary light. Moorcock has always been an ardent proponent of Marxism – it is ever the fashion among European and American intellectuals – and the infatuation with third-world liberation that was rampant among the cognoscenti in that era quite naturally made its way into the underpinnings of ‘Warlord’. 

However, Moorcock avoids turning the book into a polemic, instead weaving the Liberation Struggle into the narrative along with sly jokes on the alternate 1973 in which Bastable finds himself: there is a young lieutenant in the Air Service named Michael Jagger; an elderly, cranky Russian expatriate, named Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin), rues his missed chance at leading a revolution earlier in the century; a decadent aristocrat named Count (Ernesto ‘Che’) Guevara wanders the globe as a dilettante revolutionary. 

The second and third books in the Nomad of Time trilogy, ‘The Land Leviathan’ and ‘The Steel Tsar’, continue Bastable’s adventures. They are all entertaining reads. 

The DAW books edition (No. 291) of ‘Warlord of the Air’ appeared in May 1978 and features a cover illustration of the airship ‘Pericles’ by Gino D’Achille. 

I’ve posted another cover illustration, this one by Patrick Woodruffe, depicting Oswald Bastable emerging from the ruins of Teku Benga to espy the Pericles motoring by.