Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: 'Dangerous Visions No. 1', edited by Harlan Ellison

1/5 Stars

‘Dangerous Visions’ (Doubleday, 1967) was the first major, and much-ballyhooed, anthology to showcase what would soon become known as ‘New Wave’ SF. With the passage of time is has become abundantly clear that the majority of the stories featured in the book were underwhelming.

The main impact of Dangerous Visions was in its message to the SF publishing industry: it was a financially and critically successful anthology of all-original tales. This was in contrast to the traditional industry approach to collections, in which previously published stories from the SF magazines were recycled in hardbound and paperbound anthologies. In a very real sense ‘Visions’ paved the way for the prominent role original anthologies now occupy in SF publishing, and, I would argue, the entire professional career of Martin H. Greenberg.

‘Dangerous Visions 1’ (Berkley, 1969, 220 pp.) was the first of a three-volume paperback reprinting of the original anthology. The cover illustration is uncredited, but appears to be by Don Ivan Punchatz. The interior illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, that appeared in the hardcover edition of Dangerous Visions, are faithfully reproduced here.

There are lengthy self-serving and back-patting introductions by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, and then Ellison issues a gushing introduction to each individual story. And then each story has a brief afterward by the author.

The lineup:

‘Evensong’ by Lester del Rey: a seemingly omnipotent being gets a harsh comeuppance. One of the better stories in the anthology, and one of the better stories del Rey ever wrote, probably because it’s very short, and didn’t give him too much text in which to commit his usual sin of bad writing.

‘Flies’ by Robert Silverberg: a crewman is rescued from a badly damaged craft and revived by gifted aliens, who, in order to learn more about the Human Condition, send him back to Earth. Not one of Silverberg’s best.

‘The Day After the Day the Martians Came’ by Frederik Pohl: the discovery of sentient life on Mars serves to illuminate race relations on Earth.

‘Riders of the Purple Wage’ by Philip Jose Farmer: a hopelessly self-indulgent and artsy attempt to rewrite ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ as a SF novelette. No other story in the anthology- and indeed from the SF literature of the entire 60’s – has aged as badly.

‘The Malley System’ by Miriam Allen DeFord: criminals in a near-future prison get too much of a good thing.

‘A Toy for Juliette’ by Robert Bloch: for amusement, a far-future murderess disposes of victims kidnapped, and brought forward in time, from past eras; but her latest plaything comes from Victorian England’s Whitechapel district… this tale has aged reasonably well, and serves as an example of a good short story by Bloch (who tended to falter in his efforts at producing successful novels).

‘The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World’, by Harlan Ellison: Ellison takes Bloch’s plot and continues it, albeit with groovy prose stylings mixed with rather graphic descriptions of violence. Another story that, while considered shocking and provocative at the time of its appearance, has aged reasonably well.

‘The Night That All Time Broke Out’ by Brian Aldiss: an accidental release of ‘time gas’ turns a northern English suburb into chaos. Yet another effort by Aldiss to emulate J. G. Ballard, but too diffuse and clumsy to be impressive.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'Where the Summer Ends' by Karl Edward Wagner

When the Dog Days of Summer are in effect, and the atmosphere is sweltering and steamy and every vacant lot or untended piece of turf gets swamped with vegetation, I readily think of the story ‘Where the Summer Ends’ (1981) by Karl Edward Wagner.

While Wagner is best known for his novels about Kane, the red-haired sword and sorcery adventurer, in my opinion, Wagner’s real strength as a writer was his short stories. And the best of these short stories is ‘Summer’, which appeared in the 1981 anthology 'Dark Forces' edited by Kirby McAuley.

The story is also printed in the anthology of southern ghost and supernatural stories ‘Nightmares in Dixie’ (1987), edited by McSherry, Waugh and Greenberg; and in ‘The American Fantasy Tradition’, edited by Brian M. Thomsen.

“Where the Summer Ends’ is set in Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 1977. Mercer, the protagonist of the story, is an older college student who is rehabbing a house in a seedy, decaying neighborhood. He furnishes his house with items salvaged from the abandoned homes littering the area, or with better-quality purchases from Grady, an elderly, cantankerous ‘antiques’ dealer who lives nearby. Grady has a fine mantelpiece that Mercer covets; with the strategic application of the right amount of liquor, maybe Grady will sell it for a price Mercer can afford.

The summer is hot and sticky and there are thunderstorms nearly every night. The entire ghetto has been overrun with kudzu, the fast-growing shrub originally imported from Japan. It overgrows the deserted homes and parking lots and playgrounds and it’s even encroaching on Grady’s house.

Mercer’s cat has gone missing.

Winos and vagrants from the neighborhood are turning up dead; old Morny’s corpse, mutilated and missing most of the skin, was discovered within a stand of kudzu.

And Mercer, when he stands very still on the sidewalk on a sweltering afternoon, hears rustling and skittering noises coming from under the thick clumps of kudzu…

Sunday, August 23, 2009

'Spacehawk' by Basil Wolverton
from 'Death Rattle' No. 14 January 1988

'Death Rattle' was a horror comic published by Kitchen Sink Press in the 80s. It featured b & w stories, many by veterans of the underground comix of the 60s and 70s, as well as an occasional reprint of earlier material. The gruesome cover for this issue is by Dean Armstrong.

In this issue, the reprint was a Basil Wolverton 'Spacehawk' adventure from 'Target' comics ca. 1940; I've excerpted it in full here.

What with the commotion over Fletcher Hanks, a contemporary of Wolverton's, it needs be remembered that when it came to quirky genius, Wolverton was just as gifted as Hanks, and this Spacehawk story is a good illustration of that fact.

(click on each thumbnail to expand to a full-page image)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Review: 'The Year of the Quiet Sun' by Wilson Tucker

3/5 Stars

This edition of ‘The Year of the Quiet Sun’ (1970) is an Ace paperback (252 pp.); the cover artist is uncredited.

It’s 1978, and the US is still at war in Southeast Asia, having in fact traded local nukes with the Red Chinese. Women wear bathing suits with transparent tops, the Arabs and Israelis have fought yet another war, and archeologist Brian Chaney has released a controversial best-seller that argues that the Book of Revelation was a work of fiction.

When an attractive young woman named Kathryn van Hise accosts him on a Florida beach, Chaney is uncooperative, thinking her to be yet another reporter. However, van Hise is a federal employee and she offers him an unusual assignment: join the Bureau of Standards and travel forward in time.

Chaney finds himself stationed at a secret government installation outside Chicago, where a major project is underway to construct a time travel vehicle called the TDV. Chaney is one of three men who will be sent forward to the year 2000, to reconnoiter and determine if the US will be a better place after the social tumult of the 60s subsides…or not,as the case may be.

Much of the first 110 pages of the book are plodding, and mainly consist of conversations wherein author Tucker demonstrates his ability to have his male and female characters engage in flirty repartee. However, after this protracted meandering our main characters actually do travel forward in time, the plot picks up momentum, and the final sections of the book are an engaging read.

The time travel portions of the novel are convincing because Tucker takes a conservative approach, and avoids introducing paradoxes or other baroque consequences of violating the laws of causality. The mechanics of arriving in a period twenty years from the present, recording information, and then returning to the past are well-conceived, and help keep the narrative grounded in a plausible ‘what if’ scenario based on the social conditions existing in the late 60’s.

I won’t spoil things by revealing the novel’s major plot hinge, save to say that while it may seem dated to contemporary readers, it does succeed in imparting a thoughtful note to the story’s closing pages.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 20 (September 1973)

This issue introduces a story arc involving The Warlord, a former scientist in the employ of the Martians, who was mutilated by Killraven. Re-equipped with a steel arm, the Warlord is anxious to have revenge on Killraven. Marv Wolfman and Herb Trimpe take over the writing and artistic duties, respectively, and they stay true to the wacky, over-the-top spirit of the book. In the sequence I've excerpted here, Killraven and his homeboy M'Shulla trade wisecracks as they take down a Martian Tripod by the use of underwater-assisted unbalancing (?!).

I've also posted a page showing the Warlord in conversation with one of the Martians. Marvel's depiction of what are supposed to be fear-inducing creatures is underwhelming, as their design of the Martians resembles squat, brown versions of Cousin Itt from the 'Addams Family' cartoons and TV show.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book Review: 'The Blue World' by Jack Vance

5/5 Stars

‘The Blue World’ was originally published in 1966; this Ballantine Del Rey paperback edition (190 pp.) was published in 1977, with a cover illustration by Vincent DiFate.

On an unnamed planet where the surface is entirely covered by a shallow sea, the descendants of a crashed earth spaceship have set up a civilization centered on living atop ‘floats’, enormous lily pads hundreds of yards in circumference. Food is garnered from the rich marine ecosystem; the weather is balmy; and life much like that imagined to take place on a tropical paradise.

The flies in this potentially idyllic setting are the ‘kragen’, squid-like creatures that regularly encroach on the sponge farms that constitute a major food source for the humans. In an effort to deter the pilfering of the lesser kragen, the humans have entered into an uneasy alliance with the biggest kragen of all: ‘King Kragen’ is several hundred feet long, and armed with sharp mandibles and formidable tentacles. The price for having King Kragen defend their sponge pens from interlopers is steep, as a significant portion of the crop is allocated to meet his ever-increasing appetite.

Sklar Hast, a brawny but thoughtful young man, brings conflict to Tranque float, where he lives as a member of a signaler caste, by questioning the need to cater to King Kragen. His attitudes spark resentment from the priestly caste of Intercessors, who bear the responsibility of summoning King Kragen to eliminate the lesser kragen when the latter are discovered plundering the sponge pens.

Before long, Sklar Hast’s rebelliousness leads to a violent confrontation, and his exile from the float community. But Hast is undeterred; he seeks to not only establish a new colony, but one devoted to the destruction of King Kragen. Can he and his band of followers devise a method to kill a monster squid when human technology is limited to what substances can be derived from aquatic plants and animals ? Can he deter the resentful Intercessors long enough to give his new colony a chance at survival ? Or will Sklar Hast and his revolutionary movement fall before the wrath of King Kragen ?

The Blue World’ is a fast-moving and well-written SF adventure. As is usual with Vance, the narrative is mainly a platform upon which he can indulge in his goal of crafting ornate passages of dialogue, and adjective-rich descriptions of life within a unique marine environment.

But he takes care to see that the plot holds the reader’s interest, using memorable adversaries, typified by the arrogant Intercesor Barquan Blasdel, as capable foils to Sklar Hast and his band of renegades. The strategies whereby Hast and his followers contrive to deal with the kragens, and later King Kragen himself, have a genuine scientific background and impart mounting suspense to the novel’s last 50 pages. Readers interested in a well-told story that avoids the more indolent pacing of Vance’s other SF novels will find ‘The Blue World’ to be a pleasing read.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine August 1979

The August 1979 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ featured a cover by Mantxo Algora titled ‘Tan, Don’t Burn’ and a back cover by Martin Springett titled ‘Buz’.

This issue had several good stories within its pages. ‘Free Ways’ by Lee Marks, ‘New Ark City’ by Caza, and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, a visual accompaniment to the Rolling Stones song, drawn by James Waley, were a cut above the usual material. But the best piece in the issue was ‘Mama’s Place’ by Arthur Suydam, which I’ve posted here.

Suydam was arguably the most impressive of the artists and writers featured in the pages of Heavy Metal during the late 70s. Each of his stories was meticulously drawn, colored, and lettered, and featured an original (and genuinely creepy) approach to SF and horror topics.

Suydam is best known to contemporary readers for his covers for Dark Horse comic’s ‘Alien’ titles, and Marvel’s ‘Zombies’ series.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Review: 'Second Nature' by Cherry Wilder

2/5 Stars

‘Second Nature’ (1982; 254 pp.) is a paperback original from Pocket Books’s Timescape imprint. The cover illustration (the artist is uncredited) depicts what appears to be a Lovecraftian monster; in reality this is one of the ‘Vail’ featured in the text.

Two hundred and sixty-five years after the spaceship Rho Maryland crash-landed on an unnamed planet orbiting the star Delta Pavonis, the descendents of the ship’s crew have managed to eke out a successful, if low-tech, society devoted to agriculture and fishing. The central outpost of the human society is the city of Rhomary, where lives the main character, a scholar named Maxim Bro. Rhomary supports a complex ecology of religious sects and professional guilds, some members of which possess quasi-telepathic abilities. Native herbivores serve as the primary means of overland transport, while wooden sailing ships ply the large seas. There is lingering angst over the departure, decades ago, of the Vail, a race of enormous, benign aquatic creatures.

The stories of their spacefaring ancestors and their wondrous technology are dwindling into mythology, but still there is a mystical hope that other vessels may someday make planetfall. When Maxim Bro learns that red streaks have been seen across the night sky, and meteor fragments of some sort have fallen to the earth, he sets out on a journey to the Gann Station, a community alongside the Western Sea, where a Captain LaMar has recovered what appears to be a chunk of a spacecraft from the water.

Soon an android is recovered from the sea; a religious cult reacts unfavorably to the news. The narrative focuses on the reaction of various characters, including Maxim Bro, to realization that the legends have come to life and contact with Earth and its space vessels may be within reach.

Reading ‘Second Nature’ is a laborious experience. Author Wilder (the pseudonym of New Zealand writer Cherry Barbara Grimm) has a tendency to adopt an elliptical approach to disclosing key features of the narrative. Too often, people, places, things, and historical antecedents are introduced to the reader with little in the way of accompanying exposition. The reader is regularly forced to infer what is taking place from oblique stretches of dialogue and descriptive passages. At the same time, Wilder will lavish an adjective-rich, almost poetic approach to describe things of ancillary importance to the main narrative.

The book’s Prologue is an example of the drawbacks of Wilder’s too-stylized writing. It relates an early encounter between a human colonist and one of the immense aquatic creatures (the Vail) which are native to the planet. The first-person narrator is in fact a Vail, while the ‘minmer’ it mentions is its wary human contactee. This information is related to the reader with little in the way of explication; to make things worse, sections of italicized text inserted into this Prologue deal with an independent story thread with dim relevance to the main narrative. I had to re-read this section several times in order to finally figure out exactly what was taking place.

I suspect few readers, when confronted with this rather inaccessible start to the novel, will be willing to push on. If they do, they will find a novel with flashes of adventure, but on the whole, suffering from too diffuse an approach to storytelling.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

'Slow Death' Comix No. 6 (1974)

‘Slow Death’ No. 6 (1974) features on its cover President Nixon, aboard an alien spaceship and negotiating with its crew – drawn with care to call to mind the classic EC SF comics of the 50s - for access to their oil. In the background, some aliens are dining on something suspicious.

Most of the stories in this issue (‘The Long Sleep’ by George Metzger, ‘Raw Meat’ by Rand Holmes, and ‘White Man’s Burden’ by Jaxon) cannot be posted to a ‘G’ or ‘PG’ rated blog site, but Charles Dallas’s ‘Call of the Wild’ should qualify. I’ve posted the story in its entirety; it’s a creepy tale of caged animals getting a chance to even the score.

The depiction of ‘Miss Miller’, the elderly woman who manages the ‘nature museum’, brilliantly resembles the nasty old WASP shrews and spinsters I encountered growing up in a small town in upstate New York. Outwardly, paragons of virtue; upstanding citizens of the community; members of the DAR and the Shriner's Lady Auxilliary; inwardly, vicious and bitter towards small things like animals and children.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 19 (July 1973)

‘Amazing Adventures’ No.19 (July 1973) is the second installment of the ‘War of the Worlds’ narrative. This issue’s story is the ‘Sirens of 7th Avenue’ by Gerry Conway, with art by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin’s art still has a rushed quality (he was assigned to the book with short notice – not an unusual occurrence for the Marvel staff during the 70s) but he manages to draw the Sirens with a sufficiently groovy, early 70’s fashion-rich detail.

Unfortunately for the Sirens- Earth women genetically engineered to manipulate rogue males into ready submission to their Martian overlords – Killraven is immune to their charms. So a squadron of mutants, including what seems to be a canine-human cross, is let loose with orders to rend him limb from limb.

With this issue the frenetic pacing that marked the series becomes more prominent. Within the span of just twenty pages there are battle with a monster lizard, a Martian Tripod, and a Super-Mutant all within the ruins of what used to be New York City.