Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: 'Faerie Tale' by Raymond E. Feist

3/5 Stars 

‘Faerie Tale’ was originally published in 1988; this Bantam Spectra paperback (435 pp) was published in 1989 and features a cover illustration by Chris Hopkins.

Phil Hastings is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who decides to move his family: wife Gloria, a former actress; shapely teenage daughter Gabbie; and twin 8 year-old sons Sean and Patrick – to a stately old mansion in rural Western New York. It’s summertime and the living is easy in their new place, which was previously owned by a German immigrant named Herman Kessler.

Before too long, the twins realize that the landscape around the house is peopled (if that’s the right word) by the daoine sídhe (‘deena shee’): the leprechauns and other fairy creatures from Irish mythology. The leprechauns and sprites are harmless, if a bit mischievous. But others of the fairies lurking in the vicinity are more than a little lubricious where Gabbie is concerned, and some are genuinely malevolent. As the summer wears on, the encounters between the Hastings family and the daoine sidhe become more frequent and even hazardous. A friend with some knowledge of the Spirit World, Mark Blackman, becomes involved with the family’s plight and discovers that Herman Kessler was expelled from Germany earlier in the century for dabbling with Forbidden Knowledge….never a good sign.

As the mysteries of the Kessler house and its relation to the advent of the fairies are uncovered, the darker entities inhabiting the surrounding woods become manifest, and the Hastings family finds themselves on the front lines of a renewal of an ancient feud between the daoine sidhe and mankind. It will fall upon the twins Sean and Patrick to confront the evil clans among the fairy folk…on the latter’s home turf.

‘Faerie Tale’ has an interesting premise and stands as one of the forerunner novels in what today is a highly successful subgenre in fantasy writing, the so-called ‘urban’ fantasy, in which the supernatural world regularly intrudes into our own everyday existence.

At times ‘Tale’ is quite engaging and the cast of characters, both human and fairy, is varied and interesting. However, I found that the portrayal of the more humanoid races of the daoine sidhe tended to evoke some eye-rolling on my part; as Feist depicts them, simply being around such creatures too often tends to reduce the adult human characters to quivering, sobbing masses of mingled lust and awe. In the place of a Darby O’Gill – type figure who is adept at dealing with the fairies on their own terms, we are given Barney Doyle, a forlorn, rather hapless figure who mumbles cryptic remarks about the ‘Good People’. Unfortunately for the Hastings family, Barney can drink, and tell some tall tales, but he can’t dance, a fatal weakness when confronting Irish fairies.

With regard to the narrative, at 435 pages the novel is too long and could have been shortened by a hundred pages. The middle section tends to drag, with author Feist teasing the reader with portents of doom and vague hints of menace; some of the sub-plots lurching to fruition at this juncture really don’t add much to the narrative, and could have been excised without penalty. The book’s final 100 pages do impart new momentum to the plot but at times even this section of the book seems a bit padded.

At its heart ‘Faerie Tale’ is really a novel about two children forced to battle the daoine sidhe in order to save themselves (and by extension The World), while their parents, vaguely disturbed by what seem to be childish nightmares and misadventures, stand clueless and obtuse. In my opinion it could have been a very successful Young Adult novel with just some minor changes in content. But adult readers, for whom the book is intended, will find ‘Faerie Tale’ worth a look.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

'Slow Death' Comix No. 2 (1970)

Issue 2 (1970) of Last Gasps’s ‘Slow Death’ eco-horror comic states its manifesto clearly on the inside cover page, with the aid of a pollution-spawned version of the ‘host’ from the EC horror comics of the 50s (which were much admired by the underground comix artists).

This issue featured some good stories by Dave Sheriden with ‘The Sex Evulsors of Technicus’; Richard Corben (‘Gore’) with ‘How Howie Made It in the Real World’; and Jim Osborne’s ‘Routine’, which I’ve posted here. Osborne’s distinctive draftsmanship and art style is well displayed here; it’s a shame he dropped out of the comix field in the mid-70s.




In one of those bizarre, only- in -the – hippy -era sort of pop culture collisions, Kristen Carpenter, the daughter of Mercury program astronaut Scott Carpenter, wrote in to complain about the unflattering depiction of her father in a strip (evidently titled ‘Ego-Trip on Babylon’, by a Mr Grimshaw) featured in issue 1 of Slow Death.

In his (somewhat stoned-sounding) response, Grimshaw is less than apologetic, as one might expect of an eco-conscious artist on a political mission in those halcyon days of Power to the People…… although in my opinion, since Kristen was a comix reader and thus quite ‘hip’ and ‘groovy’, rather than an ordinary ‘square’ , she should have been given a more welcoming reception.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: 'Tomorrow and Beyond' edited by Ian Summers

4/5 Stars

“Tomorrow and Beyond: Masterpieces of Science Fiction Art”, edited by Ian Summers, is a large-format paperback published in 1978 by Workman Publishing. At the time, it was one of the few books about SF art available in the stores. Its 158 pages, some of which I’ve excerpted here, provide a good overview of art styles prevailing in the 70s for SF, fantasy, and horror paperbacks.

The images are reproduced with pleasing clarity in full color, and images are presented in a format in which many are given a full-page treatment, while others appear as blocks of two to four images on a page. The images are categorized by topic: astronauts, aliens, spaceships, symbolism, supernatural, etc., so there is a varied selection of genres. Many of the artists represented in ‘Tomorrow and Beyond’ will be very familiar to readers of SF during that era: Carl Lundgren, Brad Holland, Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, Boris, and Michael Whelan. There are examples of both realistic and abstract approaches to SF art, and even some sculpture and mixed-media pieces.

PC-based art creation and design software was still another 15 years away when the book was released, so the use of the airbrush was about as high-tech as one could get in the 70s. But there are some well-composed illustrations, rendered with skill and craftsmanship, in these pages.

The book’s main weakness is that the titles and publishing histories of the images are relegated to an Appendix at the back of the book, requiring the reader to do some back-and-forth page-flipping in order to see what book a particular illustration is associated with.

For readers of SF in the 70s, ‘Tomorrow and Beyond’ will be a pleasantly nostalgic trip back to an era when SF was still something of an oddball genre in the publishing industry, and art directors at the publishing houses had greater creative freedom than they perhaps have nowadays. You’re sure to see some illustrations that may have caught your eye on the store shelves way back in ’74 or ’77, and send you to amazon.com or eBay to look up that forgotten paperback.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: 'The Farthest Reaches', edited by Joseph Elder

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Farthest Reaches’ (Pocket Books, 1968) is a paperback reprint of a hardbound anthology first published in 1967. Like Ellison’s ‘Dangerous Visions’, it’s an early effort at showcasing previously unpublished stories with a New Wave SF flavor. 

The cover illustration echoes the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, with its ‘trippy’ multicolored blurs speeding past a determined-looking astronaut.

The roundup on the stories:

‘The Worm That Flies’, Brian Aldiss: In the far future, on a desolate planet gripped by entropy, mutated humans struggle with existential angst. I groaned when I saw the words ‘cthonian’ and ‘paraesthesia’ within the first page; a clear signal that Aldiss was yet again trying to write a Speculative Fiction tale designed to emulate his hero, J. G. Ballard. Like all of Aldiss’s efforts in this vein, the story is a dud.

‘Kyrie’, Poul Anderson: one of the more imaginative ‘hard’ SF stories in the collection. A pair of telepaths, communicating over distance by purely mental means, join a starship’s survey team for a potentially hazardous investigation of a black hole.

‘Tomorrow Is A Million Years’, J. G. Ballard: a genuine New Wave tale with its depiction of an existential, sand-covered planet, and a pair of settlers haunted by atavistic visions of ancient seafarers. But unlike so many of his imitators, Ballard takes pains to provide the reader with a functioning plot and a believable resolution, rather than displaying artsy writing for its own sake.

‘Pond Water’, John Brunner: an android assumes control of humanity and institutes a despotic reign. More of a fable than SF, this story is one of Brunner’s less inspired efforts.

‘The Dance of the Changer and the Three’, Terry Carr: on a gas-giant planet, energy-based life forms do seemingly religious things, while a human observer provides commentary. Carr’s effort at a New Wave approach to writing is weak and unmemorable.

‘Crusade’, Arthur C. Clarke: another hard SF tale, in which a silicon-based life form dispatches emissaries throughout the galaxy. The ‘sci-fi’ wording of the tale will probably strike modern readers as unsophisticated, even a bit corny.

‘Ranging’, John Jakes: a straightforward tale of youthful rebellion among the pilots of deep-space probes. The story certainly had resonance for readers back in the late 60s.

‘Mind Out of Time’, Keith Laumer: two astronauts embark on a risky journey in the first warp-drive spacecraft. Entertaining, if not remarkably original.

‘The Inspector’, James McKimmey: a team of Federation investigators examines the unfortunate death of a hero astronaut while he was in orbit around the planet ‘Tnp’. A rather pedestrian tale about Questioning Youth, the expectations of elders, and Need to Be Free.

‘To the Dark Star’, Robert Silverberg: squabbling crewmembers are dispatched on a hazardous mission to record the formation of a black hole.

‘A Night in Elf Hill’, by Norman Spinrad: on the remote backwater planet of Mindalla, a veteran spacer encounters a strange alien artifact.

‘Sulwen’s Planet’, by Jack Vance: feuding linguists spar over the recovery of data from crashed alien spaceships.

All in all, ‘Reaches’ is a modest compilation of New Wave SF tales, better in some ways than ‘Dangerous Visions’, but also lacking with regard to providing real gems. Those readers keen to expand their collection of stories from the late 60s may want to keep an eye out for it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jonah Hex: 'Six Gun War' Parts Three and Four (Issues 46 and 47)

Unfortunately, the momentum generated by the first two episodes in this mini-series (Jonah Hex issues 44 and 45) is dissipated in parts three and four (Jonah Hex issues 46 and 47).

In issue 46 the main storyline gets put in abeyance as the reader is treated to a prolonged flashback sequence. I won't divulge any spoilers, but the plot features some uncharacteristic behavior on the part of Jonah Hex that longtime fans probably won't appreciate. There is also a sequence that borrows pretty heavily from the 1976 Clint Eastwood Western film 'The Outlaw Josey Wales'.

While various psychological dramas are playing out with Hex, his enemies - El Papagayo and Quentin Turnbull - have set up shop far South of the Border among some ruins of Aztec or Incan pedigree:

Issue 47 picks up with a seemingly strong start as Jonah, accompanied by various friends and comrades and some Apache Indians, heads for a violent showdown with some bandidos.

But the small, crowded panels, the somber color scheme, and the rather roughly sketched figures hamper the clarity of the narrative, and it is a chore for the reader to try and parse out which of the gray-clad individuals is a bandido, and which is a member of the Hex team. This section of the book comes across as filler, and a distraction to the main storyline.

Later in the issue we're treated to some scheming by Turnbull, which manifests when Hex and friends rest up for the night in a seedy tavern in a small town in Mexico. Some very, very bad hombres are waiting for Hex and friends to drink a little too much and sleep a little too soundly....

The issue ends on an intriguing note, and hopefully the next installment in the miniseries will shift away from showcasing bands of horsemen riding around the desert and exchanging gunfire, and instead get back to the theme of spaghetti-Western bloody vengeance that made the first two installments so notable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

When A Fanboy Goes Bad (third in a series)

Jedi church founder thrown out of Tesco for refusing to remove his hood was left 'emotionally humiliated'

Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: 'Greyhawk Adventures: Saga of Old City' by Gary Gygax

3/5 Stars

‘Saga of Old City’ (1985) is the first volume in the ‘Gord of Greyhawk’ D & D series; the succeeding volume was ‘Artifact of Evil’ (1986). These novels focus on the adventures of Gord of Greyhawk, a thief and soldier of fortune.

Somewhat confusingly, Gygax then switched publishers, so while TSR issued further volumes in the late 80s in the ‘Greyhawk’ series, many authored by Rose Estes, Gord was not a central character in these novels.

Instead, Gygax continued the ‘Gord the Rogue’ adventures under the Ace Books imprint: ‘City of Hawks’ (1987), ‘Night Arrant’ (1987), ‘Sea of Death’ (1987) , ‘Come Endless Darkness’ (1988) and ‘Dance of Demons’ (1988). If the mixed reviews posted at amazon.com are any guide, the ‘Gord the Rogue’ series eventually began to run out of steam creatively (not surprising in light of Gygax’s frenetic publishing schedule).

In ‘Saga of Old City’ we are introduced to Gord when he is a malnourished child, ekeing out a precarious living as an orphan in the slum quarter. The squalor and misery of his circumstances are communicated with dark humor.

Gord winds up in the employ of the Lord of the Beggar Guild, and becomes an accomplished thief, and street warfare strategist, by his teenaged years. When war breaks out between the Thieves Guild and the Beggar Guild, Gord is able to turn the situation to his advantage. Gord emerges as the victor of sorts, and embarks on a life of adventure and intrigue in the lands surrounding Greyhawk. His boon companions eventually include a druid named Curly and a barbarian named Chert; together, the trio will investigate a mysterious burial ground high in the mountains, where demons are rumored to guard a treasure of fabulous proportions….

‘Saga’ is a fast-moving book, and I was, on the whole, pleasantly surprised by Gygax’s writing. The narrative is direct and unencumbered by elaborate literary stylings; Gygax understands that his D & D audience wants sword and sorcery action, and not the angst-riddled psychodrama of, for example, a ‘Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever’ novel.

Gord regularly finds himself in one tense situation after another, and he has a habit of fighting his way out of trouble rather than resorting to negotiations. The storyline switches locales with frequency, and new dangers are introduced on a continuous basis: bandits, monsters, and vengeful magistrates are all in pursuit of Gord at one time or another.

The book contains a number of pleasing gray-scale illustrations by well-known ‘chain mail bikini-wearing pinup girl’ artist Clyde Caldwell.

Gygax stuffs more action into 30 pages of text than most contemporary fantasy authors do in 100 pages. Needless to say, readers looking for in-depth characterization and atmosphere in their fantasy novels will probably be unfulfilled by ‘Saga’. However, those seeking an alternative to the labored, meticulous narratives that constitute much of the epic fantasy novels currently on store shelves will be pleased with ‘Saga’.

Friday, September 11, 2009

'Stratosphere Jim and His Flying Fortress' (novel, 1941) and 'Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge' (XBox game, 2003)

Back in 1970 or perhaps 1971 a neighborly woman named Esther Fuller, who was active in the Boy Scouts in my hometown, dropped off a box filled with old books at our house. The books were from the 1900s on up to 1940s. Since I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time, and my brothers and sisters even younger, we didn’t realize that these books were actually valuable as heirlooms and treated them rather carelessly. But we did read them, and one of the most interesting was ‘Stratosphere Jim and His Flying Fortress’ (Grosset and Dunlap, 1941) by Oskar Lebeck and Gaylord DuBois.

DuBois (1899 – 1993) was a prolific writer of children’s books and comics, many in partnership with Lebeck; his granddaughter maintains a blog devoted to his life and works. Online information on Lebeck is more scarce; as best I can tell, he was an editor of children’s books and comics at Dell publishing during the 30s, 40s, and perhaps the 50s.

“Stratosphere’ is an adventure novel written for an audience of younger boys. The hero is one Jim Baxter, gifted engineer and pilot, who creates a stylish ‘stratoplane’ that is remarkably advanced for its time, with a rocket-assisted engine and helicopter-style props embedded in the wings. But with tensions rising between the USA and a foreign power overseas, Jim realizes that a more formidable weapon may be required should conflict break out. So, with the assistance of his friend Harry Wells, Jim sets up a secret aircraft plant in the Rocky Mountains and constructs an enormous four-engine bomber, the ‘Fortress’ of the title.

Before long Jim and his crew are taking the Fortress across the Atlantic and into Europe, where forces of the malevolent nation of Caucasia – a stand-in, of course, for Nazi Germany- are wreaking havoc on their neighbors. The action picks up as Jim and the Flying Fortress engage in battle with elements of the Caucasian air force, navy, and army. And when a massive enemy invasion fleet is spotted heading for the Caribbean, and possibly the Panama Canal, the only force available to deter it is Jim and his flying marvel. Can Stratosphere Jim act in time to eliminate the threat to American freedom ?

At 215 pages the book is a quick read, and it is profusely illustrated with b & w line drawings by Alden McWilliams. The action at times leads to a high body count, which would undoubtedly cause consternation among contemporary Young Adult editors; perhaps more so, the ‘GO USA !’ attitude that permeates the book, which, while very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the immediate prewar era, will today be regarded as very politically incorrect.

But the thing I remembered most about the book upon reading it back in the early 70s was the funky nature of the aircraft: bizarre Art Deco / Futurist monoplanes with bulky engine cowlings, and nonretractable wheels encased in enormous fairings. The stratoplane features a cockpit nestled against the vertical stabilizer, much like Jimmy Doolittle’s 1932 ‘GeeBee Model R’ race plane. The Flying Fortress has an interior packed with enormous cannons, a hanger for the stratoplane, a dining room, lounge, and galley (!) and helicopter rotors that permit it to hover in mid-air.

The years went by and ‘Stratosphere Jim’ was lost to time and more or less forgotten. Until 2000, when I learned that Microsoft was releasing a PC game called ‘Crimson Skies’, which had in turn been developed from a 1998 board game by FASA. Crimson Skies was set in a alternate USA where, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the country has split into independently governed regional blocs. Prop-driven aircraft have emerged as the major technology for commerce and transportation and the skies are filled with zeppelins and cargo planes. Unfortunately, air piracy is also ever-present, and the game centers on the adventures of one Nathan Zachary as he combats the pirates.

Along with a 30’s pulp-friendly atmosphere, the game avidly incorporates Art Deco elements into its design, and features a great selection of aircraft that would be right at home in ‘Stratosphere Jim’. Sadly, the PC game was horribly buggy and I didn’t buy it, but when in October 2003 Microsoft produced a version of the game for the Xbox console titled ‘Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge’ I picked it up. This is a decent game; the graphics are well done, the airplane controls are reasonably user-friendly, there are a variety of mission types, and the storyline is engaging. The game’s difficulty and save system can be frustrating during the later missions (the final mission is ridiculously difficult and requires using the chreat codes to complete). But ‘Crimson Skies’ comes pretty close to providing the player with an experience akin to that of Stratosphere Jim and His Flying Fortress.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine September 1979

For the September 1979 issue of Heavy Metal Jim Cherry provided the front cover, ‘Love Hurts’, while the back cover is an untitled painting by Val Mayerik.

This issue has several illustrated short prose pieces; ‘The Grail War’ by Richard Monaco, ‘A World Between’ by Norman Spinrad, and ‘Elric’ by Moorcock. There is a humorous Buck Rogers strip by Jim Lawrence and Grey Morrow and some b & w comics from Chantal Montellier and ‘Alias’ (Moebius). But the best comic in the issue is ‘The Doll’, by J. K. Potter, which I’ve posted below.

‘The Doll’ is one of the trippiest pieces to appear in the magazine. I have no idea how long it took Potter to assemble and photograph the composite images, as well as applying the various ‘warp’ effects to the photographs; this was done back in 1979, when Photoshop didn’t really exist. But the overall effect is creepy and memorable.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 21 (November 1973)

Amazing Adventures 21 (November 1973) features Killraven in “The Mutant Slayers”, written by Don McGregor and illustrated by Herb Trimpe:

Killraven and his crew are still battling the Warlord, a human lackey of the Martians. At one point in the comic, Killraven comes upon the ruins of Yankee Stadium (ca. 2018) and provokes an attack by humans and animals mutated by the release of toxins from nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons deployed in a failed effort to stop the Martian invasion of the Earth (back in 2000).

These are some genuinely bizarre, tongue-in-cheek creatures; my favorite is the amalgam of man and crab (!) The scene depicting the mutilation of Killraven’s prickly comrade Hawk- by crab-man drool- is a demented gem.

No other comic of the era could match ‘Killraven’ for its lunatic imagination and energy….and even today, only Britain’s ‘2000AD / Judge Dredd’ books really succeed in approaching these qualities half as well…