Saturday, May 30, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
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
2 / 5 Stars
Monday, May 18, 2009
‘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
Monday, May 11, 2009
Saturday, May 9, 2009
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
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
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 BoardGameGeek.com. 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.