Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: 'Hour of the Horde' by Gordon R. Dickson

2/5 Stars

Miles Vander is young man pursuing a career as an artist at a university in Minnesota. Vander’s artistic vision is raw and emotional, perhaps reflecting his status as a polio survivor with a paralyzed arm. When the sun suddenly takes on a reddish hue and the entire planet is in the grip of an apocalyptic fervor, Miles simply paints the effect the altered light has on the landscape of the Mississippi River.

It turns out a race of super-powered aliens, referred to (somewhat banally) as the ‘Center Aliens’ have traveled to earth to disclose something troubling: an enormous armada of ships piloted by weasel-like aliens, the so-called Horde of the book’s title, are descending on the Milky Way Galaxy. The Silver Horde has only one intention: to consume all life in the Galaxy.

Against this locust-like attack, the Center Aliens have decided to recruit a representative from each planet occupied by the sentient races in the galaxy, to staff a fleet of spaceships dedicated to repelling the Horde. As is turns out, Miles Vander has the ‘psychic’ temperament the aliens require from their recruits, and he winds up journeying with the Center Aliens to the rim of the galaxy, there to join with a vast battle line of ships poised to meet the Horde. Miles finds himself unceremoniously dumped into a mean little vessel mockingly termed the Fighting Rowboat.

It turns out that earthpeople, like many other biped races throughout the galaxy, are considered little more than primitive savages by the Center Aliens. Along with 22 other crewmembers aboard the Rowboat, Miles Vander is expected to serve as a kind of reserve of psychic energy needed by the Center Aliens to combat the approaching Horde.

Naturally, Miles doesn’t take too kindly to being relegated to REMF status, disregarded by the powerful Center Aliens. He begins a brutal fight in the Rowboat’s pecking order of alien races. Can Miles gain command of the ship ? And if he does, will he be able to wield his alien comrades into an effective fighting force ? And if and when they encounter the Horde, will the Rowboat last more than a few seconds under enemy fire ?

‘Hour of the Horde’ (1970; 159 pp.) is DAW book No. 303, first printed in 1978. The cover illustration is by Greg Theakston.

I haven’t read many novels or stories by Gordon R. Dickson (1923 -2001), who suffered from severe asthma, and often incorporated the themes of men overcoming their physical limitations through force of their will into his works. So what did I think of ‘Horde’ ?

It’s a competent, if unremarkable, space opera. There are more than a few passages of stilted writing in the book, and the various machinations of the Center Aliens border more on magic than on any ‘genuine’ science fictional phenomena. The book is slow-moving at its start and things don’t gather much momentum until nearly the half-way point in the narrative. The psychological revelations that enable Miles Vander to transcend his physical and emotional limitations seem a bit too close to the Scientology-related tropes that Lafayette Ron Hubbard liked to stick in his own novels (‘Battlefield Earth’ comes to mind).

Dedicated fans of Dickson’s works may want to seek out ‘The Hour of the Horde’ , but I suspect most SF fans won’t find it too exciting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'Killraven' in Amazing Adventures No. 23: 'The Legend Assassins'

I remember seeing ‘Amazing Adventures’ No. 18, featuring Killraven and the War of the Worlds, on the shelf with the other comics at the 7-11 store in Elmira Heights, New York, in 1973.

After looking through it I thought it was an interesting comic, set in a near-future Earth devastated by a successful second invasion of the Martians from the H. G. Wells novel. The opening issue featured the ruins of New York City, mutants, monsters, high-tech weaponry, and an offbeat hero in Killraven. But I didn’t have enough extra cash to purchase it (even though 20 cents seems like a paltry sum nowadays, back then it was a lot of money in terms of allowance; this was when a Fudgesicle cost only 5 cents, and a gallon of gas less than 50 cents). So I wound up buying a copy of Jack Kirby’s ‘The Demon’, and a copy of ‘Conan’.

Fortunately Marvel has released all the first generation Killraven stories in one of its omnibus b & w ‘Essentials’ formats. At more than 800 pages in length, ‘Killraven Vol. 1’ gives you the Amazing Adventures’ run of ‘War of the Worlds’ from issues 18 to 39. There’s also issue #45 of ‘Marvel Team Up’ featuring Killraven and Spider Man (?!) and two one-shot Killraven issues from the 80s.

The Killraven stories are derived from many pop-culture idioms of the early 70s, with perhaps ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ serving as one of the more central idioms. Each issue has the sort of frantic, if unsophisticated, energy that defined superhero comics in the early to mid 70s.

Amazing Adventures No. 23 is a gem in this regard. The story features a mutated, former Secret Service agent (!) named ‘Rattack (!) who lives in the tunnels beneath the ruins of the White House. Borrowing heavily from the film ‘Willard’, already a sci-fi landmark in the early 70s, the plot sees the bucktoothed Rattack and his furry rodent friends commissioned to eliminate Killraven in gruesome fashion (particularly for a Code-approved comic !). I’ve tried to scan a couple of the more gripping pages without breaking open the spine of my yellowing copy of the book (my Canon 4400F scanner lacks a beveled edge best used for scanning bound books).

I won’t spoil the story by posting the finale of the story, but these pages make for great art by Herb Trimpe, arguably the best of the Jack Kirby-inspired artists on Marvel’s staff at the time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: 'Hestia' by C. J. Cherryh

3/5 Stars

'Hestia' (1979; DAW book No. 354) features a cover painting by Don Maitz of an alluring cat-girl in a leather bikini standing knee-deep in a stream. An exemplary PorPor book cover….

Sam Merritt is a young and ambitious Federation engineer who decides to participate in a project on the Earth-like planet Hestia. Unfortunately, when Sam arrives he discovers that the dwindling human colony on the planet possesses only a late 19-century level of technology, and what outposts still survive are rustic at best.

Needless to say anti-gravity lifters, nanobots, and laser drills are not available, much less mechanized bulldozers, pile drivers, and front-end loaders. Sam tries to skip out on his contract, but finds himself shanghaied into service by the desperate Hestians: with most of population crammed into a river valley subjected to periodic floods, a dam must be constructed upstream to save the human civilization. Indeed, if the dam is not built within the span of a year, it's possible a flood could convert most of the planet's agricultural landscape into a swamp.

Sam travels upstream to the dam site and gradually discovers something the colonists are reluctant to talk about: there are aboriginal Hestians, referred to as ‘The People’, living in proximity to the site, and they don’t like the idea of constructing a dam on their territory.

As the struggle to build the dam proceeds, Sam befriends one of the natives, Sazhje, the cat-girl from the cover. This does not endear him to the human colonists. Soon the violence between aborigine and colonist escalates, and Sam finds himself distrusted by both sides. Can he prevail with construction of the dam, or will the enmity between the races lead to its destruction and ethnic warfare ?

At 160 pp. Hestia is a quick and (mostly) engaging read. Sam is a likeable (if too altruistic) protagonist. The human colonists come off as thick-headed, stubborn, and not too bright. With the exception of Sazhje the cat-girl, the aboriginal People are little more than primitives obsessed with internecine warfare, sort of like Amerindians of the pre-European contact era.

As is often the case with her novels Cherryh tends to overplay the various psychodramas between the main human characters, and this slows the narrative too often for my taste. And the book’s ending seems a bit too contrived; lots of things are tied up within the span of a few pages and some overnight conversions seem too pat.

‘Hestia’ is something of an offbeat SF novel, in that the SF elements are muted. Indeed, the interactions between Sam and the colonists with the aborigines is modeled on the conventions of the settlers and Indians conflicts of the Western genre. This makes the book worth checking out for SF fans.

Friday, June 19, 2009

'Heavy Metal' magazine June 1979

The June 1979 issue of ‘Heavy metal’ featured a cover painting by Angus McKie titled ‘The Performer’, and a back cover painting titled ‘What Happened to Betty (Page)’ by Marcus Boas.

This was a rather unimpressive issue of the magazine. Yet another installment of Corben’s seemingly never-ending ‘The New Tales of the Arabian Nights, Sinbad in the Land of the Jinn’, as well as another installation of McKie’s ‘So Beautiful and So Dangerous’. In a rarity for Heavy Metal, Serge Clerc’s ‘Captain Future’ b & w comic appears in its entirety, although scattered in chunks throughout the magazine in an effort to force the reader to view intervening material. By this time I was beginning to tire of reading stories in drips and driblets, and I had begun to give serious thought to discontinuing purchasing the magazine.

The June issue featured another ‘Pyloon’ tale by Rae Rue and LeoGiraux, and I’ve posted it here. Like the other Pyloon stories appearing in Heavy Metal, it features drawings cribbed from the pop culture archives, in a deliberately cheesy sort of tribute to the originals.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: 'From the 'S' File', by the editors of 'Playboy' magazine

2/5 Stars

‘Playboy’ regularly published a lot of SF stories, many by well-known authors in the genre. As one of the so-called ‘slick’ magazines, it paid high rates and represented a coveted outlet for short fiction throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and even the early 80s, after which the advent of video porn, and later, DVD and internet porn, severely curtailed its circulation. There were some drawbacks to being published in Playboy; there were of course restrictions on story length – after all, no one really bought the magazine for the ‘articles’ – and the SF content had to be dialed down in order to appeal to the magazine’s hedonistic-oriented readership. Both of these drawbacks probably influenced the tenor of the stories appearing in this anthology.

‘From the “S” File’ (1971) contains stories published from 1956 to 1970; as the book’s title indicates, all the authors have surnames beginning with the letter ‘S’.

The editor(s) in charge of purchasing SF tales seem to have liked Robert Sheckley a great deal, since 5 of the 16 the entries in this anthology originate from that author. I myself have never been all that enchanted by Sheckley’s writings, which tend to focus on satire, with the SF themes merely serving as a sort of painted backdrop for the author’s efforts at critiquing social mores. Of his stories presented here, only ‘The World of Heart’s Desire’, about a man seeking an extended bout of escapism, is really all that impressive. The other Sheckley tales: ‘Can You Feel Anything When I Do This’, ‘Triplication’, ‘The Same to You Doubled’, and ‘Cordle to Onion to Carrot’ all come across as underwhelming efforts to meld SF tropes with a Cheever-esque styling.

One of the more over-rated SF authors of the last century, Theodore Sturgeon, contributes ‘The Nail and the Oracle’; like Sheckley’s work, it’s a lackluster effort at social and political satire.

‘Control Somnambule’, by William Sambrot, deals with an Apollo astronaut and a mysterious lapse in his recollection of the period his spaceship spent traveling on dark side of the Moon. Well-written and effective despite an understated style, it’s one of the better tales in the anthology.

‘The Man From Not-Yet’, by John Sladek, deals with an encounter between the famous 18th century English philosopher Samuel Johnson and a time-traveler from the future.

Henry Slesar is represented by ‘Melodramine’, in which a near-future narcotic gives hallucinations of a too-pleasurable kind. ‘Victory Parade’, is a short, mordant tale of the celebration of a war in which everyone loses. ‘Examination Day’ is a somewhat clichéd account of a very important test administered by an authoritarian regime; ‘The Jam’ is a brief but quietly effective story, and will undoubtedly make for uneasy thoughts when one is next in a traffic jam on a hot summer's day. ‘After’ is a collection of vignettes, set in a nuclear war’s aftermath, infused with a dark sense of humor.

Jack Sharkey contributes ‘The Pool’, a moral fable about conquistadors and the fabled fountain of youth; and ‘Conversation with a Bug’, a comic tale about over-reaching one’s grasp.

The final entry is Norman Spinrad’s ‘Deathwatch’, a succinct tale that relies on a shock ending. It’s one of his more effective stories.

The verdict on ‘From the ‘S’ File’ ? To some extent the stories suffer from having to be coherent to Playboy’s audience, as opposed to targeting, say, contemporary SF magazines like 'Analog' or 'If '. But the inclusion of too many tales in which the SF content is subordinate to social satire makes it hard to recommend this volume to fans.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

'Slow Death' Comix No. 9 (1978)

‘Slow Death Funnies’ was the first title produced by Last Gasp, a small press outfit started by Ron Turner in Berkeley, California. ‘Slow Death’ was a b & w eco-conscious comic book produced to coincide with the first Earth Day celebration in April, 1970. Throughout the 70s a total of 10 issues were produced; in 1992, an 11th issue appeared, which is still available from the contemporary Last Gasp catalogue.
‘Slow Death’ was part and parcel of the eco-catastrophe consciousness that was in fullest flower in the late 60s and early 70s. Many of the better-known underground comix artists had stories in the book, including Jack Jackson (‘Jaxon’), Richard Corben, Charles Dallas, Fred Schrier, Dave Sheriden, and Rand Holmes. Some issues of the comic have explicit content and bear an ‘Adults Only’ notification on the cover.
‘Slow Death’ No. 9 (August 1978) was devoted to exposing the dark side of nuclear power. The cover illustration is by Greg Irons, who also did the first story in the book, ‘Our Friend the Atom’. The other content is ‘Faustus II’ is by Michael Becker, ‘Beyond the Wall’ (posted here) by Dennis Ellefson, ‘Lights Out’ by Errol McCarthy, and ‘Close Encounters with a Blurred Mind’ by Tim Boxell.
I can’t say that No. 9 was one of the better issues. The stories are rather pedestrian, and lack the overtly horror-oriented content of the entries in other issues. But this was considered edgy stuff back in the days before non- Comics Code books were a staple of the store shelves.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jonah Hex: 'Six Gun War' Part One (Issue 44)

I remember seeing DC’s comic book ‘Weird Western Tales’, starring Jonah Hex, on the shelves in the early 70s, but I never picked up a copy, thinking that a combination of Code-era ghost stories and western gunplay sounded lame. I did buy the Jonah Hex series issued by Vertigo in 1993 and 1995 (‘Two Gun Mojo’ and ‘Riders of the Worm and Such’). These were well-done, and made me receptive to DC’s monthly Jonah Hex series, which commenced in 2005.

Unlike ‘Weird Western’, Jonah Hex incorporates few supernatural themes into its storylines, instead focusing on Spaghetti Western –style tales of revenge and retribution. There is an emphasis on gritty, flyblown settings and explicit violence that would never be allowed in a Code-approved book. The towns and settlements of the southwest territories that Hex rides through are filled with corrupt townspeople, brutal outlaws, and a healthy leavening of psychotic killers. All offer plenty of opportunity for Jonah, as a bounty hunter, to earn his money. The artwork displayed in the series can sometimes be pedestrian, but at other times very good, reminiscent of Moebius’s seminal ‘Lieutenant Blueberry’ work.

By and large series writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti tend to provide single-issue narratives, which necessarily tends to constrain the plotting but attracts readers who may be fed up with the multi-part, crossover-drenched storylines of the DC superhero line.

But with Jonah Hex No. 44, ‘Six Gun War’ commences as a six-part story, and this promises to be a good one. Jonah and friends tangle with a group of homicidal Comancheros led by Quentin Turnbull and El Papagayo, villains from the 70s issues of Weird Western and Jonah Hex.

Artist Cristiano Cucina gives the book a Euro-Western look inspired by the Spaghetti genre, as the two pages I’ve scanned indicate. The panels are creepy and unsettling as a depleted Jonah staggers into a town that’s been worked over by the outlaws. A sandstorm wind swirls over the bullet-riddled corpses lying in the street and sets a lone bell to clanging. Jonah wanders into the sheriff’s office and finds the surviving lawman locked up in his own cell by El Papagayo. There’s little doubt that Jonah will be setting off on a mission of vengeance in the forthcoming issues…..

Fans of Spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood films like ‘Unforgiven’ will definitely want to give the new Jonah Hex series a look, and ‘Six Gun War’ is a great place to start.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: 'Gate of Ivrel' by C. J. Cherryh

4/5 Stars

‘Gate of Ivrel’ appeared in 1976 as DAW book No. 188; the cover art for this printing is by Michael Whelan. Succeeding volumes in the ‘Morgaine Trilogy’ include ‘Well of Shiuan’ (1978) and ‘Fires of Azeroth’ (1979). Cherryh produced a fourth book in 1988, ‘Exile’s Gate’. The first three volumes are available in the DAW omnibus ‘The Morgaine Saga’ (2001).

The Gates are portals to wormholes capable of mediating instantaneous travel not only from one locale to another, but, via use of the ‘major’ or ‘universal’ Gate, to other planets. Built long ago by a humanoid race called the qhal, the Gates also permit travel back in time; this is fraught with danger, as a careless journey can lead to interference with causality and the triggering of a ‘time-quake’. One or more of such time-quakes have led to the destruction of qhal civilization. The humans who have descended from the qhal Empire have decided that the remaining Gates must be destroyed to prevent further catastrophes.

On a nameless planet with a medieval level of technology, Venye, an outcast tribesman, finds himself forced into the service of a mysterious woman named Morgaine, who vanished a century ago after an effort to destroy the Gate of Ivrel, the universal gate on this world, failed. Awakened from suspended animation by Venye, Morgaine renews the quest to destroy the Gate of Ivrel.

The novel is one long chase sequence as the hapless Venye accompanies Morgaine on her travels to the northern reaches, the Gate, and the kingdom of Hjemur, where rules one Thiye, a human who has acquired enough knowledge of the Gate’s power to be a dangerous adversary.

En route there are various violent encounters with clans of superstitious, but cunning, characters, and much of the book’s adventures revolve around the efforts of Venye and Morgaine to overcome one batch of pursuers after another. And while the book slows mid-way to belabor a psychodrama involving Venye and some of his estranged relatives, overall, the narrative maintains its rapid pacing.

Morgaine is plainly modeled on Michael Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ character, what with her bouts of guilt-stricken angst, ‘doomed’ sword ‘Changeling’, pale complexion, and white mane of hair, but she is less powerful than Elric, and not every encounter necessarily leads to barbarians falling by the hundred. Venye is not so much a heroic figure, as a sort of dogged, dim-witted ally who manages to survive by his wits, and some luck.

‘Gate’ suffers from some stilted writing: tree branches ‘writhe’ against the night sky, the clopping of horses’ hooves sounds ‘lonely’, and no one ever employs contractions in their dialogue, making many conversations wordy and rather pretentious. However the novel features some entertaining characters, a well-realized world, an interesting quest, and, unlike many contemporary fantasy novels, its short length (191 pp.) means it can be read in a few day’s time. And if you like it, three more installments await.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The 'Pudsuit' : A quintessential 70s sci-fi wardrobe item

Left to right: ‘Killraven’ from Marvel comics, 1973; 'Vampirella', from Warren Comics, late 60s; and bottom, a hapless Sean Connery in a still from the movie ‘Zardoz’, 1974.

My brothers and I referred to them as ‘pudsuits’, since they left uncovered most of the body save for one’s privates. They seem to have been an exclusively 70s phenomenon, since I haven’t observed many dedicated sci-fi characters in the popular culture sporting similar outfits over the past 20 – 25 years.