Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: 'Zardoz' by John Boorman (with Bill Stair)

1 / 5 Stars

'Zardoz' (1974) is considered nowadays to be of dubious worth as SF cinema, but at the time of its release it got reasonably good reviews and box office receipts.

In some ways the prominent costuming of Sean Connery in a red 'pudsuit' gave many people the idea the film was frivolous even before they saw it. Those sci-fi fans of my acquaintance who are under 40 years of age think Zardoz is 70's cheese / kitsch culture personified.

This paperback novelization of Zardoz (Signet, 1974, 127 pp.) is based on Boorman's script which he began creating in 1972; according to Boorman's Introduction, Bill Stair was brought on to " rationalize the visions that threatened to engulf me."

The novelization follows the film's script quite closely and there are no revelations here that do not appear in the film; however, some of the more confusing elements of the film - and in my opinion, these are large in number- do get more fleshing out.

To synopsize: following the collapse of civilization, small bands of lotus-eaters, termed The Eternals, have retreated to lives of boredom within high-tech communities known as Vortexes.

Outside of these enclaves of plenty, the country is peopled by barely civilized tribes of mutants known as Brutals. Bands of armed raiders, termed The Exterminators, possess firearms and with these, and heavily applied doses of violence, keep the Brutal population in check.

An enormous flying stone head, representing the god Zardoz, regularly flies around the countryside, and when it touches down the Exterminators and the Brutals fill it with grain and other comestibles harvested from the land.

Zed (played in the film by Connery) is the premiere Exterminator; in the midst of pillage and rapine, he wonders why Zardoz necessarily must solicit foodstuffs from the countryside. Zed decides to covertly secrete himself within Zardoz, and when the stone head returns to its Vortex of origin, Zed encounters the Eternals. Soon he is caught up in their intrigues and power plays. But Zed, however uncouth his appearance, has his own ideas of how to liberate the country from serfdom to the Eternals...

As a novel, 'Zardoz' is mediocre. The prose style overdoses on New Wave SF mannerisms; for example, the narrative frequently creaks to a halt to indulge in figurative and symbolic passages designed to showcase the existential angst of the Eternals. 

There are too many sentences that try for Profundity, but instead come across as stilted and empty. The computer-controlled machinery that makes life in the Vortex possible is described in quasi-mythological terms, and comes across more as magic than technology per se.

The verdict ? Only truly die-hard fans of the film will want to read this novelization.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'His Head in the Clouds', by Ed Emshwiller

Ed Emshwiller (1925 – 1990) was a renowned SF artist during the 50s and 60s, during which he provided cover and interior illustrations for a large number of magazines and books.
Emshwiller was noted for bringing a whimsical, humorous approach to his compositions, and this is true for the image I’ve scanned here, the illustration for the Robert Silverberg story  ‘His Head in the Clouds’, from the September 1957 issue of Original SF magazine. The image is featured in an article about the artist, ‘Ed Emshwiller: The Art of Things to Come’, by Luis Ortiz, in issue 19 (Summer 2007) of Illustration magazine.
Emshwiller was living in Levittown, Long Island, during the 50s and one of his neighbors was the Griffith family; their son Bill was the model for the boy depicted in the illustration. Bill Griffith’s father posed as the irate military officer in the viewscreen. Bill Griffith considered Emshwiller to be a ‘beatnik’ due to his unconventional occupation and art-focused lifestyle.
Bill Griffith went on to pursue art in his own way, as the originator of the ‘Zippy the Pinhead’ underground comic. Probably the most commercially successful character to emerge from the comix scene, ‘Zippy’ is syndicated in many major newspapers, and supports a complete line of consumer products.

image of Bill Griffith from

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: 'Warlord of Ghandor' by Del DowDell

3 / 5 Stars

‘Warlord of Ghandor’ is Dell book No. 253 (253 pp., 1977). The cover painting is by Don Maitz.
It’s 1649 and Robert Dowdall, an Irish noble and adventurer, is preparing to lead the Clans of Ireland in an effort to oppose the landing of Oliver Cromwell and the English army. The eve before the battle that would come to be known as the siege of Drogheda, Dowdall stumbles upon a strange portal hidden in the evening mist. Stepping through the portal, he arrives on the planet of Ghandor.
Ghandor is a small planet that orbits the Sun in a position equidistant from the Earth, in a manner akin to the Counter-Earth of the ‘Gor’ novels. Being somewhat smaller in diameter than the Earth, and with a lighter gravity, Ghandor confers upon Robert Dowdall superhuman physical powers, including the ability to make leaps of more than 30 feet vertically or horizontally.
Dowdall soon embarks on a series of adventures among the barbarian peoples of Ghandor, with the goal of saving his beloved, the stunning Princess Marjano, from imprisonment at the hands of despots or primitives.
Author Del Dowdell clearly intends that ‘Warlord of Ghandor’ be a pastiche of the ‘Princess of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the exploits of Robert Dowdall will be quite familiar to those who have read the John Carter of Mars / Barsoom novels. There are strange races of men, various monsters and beasts, flying ships, exotic cities, strange technologies, and much swordplay all loose on the surface of Ghandor.
‘Warlord’ is aimed more at a young adult audience than seasoned readers of heroic fantasy. Dowdell adheres a bit too closely to Burroughs’s plodding prose style; for example, the reader must suffer through periodic expositions on the social, political, and technologic aspects of Ghandorian life, and even the most desperate, seemingly hopeless swordfight always allows for the participants to exchange conversations composed of clichéd remarks: “…it is an honor and a privilege to have you fighting here by my side, Zynthmai.”
But those with an affection for the John Carter novels, however the degree of their literary drawbacks, will want to give ‘Warlord’ a look.
[Since the 1970s Del Dowdell has authored numerous adventure, science fiction, and mystery novels, many self-published or published by small presses; some of these are available at]
'The House on the Borderland' by Jim Burns
illustration for the novel by William Hope Hodgson

New English Library paperback edition (1996)

Reader MPorcius recommends checking out a gallery of Hodgson - related artwork by artist  Stephen Fabian.

Monday, January 18, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine January 1980

With the January 1980 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’, editor Ted White introduced new content to the magazine, in the form of columns that reviewed Music (by Lou Stathis), underground comics (Jay Kinney), SF books and magazines (Steve Brown), and SF cinema (‘Bhob’). These columns were well-written and brought a more …serious…tone to the magazine. In a sign that reflected Heavy Metal’s growing impact among SF fans, Bhob’s column features a brief interview with Stephen King, who at the dawn of the 80s was firmly in place as a pop culture and marketing phenomenon.
As far as the traditional graphic content was concerned, the January issue’s front and back covers, ‘Repent Harlequin ! Said the Ticktockman’ were provided by Don Ivan Punchatz. Inside the magazine Ricard Corben provided another installment of ‘Rowlf’.
Val Mayerik did the black and white story ‘Time Out III: The Pause That Refreshes’, an interesting tale (but too explicit to post here) that features one of the archetypes of the mid to late 70s, the 'Karate (Kung Fu) Boy', who, with his blow-dried- parted-in-the-middle- long hair, stylish pajama trousers, and rapid kicks and strikes at the thin air, maintained an attitude of arrogance around lesser mortals.
Because, as the Karate Boy was fond of saying, he was capable of delivering serious punishment (below).

[Needless to say, such Karate Boys would not have lasted more than 60 seconds in a modern MMA bout.]
Other worthy entries in the magazine included ‘The Hive’, by Paul Kirchner; ‘Shoot Out At the Fantasy Factory’, by Aven and Hill; ‘Exit/In’, by William McPheeters; and ‘Womb With a View’ by Dan Steffan.
But, as with other issues of Heavy Metal in 79 - 80, the most impressive story was (yet another) comic by Arthur Suydam.
‘Food for the Children’, which I’ve presented here, was probably the best of all his strips to appear in Heavy Metal. The artwork is brilliant, the plot uncomplicated, and the last two pages- presented as a double-page spread-memorable.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book review: 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye', by Alan Dean Foster

2 / 5 Stars

It was the striking cover illustration by Ralph McQuarrie that drew my attention to the paperback edition of 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye' sitting on the shelf at the Binghamton Public Library in the late Spring of 1978.

I was 17, and while not a Star Wars fanboy, I did enjoy the film, and the prospect of reading about some new adventures of Luke, The Force, and Darth Vader was appealing. I can't recall if I was impressed with the novel after finishing it, so I thought I might give it another go after the span of more than 30 years.

The plot is simple enough: Luke and Leia crash-land on the remote planet Mimban, and discover that it has been colonized by the Empire. In a shabby mining town tavern, they learn of a mysterious gemstone, the Kaiburr Crystal, that can confer invincibility upon a Force wielder. In short order Luke and Leia embark on a journey to Mimban's dangerous interior, a monster-filled wilderness of swamps and underground caverns, to discover the lost Temple of Pomojema that holds the Crystal.

But things take a turn for the worse when they learn that Darth Vader himself is seeking the Crystal for his own nefarious purposes. Can Luke and Leia beat the Sith Lord to the Crystal ? Or will Vader get to the Crystal first and render himself unbeatable ?

'Splinter' is something of a mediocre read. Foster, a veteran of working with licensed properties, obviously had to work within some confines of a story suitable for a wide audience of both younger and older fans. He does manage to interject some (rather graphic) combat into the storyline every now and then. But, by delaying the confrontation with Vader till the last few pages of the novel, Foster is left with trying to keep the narrative going by putting Luke and Leia through some unimaginative, standard-issue perils.

It doesn't help matters that Foster's prose is often corny and insipid. For example, in one passage Leia speaks in the voice of a 'steel kitten'; elsewhere we are told she is '...a she-falcon flying for her prey-perch.' When Luke wields his light saber it is for a 'demonic' attack.

For Star Wars fanboys, the book's biggest illicit thrill is Luke's frequent lusting (!) after Leia, who is more than a little flirty in return. At the time the novel was written, of course, 'The Empire Strikes Back' had not been released, so the growing romantic affection between the two didn't seem as....disturbing....back in '78, as it would be two years later.

If you're a die-hard Star Wars fan you may want to have 'Splinter' in your library, but readers less interested in the franchise will find the book rather uninspiring.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'Slow Death' Comix No. 4

'Slow Death' No. 4 (Last Gasp, 1972) features a cover illustration by Richard Corben (under the pseudonym 'Gore').

This issue includes 'Eyes of the Beholder' (uncredited, but probably by Metzger); 'Ecotopia 2001' by Irons and Veitch; 'Mangle, Robot Mangler' (a satire of Gold Key Comics' SF title 'Magnus, Robot Fighter' ; uncredited, but apparently by Corben); and 'Homesick', by Veitch and Jaxon.

Probably the best story in the book is the one I've posted here, 'The Awakening', by Corben.  The Eco-catastrophe theme is subtle but effective.

The inside page of the back cover publishes a very grim and cynical poem, 'Napalm Sticks to Kids', apparently written by some US troops serving in Vietnam and originally published in 1971. By 1972 most of the US forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam and the NVA, by virtue of their Spring Offensive, had seized control of much of the country. The writing was on the wall for the end of South Vietnam, and it was clear that any forthcoming US involvement would be restricted to air offensives.

However, the antiwar movement was still a strong political and social force, with the revelations of the My Lai Massacre continuing to raise questions about the US involvement in Vietnam. For 'counterculture' publications like the underground comix, the war in southeast Asia was still a very high-profile event, and continued to receive much attention.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: 'The Best SF Stories from New Worlds', edited by Michael Moorcock

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Best SF Stories from New Worlds’ (Berkley, 1968, 158 pp.) is the US paperback version of the Panther (British) anthology published in 1967. The distinctive cover illustration is uncredited. The stories in this anthology were published in 1965 – 1967.

In his Introduction, Michael Moorcock, editor of the anthology (and also, of course of the British magazine ‘New Worlds’), invokes the ‘new spirit in sf these days’ which was of course what we now refer to as the 'New Wave' movement. So, ‘The Best SF Stories from New Worlds’ rightly may be considered one of the earliest showcases for that unique literary phenomenon.

How do the stories present upon being read more than 40 years later ?

The opening tale, ‘The Small Betraying Detail’, by Brian Aldiss, is narrated by a tubercular man who is being escorted by acquaintances to a sanitarium; en route, the narrator becomes obsessed with the idea that somehow, his companions represent another evolutionary offshoot of the human race. I found the plot device to be too contrived to be convincing, and the ending – meant to be understated, but alarming – suffers as a result.

Roger Zelazny contributes ‘The Keys to December’, in which genetically modified humans set out to terraform an entire planet. This is very much a Zelazny New Wave tale; one of his sentences lasts for nearly a page, and contains something like 20 semicolons. Under these literary contrivances, there is a modestly entertaining story.

J.G. Ballard, at the time the established star of the New Wave movement, contributes ‘The Assassination Weapon’, which is not so much a short story as it is a loosely connected series of brief paragraphs dealing with the hallucinations of a bomber pilot. It’s very much ‘experimental’ in form and construction (for example, one of the paragraphs is headed 'GOOGOLPLEX') and holds up poorly when read today.

‘Nobody Axed You’, by John Brunner, takes place in a dystopian near-future where overcrowding is so severe that sexual reproduction is outlawed, and television shows depicting acts of murder are used by the ruling authorities to inspire the populace to commit various bits of mayhem (with a goal towards keeping the population in check). Its satirical content seems more representative of 50s SF, and I suspect many readers will see the story’s denouement coming well in advance.

‘A Two-Timer’, by David I. Masson, is the best story in the collection. When a time-traveler from the future arrives in an English village in 1683, an enterprising local steals his time machine and travels forward to the same locale, albeit in 1964. There he has various humorous adventures. While a bit lengthy, the story’s appeal is that it is phrased in the dialect of a 17-century writer, i.e., “their Lamps use neither oyl nor candle, but instead, are Contrived to light by Manipulation of a special type of Ether, which they term ‘Elecktricity’.”

Langdon Jones contributes ‘The Music Makers’, in which some snobby classical musicians, performing on Mars for the benefit of its colonists, experience existential angst amid the barren dunes.

‘The Squirrel Cage’, by Thomas M. Disch, is a first-person story about a man imprisoned in a single room, perhaps by aliens. There is much musing about alienation, some of it involving pogonophore worms (the ‘tube worms’ that live around warm-water vents deep in the Pacific Ocean). The story has not aged well.

All in all, I can’t really recommend ‘The Best SF Stories from New Worlds’ to anyone but the most dedicated fans of the New Wave scene. Most of the stories seem dated by today’s standards, and I suspect contemporary readers will have little patience for the prose tricks that were deemed quite stylish back in the late 60s.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book Review: Catastrophes

Book Review: 'Catastrophes' edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Henry Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh

3 / 5 Stars

‘Catastrophes !’ (1981, Fawcett) is edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. It’s a thick chunk of a paperback book at 413 pages with a 10-point font; the suitably apocalyptic cover illustration is by John Berkey.

‘Catastrophes’ is an anthology devoted to end-of-the-world stories; the book is organized into five Parts, with the Parts devoted to accounts of the destruction of the Universe, the Sun, the Earth, Humanity, and Civilization. The stories (ranging from the late 30s to the mid 70s) in the anthology all were previously published in SF magazines or hard-bound story collections.

My capsule descriptions of the contents:

‘The Last Trump’, Isaac Asimov: the Biblical End of the World takes place, and the resurrected dead wander a rather bland, but renewed, Earth. Asimov attempts a twist in his ending; however, most readers will spot it coming well in advance.

‘No Other Gods’, Edward Wellen: a fable of two space travelers and their interaction with a God-like computer.

‘The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat', Harlan Ellison: yet another pretentious New Wave story from Ellison. A intergalactic music contest (?!) provokes deep angst and retrospection on the part of a troubled alien named Stileen.

‘Stars, Won’t You Hide Me’, Ben Bova: a human space pilot tries to elude vengeful aliens. A ‘cosmic’ ending helps this become a very readable story.

‘Judgement Day’, Lloyd Biggle, Jr.: a man with a unique mental power finds himself in trouble in small-town America. Reminiscent of Jerome Bixby’s ‘It’s a Good Life’, ‘Day’ is one of the better tales in the collection.

‘The Custodian’, William Tenn: a mildly satirical tale of a recluse who hopes to be the Last Man on Earth.

‘Phoenix’, Clark Ashton Smith: an old school pulp story from Smith that is actually rather readable (!). Maybe he was depleted of metaphors, similes, adverbs, and adjectives the day he wrote it. Anyways, it’s about the Sun gone colder, and a last-ditch effort to save Mankind is under way.

‘Run from the Fire’, Harry Harrison: an entertaining story of alternate universes and efforts to dodge a Sun going nova. Harrison effortlessly runs through more plot developments in three pages than other authors do in 20 pages.

‘Requiem’, Edmond Hamilton: By 1962, when this story first appeared, Hamilton had progressed as a writer and was capable of producing a reasonably good short story. A spaceship captain explores the melancholy ruins of a far-future Earth.

‘At the Core’, Larry Niven: Set in Niven’s ‘Known Space’ universe, pilot Beowulf Schaeffer helms a new starship on a maiden journey to the galactic Core. Hard science theme, but quite readable and featuring some wry humor.

‘A Pail of Air’, Fritz Leiber: a competent tale from Leiber about survivors of a new Ice Age.

‘King of the Hill’, Chad Oliver: a wealthy man contemplates an Earth dying from overcrowding and pollution. The cynical, preachy tone of the story is an inevitable component of any early-70s Eco-catastrophe story.

‘The New Atlantis’ by Ursula K. Le Guin: a much-anthologized New Wave short story. A married couple struggle to survive in a threadbare, dystopian future America; interspersed with their narrative is one in which a long-buried race of alien beings prepare to reassert control of the Earth.

‘History Lesson’ by Arthur C. Clarke: in the far future, aliens comes across some artifacts left by Man. Clarke’s rather plodding prose style doesn’t set up the ‘surprise’ ending very well.

‘Seeds of the Dusk’ by Raymond Z. Gallun: an Old School pulp story from 1938. A spore from Mars touches down on a bleak, far future Earth. The story holds up quite well for modern readers.

‘Dark Benediction’, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. : a plague from space strikes the Earth, and Paul Oberlin scavenges in the empty streets of Houston. The ending veers into sentimentality, but in many ways this novelette is superior to Miller’s remarkably over-rated novel ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’.

‘Last Night of Summer’, by Alfred Coppel: a short, melodramatic story about end-of-the-world debauchery taking place the evening before a massive solar flare is predicted to subject the Earth to lethal temperatures.

‘The Store of the Worlds’, by Robert Sheckley: a melancholy tale of a man purchasing the fantasy of his choice.

‘How It Was When the Past Went Away’, by Robert Silverberg: a drug that causes amnesia gets slipped into the water supply of 2002 San Francisco. For some who imbibed, forgetfulness is a blessing. As was typical of Silverberg’s output in the late 60s – early 70s, it’s more of a novelette about Relationships than a hard-core SF adventure.

‘Shark Ship’, C. M. Kornbluth: another much-anthologized Eco-catastrophe story. In a near-future Earth gripped by overpopulation and environmental collapse, vast ships ply the oceans in a ceaseless search for edible plankton.

The verdict ? Taken as a whole, ‘Catastrophes’ is a serviceable collection of SF tales. There are four or five entries that qualify as memorable stories, with the rest more or less standard-issue. If you are into apocalyptic and end-of-the-world themed collections, then this one may be worth searching out.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 24 (May 1974)

'Amazing Adventures' No. 24 (May 1974) features Killraven in the 'War of the Worlds' storyline. This issue is titled 'For He's A Jolly Dead Rebel', with script by Don McGregor and art by Herb Trimpe.

Although the cover date was May 1974, the issue was actually on the stands in early Winter 1974, therefore, there is a 'New Year 2019' theme.

The story: having escaped Abraxas and the Martians at the ruins of the Lincoln Memorial, Killraven and his band of adventurers make for the underground tunnel system that encircles the ruins of Washington, DC. There they have the misfortune to encounter a horde of mutated vampire bats; I've excerpted some pages of the ensuing mayhem.

Despite an increase in the cover price from 20 cents to 25 cents (a rather large increase according to the economics of the time), this issue, as others before it, offers only 15 pages for the Killraven tale, with another 4 pages being made up of (yet another) reprint from a long-ago issue of 'Journey Into Mystery' from the Marvel vaults. With the New Year of 1974 dawning, Marvel was still having problems with producing material to fill its rapidly expanding list of titles.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book Review: 'The Forever War' by Joe Haldeman

5/ 5 Stars

‘The Forever War’ was first published in 1974; portions of the novel had previously appeared as short stories in SF magazines earlier in the 70s. This Del Rey paperback edition (218 pp.) was published in 1976 and features a cover illustration by Murray Tinkleman.

It’s 1997, and the Earth space fleet has discovered a network of wormholes- ‘collapsars’ – that permit instantaneous travel from one region of the galaxy to another location thousands of light-years distant. The problem is, spaceships of an alien race known as the Taurans also use the collapsars, and they have destroyed a Terran vessel. In response, the United Nations goes on war footing and William Mandella, a college physics major, is drafted into the Army.

Because travel to the collapsars and the strategic planets located in proximity to them takes place at near-light velocities, combat missions may occupy a year or so of shipboard time. However, back on Earth, decades can pass relative to shipboard time. Consequently, one of the main plot devices of ‘War’ deals with the disorientation and anomie Mandella and his fellow soldiers experience when they return to a greatly changed Earth upon completion of a combat mission.

As the war progresses, the likelihood of survival for an individual soldier becomes smaller and smaller. Can Mandella survive these almost impossible odds ? Will the Taurans be vanquished ? As the years unfold, will Mandella even recognize the Earth that he is fighting to protect ?

I first read ‘The Forever War’ in 1975, and read it several more times during the 70s. It was one of the better novels to see print in the New Wave era. Despite being very engaging and well-written, the novel was something of an anomaly for its time (it did receive the Hugo award in 1976).

Its prose is very spare and direct, and lacks any of the stylistic contrivances that marked so many other novels of the New Wave era. The first-person narrative is entirely in the present tense; there are no flashbacks lasting longer than a few sentences; there are no lengthy and  overwritten expositions on the main character’s mental state, as might be expected of a New Wave novel dealing with the military and violence. The ‘hard’ science aspects of the book are carefully worked into the text, and serve to enhance the story without clogging it with overly technical descriptions.

‘Forever War’ is first and foremost a great SF adventure story. The antiwar aspects of the novel are understated and derive not from a polemical stance on the part of author Haldeman, but more from the inclusion of little vignettes and plot twists that signal the author’s familiarity with combat in the ‘real world’ (Haldeman was drafted , and saw combat, in the Viet Nam war). Fellow soldiers die from blunders in training; they are killed or mutilated by friendly fire; tactical mistakes by the commanding authority are depressingly frequent; and the ‘grunts’ in the trenches only have an incomplete understanding of what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

Thirty-five years after it first appeared, ‘Forever War’ remains one of the best SF novels yet written about future combat.

Haldeman wrote two novels in the 90s that are more or less related to ‘War’; ‘Forever Peace’ (1998) deals with a near-future war on Earth in which remotely-controlled androids perform the combat. ‘Forever Free’ (1999) is a sequel proper, featuring the further adventures of William Mandela.