Monday, March 29, 2010

Book Review: Dark is the Sun

Book Review: 'Dark is the Sun' by Philip Jose Farmer

4 / 5 Stars

‘Dark is the Sun’ (Ballantine SF, 1980, 405 pp) is the paperback version of the novel that first appeared in hardcover in 1979; it features a fine cover illustration by Darrell K. Sweet (depicting, left to right, Sloosh, Aejip, Deyv, Vana, and Jum the dog).

It’s 15 billion years into the future, and Earth is peopled by primitive tribes who wander amidst long-forgotten machines and structures; a variety of quasi-human species descended from past genetic engineering projects; and plenty of dangerous animal and insect life. The planet has been physically moved, by technologically gifted elder civilizations since decayed, into an orbit far from the remains of the Sun, which is now nothing more than a Dwarf Star.

The galaxy, and perhaps the universe as well, are contracting and a ‘heat death’ is imminent in the next few centuries - if not sooner.

Deyv, a young man of the Turtle Tribe, is unaware of the colossal events taking place in remote space; instead, he is worried about leaving his tribal homelands on a mandatory Vision Quest to seek a mate. This means trekking into jungles filed with all manner of monsters and hostile tribes. To make things worse, once his quest is underway, Deyv loses his Soul Egg- a potent talisman- to a thief. If he cannot recover his Soul Egg, Deyv will be condemned to life as an outcast.

Deyv finds himself teaming up with a mutant centaur named Sloosh, and an attractive cannibal (!) girl named Vana. Together with Deyv’s unique pets Aejip and Jum, the party sets off to find the Soul Egg thief. But they soon discover that the thief has an agenda of his own, and there are revelations about the Earth, and its fate, that will require their utmost attention…if Man is to survive the coming collapse of his Universe.

By 1979, when he published this novel, Philip Jose Farmer had been producing at least one, (more often several) SF and fantasy adventure novels per year for more than two decades. This experience is put to good use with ‘Dark Is the Sun’. It’s meant to be pure escapist entertainment, an adventure in the ‘Barsoom’ genre founded by E. R. Burroughs, but with a more sophisticated and engaging prose style.

Farmer knows what he is doing: his writing is very readable and the characters, both human and unhuman, are interesting and offbeat. Many of the creatures and landscapes of the far-future Earth are drawn with imagination and an eye for the bizarre. The perils that beset our adventurers are many and keep the narrative rolling along at a good clip.

Somewhat inevitably the pace starts to drag a bit in the book’s middle third, and the novel could have been 50 pages shorter in length. But I got the sense that Farmer was having a lot of fun with his characters and was reluctant to cut the thread short.

‘Old School’ SF authors like Farmer, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, and the underrated Edmund Cooper could do this sort of thing so effortlessly that it’s easy to assume that it required unremarkable effort and training on their part. But in fact, more and more as I read contemporary SF and fantasy novels, many featuring lengthy narratives dealing with complex world building and large casts of characters, it’s clear that conceiving and writing a Readable Novel is considerably harder than many aspiring novelists think it is. These guys knew how to do it, and they made it look easy.

‘Dark is the Sun’ is a fun read, and I recommend it to every SF fan.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

'Talapalca' by He
(from the January 1978 issue of 'Heavy Metal' magazine)

A comic set in the time of the ancient Incas. Some very good pen-and-ink artistry from French artist Dominique He.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: The 1973 Annual World's Best SF

Book Review: 'The 1973 Annual World's Best SF', edited by Donald A. Wollheim

2 / 5 Stars

‘The 1973 Annual World’s Best SF’ (1973) is DAW Book No. 53. The cover art is by Jack Gaughan.

Somewhat confusingly, this volume is a continuation of the ‘World’s Best Science Fiction’ series published by Ace books, and edited by Wollheim, from 1965 to 1971. 

[After a dispute with the management of Ace books, Wollheim left the company in 1971 to found DAW Books. The 'Annual World's Best' incarnation started up at DAW with the 1972 edition].

All the stories in this anthology saw print in 1972, mainly in the pages of mainstream digest publications such as Analogue and Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In his Introduction, Wollheim displays a surprising amount of rancor towards the New Wave movement, which by 1973 was at its apogee; a body of literature that, as far as Wollheim was concerned, was “…laden with snide, open-ended, implausible, and sometimes plotless writing - and occasionally works that are offensively and pointlessly obscene.” 

Wollheim was particularly angered by the disparaging attitude on the part of many New Wave practitioners towards the ‘Old Hands’, i.e., established SF writers like Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Pohl, etc.

He has little praise for Damon Knight’s ‘Orbit’ anthology series (which expressly showcased New Wave content), and is less than impressed with Harlan Ellison’s second major New Wave anthology, ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’.

With his ‘1973 Annual World’s Best SF’ Wollheim clearly hoped to give heightened exposure to previously published tales by the ‘Old Hands’ and select newcomers. So how well does a seemingly anti-New Wave anthology, released at the height of the New Wave era, come across nearly 40 years later ?

Ironically, the first entry, Poul Anderson’s ‘Goat Song’, is a determined effort by an Old Hand to write something with a New Wave flavor. The plot takes the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and transplants it into an SF milieu; the first –person narrator, a Harpist, asks an omnipotent computer to revive his dead wife. The story suffers from Anderson’s exertions to be Profound; the prose style is clumsy and overwrought, there are too many stanzas of archaic poetry, and the computer, called ‘SUM’, too clearly derived from Harlan Ellison’s ‘AM’ in ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’.

James Tiptree, Jr (i.e., Alice Sheldon) provides ‘The Man Who Walked Home’, about a recurring apparition that may represent a man trapped in a time portal of some kind. The story focuses on the reactions of various people as, over the centuries, they convene at the location in Idaho where the apparition manifests itself on a yearly basis. The story’s time travel element is unconvincing, and overall, ‘Man’ didn’t impress me as a ‘year’s best’ candidate.

Michael Coney contributes ‘Oh, Valinda !’, a tale set in the polar regions of the planet Cantek. Some profit-minded Earthmen have enlisted a Cantek native to help them transport an iceberg through the ocean to a port where fresh water is badly needed. The story is meant to be a reflection on the pollution of the Earth’s polar regions and the effect of encroaching civilization upon the Eskimos living there. Featuring some rather unusual but well thought-out alien biology, it’s one of the better entries in the anthology.

Wollheim introduces Frederik Pohl’s novella ‘The Gold at the Starbow’s End’ as “…probably the best single piece that this very talented writer has produced in the last few years.” The story alternates between the observations of the crew of the first starship to Alpha Centauri, and the politicians and scientists back on Earth who are anxious to trumpet its accomplishments as a Cold War triumph. It’s not a bad story, but whether it’s one of Pohl’s best efforts at short fiction is open to debate.

Clifford Simak provides ‘To Walk A City’s Street’s’, in which a man with unusual abilities is forced by government agents to wander the seedier district of a city. There is a surprise ending.

T. J. Bass contributes ‘Rorqual Maru’, an entry in his ‘Hive’ series of stories and novels. In a far-future Earth depleted of most of its resources, genetic engineering and severe overpopulation have resulted in the advent of the Nebish, a species of Homo sapiens of small size and hesitant bearing. When a genetically engineered great blue whale – the Rorqual Maru- chances on abundant supplies of plankton, the Nebishes find themselves in competition with a race of long-forgotten, genetically engineered aquatic humans to lay claim to the harvest. This story served as the basis for Bass’s 1974 novel ‘The Godwhale’.

W. Macfarlane (a Google search for more info about the author was unsuccessful) provides ‘Changing Woman’, about an American Indian woman who takes a job as a cartographer for a mysterious project operating from a secure redoubt in northern California. The story’s prose suffers from too self-conscious an effort by the author to be arty and stylish; witness this example of dialogue:

“Birdeena Ora Oza Yadon, sweetie…” her boss was hesitant.

“Are you using your forked or unforked tongue ?”

‘Willie’s Blues’, by Robert J. Tilley, takes the trope of the White Boy Who Worships Jazz and A Special Negro Jazzman in Particular, and melds it with a conclusion about the moral implications of time travel. I have to admit I hate Jazz, and I also can’t stand white urban liberal hipsters who swoon over Jazz, but even so, this story came across reasonably well.

Vernor Vinge contributes ‘Long Shot’, the most ‘hard’ SF tale in the anthology. It’s about an AI that is chosen to direct a lengthy journey to a distant star. Vinge does a good job of giving the reader a sense of the challenges confronting an interstellar mission.

Phyllis MacLennon provides ‘Thus Love Betrays Us’, in which a Terran biologist is marooned on a dismal, fog-shrouded planet. His efforts to befriend a member of the native population have unforseen consequences.

All in all, 'The 1973 Annual World's Best SF' is a middling example of an anthology. There are three or four memorable stories, but too many other entries are rather lackluster and indicate that, at least as far as 1972 was concerned, the Old Guard was still trying - with only mixed success- to deal with the challenge posed by the advent of the New Wave.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Before there was 'The Far Side', before there was 'The Perry Bible Fellowship', there was...

...The Bus.

‘The Bus’ was a black and white strip by Paul Kirchner that regularly appeared in Heavy Metal magazine in the late 70s and early 80s. Usually within the space of a third of a printed page, with 6 to 8 panels per strip, and featuring Kirchner’s careful draftsmanship and meticulous cross-hatching, ‘The Bus’ was often one of the better entries in a given issue of the magazine.
‘The Bus’ featured a sly, but not altogether benevolent, sense of humor. The hapless protagonist, a balding, middle-aged man in a raincoat, usually encountered all manner of surreal (and often menacing) goings-on. All this was cleverly communicated without employing any speech balloons, and the judicious use of sound effects and overlaid text boxes.
All of the strips that Kirchner produced are compiled in the small trade paperback version of ‘The Bus’ published by Ballantine Books in 1987. At a new copy of the book is selling for a price of $ 195.24 (?!) and used copies at a (bargain-priced) $2.99 and up. If you are a fan of The Far Side, The Perry Bible Fellowship, and other comics - based humor of the quirky, more cerebral variety, then you may want to purchase a copy of 'The Bus'.
For those reluctant to spend money for a new or used copy in these Times of Recession, I will be posting excerpts from ‘The Bus’ here at the PorPor Books blog.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 26 (September 1974)


Issue 26 (September 1974) of ‘Amazing Adventures’ features the ‘War of the Worlds’ storyline; this time Killraven and his band of rebels are involved in ‘Something Worth Dying For’, written by Don McGregor and illustrated by Gene (‘The Dean’) Colan.
The locale is Battle Creek, Michigan, and the comic features more than a few references to cereals and junk foods in the speech balloons and text narrative; presumably in a hip and snarky post-modern sort of way.
There is some cheesecake provided for the fans when Carmilla Frost, the shapely molecular biologist who has joined the Killraven crew, decides to take a bath in a nearby stream despite the chill winter weather (a trooper, that Carmilla !). 

Some local perverts take too close an interest in her ablutions, and some mayhem occurs…..

The story culminates in a confrontation with the villain on the book’s cover, one ‘Pstun-Rage’ (?!).
This is another underwhelming issue in the series. Signs of tiredness were beginning to show in the writing and the art, no doubt occasioned by Stan Lee’s misguided insistence on expanding the Marvel product line without much regard to whether the company could handle the workload.
In his Soapbox Lee crows about the advent of ‘Spidey’ stories, a new comic produced in partnership with Sesame Street spinoff ‘The Electric Company’. In keeping with the Sesame Street ethos, Spidey was aimed at grade-school kids whose reading comprehension had been severely downgraded  by over-exposure to TV.
Needless to say, Lee saw the partnership as a signal opportunity to present comic books as an Aid to Learning (as opposed to their historical perception as vehicles for juvenile delinquency and stunted personal growth).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: Sandworld

Book Review: 'Sandworld' by Richard A. Lupoff
2 / 5 Stars

‘Sandworld’ (188 pp.) was published by Berkley in 1976; the cover artist is uncredited.

It’s a dark and stormy night in northern California. San Quentin prison convicts ‘Red’ O’Reilly, Bennie Nebayan, and Willie B. Hutkin are being driven to a courthouse in San Fran by prison guard Marc Mauriello. Along for the ride is civil rights monitor and ACLU attorney Alice Michaelson. After a particularly intense bolt of lightning strikes the pavement in the vicinity of their car, the group are stunned to discover that they have somehow been teleported to the surface of a planet located light-years from the Milky Way galaxy.

The planet (facetiously dubbed ‘Else’) is a desert planet, and our heroes are forced to undertake a trek across the trackless wastes in search of water. Along the way they become aware that someone – or something – is watching them. It turns out the planet is home to a race of aliens who consume the blood and soft tissues of their victims: a race of ‘vampires’.

Red O’Reilly takes on the role of leader as the group struggles to survive the nighttime attacks of the bloodthirsty aliens. When they enter the ruins of a once-great city, will they find a way to escape the vampires and return home to Earth ? Or do even worse perils await them as they explore the long- dead culture of a depleted planet ?

Richard Lupoff authored a large number of novels and short stories during the late 60s and 70s, many in the pulp style, and thus was potentially well-qualified for this effort at an Old School SF adventure. However, ‘Sandworld’ fails to live up to the billing announced on its back cover: ‘A novel of high adventure, action, and fantastic imagination.’

The narrative moves very slowly as the author belabors the psychological turmoil experienced by the inadvertent space travelers, and devotes excessive text to angry exchanges between the erstwhile prisoners and their jailor. In fact, the ‘vampires’ doesn’t even make an appearance until 50 pages into the book, and it’s nearly another 70 pages before our heroes actually come to grips with their stalkers. If there is one thing a suspense or adventure novel can’t afford to do, it’s to dissipate too much energy on exposition; the thrills and twists have to come, and come fast, or the reader loses interest.

Unfortunately, ‘Sandworld’ don't offer much in the way of excitement, and comes across as a diffident effort at best by Lupoff. Unless you are a completist for obscure 70s SF novels, this one can be avoided without penalty.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

'First Wave' Issue # 1 (DC Comics, March 2010)

Back in November 2009, when ‘Batman / Doc Savage’, the preview issue of the forthcoming ‘First Wave’ series from DC was released, I had mixed feelings about the direction of the comic; the premise of showcasing heroes from the pulp era showed some promise, but the art style seemed a bit too calculating in its efforts to capitalize on the success of the  'Mad Men' aesthetic that is currently so prominent in hipster culture.
Now it’s March 2010 and the first issue of First Wave is on the stands. The story is written by Brian Azzarello and art duties are handled by Rags Morales.
While the graphical presentation of the preview issue was a mashup of Art Deco and early 60s ‘New Frontier’, and’ Mad Men’ influences, Morales’ artwork here is much less stylized, and quite restrained, by comparison. The color palette stays close to browns, grays, and blacks, as shown in the excerpt I’ve posted here. The artwork is also more contemporary in terms of design and avoids the retro imagery that was so prominent in the preview issue.

I won’t reveal much about the plot, save to say that a unique character from the Savage books makes an appearance. Along with Doc and his crew, the Spirit is the only other hero to appear in this first issue; Batman will presumably be showing up in future installments.
It is of course too early to make any judgements about 'First Wave', but writer Azzarello seems conscious of the Doc Savage canon in terms of his plotting, which is a good sign.

How the narrative will successfully work in appearances by all the pulp era icons listed in the preview issue remains to be seen; it may be a case of lots of cameos. But so far, I've decided   to pick up issue 2 when it appears on the stands.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: The Deadly Deep

Book Review: 'The Deadly Deep' by Jon Messmann
3 / 5 Stars

‘The Deadly Deep’ is a Signet paperback (222 pp.) published in 1976; the cover artist is uncredited.

‘Deadly Deep’ is clearly marketed to the readership of ‘Jaws’, the definitive mid-70s aquatic thriller. It also trades on the popularity in the 70s of eco-horror themes, such as those presented in the movies Frogs (amphibians run amok,1972), Squirm (clam-worms run amok, 1975), and Prophecy (mutant bears run amok, 1979).

For ‘Deadly Deep’, it’s every organism in the oceans declaring War on mankind !

Things start with an attack by a blue whale on a charter fishing boat, followed by some lobsters taking revenge on a Maine lobsterman, and then some sea bass coming in to shallow water at the Delaware beaches to bite some chunks from unwary swimmers.

Young and rugged science journalist Aran Holder finds himself investigating these strange events at the behest of Wildlife and Fisheries administrator Emerson Boardman. To the increasing unease of Holder and Boardman, further attacks take place; the body count starts to climb upward; and it becomes clear that something unprecedented is taking place on Planet Earth.

But there are worse things yet to come….because the malevolent Intelligence behind the onslaught has something more elaborate in mind than simple attacks on bathers and boaters. Can Aran Holder find out the cause of the revolt of the sea creatures before civilization itself faces extinction ?

If you’re looking for an entertaining eco-horror novel, ‘Deadly Deep’ fits the bill. Author Jon Messmann knows that he’s been commissioned to craft a Beach Read rather than a work of Literature, and he delivers the goods with a fast-moving narrative that never stops too long to dwell on how far-fetched the premise powering the plot. 

Some tried and true 70s fiction tropes are in place in 'Deadly Deep', including the psychotic military leader who believes force is the only answer; portentous philosophical musings on Man's Abuse of the Environment; and lubricious 70s chicks in bikinis, tight pants, and halter tops.

If you're looking for an enjoyable eco-horror novel with full, satisfying 70s flavor, than 'Deadly Deep' is worth investigating.