Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: 'The Panorama Egg' by A. E. Silas

3 / 5 Stars

As best as I can tell, ‘The Panorama Egg’ is the sole book published by A(nne) E. Silas (information on the author’s exact identity is not available on the web). ‘Egg’ (224 pp.) is DAW book No. 302 and appeared in August 1978; the cover illustration is by H. R. Van Dongen.

The panorama egg of the book’s title refers to an egg- usually of synthetic construction- that has been hollowed out and a landscape carefully painted on the interior of the shell. A small aperture is made in the end of the egg through which one can look in and admire the artwork.

Hal Archer is unhappy with his life. He is in his early 30s and out of shape; his wife has left him for another man; and while he is on track to become a full partner in the law firm where he works, he feels unsatisfied and adrift. His one real pastime involves collecting panorama eggs. The one egg he yearns to find is a unique egg where the interior scenery is not static but in fact the image of living world, perhaps a world located in another dimension.

On a cozy evening at the home of his actor friend Henry Patterson, Archer meets an enigmatic little woman named Mera Melaklos; in due course Melaklos offers Archer the panorama egg he has been seeking. Gazing into the egg’s interior, Archer espies a grassy sward, trees, blue skies, and tufts of clouds. When Melaklos invites him to journey to the world encapsulated within the egg, Archer agrees. And instantly he is transported to the land known as Dolesar.

Once in Dolesar, Archer embarks on a series of adventures engineered by the mysterious Melaklos. It seems that there is strife growing among the medieval towns and cities and rural areas of Dolesar; there are rumors of depredations committed by ‘tiger men’, who are enthralled by the sorcery of a Dark Lord. Archer gradually comes to realize that he is far from a tourist in the strange world contained in the panorama egg; indeed, he may be the linchpin of a last, desperate plan to combat the nefarious designs of the Dark Lord. But Archer is no wizard, and in a land where magic works, that can be a major hazard to one’s liberty and life….

In some ways ‘Egg’ approaches the genre much like the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series by Stephen R. Donaldson, which also appeared in the late 70s, and featured a contemporary protagonist adrift in a strange landscape. However, Silas’s Archer, while not the most adept of sword wielders, is refreshingly devoid of the relentless angst that belabored every nuance of the Covenant character.

As a first-time novel, ‘Egg’ has its strengths and weaknesses. The novel starts with an interesting premise and an offbeat approach to inserting a modern man into a fantasy world peopled by giants, dwarves, cat people, and sea serpents. However, Dolesar itself is a rather generic fantasy setting, and the narrative loses quite a bit of momentum once the action moves to that locale. It’s not until well into the midway portion of the book that the Deep Secrets and Conspiracies hinted at throughout the initial chapters gradually are disclosed, and Archer takes a more active role in his defense of the realm.

‘The Panorama Egg’ might best be enjoyed by readers looking for a more low-key fantasy adventure, one featuring a small cast of characters, and an emphasis on the dialogue-mediated psychological and emotional interactions among these characters. Readers seeking a novel with the larger-than-life sweep and scope of epic fantasy won't find it in this story.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Beinart International Surreal Art Collective

A very interesting website devoted to bizarre realism, surrealism, and fantastic art.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Into the Breach' by John Shirley (story) and Leo Duranona (art)
from the September 1980 issue of Heavy Metal

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: 'Flashing Swords ! # 2' edited by Lin Carter

2 / 5 Stars

‘Flashing Swords ! # 2’ (268 pp.) was edited by Lin Carter and published by Dell in 1974; the cover illustration is by Frank Frazetta.
The 'Flashing Swords' series was designed to showcase all-new short stories and novelettes of heroic fantasy by a select group of Carter’s fellow authors in the genre.
The anthology opens with ‘The Rug and the Bull’ by L. Sprague de Camp; set in Camp’s ‘Pusad’ universe of ancient Atlantis, it deals with the amiable mage Gezun and his plans to earn a living by marketing magic carpets. The narrative’s tone is light and humorous; however, de Camp’s contrived and cutesy dialogue (be prepared to encounter ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’ and ‘ensorcellment’, among other terms) lays on too much treacle.
Michael Moorcock contributes an Elric tale, ‘The Jade Man’s Eyes’. Elric and Moonglum accompany the adventurer Duke Avan to the lost city of R’lin K’ren A’a, where treasure awaits, and perhaps clues to the origin of the Menibonean race. With a downbeat atmosphere and ending, this is one of the better of the early Elric stories.
Andre Norton contributes a lengthy ‘Witchworld’ story, ‘Toads of Grimmerdale’. Hertha, a young woman made outcast from her village of Trewsdale, seeks revenge on the soldier of fortune who assaulted her. She enters into a bargain with the otherworldly creatures who lurk at the circle of stones in Grimmerdale; but like many bargains with the Dark Side of the Force, this one, too, has its catch…. I found this story to be a bit too deliberate and slow-paced for my liking, but fans of Norton’s fiction may find it appealing.
John Jakes provides a 'Brak the Barbarian' tale with ‘Ghoul’s Garden’. While traveling through a lonely wood, Brak rescues an actress and a querulous priest from certain death. As the trio resumes their journey it becomes clear that the actress has a troubling secret. Atmospheric, and featuring a creepy villain and unusual magic, this is one of the better Brak tales.
All in all, ‘Flashing Swords ! #2’ is not the most memorable of these anthologies. I came away from reading it with the feeling that, once the mid-70s had been reached, more than a few of the writers in Lin Carter’s circle were rather played out creatively. When it came time to contribute something to his story collections, their submissions were workmanlike, but not all that inspiring. 

Unless you are determined to collect every volume in the ‘Flashing Swords !’ series, this one can be passed over.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

'Shaman' by Paul Kirchner
from Heavy Metal September 1980

a skillful working of the Don Juan / Castaneda theme

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Essence of 'Heavy Metal' magazine ca. 1980

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: 'Nebula Award Stories', edited by Damon Knight

2 / 5 Stars

If the New Wave movement in the US could be said to have a starting point it was probably 1965, the year that saw the release of determinedly untraditional stories like Harlan Ellison’s ”Repent, Harlequin ! Said the Ticktockman”, and Roger Zelazny’s ‘The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth’.

Needless to say, Damon Knight and other members of the newly formed SFWA were set on promoting New Wave works as part of their effort to get SF recognized by mainstream authors and publishing houses as genuine ‘Literature’. Along with this tactic, Knight and Co. advanced the idea that authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon (held in godlike esteem by New Wave SF writers) were writing ‘speculative fiction’. Accordingly, SF authors who imitated the prose styles of Pynchon also could be regarded as legitimate purveyors of speculative fiction, and due the requisite accolades apportioned to those who bravely sought a  way out of the otherwise juvenile ghetto of genre SF.

So it was that the inaugural Nebula Awards for 1965 emphasized New Wave tales; this collection showcases the winners and runners-up.

‘The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth’ opens the anthology. It’s a quintessential New Wave story: the plot, which has something to do with a divorced couple’s uneasy participation on a fishing expedition on the seas of Venus, is pretty much an afterthought. Instead, Zelazny places all his emphasis on writing arty dialogue, as well as interjecting sequences of figurative prose designed to showcase the psychological landscape inhabited by his main character.

James H. Schmitz provides ‘Balanced Ecology’, which is more considerably more conventional in terms of plotting and prose style. On a planet that features the only stands in the Universe of ‘diamondwood’ trees, two children must confront a sinister plot to deprive them of their inheritance. This is one of the better tales in the collection.

Ellison’s ‘Ticktockman’ comes next. While it possessed considerable cachet at the time of its release, it has aged poorly and with the passage of time it has come to seem overly contrived, even cutesy. 

Zelazny returns with a novelette, ‘He Who Shapes’, about a psychiatrist who uses a high-tech gadget to insert himself into the thoughts and dreams of his patients. Zelazny’s prose is a bit more restrained here, although some purple-worded passages do intrude every now and then. One thing I noticed about ‘Shapes’ was how prominently cigarette smoking figures into the everyday activities of the characters (although the story was written in 1965, after all). It’s amazing none of them succumb to lung cancer before the final sentence.

Gordon Dickson’s entry, ‘Computers Don’t Argue’ is a mordant tale of a hapless book club subscriber who runs afoul of a computerized mailing system. While contemporary readers may raise an eyebrow over the use of the term ‘punch cards’, the underlying theme of the story remains relevant.

Larry Niven’s ‘Becalmed in Hell’ deals with the first spaceship to land on Venus; the brain-in-a-jar autopilot suffers a malfunction and loses the ability to pilot the ship. The sole human member of the crew must figure out how to solve the malfunction if he hopes to survive.

Brian Aldiss’s ‘The Saliva Tree’ features a space alien loose in rural England at the end of the 19th century. In many ways it can be labeled a proto-Steampunk tale, with some elements of Lovecraft’s ‘The Color Out of Space’ tossed in. Featuring a very accessible prose style, ‘Tree’ indicated that, when he was not infatuated with trying to be too artsy, Aldiss could produce an engaging story. Modern readers will find ‘Tree’ to be one of the more appealing entries in this collection.

Mr. New Wave himself, J. G. Ballard, is represented by ‘The Drowned Giant’, which in my opinion deserved the 1965 short story Nebula Award more so than Ellison’s ‘Ticktockman’. ‘Giant’ imparts a melancholy, existential quality to its tale of a giant corpse washed ashore and picked over by the inhabitants of an English coastal town. Even after the passage of 45 years, it remains one of the best representatives of the New Wave approach to storytelling.

To sum up, ‘Nebula Award Stories’ offers three or four good stories within its pages, not enough to mark it as a must-have. But for those with an interest in the early years of the New Wave movement, it may be worth searching out.
Book Review: 'Garbage World' by Charles Platt

2 / 5 Stars
‘Garbage World’ was published in 1967 (Belmont Tower Books paperback edition,144 pp.; cover artist is uncredited).

In a colonized asteroid belt, garbage is loaded into large ‘blimps’ and jetted across space to crash-land on the asteroid Kopra, the designated trash heap for the system. After decades of serving as a landfill, the rocky surface of Kopra is buried under a layer of waste 10 miles thick. The scattered villages that lie atop this strata of garbage are happy enough with their lot, picking through each blimp’s contents for salvageable items, drinking moonshine, and partying when the occasion demands it. The Koprans are hostile towards the colonists of the other asteroids, seeing them as supercilious weenies with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.

A the novel opens, a survey ship from the asteroid belt government lands on Kopra. Its two passengers, a bureaucrat named Larkin and his assistant, Oliver Roach, have bad news for the Koprans: the layer of trash surrounding the asteroid has grown so large as to make the asteroid’s orbit unstable. In order to prevent the trash from flying off the surface and into the orbits of the other asteroids, the gravity generator on Kopra will have to be replaced. And for that to take place, everyone on Kopra will have to be evacuated. This news is met with anger by the inhabitants of the garbage world. It’s up to Oliver Roach to gain their confidence and effect their removal.

‘Garbage World’ is a serviceable, but not particularly exciting, SF adventure. It’s not really a New Wave SF tale, but it does display the expanded approach to the genre that typified the New Wave ethos. By focusing on the sociology of the Kopran civilization and its uneasy relationship with the affluent worlds that enable it to survive in its own (rather deviant) manner, Platt was effectively prefiguring the ‘Garbage Mountain’ reality of Third World life in the present day.

Take, for example, the Payatas dump in the suburbs of Manilla: 

As we come over a rise, my first glimpse of Payatas is hallucinatory: a great smoky-gray mass that towers above the trees and shanties creeping up to its edge. On the rounded summit, almost the same color as the thunderheads that mass over the city in the afternoons, a tiny backhoe crawls along a contour, seeming to float in the sky. As we approach, shapes and colors emerge out of the gray. What at first seemed to be flocks of seagulls spiraling upward in a hot wind reveal themselves to be cyclones of plastic bags. The huge hill itself appears to shimmer in the heat, and then its surface resolves into a moving mass of people, hundreds of them, scuttling like termites over a mound. From this distance, with the wind blowing the other way, Payatas displays a terrible beauty, inspiring an amoral wonder at the sheer scale and collective will that built it, over many years, from the accumulated detritus of millions of lives.

Hundreds of scavengers, brandishing kalahigs and sacks, faces covered with filthy T-shirts, eyes peering out like desert nomads' through the neck holes, gather in clutches across the dump. Gulls and stray dogs with heavy udders prowl the margins, but the summit is a solely human domain. The impression is of pure entropy, a mass of people as disordered as the refuse itself, swarming frantically over the surface. But patterns emerge, and as trucks dump each new load with a shriek of gears and a sickening glorp of wet garbage, the scavengers surge forward, tearing open plastic bags, spearing cans and plastic bottles with a choreographed efficiency.

In this regard, ‘Garbage World’ may be seen as an example of the ways in which SF can address topics and issues well in advance of other genres of literature.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine September 1980

The September 1980 issue of 'Heavy Metal' featured 'It Came from Mount Saint Helens' by Robert Adragna on the front cover, and 'Who's the Fairest of Them All ?' by Berni Wrightson on the back cover.

Ongoing installments of Ribera and Godard's 'The Alchemist Supreme', Bilal's 'Progress', and Duillet's 'Salammbo'  dominated this issue. Other noteworthy material  included Kirchner's outstanding 'Shaman', which I will be posting later this month, and the amusing strip 'Into the Breach' by Shirley and Duranona.

I've posted the Salammbo strip below. In this episode Loan Sloane, obsessed with Salammbo and determined to risk his ship's safety in order to rondezvous with her, deals with a rebellious crew in rather abrupt fashion.....

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review: 'Sargasso' by Edwin Corley

1 / 5 Stars

‘Sargasso’  was published by Dell in 1977 (301 pp.); the cover artist is uncredited.
It’s the late 70s, and the crew of Apollo 19 are preparing to leave an orbiting Russian space station for splashdown in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. But something goes very wrong, and the capsule is recovered- with what appears to be the burnt remains of three astronauts- contained within.

Captain Arthur Lovejoy’s deep-sea research vessel, the Lamprey, is near the splash site when suddenly all power aboard ship is mysteriously lost. Do the power failure and the loss of the Apollo crew have anything to do with their proximity to the Devil’s Triangle ? Or did the Lamprey have something to do with the calamity striking the Apollo capsule ? The US government thinks so, and within a matter of days, Lovejoy finds himself out of his existing government contract, and his ship stuck in the dock for lack of operating funds.

But Lovejoy and his hard-charging scientific officer Paul Forsythe aren’t about to sit and take abuse from the feds. With some adroit political maneuvering, the team manages to convince a wealthy movie producer to sponsor a documentary trip by the Lamprey to the heart of the Triangle. There, they hope to solve the mystery of what appears to be a highway resting on the ocean floor.

But they’re not the only ones heading to the Triangle; a Russian trawler also wants a close look at the area for reasons known only to the Soviet government. Add in a famous British sailor on a world-wide cruise, an elderly pilot who once encountered inexplicable events in the Triangle, an ambitious television reporter anxious for an inside story, and a trio of would-be treasure hunters, and the Sargasso Sea is going to be very crowded. And nobody is truly prepared for what the Triangle is about to throw at them…. 

‘Sargasso’ is a pure beach read made with an eye towards capturing the audience enthralled by the 70s best-sellers dealing with the Bermuda Triangle: Charles Berlitz’s ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ (1974), John Spencer’s ‘Limbo of the Lost’ (1969), and Richard Winer’s ‘The Devil’s Triangle’(1975). Unfortunately, author Corley starts more plot threads than he can devote adequate attention to, and the story never really gels into one coherent narrative. The main storyline tends to run out of gas at the end, and most readers will find the final revelations about the fate of the Apollo capsule to be underwhelming.

Compared to other examples of 70s action / adventure fiction in the Clive Cussler / Alistair MacLean mode, ‘Sargasso’ doesn’t measure up well, and only the most hardcore fans of the genre will want to seek it out.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Killraven Amazing Adventures No. 31

Killraven: 'Amazing Adventures' No. 31
(July 1975)

‘Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds’ No. 31 is dated July 1975 (which means it was on stands at the beginning of June). The cover art is by Craig Russell, who also did the interior art. This issue’s story, ‘The Day the Monuments Shattered’, is written by Don McGregor.
This issue saw the page count rise to 18, but the presence of the extra 3 pages didn’t stop McGregor from cramming every panel with excess verbiage of the most purple kind. This is too bad, because artist Russell works in some cool monster battle imagery, equal to what Herb Trimpe was producing in the first few issues of the series.
This time the monster is some sort of mutant amalgamation of reptile, fish, and octopus, and the whole Killraven crew must team up to bring it down….and to make things worse, Martian lackeys ‘Sacrificer’ and ‘Atalon’ both are on the scene, looking for revenge for Killraven’s destruction of their ‘breeding’ operation….

Despite some uneven plotting by McGregor, this is one of the better issues of 1975 - something necessary to keep the franchise afloat until the end of the year, at least.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

'Omni' magazine September 1985

Let's return to the 1980s, and September 1985, to be exact, and the latest issue of Omni magazine. 

Published by 'Penthouse' publisher Bob Guccione and his girlfriend Kathleen Keeton, Omni was one of the best-selling SF and science fact magazines, garnering significant advertising revenue, which in turn allowed it to pay high rates to its fiction authors.

In this issue, cyberpunk stars Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner team up to deliver 'Mozart in Mirrorshades', a classic of the genre. It gets a striking (if not entirely accurate) illustration by Etienne Sandorfi:

Some of the advertisements in the magazine are worth getting nostalgic over. First we have a commemorative 'Mr Spock' plate (obviously for Trekkies only), with our hero looking particularly stylish with his crossed-arms pose:

there is also an ad from Casio, featuring its new line of advanced, SOLAR POWERED calculators !

An ad from Hitachi lets those with handsome back accounts know all about its newfangled Compact Audio Disc player and its hi-tech, '2-head' VHS videotape player :

And finally, buried in the back pages of the magazine, a plain, bare-bones ad for 'micro computer' gear from Elek-Tek in Chicago:

How about some cutting-edge daisy-wheel dot-matrix printers ? Or an internal modem ? A 'DSSD' disk drive for your Apple ? Or a pack of 5 1/4 - inch floppy disks ? 

This was indeed the dawning of the home computer era, and for many folks a PC was simply too expensive and difficult to operate to justify purchasing. Something to think about next time you get exasperated and frustrated at the troublesome functioning of your own contemporary machine...?