Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: 'The Winged Man', by E. Mayne Hull and A. E. Van Vogt

1 / 5 Stars

‘The Winged Man’ first appeared in print in 1944 in Astounding Science Fiction, with Edna Mayne Hull – Van Vogt’s first wife - as the sole author. An expanded version was published in 1966 with Van Vogt as a co-author; seeking to fill its early catalog, DAW Books re-issued the novel in 1980 as book No. 378; the luminous cover art is by Douglas Beekman.

The novel starts with a US Navy atomic submarine, the Sea Serpent, cruising in the darkness of the South Pacific. Officer Kenlon espies what appears to be a very large bird flying past the ship; the ‘bird’ soon turns out to be a winged man, who attaches devices of unknown design and purpose to the sub’s surface.

Kenlon and his crew succeed in capturing the winged man; no sooner is he imprisoned below decks, than the submarine is somehow transported to the Pacific Ocean of the far, far future: the year 24,999, to be exact.

It transpires that the Sea Serpent is one of a number of vessels from various centuries, all brought into the future by the winged men. It seems the winged men are losing a war being waged against an aquatic subspecies of Homo sapiens, and they believe the firepower of the submarine, and the other vessels in their unusual armada, can destroy the undersea city of their adversaries.

But as office Kenlon soon discovers, there is more to the story than a war among two races of a future mankind. He and the crew of the Sea Serpent will find themselves forced to make a decision with consequences for the fate of the entire galaxy….

Aware that ‘Winged’ originated as a pulp novel, I had no major expectations upon reading it. Even so, it was a chore to finish.

It’s difficult to tell if Van Vogt’s contribution to the expanded version made the original story worse, or better. But as it stands, ‘Winged’ spends the greater part of its narrative belaboring the interactions between the crews of the various ‘kidnapped’ sea vessels. Indeed, not until the final 11 pages of the book, does the battle promised in the back cover blurbs come to fruition. 

As a novel, ‘Winged Man’ is tedious and unremarkable, particularly for a novel re-written in 1966, by which time the prose skills of  Van Vogt, at least, should have showed some signs of advancement.

Starting in 1956 with Damon Knight’s essay ‘Cosmic Jerrybuilder’, Van Vogt became the target of increasing disparagement by other sf writers. 

I can’t say if the limited set of Van Vogt fiction that I’ve read over the years is of sufficient magnitude to allow me to agree with Knight, particularly in light of the fact that an awful lot of the New Wave content I’ve waded through has represented sf at its worst. 

But ‘The Winged Man’ is easily forgettable.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

'Surprise Party' by Brenda Jackson and Serge Clerc
from Heavy Metal, March 1982 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Starsky & Hutch: The 'Lightbulb' Killer 
November 27, 1976

While the show may seem cheesy to today's audiences, back in the mid-70s 'Starsky & Hutch' was a highly-rated series, and we never passed up a chance to catch it on the little 22" black and white TV at our house in upstate New York.

One of the creepiest episodes I remember seeing first aired on November 27, 1976, and was officially titled 'Vendetta', although I will always remember it as the 'Lightbulb' killer episode.

The killer is a young man named Tommy (played by Gary Sandy, who two years later would be cast as 'Andy Travis' in WKRP in Cincinnati). 

Tommy is seriously, seriously f---d up; he lies on a dirty mattress all day, in a squalid apartment, staring at a naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling (!)

When sometime friend Jimmy Shannon comes calling...

...Tommy appears, maniacal and wielding a baseball bat....!

His erstwhile friend kisses this world goodbye.

Assigned to the murder of Jimmy Shannon, Starsky and Hutch check out the corpse at the city morgue: broken skull, shoulders, and legs.....

It turns out that Tommy is being manipulated into serving as a 'hit man' by a sleazy, middle-aged bellhop named Artie.

Next on the Hit List: a middle-aged business man (played by M. Emmett Walsh), who needs to be beaten up, but not killed.

As Starsky and Hutch pursue their investigation, the increasingly nervous Artie decides it's best to eliminate Hutch's girlfriend Abby (Ann Foster). 

While Tommy gazes at his lightbulb, the order for murder is given. [These 'lightbulb' sessions featured an eerie - sounding synthesizer background track.]

Wearing Sunglasses At Night (like all stylish Psycho Killers are apt to do) Tommy makes his way to Abby's apartment....

Will Abby survive ? Will Starsky and Hutch catch the lightbulb killer and his evil mastermind Artie ? 

I won't reveal any spoilers, but the complete episode ( as five parts) is available at YouTube !

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: 'The Orange R' by John Clagett

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Orange R’ (256 pp) was published in May 1978 by the Popular Library; the identity of the cover artist is not provided.

With the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster at hand, a novel about the dangers of nuclear power seems appropriate reading.

‘Orange R’ is set in an alternative USA ca. 2000. Nuclear energy has emerged as the major source of power, and the industry wields unprecedented economic and political muscle. The NRC and AEC act to advance the interests of the fission energy consortiums, and deter any efforts by the public to lessen the influence of the nuclear mandarins.

The advent of ‘clean, cheap, and plentiful’ energy has not been without cost. Vast tracts of the northern US have been contaminated with fallout from accidents and the botched disposal of nuclear waste. Those areas of the US free from fallout are encased in enormous transparent domes, and the air and water entering these environs is decontaminated.

The population of the US is divided into two groups, all identified by the state of a dosimeter implanted in the backs of their hands. Once too many rads have been received the dosimeter is permanently altered to present a glowing orange R, as reflected in the book’s title. Those unfortunates with this modern Scarlet Letter are designated as ‘Roberts’, and forced to don contamination suits when entering cities and buildings otherwise free of fallout. Roberts are forced to live in the contaminated zones of the country and face discrimination from the ‘Normals’, the non-irradiated segment of the population.

‘Normals’, whose dosimeters display no orange R, are free to live without protective gear within their own cities; however, when stationed in the fallout zones, Normals must wear transparent rad suits. Normals are allowed so many minutes per week or month of exposure to the air, and are monitored for their dosage of radionuclides; too many rads, and there is a danger of developing the dreaded orange R, and permanent banishment to Robert country.

As the novel opens Kirk Patrick, an earnest (if not particularly imaginative) young man employed by the power company, is assigned to duty at a plant in Vermont – Robert country. Once on the job at his new workplace, Kirk befriends the local Roberts, including a pretty young woman named Anne.

As Kirk spends more time among the Roberts – always in his protective oversuit –he comes to appreciate the their unadorned take on life. As well, Kirk becomes aware of the prejudice against the Roberts casually displayed by the dominant Normals.

Will Kirk experience a revelation and join the Roberts in their struggle against the despoilment of their lands at the hands of the Nuclear Bloc ? Or will he remain a faithful Company Man, secure in his status as a Normal and the inheritor of the ‘modern’ US ?

‘The Orange R’ is not an action-centered novel along the lines of Swanwick’s ‘In the Drift’ or Robinsons and Scortia‘s ‘The Prometheus Crisis’. Rather, ‘The Orange R’ is a contemplative polemic against nuclear power.

Author Clagett makes clear from his opening chapter that he regards nukes as one of the biggest calamities to befall modern civilization. He makes his argument through the juxtaposition of the natural splendor of the New England countryside (at times the novel reads like a piece from ‘Field and Stream’ magazine), with the ecological 'atrocities' committed by the rapacious power industries.

‘The Orange R’ stands as an interesting premonition, coming as it does from the era prior to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Readers looking for a thoughtful, if slow-paced, novel about nuclear power and its discontents, will want to search for a copy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

'Heavy Metal' magazine March 1978

It's March 1978, and the disco sounds of the BeeGees are ruling the top 40 charts, with 'I Go Crazy' by Paul Davis, and 'Emotion' by Samantha Sang, also elbowing into the Billboard Top 10.

The March issue of 'Heavy Metal' is on the stands, with a wraparound cover by Jim Burns titled 'Colonel Killing'. 

It's the end of its first year of HM's publication, and a very successful year it has been. Stoners and sf fans everywhere have discovered a 'slick' magazine that features comics, some of the them R-rated, printed with top-quality color separations on good paper stock. All of a sudden all of the Marvel and DC comic books, and even the Warren magazines, look outdated and passe.

The March '79 issue ably showcases the printing technology on display in HM, with Jean-Michael Nicollet's 'The Abracax Effect'. 

As with most of Nicollet's strips, the plot is surreal, while the artwork is above and beyond most anything American comics fans have ever seen before....

There are a number of other memorable stories in the March issue, and I'll be posting them as the month unfolds.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

'Crash Ryan' by Ron Harris
Epic Comics, 1984

The four-issue limited series 'Crash Ryan' was written and illustrated by Ron Harris, and released by Marvel's 'Epic' line in October 1984 - January 1985.

As Harris indicates in his Introduction in issue 1, he was inspired to do the series by the serials he watched in the movie houses of his youth, as well as his reading of Norman Bel Geddes' 1929 design tome 'Horizons', and the 1936 movie 'Things to Come'.

I've posted previously on the concept of 30s retro-futurism, and allied depictions of an alternate America where the skies are filled with art-deco airplanes sporting all manner of un-aerodynamic fairings, wing configurations, and engine assemblies. 

'Crash' fits neatly into this sub-genre of scif-fi. Harris's artwork and pacing expertly captures the flavor of both the Indiana Jones serials,  the technological stylings of the 'Airboy' comics, and their more modern incarnations, such the as videogame 'Crimson Skies'.

.cbr files of all four issues are available here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Review: 'The Edict' by Max Ehrlich

4 / 5 Stars
This paperback version of ‘The Edict’ was released in January 1972, and represents a novelization of the screenplay by Max Ehrlich and Frank de Felitta. 

The film derived from ‘The Edict’, ‘Z.P.G.’ (Zero Population Growth), was also released in 1972, and starred Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin; a low-budget production, it got less than stellar reviews.

As I’ve indicated in a previous post, the early 70s were the heyday of the Population Bomb / ZPG craze, and ‘The Edict’ stands as a pretty good cultural artifact from those long-ago days of yore.

The story is set in the early 21st century; the Population Bomb and Eco-Catastrophe have combined to place the planet dire circumstance. 

The output of the plankton farms and the algae fields cannot keep pace with the hungry bellies of the fecund billions, and scientists have had to abandon desperate measures to make minerals and rock dust edible (!). Food riots and cannibalism are rampant in countries outside the former United States.

The World Government institutes a drastic remedy, the Edict of the novel’s title: for a span of thirty years, no woman will be allowed to give birth. Any couple who conceive a child without government approval will be liquidated, along with their offspring, without recourse to appeal. For only by observing ZPG can the earth’s billions be assured of sufficient food to keep them alive.

For Russ Evans and his Certified Partner, Carole, life is considerably easier than for the teeming multitudes in the cities. Russ is a security guard at the State Museum Number 42, devoted to late 20th century America, and he and Carole live on the museum grounds. 

Not only do they have their own home, but they have a garden where they can grow a few vegetables for their own consumption. And Russ and Carole are free to take in the exhibits of quasi-extinct creatures (like dogs and cats), and the quasi-extinct plants (such as flowers), any time they wish.

Russ is good friends with the Museum’s head of security, George Borden. Indeed, as part of WorldGov’s ubiquitous cultural conditioning, Russ routinely ‘wife-swaps’ Carole for George’s partner Edna, as the WorldGov considers sexual promiscuity to be a useful way of keeping people’s minds off the strictures imposed on their reproduction.

To satisfy the Maternal Urge, the WorldGov allows qualified couples to adopt synthetic ‘babies’ designed to cry, wet themselves, and even burp. But Carole is deeply unsatisfied with her selection from BabyMart. Carole doesn’t desire an android infant. She wants a real, live human infant of her own….

‘The Edict’ is one of the better ‘Overpopulation’ novels of the era. Ehrlich avoids adopting the New Wave prose stylings then ruling sf, and instead uses crisp, direct language, and believable dialogue, to keep his narrative continuously engaging. The near-future scenario is ably presented, often with a sardonic note to remind readers of 1972 just how good they had it. 

Ehrlich avoids interjecting false optimism into the novel’s ending, settling instead for an ambiguous finish, one that goes well with the book’s stance as a cautionary note about a potentially disastrous future.

Readers with a fondness for the Overpopulation sub-genre of sf, as well those who appreciate a well-written adventure novel, will like ‘The Edict’.

Monday, March 12, 2012

'Heavy Metal' magazine March 1982

The March 1982 issue of ‘Heavy Metal’ is a special issue devoted to Rock music; the front cover (‘Pattie Flying An Atomic Potato Through Megacorporate Musicland’) is by Victor Stabin, while the back cover (‘Electric Splendor’) is by Philippe Druillet.

This month’s Dossier section focuses on science fact, with the launch of the space shuttles as a cultural and scientific impetus. Somewhat surprisingly, Lou Stathis’s ‘rok’ album reviews are actually more readable, and less burdened with pretention, than usual; I suspect that, having reached the apogee of pretentiousness in his reviews in the February 1982 issue, Stathis simply had nowhere else to go.

There are ongoing installments of Segrelles’ ‘The Mercenary’, Moebius’s ‘The Incal Light’, Renard and Schuiten’s ‘At the Middle of Cymbiola’, and Corben’s ‘Den II’.

The special Rock-themed pieces are, on the whole, disappointing. Easily the best of them is Macedo’s ‘Jungle Rock’, which I post here. Featuring bright colors, Rasta musicians, and of course copious T & A, it’s the perfect comic strip for those late-Winter doldrums.

Best of all, thuggish droogs, demented scientists, homicidal robots, and other malcontents common to Macedo's 'Telefield' comics don't make an appearance to upset the mellow grooves of this particular happy couple.....