Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review: 'A Trace of Memory' by Keith Laumer

3 / 5 Stars

‘A Trace of Memory’ was published by the Paperback Library in September 1972. The novel is an expansion of a story first serialized in Amazing magazine, over the Summer of 1962.

The provider of the distinctive cover art, which looks like a cross between Boris Artzybasheff and Salvadore Dali, is not identified.

The hero of the story is a man named Legion, and as the novel opens, Legion is down on his luck. In fact, he is contemplating breaking and entering a cigar store for the meager cash stored in its strongbox.

Formerly an Army Intelligence operative, deck hand, casino worker, and lifeguard, Legion now hasn’t a penny to his name, just the clothes on his back.

On the spur of the moment, Legion responds to an advertisement seeking a soldier of fortune. Foster, the man who placed the advertisement, is something of an enigma. While wealthy and well-educated, Foster suffers from amnesia, and he is convinced that alien entities – floating spheres of yellow fire – are out to take his life.

Dismissing Foster as a mental case, Legion is on the verge of returning to a life of vagrancy, when Foster’s house comes under attack by mysterious persons and/or forces unknown.

The two men flee to Miami, where they ponder the cryptic entries written in a diary in Foster’s possession, a diary that may hold the key to his identity.

Legion’s interpretation of the diary contents leads the men to England, to Salisbury plain, and  to the ruins of Stonehenge. There they stumble upon a secret buried in the earth….and a rendezvous with a spaceship dispatched from the other side of the galaxy.

That’s just the start of a journey that will take Legion to a distant planet, and a battle of wills with a race of alien aristocrats who hold the key to Foster’s past, and his future.

‘A Trace of Memory’ is a standard-issue sf novel from author Laumer, part and parcel of a commercially-oriented style of writing that he adhered to throughout his career.

Much like ‘A Plague of Demons’, the narrative is woven from an extended chase sequence that quickly and assuredly takes its protagonist from his oblivious, day-to-day existence on the streets of the city, to a shocked awareness of otherworldly agencies and individuals existing in secret on the planet Earth.

The narrative then moves into deep space, and an unfolding series of ‘cosmic’ revelations and confrontations.

Like most Laumer heroes, Legion handles both the marvels and terrors with a 60s soldier-of-fortune aplomb, never short on timely wisecracks, self-confidence, or brawling skills.

‘A Trace of Memory’ is a quick and easy read. And while I can’t call it outstanding sf literature, there is at least one sequence, involving a disturbing punishment visited upon Legion, that stands out as the highlight of the book.

It’s evidence that even when assembling the rather simplistic, conventional storylines that constituted the bulk of his professional output, Laumer could at times comes up with some memorable prose.

I can’t recommend to modern readers that they go out of their way to find ‘A Trace of Memory’, however, readers with a fondness for old-school sf adventures of the early 60s may want to keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

'Lover' by John Lakey (writer) and Artifact (illustration)
from Vampirella #103, March, 1982

Its plot borrows more than a little bit from the movie Alien, but the distinctive artwork makes worthwhile this entry from the waning days of the Warren Vampirella franchise.



Monday, September 24, 2012

'Sabre' issue 3
Eclipse Comics, December 1982

The first issue of all-new content for 'Sabre' is a disappointment.

'An Exploitation of Everything Dear' opens with a hackneyed contrivance from writer Don McGregor: the phantasmagorical 'hallucinaton' sequence. This was over-used by McGregor when he wrote for Marvel's Killraven series. Here, it again seems like a contrivance, an excuse for a provocative cover: Sabre's girlfriend is trying to slice him up with a knife ? Wow....I need to purchase this comic book right away !

Paul Gulacy, who provided excellent artwork for the first two Sabre issues, is replaced by Bill Graham, whose artwork is mediocre, at best. Here's a three-page segment featuring the cowboy antics of Governor Slaughter....

The best part of issue three is not the Sabre component, but actually the 8-page 'backup' strip, featuring Sabre's sometime comrade-in-arms 'Blackstar Blood'. 

In this adventure, Blackstar winds up paying a gruesome price for being a lothario...the distorted artwork and cramped panel composition have a definite 'retro' feel to them, reminiscent of a comic book from the 40s......

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: 'Gray Matters' by William Hjortsberg

2 / 5 Stars

‘Gray Matters’ was first published in hardback in 1971. This Pocket Book edition (159 pp) was released in December 1972, with a cover illustration by Gene Szafran.

William Hjortsberg is best known for his novel ‘Falling Angel’, which became the basis for the 1987 film ‘Angel Heart’ with Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet.

‘Gray Matters’ is essentially another take on the traditional sf trope of 'brains-housed-in-aquariums'.

The story is set in the future, where, in a massive underground facility, the disembodied brains (‘cerebromorphs’) of millions of people lie in row upon row of small canisters. These canisters are filled with a nutritive fluid, and individually wired to a central computer bank, which allows the consciousness of the brain to experience a sort of early 70s version of Virtual Reality.

The narrative centers on four of the cerebromorphs: a movie star named Vera Mitlovic; a twelve year-old boy named Denton ‘Skeets’ Kalbfleischer, who in the early 70s became the first of the cerebromorphs; an African artist named Obu Itubi; and a hotshot former astronaut and pilot, named Philip Quarrels.

The opening chapters introduce us to these characters, and the VR scenarios that hold their attention. While the cerebromorphs are content to indulge in their fantasies, the AI that supervises the facility nags them to adopt a quasi-Bhuddist regimen of mental exercises and meditation in order to provoke their ‘ascension’ to a ‘higher order’.

Over time, Obu Itubi becomes increasingly irritated by the hectoring of the AI, and in a fit of rebellion, he decides to break free of the facility. This rash action sends him on a journey of discovery, one with profound implications for the fate of the cerebromorphs…..

‘Gray Matters’ starts off well enough, injecting sardonic humor into the life – if it can be called that – of the cerebromorphs. With Obu Itubi's escape attempt, the reader is induced to expect some major revelations about the strange world in which the human population is represented by their stored brains. 

Unfortunately, having set up this bizarre and disturbing world, author Hjortsberg is unable to follow through in terms of a denouement, and the second half of the book quickly loses momentum. It doesn't help matters that the author tries to maintain two separate plot threads, neither of which really engages the reader’s attention (despite the regular inclusion of softcore porn scenes - !).

The book ends on something of an inconclusive note, designed to tell us that things may not, after all, be well with the cerebromorph system.

In summary, ‘Gray Matters’ starts with promise, but loses focus courtesy of a meandering approach to plotting. In some fairness, it is true that the entire 'virtual reality / disembodied consciousness' sub-genre wouldn't really flower until the advent of the Cyberpunks in the early 80s. However, I can’t recommend this book to anyone, save the most dedicated readers of the ‘Disembodied Consciousness’ sub-genre of sf.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'Hunter' from Eerie magazine (Warren)
episode 4
from Eerie No. 55,  March 1974

This episode, 'The Village', has a particularly downbeat tenor to it, as the race-war between the Demons and the Humans takes a particularly nasty turn.... 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

'The Complete Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination' by Howard Chaykin and Byron Preiss

Bester's 'The Stars My Destination' is one of the few 'Old School' SF classics that really lives up to its 'classic' status. 

First published in 1956, the novel borrows its plot from 'The Count of Monte Cristo' :

In the aftermath of an unprovoked attack on the spaceship Nomad, crewman Gully Foyle survives among the floating ruins of his vessel by outfitting a storage locker as an emergency survival compartment. Foyle, clad in his spacesuit, desperately scavenges oxygen canisters and tins of food and water from the wreckage, hoping to survive long enough to be rescued. 

Foyle is in his 171st day aboard the Nomad, when he espies an approaching vessel. Rescue is within his reach...or so it seems....

'Stars' has a very 'modern' approach to its prose style, plotting, and characterization, which made it stand out from the wooden material being churned out in the late 50s by Arthur Clarke, James Blish, and Isaac Asimov (among others).

Throughout the 70s, editor and author Byron Preiss (1953 - 2005) was active in publishing illustrated editions of sf mass-market and trade paperbacks. One of his ventures involved a small New York City publisher named Baronet, who in the late 70s released 'The Illustrated Harlan Ellison' and 'The Illustrated Roger Zelazny', as well as the illustrated 'The Stars My Destination'.

The publication history of 'Stars' is complicated. In July 1979 Baronet released 'The Stars My Destination, Volume One: The Graphic Story Adaptation' as a trade paperback and as a deluxe-edition hardcover in a slipcase, with an empty slot preserved as a space for the planned volume 2. 

Excerpts of Volume One and Volume Two were published in Heavy Metal magazine; the November 1979 issue featured the first chapter of Volume Two, which I've posted below.

Unfortunately, Baronet went out of business soon after releasing Volume One, and the draft of Volume Two sat in a warehouse in Queens, New York, for 12 years until Carl Potts, editor of Marvel's 'Epic Illustrated' magazine, expressed an interest in publishing a complete edition of the book.

After further labors by Preiss, the Complete Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination'  was released in 1992 by Epic.

Readers interested in picking up a copy can find it at and eBay  for affordable prices, but take care that you purchase the 'Complete' version, as opposed to Volume One (which shares the same cover).

If you've never read Bester's novel, the Chaykin / Preiss edition is probably the best way to take it in. While the graphic story is abridged, the quantity of excised text is very minor, and the full flavor of the novel is well retained. 

Chaykin's illustrations are an able interpretation of the visual images described in the text. Their variety and quantity are impressive, particularly in light of the fact that they were done in the era prior to the advent of computer - assisted graphics.