Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: 'Stress Pattern' by Neal Barrett, Jr.

2 / 5 Stars

‘Stress Pattern’ (160 pp) is DAW Book No. 128, published in November, 1974, with a cover illustration by Josh Kirby.

Andrew Gavin is an economics professor who, following a major malfunction of his spaceship, finds himself stranded on an unknown planet.

He is saved from death from thirst and hunger by the chance passing of a humanoid alien named 'Phrecti', who, although indifferent to Gavin, nonetheless directs him to sources of food and water.

Tagging along with the noncommittal Phrecti introduces Gavin to a unique method of travel: inside the digestive tract of an enormous earthworm, as it tunnels its way under the planet’s surface.

Gavin soon encounters other tribes of humanoids, some more welcoming than others, and arrives at some semblance of normalcy in terms of his castaway status.

However, Gavin discovers that life on his planetary refuge simply gets stranger and more inexplicable with each passing day. His humanoid neighbors are utterly devoid of imagination or drive, content to embrace the status quo of their primitive existence.

Unable to succumb to universal apathy, Gavin sets off on a journey, the destination of which is unknown even to him. But travel he must, for until he can gain an explanation of some purpose or meaning to life on his adopted home, he will never rest easily.

‘Stress Pattern’ was Neal Barrett Jr.’s fifth novel. It’s not a bad novel, but neither is it a classic of 70s sf.

The intense, violent action that characterizes his later novels, such as ‘Through Darkest America’, are entirely absent here, as Barrett focuses on quirky humor in the style of those many Analog novels and short stories of the 60s and 70s in which the narrative focused on the solving of some sort of planetary puzzle or conundrum.

‘Pattern’ does avoid the New Wave affectations that preoccupied many writers who began writing sf in the 70s, staying firmly grounded in a declarative, straightforward narrative.

There is a strong element of satire to the adventures encountered by protagonist Gavin, as he struggles to come to terms with the bizarre aspects of the aliens among whom he must make his home.

‘Pattern’ belongs to the sub-genre of sf in which an Earthman struggles to arrive at a critical revelation about the strange, alien world on which he finds himself. As with most such novels, there is a Big Revelation that comes in the final chapter. I won’t disclose any spoilers, but I was disappointed with the somewhat contrived nature of the revelation provided in ‘Stress Pattern’ .

In summary, readers may want to pass on 'Stress Pattern' in favor of Barrett's later novels, such as the 'Aldair' series, or the 'Darkest America' series.

Monday, May 27, 2013

'Heavy Metal' magazine, May, 1978

The May, 1978 issue of Heavy Metal featured a striking front cover by Philippe Druillet, and a back cover by Tom Barber.

Along with installments of 'Airtight Garage', 'Barbarella', '1996', 'Urm', and 'Orion', there is an advertisement for science fiction / fantasy art books, primarily works by Roger Dean, and the newly launched 'Ariel: The Book of Fantasy'. Patrick Woodroffe's 'Mythopoeikon' was perhaps the best in the lot.

Among a number of good-quality, shorter strips was a three-pager by Sergio Macedo, titled 'An Image'.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: 'Interfaces' by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd

2 / 5 Stars

‘Interfaces’ (310 pp) was published by Ace Books in February, 1980; the cover illustration is by Alex Abel.

In the Introduction – which consists of an interview with each of the editors – Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Kidd declare that ‘Interfaces’ is indeed primarily an sf anthology, despite the cover allusions to ‘Speculative Fiction’. ‘Interfaces’ contains original stories (and poems) written exclusively for the anthology by both established, and new, writers.

Needless to say, 'Interfaces' is dedicated to showcasing the New Wave movement, even though by 1980 the movement was plainly exhausted, both creatively and economically.

My capsule summaries of the contents:

‘The Reason for the Visit’, by John Crowley: an author has conversations with the ghost of a deceased writer. This story is as lame as it sounds.

‘Set Piece’, by Jill Paton Walsh: slight fable about two young men, and the paths they choose through Life.

‘Everything Blowing Up: An Adventure of Una Persson, Heroine of Time and Space’, by Hilary Bailey: Michael Moorcock’s heroine Una Persson journeys across the ever-changing landscape of the Multiverse on an important mission.

‘The New Zombies’, by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis: The best story in the anthology. Davidson and his wife tell a tale of San Francisco, the seamier aspects of its hippy culture, and the unpleasant activities hidden under the peace and love vibe. Sits alongside Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shattered Like A Glass Goblin’ as a shrewd exploration of the squalid nature of the hippy generation.

‘Earth and Stone’, by Robert Holdstock: a time traveler from the future journeys to the British isles of 3,000 BC to study a Neolithic tomb-building tribe. He discovers disturbing rituals, and a world-view traumatic to his sensibilities. This story has the underpinnings of a good tale, but its unwieldy length, self-absorption with ancient languages, and the histrionics of the main character, leech too much momentum from the narrative.

‘A Short History of the Bicycle: 401 BC to 2677 AD’, by Michael Bishop: an effort at a humorous, vaguely satirical ‘speculative’ fiction piece, involving a planet where bicycles are living beings. The worst story in the anthology.

‘Shadows, Moving’, by Vonda McIntyre: aged person makes the Final Journey. Tries to mix pathos and quasi-religious optimism, but winds up just…..unremarkable.

‘The Pastseer’ by Philippa C. Maddern: the wise woman of a primitive tribe channels the Jungian consciousness of her people in order to direct their migrations. Trouble sets in when she has visions of otherwordly intent. Imaginative, if handicapped with too-vague an ending.

‘Hunger and the Computer’ by Gary Weimberg: spaceman confronts dysfunctional machinery. Unsuccessful effort at a ‘Twilght Zone’- style story.

‘Household Gods’ by Daphne Castell: offbeat take on the ‘alien invasion’ story. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

‘Bender, Fenugreek, Slatterman and Mupp’ by D. G. Compton: regimented life in a near-future dystopia. A more cleanly-written, coherent short story than the type Compton usually wrote, so I was pleased.

‘Precession’ by Edward Bryant: a man is afflicted by a unique ailment that abruptly places him out of phase with the passage of time. An interesting concept, but Bryant’s use of a too-figurative prose style, and a focus on the Heartache of Sundered Relationships, fails to sustain.

‘A Criminal Proceeding’ by Gene Wolfe: labored satire of a trial set in a future Idiocracy. The second-worst tale in the anthology.

‘For Whom Are Those Serpents Whistling Overhead ?’ by Jean Femling: bored housewife encounters a mythical creature.

‘The Summer Sweet, the Winter Wild’ by Michael G. Coney: the gestalt consciousness of a caribou herd serves as the third-person narrator of an eventful period for the herd.

‘Slow Music’ by James Tiptree, Jr (i.e., Alice Bradley Sheldon): as Cosmic Reincarnation grips the Earth, a young couple embark on a fateful romantic relationship. Somewhat unlike Tiptree’s usual man + woman stories of the mid- to later- 70s, the conflict between the genders is more nuanced, and less acerbic, than he (she) usually portrayed such topics..

The anthology features a number of short (one page) poems, all of which are not really recognizable as sf.

In summary, ‘Interfaces’ is neither any worse, nor any better, than the other short story anthologies released during the New Wave era. 

‘The New Zombies’ can be found in dedicated Davidson anthologies, so potential buyers must weigh the value of the other stories in ‘Interfaces’, as they come to their decision.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'Father Shandor, Demon Stalker'
'The Empire of Sin'
from Warrior (UK) No. 5, September, 1982

Artist David Jackson continues his impressive pen-and-ink work on this installment of the Father Shandor saga. 

When you compare the quality of the art in this comic from 1982, with that appearing nowadays in the seemingly endless slew of 'B.P.R.D.' comics from Dark Horse, there's no comparison

A single panel of Jackson's intricate cross-hatching and shading is superior to the entire B.P.R.D. catalog. 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Debbie Harry
photoshoot, 1977
from the book Punk: The Whole Story, 2006

Sunday, May 19, 2013

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: 'The Embedding' by Ian Watson

1 / 5 Stars

‘The Embedding’ was published by Gollanz (UK) in 1973. This Bantam Books paperback (217 pp) was released in April 1977, with a cover illustration by Paul Lehr.

‘Embedding’ was English author Watson’s first novel.

The book contains two alternating sub-plots, both of which eventually mesh later in the narrative. In one sub-plot, Chris Sole, a linguist at a research institute in England, is working with traumatized, semi-catatonic Bangladeshi refugee children (?!) and trying various elaborate social conditioning methods – including a brain-stimulating drug – to get them to communicate.

In the other sub-plot, a French anthropologist named Pierre is living with a tribe of Amazonian Indians called the Xemahoa. The Xemahoa possess two languages, one being a ‘conventional’ method of spoken communication. The other Xemahoa language is an ill-defined, esoteric form of semi-telepathic communication that involves taking hallucinogenic drugs, which in turn triggers an all-encompassing Awareness of the True Nature of the World.

When an alien spaceship is discovered en route to Earth, both of these plots begin to converge, as the communication becomes the all-important key to managing First Contact.

‘The Embedding’ was a struggle to get through.

Author Watson was intent on using various linguistic theories, that were hip and trendy in the early 70s, as the underpinning of his novel. Many passages are over-written efforts to introduce concepts of a Universal Consciousness through Communication, and these paradigms are too half-baked, and too tepid, to drive the narrative.

The reader must confront clunky mediocre exchanges of dialogue, such as this interaction with one of the aliens:

“Not so,” howled Ph’theri , raising both arms and tick-tacking his thumbs in the utmost anger or agitation. “We Sp’thra are not sick. We are aware. Change Speakers exist – in another reality plane ! When they phased with This-Reality, the event set up a resonance which is this Bereft Love and this Anguish and this Grim Haunting all at once. You have not known this. No other race has. The Change Speakers modulate all the reality tangents to the plane of our embedding here….”

Even FanFic dialogue is superior !

‘The Embedding’ is a yet another New Wave sf novel that concentrated too hard on layering its narrative with gimmicky tropes from the soft sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. – while failing to tell a good story in the process.

Unless you are a dedicated follower of linguistic theorizing, this book can be passed by without penalty.

Monday, May 13, 2013

'Heavy Metal' magazine, May 1983

May, 1983, is here, and I graduate from college. Much like today, the economic situation for new graduates is not very good. Many in the upstate New York area of Broome County are leaving, or have left, for the Sun Belt, where the economy is booming. In fact, in the next year of 1984, I, too, will depart for points South.

On heavy rotation on MTV is ‘Der Kommissar’, by the British band After the Fire. The band actually had recorded the song a year earlier, in the Summer of 1982, after original artist Falco had a big hit with the song in Germany at the start of that year.

After the Fire’s single went nowhere in the UK, and by the end of ’82 the band had split. Somewhat improbably, the single picked up airplay in the US, entering the Billboard Hot 100 list in February, 1983, and eventually making it all the way to No. 5 later that Spring.

The May issue of Heavy Metal is on the stands, and this month’s magazine features a front cover by Frank Riley, and a back cover by Rick Meyerowitz.
The Dossier section leads off with an interview with Canadian director David Cronenberg, at that time filming 'The Dead Zone'.

The ‘Future Tense’ section reviews sf books, including John Varley’s MIllenium, Poul Anderson’s Orion Shall Rise, and Robert Thurston’s A Set of Wheels (stay tuned for a forthcoming review here at the PorPor Books Blog). 

Also getting coverage is the proto-cyberpunk novel Mindkiller by Spider Robinson.
The emerging genre of rap gets its own section in HM, the ‘Rap-up’ section. Releases by founding fathers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang, and Afrika Bambaataa, are reviewed by Stuart Cohn. 

HM Editor Ted White can’t resist plugging jazz releases, even though he must have realized that the final nails in the Jazz coffin were being driven by the rappers being profiled elsewhere in the same Dossier.


The graphics / comics material in this issue includes ongoing installments of ‘The Ape’, ‘Zora’, ‘The City That Didn’t Exist’, and ‘Starstruck’. Among the better singleton pieces is ‘Space Crusader’ by Pepe Moreno, which I’ve posted below.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: 'Songs from the Stars' by Norman Spinrad

2 / 5 Stars

‘Songs from the Stars’ was first published in 1980. This Pocket Books paperback (275 pp) was released in January 1981, with cover artwork by Mara McAfee.

Several centuries after WWIII, civilization in North America survives in the higher ranges of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While the country on either side of the range is a blasted, radiation-baked wasteland, amidst the Sierras, Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’ exists…. as the nation-state of Aquaria.

Aquaria is the living embodiment of 1970s California ‘granola’ culture. The only technologies allowed are those powered by wind, water, sun, or muscle. Vegetarianism and New Age religions are embraced, while prewar technologies are considered ‘black science’, and advocates and possessors face banishment. 

Free love, free pot, and the hippy aesthetic govern social interactions. Citizens pepper their conversations with terms widely used by the Commune Culture ca. 1974, such as ‘karma’, ‘bummer’, ‘the Way’, and ‘righteous’.

Author Spinrad creates this culture with such conviction that at times ‘Songs’ reads like an (unintentional ?) satire.

Higher up in the Sierras are small outposts of ‘mountain williams’ rednecks. The mountain williams supply the citizens of Aquaria with solar technology obtained from the Spacers, a little-known clan, located in even more remote territory, that embraces black science. The trade with the Spacers is carefully ignored by the citizens of Aquaria, who would prefer not to know the details of how their solar cells ultimately are manufactured.

As the novel opens, male protagonist ‘Clear Blue’ Lou is en route via solar-powered glider to the capital town of La Mirage, there to mediate a dispute between two clans accused of promoting black magic. It seems that radios sold by the Lightning Clan of mountain williams contain – gasp – nuclear-powered energy cells !

Also en route to La Mirage is prototypical California blonde Sunshine Sue, a member of the Sunshine Tribe, one of the clans with the misfortune to purchase the illegal radios.

Events conspire to bring Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue together as romantic partners. But when a fateful encounter with a practitioner of black science gets Sue involved in a conspiracy that could get her expelled from Aquaria, Sue decides to turn to Lou.

Against his will, Clear Blue Lou finds himself drawn with Sue and the Spacers into a mission that represents an embrace of the technology, and the attitudes, that had destroyed the planet. But as Lou discovers, sometimes the sacrifice of one’s beliefs is a necessary evil….

‘Songs from the Stars’ is in many respects a well-written novel, but I doubt it will appeal to contemporary sf readers.

The depiction of 70s tofu-head culture will draw blanks from anyone under 40, as will the  one-dimensional portrayal of female characters as horny hippie chicks always willing to disrobe and ‘sport’.

Much of the narrative revolves around the psychological and emotional dramas that Lou and Sue must confront, and surmount, as they proceed with their mission. After a while these dramas become more contrived and more annoying – one wonders why the technologically advanced Spacers even need the assistance of self-absorbed, conflicted New Age stoners in the first place.

Spinrad can’t resist filling the latter stages of the book with drawn-out sections of highly figurative New Wave prose; by 1980, this style of writing was becoming more and more passé, and its presence in ‘Songs’ injects notes of tedium, rather than vibrancy.

In summary, ‘Songs’ is reserved for dedicated Spinrad fans, and those with particular interest in early 80s sf. All others can pass on this novel.

Monday, May 6, 2013

'The Alien Nation: Overpopulation' 
by Richard Margopoulos and Paul Neary
from Eerie No. 49, July, 1973

Here's a great little sci-fi tale about a favorite early 70s subject, overpopulation. The script is by Richard Margopoulos, and the artwork - impressive as always - by Paul Neary, of 'Hunter' fame.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: 'Yurth Burden' by Andre Norton

1 / 5 Stars

‘Yurth Burden’ is a DAW original (No. 304), and was published in September, 1978. The cover artwork, and the interior b & w illustrations, are by Jack Gaughan.

The story is set in the earth-like planet Zacar, which is inhabited by two human races: the telepathic Yurth, and the non-telepathic Raski. There is enmity between both races, which is manifested in willful segregation. At times, open violence has broken out between the Yurth and the Raski; the latter hate and fear the Yurth for their telepathic abilities, while the Yurth regard the Raski as little more than barbarians.

As the novel opens, a girl named Elossa is making her way towards the mountain range where she, as a member of the Yurth race, must undergo an obligatory Vision Quest –type experience. As with all such acolytes, the exact nature of the knowledge she will receive has not been disclosed to her by the elder members of her tribe, but there are warnings: not all who attempt the Quest, return.

As Elossa approaches the site of the Vision Quest, she discovers she has a pursuer – a young Raski boy. His intentions are unknown, but Elossa will find her fate and his bound together. For in the mountains lies the truth behind the events that have made the Yurth and the Raski enemies – and the maddened remnants of an ancestral culture, one with little love for trespassers……

While the odds are that a given Andre Norton novel will be readable, even entertaining, ‘Yurth Burden’ is one of her worst novels.

Norton appears to have made a conscious decision to adopt the over-written, highly stylized prose style employed by Tanith Lee and C. J. Cherryh in their fantasy and sf novels of the 70s. Unfortunately for Norton, the result is wooden dialogue devoid of the use of contractions, and clunky, stilted, descriptive passages that I often had to re-read multiple times in order to understand.

Things aren’t helped by the plot, which is hampered by the inclusion of overly contrived, episodic material, as if author Norton decided to begin writing without having any sort of overarching storyline in place beforehand.

The book was clearly written for a young adult readership, and however bad the predicaments in which our two heroes may find themselves, it’s not divulging much to hint that they just, might, possibly emerge victorious in the end.

There is a perfunctory quality to ‘Yurth’, a lack of polish, an observation that isn’t too surprising when one realizes that Norton’s tendency towards overproduction made it likely that some of her fiction pieces were going to be clunkers.

The verdict ? Even dedicated Norton fans are going to find ‘Yurth Burden’ slow going. This one safely can be passed by.