Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: The Eyes of the Overworld

Book Review: 'The Eyes of the Overworld' by Jack Vance

5 / 5 Stars

The stories in ‘The Eyes of the Overworld’ were first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1965 – 1966, with the compilation first appearing as an Ace paperback in 1966. This Pocket Books edition (190 pp.) was published in March, 1980; the cover artist is uncredited.

This is the second volume in the four-volume series of ‘The Dying Earth’, the other volumes being ‘The Dying Earth’ (1950), ‘Cugel’s Saga’ (1983), and ‘Rhialto the Marvellous’ (1984).

‘Eyes’ introduces the main character for two of the four books in the saga: Cugel the Clever, probably one of the most well-known antiheroes in sf and fantasy literature. Cugel is routinely amoral, grasping, and avaricious, and often as not has only himself to blame for getting into trouble with various wizards, deities, and angry townspeople. 

At the same time, Cugel is often a source of ironic amusement, and often winds up getting the better of individuals who are as unpleasant as he is himself. The reader can’t help but wind up liking Cugel, despite his faults.

The opening chapter of ‘Eyes’ sees our hero running afoul of a powerful mage, who dispatches Cugel to a remote hinterland, there to recover two marvelous jeweled loupes, which allow their user to visualize a world of wealth and magnificence existing on a higher plane, a world quite nicer than that of the Dying Earth. 

In the course of executing this quest Cugel has various adventures, all of which are related by Vance with the semi-stilted diction that characterizes his written works, a stilted prose that relies on sardonic humor laced with sharp bits of violence.

This being a Vance novel, of course, readers also must prepare to encounter a vocabulary of nouns, adverbs, and adjectives that rarely (if ever) appear in most literature of any genre. 

Despite its comparatively short length, ‘Eyes’ remains an exemplary fantasy / sci-fi novel and is a more worthy read than many of the 500+ pp novels that now dominate the retail shelves. 

If you haven’t yet read any of the Dying Earth novels, ‘Eyes’, along with ‘Cugel’s Saga’, remain the two best entries in the series, and are well worth getting, even though copies in good condition are often expensive.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Exterminator 17

Exterminator 17 
by Jean Pierre Dionnet and Enki Bilal

'Exterminator 17' first was serialized in the French magazine Metal Hurlant in 1976 - 1977. An English translation, in black and white, was serialized in Heavy Metal, starting with the October, 1978 issue and continuing through the March, 1979 issue.

This 1986 Catalan Communications trade paperback compiles all of those English-language episodes, in a color format (done by Dave Brown). Humanoids published a hardcover edition in 2002, followed by a sequel titled La Trilogy D’Ellis ('The Ellis Trilogy') which, unfortunately, has not been released in English.

When I picked up and read my very first issue of Heavy Metal in November, 1978, it was my first introduction to European styles of comic book artwork, and I found 'Exterminator 17' to be one of the most offbeat such comics I’d ever seen.

This mainly was due to Bilal's artwork, which was extremely detailed and meticulous, but at the same time, distinctive in its sensibility. The festoonings and graticules and linework gave each image a cluttered, 'organic' quality, while the incorporation of stains, blotches, chips, gouges and smears on the bulkheads of the spaceships, and the clothing of the characters, added a visual element of decay and entropy - things simply not encountered in American comic book art. 

Bilal's rendering of human faces and features was also novel and outstanding example is the unscrupulous plastic surgeon surgeon aboard the 'genetic probe ship' : 

The plot of 'Exterminator 17' also has its own offbeat sensibility that meshes well with the artwork (although in its later stages, the narrative undergoes some confusing jumps and shifts that suggest that somewhere along the way, some pages were dropped from final production).

The eponymous Exterminator is a member of an army of combat androids; these armies were created as proxies for settling disputes between rival political blocs. As the comic book opens, the army to which Exterminator 17 belongs has been deployed to the planetoid Novack for a battle with another android army.

Barely have the rival armies engaged, however, when the dispute is settled by distant negotiations. A built-in 'kill switch' instantly renders all the combatants 'deactivated'.

But as it turns out, the creator of the androids is himself near death. And before he succumbs, his conscience leads him to take an unprecedented step towards freeing the androids.....and the vehicle of this freedom will be Exterminator 17.

I won't disclose any spoilers, save to say that Exterminator 17 embarks on a journey to the stranger realms of the galaxy, and not everyone he meets is trustworthy.....

Summing up, if you're a fan of Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal, and / or European sf comics, then getting a copy of the 'Exterminator 17' graphic novel is a worthy investment....and if you are fluent in French, the sequel also is worth getting.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Commander-1

Book Review: 'Commander-1' by Peter George

2 / 5 Stars

Peter George (1924 – 1966) was a British author who served in the RAF during WW2. In 1958 he published a novel about a paranoid American Air Force commander who launches a nuclear attack on Russia, titled Two Hours to Doom; in the US, it was retitled Red Alert.

In 1962, the American authors Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler published another nuclear disaster novel, titled Fail Safe, that also dealt with an command and control error that leads to a nuclear war. George sued them for plagiarism, and the case was settled out of court.

For his part, George co-wrote the screenplay for the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was based on Red Alert.

In 1965 George published another novel, 'Commander-1'. This Dell paperback was released in June, 1966. (That same year, Peter George shot himself at the age of 42.)

As ‘Commander-1’ opens, it is Christmas Eve, December 24, 1965. In the Pentagon War Room, Brigadier General Barry Kingston assumes command of the night shift, expecting a quiet and uneventful period of duty. However, NORAD detects the launchings of missiles overseas, and there is a troubling absence of communication from the main US early-warning facility (referred to as ‘Clear’).

As an apprehensive Kingston exchanges phone calls with NORAD, additional launches of Russian ICBMs are observed. The US goes to DEFCON 2 status. Contact is lost with New York City and Scot's Hill, North Carolina, where the President is spending the holidays. The War Room command has no choice but to go to DEFCON 1, and orders an attack on Russia with the entire US arsenal. World War Three commences.

The novel then shifts locale to an un-named US nuclear submarine stationed underneath the polar ice pack. Its Commander, James Geraghty, has been ordered to conduct an experiment in which civilians are housed in an isolation chamber aboard the sub, simulating the closed quarters associated with space travel. To Geraghty’s increasing disquiet, after December 25, he is unable to raise radio links with his home port, the Navy, or with any US military installation.

Once Geraghty does make contact with his superiors, he learns that there has been a nuclear war, and that most of the world is in ruins. He and his submarine now constitute one of the last military resources of the US.

The remainder of ‘Commander-1’ deals with Geraghty’s decision to find a top-secret US base designed to be the final redoubt in the event of WW3. But even as Geraghty embarks on his new mission, his already precarious mental state begins to change….and not for the better.

‘Commander-1’ is primarily a dark satire of the military mind, related in a detached, matter-of-fact prose style, the primary goal of which is to document the growing egomania of Geraghty, the submarine commander. It fails to offer much in terms of vivid descriptions of post-apocalyptic landscapes and devastation; indeed, most of the action unfolds aboard the submarine, or on remote islands in the Pacific.

I won’t disclose any spoilers, but the ending of ‘Commander-1’ is in keeping with author Peter George’s belief in the futility of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race (topics that apparently contributed to the depression that led him to commit suicide). It’s a grimmer novel that Red Alert, and in a sense, more polemical. 

I doubt it will appeal to readers who are interested in the more traditional post-apocalyptic tale, about the struggle for survival in irradiated wastelands populated by mutants and cannibalistic barbarians. 'Commander-1' is best regarded as a product of the height of the Cold War, which (for anyone under 40) has since become a sort of vaguely recalled aspect of 20th century American history......

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Matter of Time

A Matter of Time
by Juan Gimenez
from Heavy Metal magazine, October 1984

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: Billenium

Book Review: 'Billenium' by J. G. Ballard

4 / 5 Stars

‘Billenium’ (159 pp) was published in 1962 by Berkley; the cover art is by Richard Powers.

The stories compiled in this anthology all saw print previously during the interval from 1956 – 1962 in various UK and USA science fiction magazines.

All of the stories in this collection, however engaging (or not), are clearly miles ahead of anything else being published in the genre during the early 60s. Those other writers who received praise at that time for their ‘literary’ qualities, such as James Blish with his ‘Cities in Flight’ novels, are mediocre by comparison. Ballard’s writings, while always understated and subtle – in the British sf tradition – display a use of language, setting, plot, and atmosphere that seem relevant and timely even today, more than 50 years later.

As well, the theme of entropy – although it was never disclosed as such – permeates many of these stories, giving them an imaginative flavor that other sf writers wouldn’t come to adopt until the end of the decade.

A brief summary of the contents:

Billenium: still one of the best Overpopulation stories ever written.

The Insane Ones: in the future, psychiatry is outlawed.

Studio Five, The Stars: a ‘Vermilion Sands’ story set in that entropy-laden resort. A dull tale about the editor of a magazine that publishes poetry written by computer; there is trouble when the computer breaks.

The Gentle Assassin: still one of the best time-travel stories ever written.

Build-Up: in a city that spans the entire planet, a young man searches for empty space to cure his anomie.

Now Zero: the narrator relates his efforts to find the perfect way to seize power from an unsuspecting populace. A ‘trick’ ending.

Mobile (aka Venus Smiles): a piece of abstract sculpture displays unusual properties.

Chronopolis: offbeat story about a dystopian future in which the regimentation introduced by the discovery of clocks and time-keeping has been overthrown, replaced by decay and aimlessness.

Prima Belladonna: another Vermilion Sands story, this one also rather dull: a mysterious woman upsets the social order among the Sands residents.

The Garden of Time: another offbeat, inventive story; this one about a couple who confront impending disaster with grace and style. One of the best sf stories Ballard wrote.

The verdict ? While the 'Vermilion Sands' stories are the weaker entries, the good quality of the other stories make this collection well worth searching for.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Car Warriors issue 4

Car Warriors
issue 4
Epic Comics / Marvel, September, 1991

The Delorean Run is underway......and our contestants are neck-and-neck on the road to Lansing !

But violence and mayhem accompany the race, as the mutants of the wastelands try their best to snuff out any trespassers.......

Even the Wysockis, my favorites among the racers, will find the going gets difficult.....

And then, there's the stench of corporate treachery waiting at the finish line.....!

Here it is, the final episode of 'Car Warriors', featuring one of the more gruesome illustrations of gunshot-mediated disembowelment I've ever seen in a 'mainstream' comic book.....!