Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: Worlds of the Imperium

Book Review: 'Worlds of the Imperium' by Keith Laumer

3 / 5 Stars

This Ace paperback edition (176 pp) of ‘The Worlds of the Imperium’ was published in October 1973; the cover artist is uncredited. The novel was first published in 1962.

Brion Bayard, the first-person narrator, is an employee in the American diplomatic corps; as the novel opens, he is in Stockholm, being followed by a man he does not recognize. His suspicions aroused, Bayard attempts to flee, but he is captured and knocked unconscious. When he awakens, it is within the confines of a strange vessel – one that travels the world lines between alternate universes.

Bayard arrives on the earth known as ‘Zero Zero’, where travel between the alternities was discovered, leading to the establishment of a polity known as the ‘Imperium’. Although it’s the early 1960s, the Imperium has the cultural and social trappings of Victorian-era western Europe, featuring an aristocracy devoted to holding fancy dress balls in the palaces of Stockholm.

Bayard learns that the Imperium has been under attack: somehow, an alternity named ‘B-I Two’ in the grip of perpetual war and violence has discovered the secret of traveling between the parallel universes, and is mounting destructive raids on the lands of the Imperium. The despot ruling B-I Two is none other than… ‘alternate’ Brion Bayard !

Our hero is dispatched on a desperate mission: the Imperium has learned that Evil Bayard’s palace is located in Algiers. Good Bayard will be secretly delivered by the Imperium’s alternity-traversing vessel to the palace; once there, he will find his twin – and assassinate him. Then Bayard will assume the identity of the Evil Bayard, and carefully steer B-I Two to a cessation of its raids on Imperium lands.

As Brion Bayard soon learns, plans have a way of going awry very quickly……

‘Worlds of the Imperium’ is standard-issue 'Keith Laumer adventure sf'. The narrative moves along swiftly, as it is based on action sequences, many of which rely on contrived, eye-rolling escapes and last-minute changes of fortune. Our hero is by no means a superman, but possesses courage in the right quantities at the right times. There is a swell dame to serve as a goad to acts of heroism, and plenty of wisecracking under moments of duress.

‘Worlds’ is the first of what ultimately would be four novels in the Imperium series: The Other Side of Time (1965), Assignment in Nowhere (1968), and Zone Yellow (1990). All revolve around the adventures of Bayard, and other characters, in parallel worlds.

The Imperium series has had its influence on sf; for example, in his ‘Luther Arkwright’ comics dealing with parallel universes, Bryan Talbot refers to the central para as ‘ZeroZero’. 

More recently, Steampunk aficionados have come to regard ‘Imperium’ as proto-Steampunk, although in this regard, it is rather less influential than, say, Moorcock’s ‘Nomad of Time’ novels. 

If you’re looking for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure that doesn’t strive to offer much in the way of scientific extrapolation or in-depth characterization, then ‘Imperium’ is a decent read.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Noise from Upstairs by Caza

'Noise from Upstairs' by Caza
from the February, 1984 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: The Sixth Winter

Book Review: 'The Sixth Winter' by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Sixth Winter’ was first published in hardback in 1979; this Fawcett Crest paperback edition (297 pp) was released in March, 1981, and features an arresting cover painting by David Plourde.

John Gribbin wrote a number of nonfiction books on scientific subjects, such as ‘Timewarps’ (1979) and ‘In Search of the Big Bang’ (1986), for general audiences. He also wrote, alone or in partnership with Douglas Orgill and D. C. Compton, sf novels, as well as short stories. Gribbin eschewed New Wave mannerisms in his fiction, choosing the sort of straightforward, didactic prose style popularized by Michael Chrichton.

If you grew up in the 70s, then you may well remember that Gobal Cooling was defined as the major climatic threat to human civilization. 

Not only were there scads of stories in the mainstream media touting the subject, but sf novels and ‘prediction’ books were plentiful as well: The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age (The Impact Team, 1975); The Cooling: Has the Next Ice Age Already Begun ? (Lowell Ponte, 1976); The Winter of the World (Poul Anderson, 1976), and movies like Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979).

Whether or not you are a believer in Climate Change / Global Warming, it’s interesting to see how fervently the idea of Global Cooling was embedded in pop culture consciousness back then.

‘The Sixth Winter’ is based on Gribbin's nonfiction essay, 'The Climatic Threat', which appeared in the  Analog Annual compilation in March, 1976. 

'Winter' deals with the advent of a new Ice Age. It is set in the future; i.e., the early 80s.

As the novel opens, the brilliant but emotionally reserved climatologist William Stovin has reviewed recent data, and come to the conclusion that Global Cooling is imminent. His apprehension is borne out when a freakish weather phenomenon – a supercooled tornado, which the ancient Eskimos referred to as a ‘Dancer’ – converts the small town of Hays, South Dakota into a giant smear of ice.

Stovin is called to an emergency meeting with the President, where he lays out his theories and battles skepticism from other scientists. Still uncertain as to whether the predicted catastrophe is genuine, the President and his science advisor dispatch Stovin on an extended field trip to Alaska, there to investigate phenomena that may be associated with Global Cooling. 

Stovin discovers that not only did another Dancer ice over a large chunk of wilderness in Canada, but that wolves in the region are relying on ancestral memories to guide their migrations and hunting behaviors in preparation for a new Ice Age.

Even as Stovin embarks on his field research, all over the Northern hemisphere, Winter is coming earlier, and more harshly, than usual. Servere snowstorms and subfreezing temperatures are spreading alarm among the population. 

But when Stovin and his colleagues expand their travels to Siberia, where the greatest evidence of a new Ice Age is rapidly accumulating, they discover that disaster will envelop the earth much sooner than anyone anticipated…..

As a Disaster Novel, ‘Winter’ does a lot of things right. Although the narrative is didactic, the plot moves along at a brisk clip. The physical and psychological sensations of extreme cold are well-communicated, and a chase sequence that dominates the second half of the novel is very well-written. I won’t disclose any spoilers, but I will say that ‘Winter’ avoids a miraculous last-chapter reprieve for our modern civilization. 

The novel isn’t perfect; the inclusion of a lone female character seems forced, and the novel closes with some ideas that are so speculative and contrived as to clash with the otherwise sober, science –based tenor of the narrative. However, all things being equal, ‘The Sixth Winter’ is one of the better Eco-catastrophe novels I’ve ever read.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Grey Morrow's Orion

'Grey Morrow's Orion' by Grey Morrow

Grey Morrow (March 7, 1934 – November 6, 2001) had a long and productive career (spanning from the mid-50s to the late 90s) as an artist for comic books, newspaper strips, television cartoons, magazines, paperback book covers, and illustrated books.

Starting with the March, 1978 issue and appearing monthly through to the December, 1978 issue, Heavy Metal magazine published Morrow’s sword-and-sorcery strip ‘Orion’. This large –size (12 ½ x 9 1/8 inches) trade paperback compiles all the ‘Orion’ episodes, as well as all three issues of ‘Edge of Chaos’, a comic book the Morrow did for indie publisher Pacific Comics from July, 1983 to January, 1984.

The book features a Foreword by Morrow's wife Pocho Morrow, and an Introduction by Daniel Herman that covers Morrow's career.

With 'Orion', Morrow was able to do a creator-controlled comic that enabled him to avoid the restrictions of the Comics Code and the editorial oversight that came with working for companies like Marvel and DC. Needless to say, Morrow took full advantage of the opportunity, filling the pages of Orion with sword fights, monsters, evil wizards, and exposed bosoms, in the best sword-and-sorcery style.....

With Orion, Morrow took pains to avoid mimicking the hero conventions established by mainstream publications like 'Conan', in favor of a hero who was often fallible and fatigued, but not averse to spending time in hedonistic pursuits.

There was also an undercurrent of humor, as well as some degree of pathos, to the adventures of Orion, his homeboy Mamba, the cat-lady Felina, and her orge manservant Urza. 

Morrow not only pencilled and inked his artwork for Orion, but hand-colored it as well, a considerable undertaking back in the days before PC-based scanning and coloring of comic book artwork was feasible. While I suspect modern readers used to computer-generated coloration will find this aspect of the artwork to be underwhelming, by the standards of the time, it was quite effective.

For 'Edge of Chaos', apparently the original artwork for the first issue was not available, so scans had to be made of the printed comic; this explains the low-res appearance of that artwork.

The remaining issues 2 and 3 feature much better reproductions.

'Edge' features as lead character Eric Cleese, a hero modeled on Steve Reeves, the actor who portrayed 'Hercules' and other heroes in films in the 50s and 60s. 

Cleese is transported from his sloop to Olympus, a futuristic city floating in space, ruled by the fabled Gods of Greek mythology. Cleese is tasked by them to defeat the deranged wizard Moloch, who threatens to destroy their world.

Eric Cleese is in the same mold as Orion, but with a greater sense of self-deprecating humor. His encounters with monsters and demons are marked by a wise-cracking disbelief.

As with Heavy Metal, Pacific Comics eschewed the Comics Code, allowing Morrow to provide his readers with yet another bevy of beautiful, lightly-clad women.

One thing that makes Orion and Edge of Chaos stand out compared to contemporary comics is their realistic displays of anatomy. The grotesquely over-muscled bodies of modern superheroes are absent here, as are the hypersexualized depiction of female bodies that governs their depiction in many superhero titles.

I have mixed feelings about 'Grey Morrow's Orion'. On the one hand it's gratifying to have all of the episodes from Heavy Metal assembled into one volume, in large-scale book with quality stock paper and the best possible reproduction, as deserves a memorable piece of comic art. 

However, the decision to have the book published by a small, specialty press means that its cover price of $40 makes it overly expensive, particularly by the standards of the graphic novel market. (I was fortunate to procure a used copy of 'Grey Morrow's Orion' for around $23.)

While it would have required some degree of compromise in size and perhaps paper quality, a smaller-sized edition of 'Orion', akin to the volumes released by the New Comic Company for its 'Creepy Presents' and 'Eerie Presents' hardbound volumes would have been more affordable and expanded the opportunities for Morrow's artwork to reach a wider audience.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Code Three

Book Review: 'Code Three' by Rick Raphael

3 / 5 Stars

‘Code Three’ (176 pp) was published by Berkeley Books in April, 1967. This book is a fixup of two stories originally published in Analog magazine in the interval from 1963 – 1964. One of those two stories, ‘Once a Cop’, won the 1965 Hugo for short fiction.

If you grew up at all in the 70s, then you may remember watching at one time or another a TV show titled Emergency. It ran on NBC from 1972 – 1977, and chronicled the adventures of two paramedics in the LA County Fire Department: John Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe). Each episode saw our heroes deal with, naturally enough, an Emergency – car crashes, building and brush fires, plane crashes, earthquakes, etc. 

Gage and DeSoto and the crew of Station 51 responded to these events with professional detachment and, sometime, a bit of humor. 

‘Code Three’ is basically a sci-fi version of Emergency. The novel is set in the future, when the North American continent is crossed horizontally and vertically by a series of enormous throughways, one mile in width. Each highway is divided into half-mile portions for east-west or north-south traffic, and these half-mile portions are in turn divided in multiple lanes – green, white, red, yellow, etc. for traffic traveling at different speeds.

And these are very high speeds. Auto technology has progressed to the point where vehicles use a sort of hover-drive to reach speeds in excess of 600 mph (!) although most vehicles make do with speeds of ‘only’ 100 – 300 mph.

The highway system is administered by the North American Continental Thruway System (NorCon), with whom lies responsible for law enforcement.

The novel follows the exploits of a team of two police and one paramedic aboard the patrol vehicle car 56 – nicknamed ‘Beulah’. This is a 250 ton, 60-feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet tall behemoth capable of reaching speeds of 600 mph.

In charge of Beulah is Patrol Sergeant Ben Martin, a veteran traffic cop who is starting to contemplate advancement to a desk job. Second in command is Patrol Trooper Clay Ferguson, and Kelly Lightfoot, an attractive, spunky redhead, serves as Medical-Surgical Officer.

As ‘Code Three’ opens, Beulah and her crew embark on a two week-long patrol of North American Thruway 26-West, the major highway connecting the USA’s east and west coasts. During their tour they will deal with accidents large and small, homicidal felons, and bad weather. Hit the sirens, turn on the red lights, and woo-woo-woo nee-ner nee-ner nee-ner prepare for action……

I can’t say that ‘Code Three’ is gripping entertainment or great, genre-transcending sf, but it is a reasonably entertaining read. Author Raphael writes with a clipped, declarative style that serves this sort of procedural narrative well. 

The ongoing repartee between the two cops and nurse Kelly, if it were to take place in contemporary times, would undoubtedly lead to sexual harassment charges at the very least, but during the Mad Men era when this novel was written, societal attitudes about workplace conversations were less …….evolved.

If you are interested in the sub-sub genre of sf devoted to Emergency Response, then ‘Code Three’ may be worth picking up.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Heavy Metal February 1984

'Heavy Metal' magazine February 1984

February, 1984……in rotation on MTV is ‘New Moon on Monday’ by Duran Duran, ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ by Eurythmics, 'Jump' by Van Halen, and Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’.

The latest issue of Heavy Metal magazine features a front cover by Enrich and a back cover by Ballestar. This is one of the better issues of 1984, with strips by Corben, Caza, Jose Font, and ‘Salammbo II: Carthage’ by Druillet. There are also the ongoing installments of ‘Tex Arcana’, ‘The Third Incal’, and ‘Ranxerox in New York’, as well as the usual crap: ‘I’m Age’ by Jeff Jones (by now, seriously unhinged in regards to his Gender Identity), ‘Valentina the Pirate’ by Crepax, and ‘Rock Opera’ by Kierkegaard, Jr.

Having acknowledged the existence of MTV, the hipsters in charge of contributing columns to the Dossier section of the magazine reinforce their capitulation with a lead-off article about  music video producer Brian Grant, and a worshipful overview of rising star Paul Young.

Elsewhere, there is an article devoted to a documentary about strippers....

The sf books section provides a photo of Norman Spinrad wearing a very bad hairpiece.....

The Dossier Hipsters are most excited by a film director named Martha Coolidge, whose 80s films nowadays are entirely forgotten......

Below, I've posted Corben's 'Roda and the Wolf'.