Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: The Tartarus Incident

Book Review: 'The Tartarus Incident' by William Greenleaf

3 / 5 Stars

He tugged on a shoulder, and the body flopped toward him....and he saw raw flesh, shards of white bone, empty eye sockets oozing gray stuff held to together by white, stringy filaments.

He fell back, vomited, and came up gasping for air. 

Then he heard the creature mewling its way down the corridor like some monstrous cat. He grabbed for his sizzler, and realized he no longer had it. Then he was running. Something up ahead - the end of the corridor. He pounded toward it, the sounds of the creature coming up close behind him.

This excerpt from 'The Tartarus Incident' (202 pp., Ace Books, May, 1983, cover artwork by James Gurney) certainly has some grisly excitement to it. Could 'Tartarus' be that rare thing: a sci-fi horror novel that really delivers the creeps and cold chills ?

Unfortunately, while 'Tartarus' comes close on occasion, overall, it misses the mark.

The plot is straightforward: the shuttlecraft Jack-A-Dandy, with a crew of four, is assigned to travel to the wintry planet Sierra, there to audit the colony outposts's finances. 

However, when the shuttle emerges from its hyperspace 'jump', its crew is bewildered to find themselves on a desert planet, where the air is breathable, but a roasting 125 degrees Farenheit, and the shuttle is pelted by sandstorms.

The Jack-A-Dandy is able to get off one garbled distress call before their comm link goes out, stranding the shuttle, with a broken navigational system, on an uncharted world .

The novel provides two alternating narratives. One deals with the efforts of the Space Command to discover where the shuttle went, and how to retrieve it. Author Greenleaf here focuses on the incompetency of bureaucrats, contrasting their ineptitude with increasingly dire straits of the shuttle crew.

As the bureaucracy sluggishly moves to investigate the fate of the Jack-A-Dandy, the other narrative deals with the travails of the shuttle and its crew. Captain McElroy struggles to improvise a functioning nav system. But things take a turn for the worse when a crew member becomes deranged and runs off into the hills....where an ancient, long-abandoned city lies under the searing sun.

The remaining crewmembers of the Jack-A-Dandy have no choice but to set out to find their missing colleague. But, as they soon discover, not everything in the ruined city is dead and buried....... 

As a novel written in the early 80s, 'Tartarus' borrows to some extent from the blockbuster film Alien, and this is not surprising, nor necessarily a bad thing. But the main problem with 'Tartarus' is that, while its narrative does deliver some rewarding 'alien monster' action, it is often interrupted and diluted by lengthy passages in which the author explores the interior psychology of his crewmembers. 

As well, it doesn't help matters that the crew exhibit the same carelessness and stupidity as the lubricious teens who serve as victims in slasher movies. In fact, by the book's midpoint, I was rooting for the monsters to make quick work of the idiotic crew.......

I won't divulge the book's ending, except to say that it did pick up sufficient suspense to impart some necessary momentum to the narrative.

The verdict ? As a sci-fi horror novel, 'Tartarus' is comeptent, but not extraordinary. It's worth picking up if you happen to see it on the shelf, but I can't say it should be the object of a dedicated search.

Friday, November 28, 2014

'Heavy Metal' magazine November 1984

It's  November, 1984, and on MTV and on FM radio, you're more than likely to hear the latest single (off the Big Bam Boom album) from Hall and Oates: 'Out of Touch'. The video is deliberately cheesy, and it's a great song.

The latest issue of Heavy Metal magazine features a front cover by Olivia, and a back cover by Voss.

This issue has new installments of Jeronaton's 'The Great Passage', Schuiten's 'The Walls of Samaris', Thorne's 'Lann', "The Hunting Party' by Bilal, and 'Tex Arcana' by Findley.

However, the November issue also has the opening installments of Daniel Torres's 'Triton', and Joost Swarte's 'A Second Babel'. These strips reflected the advent, in the early 80s, of the ligne claire, 'clear line', drawing style that was coming back into vogue in European comic books (bandes dessinées )

The ligne claire style, of which Herge's 'Tintin' comics is the better-known example, had dominated European comic publishing in the postwar years, but fallen our of favor by the early 70s. By the early 80s, however, many European artists were seeking to adopt a ligne claire artistic sensibility to comics aimed at adult audiences. This resulted in a novel juxtaposition of an art style historically associated with comics for a juvenile audience, with content that featured sex and nudity and, in some instances, graphic violence.

While these retro-style comics do feature some interesting approaches to composition and art - Torres's work, in particular, epitomizes a revival of Art Deco consciousness - they aren't really sf or fantasy. 

Nonetheless, HM's Editor-in-Chief Julie Simmons-Lynch is preoccupied with running this sort of material in the magazine. It soon comes to dominate HM in 1985 and after. The content that made the magazine so noteworthy in its first few years of publication - content from stalwarts like Druillet, Nicollet, Suydam, Caza, etc. - was to be dropped in favor of long-running installments of these new 'Art Deco' strips.

The best of the comic / graphic features in the November, 1984 issue is Paul Kirchner's black and white strip, 'Critical Mass of Cool', which I previously have posted here.

Rather than re-post 'Cool', I thought I would instead post two of the interviews that appeared in the November, 1984 issue; there is one with Tanith Lee, and another, with director John Waters.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Crucible

Book Review: 'Crucible' by Robert R. Chase
3 / 5 Stars

'Crucible' (182 pp) was published by Del Rey in July, 1991; the striking cover painting was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

'Crucible' is the sequel to Chase's 1986 sf novel 'The Game of Fox and Lion' (which I reviewed here). 

While not disclosing any spoilers, 'Game' dealt with an interstellar conflict between the human worlds and rebellious faction of genetically engineered Manimals, referred to as 'Bestials'. 

A pivotal act in the conflict was the decision by the human worlds to enlist a super-genius, a Roman Catholic cleric named Benedict, to command their fleet.

In 'Crucible', Benedict returns, this time as the leader of a combined team of Bestials - now referred to by the politically correct term 'Gens' - and humans, assembled to crew the starship Crucible on an exploratory mission to a distant star system. The cruise of the Crucible is a 'kumbaya' mission, designed to show that both Homo sapiens and Gens can set aside their enmity and work together for the good of both races. 

As 'Crucible' opens, the lead character, a young woman named Shoshone Mantei, is abruptly woken from cryosleep. A disaster has befallen the ship: one of the fusion engines is damaged and off-line, and Mantei is needed to aid the small team of other revived crewmembers in carrying out emergency repairs.

Benedict has been revived as well, but he has been temporarily blinded as a result of the explosion that damaged the fusion engine. Despite his blindness, Benedict's uncanny intellectual abilities are all that stands between the loss of the ship, and a successful crash-landing on the nearby water world of Thetis.

The desperate efforts of Mantei and the rest of the crew, as well as Benedict's guidance, see the Crucible safely afloat on the chill waters of Thetis. But as the crew struggles to repair the ship, treachery and deceit become manifest. There are some among the crew - both human and Gen - who have no intention of fostering warming relations between the races. For them, murder is the necessary means for seeing that the conflict is re-ignited. 

It's up to Benedict, and Shoshone Mantei, to expose the conspirators. But tensions are growing aboard the Crucible, and time is running out......... 

'Crucible' is a readable, if not particularly exciting, 'hard' sf novel. It's probably not necessary to have read 'The Game of Fox and Lion' prior to reading 'Crucible', but it will help in making out the backstory.

Most of the suspense in 'Crucible' derives from the cat-and-mouse games between the conspirators and the crippled, but still formidable, Benedict, whose subtle stratagems are always revealed just in time, and just in place, to keep the expedition from disintegrating into internecine warfare. 

The main weakness of the novel, as far as I was concerned, was its rather preachy sentiment: a sf variation on the theme of how getting to know the 'stranger' is the key not only to overcoming racial prejudice, but to coming to terms with your own identity as a human being. 

[To be fair, this dramatized, humanistic approach to storytelling was part and parcel of 80s and early 90s sf, as witnessed in works such as 'Ender's Game' and 'Enemy Mine'.]

Summing up, if you've read 'The Game of Fox and Lion', it's worth picking up 'Crucible'. Those unfamiliar with the first volume may find 'Crucible' rewarding, if they like sf in the classic, Analogue-style mold.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Worst of Eerie Publications

The Worst of Eerie Publications
by Mike Howlett
IDW / Yeo Publishing,September, 2014

In late November 2010, just in time for Christmas, Mike Howlett's The Weird World of Eerie Publications: Comic Gore That Warped Millions of Young Minds hit the store shelves and brought instant nostalgia and pleasure to Baby Boomers, aficionados of pop culture, and horror fans.  

Weird World, lavishly produced but affordably priced, was the equivalent of a coffee table book.......albeit a coffee table book devoted with unstinting enthusiasm to the gruesome, degenerate black and white horror magazines published in the 60s and 70s by schlock magazine magnate Myron Fass.

While Howlett's book was a great homage to the Eerie comics, the fact that old copies of those black and white magazines are selling for $10 and up an issue, means that getting one's hands on the material is difficult, if not impossible.

In a kind and sensible world, the entire lineage of the Eerie comics would be issued in black and white trade paperback compilations, similar to the Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase volumes. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened.
Fortunately, just in time for Christmas 2014, comes Howlett's follow up to Weird World.....and it's The Worst of Eerie Publications, a 'best of' compilation of 21 of  "...the most outrageous and blood drenched tales...."  from the Eerie lineup.

If you are among those who have yet to have procured a copy of Weird World, and thus are unaware of the story of Eerie comics, in The Worst Of, Howlett provides an Introduction about Countrywide Publishing and its owner, the eccentric Myron Fass; Eerie Publications editor Carl Burgos, the creator of The Human Torch; and the artists - Dick Ayers, Chic Stone, Ezra Jackson, and Oscar Fraga, among others -  who did the spectacularly gruesome full color covers, and interior comics, for Horror Tales, Tales of Voodoo, Witches Tales, Tales from the Tomb, etc.

The 21 stories showcased in The Worst of Eerie were selected by Howlett to represent the different graphic art styles of above-mentioned artists, ranging from the 'clean' linework of Chic Stone, to the darker, heavily colored style of Ruben Marchionne.

And, of course, Howlett also selected the stories that epitomized the gleeful, unapologetic  devotion to gore and grue that made the Eerie line stand out from the more sedate presentations of the Warren, Skywald, and Marvel black and white horror magazines.

If you have the good fortune to have read those cheap, offensive, and tasteless comics back in the 60s and 70s, and consequently were warped for life, then you're obviously going to have no choice but to get a copy of The Worst of Eerie Publications. It's a quality hardbound book, with nice color separations, as well as reasonably priced, and it's available at your usual online retailers.

And while you're at it....pick up an extra copy, and pass it off to some grade-school kids at the local playground.......after all, it's never too late to warp another generation of impressionable young minds......

Happy Christmas 2014 !

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Utah Book and Magazine

Utah Book and Magazine
327 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City, Utah

Keeping me entertained during my hour-long visit was the owner, Peter, and his sidekicks, Queer Bob and a guy who went nameless, never being addressed and rarely getting to speak.  I'm telling's almost indescribable. 

Hearing this guy [Peter] rail on every tiny incident of the day was priceless, just absolute gold.  A lot of the vitriol was directed at their absent acquaintance "Mike" who was nonetheless addressed in the second person.  They weren't quoting previous conversations, they were talking TO the guy as if he were there.

"You're gay, Mike!  You need to come out of the closet, man."
"Get your head out of your ass, Mike!"
"Get your priorities in order, Mike."
"People are trying to help you, Mike.  You've got to get off your ass and meet them halfway."

review by David R., Yelp

Last month I visited Salt Lake City to attend a conference on the grounds of the University of Utah. I took the light rail downtown to South Main Street. After first stopping at the presentable Eborn bookstore on South Main, where the slim selection of sf paperbacks all were grossly overpriced, I went south a few blocks and crossed the street to Utah Book and Magazine, a legend among used bookstore patrons, and patrons looking for sf, fantasy, and horror paperbacks, in particular.

When I first stepped into the underlit interior I thought I had intruded into a hoarder's place of residence. The entire shop is crammed with books and paraphernalia such as magazines, old toys, comic books, and, in a clearly marked side room, vintage porn - !

I found two lengthy shelves devoted to sf and fantasy paperbacks. Needless to say, there were lots of Piers Anthony, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert books, but a little bit of searching also revealed gems of hard-to-find books from DAW, Del Rey, Ballantine, Panther, and Sphere. Over the course of two days I left Utah Book and Magazine with 12 great books, for which I paid about $28. And I hadn't even spent any time at the horror and general fiction shelves, nor in the comic book section in the back of the store 

As the reviews (including one by the author of the 'Too Much Horror Fiction' blog) at Yelp reveal, part of the magic of shopping at Utah Book and Magazine is listening in to the conversations between the owner and his wife / girlfriend, and various hangers-on. 

While I was paying for my books a vagrant (one of the many making their home on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City) tried to come into the store, but Peter quickly booted him out with a loud and declarative 'WE'RE CLOSED !' After that, Peter launched into a monologue about how the goddamn winos are always trying to come in to the store to either get out of the elements, or pee, but never to actually purchase a book.

The bottom line, is that if you are ever in the vicinity of downtown Salt Lake City - if you're at the airport, and you've got 3 or more hours to kill before your flight - then hop on the Green Line Light Rail car at the airport, get off at the Gallivan Plaza Station on South Main street, and walk a half-block south to Utah Book and Magazine. 

And if you find yourself buying more books than you can carry, well, see if Peter can get you an empty box to pack your haul in, so you can visit the post office and ship your purchase home to yourself.......

Sunday, November 16, 2014

TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids

TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids
Archie Comics / Tandy Corporation
March, August, October, 1984

My local comic book store got in a large pile of old, 1980s comics, and lying within the pile was this giveaway book, published by Archie Comics in 1984. It was a part of the Tandy Corporation's efforts to promote the TRS-80 personal computer, sold by Radio Shack.

Whenever I look around today and see junior high and high school kids sitting with their smartphones, I feel like tossing them a copy of 'Whiz Kids' to let them know how it was, 30 years ago.....

The TRS-80 was first introduced in 1977, and by 1984, had been upgraded to the Model 4:

One of the more surreal aspects to the 'Whiz Kids' comic is that the artists, Dick Ayers and Chic Stone, were regular contributors to the super schlocky, deranged Eerie Publications black and white comic magazines...... !

I won't belabor the plot of 'Whiz Kids', which deals with an effort by a criminal gang to hold an entire museum hostage. Schoolchildren Shanna and Alec use their knowledge of computers - and Tandy products - to foil the gang.

What is interesting is the promotional blurbs for the TRS-80 that occupy much of the narrative.

In these pages, Shanna demonstrates how to boot up the TRS-80's word processing program, 'Scripsit' :

The demonstration is interrupted by the arrival of ace reporter Judy Baker, who shows off her 'portable' PC, the TRS-80 Model 100 (the machines we know as laptops really didn't exist back in 1984).
Judy also demonstrates a primitive modem - the 'acoustic coupler' !

That's how you communicated with other electronics, through phone lines, back then.....

Later on in the story, the class takes a trip to the museum (the same museum where the crime gang are plotting to hold everyone hostage). There, Mr. Anderson walks them through an exhibit devoted to explaining the operating principles of the modern computer:

To defeat the criminals, Judy Baker, Alec, and Shanna make use the Judy's Model 100 and acoustic coupler to send word to the authorities:

The criminals are of course soon brought to justice, thanks to Judy, Alec, and Shanna. As the comic ends, the kids eagerly rush to boot up their Model 4s....along with the 'Network 3 Controller' software, which enabled up to 16 TRS-80s to be locally networked for learning purposes.

If you read 'Whiz Kids' back in the Summer of '84 and wanted a Model 4, well, how much did you have to shell out ? Depending on the memory and floppy drive capacity, anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000....compared to today's PCs, this was quite a bit of money at the time. And it didn't include peripherals, like a printer or modem. But still, it was competitive with IBM's PC Jr, which retailed for $670 - $1270, and it was even more affordable than the Apple MacIntosh ($2495).

In case a new Model 4 was beyond your means, Radio Shack had less costly merchandise that allowed kids to experience the thrills of modern electronics and computing....

That's how it was in those ancient days......nowadays, a single smartphone has more computing power than the TRS-80. Who knows what the next 30 years will bring ?