Thursday, March 30, 2017

Book Review: The Wind's Twelve Quarters

Book Review: 'The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Volume II'
by Ursula Le Guin

1 / 5 Stars

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Volume II (138 pp) was published by Panther Books (UK) in 1978. The cover artwork is by Peter Gudynas.

All of the stories in this anthology first were published in various sf magazines, digests, and story collections from 1970 – 1974, so they appeared at the height of the New Wave movement.

Each story has a brief Introduction from Le Guin, in which she relates some details about the story’s concept. Many of the entries in Wind’s revolve around what she refers to as her ‘psychomyths’, i.e., subjects that lend themselves to the allegorical storytelling that dominated much of the New Wave era.

My capsule reviews of each story:

Things: this story was titled ‘The End’ when it first appeared in Orbit 6 (1970). It’s the best entry in this collection. A brickmaker living in a coastal town subconsciously seeks to survive an impending disaster. Moody and atmospheric, it works due to its more ‘traditional’ short story structure, and less as a work of Speculative Fiction.

A Trip to the Head: a ‘psychomyth’ about a man recovering from amnesia. About as unrewarding a New Wave story as I’ve ever read. And that says........something, I think.

Vaster then Empires and More Slow: a team of neurotic, quarreling colonists (there’s a New Wave trope for you !) are dispatched to survey a promising,  Earth-like world. While written as a conventional ‘Hainish’ story, this tale has some remarkably stilted dialogue. For example:

I felt a strong anxiety with a specific spatial orientation. But I am not an empath. Therefore the anxiety is explicable in terms of the particular stress-situation, that is, the attack on a team member in the forest, and also in terms of the total stress-situation, that is, my presence in a totally alien environment, for which the archetypical connotations of the word ‘forest’ provide an inevitable metaphor.

The Stars Below: fleeing a Church-sponsored purge of the scientific class, an astronomer takes refuge among a group of miners. His worldview comes to adapt to his subterranean existence. This is one of the more accessible stories in the collection.

The Field of Vision: after a Mars expeditionary team examines what appears to be an ancient shrine, they are stricken with various neurological ailments.

Direction of the Road: the first-person narrative of ……….an oak tree. 

I’m not kidding. 

(This was heady stuff in the New Wave era).

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: this of course is one of the most well-known short stories to emerge from the New Wave movement. It was not unusual to find 'Omelas' in ‘regular’ short story anthologies used in introductory literature classes in college during the 70s. It’s an allegory about a city where the presence of peace and prosperity comes with a secret price. It remains an effective tale, although its prose could politely be termed ‘lumbering’ (for example, one paragraph is two and one-half pages long…………)

The Day Before the Revolution: this story is set in the Odonian world of Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. It deals with the remembrances of an infirm elderly woman, whose actions as a revolutionary helped bring about a victory in the Class Struggle.

Summing up:

When I think of William Gibson's short story collection Burning Chrome (1986), any of the stories in it is superior to any appearing in the LeGuin anthology.

When I think of Bruce Sterling's short story collection Crystal Express (1989), any of the stories in it is superior to any appearing in the LeGuin anthology.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Volume II demonstrates that the more sophisticated approach to writing triggered by the New Wave movement could never, on its own, rescue short stories whose plots were contrived or superficial.This volume is for LeGuin completists only.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get it Girl) by Instant Funk

I Got My Mind Made Up
(You Can Get it Girl)
by Instant Funk
March, 1979

It's the week of March 17, 1979.........and I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get it Girl) by the Trenton, New Jersey disco / R & B band Instant Funk, is the Billboard Soul chart number one single.

This song is an under-appreciated classic of the disco / funk era. If you are unaware of it, then you need to listen.

To achieve full immersion in the funk, I recommend viewing the segment on Soul Train featuring 'I Got My Mind Made Up'.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: The Gates of Heaven

Book Review: 'The Gates of Heaven' by Paul Preuss

4 / 5 Stars

'The Gates of Heaven' (210 pp) was published by Bantam Books in May, 1980. The cover artwork is uncredited.

'Gates' was the first novel for Paul Preuss (b. 1942), who went on to author a number of science fiction novels over the period from 1980 - 1993, many of them novels in the 'Venus Prime' series franchise. 'Re-entry' (1981) is a sequel to 'Gates'.

'Gates' opens in the Nevada desert, the site of Project Cyclops, a longstanding SETI program. It's August, 2037, and technician Lynn Nishihara is expecting an otherwise pedestrian night shift at the project's HQ. 

However, Nishihara is stunned when she detects a faint, but unwavering signal emanating from the vicinity of the star Tau Ceti, twelve light-years distant. The Cyclops staff are dumbfounded when amplification of the signal reveals a woman's voice....a distraught woman named Rebecca Meerloo.....a member of the starship Actis, which disappeared near Jupiter in 2026.

The news galvanizes the space program: how did the Actis travel the twelve light-years to Tau Ceti......and has its crew discovered a habitable planet in the Tau Ceti system ?

Colorado resident Michael Ward, a misfit genius, finds the news of the Actis's discovery intriguing, but his attention is focused on more mundane matters: trying to avoid being fired at his job with the Mathematics Instructional Committee, a nonprofit devoted to science and engineering education. Ward's habit of getting sidetracked by mathematical puzzles irrelevant to his duties at the Committee has strained his relationship with his supervisor, a bureaucrat named Franklin Muller.

Little does Michael Ward know that his doodlings with topology are going to be the key to understanding the fate of the Actis.....and the most ambitious project in the history of Mankind. For where the Actis went, others intend to follow........and Michael Ward will find himself among the crew selected to travel through a black hole........

In 1980, the year The Gates of Heaven was published, hard sf was making a comeback from over a decade of neglect (a consequence of the advent of the New Wave movement). 

The comeback was sparked by James Hogan's 1977 novel Inherit the Stars, followed by books by Charles Sheffield (The Sight of Proteus, 1978), Robert L. Forward (Dragon's Egg, 1980), and Gregory Benford (In the Ocean of Night, 1977; Timescape, 1980). 

When regarded in company with these works, Gates stands on its own as a very readable hard sf novel. The science content frames, but does not overwhelm, the narrative, the lead characters are well-drawn, and the novel's prose style (save for some occasional 'character introspection' passages) is clear and direct. 

When combined with the fact that Gates is of short length (210 pp), Paul Preuss's first novel is a reminder that, in the modern era of lumbering, 500-page space operas (and here Alastair Reynolds comes readily to mind), it's possible to write a genre novel that is concise and fast-moving. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Land of Nod from Open Space Issue 1

The Land of Nod
by Barry Malzberg (story) and Ray Lago (art)
from Open Space (Marvel) Issue 1, December 1989

Open Space was an effort by Marvel to revive the sf anthology comic book concept, one that, by the late 80s, had pretty much died out. 

Open Space was printed in a square-bound 'prestige' format, with a thicker paper stock for the cover and interior pages. It also had a correspondingly higher price of $4.95 an issue, which was rather pricey at that time. 

The cover artists for issue 1 were Frank and Laura Kelly Freas.

It seemed like a favorable time to revive the concept; the Great Comic Book Boom of the early 90s was getting underway, and there seemed to be no limit to the amount of titles that comic shops were willing to display on their shelves. And, unlike the older anthology titles like DC's Strange Adventures, which tended to reprint stories first published in the 50s and early 60s, the new series from Marvel was not bound by the Comics Code.

Unfortunately, Open Space ceased publication after four issues (in 1999, Marvel capitalized on the popularity of Alex Ross by releasing an 'issue Zero' one-shot special). Which was a shame, because it had a good roster of writers, many of them stalwarts of the sf world.

Posted below is 'The Land of Nod' by Barry Malzberg, from the 'first' issue of Open Space. It features a surprise ending, and some good artwork from Ray Lago.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bernie Wrightson 1948 - 2017

Bernie Wrightson 1948 -2017

Legendary comics artist and writer Bernie Wrightson passed away on 19 March, 2017. He was 68 years old, and had been battling brain cancer.

Anyone who read comic books, Heavy Metal, and the Warren magazines during the 70s and 80s is familiar with Wrightson's accomplished artwork; it was part and parcel of the sci-fi landscape in those days. 

I will always remember 'Captain Sternn', from the June, 1980 issue of Heavy Metal, as one of the highlights of the early days of that magazine, and indeed as one of the best strips ever to appear in its pages.

In more modern times, his work on the 1988 series Batman: The Cult, and later, on the 1997 series Batman / Aliens, helped make both series particularly memorable.

I recommend picking up the 2011 hardcover volume Creepy Presents: Bernie Wrightson as a very affordable, very impressive showcase of his artistry.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: Tangents

Book Review: 'Tangents' by Greg Bear
2 / 5 Stars

'Tangents' (260 pp) first was published in hardback in 1989; this mass market paperback version was published by Questar / Popular Library in August, 1990. The cover illustration is by Jim Burns.

Most of the stories in this anthology first were published in the 1980s in magazines like Omni, while others are appearing in print for the first time in this volume.

'Tangents' leads off with an Introduction in which Bear states his thoughts on the popularity of sf, why he has chosen to write in this genre, and some brief background remarks about the stories in this collection.

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Blood Music: Misfit genius Virgil Ulam is doing very interesting things with white blood cells, such as merging them with microscopic logic circuits. The problem is, Virgil is doing this without Proper Oversight..... 

This story first saw print in Analog in 1983, and it was a touchstone story in what was then the emergent genre of Cyberpunk. Bear later expanded the story into a novel. It's one of the two best entries in this anthology.

Sleepside Story: A competent tale about a young man forced to confront the mysterious Miss Belle Parkhurst, who lives in an elegant - and very dangerous - part of the city. When this first saw print in 1988, the genre of 'urban fantasy' didn't really exist, making this a forerunner in that genre. 

Webster: lonely spinster Abigail Coates looks to a dictionary for advice on finding a boyfriend. An offbeat take on the 'Pygmalion' fable.

A Martian Ricorso: a trio of astronauts stranded on Mars are witnesses to an unusual event involving the planet's long-dormant life forms. 

Dead Run: John the truck driver transports souls to Hell, taking roads not known to you and I. An overly labored, unconvincing attempt at imparting humanism to the themes of Evil and Redemption.

Schrodinger's Plague: a faculty member decides to play out a real life version of the famous physicist's thought-experiment. 

Through Road No Wither: two Nazi officers find themselves lost on a foggy back road in France; they approach a dilapidated hut for directions from an elderly woman who is not as she seems. This is one of the worst tales in the anthology, too vague to be successful.

Tangents: Pal the latchkey boy meets the eccentric mathematician Peter Tuthy. The result will change the nature of reality.........This story stands alongside 'Blood Music' as an example of Bear at his best in the 1980s, as well as being another touchstone entry in the Cyberpunk canon.

Sisters: A very earnest effort at showcasing humanism's worth in the face of disruptive technology; in this instance, it's in the near future, when genetically enhanced super-children are the norm. Letitia, the main character, is cursed (so to speak) with being 'normal'.

The Machineries of Joy: this is an essay that Bear wrote for Omni magazine, which never published it. In the Fall of 1983, Bear toured the country to cover the emerging field of computer graphics. Anyone who was into sf cinema in the early 80s will find nostalgia in Bear's encounters with the teams working on graphics for The Last Starfighter; descriptions of pixels, wireframes, vector animation, rasterization, and anti-aliasing; and predictions of Virtual Reality in the opening decades of the 21st century.  

The verdict ? In my opinion, while there aren't enough outstanding entries in 'Tangents' to make it as rewarding as similar anthologies for other Cyberpunks, the presence of 'Blood Music' and 'Tangents' arguably makes this volume worth picking up.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Celtic Women by Jim Fitzpatrick

Celtic Women
illustrations by Jim Fitzpatrick
from Erinsaga, De Danann Press, 1985

Celebrating Saint Patrick's Day 2017

I thought I would celebrate St. Patrick's Day 2017 by posting some illustrations of striking Celtic women. These are taken from the book Erinsaga, an overview of the work of the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, published in 1985 by the Dublin firm De Danann Press.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book's End, Syracuse New York

Book's End, Syracuse New York

James Street in Syracuse, New York has two good used bookstores within a few block of each other. 

I've chronicled my previous visit to Books and Melodies LLC here

Last week, I decided to check out Book's End.

Although the sci-fi section of the store is not overly large, they do have a good selection of rarer titles, and I found 10 volumes that were definitely worth picking up, including two vintage Doc Savage titles (pasted below). 

The store has a section devoted solely to movie and television tie-ins, allowing me to grab such gems as The China Syndrome and (a truly rare gem) Together Brothers (stand by for the Review).

Prices are a bit higher than what you usually will see at used book stores; the lot below averaged $4.00 each.

This store is worth investigating should you be in the Syracuse area.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Dune

Book Review: 'Dune' by Frank Herbert

4 / 5 Stars

Dune first was published in hardback in August, 1965. This Ace Books paperback (544 pp, including appendices) is a first edition, and was released in 1966. The cover artwork is by John Schoenherr.

It’s hard to communicate nowadays, almost 52 years after the book first was published, how influential Dune was to sf of the 60s and early 70s. For over a decade it was the science fiction novel, the one most frequently read by people who were not fans of the genre. In its length and complexity it was the sf equivalent of what The Lord of the Rings trilogy was to fantasy literature.

I first read Dune in the early 1980s. I remember I found it OK, but no great revelation, and never looked at it again. Having become more familiar – and, to be honest, increasingly underwhelmed – by other works from Frank Herbert, I thought it might be interesting to re-read Dune and see if my thoughts about the novel have changed.

Upon my re-reading, I again realized that Dune is not a particularly accessible book. There is a large cast of characters with which to become acquainted, the backstory is complicated and abstruse, and there is a large vocabulary of invented words, so much so that readers will have to consult the Glossary on a continuous basis while making their way through the novel’s first 100 or so pages.

The novel’s narrative is primarily occupied with dialogue passages, a prominent feature of Herbert’s other novels. Many of the these dialogue passages are lengthy and protracted and take up entire chapters. Plot developments – such as battles - that would be given high profiles in most novels, are in Dune mentioned in a sparse manner. For example, the climactic battle at the end of the novel is related in the span of only two pages. The emphasis on dialogue tends the give the narrative a passive, lumbering quality.

Much of the book’s exposition into the areas of mysticism, Near Eastern religion and philosophy, and existentialism have a very ‘Sixties’ flavor that has not aged all that well. Too often Herbert’s prose passages devoted to these metaphysical aspects of the novel come across as pretentious and empty.

In the novel’s favor, the cast of characters – however large – does include some memorable individuals, including the Baron Harkonnen, one of the most repulsive villains ever to appear in sf literature. And although highly detailed world-building is commonplace nowadays among most sf and fantasy novels, Arrakis remains one of the best examples of world-building more than half a century after it debuted.

Summing up, my re-reading of Dune left me with the impression that the novel was entertaining despite its flaws; this is not something that can be said of much of Herbert’s other works.

Whether Dune will retain what fading influence it still possesses, as the years unroll, is open to question. 

Its length is not necessarily a handicap in these modern days, when tweeners will excitedly read a Harry Potter novel within the span of a few days, and for older readers, many paperbacks on the shelves are deliberately designed to be over 400 pages long. But, as I mentioned above, Herbert’s prose style is likely to be off-putting to readers accustomed to clear and declarative writing in their novels. 

In my opinion, Dune is likely to recede into the background with the passage of time, becoming one of those novels that is fondly remembered by ageing Baby Boomers (of which I am one), but more or less ignored by the sf readership at large.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Shadow: Blood and Judgment

The Shadow: Blood and Judgment
by Howard Chaykin (story and art)
Dynamite, 2012

This trade paperback from Dynamite compiles the four-issue miniseries first published by DC comics from May to August, 1986.

The 1986 Chaykin / DC reboot of the Shadow garnered controversy when first it appeared, with many fans disapproving of the comic's seeming glorification of violence, and the depiction of the Shadow as an individual whose 30's - era attitudes and sensibilities were in decided contrast with the more progressive, liberal nature of society in the USA in the 80s.

[The trade paperback features a reprint of a 1987 interview between Howard Chaykin and DC editor Joe Orlando, in which Chaykin discusses what motivated him to do a Shadow miniseries. Chief among Chaykin's motivations was a desire to see if he could convincingly place the character in the modern era.]

I won't reveal any spoilers, save to say that the plot, which is set in the mid-80s, focuses on a campaign of harm aimed at the elderly survivors of the Shadow's network of friends and associates. While some of these survivors are able to fight back, the mastermind behind the campaign eludes detection, leaving the Shadow's associates at a disadvantage.

But all is not lost. Although he has not been seen in 35 years, the Shadow is aware of the mayhem unfolding among his associates.........and he will be out to revenge their deaths.....

While I am a fan of some of Chaykin's work - his contribution to the 1970s graphic novel The Stars My Destination is one of his most significant achievements - The Shadow: Blood and Judgment is a dud.

TA major problem is the plot: it is incoherent. Chaykin tries to keep too many story threads running at the same time, and the result is utter confusion, a situation aided and abetted by the failure to include any sort of omniscient narration.

The artwork is subpar; too many panels have a sketchy, hasty quality that makes them difficult to decipher. The color scheme, which was handled by Alex Wald, doesn't help much, either, as it suffers from the flat, dull coloration that characterized the majority of comic books published during the 80s.

But probably the biggest fault with The Shadow: Blood and Judgment is that it assumes the reader to be entirely familiar the whole Shadow mythology. If you are not a fan of the Shadow, than this series will be unintelligible to you, for Chaykin makes no effort to give the reader even the most basic introduction to the myriad characters appearing in this series. I had a vague idea of who Margot Lane was, but.... Clyde Burke ? Harry Vincent ? Without knowing who they are, it is difficult to get all that invested in the drama surrounding their struggle to survive.

The Shadow: Blood and Judgment also gives the impression that when he wrote and illustrated it, Chaykin was consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) trying to emulate Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which, by early 1986, was the template for rebooting a franchise and making it relevant to the modern era. As I made my way through Blood and Judgment, I found it filled with not-so-subtle evocations of the visual style and design used by Frank Miller in Dark Knight.

The verdict ? The Shadow: Blood and Judgment never really comes together as a rewarding re-envisioning of the classic pulp hero. This one is for Chaykin completists only.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

2000 A.D. issue 2

2000 A.D. Issue 2
The first appearance of Judge Dredd
March 5, 1977

Forty years ago, in early March 1977, the second issue of the sci-fi comic anthology 2000 A.D. was published. 

Printed using letterpress on cheap pulp paper, in black and white - save for a color cover and a two-page color insert - by publisher IPC magazines, 2000 A.D. hardly seemed like a publication that would in time be a game-changer not only in the world of British comics, but in comics worldwide.

[With only informal distribution systems in place in 1977 to sell UK comics in the States, no one in America was 'hip' to 2000 A.D., so it would be years before its roster of antiheroes would become known in that country.]

Debuting in issue two, in a five page story called 'Judge Whitey', was a futuristic cop who patrolled a dystopian New York City. The cop's name was Judge Dredd.

The entire 'Judge Whitey' strip can be read here.

According to Pat Mills, the 2000 A. D. editor (who began conceiving the character in 1976), the 'look' of Judge Dredd was the result of the unique vision of artist Carlos Ezquerra:

This is Carlos’ view of his first visualisation: “Dredd was so successful because he was a little ahead of his time, particularly in the fashion sense. I drew him before the 1977 punk boom of black leather and chains, and well before the heavy metal movement, which he typified. I have always believed that successive generations went to the opposite extreme of its predecessor. In this case I thought the peace-loving, flower-wearing hippies would be superseded by a spiteful, black anarchic generation. The Dredd generation.”

Mills' friend Dejan Kraljacic had an insightful description of the character:

Dredd is American. But in the right way. A very convincing future in which you can feel the stamp of the author. By comparison, American superheroes seem compromised. Dredd is more radical, more punk rock, more on the edge. But he’s too alternative-tough for America and not artistic enough for Europe. For our taste, the art is too realistic and too simple, compared to European styles, which have more backgrounds, more details, more mystery. Such as the art of Moebius which is very cool, very seducing.

I really think Dredd is Great Britain; a reflection of Britain’s unique identity, neither American or European.

Mills' reminiscences of the early days of 2000 A.D. and Judge Dredd are available here.

They are entertaining reading, as they cover the evolution of the comic and its featured characters, and Mills' struggles to carry out his vision of 2000 A.D. despite interference from meddling senior editors.

For another take on the creation of the Dredd character, from writer John Wagner, check out this BBC website article.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Flash Gordon (DC Comics)

Flash Gordon
by Dan Jurgens (story and art)
DC Comics, 1988 - 1989

In the Fall of 1987, Dan Jurgens, a writer and artist at DC comics, began work on a Flash Gordon nine-issue series (Jurgens had previously been the main writer and artist for Booster Gold, which DC had decided to discontinue).

The series debuted with issue 1 in June, 1988 and ended with issue 9 in January 1989. It was printed under the auspices of DC's 'New Format' line, a euphemism for comic books that did not adhere to the Comics Code, and were printed on a higher grade of paper.

As with most writers who decide to revive and update a 'classic' franchise, Jurgens had to negotiate an approach that stayed true to the core material, while at the same time fashioning a comic book series that would appeal to a modern readership.

In the case of Flash Gordon, Jurgens opted to mimic the plotting used in the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis film: Flash and Dale Arden are kidnapped by a crazed Dr. Hans Zarkov, who flies them in his rocket ship to the planet Mongo, where all manner of adventures ensue.

Jurgens made a number of modifications to the characters. For example, Flash is a former Boston Celtics player who runs a chain of sporting goods stores; he is cast as a self-centered, aging playboy. Dale Arden is the epitome of the modern, independent woman who can take care of herself and needs no rescuing.

Many of the races of Mongo and their heroes that were present in the original Flash Gordon comics, and also the 1980 movie, are represented here.

This reboot of Flash Gordon is something of a mixed success. While it certainly cannot have been easy for writer Jurgens to craft a narrative that avoided the overt camp of the film, while remaining true to source material derived from a 1930s comic strip, this 1988 series has an uneven quality.

A major weakness comes from Jurgens's decision to re-color Ming and the other inhabitants of Mongo from their original yellow / 'Asian' skin tone to a horrible, muddy, gray skin coloration. Jurgens indicates he did this to avoid recapitulating the 'racism' of the original comics, which were published during the 'Yellow Peril' era of American pop culture.

However noble a goal this was, as one letter-writer points out, this recoloring simply opens Ming and company to accusations of victimizing South Asians and Arabs..........?!

Another weakness is Jurgens's decision to convert Flash to a Social Justice Warrior, a conversion occasioned by his growing realization that, away from the opulence and decadent glitter of Ming's palace, Mongo is a world of inequality. This comes across as a too-contrived deviation from the series' roots.

The series does have its strengths. Each issue ends on a 'cliffhanger' note designed to recall the old movie serials. In order to accommodate these, the narrative moves along at a fast pace. 

As well, Jurgens gleefully plays up the cheesecake elements of the film, giving every female character a 'Fredricks of Hollywood' appearance that includes plentiful shots of T & A.

Overall, Jurgens' artwork is of good quality, featuring some nicely done action sequences that benefit from Jurgens' ability - as the series writer - to pick and choose when and where to insert his speech balloons.

Where 'Flash Gordon' suffers is in the colors, done by Anthony Tollin. It's my impression that by 1988 DC had abandoned the Flexographic printing process for their comic books, but whatever system the Worldcolor printing company replaced it with was almost as bad.......the color schemes used in 'Flash' all have that dull, flat appearance that compromised so many comics from the 80s. 

Take, for example, this panel from issue 7, where the attempt to rendition Flash rappelling down an elevator cable in the darkness comes across as an eye-hurting melange of drab tones...........

Summing up, DC's 'Flash Gordon' reboot is a competent comic book series, albeit it one that doesn't really succeed in being innovative, despite its earnest efforts to inject notes of social relevance and a more 'modern' mentality to character development.