Friday, April 28, 2017

Book Review: Soul of the Robot

Book Review: 'Soul of the Robot' by Barrington J. Bayley

2 / 5 Stars

‘Soul of the Robot’ (206 pp) was published by Doubleday (Science Fiction Book Club) in July, 1974. The cover artist is Laszlo Kubinyi.

[A sequel, ‘The Rod of Light’, was published in the UK in 1985.]

The novel takes place thousands of years in the future. Earth has just begun to emerge from the Dark Period, the majestic ruins of which inspire awe and puzzlement. The landscape is divided into small kingdoms, some of which are loosely allied with the two major powers: the New Empire, and the Borgor Alliance. Most of the populace live as simple farmers or tradesmen, save the dwindling numbers of those who still possess the skills to use the advanced technologies of the Ancients.

As the novel opens, Japerodus, the robot of the book’s title, comes to life in the small rural cottage of his creator, a middle-aged man with considerable talent in robotics. Jasperodus is unlike any other robot on the planet, being the beneficiary of an advanced ‘brain’ with the reasoning power of a human being. Far from agreeing to be the dutiful ‘son’ his creator had sought him to be, Jasperodus abruptly leaves the cottage to explore the world, and find his place in it.

The remainder of the novel chronicles the adventures of Jasperodus, as he gains in knowledge and experience, albeit through his willing – and sometimes unwilling – participation in various intrigues and travails at the hands of the politicians and princes ruling the Earth.

As his adventures introduce him to new ideas and concepts, Jasperodus becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own nature as a sentient machine. Is he truly self-aware ? If so, then is he ‘alive’ ? Or will he be forever denied possession of a ‘soul’ in the manner of human beings ?

As I read ‘Soul of the Robot’ I found the book to be very much in the style of a Jack Vance novel. Whether Barrington Bayley consciously intended this to be the case is unknown, but ‘Soul’ relies on a number of themes quite similar to those of the Vance-ian repertoire.

For one thing, the novel is set in a world very much like Vance’s Dying Earth; the Emperor Charrane of the New Empire is very much like the ambitious, but careless, aristocrats appearing in Vance’s stories. And with his misadventures and narrow escapes, Jasperodus comes across as a mechanical version of Vance’s hero, Cugel the Clever.

As well, the conversations between Jasperodus and other robots and humans peopling the novel have the formal, slightly stilted quality that is very reminiscent of the way Vance framed his dialogues.

Does the Vance-ian influence make ‘Soul’ one of Bayley’s better novels ? In my opinion, no. Too much of the novel is taken up with lengthy expositions on the Nature of Selfhood and how an artificial Being may presume to acquire such a status. These metaphysical discourses never sink the narrative, but they do drain its momentum.

Summing up, I can’t say that ‘Soul of the Robot’ is a must-have; however, Barrington Bayley fans may want to have a copy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Northland by Eric White

by Eric White
oil on canvas, 72 x 36 inches, 2004

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Book Review: The 7th Annual Best SF

Book Review: 'The 7th Annual Best SF 73' 
edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss

2 / 5 Stars

‘The 7th Annual Best SF 73’ (255 pp) was published by Berkley Books in June, 1974. The cover artist is Paul Lehr.

Some of the entries in this volume first were published in digests and magazines, while others appeared in literary journals, or in other sf anthologies (like Orbit).

Reading ‘7th Annual’ is like diving into the deepest depths of the New Wave movement in sf. That said, there are a few worthwhile stories in this collection.

The anthology opens with a Introduction from Editor Harrison, in which he surveys sf in 1973: the growth of the genre as a classroom subject; the increasing commercial viability of sf films, like Soylent Green; and the momentous decision by Esquire magazine to print its first-ever sf story (William Harrison’s 'Roller Ball Murder'). 

Unfortunately, most of the Introduction is a belabored exposition on what, exactly, sf is; here Harrison resorts to a Venn diagram, and some contrived mathematical expressions, to make his point…..whatever it is.

As far as the stories, well…………Harrison and his co-editor Brian Aldiss were no different than Damon Knight when it came to eagerly co-opting ‘literary’ works and presenting them as sf, a tactic whose earnest purpose was to convince the Literary World that sf – or rather, ‘speculative fiction’ – was no longer a puerile exercise in writing, but a matured Art Form of its own. 

Thus, ‘7th Annual’ contains ‘Ten Years Ago…’, a short-short story by the English writer Max Beerbohm that apparently was recovered from the back panel of a framed print (?!). Also included is ‘Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby’, a two-page sketch by a San Francisco playwright named Kenneth Barnard. And rounding things out are five poems, one by W. H. Auden, that in very faint ways, have some dim relevance to sf……….

The other entries:

Roller Ball Murder, by William Harrison: Harrison (1933 – 2013) was a well-regarded young novelist when, in 1973, Esquire published Roller Ball Murder, which of course was made into a memorable 1975 feature film. Despite the passage of 44 years, this short story retains its imaginative appeal, which many New Wave works have failed to do.

Mason’s Life, by Kingsley Amis: Harrison makes much of having an entry from Amis, who in the early 70s had considerable cache as a mainstream novelist. This is a slight tale of a man and his dreams.

Welcome to the Standard Nightmare, by Robert Sheckley: a Terran lout named Johnny Bezique confronts a seemingly perfect, invincible alien society. Like most of Sheckley's stories, this one relies on satirical humor.

Serpent Burning on an Altar, by Brian Aldiss: Less a short story, than a passage from what would be Aldiss’s 1976 novel The Malacia Tapestry. Aldiss reworks Renaissance-era Italy into a quasi-fantasy landscape; the characters spend their time flirting, and making grand pronouncements about life, death, and love. I can't say I was all that impressed with 'Serpent', but M. Porcius loved the novel.

We Are Very Happy Here, by Joe W. Haldeman: like Aldiss’s entry, this is another ‘chapter from a novel in progress’, in this case, 1975’s The Forever War.

The Birds, by Thomas M. Disch: two talking ducks (?!) confront eco-disaster. Its downbeat tenor keeps it from being trite.

The Wind and the Rain, by Robert Silverberg: a tale of eco-disaster; in the far future, people from the Federation return to the ravaged husk of Earth to attempt a reclamation. Its New Wave affectations – such as devoting an entire page to a listing of synonyms for the word ‘destruction’ – undermines its impact.

Parthen, by R. A. Lafferty: satire about Earth invaded by cunning aliens.

The Man Who Collected the First of September 1973, by Tor Age Bringsvaerd: while it was thoughtful of Harrison to bring stories written by non-U.S. or British authors into his anthologies, showcasing stories such as this one - about a man gripped by existential anomie – means that these efforts to acknowledge sf’s international appeal often were sub-par.

Captain Nemo’s Last Adventure, by Josef Nesvadba: originally published in 1964 by Nesvadba, a Czech author, this is a novelette about a man consumed with the desire to be a hero. It might be a clever satire of communism…….or socialism……..but it’s rather lame, even by the standards of early 60s sf.

La Befana, by Gene Wolfe: standard-issue oblique tale from Wolfe. It’s about humans condemned to servility on a hostile alien world.

The Window in Dante’s Hell, by Michael Bishop: in a future Atlanta, the deceased inhabitant of an apartment in a conapt is investigated by city bureaucrats. Bishop uses the sf element to frame a humanistic exploration of the loss of self-identity, and looming depersonalization………. very ‘in’ themes for the New Wave era.

Escape, by Ilya Vershavsky: on a gulag planet, Arp Zumbi is offered a chance to escape…..but if he’s caught, he will be tortured to death. Originally published in Cyrillic in 'No Alarming Symptoms' (
Тревожных симптомов нет), a 1972 anthology of Vershavsky's short stories. The best entry in the anthology, sharpened by the less-than-overt allusions to the totalitarian nature of modern Russia.

Early Bird, by Theodore R. Cogswell and Theodore L. Thomas: a Terran fighter-pilot find himself stranded on a hostile planet. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

The collection closes with an Afterword by Aldiss, which starts as a tribute to the sf artist Karel Thole, but then veers into a self-indulgent philosophical treatise on ‘Wizards’ and ‘Plumbers’……..before returning again to Thole. The main value of this afterword is in reminding us that Thole was a gifted artist (looking over his works available at online portals is recommended).

Summing up, ‘The 7th Annual Best SF 73’ is a mixed bag. The entries from Harrison, Haldeman, Disch, Vershavsky, and Cogswell and Thomas are enough to justify picking it up if you’re a fan of the New Wave era. But I suspect younger readers (i.e. those under 40) will not find much here to engage them.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Cage by Hermann Huppen

The Cage
by Hermann Huppen
from Abominations (Catalan Communications 1990)

The Belgian comics artist Hermann Huppen (b. 1938), who often signs his work as simply 'Hermann', is a renowned figure in the world of album de bandes dessinees (Franco-Belgian comics). 

Some of the comics he has illustrated in conjunction with his son Yves Huppen (Station 16 and Manhattan Beach 1957) have been formatted and translated for publication in the U.S. by Dark Horse comics, but unfortunately, much of his work has yet to be translated into English. 

An early effort at providing U.S. readers with an English translation of Huppen's work is this slim anthology of horror comics, first published in Europe in 1988, that Catalan Communications translated and released in 1990.

I've posted one of the four stories in Abominations, 'The Cage', below. 

The plot is related in a subtle but effective manner, one that rewards close attention to each panel. Add in Huppen's skillful drawing and coloring, and you have a memorable tale.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Review: Progeny of the Adder

Book Review: 'Progeny of the Adder' by Leslie H. Whitten

4 / 5 Stars

'Progeny of the Adder' first was published in 1965. In a calculated effort to cash in on the interest in All Things Occult occasioned by the popularity of The Exorcist, Avon Books repackaged the novel for paperback release in February, 1975. The cover artist is uncredited. 

The novel is is set in Washington DC, in the early 1960s. As 'Adder' opens, it's a chilly night in March, and world-weary homicide detective Harry Picard has been called to Fletcher's Cove on the banks of the Potomac River. The corpse of a young woman has been pulled from the river, and her throat has been slashed. When the autopsy reveals that the victim was exsanguinated prior to her death, Picard suspects that a sex killer is on the loose in DC. 

Within a few weeks, the corpses of an additional two women who expired the same way are discovered, and the resultant publicity complicates the lives of Picard and the DC police force. 

When some witnesses describe a 'tall man clad in black', who may have abducted at least one of the victims, Picard's investigation leads him to the DC demimonde and its ecology of call girls and out-of-town businessmen looking for late-night, illicit thrills.

But as Harry Picard is about to discover, the tall man clad in black is not a businessman with a lust for sadism and murder........but someone much more dangerous........

'Progeny of the Adder' is an effective novel. While the first half of the book reads like a police procedural, with the reader left guessing as to whether the murders are the work of natural, or supernatural, actors, at its midpoint the novel suddenly shifts into a higher gear and becomes an unabashed horror novel, one with a memorable lead villain and scenes of violent action and mayhem that do not spare the 'good guys'.

While 'Progeny of the Adder' apparently was not the inspiration for the January, 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker, it shares with that movie the theme of the supernatural let loose in modern-day civilization. 

In some regards, 'Adder' is more likely the unacknowledged inspiration for the Count Yorga movies of the early 70s.

Copies of 'Progeny of the Adder' in good condition are expensive, but if you can find one for an affordable price, this novel is well worth picking up. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blade: Black and White

Blade: Black and White
Marvel Comics, 2004

In 2004 Marvel Comics decided to capitalize on the release of the film Blade: Trinity by taking material previously published in the mid-70s in its Curtis line of black-and-white comic magazines, and packaging it - along with some 90s one-shot comics - as a trade paperback compilation titled 'Blade: Black and White'.

There are two main entries in 'Black and White'. One is the two-part story written by Marv Wolfman, and illustrated by Tony DeZuniga, that appeared in issues 8 and 9 of Vampire Tales (December 1974 / February 1975).

Also in the collection is 'The Night Josie Harper Died' , with story by Chris Claremont and art again by De Zuniga, from Marvel Preview No. 3 (September 1975).

Rounding things out is a six-page strip, 'Into the House of Terror', from issue 8 of Marvel Preview (September 1976); a short strip, 'Into the Tomb', from Marvel: Shadows and Light No.1 (February 1997); and a longer tale, 'Crescent City Blues', from the one-shot Blade No. 1 (March 1998).

The entries from the 70s magazines are disappointing. As was the custom of the 'Marvel Method' at the time that they were published, the scripts for these comics took precedence over the art, and as a result, they are severely over-written, with an excessive number of panels so overcrowded with speech balloons that it's often difficult to tell exactly what is going on. 

It also doesn't help matters that the reproductions in 'Blade: Black and White' are very poor. It looks like Marvel didn't have access to the original artwork, and instead made scans of the printed magazines.......?!

It goes without saying that the depiction of Blade in these comics is nowhere near the depiction of the character as portrayed by Wesley Snipes in the feature films; in these 70s comics, Blade looks more like a nerd than a superhero. As well, the vampire-killing action is rather restrained, considering that the black and white magazines were exempt from the Comics Code.

Of the 1990s Blade comics presented in this compilation, 'Into the Tomb' (1997) is probably the best, due to the artwork by Ladronn, which shows a Jack Kirby - inspired visual style.
The 1998 entry, 'Crescent City Blues', has a good script by Christopher Golden, who nowadays does a lot of writing for Dark Horse comics and its Hellboy-related titles. However, 'Crescent' is undermined by mediocre artwork from Gene Colan, who - in his later days as an artist - tended to produce hasty, half-finished work in an effort to maximize his output. 

Summing up, even if you're a dedicated Blade fan, it's hard to recommend 'Black and White'. While copies of those old issues of Marvel Preview and Vampire Tales are getting more and more expensive as the years go by, they probably are a wiser investment than this compilation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Judge Parker and Zip-A-Tone

Judge Parker and Zip-A-Tone

Zip-A-Tone (aka Zipatone) was a widely used technique in graphic art, including comics, in the days before software-based art composition became commonplace. 

It required the user to cut out pieces of adhesive-backed plastic sheets, with different patterns to each sheet, and pasting it into the comic page of interest.

It wasn't at all unusual to see Zip-A-Tone effects in black and white comics of the 70s and early 80s, as it was a way to impart eye-catching textures to a given panel or panels, as this impressive splash page created by artist Paul Neary for a 'Hunter' story in Eerie No. 55 (March 1974) shows:

So I was startled when, perusing the ever-shrinking comics pages in recent deliveries of The Washington Post, I saw that the strip 'Judge Parker' was employing Zip-A-Tone....!!!!
Each panel (scanned originals, above) measures only 5" long by 2" wide - a sad fact of how tiny the comics have become in today's newspapers - so the Zip-A-Tone effect is comparatively subdued. However, given the infantile state of current comics art, it deserves some notice.... and even praise ! 

I'm guessing that 'Judge Parker' artist Mike Manley used a software app to render the Zip-A-Tone, as I'm guessing few, if any, sheets are still available.

It's open to question as to how many contemporary comics readers will even be aware of what Manley is doing with the strip. In my workplace of > 300 people, I am the only employee who brings a newspaper in to work........ With more and more comics being relegated to the 'online' version of national newspapers, I can foresee a day when comics simply are absent from printed newspapers.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Book Review: Killerbowl

Book Review: 'Killerbowl' by Gary K. Wolfe

5 / 5 Stars

‘Killerbowl’ (162 pp) was published by Doubleday in hardback in September 1975; the cover art is by Steve Marcesi.

[A mass market paperback version was published in 1976 in the UK by Sphere Books.]

Author Gary K. Wolf (not to be confused with sf essayist Gary K. Wolfe) wrote several sf novels in the 1970s. His 1981 novel ‘Who Censored Roger Rabbit ?’ was the basis of the hit 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit ?

Blogging about sf and fantasy books published during the interval from 1968 – 1988 occasionally allows me to discover an overlooked, rare gem of a title, and ‘Killerbowl’ is one of these.

Although ‘Killerbowl’ came out the same year as the movie Rollerball, which also examined a near-future USA in which blood sport was a carefully crafted corporate tool for ensuring a compliant populace, ‘Killerbowl’ is not a derivation, but rather, a more satirical treatment of the themes of American sports, its superstars, TV coverage, and the viewing habits of ‘Joe Six Pack’.

As ‘Killerbowl’ opens, its New Year’s Day, 2010, and within an eight-block area of downtown Boston, the Street Football League’s Super Bowl XXI is about to begin.

The city center has been temporarily evacuated, save for the two, 13-man teams of the San Francisco Prospectors and the New England Minutemen, the referees, and a small army of cameramen.

For the next 24 hours, the two teams will battle through the falling snow and freezing temperatures for the Championship of the SFL (the descendent of the NFL). In the SFL, violence is not only an expected part of the game, it’s encouraged. The act of tackling an opposing player includes the use of long-bladed knives and blackjacks, and if a player is killed, there are no substitutions.

The populace watching Super Bowl XXI has been beaten down by decades of the Energy Crisis and attendant economic dislocation that started in the early 70s. With little hope for the future, the citizenry are content to consume bread and circuses, in the form of the SFL, handed out by the corporations and their political allies. With over 90% of the population of the USA tuning in to Super Bowl XXI, it’s an unprecedented display of the International Broadcasting Company’s dominance of American social and political life.

For aging veteran T. K. Mann, quarterback for the Prospectors, Super Bowl XXI is personal. His Minutemen counterpart, the arrogant, self-centered, sadistic Harv Matision, has risen to stardom based on publicly humiliating Mann and murdering Prospector players. For Mann, it’s less about winning the game and more about exacting revenge on Matision.

But the IBC wants the highest rating possible, and to that end, the entire season has been rigged in favor of Matision and the Minutemen. Things aren’t going to change just for the Super Bowl, either. For the IPC wants Matision and the Minutemen to win the game….and kill T. K. Mann in the process……………….

‘Killerbowl’ works very well as both a page-turning action novel and as a social satire, something that many sf novels try for, but rarely accomplish. Author Wolf uses a clear, declarative prose style – never a given for an sf novel published during the New Wave Era – to lend a documentary-like quality to the violent proceedings of the SFL season and the Super Bowl. 

As well, the book is spot-on in terms of extrapolating the depressed, entropy-laden zeitgeist of the mid-70s forty years into the future: the 2010 version of the USA described in 'Killerbowl' is a very logical projection, given the state of the USA in 1975.

The major problem with ‘Killerbowl’ is that it’s long out of print, and copies in good condition are quite pricey. If you can find an affordable copy in the shelves of your used bookstore, don’t hesitate to pick this novel up !

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Heavy Metal inaugural issue April 1977

'Heavy Metal' magazine
April 1977

Issue One

April, 1977, and on the radio, Glen Campbell's Southern Nights is playing.

Leonard Mogel, the owner of the very successful American humor magazine National Lampoon, launches a new magazine called Heavy Metal, inspired by the issues of Metal Hurlant he saw while on a previous visit to France.

There is limited information on Leonard Mogel available online; his birthdate is listed as October 23, 1922, and he evidently is alive and well as of 2017. He is listed as the author of a large number of books on magazine and book publishing at I found a black-and-white photograph of Mogel taken in 1968, when he was the publisher of Weight Watchers (!) magazine:

Leonard Mogel, 1968

Heavy Metal features a striking cover illustration byJean-Michel Nicollet and a back cover by Philippe Druillet. It's printed on 'slick' paper and features comics and illustrations in color, with quality separations and high resolution - things never before seen in the world of American comic books.

And, of course, the inaugural issue has plenty of tits, and ass, and frank nudity - 'European' stuff, rarely seen in American comic books, including the black-and-white Warren magazines. Stoners are intrigued.

I was only 16 when the inaugural issue of Heavy Metal hit the stands. I remember seeing it, but buying a copy was out of the question; I preferred to save my thin dollars for DAW books and other sci-fi paperbacks. It wasn't until November, 1978, when I had my first job and some reasonably plentiful spending money, that I bought my first Heavy Metal.

(Sadly, used copies of issue one in good condition fetch exorbitant prices. Maybe the current publishers of the magazine will re-release the inaugural issue as a special publication....otherwise, getting hold of a copy is best done by searching for the .cbr file on the internet)

Needless to say, the content of those early issues holds up very well 40 years later. The inaugural issue had some really great stuff: an installment of 'Conquering Armies' by Dionnet and Gal; a dialogue-free but memorable 'Arzach' tale from Moebius; 'Selenia' by Macedo; and the offbeat 'Space Punks', by the illustrator of the well-known (in Europe, at least) illustrator of 'Valerian', Jean-Claude Mezieres. 

'Space Punks' is posted below.