Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: 'Inherit the Stars' by James P. Hogan


 3 / 5 Stars


By 1977, many fans had become tired of New Wave content and were eager to see a newer generation of hard SF novels come upon the scene. It was thus apt timing for Del Rey to issue ‘Inherit the Stars’, the first novel by British writer James P. Hogan. Hogan, who passed away this past July, met with considerable success with ‘Inherit’ and went on to write a number of well-received books, including the sequels ‘The Gentle Giants of Ganymede’ (1978), ‘Giant’s Star’ (1981), ‘Entoverse’ (1991) and ‘Mission to Minerva’ (2005).

Del Rey took pains to present ‘Inherit’ as something new and progressive in SF. The cover features a realistic, eye-catching illustration by Darrell Sweet, in marked contrast to the abstract artwork that occupied many New Wave paperback covers. The advertising blurb from Isaac Asimov compares Hogan to Arthur Clarke, then the reigning king of hard SF. [Needless to say, comparisons to Samuel Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, or other decidedly New Wave authors probably weren’t considered by the Del Rey editorial staff].

In 2027, a UN expedition on the Moon comes across the space-suited corpse of a man lodged in a small cavern just under the lunar surface. Carbon dating indicates the corpse is 50,000 years old; his equipment is unlike anything ever manufactured on Earth, and the writing in his notebook is unknown to any linguist. ‘Charlie’ clearly came to the Moon from somewhere else. But where was ‘somewhere else’ ? And what implications does Charlie have for the origin of the human race ?

‘Inherit’ is unabashed hard SF. The main character is a physicist, his right-hand man an engineer. Any psychological angst generated by the narrative revolves solely around solving the grand scientific puzzle posed by the discovery of ‘Charlie’ in his crypt on the Moon. Labored dissections of personal relationships, thoughts, emotions, etc. are avoided. Conversations are to the point, and devoid of references to angst and despair, stylistic tropes much beloved by New Wave authors. At times the book can become quite didactic, although Hogan usually breaks his lectures off before the reader’s eyes can glaze over. Almost every chapter introduces yet another ‘cosmic’ revelation, with the reasoning behind these revelations given an earnest disclosure.


‘Inherit’ does indeed borrow many of its themes from Clarke, particularly ‘2001’. But Hogan does a good job with his story, however derivative; he writes as well as, if not better, than Clarke (and for that matter Asimov). Looking back nearly 34 years later, it’s easy to see how the fan base, tired of the more self-indulgent tenor of so much of mid-70s ‘speculative fiction’, was ready and willing to embrace SF that successfully updated the traditional mind-set of the genre.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'Barlow's Guide to Extraterrestrials', by Wayne Douglas Barlowe and Ian Summers




I picked up a copy of 'Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials' (1979; Workman Publishing Company, 146 pp) as a present to myself for Christmas 1979. It's a neat little paperback book that provides color illustrations of various aliens, taken from well-known SF works from the 30s to the 70s.

Along with some page scans (carefully) taken from my old and yellowing copy of the book, I've scanned a preview of the book that appeared in the December 1979 issue of Heavy Metal magazine.









The book's format gives each alien a two-page treatment. One page is a description of the physical characteristics, biology, and culture of the depicted alien, and may also provide illustrations of particular anatomical features of interest. The other page is a portrait of the alien as interpreted from the original literary source.

Along with the gallery of aliens (or ETs, as you may prefer), the book includes a folding three-page chart that allows for a comparison of the sizes of the various creatures:



The last 30-odd pages in the book are a gallery of sketches and preliminary drawings made by Barlowe in the course of preparing his final portraits.
 
Barlowe's artwork is meticulous, finely crafted, and well worth multiple viewings. Don't be surprised if the illustration of a particularly interesting alien creature leads you to search out the original novel it appeared in.

And, needless to say, it's always fun to see the ET from one of your favorite SF novels depicted in this book, particularly if the original image of it in your mind is a bit hazy and unformed.

One of the best examples is Barlowe's illustration of 'The Thing', from John W. Campbell's novelette 'Who Goes There ?' It certainly is more otherworldly than the creature portrayed by James Arness in the 1951 film, and it stands up to the creepy crawlies depicted in the John Carpenter film from 1982 and the Dark Horse comics from the 90s.



Copies of the paperback edition are readily available from amazon.com for very reasonable prices, so SF fans may want to get a copy of this entertaining book for their collections.

Thursday, December 23, 2010



Arthur Suydam's 'Mudwogs'
from 'Echo of Futurepast' issue 1

continuing with part 2: things get even stranger (and more scatalogical !)



 


Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: 'Solution Three' by Naomi Mitchison


 1 / 5 Stars

‘Solution Three’ (Warner paperbacks, 1975, 142 pp., cover art by Vincent di Fate) was one of a number of novels and short stories produced by Mitchison during the late 60s and 70s, her novel ‘Memoirs of A Spacewoman’ perhaps being the best-known of these.

‘Solution Three’ is, unfortunately, a chore to read. The author uses an oblique prose style, inserts too many unhelpful euphemisms (food riots are labeled ‘The Aggressions’),  and has too many sentences displaying awkward syntax. It’s unclear if this is an affectation designed to give the book a ‘futuristic’ tenor, or just....poor writing.  

The story is set in the near future, after overpopulation has caused the collapse of society. In North America and Western Europe civilization has reconstituted itself within a number of crowded, but technologically advanced, mega-cities, with most of the territory around these city-states devoted to food production. These city-states are governed by cabals of technocrats, who have implemented the ‘third solution’ of the book’s title: conditioning people to embrace same-sex relationships, and thus limit procreation. 

Breeding is limited to the production of clones, derived from the germplasm of a mythical ‘He’ and ‘She’, Adam-and-Eve figures from the pre-collapse period. Motherhood essentially consists of serving as surrogates for implanted zygotes; at age nine or ten, the progeny of these pregnancies are taken off for ‘strengthening’, a closely managed program of schooling and psychological testing designed to make the adult clones a super-race of problem solvers. This approach to replenishing the population represents Solution Four, in the jargon of the technocrats.

There are several threads to the narrative, the main one involving a bi-racial couple, Miryam and Carlo, who have refused to adopt homosex and instead live as ‘deviants’, i.e., a heterosexual couple who reproduce the old-fashioned way. The ruling Council, handicapped in large part by the desire to be politically correct in all aspects of social policy, tolerates their deviancy, but makes clear that any bestowing of economic and professional perks will be limited. When the vast monocultures of cereals that feed the megacities start to show signs of infection with plant pathogens, Miryam and Carlo must investigate the causes of the outbreaks; their research may have unexpected implications for the Council, and indeed the entirety of post-collapse civilization.

‘Solution Three’ is not a 'feminist' novel, but it does focus on female characters and their relationships rather than the usual tropes of eco-catastrophe SF. Perhaps as a consequence, this is not the most exciting of novels. What little conflict or tension that makes an appearance is muted, and mainly serves to elicit some musings about the personal interactions of the characters. 

‘Solution Three’ doesn’t stand the test of time as one of the more engrossing examples of 70s SF.

Friday, December 17, 2010

John Norman (aka John Eric Lange) interview
from 'Questar' magazine, February 1980



There are no more quintessential examples of the PorPor ethos than the novels of John Norman, the pen name of American author John Frederick Lange. Starting with 'Tarnsman of Gor' in 1976 and working up to 'Captive of Gor', I dutifully purchased the Ballantine paperbacks with their Boris Vallejo covers, and then, when publishing rights for the remaining entries in the series moved to DAW books, 'Hunters of Gor' on up to 'Tribesmen of Gor'. 

I thought the Gor books were cool. When you're 16 years old, and it's 1976, and there is no such thing as the internet, the Gameboy, and your TV has only 4 channels, and you really don't know what a 'dominatrix' is, or why some adult men might have Impure Thoughts involving clothespins, 'Tarnsman of Gor' is real entertainment.

It's beside the point to mock the Gor books for having puerile plots, stilted dialogue, a relentless atmosphere of misogyny, and an unhealthy obsession with S&M. Despite all these flaws they were always very readable. I'll take 'Raiders of Gor' any day over 'Island of the Blue Dolphins', 'To Kill A Mockingbird', 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' or any other piece of literature handed out to generations of hapless high school students. Indeed, the Gor books are nowhere near as subliminally warped and perverted as 'A Seperate Peace' by John Knowles - !

Posted below is a five-page of an interview with John Norman from the February 1980 issue of 'Questar' magazine. Norman, who at the time of the interview was a member of the philosophy department at CUNY, is wordy and pompous and plainly stung by the criticism heaped on his books. Of course, the interviewer carefully avoids inquiring about the Freudian underpinnings of Norman's fantasy vision of Bondage and Domination....








Tuesday, December 14, 2010

'1941: The Illustrated Story' by Heavy Metal magazine / Pocket Books





After the great commercial and critical success of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, whiz-kid director Steven Spielberg could do no wrong by the Hollywood moguls, and thus Columbia and Universal Studios together handed over an estimated $30 million for him to make a comedy about a (true-life) Japanese attack on California in the early days of World War 2.
Preceded by a massive marketing campaign, ‘1941’ was released during the 1979 Christmas season and while it failed to get much in the way of glowing reviews, it did do quite well at the box office, aided in no small part by the tremendous popularity of ‘Blues Brothers’ stars John Belushi, who played ‘Wild’ Bill Kelso, and Dan Aykroyd, who played Sgt. Frank Tree.
Heavy Metal magazine released a graphic novel adaptation of the movie, ‘1941: The Illustrated Story’, by Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch. The graphic novel is a strange collage of both original art, and advertising images and photographs  from the early 40s. Thus one may see a black and white photo of popular 40s singer Kate Smith in one panel, and a distinctive illustration by Boris Artzybasheff in another.


[The depiction of the Japanese as buck-toothed subhumans was well in keeping with the tenor of the World War 2 era but, needless to say, is very politically incorrect by today's cultural standards.]

The plot is barely coherent and I won’t divulge it in any detail to avoid spoilers, but it’s sufficient to say that the entire comic – and by extension the movie script – relies heavily on the sort of crazed presentation pioneered by the early 'Mad' comic books of the 1950s.
Readers looking for something different in terms of art, layout, and plot, as well as readers nostalgic for late 70’s – early 80’s comic art, might want to give this graphic novel a try. Copies of ‘1941: The Illustrated Story’ can be had for affordable prices from amazon.com and eBay.





 


 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Book Review: 'The New Tomorrows' edited by Norman Spinrad


2 / 5 Stars

‘The New Tomorrows’ (Belmont Tower, 1971, 235 pp., cover artist uncredited) is compiled by editor Norman Spinrad to showcase the New Wave Movement, at the time when the Movement was much in vogue. Many of the stories first appeared in ‘New Worlds’ in the late 60s and early 70s.
 
The anthology opens with a Introduction by Spinrad; this is an engaging overview of SF publishing at the time, with Spinrad mildly rebuking ‘mainstream’ magazines and books for refusing to release works by Movement authors. There is a cogent discussion of the phrase ‘speculative fiction’ and the rationale taken by some authors for adopting the term in order to further their careers. The statistics Spinrad provides on hardback and paperback sales figures and magazine circulations are an interesting snapshot of where the genre stood in the marketplace at the time of the book’s release.

As is to be expected with New Wave content, the majority of the stories focus on mood, setting, and character rather than plot or narrative; many are devoid of traditional SF topics, and some are so ‘experimental’ as to represent self-indulgence on the part of the author. Some capsule descriptions:

‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’ by Michael Moorcock: detective Milos Aquilinus arrives in an absurdist Berlin to investigate a murder; he interacts with various historical personages.

‘Driftglass’ by Samuel R. Delaney: a genetically engineered merman, crippled by an accident at a deep-sea construction project, advises a younger counterpart. This is one of Delaney’s more accessible stories.

‘Sending the Very Best’ by Edward Bryant: an incomprehensible, patently New Wave short-short. It features greeting cards.

‘Going Down Smooth’ by Robert Silverberg: underwhelming tale of a computer that develops a cranky sort of AI.

‘The Garden of Delights’ by Langdon Jones: gripped by anomie, a young British man returns to the abandoned house where he grew up. He experiences an X-rated version of ‘Somewhere in Time’ involving…. incest (!) At the time of its publication I’m sure this story was considered Explicit, Provocative and Daring, but with the passage of time it comes across as little more than skeezy porn….and Jones as a very creepy personality….

‘Surface If You Can’ by Terry Champagne: satirical tale of a couple of grad students who rent a bomb shelter from an absent-minded heiress. There is a surprise ending that makes this the best story in the anthology.

‘Masks’ by Damon Knight: a man horribly injured in an accident survives via transformation into a cyborg, only through the cost of predictable angst and spiritual anomie.

‘Pennies, Off A Dead Man’s Eyes’ by Harlan Ellison: a mutant investigates a woman who steals from the dead.

‘Flight Useless, Inexorable the Pursuit’ by Thomas Disch: in the near future, a man flees high-tech pursuit. An undeveloped fragment rather than a genuine short story.

There are three entries that display the artiest of New Wave prose forms, the ‘experimental fiction’ piece in which the conventional narrative structure is replaced by a loosely connected series of non sequiturs, leaving it to the reader to attempt to synthesize a coherent plot. About all that can be said of ‘198-, A Tale of ‘Tomorrow’ by John Sladek, ‘The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde’ by editor Spinrad, and ‘Down the Up Escalation’ by Aldiss, is that Spinrad’s story is the easiest to follow. But that’s not saying much.

A story by one Michael Butterworth has such a long title that I’m not going to repeat it here. Butterworth’s tale features short stretches of text mingled with hand-drawn geometric diagrams (below); who am I to say this is not Art ?



‘The Definition’ by Bob Marsden: a rock musician encounters unruly fans in a near-future world reminiscent of ‘Clockwork Orange’. A short-short story.

‘The Jungle Rot Kid On the Nod’ by Philip Jose Farmer: William Burroughs does Tarzan. The sort of facile, opportunistic literary trickery that earned Farmer much praise in the early late 60s and early 70s.

The verdict ? There are three or four stories that may please hard-core New Wave fans. But all others can probably pass on ‘Tomorrows’.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'The Halcyon Drift' by Brian Stableford
(the Hooded Swan series, vol. 1)




3 / 5 Stars

Brian Stableford published the DAW  six-volume series referred to as the 'Grainger / Hooded Swan' novels from 1972 to 1975. 'The Halcyon Drift' (1972) is the first book in the series, followed by 'Rhapsody in Black' (1973), 'Promised Land' (1974), 'The Paradise Game' (1974), 'The Fenris Device' (1974), and 'Swan Song' (1975).

'Drift' is DAW Book No. 32 and features a cover illustration by Jack Gaughan.

The story opens with Grainger (he goes by only one name), the first-person protagonist and narrator, stranded on a planet in the fringes of the Halcyon Drift, an immense dark nebula. He has landed in a controlled crash that has killed his engineer. After two years of waiting and hoping, another vessel hears his distress beacon and comes to retrieve him. Grainger is eventually dropped off, penniless, on Earth. He owes his rescuers a considerable sum of money. And to make matters worse, he has apparently picked up an alien ghost or spiritual symbiont in his head, which carries on a running conversation with its human host. [Stableford provides some ambiguity about the nature of the 'alien'; it may in fact be a manifestation of schizophrenia on the part of Grainger].

When the family of his deceased engineer offers Grainger a job piloting a starship, things seem to be looking up. But it turns out this is no ordinary starship; the Hooded Swan has been designed to feature the latest advances in spaceflight technology, including a neural network interface which brings its pilot the ultimate sensory alliance with the ship's systems. Learning to fly the Swan won't be easy. 

But where his employers want Grainger to take their remarkable spacecraft is even more challenging. For floating in the depths of the Halcyon Drift is a starship called the Lost Star, and a treasure of great value is rumored to lie within its hold. The problem is, many other ships have been sent to find the Star...and none of them have come back.....

'Drift' is a low-key, literate space opera with an emphasis on the personality of Grainger, who Stableford portrays as a prickly, cynical middle-aged spacer rather than as a fresh-faced hero. The author uses quasi-New Wave prose to describe the space flight sections of the narrative, but he doesn't overindulge in language that is too oblique or overly poetic.The plot moves along at a good clip and the book's short length (175 pp) means it's a quick read, devoid of the labored detail common to many contemporary space opera novels.

Readers looking for an early 70s space adventure with sufficient New Wave flavor to make it an offbeat take on the genre will want to try 'Drift' and the other Hooded Swan books.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine December 1980






‘Heavy Metal’, December 1980, features a cover illustration by Chris Achilleos titled ‘Elle’, and a back cover illustration by Alex Nino titled ‘Finally’.

There are major editorial changes announced with this issue. After only a year as Editor, Ted White is leaving, to be replaced (at least temporarily) by publisher Leonard Mogel. While White’s departure is glossed over as a decision he made to pursue a novel-writing career, it’s clear that the readership has been less than pleased with White’s introduction of columns for comics, SF, film, and ‘rok’ criticism. In a response to a reader’s letter, Mogel announces that "We found, through surveys and the like, that Heavy Metal readers prefer strip work to columns…Heavy Metal is an illustrated magazine, and prose seemed to be getting away from that concept.” 

For all the staff changes, this issue of HM is disappointing. There is a new series by Richard Corben, ‘Bloodstar’, but the dire Lupoff and Stiles strip ‘Professor Thintwhistle’ continues to appear. ‘Mary Quite Contrary’ by Ted White and Terry Lindall, is a cheesy smut piece trying to be arty. A ‘Valentina’ comic by Crepax uses blue ink on a gray background and is visually unreadable. Even the Schuiten Brothers, normally great contributors, strike out with ‘The Cutter of the Fog’, a disorganized tale that doesn’t do much other than provide some mediocre girlie art.

There are one or two worthy pieces and ‘Man’s Best Friend’, a black and white comic by Dick Matena, is one of them. I’ve posted it below.





Friday, December 3, 2010

Arthur Suydam's 'Mudwogs'
from 'Echo of Futurepast' issue 1


'Echo of Futurepast' was an anthology title first released in 1984 as one of the books in the Continuity Comics lineup. Continuity was an independent publisher founded by comic book legend Neal Adams. 

Unfortunately, like a lot of indie comics released in the 80s and early 90s, Continuity had continuous problems with production and financing and the 'Futurepast' series reached nine issues before being cancelled.

Among the stories appearing in issue one was a two-part, 15-page 'Mudwogs' tale by Arthur Suydam. The Mudwog character had first appeared (as best as I can tell) in the May 1981 issue of 'Heavy Metal' magazine, in the story titled ' A Mudwog Tale: the Toll Bridge'.

The eight page Mudwog story in issue one of 'Futurepast' (somewhat confusingly) appeared as three- and four- page segments in the June and November 1981 issues of Heavy Metal. For the Futurepast appearance, Suydam made changes to the content and layout of the original comics.

Suydam's Mudwog's strips are the weirdest, most warped, yet most original take on the 'funny animals' theme. There has never been anything quite like them.

I'll be posting the second part (7 pages) of the Futurepast issue 1 Mudwogs strip shortly.