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The Temporal Void

The Temporal Void - Peter F. Hamilton
This long complex novel is the follow up to The Dreaming Void, another long complex novel which I reviewed a few months ago. It took me several chapters to get back into the story and start remembering the characters. Readers might be advised to revisit book one before tackling book two if they have the time.

This is a space opera on a big scale. Humans and other aliens occupy most of the galaxy. Technology is highly developed and most people have their memories downloaded somewhere so that if the body gets killed they can re-life with a new one. Some worlds are more advanced than others. Some people, usually government special agents, have biononic technology in their bodies so they can access data systems, use force fields, and so on. There are various factions in human civilization. Some want to go ahead and do away with old fashioned bodies right away and become Artificial Intelligences. Others like bodies and think this will ultimately happen but we should progress towards it slowly.

There is a big area at the centre of the galaxy called the Void. It is virtually impenetrable but long ago some human colony ships got into it somehow and crashed on a world called Querencia. They couldn't get off again because quantum physics is different inside the Void. Time flows at a different rate than in the Galaxy outside and warp drive doesn't work, but psychic powers do. In the capital city Makkathran a hick country boy called Edeard, now known as the Waterwalker, is rising up the ranks of the police and eliminating crime in the city by virtue of his powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities.

Some time ago a man called Inigo dreamt of Edeard’s life in the Void and founded Living Dream, a religion. When people die in the Void their souls fly to the Heart at its centre and seem to live happily ever after. This doesn’t happen outside the Void. Living Dream is launching a pilgrimage to take millions of followers into the Void where this version of heaven is achievable. To do this they will need permission from the Skylords, vast intelligences who fly about in space. Once every few generations a Dreamer is born who can communicate with the Skylords. Inigo was the First Dreamer and a young lady called Araminta is the Second Dreamer, which she discovered at the end of volume one, much to her surprise. She doesn't want to be the Second Dreamer. She wants to marry and have kids and lead a nice quiet life.

When people enter Void it tends to expand and swallow big chunks of the galaxy. Obviously this is a bad thing for those atheists who want to keep living in our Galaxy. The Ocisen Empire is determined to stop the pilgrimage and has launched an invasion fleet at Earth. But some factions in the Commonwealth support the pilgrimage, for their own ends, and are secretly supplying Living Dream with technology to enable it.

It takes five hundred words just to describe the situation at the start of the novel but that doesn’t mean Hamilton has written a dry, scientific text. Justine Burnelli works for ANA Governance, the AI‘s who run Earth and its allied worlds. She penetrates the Void successfully in her one-woman super ship and is able to communicate with people outside. Her story is full of emotion. The struggles of Edeard and his friends to bring law and order to Makkathran take up more than half of the book and are very exciting. Edeard’s tale still reminds me of a Heinlein juvenile, a sweet innocent lad with a superpower shaking the world up, but it’s a great story. One tiny flaw is the ending but as its possibility is inherent in the very nature of the Void, and given away in the title, I suppose it's inescapable.

The doings of the various factions out in the great Galaxy outside are also dramatic. ANA Governance had thought that repelling the Ocisen fleet would be fairly easy but those sneaky aliens have a few surprises in store. The fat genius scientist Troblum has gone into hiding after the Cat nearly killed him. Paula Myo, the top ANA investigator, is still hopping around the Galaxy trying to uncover the devilish schemes of the Advancer faction. Inigo, still alive, has been captured by another Faction agent and Araminta, the Second Dreamer, is on the run from the ruthless forces of Ethan, the Cleric Conservator of Living Dream. Confused? Well, this trilogy is a follow up to Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga and features a lot of the characters and worlds therein. I have not read it but I probably will, soon. The drawback is that the first volume of the Void trilogy was pretty hard going for new readers and frankly the second will be a complete mystery if you haven’t read the first.

However, doing so is worth the effort because it’s a great, sprawling ripping yarn reminiscent of Golden Age science fiction. The super-powerful ships blasting planets and each other with coruscating energy fields hark back to E.E. (Doc) Smith and the characters hark back to Heinlein. The prose is not fancy. Hamilton does not bother with similes or metaphors and if you like searching for Freudian subtexts you will probably have to search elsewhere. If you like a great story, this is it.

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown: A Novel

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown: A Novel - Paul Malmont ‘The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown’ is a follow up to ‘The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril’ but can be read independently. In ‘The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril’, author Paul Malmont plunged pulp writers Walter Gibson (The Shadow) Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and L. Ron Hubbard (Dianetics and Scientology, but not yet) into a deadly adventure mostly set in Chinatown New York. They were joined later by ex-Naval man who was on the run from gangsters after a failed venture with a silver mine. Together they solved the mystery and saved the world (spoiler).

I enjoyed that hugely and when I learned that there was a follow-up book featuring Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and L. Ron Hubbard in another adventure I bought it immediately. I’ve heard of Gibson and Dent but I’m a lifelong fan of Heinlein and Asimov and wanted to see what Malmont would do with them, and to them. I was not disappointed.

The story takes place shortly after Heinlein, Asimov and de Camp have begun work at the Naval Yard in Philadelphia trying to develop superweapons for the war. They learn of an installation built by Nikolai Tesla that might be used as a weapon and set out to investigate. Cue a lot of running around in tunnels under New York, interference from the FBI and harassment by naval bureaucrats. There’s also some talk about pulp fiction and a few guest stars pop up along the way. When you’re having fun with famous people you might as well enjoy it so Malmont has pilot Jimmy Stewart fly Hubbard to the Aleutians when Heinlein wants to get rid of him. Sam Moskowitz and Ray Bradbury get walk-on parts.

It’s pretty clear that Heinlein is top man as far as the author is concerned, a well-rounded figure, physically, mentally and morally superior to his peers with L. Sprague de Camp second. Asimov’s physical timidity is shown but that’s something Asimov admitted himself. As in ‘The Chinatown Deathcloud Peril’, Hubbard is portrayed as a flawed character rather than evil. He was on the downhill slide from success as a pulp writer to success as a second rate Messiah.

It’s well researched and the adventure plot is secondary, for me, to the insights into the characters. As this is faction it has to be taken with a pinch of salt but I’ve read biographies of the leads and the portrayals seem fairly accurate. Asimov’s knee-trembler on a New York rooftop was going a bit far though.

Entertaining and worth a look for fans of Golden Age science fiction who like a laugh.

Eamonn Murphy

Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics

Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics - N. C. Christopher Couch, Jerry Robinson, Pete Hamill, Dennis O'Neil Jerry Robinson is one of the founders of those American superhero comics that have now gone international and taken over the movie theatres of the world. First, there was Superman and then there was Batman. Jerry was in on Batman almost from the start. Recruited as an assistant when Bob Kane spotted him wearing a jacket illustrated with his own drawings, he moved to New York and began working with Kane and Bill Finger on the early issues of the great detective. Jerry created the Joker and co-created Robin the Boy Wonder. Well, his creation of the Joker is disputed but everything is now that the properties are worth millions. Back then, nobody cared a lot and the talent all chipped in willingly to help make the product better. Robinson makes it clear in interviews that he and the others lived and breathed Batman, day and night, obsessed with developing the series and making it better. Clearly, they succeeded.

For the first year, he worked in Bob Kane’s studio but then DC employed him directly and he worked in a sort of bullpen with such greats as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Mort Meskin, George Roussos and others. Robinson shared an apartment with Bernie Klein who became his best friend and they worked all hours on freelance contracts with many other artists dropping by and helping out. Comics were a new medium and they were inventing new techniques, changing the designs from the strip format made for newspapers to something that fitted a whole page. They were heady days. Robinson also had a spell working for Stan Lee over at Timely comics and they got on well together.

Roughly half the book is taken up with Robinson’s comic career and it’s clearly aimed at the comic fan but there’s a lot more to the artist than that. The second hundred pages deal with the rest of his life when he branched out into book and magazine illustration and newspaper cartoons. Unlike some other talents, notably Jack Kirby, Robinson had a head for business and kept control of his own work, freelancing direct for high paying markets and often forming syndicates to spread the product more widely. He always had a toehold in other fields of illustration and when comics slumped managed to keep thriving. Of course, he was very talented and worked hard.

He was also a decent chap and involved himself in campaigning for various good causes connected to his field. He worked to free jailed political cartoonists in other countries and famously took a lead in the fight to get Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster recognition, and money, for the creation of Superman.

I bought the book because I was interested in Jerry Robinson the comic artist but must say I found the rest of his story just as interesting. Alongside the fine text, there is page after page of his wonderful drawings, including some highly amusing political cartoons and pieces from Flubs and Fluffs where he extracted humour from real-life verbal mistakes by teachers and children. Those are timeless.

I picked this up for £4.00 at The Works, a British shop that sells remaindered books and often has such bargains. It was worth every penny.

View From Another Shore: European Science Fiction

View From Another Shore: European Science Fiction - Franz Rottensteiner Anthologies of foreign Science Fiction are intrinsically interesting, I think because the writers come from a different culture than your own. Not all that different if they’re French or German but quite a bit if they were in the Eastern bloc under communism. All the stories in this book date from before 1973 when it was first issued, so before The Wall came down. Growing up in the Cold War, one had a vague notion that the unfortunates in the east were all wearing grey coveralls and scything down wheat by hand on collective farms while singing the praises of Joe Stalin. In fact, there was clearly enough freedom of thought to allow for some pretty good speculative fiction and, although they missed out on such cultural gems as ‘I Love Lucy’, that did allow a bit more time for literature.

The big name here is Polish, Stanislaw Lem, described by the editor as a misogynist and a misanthrope of a type similar to HP Lovecraft. Well, maybe so, but he had a sense of humour. ’In Hot Pursuit Of Happiness’ set in a far distant future, Constructor Trurl calls on Klapaucious with a new thought. In their long and illustrious careers, he says, they have accomplished nothing of real value. They have travelled from planet to planet making peace, defeating tyrants and so on but done nothing for the Common Good and never produced Absolute Happiness. Klapaucious says that isn’t possible but Trurl wants to make just one happy world or maybe create a new sort of being who is happy and for 40 highly amusing pages he tries to do it. I liked Hedons as units of happiness. One Hedon or Hed for short is: ‘the quantity of bliss one would experience after walking exactly four miles with a nail in one’s boot and then having the nail removed.’ One Kilohed was ‘what the elders felt when they saw Susanna at her bath.’ The story is not illustrated but I guess Susanna was a bit of a looker. Anyway, she gave good Hed. Trurl can ‘move galaxies about as if they were furniture’ but really struggles with happiness. A terrific, entertaining story.

The quality is undiminished with the next tale ‘The Valley Of Echoes’ by Frenchman Gerard Klein. Three men set off in a tractor across the dull plains of Mars to regions unexplored, at least on foot. Despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, they all nurse the faint hope of finding some ruins, some bones, some faint trace of an ancient civilisation to prove that man is not alone in the universe. Klein’s prose, in translation at least, has a wonderful almost musical cadence to it that makes it a pleasure to read. He has been compared to Ray Bradbury and it’s obvious why. Probably my favourite in the book and that‘s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Staying with France, ‘Observation Of Quadragnes’ by J.P. Andrevon first appeared in 1971. It’s a grim story about very strange aliens observing the mating of captive human beings. ’Playboy And The Slime God’ by Isaac Asimov appeared in the March 1961 issue of ‘Amazing’ and I put it to you, m’lud, that they are based on the same notion. In fact, Asimov’s story was a satire of a story titled ’Girls For The Slime God’ which appeared in ‘Playboy Magazine’. Asimov’s story is highly amusing whereas Andrevon’s is a miserable vision of rape, sadism and the worst aspects of humanity. The times they were a-changing in the 70s. I suppose Andrevon’s is more realistic.

From Denmark comes ‘The Good Ring’ by Svend Age Madsen, in which a peasant named Stig finds a ring that transports him to other worlds. Surreal and imaginative but I can’t say I enjoyed it

From Germany, ‘Slum’ by Herbert W. Franke, a scary tale about a polluted future. No one takes any notice of these which is quite right. We don’t want a lot of red tape and environmental protection laws hindering the work of wealth creators and entrepreneurs. Watching the news recently, I discovered that we British own a Pacific island with the world’s greatest collection of plastic rubbish, bought to it by ocean currents. Hurray!

If you read ‘The Land Of Osiris’ without knowing the author you would swear to God, swear to Mao or swear to anyone you like that it was by Robert Silverberg but it’s actually by Wolfgang Jeshke of Germany. In a post-nuclear world, a white man turns up in Kotoko on Lake Chad on a quest northwards because he and other scientists have seen signs of space flight activity in that direction. He gets a lot of help from the local king and is given a young guide named Beschir. The narration switches between first person by Beschir and short extracts from the journal of Jack Freyman, the scientist, known as Master Jack to the locals. The exotic locations, the lush descriptions, the clever narrative technique, the huge, Science Fictional conclusion, even the length of the piece, a novelette, shout Silverberg in flaming letters ten feet high to anyone who knows his work. Obviously it’s good. Jeshke studied German and English literature, say the author notes, and was probably the foremost editor of Science Fiction in his homeland.

The gloomy grandeur of ‘The Land Of Osiris’ is followed by the cheerful tale of ‘Captain Nemo’s Last Adventure’ by Josef Nesvadba of the Czech Republic. The hero’s actual surname is Feather but the media began to call him Captain Nemo for his heroic exploits, especially after he took the new Nautilus rocket to explore Neptune. Unfortunately, the Solar system is getting safer and Captain Nemo may have to stay home with his wife. Horror! He’s saved by a last desperate mission which will take him into interstellar space. This is another entertaining satire from Eastern Europe.

Outrageous coincidence is the theme explored by Adrian Rogoz of Romania in ‘The Altar Of The Random Gods’. Homer has a traffic accident which is followed by a series of unlikely events. Nowadays, that sounds like a plot for ‘The Simpsons’ but, back in 1970, the name Homer didn’t conjure up the same image.

‘Goodnight Sophie’ by Italy’s Lino Aldani is set in one of those futures where virtual reality is so much more enjoyable than life that people spend most of their life in it. The heroine, Sophie Barlowe, is the most desirable star in the world of Oneirofilm and millions of men enjoy her every night. The consumer age is finished as eight billion people live in beehives, nourished by vitamins and soybeans with no desire for real goods or people in their lives. Well, we’re getting there. For 1963, this was pretty good future speculation. Constructor Trurl missed out on this way of making everyone happy.

The last three stories are all by Russians. ‘The Proving Ground’ is an anti-war and anti-military story published in Moscow in 1969. I’m starting to suspect that them there Ruskies weren’t nearly as controlling as we were led to believe by the ‘Daily Mail’. The inventor has created a tank that responds to thought and the army is testing it on a remote island. The characters don’t have names. Instead, the cool, omniscient narrator refers to them by title: The corporal, the captain, the colonel and the general. Despite or perhaps because of the unemotional description of events, this packs quite a punch.

‘Sisyphus, The Son Of Aeolus’ by Vsevolod Ivanov is set in ancient Greece. Polyander is on his way back to Corinth after serving loyally with both Alexander the Great and his cruel successor, King Cassander. He takes a short-cut through the hills and meets a hairy giant pushing a huge black boulder along a well-worn track. It was fantasy rather than Science Fiction and I thought the end was a bit weak.

Top marks, though, for ’A Modest Genius’ by Vadim Shefner. It’s about the life of Sergei, a modest inventor who courts two girls and marries one who turns into something of a shrew. Among his inventions are skates which allow you to glide across water; a camera that can photograph three years into the future and a Quarrel Measurer and Ender which brings peace to the community kitchen where he lives. For humorous contrast, the girl he didn’t marry ended up with a great inventor whose designs are completely impractical but always sponsored and built by the state. The author notes say that Shefner writes ‘naïve urban fairy tales’ and this is one, I guess.

This is an excellent collection and recommended to any Science Fiction fan.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Essential Sgt. Fury, Vol. 1

Essential Sgt. Fury, Vol. 1 - Stan Lee Like all ‘Marvel Essential’ and ‘DC Showcase’ volumes this is in black and white on cheap paper. Marvel has discontinued the ‘Essential’ line, sadly, but I think DC is still doing ‘Showcase’.

The first issue of ‘Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ was dated May 1963 with story by Stan Lee and art by Jack Kirby. On-line sources call them co-creators which is probably fair enough. Lee says the series came about as a result of a bet with publisher Martin Goodman that he and Kirby could sell a title with a ridiculous name. Artist John Severin says, that in the late 50s, Kirby approached him with the idea of a newspaper strip about a tough, cigar-chewing sergeant with a team of oddball GIs – sort of an adult ‘Boy Commandos’. Who to believe? No matter.

While on credit where it’s due, the information on the splash page of issue # 5 and many thereafter, tell us it was written by ‘Ex-Sgt. Stan Lee’ and illustrated by ‘Ex-infantryman Jack Kirby’. In later issues, ‘Ex-Corporal Dick Ayers’ is mentioned. This would give kids the vague impression that Sgt. Stan Lee was a bit like Sgt. Fury. Indeed, he writes himself into issue # 22 barking authoritatively at Corporal Dick Ayers who is painting a plane in England. In real life, Sgt. Stan Lee was never anywhere near England or the front line. He entered the forces in 1942 and worked for Signals, repairing telegraph poles before transferring to a department writing training manuals. This was a good use of his skills and he served his country but I find the credit a bit galling. Ex-infantryman Jack Kirby served on the front line in France under Patton and was sent home with severe frostbite.

Anyway, here’s the cast: Sergeant Nick Fury, a tough New Yorker; Corporal Timothy ‘Dum-Dum’ Dugan, former circus strongman; Private Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Jones, a black trumpet player; Robert ‘Rebel’ Ralston, a jockey from Kentucky; Dino Manelli, a handsome movie star of Italian descent who can speak German and Isadore ‘Izzy’ Cohen, a master mechanic. Clearly they represent America’s ethnic groups. There’s also Jonathan ‘Junior’ Juniper but he doesn’t stay long and is replaced by Private Percival Pinkerton, a comedy English toff with a ‘Bumbershoot’. Back at base in England is Captain ‘Happy’ Sam Sawyer who is stern but loves them really. They’re stereotypes but even this much characterisation was unusual in comics at the time.

The stories are almost pure action. The howlers are sent on a mission to destroy a submarine base, rescue a trapped division, blow up an installation developing nuclear weapons or whatever. It all consists of them charging vast hordes of Nazis who fire zillions of bullets but can’t seem to hit them. The Howlers’ dialogue is approved by the Comics Code Authority and therefore not indicative of the way soldiers really speak. There are a lot of darned chicken-scratchin’, beetle-brained types about but nothing worse. The Germans speak English badly. They say ‘Der’ instead of ‘the’, ‘Ve’ instead of ‘we’ and ‘haff’ instead of ‘have’. They also say ‘verdammt’ a lot. To be fair, this was justifiable poetic licence at the time in a comic for kids. Often, they get bopped on the head so Dino Manelli can steal their uniform and infiltrate somewhere. In one story, Dino is injured and replaced for the mission to get Rommel by a dad-blasted, chicken scratchin’ no good bigot who doesn’t like Izzy Cohen or Gabe Jones being near him. In a pioneering buddy movie script, Nick Fury starts off disliking Captain America as a fancy pants show-off but ends up respecting him. Bucky features, too, as do Baron Strucker, Doctor Zemo and a non-stretchable Reed Richards in issue # 3. The Marvel Universe was taking shape. If you make allowances for the silliness, there are some pretty good stories in here with the beginnings of characterisation and humanity by which Stan Lee made his mark in the field.

There’s a lot of silliness, though. In issue # 15, the lads are sent to Holland and captured by a company of Nazis. Then one shot knocks the cap off the officer. There are more shots. ‘They vould neffer attack us unless ve vere hopelessly outnumbered’, says a soldier and all the Germans run away, not even bothering to shoot the howlers first. A Dutch boy fired the shots. Yes, the Nazis were so cowardly they ran away from one lone boy and this is how they conquered Europe?! Meanwhile, almost any lone American is able to beat tanks and aeroplanes very easily with a machine gun or a grenade. Sergeant Fury, the toughest, digs his way out of a prison camp ‘using a stolen dinner spoon combined with nothing more than sheer muscle, sweat, and courage.’ That’s one hell of a man. That’s one hell of a spoon.

I bought this for the eight issues of Kirby art. It’s not his greatest but it’s interesting and there are five, six or seven panels to the page. None of those wasteful splash pages he became too fond of later. Much of it is clumsy but I think you have to bear in mind the amount of stuff he was turning out at the time. The inks are by Dick Ayers and George Roussos, four issues each. Ayers smoothes out the pencils while Roussos doesn’t but the latter’s heavy blacks bring out the power of the original art. Frank Giacoia is my favourite inker on Kirby and Roussos has some of his traits. The main thing with Kirby, no classic illustrator, is the dynamism of the layouts. For a tussle between Fury and Baron Strucker, he does a lovely nine-panel to the page fight sequence similar to the one he did when Captain America fought Batroc in Tales Of Suspense # 85. I like these kinds of things, evidence of conscious storytelling technique and an artist with his mind on the job. There’s a detailed analysis of a few pages from issue # 13 in The Jack Kirby Collector # 68, ‘Kirby Kinetics’ by Norris Burroughs. That was the one starring Captain America.

Dick Ayers took over the art after issue # 7, barring the aforementioned issue # 13, and the art is initially disappointing to a Kirby fan. However, as you read on, you get more used to Ayers style and he seems to improve. There are solid establishing shots, good continuity and decent illustrations throughout. The look varies depending on who is inking him. Ditko did issue # 15, interestingly, and Carl Hubbell inked a few near the end of this book. The best, I think, is Frank Giacoia whose solid blacks and attention to detail bring the pencils up a notch. I learned to appreciate Ayers’s subtle skills.

This volume finished with issue # 22 and Annual # 1 and I figured that must have been it for the series. Boy was I wrong. ‘Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ continued for 167 issues until December 1981 but there were reprints alternating with new stories after issue # 80 and only reprints after issue # 120. With super-heroes doing so well Stan didn’t have time to write it and Roy Thomas took over briefly, then Gary Friedrich who had quite a celebrated run. Dick Ayers’ art was highly regarded by then, especially when John Severin took over the inking.

Nick Fury went on to be a big star in the Marvel Universe. He showed up as a CIA Colonel in Fantastic Four # 21 (December 1963) and then became the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales # 135 (August 1965). Dum-Dum Duggan was another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent but I don’t recall any other howlers being involved.

In summary, ‘Marvel Essential: Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ is a good black and white reprint of a 1960s war comic. It will give you no understanding at all of the realities of war. On the other hand, it is fun and perhaps a timely reminder in an age of dubious wars where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad and that, once upon a time, there really was a bad guy we could all oppose with a clear conscience. People in Britain, especially on the left, are inclined to forget that the USA saved us from fascism in World War Two. Yes, when a dangerous right-wing megalomaniac outsider got himself elected to the leadership of a major world power by blaming foreigners for everything; when he bullied his neighbours, suppressed news media that opposed him, launched a new arms race with military spending at unprecedented levels and plunged the whole world into chaos, the Americans were there to stop him.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Dangerous Women

Dangerous Women - Jim Butcher, George R.R. Martin, Gardner R. Dozois, Diana Gabaldon This bumper collection has the theme of dangerous women but is not genre-specific so there are all sorts of stories from westerns to fantasies. Most of them are long, thirty to forty pages so would be classed as novelettes or novellas depending on your taste. Most of them are by productive if not famous writers and each introduction tells you something about the authors, what awards they have won and their published works. Usually, these are serials with several titles. The market is such now that putting out quantity seems to be the only way to get noticed. The idea and it’s not a bad one is that you will love their tales herein and rush out to buy the collected works.

First up is ‘Some Desperado’ by Joe Abercrombie. Shy is a nice name for a woman but this outlaw on the run from her criminal confederates isn’t the sort of girl you’d take home to mummy unless mummy was Ma Baker. She has stolen the money they all stole and the gang want it back. Dramatic conflict in a western story with true grit.

Lorie has lost her daughter Shelby in ‘My Heart Is Either Broken’ by Megan Abbott. She left Shelby in the care of another lady at a coffee shop while she went to the toilet and, when she came back, both the woman and her daughter were gone. Oddly, this tale of a very female tragedy is told by a woman writer from a man’s point of view, Tom, the father. It’s a grim and disturbing but realistic tale.

Historical fiction is featured, too. ‘Nora’s Song’ by Cecilia Holland starts in Montmirail, France in January 1169. It’s about the strained relations between King Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their eight children. The history seems sound enough from my vague knowledge though the language is not highbrow with Henry’s ‘eyes blazing’ and face ‘flaming’ on one page before being ‘flattened with temper’ a while later. The vocabulary of pulp fiction is perfectly acceptable as long as the story is sound and this was okay.

‘Bombshells’ by Jim Butcher is the first fantasy. Molly is trying to fill the big shoes of her late lamented mentor the wizard Henry Dresden. Justine, a thrall of the vampires at the White Court, comes to her because her partner, Thomas, is missing. Trying to get him back involves Justine with the Svartelves, very dangerous magical craftsmen from northern Europe who made weapons for the Norse gods. Also mixed up in the mayhem are the Fomor, an all-star team of bad guys from different mythological pantheons. The tale is set in contemporary Chicago, so it’s one of those where all the magical folk are in our midst and we don’t even know it. First-person narration carries it along nicely and gives the reader a good insight into Molly’s character, including the dark bits. What’s more, it actually seems to progress, if only slightly, the story arc for ‘The Dresden Files’ series of which it is a part. This was one of my favourites.

Back to reality next with ‘Raisa Stepanova’ by Carrie Vaughn. The eponymous hero is a female fighter pilot on the eastern front in World War II, shooting down German Junkers to stop them bombing Mother Russia. She’s doing okay until news comes that her brother, an army soldier, has gone missing. I was previously unaware that Joe Stalin was a feminist and let women fly planes. I also didn’t know that any member of the armed forces who was taken a prisoner or went missing in action was treated as a deserter and shot if they found him. Lovely man, Joe. There are many stories about dying heroically; this one is about something harder: living heroically. Very good and another favourite.

Joe R. Lansdale seldom disappoints. Here he gives us ‘Wrestling Jesus’, which starts with a bullied young fellow being rescued by a former wrestler then taught some moves but develops into a great story about the X-Man and his rival, Jesus, who have been fighting for decades for the heart of a dangerous, sensual woman. I hasten to add that these blokes were proper wrestlers who fought in carnivals, not the showmen currently on television. Lansdale is pretty brutal and the language is that of the streets but he somehow makes it into a kind of poetry. Some writers put in a lot of swearing that just irritates but more on that later.

Sarah is getting old and forgetful in ‘Neighbours’ by Megan Lindholm and her well-meaning family want to put her away somewhere ‘nice’ with the old folk slumped in chairs whose ‘wheels are a mockery to people who had no place to go’. Sarah starts to see things that make her wonder if she is losing her mind. That’s the fantasy element but this story is mostly about the reality of getting old. It’s a fine piece of work on a contemporary issue. I think ‘Out Of Time’ a phrase used near the end would have made a better title but who am I to advise Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb.

‘Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell’ did what this book is meant to do, introduce one to new authors. It made me want to look for more works by author Brandon Sanderson. (I already knew that Joe Lansdale and Megan Lindholm were good.) The forests in this fantasy are haunted by Shades, who will kill anyone who kindles flame or draws blood. The White Fox is a mysterious bounty hunter. Silence Montane runs an inn, a safe house in the forest. Her husband is dead and she has two daughters, one adopted. It’s a great story with many twists and Silence Montane is a character fit for many more. Brandon Sanderson was chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel Of Time’ series which I may read if I get a spare decade or two.

This review is getting too long so I’ll have to skip lightly over some others but they were all pretty good. ‘A Queen In Exile’ by Sharon Kay Penman is a historical yarn based on true facts about a Sicilian Princess trying to claim her rights. Interesting history and a solid story. Lev Grossman’s ‘The Girl In The Mirror’ is set in a school where the pupils do magic. A chap called Wharton has been shortchanging the fifth year on their wine allowance and the League – a kind of gang – set out to get him. This was very jolly and completely dissimilar in style and tone to anything involving a Potter. I guess any magic school story now can be accused of copying the most successful but that’s like saying every tale based in a rocket ship is copying E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith.

‘Second Arabesque, Very Slowly’ by Nancy Kress is a touching tale about trying to preserve some artistic sensibility in a terrible post-apocalyptic world. ‘City Lazarus’ by Diana Rowland is a gritty cop story set in the mean streets of New Orleans after the Mississippi River has changed direction. ‘Virgins’ by Diana Gabaldon is mostly about the adventures of two wandering Scottish mercenaries in 18th century France. Realistic about desire but not explicit at all. The heroes are both men but they do get involved with a sly and dangerous woman. ’Hell Hath No Fury’ by Sherrilyn Kenyon is a Native American haunting story. It was okay.

‘Pronouncing Doom’ by S.M. Stirling was interesting. The world has been through a change and cities burned. Afterwards, there is a society without electricity or complex machines and life is tough. Amongst the various groups trying to survive is a band of pagans led by Juniper Mackenzie. She has to pass sentence on a rapist. The story was enjoyable and raised interesting issues about how a society functions but I found depressing the notion that the world would go backward enough so that Wiccans could take charge, though there’s nothing wrong with their morals.

‘Name The Beast’ by Sam Sykes is a fantasy set in a forest that didn’t really do much for me. ‘Caretakers’ by Pat Cadigan has a pair of sisters who spend too much time watching documentaries about serial killers on television. One becomes convinced that there is a killer operating in the nursing home where mother is spending her last days. Pretty good but I thought it went on a bit too long.

I couldn’t finish ‘Lies My Mother Told Me’ by Caroline Spector. I got fourteen pages into it, counted thirty-eight to go and decided I couldn’t take any more. The bad guys swearing endlessly I could stand but the heroine’s thoughts and dialogue were those of a particularly annoying character from ‘Friends’ or some chick flick. Hello? Is this how yanks really talk now? Like, seriously?

The book concludes with a ‘Game Of Thrones’ novelette from George R.R. Martin entitled ‘The Princess And The Queen’ which is introduced as ‘being a History of the Causes, Origins, Battles and betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaster Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown’. I’ve seen the first three series of the television version of ‘Game Of Thrones’ and it’s a great story but too gory for my tastes. This novelette is perfectly readable as a standalone and perfectly enjoyable, too. It’s presented as a real history with that omniscient narration of which I am a fan.

Mr Martin being so busy lately I suspect that Mr Dozois would have done a lot of the selection for this but you can’t be sure. One might conclude that George R.R. Martin has herein allowed lesser lights to hitch their wagons to his star and boost sales. Certainly, the introductions to all the stories let you know the principal works of the authors so you can look them up but the simile is not apt. Wagons and stars are very different but the stories here are not. Any ‘Game Of Thrones’ fan who picks it up just to get that novelette will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the other stuff. It will also broaden their tastes to areas outside of fantasy. This is an excellent collection.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Machine Man

Machine Man - Tom DeFalco, Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith I was telling my dear brother about ‘Machine Man: The Complete Collection’ by Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko. ‘Complete?’ said he. ‘So it’s got the Barry Smith stuff as well?’ No, I admitted. In fact, the ‘Complete Collection’ is quite incomplete as it doesn’t have the stories from Kirby’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ either but, never mind, my bro lent me this volume which contains a four-issue mini-series from 1988 with a story by Tom DeFalco set in 2020. With decade’s end looming nearer, it’s entertaining to see what was envisaged back then.

Society has changed. The machinery is much more advanced and most people have little work as the ubiquitous robots do nearly everything. Many are ‘vidiots’, who spend their time immersed in entertainment, not even perceiving the world around them. The biggest fish in the capitalist pond is Baintronics, founded by Machine Man’s old enemy Sunset Bain, using technology wrested from him. Machine Man has been dismantled and consigned to a packing case in a warehouse but an automated ‘bot scouring for rubbish, picks it up and discards it as obsolete.

At the dump, he’s recovered and reactivated by a gang of scavengers colloquially known as Midnight Wreckers, who are involved in the illegal robot trade. The midnight wreckers are regularly hunted down by Baintronics forces. When Sunset Bain discovers that Machine Man is reactivated, she fears for her business and safety and proceeds to hunt him down.

Machine Man is a Kirby concept, of course, and the Midnight Wreckers, though young adults, are somewhat reminiscent of those old Kirby kid gangs. The layouts for three-quarters of it are by Herb Trimpe who picked up a lot from Jim Steranko and has always been good at the storytelling aspects of comic books even if his illustration skills weren’t terrific. The finished art and colouring is by one-time Kirby clone Barry Windsor-Smith who turns in a beautiful job as usual. Early in his career, Windsor-Smith dropped Kirby for the Pre-Raphaelites and began doing very detailed line-work which established him as one of the greats. Odd that he chose to work over Trimpe layouts but maybe he was rusty on panel-to-panel art after doing those high class expensive limited edition paintings. At any rate, the two men combine beautifully and Barry did his own layouts for the last issue. The detailed and beautiful colouring is much better than you get in the standard comic books of the time.

The plot’s gripping enough and the dialogue is clever. When scripting the latter issues of Machine Man’s own title in 1978, DeFalco had him wisecracking like Spider-Man and also went in too heavy with alliteration in both dialogue and captions. That was annoying. A decade later, he had lost those bad habits and the script is very good. Several characters from our hero’s past show up as well as the 2020 version of Iron Man, a bad guy working for Bain in the future.

Serving up 93 pages of solid story this is an enjoyable read with excellent visuals. It retailed for US$ 6.95 or CAN $ 9.25 when it was issued. Unfortunately, it now costs £19.99 secondhand on the UK version of the world’s biggest book site. The price is probably due to art by the famous Barry Windsor-Smith but you might pick it up cheaper elsewhere. It’s worth trying.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2

Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2 - Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, Dan Adkins ‘Essential Doctor Strange Volume 2’ is similar to the second half of Volume 1 in that it’s more piecemeal with several different creative teams at the helm. Volume 1 had a long stretch of Steve Ditko to establish the character, beginning with five-page tales and slowly stretching to ten and then to long continued stories. This book follows the trend of long, epic stories, probably because Doc’s antagonists are cosmic entities difficult to dispense with in a mere twenty pages.

We open with the talented team of Roy Thomas writing and Dan Adkins on the art in issues # 169-170 for a retelling of the origin of Doctor Strange and a battle with Nightmare, his first foe from way back. In a strange switch, Adkins inks Tom Palmer for issue # 171, in which our hero summons the Herald of Satannish to show him whence Clea, who aided him against Dormammu, has been banished. This is the first introduction of a thinly disguised Satan into Strange’s universe and it may not have been a good idea.

The Herald of Satannish did herald a sort of Golden Age for the series as issues # 172-183 feature the supreme scripting of Roy Thomas and the peerless pencils of Gene Colan which are excellently embellished by Tom Palmer, possibly the best inker ever. While reading these issues, I was struck by the deathless dialogue of Thomas which featured ‘kaleidoscopic cosmos filled with shifting shapes’, ‘macabre minions’ who are sent to a ‘darksome doom’ accompanied by ‘monstrous mocking laughter’ as Strange has the ‘priceless privilege’ of facing Nightmare. I was starting to wonder if Roy had been bitten by a radioactive Frank Ochieng (SFCrowsnest’s fabulous film critic). When Doc teamed up with less magical mortals to combat Ymir and Surtur in Avengers # 61, the mortals spoke like normal men and I realised that he had been using dramatic dialogue to foster the otherworldly atmosphere subtly suitable for mystic mayhem. However, if it reads a bit corny it sounds very corny indeed on the screen (I think that’s why Ben Grimm doesn’t work in movies), so I hope the film doesn’t copy this technique.

Colan’s art is very good, although there are many large panels and lots of white space. Sometimes this is suspicious and one has to wonder if a man being paid by the page is not simply using a technique to turn them out faster. However, Colan was famously devoted to his work and it would be unseemly to accuse him of laziness. I suspect he had been influenced by European comics and was experimenting with the limits of graphic storytelling. All in all, it works pretty well.

So well that the series was cancelled with Strange Tales # 183 (November 1969). Personally, I blame the Sons of Satannish and that baddie himself. United Statemen are generally quite religious and don’t like their children reading unwholesome material. Early on Strange’s tagline was changed from ‘Master Of Black Magic’ to ‘Master Of The Mystic Arts’. As long as he tangled with new fabulous entities like Nightmare and Dormammu, he was not controversial but borrowing from Christian myth was probably a step too far. Of course, the college kids loved both the art and the story but did not sustain a title back then. The Silver Surfer suffered similarly. Doc was doomed.

Fortunately, the Marvel Universe is a homogenous whole and, even if a character doesn’t have his own title, he can still appear elsewhere and did in Sub-Mariner # 22 (February 1970) which served mainly to remind me that Marvel should release another ‘Essential Sub-Mariner’ as when Subby got his own title, it was really good for a while. The mystic next showed up in Incredible Hulk # 126 (April 1970) which was a continuation and conclusion of the Undying One’s story.

Doctor Strange came back in Marvel Feature # 1 and was the origin of the Defenders but there was also a back-up strip. The original Defenders were Dr Strange, the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. The Master Of The Mystic Arts returned for a longer run in Marvel Premier # 3-14 (July 1972-March 1974). I have to say I am indebted to Wikipedia for the publishing dates because the ‘Marvel Essential’ doesn’t give them. The ‘DC Showcase’ editions list the date of publication of each issue in the contents pages which is very useful and Marvel would do well to follow their example if they do further reprints.

Anyway, this run started with a story plotted and drawn beautifully by Barry Smith, inked by Dan Adkins and scripted by Stan Lee. In issue # 4, the plot was taken over by Roy Thomas and the script by Archie Goodwin. New inker Frank Brunner didn’t do Smith’s pencils justice. Rascally Roy cleverly combined ideas from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. There’s an isolated town in which all the inhabitants look similarly odd (think Innsmouth) with a cult trying to call up an ancient evil (think Cthulhu) but, in this case, it’s Sligguth, the old serpent god of Pre-Cataclysmic Valusia (think Kull). It all promises a gripping epic and then in issues # 5-8, it all goes to pot. Gardner Fox takes over the scripting and we get a parade of monsters. Sligguth is a big lizard. Strange beats him and somehow that awakens N’Gabthoth, a tentacle-headed fishy chap who breaks into the evil church after a chest which has a map of Stonehenge. Doc finds the map and goes to England to fight Dagoth, basically a muscle man with a funny head. Fox was sacked by DC around this time, along with other writers who wanted better terms and conditions. I’m assuming that Roy Thomas gave him some work out of respect for his long career in the field but being handed an unusual strip like ‘Doctor Strange’ in the middle of a story may have proven too much for the poor chap. Changing artists with every issue wouldn’t have helped.

This volume ends on a high note with Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner picking up the reins for Marvel Premier # 9-14 and concluding the Shuma-Gorath story before introducing Sise-Neg. This controversial epic ended with God and the creation of the universe, about as cosmic as you can get. Satannish was bad enough but featuring God himself in a comic book was going too far and it is rumoured when Stan Lee saw the story, he ordered Englehart and Brunner to print a retraction saying this was not the God but a God. They allegedly wrote a fake letter from a non-existent minister praising the story and the retraction idea was dropped. I am hedging a bit on this statement because while the truth is out there it isn’t necessarily on wikipedia.

As ever, I’m flabbergasted by the second-hand price of these cheap reprints on pulp paper. I bought them when they came out, to read not as an investment. This one can cost up to £60 now but hopefully, you can find it cheaper. Clearly, if you want to collect ‘Marvel Essentials’ or ‘DC Showcase’ reprints you have to snap them up quick.

This book is worth getting. The stories are usually engrossing and, by its very nature, the format calls for interesting visuals so the artists do fine work. Worth buying just for the Colan/Palmer pictures. The contributions by Barry Smith and Frank Brunner are of not inconsiderable merit. Fans of the audio/visual film experience currently in cinemas may also enjoy the textual/visual version rendered herein. Popcorn is optional but don’t spill a fizzy drink on it as the cheap pulp paper will soak it up.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Treachery's Tools

Treachery's Tools - L.E. Modesitt Jr. ‘Treachery’s Tools’ continues L.E. Modesitt Jr’s ‘Imager Portfolio’ series set on the continent of Solidar, on the world of Terahnar, though the planet’s name is seldom mentioned and if there are any other continents on it they haven’t come up yet. In previous books, the land has been united under a Rex Regis, thanks largely to the work of Imagers. These talented fellows can create things from the materials around them and even make them appear over a distance. For example, one can image an iron dart into your head as long as there is iron nearby for use. More usefully, they can image raw materials into manufactured products like jewellery or paper. The power is rare and there are very few Imagers as a percentage of the population. Formerly outcasts who were hunted down and killed, the Imagers are now organised into a Collegium and form a key power group in the state, supporting the Rex and generally trying to keep society stable. Things change, however, and now the factors and merchants are growing wealthier and beginning to challenge the authority of the High Holders, a land-owning aristocracy used to having their own way in days of yore. Bad harvests and tough times bring these conflicts to a head.

The cast list takes up the first three pages of the book and the map the next two. That’s how it is with epic fantasy nowadays. Both, to be fair, are useful as the book is long and the plot gets complicated. Our hero is Alastar, leader of the Collegium of Imagers, who is desperately trying to make the conflicting groups see reason. Merchants don’t want to pay taxes. High Holders don’t want to pay taxes or the loans some of them owe the merchant bankers. The Rex is weak and incompetent. The first part of the book has Alastar diligently holding meetings with various important persons to hold things together. When they fall apart, the Imagers have to join the fight.

I usually shun multi-volume fantasy epics on the grounds that they are basically a publisher’s way of selling lots of books and take up too much life, each tome normally stretching to 500 or so pages. Somehow I have been seduced into reading Modesitt, partly because a reviewer for SFCrowsnest who does one book is expected to do its successors. There is no compulsion, however, and I could refuse but I rather like these works. The industrious Modesitt turns them out at a rapid clip to keep his bank balance healthy and when the ‘Imager’ and ‘Recluce’ series gang up on one, it amounts to rather a lot of books. Never mind. My habitual reading is short stories, a series of brief slaps or kisses, in which one is plunged into a brand new world every 5000 words or so. Reading a big, familiar fantasy epic is more cosy, like putting on a favourite pair of old slippers. This is particularly so with Modesitt, whose style is distinctly sedate and not to everyone‘s taste. There is action, especially when war breaks out, but no sex or gore. His heroes are steady fellows who love one good, true woman and walk the path of righteousness, apart from killing all their enemies. Alastar is typical of the breed.

This story follows the pattern of all the other Modesitt fantasies with a slow build-up leading to a large battle and a satisfying denouement. That might be a flaw but more probably it is what fantasy readers want. More of the same. Anyone who got pleasure from the previous books in ‘The Imager Portfolio’ will enjoy this one, too. Not to enjoy like a night of wild, crazy love with some irresponsible slut but rather like a nice three-course meal in a good restaurant with a surprisingly tasty red to wash it down. Then off to bed in good time because you must be up early to get on with the chores, like a decent Modesitt hero.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Essential Iron Man, Vol. 5

Essential Iron Man, Vol. 5 - Mike Friedrich, Barry Alfonso, Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, George Tuska, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Chic Stone In black and white on cheap paper, Essential Iron Man # 5 follows the usual pattern. It contains reprints of Iron Man # 62-75, # 77-87 and Iron-Man Annual # 3. Iron Man # 76 was probably a reprint and that’s why it’s not included. They have the cover which shows Iron Man fighting the Hulk. The issue may have been a victim of the ‘Dreaded Deadline Doom’ as they called it at Marvel in the 70s. I don’t think they ever suffered this under Stan Lee’s control but when the hippie generation of writers and editors took over it was a frequent occurrence.

Issues # 62-81, except # 78, are scripted by Mike Friedrich, formerly a writer at the Dastardly Competition. He does a pretty good job of mixing the combat with personal issues in the mighty Marvel manner. Iron Man has to fight Whiplash, Doctor Spectrum, the Melter, the Mandarin, Sunfire, the Unicorn and the Freak. Then in a grand epic called ‘The Super-Villain War’, he combats the Mandarin, Yellow Claw, Modok, the Mad Thinker and Firebrand. All this is engineered by the Black Lama, Dalai’s evil cousin. Finally, of course, the Black Lama’s secret is revealed, but I won’t spoil it for you. There was a fashion for long story arcs at this time, initiated by Jim Starlin, maybe with his Thanos thing, but it’s hard to avoid an anti-climax when you get to the end.

Friedrich’s scripts were usually enhanced by the attractive pencils of that old pro, George Tuska, who always turns in a competent set of pages and sometimes subtly beautiful ones. Much of ‘The Super-Villain War’ was pencilled by Arvell Jones, a new kid who came out of the Detroit fan scene, following in the footsteps of Rich Buckler. The small inset panels of that school don’t appeal to me but, given his beginner status, he does a reasonably good job.

Len Wein took over the scripting with issues # 82-85 and had a new art team of Herb Trimpe and Marie Severin. Trimpe is a sort of poor man’s Jack Kirby with a few tricks picked up from Steranko but I like his art and, with the right inker, it can be good. John Severin excellently inked some of his Hulk pencils and Marie Severin does similar work here when Iron Man battles the Red Ghost and the Freak. The final two issues are scripted by Bill Mantlo, drawn by George Tuska and feature a villain called Blizzard. He turns out to be someone from Tony Stark’s distant ‘Tales Of Suspense’ past. Many of the new generation of writers in the 70s went back to the old comics and dug out forgotten details to revive and I believe Bill Mantlo was particularly fond of this.

The book closes with a story from Iron Man Annual # 3 in which quirky Steve Gerber mixes up Molecule Man, Man-Thing and Iron Man in the Florida everglades. Quite caption heavy and Gerber strays into metafiction, drawing attention to the work’s status as an artefact when he tells us Molecule Man seems defeated that there are four pages to go so this can’t be the end. Marvel writers, starting with Stan Lee, have often spoken directly to the reader via the captions so it’s not really startling. The art is by our pals, Sal Buscema and Jack Abel, so it’s fine.

There’s no way to pretend this is the ‘Essential Iron Man’ but for fans who want a complete collection, it must be had. By this time, Iron Man was a second-rate title with able creators at the helm but nothing about it to arouse great enthusiasm. That said, it’s perfectly okay, a pleasant, undemanding read and George Tuska’s art is quite pleasing. For the money, it’s not a bad deal.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Batman Illustrated, Vol. 1

Batman Illustrated, Vol. 1 - Neal Adams This book’s contents are described in the title. It’s ‘Batman Illustrated’ by Neal Adams starting with World’s Finest Comics # 175 (April 1968), among the first Batman adventures drawn by Adams. The story opens with a couple of hoods forming the Batman Revenge Squad to get back at the hero who caught them. They are interrupted by three bald aliens who are part of the Superman Revenge Squad, ‘criminals from a hundred planets and sworn foes of Superman’. They saw the Batman crowd on their monitors. It has always been a mystery to me how bad guys can see everything on their monitors. Are they watching the whole world all the time, like big brother? Doesn’t a monitor need a camera to feed it? Never mind. They choose to strike when Batman and Superman have their annual battle of wits for fun, setting each other challenges and winning battle trophies off each other as the prize. In his introduction, Neal Adams praises Denny O’Neil but says the great work done by Bob Haney is often overlooked. Like other Haney stories I’ve read, this one makes no sense whatsoever. How did the crook sabotage all the trophies in three seconds while being thrown by Jimmy Olsen? Hey ho! But you buy an Adams book for the art, which was great.

Those all-seeing monitors also feature in World’s Finest # 176 (June 1968) when an alien from the Sirius system shows he knows that Clark Kent is Superman. He is the Vice-President of his world seeking refuge after the President was assassinated. Or is he? Anyway, they have been monitoring Earth and so know Superman’s secret. Later, another alien appears in the Batcave who knows Bruce’s secret. He is a law enforcement officer from Sirius seeking a master criminal hiding on Earth. Or is he?

Set in a conflict situation, do old friends Batman and Superman talk? Of course not. They start fighting each other on behalf of aliens they’ve never met. Supergirl is helping Batman just to complicate things. Written by Cary Bates, this was as improbable as a Haney tale but the twist was surprising.

Brave And The Bold # 79 (Aug-Sept 1968) has Deadman trying to get Batman to track down his killer, the man with the hook. This soon ties in with Batman’s own case which is to find the ‘King Of Crime’ in Gotham. Meanwhile, he and Commissioner Gordon are being harassed by ‘Kubla’ Kaine, a wealthy businessman who owns several newspapers. Flawed storytelling here when on page 3, panel 5 there’s a close up of Bats and Gordon but the long-tailed word balloon belongs to Kaine. Another thing I noticed is that Adam’s art tends to fill the panel and the poor letterer has to put word balloons in front of characters or squeeze them into odd places. There’s a classic Haney cheat at the end when Deadman nudges someone. He can’t do that. He’s a ghost.

In Brave And The Bold # 80, Batman teams up with Steve Ditko creation the Creeper, to fight Hellgrammite, an insect-style villain. One page has a cunning layout of panels inside Batman’s cape but the word balloon you should read first is on the bottom of the panel and the reply is on the top, so you read it backwards. In his interview in the highly recommended ‘The Batcave Companion’, Denny O’Neil, talking about Steve Ditko, said that he had mastered the basics and left enough room for word balloons. He also mentioned that veterans like Kirby and Ditko always gave you establishing shots, the right pacing, the right visual elements. He calls this ‘Comic Book Illustrating 101’ and says it’s possible those skills are about half lost. He may be right. O’Neil never criticised Adams at all on any of these counts. That’s just me.

Brave And The Bold # 81 features the Flash and Superman fighting a hood named Bork, who has become indestructible. ‘But Bork Can Hurt You’ is famous for Adams innovative splash page. Brave And The Bold # 82 has Aquaman fighting Batman in a complicated plot where a charismatic super-villain has turned a supermodel bad. I thought page 6 was flawed by the overlapping panels causing confusion. Brave And The Bold # 83 ‘Punish Not My Evil Sun’ has Bats teamed up with Robin’s buddies, the Teen Titans. This introduces a new ward for Bruce Wayne who is not a very nice chap. An idea with some emotional clout is used up in one issue and rings false because it happens so suddenly. Brave And The Bold # 84 has Batman remembering the time he teamed up with Sergeant Rock and Easy Company. No time travel is involved. He was Batman in 1944 so he could do this but, for the reader, it does raise the issue of his age in 1968 and the writer doesn’t mention it.

In Brave And The Bold # 85, Batman teams up with Green Arrow to fight another king of crime called Miklos Minotaur. The other company made these sorts of stories last six months or more with the hero fighting several henchmen and getting into lots of trouble before locating the crime kingpin, getting maximum drama. Probably because they were usually confined to one issue stories, DC writers didn‘t do this. Even big ideas had to be dealt with in one issue which was quite limiting.

As well as the stories, which are okay, the book has several covers by Adams for various issues in which he didn’t do the inside art. That useful source ‘The Batcave Companion’ infers that all the covers were designed by Carmine Infantino, who was cover maestro at the time in DC comics. Infantino also says that Adams wanted to design his own covers but he wouldn’t allow it. That may have changed later and, in those days, the splash panel on page one was like a second cover so Adams got to strut his stuff there, very effectively.

I’ve done some nitpicking but Neal Adams art is marvellous and gets the treatment it deserves in the high production values of this full-colour edition. It influenced all the newcomers and revolutionised comics in the 1970s. I have seen ‘The Brave And The Bold’ stories in black and white DC ‘Showcase’ editions but the ones from ‘World’s Finest’ were new to me.

My brother picked this up this hardback edition for £5 in the bargain bin of a well-known comic shop. It didn’t have the wrap cover. Who cares? For less frugal fans, this book is available in various editions online for reasonable prices or for £2,000 if you’re crazy.

Eamonn Murphy

Superman Team-Ups Vol. 1

Superman Team-Ups Vol. 1 - Len Wein This book collects, in glorious black and white, DC Presents Superman Team-Up # 1 through to DC Presents Superman Team-Up # 26. It came out a while ago but is still available for $700 dollars if you’re mad enough to pay that. Shop around. The cover price is £13.99. It’s worth snapping these things up when they come out to avoid being fleeced later by some dealer.

The collection opens strongly with a two-part Superman and Flash story in which they have to race to the end of time, under threat from evil aliens who will destroy the Earth if not obeyed. The aliens have been fighting for millennia and one side wants to stop. The other lot don’t. I liked the concept of a ‘cosmic curtain’ at the end of time which you go through to get back to the beginning. Excellent script by Martin Pasko and great art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, who is very much school of Neal Adams and just as good as his main influence. He’s ably inked by Dan Adkins.

In issue # 3, Superman teams up with Adam Strange when the evil Kaskor boosts the zeta rays that transport Adam to Rann. So boosted are they that Earth and Rann swap places in space. Garcia-Lopez performs more wonders with the art, inking his own pencils this time. It’s still school of Adams but with hints of John Buscema on page 5, panels 2 and 5. The script was by David Micheline.

Issue # 4 teams our hero with the Metal Men against the giant Chemo. Len Wein’s story was okay but the art is king again here. DC Showcase Metal Men # 1 is one of those volumes that now costs more than the cover price to buy. Like Doom Patrol, they were a quirky team.

It’s beastly to say the art goes down in quality with issue # 5 and unkind to that worthy professional Murphy Anderson who provides both pencils and inks when Superman teams up with Aquaman to stop a civil war between two undersea cities, so I won’t say it. Perhaps DC Comics used the clever device of launching a new series with top talent to get the readers hooked, in the hope that they would stay on after it left. In the 60s, most new Marvel series had their first few issued pencilled by Jack Kirby for the same reason. A rocket needs the biggest boost at lift-off. Anderson is the DC house stylist par excellence and his work is easy on the eye so it’s not really a complaint but that Garcia Lopez fellow certainly packs a mean pencil.

Green Lantern is Mister Kent’s next teammate when the weapons masters of Qward set Star Sapphire on him in an attempt to get his ring. The next issue is a follow up to this as Superman gets help from Red Tornado to prevent the evil Qwardians conquering Earth. Red Tornado is a logical robot trying to learn how to be more human, an old cliché now but fairly new at the time if still inexplicable. When I read how humans behave, I think we should try to be more like robots.

There follows a parade of DC characters co-operating with the Kryptonian: Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Atom, Black Lightning, Firestorm, Zatanna, Batgirl and the Elongated Man,. Some time travel shenanigans allow Superman to go back and fight alongside Sergeant Rock and even battle Superboy. This run is pencilled by Joe Staton or Dick Dillin. Staton’s pretty good but Dillin’s art is never great and sometimes the figures look deformed. Rich Buckler pencils a team up with Mister Miracle but oddly doesn’t do his Kirby pastiche on this Kirby character. The stories by Steve Englehart, Martin Pasko, Cary Bates and Paul Levitz and Gerry Conway are generally okay. Nothing mind-blowing.

This comic book series is from 1978 and there are a few talents here that I associate more with Marvel Comics, probably because I stopped reading comics in the late 70s and that’s where they were then. Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler. Jim Starlin does a good story, the last in the book, in which Superman teams up with Green Lantern to battle an evil alien in a Ditko inspired other dimension, all floating rocks and strange shapes. Starlin’s art didn’t look as good as usual so I think the inker let him down.

All in all, it’s a readable collection with some excellent nuggets. By the late 70s, DC was improving in quality and responding to the challenge from Marvel. The stories are tightly plotted but don’t go down the soap opera route which is a pleasant change. As with all these editions, a crazy person can pay hundreds of pounds for it but if you shop around it might be available cheaper. This simply emphasises the fact that fans should snap them up when they come out. DC Showcase Batman vol 6 with lots of Neal Adams art is now out so if you’re interested grab it quick.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero

Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero - Dave Wood, Bill Finger, Otto Binder, Jim Mooney, Frank Springer, Sal Trapani Sockamagee! I have a vague memory of fondness for ‘Dial H For Hero’ when I was very young, so I bought this ‘Showcase’ volume to see what it’s like. The fun started in House Of Mystery # 156 (Jan 1966) when boy genius Robby Reed accidentally falls into a cavern and finds a strange dial. He takes it home to the timber-frame house with the white picket fence where he lives with his grandpa and grandma. Being a genius, Robby has a lab hut in the rear of the house and there he deciphers the strange writing on the dial and follows the instructions to dial H-E-R-O (in translation). Instantly, he is transformed into Giant Boy. He can fly and goes to rescue a plane in trouble. Later, he dials H and becomes the Cometeer and the Mole to help save a chemical works from destruction. The evil Mister Thunder has been hired to sabotage it by a rival factory owner. In the following issue, the Thunderbolt gang run afoul of The Human Bullet, Super-Charge and the Radar-Sonar Man. It ends with Mister Thunder shaking his fist as the sky and promising revenge on meddling super-heroes as he goes off to prison.

In House Of Mystery # 158, there is a new villain. When Daffy Dagan and his Siren Gang raid the main street in Granite City, Robby hears about it on the radio and rushes home to get his dial. This time he becomes Quake-Master with earthquake-style vibrating powers that enable him to fly powered by vibrating feet, so he can quickly chase the wrong-doers. However, he vibrates too much at the escaping Daffy and fails to duck when a tree falls on him. In a trice, the villain grabs the dial from his belt and ‘by a billion to one coincidence’ dials V-I-L-L-A-I-N and becomes a super-villain. Taking the inspiring name of Daffy the Great, he goes off to wreak havoc. You couldn’t make it up, but Dave Wood did. Surely the duck was around even then and calling a super-villain Daffy was not a good way to have him taken stheriousthly? I mean seriously. Happily, comics were not so solemn in those bygone days.

In issue # 159, the Clay-Creep Clan are using their stretching powers to commit robbery, until they are stopped by Hypno-Man, the Human Starfish and Mighty Moppet, a baby-sized super-hero who squirts from his bottles milk that shrinks his opponents to his own size. It’s a wonder that Mighty Moppet didn’t get his own series. The stretching powers of the Clay-Creeps may have reminded Dave Wood of Plastic Man, ‘that famous crime-fighting hero of years ago’, because young Robby turns into him in the next issue. Giant-Boy recurs and King Kandy makes up the traditional three for that month. House Of Mystery # 160 also introduces a brief romantic interest, one Suzy, who Robbie meets when he goes to visit his cousin. Inevitably, she enthralled by super-heroes but not by Robbie in his civilian identity. King Kandy gets a kiss so it’s not all bad.

The scripts are mostly by Dave Wood and the art is mostly by Jim Mooney. Only the last three issues of the eighteen featured here vary from that, with art by Frank Springer and Sal Trapini. Dave Wood wrote ‘Challengers Of The Unknown’ with Jack Kirby. His scripts are very much of that era in DC comics but he is a fount of ideas. It’s not easy to come up with three new heroes every issue, which is why he repeats a few of them, I guess. The art by Jim Mooney is very good. Mooney was known more as an inker in his later career at Marvel or rather for finishing other artists’ layouts, but he had a long career at DC comics before that. Here he has the classic DC style: clean and tidy, clear storytelling, unspectacular but competent and pleasing to the eye of the beholder.

Like many of the more quirky DC ‘Showcase’ volumes, this now costs more second-hand than it did new, on at least on one major book retailing website. It’s a fun collection from a more innocent age but not worth paying silly money for. Children who have just learned to cut up their own meat and read will love it. Older people who are forgetting how to read and can no longer cut up their own meat may like it as well. I’ll be at that stage myself in a few more years, so I’m saving my ‘DC Showcase’ collection to take to the retirement home. I hope they give me a big room.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/


Shipstar - Gregory Benford, Larry Niven ‘Shipstar’ continues the adventure started in ‘Bowl Of Heaven’ where the crew of SunSeeker encountered a solar system-sized bowl-shaped construct powered and propelled by its own sun. SunSeeker was a ramscoop spaceship en route from Earth to colonise a planet called Glory with the crew were mostly in cold sleep. The Bowl has been voyaging for millennia and seems to be run by a elephant-sized bird-like creatures called the Folk. They have captured other species which they call the Adopted, who inhabit and maintain the Bowl.

The Folk control the Adopted by indoctrination and, when necessary, pain or death inflicted by microwave bombardment. What works on the aliens doesn’t work on the humans but they re-tune to the correct frequency and it does. Folk Memor inflicts pain on Tananareve, her prisoner, to test the new wavelengths and when she has finished writhing in agony tells her it will help negotiations. She asked him if he would die for a cause. He says no, dying is pointless as if you die you cannot make use of the outcome of the act. She asks him if he would die for his beliefs and he says no, they might be wrong. A refreshing point of view in the age of the martyr.

As in ‘Bowl Of Heaven’, there is plenty of intelligent conversation between intelligent characters. This crew of scientists encountering a cosmic construct full of astonishing aliens gets involved in discussions about ecology, biology, engineering, palaeontology, sociology and much else. It’s certainly much more stimulating than listening to the conversation of real-life celebrity dingbats on television. The writers can pull off this tour de force because they are themselves both smart scientists. Why they even feature those gravitational waves which are making the news this past week! However, it’s by no means all chat and there is plenty of gripping adventure, too, as our heroes, in fear of their lives, are pursued by the Folk and aided by some of the Adopted. As the novel develops, the big picture just keeps getting bigger and ends up in the closing fast-paced chapters on a truly galactic scale.

The characters are a varied bunch. I particularly liked Captain Redwing, whose point of view we get to see now and again. In general, Beth and Cliff still dominate the storytelling though there is substantial input from others, most notably the alien Memor. Despite the fact that she inflicts pain on humans and kills some, too, the story manages to make her almost a sympathetic character. She is doing what she has to do within the constraints of her job and her extremely hierarchical society.

It’s generally nicely written and this volume seems to have more lush description than ‘Bowl Of Heaven’. Oddly, there are clumsy word repetitions here and there. I didn’t make note of them but, now and then, the same word comes up consecutively in a fashion not usual in polished English. Writers usually find a synonym for the next sentence. It’s not really a flaw, just a stylistic anomaly. One of the dangers with quest stories – characters journeying through strange lands – is that they can turn into an endless parade of wonders. There are a few slow spots in the middle where the story flags a bit but not for long.

Reviewing loads of short stories, one forgets the pleasures of the big Science Fiction novel. The large frame leaves room for big ideas and big thinking. You simply cannot do this in the limited wordage of a short. ‘Bowl Of Heaven’ and ‘Shipstar’ are packed with science, philosophy, sociology and deep thought, all rendered through the medium of convincing human characters. The aliens are pretty convincing, too. All in all, it’s a nice piece of work.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Showcase Presents: Green Lantern, Vol. 2

Showcase Presents: Green Lantern, Vol. 2 - John Broome, Gardner F. Fox, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino My new year’s resolution is to read my stack of ‘DC Showcase’ at the rate of one comic magazine per day. As they usually contain over twenty issues I should get through one and a bit per month. I can’t do more than one a day as they tend to blend into each other in a foggy blur of pseudo-science which makes individual issues hard to remember. This volume runs from Green Lantern # 18 (January 1963) to Green Lantern # 38 (July 1965) so it’s two and a half years worth of comic books.

The thing with Silver Age DC Comics is that nothing changes in the life of the characters. When this volume starts Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) works as a test pilot for the Ferris Aircraft Company run by Carol Ferris who likes Hal but loves Green Lantern. He is assisted by a ‘grease-monkey’ called Thomas Kalmaku – nicknamed Pieface, an Eskimo who knows his super-hero identity and keeps a file of his cases as Doctor Watson did for Sherlock Holmes. Jordan is a member of the Green Lantern Corps founded by the Guardians of the Universe who occasionally summon him to help out on another planet. By the end of the book, none of this has changed.

As most issues contain two stories there are nearly forty tales here so the thing to do would be to pick out the highlights. There aren’t any highlights. One yarn is pretty much the same quality as any other. Partly that’s because they were all written by either John Broome or Gardner Fox. Both have a way with science that is less than accurate but generally, Fox takes it to greater extremes of fantasy. He writes every issue from # 32 onwards but before that, it’s more or less fifty-fifty between these twin titans of the tall story.

Lacking highlights I will, in a good-natured way, pick out the worst science. Not that I know much science but a clever ten-year-old could see through most of this hokum. In ‘Green Lantern vs. Power Ring’ (GL#18) Hal is practising controlling the ring at a distance through rock when he is separated from it by a cave-in. A hungry hobo picks it up and thinks he fancies a melon. A melon appears! But the ring cannot work on anything yellow ‘due to a necessary impurity’ so how can it create melons? In GL#24, ‘The Shark That Hunted Human Prey’, a tiger shark is evolved into a human and then beyond by a freak nuclear accident so that with ‘mind power’ it can do anything. An ‘invisible yellow aura’ protects it from Green Lantern’s ring. How can something invisible be yellow? In ‘The House That Fought Green Lantern’ (#28) the ring is useless because it’s affected by the vibrations of a grandfather clock. In ‘This World Is Mine’ (#29), an evil force animates a giant papier-mâché model of Green Lantern and uses it to destroy fairground rides. Steel is generally reckoned to be stronger than papier-mâché and able to resist it. In ‘Three Way Attack Against Green Lantern‘ (GL#34), villain Hector Hammond uses his super-brain to create an ‘energy duplicate’ of a Guardian of the Universe to defeat Green Lantern. This is from Gardner Fox who had someone use ‘tornado power’ to create duplicates of the Justice League of America to defeat them. How can you create things more powerful than yourself? Oh, those duplicates!

Part of the problem is that the power ring can do anything. In ‘Secret Of The Power-Ringed Robot’ (GL#36), it transforms Hal’s flesh into a robot body, allowing a spectacular cover in which his arm comes off. In another story, ‘The Spies Who Owned Green Lantern’ (GL#37), it turns him into a letter and Pieface posts him to the criminals' hideout. It frequently reads minds and there’s a microworld inside it where Abin Sur trapped a villain called Myrwhydden in ‘World Within the Power Ring’ (GL #26) as you do.

On the credit side, a few ideas here seem to precede similar stories over at the Mighty Competition, a company whose oeuvre I know well. ‘Parasite Planet Peril’ (GL#20, April 1963) is a kind of highlight because it’s of ‘novel’ length and teams GL up with Flash. They are both shrunk down to a microworld. Something similar happened in the world’s greatest comic magazine in July 1963, though to be fair, the microworld idea is older than that. In fact, it dates back to ‘Out Of The Sub-Universe’, a 1928 story by Roman Frederick Starzl. In ‘The Strange World Named Green Lantern’ (GL#24, October 1963), the emerald crusader meets a living planet, a whole world that is one single entity. Perhaps lacking a big ego (geddit?), it calls itself Green Lantern after the hero it so admires. Research indicates that the notion of a living planet dates back to Nat Schachner and Arthur Leo Zagat’s 1931 short story ‘The Menace From Andromeda’. There are probably few far-out ideas that weren’t explored in the first three decades of American Science Fiction magazines.

In a few of the adventures, our hero wins when all seems lost because he had, with unusual prescience, done something earlier to foil the villain’s final attack. In ‘Master Of The Power Ring (GL#22), he had ordered the ring to drain itself of energy if another mind took it over. In ‘The Defeat Of Green Lantern’ (GL#19), he had previously created a globe of green energy to rescue him in time of need. Perhaps he read the script first, like Colombo.

As for the art, Gil Kane pencils are constrained by the DC house style and the inks of Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson up to issue #28. In number #29, Sid Greene takes over the inks and there’s a bit of a step up in quality, I think. Not a giant leap, the other two are worthy professionals, but he seems to put in more blacks and generally give it a more solid look. Kane’s pencils still keep the house style but there are odd flashes of the more dynamic poses and knobbly figures he developed over time. Personally, I prefer the restrained stuff to the unleashed Kane of later years. All the art is fine and much of it is first class.

Some of these reprint editions are being sold at ludicrous prices but this one is still available for a few pounds or dollars. A reasonably good read if taken in small doses and not too seriously. The art is a treat and the stories are good for a laugh. The science should be taken with a pinch of salt. No, an oil tanker of salt. I’m off to have dinner now. I shall eat beans and then use the wind power generated to create an energy duplicate of Superman who will conquer the world for me.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures

Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures - Bascomb James, Gregory Benford, Tracy Canfield, Eric Choi, Barbara Davies, Jakob Drud, Julie Frost, David Wesley Hill, K.G. Jewell, Sam S. Kepfield, Kat Otis, Jonathan Shipley, Wendy Sparrow, Peter Wood ‘Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures’ was prompted by an open letter to SF from Elizabeth Bear in which she said that it was all getting too dark and miserable. While admitting that there was room for such dystopian visions, she opined for more of the optimistic, upbeat yarns of successful go-getters that had prevailed in the early decades of the genre, up to the sixties. Editor Bascomb James took up the challenge and produced this book, specifically to give us stories in the ‘Grand Tradition’.

The first story certainly features successful go-getters. ‘Open For Business’ might have been titled ‘The Men Who Sold Asteroid 2009 BT.’ Sam Kepfield has a trio of entrepreneurs launching an expedition to stake a claim to this mineral-rich celestial body. Memories of Heinlein are inevitably invoked but the story is fresh and entertaining in its own right. Furthermore, it might come true and soon.

There are a couple of SF trader tales in the grand tradition here. In ‘Obsidianite’, author Kat Obis gives us Janessa, a feisty female profit seeker and her pilot, Darion. They answer a distress call from the colony of New Galilee but find the mission complicated by her ex-husband and an exploding volcano. A good plot with a neat twist in the tail.

Bitter ex-partners and rivals feature again in ‘A Trip To Lagasy’ by Barbara Davies. This time it’s scientists after a rare plant. I note that both these stories of vile old boyfriends are by women but wisely make no comment.

More trading in ’Saturn Slingshot’. Space piracy is often deemed far-fetched but David Wesley Hill makes it believable. Powered by a solar sail, the good ship Serendipity makes decade long voyages between the inner planets, the Jovian moons and the Kuiper belt. Captain D’Angelo Jones was born onboard, like most of the crew, nearly all of whom are related to him by blood or marriage. The author has a lot of hard science to put over but manages most of the info dump smoothly in the first four pages, leaving the rest for the pirate attack. With the captain’s fearless fighting wife in danger, it evolves into a surprisingly stirring yarn. As the world turns increasingly to fantastical galactic space opera, I find myself fonder of feasible fables set in our own solar system. (Frank Ochieng doesn’t have a monopoly on alliteration in reviews.)

‘Bear Essentials’ by Julie Frost is light entertainment about another trading ship, this one with a family on board. With not much work about Russell Fisk contracts to transport a bear to a monastery where it will be worshipped. I was pleasantly reminded of ‘Space Family Stone’ and ‘Jerry Was A Man’ by Heinlein. Stories in the grand tradition are bound to remind you of the old greats.

Arthur C. Clark, for example, was brought to mind by ’From A Stone’. Writer Eric Choi is an aerospace engineer, which lends a distinct air of verisimilitude to his story. The Harrison Schmidt is sent to investigate a rock that may have come from outside the solar system and the crew finds some interesting features in it. In truth, it’s ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ on a small scale but nicely done. The disparaging references to ‘government science’ are odd to me. Privatised science didn’t get us into space, though it may take us on the next steps for profit and certainly wouldn’t bother with exploration out of sheer curiosity. At least, the pro/private industry attitude is accompanied in several stories by an honest appraisal of just how brutal and inhuman profit-seeking individuals and corporations can be given half a chance.

As an example, Martice, the ruthless, slave keeping businessman in ‘A Game Of Hold’em’ by Wendy Sparrow. Texan Moses and his partner Ajax are trying to get beef import contracts for their company on the barren, dusty world of Baru. To ingratiate them with Martice, top man round them there parts, Ajax arranges a game of poker. The stakes get higher and higher as the game progresses. A nitpicker might say this isn’t really SF, just a cowboy yarn set in space but, consarn it!, it’s a great story and that justifies its inclusion anywhere. It would have made a fine episode of the late lamented TV series ‘Firefly’.

Assassins are not sympathetic characters for me but K.G. Jewell’s ’Composition In Death Minor’ is an interesting tale with a few intriguing twists. Sophie Devine is on Callisto to kill a female named Quail who stole from her client. The technological background seems authentic, as does the harshness of space exploitation managed by private enterprise, at least for the people on the bottom of the heap.

The uplift needed after such grimness is provided by Peter Wood’s ’Spaceman Barbecue’. Hank lives in a trailer near Mentone, North Carolina, a town with three filling stations and six Baptist churches but no spaceport. This is disappointing for Commander Matt Brannigan of Space Command when he crashes his rocket nearby. Gung-ho warrior Matt inevitably – deliberately? – reminds one of Buzz Lightyear but the story is very readable and great fun.

Klingon Scholar Tracy Canfield won favourite of the year 2008 for her story ‘Starship Down’ in an ‘Analog’ readers poll. In a future where humanity has been accepted into a Coalition of Planets, albeit as a junior member, Okalini Yee is studying Bunnies on the planet Myosotis. These are sentient but stupid herbivores who stand three metres high on their back legs. Read it and you’ll soon see why smart, nerdy ‘Analog’ readers would like this one. I did, too. (Isn’t it time ‘Analog’ went digital?)

‘Backscatter’ by Gregory Benford is hard, cold SF about a prospector stuck on a lonely asteroid after her ship crashes. ‘Charnelhouse’ is an alien tomb mystery by Jonathan Shipley. ‘The Vringla/Racket Incident’ is an amusing tale of alien babysitters told in letters by Jacob Drud. These round out the collection.

A jolly fine collection it is, too, a worthy response to Elizabeth Bear’s call to arms. The stories certainly fit into the ‘Grand Tradition’ and if that’s the kind of stuff you like – I do! – then it’s worth your money.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/