Friday, August 13, 2010

DESTINATION INFINITY

By Henry Kuttner

Henry Kuttner was a prolific and popular sf writer, his career spanned from the 1930s to the 1950s when he died young from a heart attack. Destination Infinity is one of the many books he wrote under a pen name, most likely in collaboration with his wife CL Moore.

The tale is classic ‘50s science fiction, set on a Venus covered with roiling seas, and jungles full of man-eating plants. The conflict isn’t exactly about the best means to prune gigantic Venus fly-traps though. It concerns Sam Reed, an illegitimate child of a family of wealthy immortals and his rise from lowly outsider to savior of mankind. Sam is a consummate anti-hero, deliberately abandoned by his father and full of angst and ambition in an uncaring world. The tale follows Sam as a gangster, land-speculator, pioneer, and military dictator.

What Kuttner writes here is sociological science fiction, part speculation on society and part soap opera. Earth was long ago destroyed by nuclear war and mankind lives in undersea habitats on Venus. A few families have developed a hereditary trait of immortality, and live for centuries, aging little if at all. The mass of mankind has stagnated, allowing the immortals to do their thinking for them. Sam Reed blows it all apart in his relentless drive to make it to the top.

This is a book I liked despite itself. The opening is overlong and is basically a lot of exposition to set the story for the rest of the novel. Judging from the names (Reed, Harker, Hale, Delaware, Nevada, Plymouth) and dialog (‘50s Middle American) the only survivors of Earth’s nuclear wars are a bunch of WASPs from North America. I’m not sure I buy the sociology either, immortality is an advantage, but it is practical bribes and threats that keep a society in line, not spiritual intimidation. Just take a look at Eastern Europe in the ‘70s or Medieval Christendom’s struggles with heresy to find examples of orderly, stultified societies. But Kuttner pushes his logic to the end and spices it with soap opera of great verve. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed when I got to Sam Reed’s Destination.
 
-Dave Hardy

Thursday, August 12, 2010

DEADLINE AT DAWN

By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich was the Homer of bleak, urban landscapes, of heroes that the gods had forgotten, and of epic battles fought by desperate losers struggling to carve out a brief moment of love before the relentless wheels of heaven grind them underfoot. His stories were the essence of that strange thing called the roman noir.

Deadline at Dawn is one such epic. A taxi dancer meets a laborer. They have no reason to experience the least amount of sympathy or interest in one another, except they discover they were neighbors back in their small hometown back in Iowa. Now they are alone in the soulless and predatory city, dying by inches as their souls are abraded away to end up dead husks, existing but not alive.

So they plan to head back to Iowa, but the laborer stole some money, and he will be caught because no matter how cleverly he did it, he knows THEY will divine his secrets. Only it won’t be theft he is caught for, it will be murder, because other forces are at work. In true Woolrich style, these innocents are caught up in someone else's crime, not by accident, but because coincidence is a mask for cosmic cruelty that makes sport of humanity. They have until dawn to find the real murderer and escape the malignant forces that stalk them.  

Woolrich’s obsessive attention to detail is matched by his characters’ certain knowledge that every single clue is meaningful and can be used to reconstruct actions and psychologies. Woolrich works his stories like a crazed “CSI: Deadend Town”. It’s a vision of the world that ranges from pitch-black to blinding light. 

Originally published in 1944 under Woolrich’s penname William Irish, Deadline at Dawn was one of many Woolrich novels reprinted by Ballantine in the ‘80s.
 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE DARK FRIGATE

By Charles Boardman Hawes

Charles Boardman Hawes’ tale of piracy upon the high seas in the days of King Charles is just as fresh today as when it won the Newberry Award in 1923. The Dark Frigate is an excellent work, though classed among young adult novels, it should have a lot of appeal to readers who love a good adventure and can still recall their reading tastes from when they were 13.

The hero is Philip Marsham, a lad who goes to sea in the Rose of Devon. But certain “gentlemen of fortune” under Martin Berwick make themselves masters of the Rose and the honest sailors have no choice but to turn pirate.

This is a dark version of Treasure Island, and Martin Berwick is a grim and tragic Long John Silver. The tale concerns itself with the thin line that divides the lawful from the lawless, and when men are adrift in an uncaring world, how easy it is to cross that thin line. Don’t be looking for easy or happy endings here. Crime is punished, but it’s a near run thing that nearly takes down the innocent too.

The Little, Brown and Co. edition has a good, moody cover illustration and nice black and white line drawings as chapter headings.
 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

DARKER THAN YOU THINK

By Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson is a pioneer in science fiction, he was around before it was science fiction, they called it “scientifiction” back then. But like other pioneers he was not content with tilling the same fields, he had to pick up his musket and wander over where he couldn’t see the smoke from his neighbor’s cabin. His wanderings took him around to sword and sorcery, adventure tales, and horror. His most notable foray into the field of horror fiction was Darker than You Think, now a classic in the genre.

The story’s protagonist is Will Barbee, a hack journalist with a drinking problem and a sense of bitter longing in a New Mexico city (Williamson is nearly as dotty about his home state as Robert E. Howard was about Texas). When he meets a strange red-haired woman at a press conference held by his former professor, Barbee is launched into a nightmare world of murder and madness that rips apart everything he knows about himself and the human race itself!

This is some of Williamson’s best work, more polished than the often crude “scientifiction” he wrote in the ‘30s, but still with a na├»ve romance that gives the tale great power. Interestingly, Darker than You Think was a favorite of Jack Parsons, the rocket-scientist/occultist who helped found America’s missile program. Parsons’ may have been a grade-A nutjob, but he had very good taste in fiction if we may judge from this.

 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Monday, August 09, 2010

THE CONQUEST OF NEW SPAIN

By Bernal Diaz

This is a grunt’s eye view of Cortes’ conquest of Mexico. Bernal Diaz was a gentleman soldier who came to the New World to seek his fortune. He saw Spain’s greatest conquest at first hand in all its grit, glory, and gory excess. The book is not exactly an apologia, few thought an apology necessary at the time. Rather it was written to set the record straight regarding other Spanish chroniclers who Diaz felt had distorted Cortes' record.

Diaz was not much of a stylist and translator JM Cohen has cut down the narrative to a manageable size. What is left has the immediacy of vivid, first-hand recollections. Diaz probably spared the reader quite a bit, but what he put in can be horrid enough. He describes Spanish soldiers using fat from Indians’ corpses to make grease for their weapons. Along with the greed, inhumanity, and fanaticism there are human touches. He describes Montezuma (who Diaz guarded) as a kindly gentleman, who offered to arrange marriages for his captors with Aztec ladies, an offer Diaz accepted. The friars are present always, and Diaz describes how they often moderated demands for immediate, forcible conversion. Perhaps it was respect, but it was also pragmatism. There were a lot of pagans, and not all were ill-disposed to the Spanish, but would be if pushed.

Diaz is a man who was born in the Middle Ages and helped create the Modern Era. This isn’t just the story of exploration, or conquest, or adventure, or genocide. It is literally a day-by-day account of how the world, for better or worse, changed.
 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Sunday, August 08, 2010

THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN

By Robert E. Howard

This anthology is part one of a three-part collection of all Robert E Howard’s Conan stories. The editors have arranged the tales in the order they were written (a major departure from the de Camp series that arranged the stories to relate to phases in Conan’s life).

Let me just say I consider Robert E Howard’s Conan series as one of about three perfect sword and sorcery series (the other two being Fafhrd and the Grey Mouserand Elric of Melnibone) so this stuff is straight up gold to me.

Which is not to say it is all that to all readers. REH was still getting his feet with the character in these early stories. "The God in the Bowl", a curious mix of sword & sorcery with the detective story, is probably the weakest of the lot. What is amazing is how many of them are so powerful. "The Frost Giant’s Daughter" manages to bring modern fantasy into myth (of the dark and ferocious kind). "Queen of the Black Coast" is perhaps the best of them all, it has adventure, wild love, battle, and the epic saga of the rise and fall, not of a civilization, but of an entire undreamed–of pre-human race.

For a fan who knows these stories well, the real bonus is to see them in the order that they came off REH’s typewriter. We see how one tale would inspire the next, from king to thief, to pirate to mercenary, not as a random agglomeration, but as a that-reminds-me-of-the-time cycle.

Extras include fragments, synopses and a very good critical essay by REH scholar Patrice Louinet. The art by Mark Schultz (Cadillacs and Dinosaurs) is excellent. The Coming of Conan is part of a growing library of REH classics released by Wandering Star in conjunction with Del Rey. Wandering Star editions are hardbound with full color illustration (publisher Marcello Anciano will occasionally pulp a run if the color balance is less that perfect). The Del Rey trade paperbacks have black and white versions of the color plates along with a plethora of line drawings. Mark Schultz’ masterpiece here is “The Dance of Belit”, barbaric and sexy.

The Coming of Conan is a must have for any fan of sword & sorcery.
 
-Dave Hardy


Saturday, August 07, 2010

A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS

By Eric Ambler

This is one of Eric Ambler’s best novels from his early days, back when he was an anti-Fascist idealist in the ‘30s. While that led to some odd effects in other novels, A Coffin for Dimitrios shows ideology in action, rather than telling about it. The story tells of Latimer, an English journalist, who follows the life history of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a Greek exile who is by turns a gangster, spy, and terrorist for hire. While it’s definitely not a blood-spilling shoot-‘em-up, there is plenty of tension. The novel is really a set of short stories, each telling of some phase of Dimitrios’ career while Latimer gets closer to the truth about Dimitrios’ ultimate fate. Made into a film in 1944 (as The Mask of Dimitrios), A Coffin for Dimitrios is a good old-time thriller. Don’t look for super-weapons, acrobatics, villains in underground fortresses, or heroes jumping into bed with lots of spy-chicks, just good characterization, suspense and an acute eye for the European underworld of the 1930s.

 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Friday, August 06, 2010

THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD

By H.P. Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft was a Rhode Islander and a Providence native. His settings are invariably the towns and countryside of New England and especially the imaginary area around Arkham, Massachusetts. But in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward he used his beloved Providence to give this tale a very real backdrop.

This story is really a novella issued in a single volume by Del Rey back in 1982 (it’s assuredly still in print, but I’ve still got the Del Rey edition on my shelf). It tells of young Charles Dexter Ward who takes a deep interest in genealogy, much to everyone’s regret. It seems Ward is a descendant of a certain Joseph Curwen, an old RI settler of dubious and disturbing repute. The reader is led through Curwen’s biography and Ward’s descent into madness with a chillingly clinical precision, heightened by the loving references to Providence landmarks (my brother and sister live in Pawtuxet which Lovecraft describes as the site of Curwen’s farm, check your basement kiddies!).

Compared with better known tales such as “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” Charles Dexter Ward is low-key. The antiquarian references may sometimes be a bit overwhelming. For me these quirky touches are what make reading Lovecraft’s work enjoyable. He truly poured himself into his stories. I recommend you sit down on a dark night and pour yourself into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
 
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Thursday, August 05, 2010

CHANGEWAR

By Fritz Leiber

This collection of short stories is a sequel of sorts to Fritz Leiber’s landmark novel The Big Time. The stories are set in the Changewar, a secret battle that spans all space and time. The rivals are the Spiders and Snakes, though all we really learn of them is through the mercenaries they recruit from all of history. Their mode of battle is to change the past in order to promote an advantageous outcome at some point in the unimaginably distant future.

These tales break out and explore some (a very tiny fraction!) of the immense ramifications of the Changewar. “Try and Change the Past” explains with a grimly humorous example just why altering the path of time is a job for intergalactic empires. “The Oldest Soldier” lets a regular guy meet a Changewar soldier, with some dramatic results. “A Deskful of Girls” shows just how a renegade could exploit Changewar technology: the factions don’t use a person’s physical form, they use a sort of psychic impression. In an attenuated form, it creates a spiritual zombie. Don’t try it at home folks, the Spiders and Snakes don’t like it. The collection winds up with “No Great Magic” bringing us full circle to the characters from The Big Time and showing a bit of Changewarfare in process. As always, Leiber’s quirky humor and quirkier word-play is in evidence.

While I definitely recommend this book, you should read The Big Time first. The stories here are good, but perhaps are too mystifying without the background from the novel.

-Dave Hardy
 
 

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

CAPTAINS OUTRAGEOUS

By Joe Lansdale

This is the latest novel in the Hap Collins and Leonard Pine series, by Texas author Joe Lansdale. Hap and his buddy Leonard are security guards at a chicken processing plant in East Texas. If you aren’t familiar with these guys, Hap is an easy-going redneck who drifts from one loony predicament to another. His pal Leonard is a tough-as-nails black war vet who happens to be one of the very few openly gay guys in the hick town where they live.

When Hap saves a girl’s life he and Leonard are rewarded with a vacation. After a series of confrontations with pushy waiters and Mexican cops Hap and Leonard end up befriending an old fisherman and his beautiful daughter. Hap actually gets very friendly with her, Leonard less so. Of course it doesn’t end there and our heroes end up on the wrong side of a sadistic Mexican gang boss who happens to practice nudism.

It’s a good novel, but not as weird as its predecessor, Rumble Tumble (really bizarre and bloody, funny as all get out too). Still the smart aleck humor of Hap and Leonard is in full force along with Hap’s attempts to make sense of why his life is so aimless and why someone always wants to kill him.

Strangely enough the British edition is what ended up on my bookshelf, which is what happens when you buy all your books at used bookstores.
-Dave Hardy
 
 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

THE CANDLEMASS ROAD

By George MacDonald Fraser

You could say that The Steel Bonnets is the sort of history a novelist would write, conversely you could say that The Candlemass Road is the sort of novel a historian would write.

George MacDonad Fraser is the author of the hugely popular Flashman novels. He also wrote a compelling history of the Scots-English border in the 16th century, titled The Steel Bonnets. Fraser is border-born and bred and he took that history to heart, from it came The Candlemass Road.

The novel is about Lady Margaret Dacre, raised at the court in London and now returned to her father’s lands in the North. She discovers that the Dacre family has been running on reputation for a long time past and now face the prospect of survival in lawless land of feuds, plunder, and murder. Her only help is the outlaw Hobbie Noble. In classic Western style Lady Dacre and Noble defy the counsel of those who insist on not rocking the boat and proceed to capsize the gol-durn thing.

This is very familiar country for those who’ve read The Steel Bonnets, Fraser even includes a historical postscript to round out this novella. It is the kind of writing that one sees all too seldom: historically literate, tightly paced, filled with characters that grab a reader's interest, but not by re-imagining the past to suit the prissy sensibilities of the present. The Candlemass Road is a lean wolf in a field with too many lumbering oxen.

-Dave Hardy
 
 

Monday, August 02, 2010

BOWIE’S MINE

By Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton is something of a favorite of mine. I have to qualify it a bit since my tendency is for headlong lunacy while Kelton is always cautiously aware of human frailty. However, in Bowie’s Mine he cuts loose with a band of raffish knuckleheads on the trail of the legendary lost San Saba Silver mine. The central character is a poor but honest farm boy who decides to have a bit of an adventure. It doesn’t quite work out as the clueless wonders he hooks up with can never pull off their capers as well as they claim.

A darn good western, full of dash, vigor, and rollicking good fun.

-Dave Hardy
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Sunday, August 01, 2010

THE BLOODY CROWN OF CONAN

by Robert E. Howard

This is book two of the three-part collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories by Wandering Star (released as a trade paperback by Del Rey). In these tales REH had hit his stride, and the Cimmerian was loose in all his grit and glory. For those readers more familiar with the old de Camp edited editions of Conan, this collection features the Conan stories in the order they were written with no “posthumous collaboration”: pastiches, re-writes of stories to convert them into Conan tales, or fleshing out of uncompleted synopses.

What you’ll find is two novellas and a novel. The opener is People of the Black Circle. Conan is in the lands of the East leading a gang of Afguli bandits. It’s the sort of thing that would get you a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay these days. He ends up kidnapping a princess entirely by mistake while trying to rescue some of his men from jail. A lot of writers would stop there, but Howard involves a sect of ghastly evil wizards, a spy from a rival empire, and a renegade adept and his girlfriend who are sort of a sorcerous Bonnie & Clyde. REH takes all this complex set of rivalries, adds a few here and there and juggles ‘em all until the end when he begins pitching them through plate glass windows.

The bulk of the book is The Hour of the Dragon, a full scale Conan novel. Conan is king of Aquilonia here, but a conspiracy of rebel nobles, rival kings, and an undead wizard deposes him. Conan sets off of a trek that crosses much of the Hyborian world in his quest to regain his throne. In addition to sword-play, treacherous twists and turns, and perils from grisly demonic forces, Conan has to confront what it means to be king. He has to choose to regain his throne rather than return to the life of a footloose adventurer. The action is cranked to maximum from beginning to end.    

The collection winds up with A Witch Shall be Born. Conan is serving as a mercenary captain for a remote kingdom when a conspiracy overthrows the ruling princess. In the process Conan faces his ultimate challenge: he is crucified (the scene is reproduced in the movie Conan). It is the ultimate in tough guy tale-telling, pushing the Cimmerian into the realms of Odin and Christ.

There are lots of tidbits in the appendices. There are drafts, synopses, and an unpublished fragment. There is also a critical essay by Patrice Louinet and copious notes on the typescripts. While this is of interest mostly to REH scholars, everyone will enjoy the many black and white drawings and plates by Gary Gianni (who also illustrated Bran Mak Morn and Savage Tales of Solomon Kane).

This is the ultimate in sword and sorcery. Buy it now!

-Dave Hardy