Sunday, November 25, 2012


The Ginger Star
The Hounds of Skaith
The Reavers of Skaith

By Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett is my favorite Sword & Planet writer. Erik John Stark is like Tarzan, on Barsoom, as re-imagined by Raymond Chandler for a John Ford Western. But like Tarzan and cowboys, planetary adventurers need space. The problem is that in her lifetime Brackett scientific exploration overtook her. Mars rovers made it all too plain that the Red Planet hosted no lost civilizations, no ruined cities on the edge of drying seas, no silver-prowed galleys sweeping through ancient canals.

So Brackett just moved her hero a little deeper into space. The early Stark stories featured colonialist earthmen with spaceships, so why not get out of the solar system altogether? Stark is sent to the planet Skaith, out where Earth’s influence is at its ragged edge. Skaith is a dying planet under a dying sun. The whole dying thing speeds up when the locals piss off Stark.

Just as Stark’s Mars is a distinct take on Barsoom, Skaith owes a certain debt to Vance’s Dying Earth and perhaps to Flash Gordon’s duel with Ming the Merciless. It is a world under a theocracy. The Lords Protector and their enforcers the Wandsmen  enforce a rigid sort of wealth transfer between the shrinking base of producers and the class of wandering parasites called the Farers. Moreover, on Skaith humanity has fragmented, morphing their forms adapted to the environment at the cost of having anything in common with their fellows. Culture is fragmented as well, consisting of isolated and backward city-states. But there are prophecies of a Dark Man who will overturn the world.

Stark does some overturning alright. He’s there to look for a friend who disappeared while helping some of the productive people escape the tyranny of the Wandsmen. The novels are a series of adventures as Stark wanders Skaith giving the Lords Protector hell. It’s a bit like a hard-boiled movie serial.

The real secret is that Skaith is Earth, specifically America c. 1970. The Farers are hippies gone feral, the Wandsmen are the PC police of a decadent welfare state. It’s an interesting take though perhaps your mileage may vary. I rather liked the Skaith novels, though I find the early Stark tales, rooted in nostalgia rather than insecurely clinging to it, better.
-Dave Hardy

Sunday, November 18, 2012


By Barrington J. Bayley.

Barington Bayley’s novels are about exploring ideas, in this case its high-stakes gambling. The stakes are high indeed for Scarne, a renegade mathematician working as an undercover agent to infiltrate the Grand Wheel. The Wheel is a consortium of gamblers, part Vegas, part Mafia. They are the alternative to the Legitimacy, the inter-stellar empire.

You’d thing the guys with blasters would have it all over the guys with cards, but the Legitimacy is engaged in a losing war with the Hadraonics. The complicating factor is they are fighting in a region where stars go super-nova without warning. Military commander Hakandra is relying on semi-mystic powers of a youth named Shane to understand when stars will explode.

 Both the Wheel and the Legitimacy seeks  to control the unpredictable, the Wheel the turn of cards in a game where the rules change from second to second, the Legitimacy the forces of nature and the course of war. Underneath the fast-paced space adventure is a meditation on powers that seek to control the uncontrollable and the manner in which they gamble with the lives of others.
-Dave Hardy

Sunday, November 11, 2012


By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich is closely linked with the roman noir of ‘40s America. The archetypal noir takes place in a big city, a sooty Northern town, or a sun-lit California dreamscape. In Waltz into Darkness, Woolrich winds back to the South of the late 19th century. It’s a world of rigid social codes, a bit archaic, tradition-bound, and old-fashioned. Woolrich dives into it, but doesn’t shed his bleak outlook along they way.

Louis Durand is a successful man, but one who has missed the true meaning of success, love. But someone has stepped into his life, Julia, and their waltz begins. In true Woolrich style, happiness is elusive. Woolrich’s castles are all built on foundations of air. Reality is elusive too, but love and fear are mankind’s constant companions, the mainsprings of action.

Durand discovers that the love he thought he’d found is not what he had imagined. The reader follows him on a journey of self-discovery, fraught with suspense and  terror. Who is the Julia that Durand loves, and if she is not that person, does he still lover her. The reader is left guessing until the very end, just as much as Durand is.
-Dave Hardy

Sunday, November 04, 2012


By Philip José Farmer

PJ Farmer was obsessed with the history of spec-fic, his stories cheerfully plunder pulp SF, Tarzan, Alice in Wonderland, Doc Savage, and of course Oz. And by Oz, I mean the novels written by L Frank Baum at the turn of the 20th century, not the (justly famous) movie.

A Barnstormer in Oz tells of Dorothy’s son, Hank, now a grown man making a living putting on airshows in the heartland. Then he flies through a green cloud and finds himself in Oz.

Only we’re not in Oz anymore. Farmer knows Baum’s works inside and out, so for those who have read beyond The Wizard of Oz may expect to find a lot of Easter eggs.  Farmer doesn’t stop there though, he creates a mythic past for Oz involving ancient races and migrations of alien life forms from alternate dimensions. He also finds a linguistic basis for Quadling (a language related to Munchkin) in Gothic (it’s a real language, not just a subculture for kids with dyed hair and too much makeup, and in the late Roman empire a Gothic priest, Wulfila, translated the New Testament into Gothic) that would make Tolkien proud.

Not that Barnstormer is some dry academic tome. Frankly it has more sex and violence than a lot of novels, and a lot more than you might expect in a tribute to a children’s classic. The pace moves at breakneck speed as Hank helps Glinda the Good with an invasion from Earth in the form of the US Army and all-out war with the Wicked Witch of the North.

Honestly, I enjoyed the book, yet I was a bit put off at the same time. Does one really need to know the details of birth-control in Oz? Or the exact nature of the magic that animates scarecrows? Barnstormer is a gritty tale, with the horrors of war conveyed in grim detail. The quaint folk you saw cavorting on the Yellow Brick Road, are revealed as strange, pagan, and fully capable of cruelty. While Farmer fans and those looking for radical re-casting of classic tales will enjoy this, if you can only bear to see Oz through the lenses of childhood nostalgia, you may want to go cautiously.
-Dave Hardy