Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: The Collected Editorials of John W Campbell

The Collected Editorials of John W Campbell edited by Damon Knight (1966)

John W Campbell Jr was one of, if not the, major players in turning science fiction from just another pulp genre into a major branch of fantasy fiction.  When he started editing Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact), science fiction was very much a "gee whiz" sort of reading, but under Campbell's direction and his careful cultivation of a stable of writers, he moulded the genre into something more mature, or at least, more competent.

One part of Campbell's method was to generate new ideas for writers to work on and part on this generation was Campbell's editorials where he would deliberately make outrageous and provocative statements in order to stimulate debate.  Campbell had great fun showing that black was white, up was down and then defying his readers (and prospective writers) to rise to the bait. The only problem was that Campbell was also a man of very strong and often eccentric opinions and it in reading his editorials it's hard to tell what is rhetoric and what is Campbell's real opinion.

These editorials from the late '50s and early '60s are a valuable collection of fascinating writing that would have otherwise have been restricted to the browning pages of pulp magazines.  In here we see Campbell's worship of science combined with his paradoxical suspicion that science was dominated by blinkered fogies who refused to see any new discovery until they were bludgeoned over the head with it.   There's some wonderful arguing going on here, but bear in mind this is also a man who firmly believed in psionics, anti-gravity and various quack cures and thought it was only hide-bound conservatism that kept them from respectability.  He's also the man who helped launched Dianetics, though he distanced himself from it once it became too mad, and championed the Dean Drive until it proved an obvious failure.

Take along a large grain of salt and give this one a look in.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review: A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars (1917) by Edgar Rive Burroughs

Sometime after the American Civil War, Virginia gentleman and soldier of fortune John Carter is prospecting for gold out west when he set upon by an Apache war party.  Taking refuge in a cave, something inside frightens the Indians off and Carter is transported to the planet Mars by some mysterious agency.  He is captured by the Tharks, the four-armed, gigantic green men of Mars.  Carter's courage combined with his much stronger Earth muscles impress the warlike Tharks and Carter's victories in combat quickly raise him to the rank of Chieftain.  When the Tharks capture the far more human and lovely Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium, Carter finds a new purpose in life and dedicates himself to her rescue and protection.

A Princess of Mars is Edgar Rice Burrough's other great series.  Though less well known to the general public than his Tarzan stories, the Barsoom (after the native word for Mars) series has been a perennial favourite for almost a century.  Those who have been raised on Star Trek and Star Wars may be put off at first by a science fiction adventure where the hero wields a rapier and rides a six-legged Thoat, but Burroughs has created a world perfectly suited to the needs of romance and adenture.  Taking his cue from Percival Lowell's writings about Mars, Burrough's Barsoom is a dying world where the population is shrinking as the water evaporates into space and the atmosphere is kept by huge air generating plants.  The great old cities long abandoned, new city sates have sprung up along the canals used to keep the southern regions fertile and hoards of green barbarians ride across the mossy bottoms of the ancient oceans.  Despite and advanced technology, the inhabitants prefer to fight with swords instead of their radium pistols because combat is first about population control and only secondly about settling disputes.

It's also a world that suits John Carter; a chivalrous southern gentleman whom the world has passed by.  On Barsoom, he finds foes to battle, wrongs to write, and a beautiful princess to woo and win.  This he manages through a thrilling series of marches and counter-marches where the newly-arrived Virginian must battle his own ignorance of local languages and customs as well as the dastardly villains who oppose him.

The character of John Carter isn't as well done as Tarzan, but then Burroughs did have a world to describe as well while Tarzan kicked about in a Jungle on familiar planet Earth.  Wasting a bit of effort on the odd thoat.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

James Bond, secret agent on Her Majesty's Secret Service is in the past-its-prime northern French town of Royale-Les-Eaux playing baccarat at Casino Royale.  Though he is a professional gambler who uses his winnings to allow him to live in a style that his Secret Service pay can't afford, he's on other business now.  A Soviet paymaster, Le Chiffre, is running a baccarat game in hopes of recouping the money he embezzled and lost before his KGB masters realise what has happened and have him liquidated.  Bond's mission is to see that he doesn't succeed, thus eliminating a KGB agent and discrediting the Communist trade union that Le Chiffre supports.  Helping him is fellow agent Vesper Lynd, Deuxième Bureau official Mathus and CIA agent Felix Leiter.  None of this is enough because in the end it all rests on Bond's ability to ride the luck of the cards.  And even if he wins, the battle is just beginning.

The first of the James Bond novels, this is the one where we're introduced to 007–a number that today is steeped in romance, but which to Bond means that he merely killed two men in the line of duty.  This is certainly not the Bond of the film series,who is much more of a fantasy figure.  This Bond has many more doubts, is less insolent and even in the first book is so tired of the spy game that he's considering chucking it all in.  That being said, he's still Bond; resourceful, charming and brave.  He is also a much harder man than his cinematic counterpart and his sexual conquests are as likely to end in tears as passion.

But even from the start this is Bond is Bond.  Even though Ian Fleming only took three months to write Casino Royale, he had carefully thought out Bond as well as supporting characters like M and Leiter.  Bond  is a combination of various agents and characters that Fleming had known during his years with British Naval Intelligence mixed in with his own tastes and habits. It's telling that where Bond survives to this day, those habits did for Fleming at the age of 56.  It's also an interesting point that the plot of Casino Royale was based on a real life experience where Fleming tried bankrupt an enemy agent at baccarat, except in that case Fleming lost his shirt.

What is fascinating about this novel is how mundane all the high living seems. Casino Royale is a has been gambling spot trying to regain its glory and though Bond does wine and dine Vesper Lynd on caviare, one of the most exotic dishes he indulges in was an avocado.  It's easy to forget that this book was written almost sixty years ago in a world that was much poorer and in a Britain that was still living under rationing.  In those days, even for the upper middle class a holiday at a run down Normandy resort eating oily avocados and rubbing shoulders with bland gamblers would have seemed as exotic as the headiest jet-setting crowd of ten years later.

In the end, one comes away from this book with two important insights:  First, that the Vesper sounds good on paper,but tastes like lighter fluid in real life and second, if you are a man, you will never be able to look at a carpet beater in an antique shop again without wincing and crossing your legs.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Review: Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes (AKA La Planète des Singesby Pierre Boulle (1963)

In the year 2500, journalist Ulysse Mérou joins a three-man expedition on the first flight to another star system.  Mérou and his companions Professor Antelle and physicist Arthur Levain travel to a star system 350 light years from Earth, but by travelling at relativistic speeds, they've aged only about a year despite their centuries long voyage.  Taking a shuttle down to the surface of an Earth-like planet, they are attacked by the mute, primitive humanoid inhabitants, who rip their clothes to shreds and destroy their landing craft.  If being marooned wasn't bad enough, the explorers are set upon by the true masters of the; intelligent apes, who kill Levain in a hunt and capture Mérou, sending him to an animal behaviour laboratory run by a Chimpanzee named Zira.

Yes, it's the plot of the 1968 adaptation by 20th Century Fox that, at least in its basic premise, follows Boulle's novel fairly closely.   However, where the film version's script by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson was a science fiction adventure laced with stinging social commentary, Boulle's Planet is a Swifitan satire that uses science fiction as a convenient plot device.  In the film, the ape society is a relatively primitive one with hints of having bits of a more sophisticated culture handed down to it, but in the novel the apes live in a modern, technological world that is an obvious fun house mirror version of 1963 France.  Also, the conflict is entirely different and Mérou, though in danger from the blinkered Dr Zaius isn't in immediate danger as is able to explore the planet like a latter day Gulliver in a land of the degenerate humans standing in for the yahoos and the apes for the Houyhnhnms.  What is interesting about this upside down society is something that is only hinted at in the film; the ape society is merely a distorted imitation of the earlier human one it displaced.  The apes are merely "aping" their former masters and Boulle is saying that there are very few creative people and the rest of human society are simply imitators.  In Dr Zaius he's also taking a dig at the French academy system, though I would have thought that by the '60s this was already flogging a dead orang-outang.

Not as intensely dramatic as the film, it stands up very well on its own merits.  I give it three bananas.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review: The Man of Bronze

The Man of Bronze by Lester Dent (AKA Kenneth Robeson) (1933)
Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr and his five companions Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Renny and Johnny are mourning the sudden death of Doc's father from a mysterious tropical illness.  However, things become complicated when a sniper tries to kill Doc by shooting at him through the window of his study on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.  This and other attempts on his life lead Doc and his friends on a chase to the Central American country of Hildalgo where they discover a lost Mayan civilisation and Doc's incredible legacy.

In 1933, Street & Smith were flush with the success of The Shadow magazine, a pulp spin-off of the popular radio series of the same name.  Hoping to keep the trend going, they thought up a new hero, Doc Savage, who would be to the Shadow what Superman would be to Batman.  Where the Shadow is mysterious and potentially deadly character of the city, Doc Savage would be a larger than life superman who roamed the world battling evil in exotic locales.  Throw in Doc's stalwart "brain trust" of simian chemist Monk, dapper lawyer Hamm, electrical wizard Long Tom, Engineer Renny and archaeologist Johnny; add a formula of our heroes on the trail of a mysterious treasure while fighting baddies and you have a recipe that would keep boys coming back to the news stand until the bottom fell out of the pulp market in the 1950s.

Boys is the operative word here.  The prolific Lester Dent, who wrote under the house name of Kenneth Robeson so that the magazine would always seem to be written by the same man even if Dent quit, understood his audience and their parents.  The Man of Bronze is filled with blood and thunder of fights, shoot outs, escapes and tight spots galore.  However, to please worried mothers, Doc Savage and his friends were always virtuous to a fault, never killed anyone–at least, not directly–and Doc method of maintaining his incredible mind and physique were explained in a way that encouraged readers to study and exercise daily.

As to characters, what you see in The Man of Bronze is exactly what would be there for the next twenty years with all the character work being repeated literally word for word from one issue to the next.  And while there are women in the story, the reader is assured time and again that there won't be any "mushy stuff".

Dent knew his audience.

Friday, 6 January 2012

We're back... Sort of.

Good news: The internet connection is finally fixed and I'm back on line. The bad news: I have insane deadlines over the weekend thanks to all the disruptions.

Back Tuesday.