Thursday, February 15, 2018

My letter from Gold Eagle

Back in the early days of the blog I posted my 1988 letter from Gar Wilson; in it I mentioned that I’d also received a letter from Gold Eagle at the time. Well, here it is – but this time, thanks to the magic of technology, I was able to scan it.

As a bit of background, this response was to an unsolicited idea I’d sent Gold Eagle for Phoenix Force, in which the team goes to Mars for some reason that now escapes me. I should mention I was like 13 at the time, so it sounded like a good idea to me. So then it’s pretty cool that GE’s “Reader Management Editor” Judy Newton (who was married to Michael Newton at the time) actually took the time to write me back – she could’ve just trashed my letter and grumbled “stupid damn kid, wasting our time,” but instead she wrote me this nice letter:

I also love how she so politely butchers my far-out idea!

As I mentioned before, the biggest thrill I recall at the time was her mentioning that a copy of my letter had been sent to Gar Wilson, and it was just a few days later that I received a letter from him; big thanks again to Stephen Mertz, who let me know the other year that the “Gar Wilson” who wrote me was William Fieldhouse.

I recall I had another letter from Gold Eagle, from a little later or something, in response to a question I’d written them – there was a cable movie titled Jake Speed, about a men’s adventure character who was real, or something, and I saw it on HBO when it was first broadcast. The movie occasionally showed some Jake Speed paperbacks (I haven’t seen the movie since then, by the way), and I instantly noticed the Gold Eagle logo on them. I wrote GE asking if they had plans to release the actual novels, but as I recall their response, which was shorter than this one, informed me that those books were just props for the movie and that there were no plans for a Jake Speed series. Anyway I can’t find that letter, but if I ever do I’ll post it as well.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying (second review)

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying, by Paul Kenyon
March, 1974  Pocket Books

I’m still enjoying my re-reading of The Baroness; coming back to this series, you can see how it was a cut above the genre norm, despite the repetitive nature of each volume. But I’ve found that most all the series books “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel have been a cut above; regardless, Diamonds Are For Dying is still one of the weaker books in the series, though I have to say I enjoyed it more this time than the first time I read it.

As mentioned in my second review of #1: The Ecstasy Connection, enterprising Baroness fan ppsantos discovered, via series author Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt himself, that Diamonds Are For Dying was the first installment to be written, and should have been the first volume of the series published. Either Engel or Pocket decided to hold it back in favor of The Ecstasy Connection. If their intention was to hook readers with a stronger story, then I completely understand their decision – The Ecstasy Connection is one of the best men’s adventure novels ever, and, with it’s borderline sci-fi plot mixed with hardcore kinkiness, works as a much better series hook than this one does.

There were clues strewn about The Ecstasy Connection that it was actually second in the series; in particular there were a few mentions of Baroness Penelope St. John-Orisini’s previous mission, which took place in Brazil. That of course would refer to the events of this volume – humorously, though, the intros to the Baroness and her team aren’t much more fleshed out here than they were in the first volume. So clearly Moffitt was writing each of these books to stand on their own, with little focus on continuity.

Moffitt might’ve gotten better with his second-written installment, but that’s not to say Diamonds Are For Dying is bad. It’s just that, whereas The Ecstasy Connection hurtled along from first page to last, this one doesn’t feature nearly as many thrills. However Moffitt’s already got his series outline worked out – the only difference between this one and ensuing volumes is that it does not open with the inciting incident that will gradually get the Baroness on the job. Rather, Diamonds Are For Dying opens with what would normally be the second scene of each installment: the Baroness’s latest party for the jet-set.

“The Baroness stood at the center of it all, a martini in one hand and a joint in the other.” So we meet our heroine: long, leggy, busty (and lusty) brunette babe of all babes Penelope St. John-Borsini, throwing this massive bash in her Rome villa. She displays the randy stuff of which she’s made posthaste, taking a bet with another jet-setting gal that she’ll be able to get studmuffin Sir Hugh into bed – and Penelope succeeds, of course, within the hour. Moffitt delivers what will become the patented hardcore screwin’ the series would be known for, with the Baroness eagerly boffing Hugh not once but twice – the “back-to-back bangs” being another recurring element of the series. No detail is left unmentioned, though personally I felt The Ecstasy Connection was a little more hardcore, what with Penelope’s “foamy pubes” and all. Or hell, maybe she was just more excited in that one.

Right on cue her watch goes off, zapping her with the demand to contact her secret control at NSA, John Farnsworth, aka “Key.” The Baroness’s own codename is “Coin,” which means that, like The Butcher, this series isn’t titled after the protagonists’s actual codename (the Butcher’s codename was “Iceman”). But like with The Butcher, I wondered why Moffitt went to all these lengths, anyway; why all the busywork about “Key” and “Coin” when he could’ve just made Penelope’s codename “The Baroness” and have done with it? Anyway in this one Farnsworth flies over to Italy to give Penelope her assignment in person – US intelligence is in a dither over it.

Also another thing made somewhat clear in Diamonds Are For Dying is that “the President’s man,” who appears each volume in the meeting with the Intelligence heads and gives them their marching orders, is actually Henry Kissinger, real-life “President’s man” at that time; we are informed he has a “slight German accent,” and later on he is referred to as “Henry.” Speaking of “German,” this volume’s villain is that old pulp menace, the unrepentant Nazi who plans to launch the Fourth Reich and conquer the world, picking up where Hitler left off. His name is Wilhelm Heidrig, and he lives on an old coffee plantation deep in the jungles of Brazil.

The Baroness’s team is actually given less of an intro in this one than The Ecstasy Connection. Members like Yvette and Eric make their first appearance as ciphers and will stay that way throughout the series, though we do get the oddball comment that Eric is a “mathematical wiz.” We learn unusual stuff about some of the others – like for example that bulky Green Beret Dan Wharton is a chemist, and this time has made for Penelope a “synthetic black widow spider venom” which is uber-potent, and which she can eject via a hidden button on her cigarette lighter. Team geek Tom Sumo though as ever provides the main gadgets, which are heavy on the “co-polymer” tip this time, from sandals that can turn into blades to a bra that can turn into a bow. We also get lots of talk on series staple the Spyder, which is a grappling hook that gets Penelope out of many a pickle.

Perhaps the Baroness’s background bio is a bit more fleshed-out in this one; it runs from pages 39 to 46. After which it’s on with the show, and on with the template; promptly upon landing in Brazil, and being hassled by some asshole customs inspector, Penelope and team are saved by an attractive local male, same as in The Ecstasy Connection. This is wealthy lothario Silvio, who turns out to be a leftist who secretly provides medical help to the destitute inhabitants of the slums outside Rio; he’s banging the Baroness that very night, in yet another tour de force of hardcore shenanigans – back-to-back shenanigans at that.

Meanwhile we meet our villains, a curiously-uninmpressive lot, at least so far as this series goes. In addition to Heidrig, the stereotypical died-in-the-wool Nazi who is now in his 60s, there’s sadistic, effiminate Horst, a blonde-haired freak who will ultimately turn out to be Hitler’s son. Heidrig will tell Penelope all about it late in the book, but it goes that Hitler, insane after the war, was spirited out of Germany and hidden in Heidrig’s jungle villa, where he was fooled by his followers into thinking the war was still raging. In the mid-‘60s he managed to sire a son with a local whore, who was later killed off – Hitler himself died in ’65. But Horst doesn’t contribute much to the book, and mostly just enjoys feeding various unfortunates to the pirhanas in a pool on Heidrig’s estate. Or having his dogs tear people apart. Heidrig’s plot centers around Dutch jeweler Peter van Voort, who has figured out how to use diamonds to power a laser that will in turn power an atomic bomb, or somesuch.

Moffitt as ever makes The Baroness feel like the trash fiction equivalent of the typical men’s adventure novel, complete with descriptions of Penelope’s revealing, high-fashion clothing to topical mentions like “a bossa nova with the new, acid beat” that Penelope and Silvio dance to. But Penelope uses Silvio as her means to get into Heidrig’s orbit; dressed as Marie Antoinette for a Louis XVI-themed party the old Nazi throws, the Baroness succeeds in ensnaring Heidrig’s attention, much to Silvio’s dismay. Not that she doesn’t make it up to him. A few pages later and we’re getting more Penelope-Silvio double-banging (actually this time it’s a triple banging). For this Silvio is, unbeknownst to Penelope, beaten to a pulp by Heidrig’s men, but curiously enough Silvio just plumb drops out of the novel afterward, not appearing again until the end of the book, when he shows up at the airport to tell Penelope so long and thanks for all the sex.

Penelope ventures to Heidrig’s jungle estate, only bringing along Tom Sumo and blonde cipher Inga, whose big role this time is to get nude, put on a wig, and pretend to be Penelope to fool Heidrig’s hidden cameras. Oh, and at one point she also frees the Baroness’s big dogs, which have also come along for the occasion.

Here the novel comes to sort of a standstill, with Moffitt continually stretching things out as Penelope tries to maintain her cover as fussy jet-setting mega-babe while both keeping prudish Teuton Heidrig at bay and figuring out what he’s really up to. Meanwhile Sumo sneaks around and puts listening bugs in various places. The writing is good but it’s just sort of slow-going, almost a prefigure of #8: Black Gold, which similarly slowed to a dead crawl for a long duration (and which, now that I’ve re-read Diamonds Are For Dying, would easily have to be my least-favorite volume of the series).

Things pick up in the final quarter; Heidrig, assuming Penelope hates “the inferior races” as much as he does, blabs about his “laser-trigger fusion bomb” and how he plans to rally together old and new Nazis under Horst, proclaiming him as Hitler’s son and heir. Surprisingly, Heidrig then goes about finally banging Penelope – in a mainstream thriller, I doubt this would happen, and our heroine’s honor would be untarnished. But Penelope lays there and thinks of, well, not England, ‘cause she’s an American agent, but anyway she lets Heidrig screw her, then kills him while he’s climaxing. At least she gives the old sadist a memorable send-off.

Interestingly, the Baroness doesn’t spend a single second thinking about how she allowed herself to be probed by Heidrig’s “gristle-tough tool;” Moffitt is with it in that he understands that, as a female agent, the Baroness has no qualms about having sex solely for the mission. Oh, and of course she kills the old bastard with that black widow venom Dan made for her.

As I mentioned in my first review, though, the finale is sort of anticlimactic, as these old Nazis don’t prove much opposition for the Baroness and her team; there’s a nice part where Penelope and the others escape the compound while the main team infiltrates via the jungle, but regardless per series template Penelope is captured. Here too it’s less outrageous than similar such scenes, later in the series; Horst merely pulls her along, still clad only in the lingerie Heidrig gave her, and attempts to feed her to his precious pirhana. Instead, Horst himself becomes fish bait, thanks to the miraculous presence of Penelope’s dogs – those damn dogs save her ass just about every volume.

The finale is just as stretched thin as the middle half; the team splits up and heads for Rio, but Penelope is waylaid by a group of Nazi leftovers, soon to die thanks to radiation poisoning from the atom bomb her team set off in Heidrig’s compound. Here the Baroness puts to use her bra-bow, but despite the nice cover painting she’s not in her black catsuit while she wields it. As ever she’s barely clothed. And now that I think of it, even the gore level is subdued in Diamonds Are For Dying. While The Ecstasy Connection was rife with exploding heads and guts, this one is more reserved.

And that’s pretty much it – it’s back to Rome, where Penelope’s already set her sights on another jet-setting stud to share her bed. Overall Diamonds Are For Dying is fun, and certainly well-written, but pales in comparison to its predeccessor and the other volumes that were to follow, save for Black Gold. But I’m finding that I’m appreciating The Baroness even more upon this re-reading of the series.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Taurus Four

Taurus Four, by Rena Vale
January, 1970  Paperback Library

Hippies in space! Well, that’s sort of the premise of this paperback original, or at least what’s hyped on the back cover. In reality the hippies of this “2270 AD” are more along the lines of stone age primitives, with the intelligence level to match. Okay so they’re just like regular hippies…only they’re on another planet.

Rena Vale had a career that was sort of the opposite of Leigh Brackett’s; she started as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the ‘30s, then moved to writing science fiction stories and novels in the ‘50s. Taurus Four was one of her last novels; she died in 1983. The cool psychedelic cover, by the way (which I’m assuming is by Robert Foster, given its similarity to Foster’s cover for Mythmaster), has nothing to do with the actual contents of the book – not sure what the hell’s going on there, but you won’t find anything like it occuring in the novel.

You also won’t find any space hippies of the sort featured in the “classic” Star Trek episode “The Way To Eden” (I put “classic” in mocking quotes but I actually enjoy that episode…I mean Mr. Spock channeling his inner Hendrix on a Vulcan harp, what’s not to love?). Which admittedly is what I was hoping for when I cracked open this slim paperback. Instead, it’s more of a character-driven piece about a portly but determined “space sociologist” who crash-lands on a planet in the Taurus system and there encounters a group of hippies, descendants of ones who were abducted from Earth centuries before.

Our hero is Dorian Frank XIV, out on his first mission; his assignment is to inspect the planet Taurus Four with its two suns and determine if it is suitable for human colonization. But he crashes his ship and is stranded here for two months until the mother ship can come collect him. Dorian is an interesting character; coddled due to the emasculating nature of the 23rd century, in which women run everything. This is total prescience on the part of Ms. Vale, but don’t go dusting off your “I’m With Her” banners just yet – she clearly is not fond of the idea.

In Vale’s future, “space is the man’s world;” women, having cemented their authority on Earth, have no desire to travel in space. Thus it is men who fling about the cosmos, declaring habitable planets for Earth; the women who do go into space usually do so in the capacity of servants to the men. Space is the only place where men can be men, yet they are for the most part confused about what exactly “being a man” entails:

The male aggressiveness was fading out of the human race…Women forged ahead in the professions and in politics; they took over many, if not most of the Earthside positions. As a rule, they dominated their mates, made puppets of them.


Male-female relationships on Earth had become tests of strength…of willpower. Men loved women for their physical charm and grudgingly ceded as much of their independence as necessary to obtain their desires. Women loved men who obeyed their commands.

Damn, if I could go back in time I’d have the preacher read that last one at my wedding!

Dorian encounters all manner of flora and fauna on Taurus Four, which has an Earth-like atmosphere, save for the two suns; one is red, and the “night” sun is a white ball of fire that paints the sky in psychedelic hues. There are tree roots that move in the soil, fawn-like creatures that are harmless, bats that nearly rip Dorian to shreds, and intelligent bear-like creatures which Dorian is certain are not native to the planet. He will turn out to be correct; these are the daels, or at least so referred to by the transplanted hippies, and they too are part of a colonization party.

The hippies don’t appear until a quarter of the way through; Dorian stumbles upon them after a near-fatal encounter with vampire bats. Their presence initially baffles him, as Taurus Four was marked as an uninhabitated planet. Plus they are not only humans, but Earthlings – ones who speak to Dorian in English, at that. Though it is a crude, gutteral English, and these people have descended fully into tribalism. They go about nude, the men sporting long hair, rangy beards, and nails so long they are claws. The women are practically baby-making machines, some of them having born fourteen childreen. Even the “crones” are naked, much to Dorian’s discomfort.

Dorian gradually learns the history of the colony, his memory sparked by a tale told by elderly “witch” Bernedine, who recalls a story from the time of “twenty grandmothers ago.” Basically, a hippie in Haight Ashbury in the late ‘60s was approached by a reptilian being, which promised to take the hippie and his flock to a faraway place where they could live free, in the commune fashion the hippies so loved. Dorian instantly understands what happened; in the time of the “Space War,” two hundred years before, the “green Saurians from the Cygnus chain” abducted many humans; abductions which eventually sparked the war.

In his history classes, Dorian heard vague mentions of hippies that disappeared in that long-ago era, but Dorian in his time has no concept of the hippies, only that they were part of a “drug culture.” He realizes that he has stumbled upon the descendants of those Saurian abductees, living here in primitive squalor on Taurus Four. And they are a primitive bunch, sacrificing “virgin white” women to the “god in the well” so that the daels – ie the “devils” in their pidgin English – won’t come eat everyone. There is also the “daelsnarks” in the ocean, which apparently refers to sharks, but these go unseen.

Leading the hippies is a young man named Pete – all the leaders are named “Pete,” after the original Haight Ashbury hippie who brought them here – who uses his role to exercise his mean streak. There’s Billum, a young hippie who doesn’t appear to be as distrustful of Dorian as the others are. And most importantly there is “virgin white” Teeda, a lovely blonde Dorian falls instantly in love with, despite her innocent, “fawn-like” nature and primitive attitudes. Dorian is already engaged, his fiance back on Earth the usual strong female type, thus he constantly puts off the temptation to “take” Teeda, even though she clearly wants him and he her. There’s also the fact that she is being saved in her untouched condition to be given as the Great Sacrifice to the god in the well, part of the ancient belief structure that keeps the daels and daelsnarks at bay.

Speaking of which, these “savages,” as Dorian refers to them, are so primitive that the “god in the well” is merely one’s own reflection when gazing in a certain pool. They have regressed to such a state that they don’t even understand they are looking at their own face in the water. One thing they share with their hippie forebears is their love of weed; their “Sacred Garden” is filled with hemp, though surprisingly this isn’t much exploited by Vale. I mean there isn’t a single part where Dorian gets high. Instead, he spends most of his time transcribing “spools” of his sociologist findings, to be used as the material for a groundbreaking study upon his return to Earth.

Dorian also spends most of the time under guard in a cave, his precious “pack” with his stunner gun, clothes, and other gadgets separated from him. The hippies bring food to him; they only eat “manna,” a native fruit. He also gets occasional visits from Teeda, with the two falling in love, though Dorian has a habit of condescendingly referring to her as “dear girl.” Teeda’s need for Dorian’s strength is a new concept for him, given the strong females of Earth; subtext capably conveyed by Vale. Again, Vale’s connotation is clear that a “girl power” future might not make for the most attractive concept. 

Despite the coddled nature of his upbringing, with an overbearing mother and an overbearing fiance, Dorian is pretty tough, mostly due to his space training. Thanks to a few judo classes he can toss these dirty hippies around with ease; for “play” the hippie men like to engage one another in brutal wrestling matches, using those nails as claws. Even the toughest of them doesn’t stand a chance against portly Dorian, who due to the hardscrabble nature of hippie life on Taurus Four quickly slims down.

When Dorian learns that Teeda is planned as the next Great Sacrifice – to be raped by an increasingly-insane Pete beforehand – he makes his plan to escape the savages with her. But Dorian’s end game is a bit vague; he has no plans to take Teeda back to Earth with him, as his “grasshopper” transport ship is a single-seater. Also, he would be expressly forbidden to do any such thing by the captain of his mother ship. Dorian also has no plans to have sex with Teeda, to remain faithful to his fiance back home. But anyway he manages to stage an escape, thanks to a pair of friendly hippies, one of whom is Billum, Teeda’s brother.

Vale works in an imminent invasion subplot which is a bit clumsy; we’re told the bear-like daels came here long ago as part of a colonization fleet, but their ship crashed, and now the modern daels – who occasionally steal away hippie children and eat them! – are but pale reflections of the original crew. However a second colonization ship is supposed to come at a later date. Gee, guess when they’re coming? That’s right, shortly after Dorian crash-lands on the planet. Dorian learns all this from a dael female who “sings” her tale in their bizarre language, a language which Teeda understands, thanks to some tutoring from witch Bernedine. Dorian will be able to use Teeda’s knowledge of this language to get her off the planet, so as to warn off the invading ship of daels.

The finale sees Dorian finally mete out some payback to nutjob Pete, who we learn, upon finding out that Dorian and Teeda had escaped, went full-on psycho, even raping and killing an 8 year-old girl! His payback isn’t bloody enough, but he does show his cowardly colors when Dorian, a full-on man now thanks to the rigors of Taurus Four (not to mention the strength which has been borne in him thanks to the compassion and respect Teeda has shown him), challenges Pete to combat. Vale gets a few more digs in on her post-feminist future with the captain of Dorian’s mother ship, finally having come back to pick him up, marrying Dorian and Teeda as a slap in the face to Dorian’s mom and fiance, given how much trouble they got the captain in for abandoning Dorian when he crashed on the planet.

Overall Taurus Four is a quick, mostly entertaining read, though to tell the truth I would’ve preferred something more along the lines of “The Way To Eden,” with actual space hippies.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Black Against The Mob

Black Against The Mob, by Omar Fletcher
No month stated, 1977  Holloway House

This Holloway House paperback mines the same territory as the Iceman series – its characters are black and proud, baby! Omar Fletcher, who appears to have been a real person, turns out a fast-moving pulp crime novel (with touches of horror) that comes off very much like the literary equivalent of a Blaxploitation film. But speaking of which, disregard the misleading cover, with the Pam Grier-esque babe; the cover artist and blurb writer very much oversell the “sensuous voodoo goddess” angle.

This is quite possibly the angriest book I’ve yet reviewed on the blog. Anger against whites, Italians (aka “guineas”), America, you name it. The kind of book where the “hero” actually considers raping an otherwise-innocent mob secretary because his own woman was raped (and killed) by mobsters. Racist invective runs throughout the book, like how the protagonist, angry black criminal Malcolm Lemumba, thinks of Italians as, “Guineas! Jive mothers somewhere ‘tween white folks an’ gorillas!”

Not that Malcolm doesn’t have reason to be an angry young black man. In background material that is only hinted at, we learn that his wife and kid were “accidentally” killed by white cops during the riots of the late ‘60s. Now Malcolm hates “all whites,” though this doesn’t stop him from occasionally banging a white chick. In backstory that’s just as vaguely sprinkled throughout, Malcolm’s next round of hardship came just recently, when a girlfriend of sorts was raped and killed by mobsters out for revenge; Malcolm and his group had been knocking over mob-run establishments, culminating in a war between the two groups, with Malcolm even retaining the services of some “black Muslim brothers” in the fight.

Now, only Malcolm and his friend Omar Nusheba are still alive; even the Mafia don who was after them has been killed. Malcolm is known for a pair of pearl-handled Lugers, and he stashed these at the crime scene back in New York, hoping the two black Mulims with blown-apart faces would be confused with him and Omar, and the mob would think they were both dead. The two plan to drive to Los Angeles and fly to Hawaii with the cash they lifted, living out their years in paradise far from the Mafia.

Promptly the two get in a bar fight in LA with some whites who don’t cotton to how Malcolm and Omar are throwing money around, especially the way the two hot blonde waitresses keep responding so eagerly to them. The babes end up going back to their hotel room, but Fletcher is not an author to dwell much on sleaze – to be sure, there are some jawdropping phrases here and there, but as for actual hardcore stuff, nothing at all. Meanwhile our two heroes have indeed been spotted by the mob, and next day they are already running for their lives again. Malcolm puzzles over the how quickly this turnaround has occurred in one of those jawdropping phrases, “It was almost as if [the Mafia] had eyes in the pussy he had fucked the night before.”

Thanks to what appears to be an underground network of blacks who protect one another from “the Man,” Malcolm and Omar are able to evade the pursuing mobsters and get some guns from a dealer in Watts. Malcolm even gets a Luger, leading him to ponder over how fated all this seems to be. There are gunfights here and there, and Fletcher does dole out the gore, to a certain point, but nothing too extreme. There is some unintentional humor (at least from a modern perspective) when the Watts dealer has a master plan to get Malcolm and Omar’s guns onto the plane for Hawaii; all he does is stage a fight with some of his guys in the terminal, as a diversion, and then tosses a bag with the guns to our heroes as they pass by the security gate!

Near the halfway point the action moves to Oahu, Hawaii. However the mob is here, too, having found out Malcolm and Omar’s destination. The narrative often cuts over to Don Marco, in New York, consigliere to the previous don and still out for the blood of Malcolm and Omar. He wants to continue the vendetta. But our heroes are not without friends, themselves. The Watts gun-dealer told them to seek out Papa Loa in Oahu, a Haitian voodoo “hungan” who operates deep in the jungle, far from the “white man’s world.” The narrative treads an uneasy line between voodoo superstition and mob-busting action. Papa Loa has a group of followers, one of whom is Luani Kei, she of the vacant eyes and freezing cold skin; the “sensuous voodoo goddess” of the cover who barely even appears in the actual novel. Fletcher toys with the idea that Luani and many of Loa’s followers are actually zombies (of the voodoo sort, not the brain-eating sort).

The book is always entertaining, and Fletcher is a good writer, but it does settle into a repetitve rut…Don Marco heads on down to Hawaii to oversee the vendetta, and there are several parts that follow the same setup – Malcolm and Omar will sneak into the don’s high-rise hotel, threaten him or kill some of his goons, then head back to the plantation to talk to Papa Loa. This sequence of events repeats a few times. And these two are straight-up ‘70s mob-busters along the lines of The ExecutionerThe Revenger, or myriad others – only black!! Seriously though, these guys bust up some serious Mafia shit, making it all look easy.

The supernatural elements get stronger as the novel progresses. For one, Malcolm begins to wonder over how easily everything begins to happen for him – he sneaks to Don Marco’s hotel, for example, and it turns out the goons forgot to a lock a window, etc. In this way he suspects that Papa Loa is on to something, and that the voodoo gods are aiding he and Omar in their war against “the white man.” Also Malcolm is both infatuated and repulsed by Luani Kei, though Fletcher is maddeningly oblique about the repulsion part. There are a few parts where Malcolm sees Luani in daylight and something about her visage makes his flesh crawl. Again the insinuation is that she is a zombie. Also, Malcolm seems to forget what happens on the nights he spends with her, though it appears he does not have sex with her.

The climax is very much on the supernatural tip; Papa Loa vows to Malcolm that the voodoo gods have already deemed that Don Marco will die. Malcolm grudgingly waits to see what happens. The finale plays out with various mobsters either getting strangled or decapitated (by machete-wielding zombies!). Malcolm, who sort of stands on the sidelines while the final payback is being dished out, once again plants evidence that he and Omar died in the skirmish – and then the two bid Papa Loa adieu and head off for the “hidden island” of Nihau.

As mentioned, Fletcher’s writing is good, staying locked in Malcolm’s perspective for the majority of the tale, and thus filtering the proceedings through his rage. He doesn’t deliver much on the sleaze, other than the occasional oddball line, but he’s up there in the Joseph Rosenberger levels when it comes to the racist invective. I mean I even started to hate whitey while I was reading the book! However one can’t judge Fletcher for this, as the sequences with Don Marco are as anti-black as those with Malcolm are anti-white.

As I say, it’s an angry book, filled with the black and proud rage of the era’s Blaxploitation flicks, and if you like those then you will certainly like this – think of it as sort of a combo of Across 110th Street and Sugar Hill, filmed on the same location as Hawaii Five-O. Soundtrack by Isaac Hayes and Don Ho.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!)

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
March, 1957  Signet Books

Originally appearing as a four-part serial from October 1956 to January 1957 in Galaxy Science Fiction (available for free download at the Internet Archive hereherehere, and here), The Stars My Destination was published, in slightly different form,* in a single volume in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! in 1956. This Signet editon came out in 1957, under the Galaxy title and also featuring the edits of Galaxy editor H.L. Gold, more of which below.

I think I first became aware of this book over twenty years ago, when it received the Vintage Books reprint with the appropriate industry coverage. I got a copy at Half Price Bookstore, which I’d recently discovered, having just moved down here to Texas. (This was back in the days when books there were really half off, and LPs were super cheap…I mean I got “Abbey Road” for under two bucks!) When I read it at the time, I was surprised by how good the book really was. Re-reading it again these years later – I couldn’t believe how great it was.

At that time, one of the main proclamations about The Stars My Destination was how prescient it was, and how, despite being written in the mid 1950s, it felt so modern. In particular, it was championed by cyberpunk writers and readers. However I don’t think this is so much because Bester was prescient (not that he wasn’t); it’s that all those cyberpunk writers were ripping him off. There’s enough for five or six novels in The Stars My Destination, Bester hopping from plot development to plot development in true pulp style – it’s like comparing a super-compact, super-fast Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic from the ‘60s to a super-contrived, super-“cinematic” comic from today – and no surprise, given that Bester wrote comics for a time.

But the story changes, constantly. We meet our hero, Gulliver “Gully” Foyle, who is really more of a villain, adrift in space; the sole survivor of a ship called Nomad which has been crippled by a ship from the Outer Planets – it’s the 25th Century, the solar system is inhabited, and the inner planets of Earth, Mars, and Venus are at war with the outer ones. Foyle is a “common man,” a minor mechanic on the ship; at 30 years old, a guy who has never applied himself. But he’s managed to survive alone on this ship for 6 months. The ship is owned by Presteign, a vast corporation – another of those elments that makes the novel seem so modern is how powerful corporations have become – and when a sister ship, Vorga, finally passes him by, Foyle thinks he’s been saved. (We will later learn that this occurs on September 16, 2436.) But Vorga abandons him – and the common man is no more; Foyle is reborn for the sole purpose of revenge.

Bester made clear his intention to write a sci-fi version of The Count Of Monte Cristo, and that’s what we get here, but as mentioned it’s a lot more colorful, pulpy, and fast-moving. I wouldn’t say The Stars My Destination classifies as “forgotten fiction,” so I’ll forego my usual belabored, long-winded, digressive sort of review and just go for the highlights. Because basically if you haven’t read the novel, just go read it.

The stuff with “Foyle surviving in space” is enough for one novel, but before we can grasp it he’s been saved by “Joseph and the Scientific People” (a name for a ‘60s acid rock group if ever there was one), who live on the “Sargasso Asteroid” amid space detrius. Bester is a superb scene-setter and describer, and well brings to life these innovative future worlds – more presience in how these places are cluttered with the junk of the past. Joseph not only gives Foyle a “wife,” Moira, but also tattoos his face like a Maori mask, all in black, with “Nomad” emblazoned on his forehead. He does both these things without Foyle’s being aware of it, and much to Foyle’s wrath.

Before we can catch up with all this, we’re in New York, where Foyle’s secretly learning how to “jaunt” again. Another thing I recall from back when I first learned about this book; the reviewer in whatver magazine I was reading said something to the effect that, to enjoy The Stars My Destination, you’ll just have to accept the fact that, in this future century, human beings have abruptly discovered that they can teleport. I admit, I still think the jaunting stuff is goofy – and again, it’s enough for a novel all its own – but Bester has it that a scientist named Jaunte spontaneously teleported in the lab one day, and from there it spread that practically all mankind could do the same. Bester has really thought the whole jaunting thing out, too, with “jaunt-mazes” and people escaping citywide destruction instantly, to even the women of the 25th century being practically “cloistered” due to concerns of improriety.

Speaking of which, Foyle rapes a woman in this section – a scene which makes clear that he’s not a hero. Initially I thought this was so Bester could give the Galaxy artist a “spicy” scene to illustrate (which he does), but it turns out that there’s more here than that. The victim is a “lovely Negro girl” named Robin Wednesbury who also happens to be a telesend, meaning she can broadcast her thoughts – usually unintentionally – but cannot receive them. This is a “century of freaks” as Bester describes it, but in reality it’s like the comic books he had written, only normal people have superpowers. But Foyle rapes her – the act of course off-page – after she’s learned he can jaunt, despite being in her beginner’s class. In truth, the “rape” deal is sort of awkwardly used – it happens apropos of nothing and is not dealt with again until later in the book. Plotwise, Bester wants Foyle to do something awful for which he’ll later want to be forgiven.

Special warning: this rape scene is known to trigger the sensitive readers of today, most of whom fail to grasp that 1.)Foyle is not a good guy, or at least doesn’t start out as one; 2.)And, most importantly, that Foyle spends the entire last quarter of the novel wanting to be punished for his raping of Robin. I already had a run-in with a reviewer who took the opportunity to rail against the “fucking vile” treatment of the women in this novel. She was not grasping – no doubt intentionally not grasping – the two items mentioned above, not to mention the fact that Bester clearly states that, due to jaunting, the women of the 25th century do not have the freedoms of today’s women. Also not to mention the fact that, you know, the entire crux of the novel is sin, redemption, and forgiveness.

She also failed to grasp how important women actually are in The Stars My Destination, and that each of them has an impact on the future of the entire galaxy. More importantly, Robin Wednesbury has the power of forgiveness, telling Foyle in the end sequence – in a cool psychedelic bit that takes place thirty years in the future – that “all that is long forgotten and forgiven,” or something to that effect. I can’t recall too many pulp novels in which the act of forgiveness is employed. But this is just one of the many things that elevates The Stars My Destination above the norm.

Another thing elevating it is the multiple characters. While you have Foyle with his tattooed face running around like a bull in a china shop, you also have Presteign of Presteign, his daughter Olivia (who in another comic booky element can only see in infra-red), CIA honcho Y’ang Yeovil (who is Chinese but doesn’t look it – in another bit of prescience Bester has race becoming a moot point in the future; due to jaunting, races have mixed to the point that most everyone has the same complexion); female radical Jisbella McQueen, whom Foyle meets in prison and who basically educates him (and I have to admit I got a sophomoric chuckle out of how Foyle always called her “Jiz;” now you tell me if “Jiz McQueen” isn’t a pornstar name waiting to happen); Dagenham, a former scientist who now runs a sort of courier company, who is “hot” due to radiation; and a host of minor characters, from a doctor who keeps a circus of surgically-augmented freaks to a child telepath who is 70 years old.

Just as compelling are the colorful scenes Bester captures throughout, all of which are incredibly cinematic. Foyle is sent to infamous undergrond French prison Gouffre Martel early in the novel, a place that is pitch black; in his inevitable escape, Foyle gets hold of a pair of infra-red goggles worn by the guards, and Bester appropriately brings the setting to life. It’s in Gouffre Martel that Foyle meets Jiz, who teaches him over the course of several months via the “Whisper Line:” a freak occurrence in the caves which allows them to converse, even though they’re separated by miles. They take up a sort of correspondence class, and Foyle’s character begins to subtly change, losing the “gutter” language he started the novel with. They also fall in love, sort of, and eventually have sex – though of course Bester leaves it off page, and for that matter isn’t much for exploiting his female characters, in fact barely even describing them.

And again the material with Jiz and Foyle is enough for its own novel, in particular a gripping part where they take a “Saturn Weekender” out into space (one of the things I like about the novel is that it doesn’t stay Earth-bound throughout) to find the wreckage of Nomad, now integrated into the Sargasso Asteroid. Foyle has determined that something valuable must be there – he’s found out there are millions of credits, but what he doesn’t know is that the true treasure aboard is all that exists of PyrE, an experimental substance which we’ll eventually learn could not only hold the key to the balance of the Inner-Outer Planets war, but also to the future of mankind. The scene is masterfully built up and played out, as Foyle, consumed only with his vengeance, actually abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men.

My favorite part soon follows; now we are very much in the “Count Of Monte Cristo in the future” mold, as Foyle, a millionaire many times over, poses as eccentric Fourmyle of Ceres, who runs the punningly named “Four Mile Circus.” More importantly, Foyle has had “Space Commando” surgery to his body, which has augmented his reflexes to inhuman speeds. (I wonder if this “fast reaction time” business might have inspired author Robert Vardeman in his unpublished volume of The Baroness.) Foyle is now “more machine than man,” and with a touch of his tongue on an upper molar, he can go into Six Million Dollar Man-type superhuman speed.

More comic-booky is that, thanks to Jiz earlier paying some quack doctor, Foyle has had his face tattoos surgically removed, but he later discovers that, when he is angry or consumed with passion – or basically anything that makes him lose control of himself – the tattoo reappears on his face, but this time it is red. So now we have a red-faced “tiger” with “Space Commando” reflexes, and it’s very cool, and Bester delivers several thrilling parts where Foyle, face glaring red, activates his speed setting and takes out pursuers Matrix style, wiping them out in fractions of a second. However Bester does not dwell much on violence, and there’s certainly no gore in the novel.

Also returning here is Robin Wednesbury, whom Cyrano de Bergerac style Foyle has hired to be his social mediator, introducing “Fourmyle” to all the jet-setters, but really using her telesending skills to let him know who is who so that his cover never falters. More dramatic sparks here with Robin learning that Foyle is the same “monster” who raped her, but deciding at length to assist him, mainly so she can use him to discover the fate of her family, who appear to have been casualties of the solar system war. This entire sequence is a lot of fun, with the two jaunting around the world and tracking down the crew of Vorga; it also introduces the eerie “Burning Man,” a flame-consumed vision of Foyle which keeps appearing in front of Foyle and others at random intervals.

On and on it goes – the novel’s not even 300 pages but man is it meaty. In fact it’s breathless. Today, it would’ve been written as a trilogy (at least!), but then today it wouldn’t have been half as brutal or pulpy. Bester, despite writing in 1956, even factors in psychedelic stuff, from various reality-warping drugs to a finale which sees Foyle – having of course become the Burning Man due to PyrE – jaunting across the space-time continnuum, the text warping and expanding courtesy artist Jack Gaughan. There’s another great psychedelic visual sequence where Foyle stands beside Olivia Presteign while the Earth is being bombarded by intergalactic missiles; the Earth defense system kicks in, up in the night sky, but only Olivia can see it, due to her infra-red vision, and her descriptions to Foyle are downright lysergic.

The Stars My Destination starts off being about Gulliver Foyle’s drive for revenge, not to mention his lunkheadedness – he starts the novel so simple-minded that he literally wants revenge on Vorga, ie the ship itself, before Jiz informs him that it’s the crew who made the decision to abandon him – or, as she so wonderfully puts it, that Foyle must begin to use “brains, not bombs.” The novel gradually diverges into the Monte Cristo parallel with Space Commando trimmings, before changing again into a metaphysical probing of mankind’s right to determine its own fate, not to mention its right to travel the stars. Fittingly for old comic writer Bester, the philosophy behind this comes from a bartender android, whose circuits are shorting due to Dagenham’s radioactivity.

Anyway to finally sum up (and there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t even mentioned!), I rank The Stars My Destination as one of my favorite novels, up there with Boy Wonder.

*The publishing history of the novel is a little scewy. After a lot of research – imagine my “shock” when none of this could be found on “usually reliable” Wikipedia – I’ve discovered the following: 

There are three versions of the book extant: the original Galaxy serial, collected in this Signet paperback; the UK version, titled Tiger! Tiger!; and finally the 1996 Vintage Books edition, which per the copyright page features a “special restored” text. This last one might be the definitive version, as it tries to find a healthy balance between the original US and UK editions.

The Galaxy and Signet versions feature minor edits, courtesy Galaxy editor H.L. Gold; I found a reference in some book that Bester often complained that Gold made unwarranted edits to his text. However the differences I found when comparing the serialized version to the Vintage Books edition – and it wasn’t a thorough A/B test – were minimal. It appears that most of the material Gold added was for purposes of clarification. For example, early in the book during the Sargasso Asteroid sequence, Bester notes that the tattooed names on the faces of the women feature an “O” with a “tiny cross at the base.”  He leaves it at that, but Gold adds, “the sign of Venus and female sex.” When Dagenham visits Foyle in prison, he reminds Foyle (and the reader): “I’m dangerously radioactive, you know.” This does not appear in the Vintage/UK edition, and clearly was inserted by Gold because this sequence appeared in the second serialized installment; Dagenham was introduced in the first. Gold also removed minor things – sometimes, I feel, for the better. Like during the tense scene where Foyle abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men in space. In the US edition, Jiz merely screams, “Help me, Gully!”

The UK edition does not feature Gold’s edits, but it does feature the edits of some unknown and apparently skittish UK editor; most notably, all of Foyle’s promises that he will kill Vorga “filthy” are changed to “deadly.” In the sequence with Dagenham’s men capturing Jiz, mentioned in the paragraph above, Jiz has the additional dialog, “Do something, Gully! I’m lost!” I think these extra lines interfere with the intensity of the sequence. Finally, the psychedelic printing tricks of Chapter 15, courtesy artist Jack Gaughan, do not appear; at least, so I have been able to determine, in most of the original UK editions.

The Vintage edition from 1996 is basically the British version, Tiger! Tiger!, only with the US title and without the H.L. Gold edits, but it does have “filthy” instead of “deadly.” Otherwise I think it is the same as the version detailed in the paragraph above, save that this Vintage edition features the psychedelic font tricks in Chapter 15.

Personally, I most prefer the original US version, as presented here in the Signet edition. I think Gold’s edits are, for the most part, beneficial to Bester’s text. But the Vintage Books edition is much easier to acquire these days – it’s still in print 22 years after it was published – so that’s probably the one I’d recommend. Or you could just follow the links way up above and read the original version, as serialized in Galaxy.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Butcher #6: Kill Time

The Butcher #6: Kill Time, by Stuart Jason
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

The sixth volume of The Butcher follows the same template as the previous five, once again courtesy James “Stuart Jason” Dockery, whose bizarre writing style is impossible to miss. I’d love to know more about this guy, but information seems less than scant. I also wish he’d been a bit more experimental in his Butcher manuscripts instead of turning in the same story, again and again.

This one offers a few new quirks: for one, we learn in a prologue the history of our godlike hero, Bucher, nee “the Butcher,” and currently “Iceman” for the top-secret intelligence agency White Hat. He was deposited as a newborn on the steps outside a church in Knoxville; Reverend Isham Green, a roaring drunk, happened to be reading a book on Church notables when the government clerk came by to name the baby, and the book happened to be on the page about Bucher, a famous 16th Century botanist or somesuch. The reverend was too drunk to realize he’d just given one name for the child, and the government clerk was too bored – so “Bucher” it was, and nothing more.

When he was a young boy Bucher ran away from the orphanage and ended up in Chicago, where he befriended the son of Tino Oragio, a kid Bucher’s age who was dying of leukemia and who looked upon Bucher as his brother. Tino Oragio meanwhile was the head of a newly-formed crime syndicate. When the boy died Bucher basically became Tino’s new son, going up in the ranks of the syndicate until he was a bigwig himself. We learn that Tino was gunned down 11 years later, when Bucher was 21, and from there our hero went on to even greater Syndicate heights until he had the famous bout of conscience which resulted in his quitting the Syndicate and eventually becoming an agent for White Hat.

That taken care of, it’s on to the Butcher template as we know it. Bucher’s in New York, on the latest case, and per the norm being hounded by a couple of freakish Syndicate gunners out for the reward on his head. Leading them is Coke Leedoe, a rat-faced ghoul who, in the usual grand guignol-esque vibe of the series, is known for crucifying his victims and flaying off their skin. Dockery actually tries to build up tension here, with Bucher surrounded by six gunners, and wondering if he’ll survive – as if the author thinks those of us who read the previous five volumes don’t understand that Bucher is practically God with a gun.

For once the elderly director of White Hat is on the scene, wielding an EX-M27 experimental machine gun which he doesn’t even use; cagey foreshadowing, as Bucher later uses this very same gun in the climax. Bucher takes out all six gunners before they can even fire, all while the director watches in satisfaction. Strangely, the director insists that Bucher allow the police to arrest him, to avoid more of a mess, so White House can spring him – cue the usual scene of the crusty police flunky getting his mind blown over how he has been ordered to let a notorious criminal like Bucher go scot free. However for once this time we don’t get the “illegal for God to own” bit about Bucher’s silencer.

The director gives Bucher his latest task: to prevent the “Uccidere Ogni” (aka “kill all”) that depraved, sadistic, simian Big Ugo Ugheri is trying to wage between his Syndicate family and the Talaferro family. The mere thought of Ugo makes Bucher have nausea – as usual he knows the guy from his own Syndicate past – and he considers Ugo “the worst of the lot by far.” Anyone who has read any previous volumes knows this is quite a statement. And Ugo truly is a horrific creature, a mass of muscle whose entire body is covered by hair, save for around his eyes; he likes to cage women, make them go insane, and rape them at his whim. But as usual with Dockery, he keeps this monstrous villain off-page until the very end of the book.

Bucher’s job is to find lovely young Theresa Talaferro, who Romeo & Juliet style plans to marry young Mark Ugheri, a union which would end the Uccidere Ogni and unite the families. But Ugo doesn’t want this, and Theresa has disappeared, last seen in familiar Butcher stomping grounds of Atlanta, where she was spotted with immigrants Jose and Francesca Hiacha. Bucher heads there promptly, even thinking back to the events of #1: Kill Quick Or Die and how he broke the local operation of Big Sid Lujac.

Action is infrequent, and follows the usual template: bizarro Syndicate flunkies tail Bucher, try to get the drop on him and collect the bounty, and Bucher summarily disposes of them with his silencered P-38. But Bucher sort of acts the fool in this one, practically falling in love with a woman to the point that his guard, for once, is totally let down. After getting zero info out of Francesca Hiacha, other than seemingly-unconnected info about a leftist anti-American party based out of Guatemala called the Contrados, Bucher ends up running into a young assistant theater director named Gretchen who has a top ten figure (“truly a priceless rarity of her sex”) mixed with a “comically ugly face.” 

Dockery has a grand old time describing how ugly indeed Gretchen is, but she is otherwise lovely and has maintained her schoolgirl crush on Bucher, even keeping a few scrapbooks of his exploits. She insists that Bucher come back to her place to hide out, and as per usual with these stories, Bucher has no leads and thus nothing to do, so he accepts the offer. Also as per usual, Dockery keeps the ensuing sex off-page. Indeed, Dockery is a rarity himself, at least in the world of men’s adventure authors, in that he rarely ever exploits his female characters – there is seldom if ever much salivating detail on “supple breasts” and whatnot, and, at least for me, his material with Bucher’s conquests each volume have almost a clinical feel.

On page 95 we get the expected plot switch – Whte Hat says skip the Ugheri-Talaferro jazz and head to Guatemala, because the big threat now is that Big Ugo got hold of an experimental weaponized fungus, created by Mark Talaferro (who happens to be a biochemist!), and he has sold it to the Contrados (remember them?), who no doubt will use it to destroy the US. Francesca Hiacha informs Bucher that her brother might be involved in this as well, and also if that Bucher goes to Tatzl, Guatemala, headquarters of the Contrados, to watch out for the Kechecotl Indians: notorious headhunters who nonetheless prophecize that a white man will impregnate one of their women with the Kechecotl messiah(!).

So who will be surprised when Bucher, clad in tweed outdoors clothing(!) and armed with C-4 and that EX-M27 gun, runs smack dab into these very same Indians not even an hour outside of Tatzl? But though they surround him, they smile in welcome. Strange shit here, as Bucher meets two captive westerners, each who have been here several years and who consider the place paradise. More goofy but expected stuff: Bucher just so happens to speak ancient Mayan(!) and easily converses with the Indians, who unexpectedly take this as a surefire sign that he is the prophecized one. Meanwhile the native women are described as squat and ugly and Bucher “harbor[s] no inclinations for shagging any of the Kechecotl women.”

Again reflecting on a previous caper – namely, how he found himself in a similar predicament in North Africa with a tribe of warriors in #4: Blood Debt – Bucher repeats history by bluffing his way out of this enforced stud service and putting together a band of warriors. The Indians hate the Contrados, who lurk nearby – but it’s another Dockery fakeout, as when they get there the action’s mostly off-hand as the Contrados are gone, the fungus virus taken with them. And guess where it’s gone? That’s right – back to Atlanta!! Again, it is clear that Bucher is cast in a sort of purgatory, reliving the same events over and over and over – it’s a recurring staple that the climactic events occur in one of the previous locations Bucher visited in his fruitless wanderings. Oh, and the entire Kechecotl subplot is abruptly dropped.

Meanwhile, in yet another recurring element, this volume’s leading lady has appeared as deus ex machina as possible; young Gretchen, who has chartered a plane and come down to Tatzl, due to her love of Bucher. Our hero has more off-page sex with the horrifically ugly but incredibly built babe, only to discover next morning that “Gretchen” is really Theresa Talaferro, who disguised her lovely face with makeup! She professes her love to Bucher, claiming the “Gretchen” scam was a way to avoid her Syndicate family, and also that the marriage to Mark Talaferro was itself a sham, as he plans to marry some Sicilian girl and thus the family war will be averted(!). Despite her young age of 18, she vows to Bucher that she is now “his woman,” like it or not.

The final scene has Bucher staging an assault on the Contrado HQ in Atlanta, where he finally comes face to face with Big Ugo in his room of caged, psychotic beauties – almost a prefigure of TNT #1. The grand guignol vibe continues as Bucher first beats Big Ugo to bloody meat with his brass knuckles, and then the psycho women are accidentally freed, and then they converge on Ugo and eat him. However the biggest shock is this – Theresa Talaferro survives the novel!! I figured it would be a given that she’d turn up in Big Ugo’s lair in the finale, his latest caged victim, but for once Dockery foregoes the usual template and Bucher’s latest bedmate lives through the novel. The last we see of Theresa, she’s in Atlanta and tells Bucher she’ll be waiting for him. We’ll see if she appears or is even mentioned next volume.

I’m on the fence about The Butcher. There’s something I really like about it – the sadistic, whackjob freaks of Dockery’s Syndicate are always fun to read about – but the repetitive nature of the stories kind of sink it. And I always find the stuff with Bucher being hunted more interesting than the latest “spy caper” he’s been sent on. As I’ve mentioned before, what’s most frustrating is that Dockery can write, so you expect more of him when it comes to the plotting. If he’d backed up a bit on the dark comedy and treated it all slightly more seriously, I think he would’ve had the best Pinnacle series of them all. But instead he’s content to basically write the same tale over and over again, which ultimately means that taking long breaks between volumes makes for the best Butcher reading experience.

Here’s the last paragraph:

With no little effort Bucher made himself look over the big room once more then he turned tiredly from the gory scene. Wearily he made his way toward the door through which he had entered, the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong in his mouth.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Logan's World (Logan's Run #2)

Logan's World, by William F. Nolan
December, 1977  Bantam Books

Ten years after Logan’s Run, William Nolan returned to the character he had created in July, 1963 (per the Author’s Afterward of this book); this time he wrote the book without a co-author, and picked up hero Logan 3’s life ten years after the events of the previous book. My assumption was Nolan was trying to catch fire, what with Logan’s Run the film coming out the year before and Logan’s Run the TV series (which was very short lived) coming out the same year as this book. But it does not appear that Logan’s World resonated as strongly as its predecessor did.

The original book was almost two halves; the first was about Logan in his psychedelicized future world, playing Sandman and slowly gaining a conscience. The second half was a series of mostly disconnected adventures, with Logan and new “pairmate” Jessica 6 running around their strange post-nuke world, being chased by other Sandmen and encountering a host of bizarre “outcasts,” all of whom wanted to kill them. Of the two halves, I vastly preferred the first, even more so in the film version, which as I stated in my review I also preferred to the source novel. So you can imagine my dismay that, for the most part, Logan’s World follows the vibe of the second half of Logan’s Run, with Logan running around a post-nuke Earth and encountering a variety of bizarre “outcasts” and former Sandmen, all of whom are out for his blood.

Nolan has published many, many novels, and is well respected in the sci-fi field, but I’m having a hard time connecting with his writing. I’m not the type of reader who needs every little thing spelled out for me, but boy, Nolan really expects his readers to do a lot of heavy lifting. Hardly anything is described, and what is described is done so in the vaguest manner possible. Most characters and items aren’t described at all – for example, Logan spends the first half of the book flying around the country in a “paravane,” and I had no idea what the thing was supposed to look like. But then it seems description would’ve made the book longer, and Nolan appears to have been going for speed, and thus brevity; the novel is filled with single-line paragraphs and in many ways comes off more like an outline than an actual completed novel.

Another hindrance to my enjoyment: the reader can’t help but feel, through the first quarter or so of Logan’s World, that he has missed an earlier sequel. It’s ten years on and all kinds of stuff has happened – Logan and Jessica escaped to the moon colony Argos, where they had a son, Jaq, but over the years the ships bringing the food stopped coming and famine has resulted in most all of Argos being dead, and now Logan and family have come back to Earth, ten years after the last novel, to survive. And six years ago Ballard, the guy who got Logan to the sanctuary of Argos and saved so many others, came down to Earth, destroyed the AI construct “the Thinker,” and thus broke down the entire roboticized civilization of America, sacrificing himself.

But all the above is slowy eked out in the fast-moving narrative, to the point that nothing has any impact. We’re caught up on important things almost in hindsight. For example, we’re told Logan and Jessica have a son, and the next page we’re told he’s already dying of an Earth-borne virus his Argos-raised body has no natural defenses against. For that matter, Jaq has like a line or two in the book, and makes no connection with the reader, and thus his fate, while terrible, doesn’t have the impact it should. We don’t even know for sure what happened to Ballard until midway through. But anyway all the stuff I liked so much about the first half of Logan’s Run is gone; when Ballard killed the Thinker and shut down the mechanisms that ran society, all that stuff like the “hallucimils” and the domed cities and whatnot ceased to be. Indeed, the city people are now known, goofily enough, as “the Wilderness people.”

Logan when we meet him is squatting in an old colonial mansion on the Potomac, fretting over his rapidly-dying son. Logan is not re-introduced to us with much fanfare, however he is consumed with guilt over his Sandman past. There are many scenes throughout where he will flash back or dream about a past Sandman kill, constantly reminding himself that he had no choice at the time. Local Wildnerness People leader Jorath tells Logan that a certain serum could cure young Jaq, but it’s a hot commodity on the black market; Logan will have to venture into the crime-ridden area of “the Arcade” to find any.

So Logan pulls the first of many dumb stunts in the novel, plumb leaving Jessica and Jaq to their own defenses, without even a weapon – Logan we learn threw away his own “Gun” (ie his Sandman Gun, always capitilized), and he himself goes into Arcade on his “paravane” with nothing to defend himself. Right on cue, a gang of “outcasts,” dressed in lace and Florentine styles and dubbing themselves “the Borgias” move in on the colonial mansion, abduct Jessica, kill Jaq (the cardinal pulp rule broken in like the first twenty pages – ie a kid is killed), and make off with their booty. We will later learn that Jessica is repeatedly raped and gang-raped and even lez-raped, given Borgia leader Lucrezia’s sapphic impulses. Gee, I wonder why this one wasn’t made into a movie, too?

Logan, after being chased by various thugs, gets the serum, only to get back home and find the corpse of his son. A harrowing moment, but one that is ruined by the terse, outline-esque treatment the novel receives. Worse yet, Logan hardly even reflects over the boy, and when he does occasionally think of him, it is to fuel his rage. Folks, my son turns a year old tomorrow, and if something God forbid were to happen to him, I don’t think I’d be capable of rushing into action for revenge, at least not as promptly as Logan does. I mean, you’d think the dude would be just a little upset. But then Logan is just a cipher, really. He’s out for blood and wants to get Jessica back, too. So he does what any other former Sandman would do, finds an old Runner named Andar who happens to be a seer, and who looks into his mind and tells Logan that Jessica has been taken to the Florida Keys!

Nolan also isn’t much for paying off on reader expectations; we want to see Lucrezia and her sadistic underlings pay, and pay bloodily. But when Logan sows his vengeance, wielding a newly-acquired Sandman Gun and blasting away with undescribed rounds like “Flamers” and “Rippers,” it’s merely rendered as: “It was over very quickly. In a pain-blurred rage, Logan killed them all.” That’s it, folks. I mean, I would’ve liked to have seen a few “Rippers” to the crotches of the rapists, and maybe some special torment for the bastard who killed Jaq. But it’s this very outline-esque vibe that undermines the novel throughout. Oh, and Lucrezia, before meeting her own quickly-rendered fate, informs Logan that Jessica is dead.

Well, we’re not even a quarter of a way through the novel yet, so that’s not good – I mean Logan’s already lost his wife and his kid. So eventually he hits on the idea of dosing himself with R-11, a drug that, in the old days, was used in special “Re-Live” parlors. R-11 allows users to re-live their lives, but the parlors gave exact doses that allowed specific moments to be re-lived; Logan wants to take a heroic dose and lose himself in the past, forever. He has to go all the way to “the New York Complex” to find any of the expensive and rare stuff; it’s in the hands of a woman named Lacy 14, who runs a black market empire from a building that still functions, given that it was not connected to the Thinker in the old days and thus didn’t shut down when Ballard destroyed the AI.

The novel is a bit more spicy than its predecessor, not that we get much detail or anything – Logan just gets laid a lot more. Lacy’s demanded “payment” for the R-11 is to watch Logan screw two sexy black women; Logan decides, what the hell, to “lose himself in flesh” and complies. The act happens off-page. In return, Lacy gives Logan a “full dex” of the drug, as well as a room to occupy for his trip. The novel takes a psychedelic turn as we get fractured moments from Logan’s past, presented wily-nily, from his childhood to his Sandman days to finally his time with Jessica and Jaq. But meanwhile Lacy has decided to kill Logan for his Gun (not sure why she can’t just take it, as he’s comatose from the drug), and poisons the room.

Logan’s ass is saved by the telepathic aid of Dia, beautiful blonde daughter of Andor. He gets his Gun, maybe kills Lacy (he shoots her with a “Tangler,” which I guess is maybe a net?), and escapes. But the reader questions why Logan even wants to live. His goal with R-11 was to escape this horrible new world without his wife and kid, and to live in the past. So why should he be concerned he’s going to die? Actually, he would die while in the re-live grip of the R-11, ie with his family again, so wouldn’t death be exactly what he’d want at that moment? But Nolan hopes the reader won’t think of this.

Instead, Logan goes and lives in a coral castle along the sea with Dia and her equally-beautiful sister. I mean why not?? More off-page sex for Logan, who is so consumed with the telepathic women that he’s about to give in to their requests that he deny his actual sight and join them in full telepathy, blinding himself via a large mirror(!?). Once again someone shows up just in the nick of time to save Logan’s ass; Wildnerness leader Jorath, who brings word that Jessica is alive, after all. Lucrezia Borgia was lying, in a vain attempt to save her life.

The final quarter of the novel is comprised of Logan freeing Jessica from the grip of Gant, a former Sandman who has gathered together an army of former Sandmen, all of whom still hate Logan for his treachery in the first book. And Gant, we’re told, has long been Logan’s archenemy. Gant might be black; I’m not sure, again due to Nolan’s vague descriptions, which merely inform us that Gant is almost seven feet tall and has “dark, burnished skin,” whatever that means. He also has replaced his teeth with rubies. He makes his base on Crazy Horse mountain, in the Dakotas, a familiar setting from the previous book, as here was the home of the Thinker, which sprawled across entire acres. Now Gant is repairing the computer with the intent of taking over the world anew.

Meanwhile he has purchased Jessica, from Lucrezia Borgia of course, and uses her to taunt Logan. Our hero again comes off poorly, captured promptly and thrust into a “stormroom,” where he is battered by artifcially-controlled elements to the point of insanity and incontinence. Gant tosses the near-vegetable Logan into a cave with Jessica, who tends to him, and periodically shows up to force Jessica to whip Logan for his amusement. Weird, wild stuff, as my man Johnny Carson would say. 

But Logan’s saved again, this time courtesy Mary-Mary, a teen girl who apparently once met Jessica, back when the City was still alive. She’s part of a resistance movement dedicated to stopping Gant. The finale sees an incredibly drawn-out sequence in which a healed Logan marshals a strike force against Gant’s men, with the intent of destroying the Thinker (again). Meanwhile various characters are captured anew, forcing periodic rescue attempts. The finale goes down as expected, with Gant’s plot foiled and the Thinker again destroyed – blown up real good.

“I intend to keep [Logan] running for a long time to come!” Nolan assures us in the Author’s Afterward, but as it turns out, only one more novel was forthcoming: Logan’s Search, in 1980. Perhaps the failure of the TV series, coupled with the failure of this novel to attain the fame of its predecessor, soured him on the idea of doing much more.