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Worlds Without End by Clifford D. Simak, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance in 1956)

The Dream Center provides suspended animation, with or without a constructed dream. Norman Blaine is a minor functionary there who finds his boss dead and a notice his own promotion lying on the floor. The security chief makes cryptic remarks but assures him that his promotion is safe and that his boss committed suicide, but Blaine begins to wonder if there isn’t something sinister taking place within the organization. Then a recent revived person escapes and tells Blaine that he was given a dream nothing like what he’d asked for, and that he thinks there is something wrong at the Dream Center. Blaine decides to keep the fugitive hidden while he investigates. He discovers it is all a plot to develop sociological information that might tip the balance in the world’s ongoing power struggle among the various guilds. Almost through chance, Blaine ends up briefly head of Dreams and he exposes the plot in a rather perfunctory and not very satisfying ending. This was not one of Simak’s successful stories. 6/30/14

The Silver Menace by Murray Leinster, Black Dog, 2007   

Two related novelets from 1919, neither previously reprinted. The first is “A Thousand Degrees Below Zero”.  A brilliant megalomaniac has found a way to create gigantic ice flows in warm water and has blockaded Gilbraltar, New York City, and elsewhere, demanding that he be made ruler of the world. The title story has the same scientist heroes battling a natural disaster, an ecological problem that turns the oceans into a thick mud that impedes sea going vessels. They’re both pretty dated and the science is bizarre, but if you can ignore the hokey explanations, the characters respond in a logical fashion to the situations they face. Leinster became a much better writer with practice but his basic talents are visible here. 6/27/14

The Unearthly Child by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1981  

This is the novelization of the very first Doctor Who adventure. The Doctor and the Tardis are hidden in a junkyard while Susan, who calls him grandfather, is attending a London school. Two of Susan’s concerned teachers follow her home, meet the Doctor, discover that the Tardis is more than just a police box, and are carried back to human prehistory when the Doctor activates the machine rather than let Susan leave to stay in London in 1963. They have to deal with a tribe of cavemen, some of whom are hostile, and a rampaging tiger before escaping, and even then they can’t be certain where they are being taken, although we know it is the planet Skaros where the Doctor will first encounter the Daleks. This was hardly one of the more interesting adventures but it got everything started. 6/26/14

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil, Grove, 2014, $27, ISBN 978-0-8021-2215-5

Although this is set in an alternate near future Russia, it doesn't feel like our near future Russia. Twin brothers work in a vast, partially automated agricultural complex where their different views on a variety of subjects moves them in apparently opposite directions. One has pleased the higher ups and seems destined to have a successful future, while the other has all he can do to keep a job as a menial worker. That doesn't necessarily mean he's the less happy of the pair. The story deals not just with the interactions among the individual characters but also treats the way society and the individual, and groups of individuals, impact one another. Although it's set in the rational universe, there is also a hint of myth and legend added to the mix. Weil's prose is exceptional and the story, while perhaps slow to set its hook into the reader, never relinquishes its hold. 6/25/14

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey, Orbit, 2014, $27, ISBN 978-3-316-21762-0 

I had thought that the third Expanse novel would be the last, but I’m happy to say I was wrong. This one opens with humans spreading to the first colony worlds, thanks to an abandoned alien technology, where those who would be independent clash with corporations which want exclusive control of the worlds they develop. Our old friend James Holden is back, sent to mediate between the two sides, but trouble has started even before he arrives. Some of the colonists damage an incoming shuttle and kill the planetary governor, among others, leaving a homicidal security man in charge. Then the same group murders several security people to cover their tracks. The head of security retaliates by killing one of the colonists, by chance the leader of the insurgent group, right in front of Holden, who accuses him of murder. But with better than a year’s distance from Earth, Holden’s supposed authority relies on the goodwill of both parties, and neither side likes him. Looming over everything are hints that the local ecology is more dangerous than people realize, the mystery of what force it was that caused an obviously superior alien civilization to abandon the world, and the growing activity of an alien construct that is slowly awakening. Like its predecessors, this one picks up speed early and the reader has to hang on with both hands as it hurtles toward the ending. Absolutely great novel, and best of all, there’s obviously more to come. 6/24/14

The Terror of Fu Manchu by William Patrick Maynard, Black Coat, 2009   

The problem with many pastiches is that they don’t capture the tone of their originals. That’s not the case here with this revival of Sax Rohmer’s most famous character, Dr. Fu Manchu. He’s back in England contending with a group of occultists as well as his tradition opponents, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie. This is set somewhere early in the series since Petrie has met Karamaneh but has not yet freed her from Fu Manchu’s grasp. Petrie sets off to France accompanying the daughter of a murdered man when a prescient dream enables Petrie to thwart an attempt to poison the woman. Where Rohmer always tried to provide a scientific explanation for all of Fu Manchu’s wonders, Maynard seems more inclined to cite supernatural influences. In France they meet detective Gaston Max, who was a recurring character in his own series from Rohmer. Then the young woman attempts to murder Petrie, acting under hypnotic influence, but is prevented from doing so by Max.  The story falters a bit in the second half. Petrie is taken prisoner again after a series of encounters that are unfocused and occasionally unclear. There is a giant serpent, crocodiles, the Seal of Solomon, and other wonders and terrors galore. It’s a fun book, and a better pastiche than most. 6/22/14

Seeders by A.J. Colucci, Thomas Dunne, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-1250042897   

This thriller about plant communication is a mix of good and bad writing. On a remote island, a botanist conducting unusual experiments is taken over and eventually killed by a plant based intelligence. His daughter is trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband, a police detective, and has two sons, one of whom has been unable or unwilling to talk since being injured in an accident. She decides to take her sons and a visiting teenage girl to the island for a couple of weeks after her father dies. The set up isn’t bad at all. But then there are irritating little miscues. I can’t imagine any legal way that the policeman could have the daughter of a woman he arrested in his home. There’s a press conference for a scientist studying plant communication that is sprinkled with absurd questions that no journalist would ask and answers that no scientist would provide.  The story is still suspenseful enough that I ordered a copy of the author’s earlier novel, but somewhere along the line an editor or someone should have pointed out the bad spots, which could have been easily fixed. 6/21/14

The Girl Who Loved Death by Paul W. Fairman, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1952)

This is just a novelette despite the packaging. A detective is hired to find a young woman who has gone missing. He visits her apartment, finds her mother in a catatonic state, notices a doll in a box, and then is clobbered in true private eye fashion from behind. When he comes to, he calls for medical help, but the mother never shows up at the hospital. It turns out that people are being shrunk and exported to Time Eight, in which everything is smaller.  The fairly good prose can’t support the completely absurd story but if you not only suspend but banish your sense of disbelief, this is mildly fun. 6/19/14

Slave Planet by Laurence Janifer, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1963)

This novel concerns the morality of slavery – humans essentially enslaving an alien planetary populace – but its objectivity is called into question when the author tells us that slavery has traditionally been harder on the masters than on the slaves. None of the humans working there – it’s a gigantic mining project – can ever go to Earth because they don’t want the public to discover that an entire planetary population has been enslaved. Somehow the rumor gets out and a punitive expedition is sent just about the same time that some of the enslaved race begin to think it’s time to rebel. A confused story that sort of sputters out and which says explicitly that when dealing with a barbaric culture, slavery is not only good but necessary. Pretty vile. 6/19/14

Sons of the Ocean Depths by Bryce Walton, Winston, 1952   

This is one of the lesser known Winston YA novels – we called them juveniles back then – by an author who never wrote another SF novel although he had  a couple of dozen short stories during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Jon West cannot go into space because his body shuts down in high gravity situations. He accepts a position in the undersea service, but he is bitter about his failure and determined not to see anything good in what he considers a service reserved for losers. Our hero’s ship is nearly killed when it encounters a giant jellyfish on his way to his new home, and he makes an enemy among the staff.  After some minor objections, he gets reassigned to Project X, which is trying to find a way to protect the surface from earthquakes.  Then an undersea earthquake sets off a series of terrifying events. This holds up pretty well considering it’s sixty years old. 6/17/14

Second Chance by J.F. Bones, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1959)

A man and a woman waken in a gigantic, automated building on a desert world. Some of the equipment has broken down but most is still running. The two humans have been restored to their youth, but have lost their later memories in the process. They explore and manage to master some of the technology, but they can find no means to escape, which becomes more of an imperative when she gets pregnant. Eventually they learn that the complex is run by a gigantic, intelligent, telepathic plant who is sympathetic and helpful although its motives are initially questioned. The race that created the building are apparently extinct. They eventually find the spaceship in which they arrived, dig it out of the sand, discover their past, and decide to stay on the planet and form a corporation to exploit its wonders. Pretty good first half, pretty dull from then on. 6/17/14

Martyr by Brian R. Utley, Curtis, 1971   

Unsurprisingly this was the only novel to appear by Utley. There are so many made up terms in it that sometimes it’s impossible to tell what the author is trying to convey. It involves a human society which has fled underground for generations. The surface world is tended by mysterious quasi-men, or at least so the people believe, who cultivate the crops that support the underground population. The protagonist eventually becomes discontented, decides the machine running their world is evil, destroys it, and humanity is set to reclaim the surface of the Earth. Very badly done and reads like someone who had never actually read any science fiction before and decided to write a novel.  6/16/14

The Legion of  Lazarus by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2011 (Originally published in 1956)

The protagonist of this short adventure story is unjustly convicted of murder and sentenced to fifty years of suspended animation. When he wakens, he discovers that he has developed psi powers, as have all the previous returnees, although the authorities apparently are unaware of this. Some of the returnees work for a criminal organization whose members committed the murder for which he was convicted, part of their attempt to steal a valuable mineral deposit. Others belong to an opposed organization which recruits our hero, although he has doubts about their motives as well. Eventually he decides to side with his initial contact, part of an organization attempting to build a starship. The two of them play a cat and mouse game on an asteroid, pursued by their enemies. 6/16/14

The Wrath of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, DAW, 1973   

Only the first four stories in this collection involve Fu Manchu. They were written during the gap that preceded the final two novels in the series. The best and longest is the title story. Two of the remaining stories had been previously collected and a third is an alternate version of “The Haunting of Low Fennel.” Rohmer’s second fiction sale was “The Leopard Couch,” a mild supernatural adventure about an ancient couch with unusual properties. “The Mystery of the Fabulous Lamp” is minor but clever. An apparently worthless lamp contains a new lighting technology. “The Mark of Maat” involves a cursed tomb. “The Treasure of Taia” is a routine adventure story set in Egypt and “Crime Takes a Cruise” is a minor mystery. A readable but unprepossessing collection. 6/13/14

Space Lawyer by Nat Schachner, Gnome, 1953   

This is a pretty minor space adventure, supposedly for adults but written as though it was for younger readers. Kerry Dale, a lawyer, quits his job at a spacegoing firm after a fight with the owner, then gets drunk and inadvertently signs up as a cargo handler on one of their spaceships. He proves his mettle, however, and is soon promoted to third officer. A bunch of legal battles ensues and meanwhile the owner’s daughter decides she’s in love with Dale. Although this is nothing approaching a classic, it’s a good example of early 1950s space opera and I’m rather surprised that it never had a paperback edition. 6/11/14

Mission to a Distant Star by Frank Belknap Long, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1964)  

The Scorpions are perfectly human looking aliens who say they have in peace to study the human race even though they have weapons that humanity could not resist. They are also telepathic to some extent. Although there is no record of any hostile acts being performed by them, some people remain suspicious and a man turns up with an apparently imposed amnesia that took place when he ventured near one of their ships. Some elements in the government suspect that the Scorpions are experimenting with a new fuel source and that they are indifferent to the fact that they might accidentally put humans at risk. At the same time the aliens are offering select people the chance to travel with them when they leave. They eventually arrive on the aliens’ home world after being told that the race is suffering from a psychological disorder that will result in their extinction. The protagonist concludes it is a result of not facing the darker side of life and he solves their problems for them. Very dull. 6/10/14

The Earthquake Machine by Austin Mitchelson and Nicholas Utechin, Belmont, 1976   

Sherlock Holmes is called upon to investigate an international plot to precipitate a world war in 1904. Holmes infiltrates an anarchist cell, thwarts a robbery attempt and a plan to bomb Scotland Yard, resulting in the destruction of the cell and the capture of Sebastian Moran. They also find a clue indicating the location of the person who directed Moran’s movements. His quarry flees from a remote house – where he has been experimenting on animals and humans – to Russia, accompanied by two boxes which he is at pains to keep far apart. This suggests radioactivity and a fear of critical mass, which turns out to be the case. Holmes arrives in St. Petersburg where he joins forces with Irene Adler’s daughter.  The villain has prosthetic hands more advanced than those we have even today, and he’s trying to sell an atomic bomb to the Tsar. The villain at last makes an appearance and Holmes is shocked to discover that it is Moriarty, who survived Reichenbach Falls. When Moriarty demonstrates his atomic weapon, no one believes him – they conclude it was an earthquake. Frustrated, Moriarty tells Holmes that unless he receives a large settlement for his retirement, he will destroy London. Holmes tries negotiating but Moriarty appears to have gone insane and announces his intention of detonating the device. There are a couple of awkward spots but this is a pretty good story and one of the best novels Belmont ever published and while I’m not sure a bomb would work the way it is described here, given that assumption the climax is very clever. 6/9/14

Emperor Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1959 

Rohmer’s final Fu Manchu novel has the evil genius creating the Cold Men, a kind of zombie. He has to work behind the scenes because his goals and those of the Chinese Communist government do not always coincide. Nayland Smith has an agent working for him and the usual captures and escapes, chases and mysterious deaths occur. This was actually one of the best Fu Manchu novels, with multiple instances of super science and even a couple of creepy scenes. The ending has Smith in possession of a list of the chief officers of the Si-Fan, with which he can virtually destroy Fu Manchu’s secret organization. 6/8/14

Ice City of the Gorgon by Richard S. Shaver & Chester S. Geier, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1948)  

Other than a few short stories, I had read nothing by either of these pulp age authors until this novella, which is essentially a lost civilization novel. A small plane from an Antarctic expedition is forced down and finds a city buried in the ice along with a disembodied head – with tentacles for hair – that is the partial extrusion of an extra dimensional monster into our reality. The human population is split into two warring factions with the stronger led by an evil queen allied with the monster, the gorgon. The usual humdrum antics ensue before the monster is banished, the evil queen overthrown, and the world saved from a fate worse than death. Although the story is uninspired, some of the descriptive sequences are excellent. At least one of the writers had some talent. 6/7/14

Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley, Underland Press, 2014, $18.95, ISBN 978-163023-000-5  

Satirical SF has largely disappeared at novel length, perhaps because we’re all too aware of the problems with our civilization and don’t want to be reminded about it. This author’s second novel falls into that category, but you don’t want to miss it. It’s set in the very near future. The economy is in tatters and personal bankruptcy is common. One new wrinkle is that if you default on your student loans, you are required to undergo therapy to remove your education from your memories. The protagonist is one such who refuses to go quietly and begins dispensing knowledge everywhere he can in order to thwart the system. At the same time, a group clearly patterned after Anonymous shows up where Chimpanzee masks and taking jabs at the establishment. But as our hero begins to lose his grip on reality, we are meant to wonder just what is behind the protest movement. And who?  I really liked this and highly recommend it. 6/4/14

Tri-Planet by Von Kellar, Curtis, 1953   

This was a house pseudonym and I don’t think the actual author was ever identified. Earth is being bombarded from a nearby star with a ray that causes people to turn green, then die. Riots break out all over the Earth and a mission is launched to destroy the enemy planet. There’s no explanation why no ship has ever gone to the stars before. Mars was terraformed, so a plan is hatched to move 500 million people to that world! This is from an Earth population of 200 billion, and since English and American definitions of that word are different, that means 200 trillion in American terms, and all of this by 2115. Anyway, an enemy fleet shows up and a lengthy space battle of little interest ensues. Some of the ships reach Earth, disgorging huge tentacled monsters. It turns out that the attack was secretly arranged by the Mercurians who don’t like not being the big cheese in the solar system. A waste of paper. 6/3/14

The Lavender Vine of Death by Don Wilcox, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance in 1948)  

Don Wilcox was among the least talented of the pulp writers. His prose is awkward, almost childish, and his plots were about the same quality as SF comic books of that era. This is one of his longest works, set on an alien planet which enslaves most of its population, along with the occasional Earthman. The arrival of an Earth woman precipitates a crisis when she reacts negatively to the slave culture and declares her intention of leaving immediately. The entire opening sequence is senseless. They give the woman fabulous jewels and then immediately shoot down her aircraft so that she can’t take them off planet. Then why give them to her in the first place?  Meanwhile, they notice that one of the slaves from Earth is virtually a double for the king. The king and his minister consult the Lavender Vine of the title, an alien lifeform that has the ability to warp living things – like a half human/half frog character who befriends our hero. The woman survived and we discover that she was sent to this planet to negotiate about freeing the slaves, which makes her shock at the discovery of their existence completely nonsensical. The prime minister plans to kill the king and use the slave double as his puppet. Our hero, now posing as king, commutes the real king’s death sentence after a few pages of the most comically bad dialogue I’ve ever read. The king, naturally, realizes how terrible the slave system is and resolves to abolish it if he ever escapes. The bad guys get gobbled up, the lavender vine is neutralized, the king frees the slaves, and the Earth guy gets the girl. This is so appallingly bad I couldn’t stop reading it. 6/3/12

Empire of Evil by Robert Arnette, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1951) 

This short novel is by Rog Phillips under one of his several pseudonyms. It’s not one of his better efforts. Venusians and Martians and Plutionians, none of whom are human, have been raiding Earth for a variety of reasons, the most potent of which is their desire to possess human women.  Beats me why anyone would have thought this was plausible but Phillips is not alone in this. He also confuses the solar system with the universe. The enemy on Venus can’t be attacked because of a force shield, so our hero is sent to infiltrate the city, sabotage the shield generator, and allow a fleet to attack. Meanwhile another agent contacts an old woman with a young body who is kept as mistress to a four armed creature from the planetoids. Lots of running around and shooting of evil pirates ensues. Horribly misogynistic. Bound with The Sign of the Tiger by Alan E. Nourse & J.A. Meyer, which previously appeared as The Invaders Are Coming. 6/2/14

Re-Enter Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1957 

After a nine year gap, Rohmer returned to Fu Manchu for the first of two very weak adventures. The evil mastermind is temporarily allied with communists this time around, apparently an attempt to be more topical. The protagonist is hired by minions of Fu Manchu but is unaware of the true reasons why he is sent to Cairo where Sir Denis Nayland Smith is due to arrive. Fu Manchu, who has just been rejuvenated again by his elixir of life, escapes an assassination attempt by his supposed allies. There’s a secret air defense system and some double crossing by various parties, but like the Sumuru novels, there’s really not much going on and the result just seems tired. 6/1/14

Rebellion by Ken Shufeldt, Tor, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7071-6

Novels about the impending economic collapse of the US or western civilization as a whole are increasingly common and rather depressing much of the time. Terrorist attacks may or may not be included in the bundle, and in this case it's a Cruise missile attack that wipes out the Supreme Court. It turns out that the deal the US President made with China isn't as successful as was anticipated and this is a prelude to a full scale invasion. The US military is in disarray but a tough guy from Texas organizes a counterattack against the invasion force and the battle resumes. Although the prose is fine, I never got into this story at all. The set up seemed to me very unlikely and the Texan to the rescue plot is absurd. Many of the scenes are short and choppy and the ending came so abruptly I thought I might have received a defective copy. 5/30/14

The Boost by Stephen Baker, Tor, 2014, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3437-4

Future developments involving computing and the internet are obviously a major theme in contemporary SF.  This one posits a future in which microchips are embedded in most people's brains which provide them with augmentation of some sort. The software that runs it is periodically updated and the protagonist discovers that the latest update will include a routine that allows the government and other agencies to directly access the minds of the populace. This is obviously not a good thing and when he seeks to investigate further he is grabbed by private security, deprived of his own boost, and becomes a fugitive. He flees to a marginal, basically illegal subculture involved with drugs where he hopes to find a way to oppose those who seek to control the minds of everyone. This was pretty well written and fairly exciting, but there was a hint of paranoia that I found a bit unsettling. 5/29/14

The Kraken Project by Douglas Preston, Forge, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1769-8   

Douglas Preston’s latest thriller involves artificial intelligence. An experiment with an AI designed for a probe of remote space goes awry when the program interprets a test as a threat and escapes to the internet after causing a disastrous accident. The chief programmer feels that she is unfairly being blamed for the accident and she is also the first to realize that the AI is at large when it threatens her. She runs for the hills, literally, until a government agent convinces her to join him in what turns out to be a race against various competing factions including the government, the AI, a murderous stock broker who wants the program for his own purposes, and various thugs and lackeys. For the most part I found this quite enjoyable. I wasn’t completely convinced that a program that small could become self aware, but that aside, it was convincing and plausible. 5/28/14

Shadow on the Moon by Joe Gibson, Armchair, 2010 (originally published in 1952) 

An innovative new company is about to market commercial rockets for private use in this hopelessly outdated and unrealistic but still entertaining adventure. The largest manufacturer of Jetcopters supposedly sends a representative to buy a controlling interest, but the man is actually an agent of an international criminal organization which sends a team to sabotage the test flight of the new invention. Fortunately, one of the company executives is actually a secret agent who foils the plot, but not without arousing suspicion that he is more than he claims to be. The second half is awful. There’s a confrontation with thugs and it’s not clear what happened or why when they’re both killed. The World Police factor everything into a computer which concludes that our hero is actually head of the criminal organization, which makes even less sense. The whole premise for the operation by the criminals is that they want to build rockets for their own use in order to be better equipped than the police. But the rocket is going to be commercially available to anyone so they could simply have bought them! And why would there only be one copy of the schematics? The cover art, incidentally, is from a dream the hero has which is completely irrelevant to the plot. 5/27/14

Armageddon Earth by Geoff St. Reynard, Armchair, 2010 (originally published in 1952) 

This is a pseudonym of Robert Krepps, whose non-fantastic adventure novels I have enjoyed immensely. Alan Rackham and a friend are working at a research facility when they see a worker shrug off the near total destruction of his hand, after which the man disappears and someone takes a shot at Alan. Alan agrees to be interviewed on television, but during the show he is contacted by an alien intelligence, although he is forced to forget about it immediately afterward. His friend and bodyguard is a Native American who senses that something isn’t right. Another scientist approaches him and points out that the project they are working on – supposedly for flying discs that only operate within the atmosphere – are actually designed for interplanetary flight. None of this is actually very plausible. A test flight ends in a crash, after which Alan discovers that the pilot – who walked away uninjured – should have died instantly. His hypothesis is that there are mutant supermen concealed within the project, and he has further disturbing evidence when his fiancé fails to notice a hot cigarette pressed against her arm. The story, alas, gets really bad. They convince several others about the existence of the mutants – even though they have no proof – and then kidnap one of them that they suspect. Their prisoner announces that he’s an alien rather than a mutant and they execute him on the spot. The hidden bad guys can remotely hypnotize the others and prevent them from telling anyone else about their existence – except when they can’t. The humans never seem to take the threat seriously even after they have committed murder. Saucers then drop an atomic bomb on Manhattan but our hero proclaims that there is no danger of radioactivity because an advanced race would have eliminated it. The closing chapters are bizarrely disorganized. It’s hard to believe this is the same writer who would later write The Courts of the Lion and Diamond Fever. 5/27/14

Empire of Women by John Fletcher, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1952)  

This is a wretchedly bad space opera that opens with a war between two planets, one a patriarchy, the other a matriarchy. Captain Alain is a mercenary and sometimes pirate who offers his ship for hire by the former, and his ship almost singlehandedly wins the subsequent space battle. The secret cause of the war is that the leader of the patriarchs has learned that the matriarchs, although not their mates, are immortal and he wants the secret for himself. There’s a lot of embarrassing attempts at sexual encounters including drinking “deep of her scarlet mouth” but none of it is believable. The misogyny is overwhelming: “these lovely creatures trying to repress their own natures and take over all man’s duties and ways, with the result that they lived empty lives of envy and hate and a loveless ambition to surpass other women.”  Our hero shows them the error of their ways, defeats the evil male aggressor, and gets his own harem, and his many wives live happily ever after. Ugh. 5/27/14

One of Our Cities Is Missing by Irving Cox, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1958) 

The story opens with a nuclear war, five thousand bombers carrying H-bombs assaulting North America after the Soviets have effectively conquered the rest of the world except for England. The author’s version of the assault is dated and I suspect it was known to be absurd even when the story was written. Russian planes strafe the countryside and atomic bombs are dropped in large quantities, but apparently without leaving any radiation. There’s also a substantial contingent of fellow travelers, a common belief during  the McCarthy years. The communists are such comic book villains that they are laughable rather than menacing. A bad story only gets worse as stereotypes are paraded before us and characters act as though they were doing a spoof of themselves. The author understood neither warfare, communism, the military, or human nature. Abysmal. 5/27/14

Return of Sumuru by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1954 

Sumuru is back to her old tricks of luring away the daughters of prominent people, brainwashing them, and turning them into involuntary agents of her quest to create a worldwide matriarchy, naturally with herself at the pinnacle. The police in London have various run ins with her minions but have no idea what her latest campaign might entail. They are also searching for an abducted girl whom they believe is being smuggled to Egypt. The first half moves well but it bogs down after that with long, uninteresting conversations. Sumuru just never acquires the sense of presence of Fu Manchu despite many similarities. 5/27/14 

Sinister Madonna by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1956   

The fifth and last Sumuru novel. Once again she plots to acquire power over the entire world, this time in part by tracking down the legendary Seal of Solomon. She is opposed by an agent from Scotland Yard and aided by her legions of followers, both willing and involuntary. This is the second best of the five, which isn’t saying all that much. Rohmer seemed to have lost most of his energy and creativity by this point in his career, and Sumuru never achieved anything like the stature of Fu Manchu. The sections that involve her directly are repetitive and overly talky and the hero triumphs by happenstance as much as competence. 5/27/14

My Real Children by Jo Walton, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3265-3  

I suspect that Jo Walton is incapable of writing a dull book. Her high fantasy trilogy did not look tempting but once I started it I was swept away. A novel told from the viewpoint of dragons did not seem likely to be of any consequence, but it was great. Her alternate histories are among the best I’ve ever read. So I had high expectations for this new novel and, for a change, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s also rather subtle and perhaps even more effective because of the light touch. The protagonist is an elderly woman apparently suffering from dementia. Her memory is uncertain and, even more perplexing, she remembers two  entirely different lives and histories, one of which includes a limited nuclear war. Her pasts diverge at some point after she left Oxford but she doesn’t know exactly where the split began. The two intertwined biographies might seem relatively uninteresting, but they reveal things about both realities that reflect upon human nature and our interface with our society. Definitely one of the books you need to read this year. 5/26/14

The Galaxy Raiders by William P. McGivern, Armchair, 2010  1846 

This 1950 novelette is bound with Space Station #1 by Frank Belknap Long. The misunderstanding of science is pathetic even for its time. People cannot live on the surface of Jupiter, particularly without oxygen or food, for years. The enemy aliens come from Galaxy X, even though humans have not yet left the solar system. When one ship makes an experimental flight to Jupiter, which has never been reached before, four other ships routinely go after them to bring them back. The author apparently thinks that an interloping ship would have to pass in the vicinity of each outer planet before reaching Earth. The hero’s ship is redundantly named the Astro Star II. The ship’s crew all act like children and their interactions are awkward and unbelievable. One of them is secretly a woman, which defies all plausibility. “Our job is to patrol the section between Jupiter and the galaxy…” The sole survivor of the earlier group has somehow managed to build an army of giant robots which she leads against the newly erected base. The enemy finally attacks with hundreds of thousands of ships but the Astro Star defeats them unassisted! This was garbage in 1950 and it is doubly so now. 5/22/14 

The Puzzle Planet by Robert A.W. Lowndes, Armchair, 2010 (originally published in 1961) 

A scientific mission has been sent to study Vaec, an intelligent race prone to practical jokes but otherwise seemingly quite friendly to humans. Although they live in rather primitive conditions, some believe they are descendants of a colony established by a vanished alien empire. The small group of humans are troubled by a series of “jokes” which could have had serious or even fatal consequences, and the protagonist suspects that one of the humans is masking his efforts to kill another my mimicking the aliens’ habits. When one of them is actually killed, it is not even obvious that he was the intended victim. The murdered man was blackmailing another member of the expedition – although that subplot makes very little sense. The investigator decides to join a Vaec clan in order to find out more about them and passes a series of clever tests in order to do so. Mixing traditional detective stories with SF or fantasy can be tricky because it’s too easy to cheat, but Lowndes pulls it off. It’s a shame that he wrote so little during his career. 5/22/14

Sumuru by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1951   

The second Sumuru novel is no improvement on the first, a talky, unfocused, and implausible story supposed to be a thriller. Sumuru still plots to establish a worldwide matriarchy and reduce men to a minority of dedicated breeders, and her latest plot takes her to New York City, where typical Rohmer heroes thwart her but only after considerable effort. Once again she escapes at the last minute in order to return in the next. Pallid, disorganized, and only marginally readable.  5/21/14

The Fire Goddess by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1952 

Sumuru’s third attempt to establish a worldwide matriarchy is centered in Bermuda. It’s a decided improvement over the first two and more like the Fu Manchu stories with human sacrifices, experiences that drive characters insane, superscience, and a far reaching conspiracy. There’s also a new band of heroes to oppose her. She succeeds in assassinating a prominent government official but her greater plans go awry and she is forced to flee toward the fourth book in the series. 5/21/14

Whistle Stop in Space by Kendall Foster Crossen, Altus, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1618271037   

These are the final three adventures of Manning Draco, former insurance adjustor to the galaxy, now involuntary agent of the galactic government. The title story is pretty weak. Draco has to find a way to change the outcome of an election on a planet whose populace lives underground. In “Mission to Mizar” he is trapped into conducting a diplomatic mission to a planet whose inhabitants have a mild power of prescience. It’s only slightly better than the first. “The Agile Algolian,” last written of the stories, actually takes place before any of the others. He clears up a mild mystery and we discover how he developed unusual telepathic powers. Inferior to the first book but still moderate fun. 5/20/14

Space Station #1 by Frank Belknap Long, Armchair, 2010 (originally published in 1967)  

Corriston is aboard a ship traveling to a gigantic space station in orbit around the Earth when he witnesses the murder of a bodyguard and the disappearance of his charge, a famous young woman. When he tries to find out what happened, he is attacked and barely escapes with his life. He tells his story to the captain, but it appears that the missing woman was never on the ship in the first place, despite the fact that Corriston saw her, and when they dock, he is taken into psychiatric custody. Another attempt is made on his life and when he escapes confinement, he discovers that a freighter from Mars became disabled and crashed on Earth. He finds the missing woman, but she promptly disappears again, creating further doubt about his sanity. He escapes a second time by incapacitating a guard and discovers that the man is wearing a mask so ingenious that it is undetectable.  The disaster meanwhile convinces authorities on Earth that there is a criminal plot involving the space station, and its commander refuses to allow investigators aboard, which leads to a military confrontation.  The conspirators are then killed by another group, led by a man hired as an agent by disgruntled miners on Mars who have been duped by a businessman, who is also the father of the kidnapped woman. This isn’t particularly convincing but the plot moves quickly and some of the rough edges are smoothed over. Minor but reasonably entertaining.  5/19/14                  

Who Sows the Wind by Rog Phillips, Armchair, 2010 (originally published in 1951)

Nuclear war has melted the ice caps and raised the oceans. People in North America are migrating north under the supervision of the military. The war is still on, however, and a virulent new disease attacks the migrants and also affects our hero, a military pilot. Rumor, however, suggests that the plague was developed by Americans and that this was a field test. The rumors give legs to a secretive subversive movement. There’s also a race to occupy the moon and our hero, whose reflexes have been augmented, is moved to the space program. The story ends rather abruptly with the orbiting astronaut aiming a missile at Moscow just as the Russians launch an all out assault. Mediocre. 5/19/14

Once Upon a Star by Kendall Foster Crossen, Altus, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1618271020 

During the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to have a series character involved in not so serious but similar adventures among the planets – think Retief or Robert Sheckley’s AAA Interplanetary. One of the earliest of these was the Manning Draco series, of which this is the first volume of his collected adventures. The opening story, “The Meraklian Miracle”, takes our hero – who works for an interstellar insurance company, to a planet of unlikely aliens who routinely die and then come back to life, legally a new person. In “The Regal Rigellian” he matches wits with an old foe who has become temporary ruler of an entire planet. Draco finds himself involuntarily engaged to an intelligent crocodile in “The Polluxian Pretender.”  Finally, he becomes a fugitive on a world whose civilization is modeled after bad Earth movies in “The Caphian Caper.” These aren’t marvelous works of art but they’re a lot of fun. 5/17/14

Nude in Mink by Sax Rohmer, Gold Medal, 1950 

This was the first of five novels about Sumuru, a kind of female Fu Manchu although she is not oriental. It uses some similar super science so it’s technically SF, but it doesn’t feel much like it. Rohmer seemed to sleepwalk through this one, which even has a Nayland Smith character to oppose her along with the inevitable naïve but earnest assistant the beautiful girl caught in the middle. And naturally the two British protagonists are taken captive early on. Although not really SF, it has occasional superscience just as the Fu Manchu books do, so I'll include the series in that category.  5/17/14

Men of the Morning Star by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2011 

Originally published in 1958. Venus is inhabited by a humanoid race who are ruled by a minority aristocracy who lease mineral rights in their oceans to a rapacious company from Earth. Unfortunately, they have leased some land that belongs to an undersea race, the Grelvi. A newly arrived worker from Earth finds himself in the middle of all this when he is attacked by locals and rescued by a human expatriate marine biologist. The subplots are pretty contrived. The daughter of the local ruler cannot be forced to marry against her wishes unless she commits a crime against the state, and she’s part of an underground resistance movement, which makes her vulnerable. The predictably evil company manager on site wants her to be his wife. The protagonist, however, has also fallen for her. There’s a big battle at the end, the bad guys are all defeated, and the hero presumably gets the girl. Very old fashioned and occasionally choppy but Hamilton was an accomplished storyteller. 5/16/14

Not With a Bang by Chapman Pincher, NAL, 1965 

A team of scientists discover a way to reverse the aging process and extend human life. They quietly consult with the government and a series of questions arises about the effects that this could have on  society as a whole. Overpopulation is only the most obvious. Eventually the news leaks to the press, with sensational results. The British government falls and a new one is installed on the promise that the treatment will become generally available. The drug is distributed despite the lack of long term testing and predictably it has consequences. Not only is the effect temporary, but it actually shortens the lifespan. An international crisis edges into World War III and there is a general collapse around the world. Logically developed but the prose is slow moving and drifts away from the story line too often. 5/14/14

Planet for Plunder by Hal Clement & Sam Merwin Jr., Armchair, 2011  

Originally published in 1957. Earth has a visitor, a kind of policeman for an interstellar civilization not based on carbon and not oxygen breathing. The visitor is surveying planets to be harvested for their metals, analogous to food for his race, and has never encountered oxygen breathing intelligence before. Three people on a surveying expedition are the only ones nearby and they set out to track down the alien by triangulating radio signals. The alien is used to lifeforms that are essentially animated metallic objects and so misinterprets much of what he senses. He does know, however, that criminals have sent devices boring into the Earth’s core which will cause catastrophic tectonic events.  Most of the book alternates between humans and aliens trying to communicate when their basic natures are so different that the alien thinks the humans are just remotely operated machines. Although hardly a loss classic, this is a very well constructed and told short novel. 5/13/14

Terror Out of Space by Dwight V. Swain, Armchair, 2010   

Reprint of the 1954 novella. Dwight Swain was of those writers who thought you had to make up at least one word in every sentence to create actual SF. Commercial ships working among Saturn’s moons to harvest drugs from the supposedly dead aliens are being attacked by weird and varied monsters that appear and disappear spontaneously. Our hero escapes one such attack, but his revelation that the aliens are not really dead doesn’t sit well with the company officials who are making a fortune from the operation. After a confusing series of encounters, he foils the bad humans and works out a peaceful arrangement with the aliens, rescuing the beautiful girl scientist in the process. Not quite as bad as it sounds, but pretty bad. 5/12/14

The Essential Defenders Volume 4, Marvel, 2008   

The Hulk, Hellcat, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie are a sort of impromptu team in which the Hulk was a lot more verbal than usual. Spider-Man shows up in the first installment here, helping defeat Lunatik, followed by a parade of cameos by Falcon, Nova, Hercules, Marvel Man, Captain Ultra, and others.  For a while there are about two dozen Defenders, divided into factions, and they fight each other more than the bad guys. After shedding the extras, they’re off to Asgard for awhile. Next the team up with Doctor Strange to battle the Omegatron and Lunatik Subsequent opponents include Foolkiller, Mandrill, Slither, and a giant squid. There’s also a sequence with the original team – Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and Doctor Strange.  Pretty good throughout although the Hulk seems relatively wimpy in most of these stories. 5/12/14

The Lost Face by Josef Nesvadba, Taplinger, 1971   

This is a collection of stories by the only Czech SF writer whose name I’m familiar with. He was a confirmed communist who turned away from SF during the 1960s and never went back. The opening novelette, “The Death of an Apeman”, is a satirical version of Tarzan in which a German baby is raised by apes, rediscovered by Europeans, only to become a pawn in a battle over the family treasure, after which he earns a living pretending to be a chimpanzee in a circus. “Expedition in the Opposite Direction” is also satirical, poking fun at espionage stories, and it involves a secret Nazi installation to study time travel. “The Trial That Nobody Heard Of” involves a new poison gas and is a parable about the trivialities that lead to war, in this case specifically World War I. The title story involves a criminal who undergoes a new surgical technique to put the face of another man over his own. It’s the face of a saintly man and the criminal becomes a good man while the surgeon, now a known criminal, has the other face attached over his own, with similar consequences. “The Chemical Formula of Destiny” involves an experiment in genetics. “Inventor of His Own Undoing” is an ironic tale about robots. Missing scientists engage in forbidden experiments in “Doctor Moreau’s Other Island.”  A man decides to leave civilization in the final story to follow “In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman.” The author’s style is dense and relies on omniscient narration rather than a realistic depiction of events. 5/11/14

Quest of the Golden Ape by Ivar Jorgensen & Adam Chase, Armchair, 2010  

Reprint of the 1959 novella by Randall Garrett & Milton Lesser, both using pseudonyms. On a distant planet, one nation slaughtered another, but a scientific genius from the vanquished realm escaped to Earth where a century long plan for vengeance is set in motion. On Earth, a fully matured man wakens with no memory of his past and is presented with a strange device which transports him across space. This short novel has some of the feel of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars book. The inhabitants of the far planet fight with a kind of sword and their society seems much like that of Barsoom. The prose is sometimes as awkward as was that of Burroughs, and the storytelling is less interesting. There’s a prolonged lecture about the history of the alien world related by a virgin priestess to the newly arrived amnesiac, who now calls himself Bram Forest. He regains his memory, but only after being transported back to Earth where he is locked up as a madman. The alien world turns out to be Earth’s twin on the opposite side of the sun, which is why we’ve never seen it! Bram visits another world people with intelligent apes, raises an army, rights all the wrongs, and kills the villain. Originally published in 1959. Pretty lame. 5/9/14

The Essential Wolverine Volume 5, Marvel, 2008  

Neither the X-Men nor Wolverine are among my favorite Marvel characters. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but right from the start I found their stories uninteresting. This is a fairly routine series of adventures set in various places around the world. Some of the usual characters show up – Elektra, Chimera, etc. – and as usual all of the bad guys get defeated or at least thwarted. The artwork throughout is much better than I was used to – I stopped reading Marvel during the 1980s and these all date from the mid-1990s. I imagine it would have been even more impressive in color. 5/9/14

Shadow of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1963 (originally published in 1948) 

The evil mastermind is trying to steal a technology that would provide an infallible missile shield in this Fu Manchu adventure. The early chapters are notable for being slow and rather unfocused, not at all usual for this series. Then the usual plot elements appear – Nayland Smith is captured, a beautiful girl is forced into Fu Manchu’s service – and various minions fail in their efforts despite their master’s directions. Fu Manchu himself is on stage a lot more in this one, but alas, he spends most of his time haranguing Nayland Smith or others and there’s really not a lot going on. I suspect the author had run out of ideas for plots to take over the world. 5/8/14

V-S Day by Allen Steele, Ace, 2013, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-425-25974-0

I finally had to order this online since no local bookstore was carrying it. It’s an alternate history story in which Hitler and his cronies diverted efforts to develop rockets against Great Britain in favor of a space based weapons system that could threaten the US. British agents get wind of the project and inform the Americans, who begin developing a counter program. The novel is mostly about the project, how it originated, was organized, the obstacles it overcame, and ultimately the battle against the German spaceship. It’s filled with historical characters from Robert Goddard to Ian Fleming. Steele’s work as a journalist covering the space program undoubtedly contributes. Previous versions of the basic story have appeared in shorter form previously, but I agree with the author that the story really needed to be book length to tell the whole story. 5/7/14

Doomsday 1999 by Paul MacTyre, Ace, 1962 (also known as Midge)

World War III was not fought with nuclear weapons but it might as well have been. Civilization is in ruins and what remains of the various armies still slap at each other given a chance. The protagonist in this one is a professional hunter named Angus, one of the few civilians allowed to live outside what are essentially concentration camps run by the military somewhere in England. The Russians seem to have collapsed entirely but there is still a significant Chinese invasion force active nearby. There are also the midges, mutated insects which move in gigantic swarms, capable of generating a flash of heat that can kill a man. When a Chinese helicopter crashes, Angus discovers that they are trading with the British military, who doublecrossed them. He escapes with a female Chinese officer, abandoning his friends. Angus is one of only two people who can move among the midges without being attacked, but the Chinese woman apparently gains his immunity by associating with him. They also experience a form of telepathy while the swarm is present and the midges come to their assistance when they are captured. The resolution is a bit muddled and several of the characters appear to be functionally insane. Coexistence with the midges is the ultimate decision. This was the author’s only SF novel, which is a shame. 5/6/14

Citadel of the Star Lords by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2010  

This 1956 novella is bound with Voyage to Eternity by Milton Lesser. Price is an unemployed pilot who inadvertently gets into trouble with the government. While trying to avoid pursuing jets, he flies into the test ground for a hydrogen bomb blast and the concussion sends him a hundred years into the future, a future where Earth is ruled by alien invaders. Price initially conceals his origin from the primitive humans among whom he becomes a virtual prisoner and is sympathetic to his hatred of their alien overlords. On the other hand, he hears one of the alien leaders claim that they were not the ones who destroyed human civilization, that they arrived after the destruction was done and built a base on Earth simply to prevent the return or advance of their enemies, another alien empire. The aliens are, of course, almost indistinguishable from humans and Price falls in love with one of their females. The plot pretty much depends on everyone being stubborn and stupid and not explaining things, which gets pretty tiring after a while. Eventually the humans realize the aliens are on their side and everybody has a group hug. Minor. 5/5/14

Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier, Bantam, 1973   

Hiero is an agent for an emerging civilization years after nuclear war has devastated the world. He sets out on a dangerous mission with a semi-intelligent moose as his steed and is soon befriended by an even more intelligent bear. The opposition consists of the Leemutes, lethal mutations, who serve the Unclean, a mysterious organization opposed to the growing society of Kanda. Hiero and others have mental powers that verge on the magical, and indeed this feels much more like a fantasy quest than a post-apocalyptic SF novel. After surviving several encounters with agents of the Unclean, Hiero rescues a girl about to be sacrificed by a barbarian tribe. The enlarged company eventually accomplishes its mission. The narrative portions are quite well written but the dialogue is frequently awkward. 5/5/14

End of Days by Robert Gleason, Forge, 2014, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7716-6

This is the trade paperback edition of a near future thriller first published in 2011. It's an ambitious book but I think it's reach exceeded its grasp. Among other things, it tries to embrace too many disparate plot elements including talking animals, sentient machines, and other wonders. It seems to be designed as a morality tale, but the characters are themselves so immoral that the message is frequently cloudy. Much of it takes place after a nuclear armageddon and there are echoes of Stephen King's The Stand, but with a much less coherent narrative structure. There's also a  female native American shaman who becomes the closest we have to a central character. There are parts of the novel that I liked very much, but the digressions sometimes don't appear related to the narrative closely enough to contribute - particularly the talking animals. Proceed with caution. 5/4/14

The Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Volume 3, Marvel, 2007   

Peter Parker is still trying to make ends meet as he balances his job working as a photographer, studying as a student, and fighting crime whenever it’s necessary. He faces Nitro, the exploding man, the Killer Shrike, the Ringer, and a couple of other minor villains before a rematch with the Beetle. That’s followed by a reprint of the Spider-Man origin story. Then more second level villains like Man-Wolf, Moonstone, and the Gold Bug. Eventually some of the heavy hitters show up – Kraven the Hunter and the Kingpin. Then comes the big fight with Dr. Octopus, who escapes from jail yet again. Meanwhile Peter’s love life is in tatters and Aunt May is feeling neglected. A pretty good selection of adventures. 5/3/14

The Island of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1963 (originally published in 1941)

Fu Manchu is up to his old tricks, capturing and losing our heroes, brainwashing beautiful young women to use as agents, experimenting on human beings, and plotting the downfall of the West. He also has a disintegration ray among other new toys this time around. The evil genius has a secret base in the Caribbean from which he plots against the Panama Canal. Eventually our heroes have to deal with a kind of zombie and the usual traps, thugs, and exotic tactics employed by Fu Manchu. This is one of the more overtly science fictional ones and the change in locale is pleasant, but too many of the plot elements are recycled from earlier books. 5/2/14

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory, Tor, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3692-7

Some years from now it is possible for even unsophisticated people to use the internet to download the formulae for drugs, or create new drugs, and one of the consequences is Numinous, a drug that can actually reprogram individual's belief systems. Predictably, a new religion rises which views Numinous as a kind of sacred facilitator to enlightenment and equally predictably some people consider those who take the drug to be mentally ill. One of the creators of Numinous has been institutionalized herself and is suffering from guilt anxiety because of the chaos that resulted. She decides that it is her duty to find her former partners and enlist their aid in solving the problems their creation has caused. Her quest is convoluted and fascinating. The author raises a number of questions about the sometimes conflict between faith and reason, and the motives that cause us to adopt or reject attitudes and beliefs, but understandably he doesn't present any serious answer to unanswerable questions. I won't give away the ending but it certainly offers nothing definitive on the issue. Nor should it. Interesting questions are much better than contrived answers. 5/1/14

Voyage to Eternity by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2010   

Reprint of the 1953 novella.  Approximately every two years, thousands of young men from Earth are sent on a mysterious journey from which supposedly they will return, although none ever have. The population considers it effectively a death sentence and no one knows where they go or why, although popular speculation is that they are being sent to Mars. Women are never chosen although one of the characters whom we follow is a volunteer from Russia – a Russia that never saw the collapse of communism. Others include a young man who had meant to marry the girl of his dreams and another who has been surgically altered so that he can take the place of a man actually chosen by the lottery system. Eventually the impersonator and the main protagonist go by matter transmitter from Mars to some distant, unknown world, and it is obvious that the impersonator knows much more about this arrangement than he should have. The Russians, meanwhile, have been shipping their conscripts to Jupiter – which is nonsense given the physical conditions there. The story deteriorates quickly in the second half. A super race has somehow arranged to bring representatives of every intelligent race to this planet to compete in a series of games, with the winner getting the secrets of their technology and effectively possession of the galaxy. Except that they didn’t notice that there are two human contingents, one from North America, the other from Russia. And since our hero is the newest arrival, he has to represent the former in an elimination bout. His opponent is the Russian woman, who has been given superpowers within a matter of days thanks to living in the Jovian gravity. Eventually we learn that the super race is actually a bunch of parasites looking for new hosts. They get outsmarted. Blah. 4/28/14

The Star Lord by Boyd Ellanby, Armchair, 2011   

This is really just a novelette originally published in 1953 and published here with a reprint of Captives of the Flame by Samuel R. Delany. The most advanced starship in history is about to set out on its maiden journey. The passengers include newlyweds, a man with a potentially fatal disease, a retired professor, a company official, a popular actress, etc. We get brief glimpses of each of them before the story really gets going. Predictably an anomaly in space dooms the ship and there’s a mad scramble for the lifeboats. The parallels to the Titanic are obvious. Nicely written for its time but it sort of stops rather than ends. 4/27/14

The Drums of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1962 (originally published in 1939)   

Paradoxically, it seems, Fu Manchu assassinates a European general to prevent a war rather than start one. This is the opening of his latest duel with Nayland Smith, wherein we are told that the Si-Fan, a secret society, numbers fully one fourth of the non-white races among its members. Not much of a secret then. Rohmer appears to have ignored the Japanese invasion of China since that would undermine part of the premise for Fu Manchu’s power and motives, although two characters are transparently Hitler and Mussolini.  The story reverts to the style of the earliest books, however, in that it is very episodic, almost a series of short stories. The usual elements are there – our hero/narrator gets captured but escapes, there is a beautiful but innocent woman, the various opponents of Fu Manchu make bad decisions to act independently of one another without considering the consequences. Effectively we have Nayland Smith fighting to save Hitler from Fu Manchu, which Rohmer might have viewed differently if this novel had been written a year later. Not one of Rohmer’s better novels. 4/25/14

Essential Avengers Volume 6, Marvel, 2008    

This volume opens with the Avengers battling the 12 villains of Zodiac with their various powers. They get an assist from the Swordsman and Mantis, and exploit divisions within Zodiac. That segues into the origin story for Mantis, after which they fend off an alien invasion fleet. Captain Marvel shows up to lend them a hand, along with a temporarily absent Captain America. Then there’s an epic battle against Nuklo followed by a wedding in the land of the Inhumans where they are guests alongside the Fantastic Four and battle Omega and Ultron. Ensuing villains include Necrodamus, Kang the Conqueror, Rama-tut, the Crimsom Dynamo, Titanium Man, Baron Zemo, and a host of others. They even have to defeat Frankenstein’s  monster. We also learn that the original Human Torch became the Vision. The Beast joins the Avengers for awhile as well. A very active and interesting period in this series. 4/25/14

Nebula Awards Showcase 2014 edited by Kij Johnson, Pyr, 2014, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-901-7

This year's collection of last year's best stories, as determined by members of SFWA. As always, the stories are of very high quality, though not necessarily what I would have chosen as best. The entries by Ken Liu and Nancy Kress were the two I liked best. The excerpt from 2312 really doesn't do the book justice. I thought the essays were better than usual. There is also the usual ancillary material - a list of previous winners, profiles of the awards and the organization. The diversity of the field is so great now - particularly with the explosion of fantasy fiction - that a collection this short really doesn't provide anything like a comprehensive view of the field, nor is it intended that it do so, but it does demonstrate what the authors themselves find most impressive. And it's just good reading. 4/24/14

The Aethers of Mars by Eric Flint & Charles E. Gannon, Arc Manor, 2014, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-61242-130-8

Two long, related stories set in an alternate past where Cecil Rhodes subjugated South Africa successfully and then went on to conquer Mars. Both  stories open with people traveling to the Red Planet. Flint's is essentially a spy story with lots of twists and turns, including a mysterious assassin, and it's clearly the better of the two. Gannon's isn't bad either. The protagonist is also en route to Mars in search of a slow acting poison which will kill him if he doesn't find the antidote in time. Both of these are a bit old fashioned, but then so am I. Not spectacular but quite good and you'll get your money's worth if you like solid story telling. 4/23/14

The Man With Absolute Motion by Noel Loomis Armchair, 2010 

The 1955 magazine and early paperback editions of this novel both appeared as by Silas Waters; Loomis also wrote as Manly Banister.  It’s one of those novels so bad that you keep on reading it just to find out what absurdity the author will concoct next. It’s set in a very distant future where war between galaxies is not unknown, billions of intelligent races exist, but space travel is very expensive because of the scarcity of strygian, a mysterious mineral. Trade between the planets is chiefly raw materials because some planets are made largely of, say, salt, while others have virtually none at all. Most aliens are humanoid and the others wear humanoid suits in order to be fashionable! Denizens of the 47th Galaxy are secretly plotting to get billions of planets dependent upon them so that they’ll have an edge when they launch a war to conquer the entire universe. Meanwhile the human race has become largely fertile and is facing extinction, but no one cares because humans are an insignificant race.  Except that the galaxy seems to have adopted human customs almost universally including our form of currency, etc. 4/22/14

President Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1963 (Originally published in 1936)  1597 

Fu Manchu returns. A prominent minister is making an important speech when he collapses mysteriously. Afterward, his written notes are missing and he has no recollection of what he was about to say. A candidate for President of the US is a puppet of Fu Manchu and intends to turn the country into a dictatorship. The story stumbles quite a bit in the early going. A seasoned federal agent would not allow a suspect to leave without proof of identity at a minimum, and probably not at all after catching her jumping out of a window after she’d been placed under house arrest. Two other people separately disappear despite being closely guarded as well. Fu Manchu wants certain information withheld from the public and Nayland Smith, after acquiring the information and despite knowing Fu Manchu’s wishes, decides to suppress the information when making it public is obviously the best course of action. The story is rather dull and talky, and the few events that do take place of a more active nature are mostly retreads from earlier books.  For some reason there’s more racism in this one than in most of the other books in the series, as well as a strong hint of the Luddite.  Rohmer apparently distrusted modern technology. His version of how American gangsters talk to one another is particularly comical. Once again Fu Manchu is apparently killed at the end, but we know he’ll be back. 4/20/14

Essential Iron Man Volume 4, Marvel, 2010 

Tony Stark/Iron Man has a varied series of adventures in this volume. He is subjected to mind control briefly and has romantic problems. He foils some minor villains like the Slasher and Mikas, who controls the mind of Stark’s girlfriend for a while. Captain America and some other Avengers make brief appearances. There’s a long but not particularly interesting miniseries in which he defeats the Guardsman after which he is accused of murder. His other foes include the Firebrand, the Adaptoid, and Raga. A lot of the villains plot to melt the armor but of course none of them succeed. He also has to battle the Sub-Mariner and some alien invaders. The Mandarin shows up late in the book, who is assisted by the Unicorn. A comparatively dull point in the Iron Man series. 4/18/14

The Programmed People by Jack Sharkey, Armchair, 2010 

This was the title of the original 1965 magazine appearance of this short novel, which Ace retitled Ultimatum in 2050 A.D. It’s set in a dystopian future where conformity is enforced by robot police directed by an artificial intelligence. The hero accepts things as right and proper until he chances upon a young woman who is part of a secret rebel movement, helps her before realizing that he is committing treason, and then gets caught up in the inevitable consequences. There are only ten million people left on Earth and they all live in the Hive, although they believe that there are many other such cities and that people who disappear have gone off to fight in imaginary wars. The retrospective history of how the Hive came to be is unadulterated balderdash but the story is otherwise not bad at all, though a bit dated in terms of technology. 4/17/14

The Trail of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1964 (Originally published in 1934) 

Although Fu Manchu’s organization has been badly damaged, he still manages to kidnap Doctor Petrie’s daughter just before the opening of this installment in the series. Nayland Smith and Alan Sterling discover his lair in London, but too late to capture him. There’s not much new in this one. Sterling and then Nayland Smith are both taken prisoner. The captive girl has been brainwashed to hate the man she formerly loved, and Fu Manchu’s daughter confesses that she is in love with Smith. The plot is weaker than usual although there is some effort to make Fu Manchu more of a human being and less of a comic book villain. 4/16/14

Iron Men of Venus by Don Wilcox, Armchair, 2010 

This novella was originally published in magazine form in 1952. Wilcox was never one of the shining lights of SF and this is a good example of why not. It opens with a government board of inquiry questioning Joe Kane about his older brother’s involvement with a Venusian colony consisting of descendants of criminals, and the scene is absurd from start to finish. Kane then visits a scrap metal yard where metal from Venus has been shipped to Earth. But the metal has a tendency to move around of its own volition when it thinks no one is watching. While there, they just happen to hear two men discussing the details of an interplanetary plot including naming their mole in the government of Earth. The various parts slide into the ocean where they assemble themselves into a giant, destructive robot hundreds of feet tall, a plot right out of early SF comic books, and written just as badly. Even for the pulps, this was just terrible writing. The two heroes get inside one of the robots with explosives, but forget to set them before leaving! Childish throughout. 4/14/14

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter, Jo Fletcher, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-1623651602

First in a series. Genetic engineering has enabled humanity to breed a new kind of worker with special physical and psychological attributes. In order to differentiate them from the rest of humanity - the Norms - they are imprinted with a gemsign to indicate their origin. Predictably they are not happy with being the property of corporations and begin agitating for their freedom, with some support from the Norms. Just as predictably there are fanatics who consider the Gems to be without a soul, abominations that should be wiped from the face of the Earth. The author posits a major apocalyptic change in the world to create the conditions under which the Gems were conceived. The novel obviously centers on the point where the various conflicts are coming to a head and there's a good deal of overt action as well, but the author is also raising questions about what it means to be human and what the morality of a culture should encompass. There were a couple of awkward spots but they were minor and on balance this is a pretty good first novel and one that actually has something to say. 4/13/14

Bullard of the Space Patrol by Malcolm Jameson, World, 1951 

This is a collection of space opera stories from the 1940s revolving around John Bullard, newly appointed to his ship, who in the opening episode saves the day when a training and inspection exercise goes wrong and nearly becomes a fatal problem. Then he outwits a new captain who believes in enforcing all of the rules to the letter, even when it is detrimental to the functioning of their ship. Now captain, he successfully avoids an interplanetary blockade and escapes capture by the enemy. Eventually he has to deal with political issues, a war that isn’t quite over, and gets himself appointed admiral. These aren’t great stories but they’re actually pretty good and a lot less melodramatic than most contemporary military SF. 4/12/14

Transhuman by Ben Bova, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3293-6 

Some SF writers tend to run out of ideas or imagination as their careers progress. Others seem to have an endless store of them, and their skills as a writer continue to improve. Ben Bova is one of these, easily my favorite practicing writer of hard SF. I am almost never disappointed when I pick up a new book by him and this wasn’t one of those rare occasions. The protagonist is a scientist who decides to try an untested procedure on his terminally ill granddaughter. The parents are opposed so he has to kidnap the eight year old and transport her across the country, and to help his own faltering resources so he also conducts an experiment on himself, one which could partially reverse the aging process. Most of the novel consists of a prolonged chase while the police try to track him down and he tries to keep the girl alive, but the unexpected success of his own treatment adds an entirely new dimension. In some ways this is more of a mainstream thriller than SF, despite the obvious SF elements. It’s suspenseful, thought provoking, and skillfully done. 4/10/14

The Bride of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1962 (originally published in 1933)

Alan Sterling becomes the newest narrator of this series. He is in France helping Dr. Petrie deal with an unprecedented new plague. The plague has been created by Fu Manchu who cross bred fleas with tsetse flies so that they spread a plague that is a cross between Black Plague and sleeping sickness. Petrie is stricken but fortunately has just developed an antidote.  Rohmer is in something of a rut with this one. Sterling gets captured by Fu Manchu but is befriended by his mysterious ward – and by his daughter at one point as well. There’s a secret base full of brainwashed scientists with lots of mutations including a worm man and giant insects. 4/9/14

Slaves of the Crystal Brain by William Carter Sawtelle, Armchair, 2010   

Sawtelle is one of the pennames used by Rog Phillips and this short novel first appeared in magazine form in 1950.  In the near future, the disappearance of two prominent scientists has led the government to institute periodic checks on the welfare of prominent scientists. January is one such agent who, during a routine check, notices that the subject is very notice and detects a clandestine message to the effect that he knows what happened to at least one of the two missing men. The scientist is then swallowed up by a moving black hole that promptly disappears. Elsewhere, the secretary to a mysterious businessman has planted a transmitter in his office, and has discovered that he has frequent conversations there while he is alone. The agent is pursued by an unseen presence that triggers a detector built by the scientist. There’s no good reason why he doesn’t report to his headquarters anyway, but he doesn’t, and no good reason why the enemy shouldn’t just erase him as well, but it doesn’t. The secretary gets caught in the act and the agent gets picked up by mysterious men who appear to be working for the enemy, but as double agents. There’s one big glaring error. The roving black holes, known as penths, can only follow people once they’ve been brainwashed, but they follow January for most of a day before he is even captured. And the brain is aware of everything its subject say, except when it is convenient to the author that it not notice. Anyway, they capture the chief human villain and discover he is servant and not master. Then they manage to invent a weapon by which they destroy the brain, only to discover that it is also just a tool. An extra-dimensional creature is behind it all, but they defeat that as well. Silly throughout but mild fun. 4/6/14

Essential The Savage She-Hulk, Marvel, 2006 

The complete run of this short lived title. After a transfusion from Bruce Banner, the female protagonist turns into a female version of the Hulk, with less bulk, less strength, but with her personality otherwise intact. She doesn’t really fight any major villains – some minor ones and a lot of gangsters. She does get to go head to head with Iron Man and some of the Defenders, runs into Man Thing, is helped by Dr. Morbius, but her adventures are actually rather dull. The villain, Man-Elephant is among the silliest Marvel ever dreamed up. I’m not surprised the series did not do well. 4/8/14

Biology A by Brad Kent, Curtis, 1952 

The Fatal Law by Brad Kent, Curtis, 1952  

This is a house pseudonym, in both these cases actually written by Dennis Talbot Hughes. The first is set after a world wide war, sometimes nuclear, has been underway for more than a decade. A roving unit encounters a bizarre formation of the enemy who are clearly under some kind of remote mind control. The protagonist is kidnapped by something called the Universal Command, which is a group led by a man determined to end war, even if that means enslaving the minds of everyone on Earth. There’s a rebellious artificial intelligence, a device that allows one to view events elsewhere without benefit of a camera, and other bits of superscience. It’s not very good but I’ve read much worse from this publisher. The second title is much worse. A reclusive scientist invents a device which, when pointed at a brain, creates an exact duplicate – complete with clothing – at another location. He experiments on his niece and discovers that he cannot reverse the process. A neighbor tries to help and gets similar duplicated. The originals remain in a coma but the duplicates can teleport themselves from one place to another. Things progress rather predictably from there, but they never get more believable. 4/7/14

The Essential Fantastic Four Volume 5, Marvel, 2006 

The Fantastic Four – sometimes five because Sue Richards comes and goes – open this volume by unwisely traveling to Latveria where they are prisoners of Dr. Doom for a few issues, after which they battle the Moleman who has a fresh plan to conquer the surface world. They have to let him go because there’s no law against trying to conquer the world. Villains come from above as well as below as the alien Skrulls kidnap Ben Grimm. Subsequent enemies include the Frightful Four, the Mad Thinker, and various androids, robots, and monsters. They visit the moon to defeat a Kree sentry and get involved with the well intended by reclusive Inhumans. For their 100th issue, they battle a small army of villains, mostly in cameos. Sue Richards returns as Crystal leaves the group, then returns. Sub-Mariner goes on one of his rampages. X-Men nemesis Magneto shows up as well. Reed Richards get trapped in the Negative Zone and as this volume ends, Ben Grimm may have been corrupted. A pretty good period in the history of this particular comic. 4/5/14

Outpost Infinity by Raymond F. Jones, Armchair, 2014, $12.95  

First book version of the 1950 novella, bound with The White Invaders by Ray Cummings. This emulation of the Ace doublebook has much of the feel of the originals. A starship which uses a kind of probability drive is lost and the project head takes out an experimental vessel to try to find it in the multiverse. There’s a lot of mathematical gabble that almost makes sense but the best parts of the book are some of the other reality imagery and the confrontations among various versions of the same person. Light weight but nostalgically entertaining. This edition was probably created by OCR software because there are some odd substitutions. “Uttered” becomes “tittered” and “wife” becomes “wile,” among others.

The Stars Will Wait by Henry L. Hasse, Avalon, 1968   

Avalon books published a line of SF novels that varied from very good – Murray Leinster, L. Sprague de Camp, Wallace West – to almost unbelievably bad. This author’s only novel is unfortunately in the latter category. A prospecting ship from a ruthless alien empire is desperate to find a world rich is fissionables when it stumbles upon a post apocalyptic Earth. Some humans have become telepathic but society has become violent and barbaric. When some of the humans realize the threat posed by the aliens, they set out to dupe them into believing that humanity has more powerful weapons than are apparent. Clunky, slow paced, implausible, boring nonsense. 4/2/14

The Furies by Mark Alpert, Thomas Dunne, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-250-02135-9 

John Rogers meets an attractive woman at a bar and is invited to her apartment, but before anything intimate takes place, armed men storm the building and other armed men try to hold them off. John and Ariel are soon on the run and John learns that she is part of a reclusive community which is split into two warring factions. Generations earlier they were regarded as witches because of their ability to heal quickly and their knowledge of arcane biological facts.  I expected this to be fantasy but it’s technically SF since there is no magic involved. Most of the book is essentially a chase sequence, but since it’s a particularly well done chase sequence, I’m not complaining. 4/1/14