Friday, September 30, 2016

Forgotten Books: The Vortex Blasters - Sam Moskowitz, ed.

This book has some special meaning for me because I remember that my brother-in-law (who introduced me to science fiction) had a copy of it when he and my sister lived down the street from us in the early Seventies. I borrowed it from him and read the title story, but I don’t think I ever got around to the others. The stories in THE VORTEX BLASTERS were pulled from another anthology edited by Sam Moskowitz, MODERN MASTERPIECES OF SCIENCE FICTION, published by World Publishing Company in 1965. “Masterpieces” might be going a little too far, but there are some good stories in here.

“The Vortex Blasters” (originally published in COMET, July 1941 under the title “The Vortex Blaster”) was my introduction to the work of Edward E. “Doc” Smith, PhD. (Gotta add the PhD after his name.) It’s set in the same universe as his magnum opus, the Lensman series, and is sometimes counted as part of that series although the only Lensman in the story is a supporting character. The protagonist is an atomic scientist named Neal “Storm” Cloud. Earth has atomic power, but it’s not very stable and will sometimes generate out-of-control vortices, which are basically atomic tornadoes. One of those vortices kills Cloud’s wife and children, and in his obsession for vengeance he comes up with a way to destroy these violent forces of nature.

I enjoy Doc Smith’s work, but I’m not a huge fan. His prose is pretty stiff and his dialogue usually sounds like nothing that ever came out of a human mouth. But his ideas are always big and interesting and the stories move along well. His stodgy heroes kind of grow on me, too. I enjoyed “The Vortex Blasters” when I read it 40-some-odd years ago, and I enjoyed it when I reread it now, too. That same long-ago summer, my brother-in-law and I both read Smith’s Skylark of Space series. That was enough Doc Smith to last me for a good long while. He had a huge influence on science fiction for decades, though.

Edmond Hamilton’s “Requiem”, from the April 1962 issue of AMAZING STORIES, is a far-future tale about an expedition sent to explore a planet about to be consumed by an expanding star and then observe its extinction. That planet, of course, is Earth, the birthplace of the by now far-flung galactic empire. I loved Hamilton’s pulp space opera stories, but late in his career he was writing thoughtful, poignant stories like this that are even better. I liked this one a lot.

Eric Frank Russell is almost totally forgotten these days (although I’ll bet many of you reading this remember his work), but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him. Good ideas and a nice undercurrent of humor running through all his stories. “The Witness” (OTHER WORLDS SCIENCE STORIES, September 1951) is a first contact story of sorts, with an alien visitor being put on trial for possibly being a spy for a race that wants to invade and conquer Earth. Russell has a lot of fun with the legal system. This is another good one.

Lester del Rey’s “Kindness”, from the October 1944 issue of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, is also a far-future story in which a new, super-smart mutation of humanity, homo intelligens, has replaced good old homo sapiens . . . except for one guy. His fate has a bittersweet taste to it that echoes Hamilton’s “Requiem”. I’ve never been a big fan of del Rey’s work and this story is maybe a little too predictable, but it still has some nice touches to it.

“—We Also Walk Dogs” (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, July 1941, under the pseudonym Anson McDonald) is part of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History series. It’s the story of a company that hires out to do any sort of legal job, no matter how seemingly impossible, and how they manage to set up a diplomatic conference for various alien races and in the process come up with an unexpected bonus. I’ve read a lot of Heinlein’s work over the years (he was my brother-in-law’s favorite SF author) but don’t recall ever reading this story before. The prose is as smooth as always and I love the premise, but I don’t think Heinlein did as much with it as he could have. Still a good story.

Fritz Leiber is another author I usually like, but his story “Coming Attraction”, originally published in the November 1950 issue of GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, was kind of a miss for me. Set in New York City after it’s been semi-devastated by a limited nuclear war, it’s mainly about how women have started wearing masks over their faces as a fashion trend, inspired by anti-radiation garb after the war. I’m not sure why it didn’t work very well for me, but it didn’t. A little too much of a kitchen sink story, maybe, with lots of changes in society but no real point to any of them. Or maybe I’m just dense.

Then we come to the final story in this volume, Henry Kuttner’s “We Guard the Black Planet!” (SUPER SCIENCE STORIES, November 1942). Now this is the real deal! A hardboiled Norwegian spacer throws in with a couple of shady characters to track down the origin of the Valkyrie myth on Earth. Seems he’s got this golden armband with the directions to a legendary invisible planet engraved on it, and the inhabitants of that planet are supposed to be beautiful winged women who visited Earth in the far distant past and gave rise to the stories of Valkyries bearing fallen warriors off to Valhalla. This is by far my favorite story in this anthology. Kuttner’s prose is colorful, imaginative, and very fast-moving, and the story has some decent scientific background to boot. I really enjoyed it. My kind of SF.

So all in all, THE VORTEX BLASTERS is a pretty strong anthology, with a couple of excellent stories (“We Guard the Black Planet!” and “Requiem”), several very good ones, and only one that I didn’t care for—and it wasn’t terrible. I’m glad I finally got around to reading the whole thing after so many years.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Hart's War

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on August 4, 2007. Maybe I'll have something new next week.)

This is another movie we missed when it came out, which is sort of surprising considering that I like Bruce Willis movies and World War II prisoner of war movies (such as STALAG 17 and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, both great films). In this one Colin Farrell plays a lieutenant who is a senator’s son, a paper pusher who’s stationed well behind the front lines. But through some bad luck he gets captured by the Germans anyway and sent to a prison camp where Bruce Willis is the ranking American officer. As usual in this sort of film, not everything is what it appears to be at first, and the day-to-day drama of life in the camp eventually becomes something bigger and more important. One of the prisoners is murdered, apparently by another prisoner, which leads to a trial, with Farrell’s character, who was in law school when the war began, serving as defense counsel for the accused.

Since this film is based on a novel by John Katzenbach, a good thriller writer, it’s no surprise that the script takes some nice twists and turns. The acting is fine all around. Despite that, the movie never really engaged my interest as much as I thought it should have. I still enjoyed it, though, and consider it to be worth watching.

Monday, September 26, 2016

News From Piccadilly Publishing

Piccadilly Publishing, the Home of Great Western Fiction, celebrates Christmas 2016 by issuing no less than SIX new western series to its line-up ... all available at a special low price for the first seven days of publication! 


These look great, and I've already pre-ordered all of them. I'd read the two Marshall Grover novels before, but I plan to read them again. Piccadilly Publishing has done a fine job of bringing out some classic Westerns, both old and new.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Ten Detective Aces, July 1944

There's got to be an interesting story behind that cover. Despite having a groan-inducing pun as a title, the lead story by Frederick C. Davis is probably pretty good. Davis never disappoints. The rest of the line-up in this issue of TEN DETECTIVE ACES is pretty strong, too: William Campbell Gault, Robert Turner (under his own name and as Glenn Wood), Joe Archibald, Norman A. Daniels, and David X. Manners.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Big-Book Western, November 1952

BIG-BOOK WESTERN wasn't the iconic pulp that DIME WESTERN and STAR WESTERN, its Popular Publications stablemates, were, but it was a good solid magazine for a long time. By 1952 many of the big names were gone. I've never heard of the author of this issue's lead novel, William Bender Jr. In fact, the only one of the authors I'm really familiar with is Talmage Powell, who's best known for his hardboiled mysteries. One of the other authors, Richard H. Nelson, was really William L. Hamling, who was on the verge of a successful career as a magazine and book publisher. There's also a reprint from the August 1940 issue of DIME WESTERN of a story by Stone Cody, who was really Thomas Mount.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Forgotten Books: Trails West - Eugene Cunningham

That's about as generic a title and bland a cover as you're ever likely to see. Ah, but inside are nine stories by Eugene Cunningham that originally appeared in FRONTIER STORIES in 1927 and '28. Generic they may be, in the technical sense of the word ("characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things"), but not bland by any stretch of the imagination. Instead they're colorful, action-packed, and very entertaining.

The hero of these yarns is a young Texas Ranger named Stephen Ware, often referred to rather awkwardly in the first few stories as "Ware's Kid", since his father Bill Ware was also a Texas Ranger. In the course of these tales, Ware justifies his admission into the Rangers by rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a rancher; tracks down a fugitive killer, then decides the man is innocent and sets out to find the real murderer; tames a couple of wild towns; rounds up some horse thieves; crosses the border into Mexico to capture an outlaw; solves some stagecoach robberies; and even resolves a domestic drama (with bank robbery added). Ware isn't the most nuanced character, but his adventures sure are fun.

For me, the key to Cunningham's appeal (along with his fast-moving prose and hardboiled attitude) is the authenticity of his work. Like Walt Coburn, he was writing about a time and place that was within the memory of people they knew as youngsters. The Wild West was only a generation removed from the early pulp writers, if that. Some of the plots may be exaggerated for dramatic effect; the setting and the attitudes of the characters aren't. I've become a Eugene Cunningham fan late in my pulp-reading career, but I really enjoy his work and TRAILS WEST gets a high recommendation from me.

Here are the stories and their original appearances in FRONTIER STORIES:
"Beginner's Luck", February 1927
"The Hermit of Tigerhead Butte", March 1927
"Wanted—?", May 1927
"The Hammer Thumb", June 1927
"The Trail of a Fool", July 1927
"The Ranger Way", August 1927
"Blotting the Triangle", September 1927
"Ware Calls It a Day", October 1927
"Spiderweb Trail", January 1928

There's also a fine biographical introduction by Cunningham's daughter, Murney Cunningham Call. This is a volume well worth having if you’re a pulp Western fan.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: The Core

(This post originally appeared in slightly different form on July 28, 2007. For me, it was an overlooked movie even then.)

We missed this movie when it came out a few years ago, so when we came across a copy of the DVD at the library we decided to go ahead and watch it. It’s a near-future scientific thriller about how the earth’s outer core stops rotating for some reason, which causes the electro-magnetic field around the planet to start dissipating, which is going to lead to all sorts of disasters and ultimate destruction unless an intrepid team of scientist/adventurers can bore down to the earth’s core in a special vessel made of Unobtainium (to quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up) and restart the core’s rotation by setting off a series of nuclear explosions.

Now, Mr. Wizard I’m not. But if that plot description sounds pretty far-fetched to you, well, it does to me, too. This is definitely a movie that requires a large amount of suspension of disbelief. If you can shrug your shoulders, though, and say, “Okay, I’ll buy that”, it’s fairly entertaining. Lots of special effects and lots of dialogue like “We’re approaching the core/mantle interface!” Aaron Eckhart is a brilliant, ruggedly handsome scientist. (Brilliant scientists in movies are always ruggedly handsome, although it’s acceptable for them to have brilliant scientist sidekicks who are semi-nerdish. Unless of course the brilliant scientist is female, in which case she’s intelligent-looking but still hot.) Hilary Swank is the former astronaut who pilots the ship going to the earth’s core. She’s very capable and intelligent-looking -- but still hot. As for the rest of the crew . . . well, you can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen to them.

Which is another problem that THE CORE has. If you’ve ever seen any other movies in the near-future scientific thriller genre, or read any books like that, you’ll know everything that’s going to happen ’way before it does. There was one minor twist near the end that I didn’t see coming, but I should have.

Despite my sarcasm, I did enjoy this movie. It’s silly and predictable, but there are some nice lines of dialogue and I was able to accept the spirit of the whole thing. I was a little disappointed that they went all the way to the Earth’s core and back, though, and didn’t stop even once in Pellucidar.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Now Available: Blast to Oblivion - Chap O'Keefe

In Denver, a shotgun blast brutally ends a man’s life and sets in motion a deadly chain of events that threatens Joshua Dillard, drifting detective and former Pinkerton agent. Hired by a beautiful woman to untangle the mystery of her brother’s murder and bring the killer to justice, Joshua’s investigation takes him to the raw and dangerous mining town of Silverville, where he finds a web of deception, greed, lust, and violence. Aided only by an eccentric hermit, Joshua will need all his cunning and gun-skill to avoid being blasted to oblivion himself! 

Inspired by the classic Sherlock Holmes novel THE VALLEY OF FEAR, veteran Western author Chap O’Keefe spins another exciting tale filled with action and plot twists galore. Rough Edges Press is proud to welcome O’Keefe and his popular series character Joshua Dillard. This edition is newly revised by the author and includes an afterword about the origins of the novel. BLAST TO OBLIVION is sure-fire entertainment for Western and mystery readers alike!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Startling Stories, November 1948

The cover on this issue of STARTLING STORIES is by Earle Bergey--but most of you already knew that, didn't you? I know his work was controversial at the time, but I really enjoy it. And inside this issue are stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, John D. MacDonald, A.E. van Vogt, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert Moore Williams. Edited by my old editor and mentor, Sam Merwin Jr. I like having that link with pulp history.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Famous Western, August 1955

Another gun-totin' redhead on the cover of a Western pulp. Sure must have been a lot of them around in the old days. By 1955, the Columbia Western pulps were holding down the fort almost by themselves. I think only RANCH ROMANCES remained from any of the other publishers. FAMOUS WESTERN still had some decent authors writing new stories, though, in this case Lauran Paine, Lee Floren, and A.A. Baker. A far cry from the glory days of the pulps but probably still worth reading.