Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Shadowcast episode 4

Razorfist's Shadowcast returns this month with a review of The Shadow Strikes, one of The Shadow films most closely resembling the pulps. Pity that it was made on a shoestring. Also reviewed is the radio episode "Death House Rescue", a milestone for The Shadow as the first of Orson Welles' legendary run as The Knight of Darkness.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Combat Frame XSeed: CY40 Second Coming

“You’ve got to love escalation.” – Faust Hayden, XSeed CY40 II

Brian Niemeier’s Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 ended on a wicked cliffhanger with the clash of superweapons and the sudden disappearance of Arthur Wake, the mastermind of the rebellion against the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition (SOC). The sequel, Combat Frame XSeed: CY40 Second Coming, (hereafter CY 40 II) picks up in the immediate aftermath, with the XSeed pilots finding themselves on the run while the SOCs launch false-flag attacks to keep Earth from rallying to their cause. Abandoned by Wake, circumstances and belief divide the XSeed pilots, as new factions, combat frames, and even species take to the fields and skies of Earth. As the desperate defense of a free Earth heats up, Wake returns, lighting a powder keg 60 million years in the making.
As usual, the XSeed roller coaster begins from there, taking readers through a whirlwind of change as factions unite and break apart with each new development. Here in CY 40 II, the revelations are earth-shaking, as the XSeed pilots and the SOC must deal with an alien threat even as they fight each other. The tantalizing skeins of a 60 million-year-old mystery first spun in the original XSeed CY1 now take shape with the addition of the alien Secta, beings who travel from one doomed world to the next to record what they find. Earth, Mars, and the space colonies of the SOC are the latest worlds to be doomed. But before a defense can be prepared, Arthur Wake and Sullia Zend, the possible reincarnation of former genocidal world leader Sekaino Megami, must deal with each other, and Arthur prefers grenades to mere words.
As always with Niemeier’s books, CY 40 II rewards a close reading. Careful callbacks to XSeed CY1 appear, adding to the mysteries surrounding Sekaino Megami and those who would challenge her. Familiar faces appear in the most unlikely places. For those readers familiar with the mobile suit genre, resonances to the Gundam series which inspired XSeed are present, including 1990s fan-favorite Gundam Wing. The threat of alien invasion offers a splash of Macross resonances as well, although thankfully no one sings here. And beneath the crackle of lasers and hiss of rockets, there is the mounting cost as the various factions of secret kings push humanity past its limits in preparation for the alien threat. Unavoidably in such attempts, there is breakage, as each of the XSeed pilots discovers, including newcomer James Trent.
So what makes the third visit to the XSeed story the charm?
Everything that I enjoyed from the previous two books is present in a clearer more concentrated form. Niemeier continues to grow more comfortable with the action and intrigues required in a martial thriller, enough to step on the gas and pick up the pace from the already brisk prequels. CY 40 II offers all the mecha action, intrigue, and surprises of the previous two books combined in half the space. Perhaps Wake’s return to SOC space might have used a little more exposition for clarification, but otherwise, Niemeier deftly juggles the demands of heavy metal action, multiplying intrigue, and the constantly shifting locations required in a mecha thriller. 
A dry wit comes into sharper focus. A few excellent one-liners emerge from the chatter of pilots not used to radio discipline. Fortunately, these are not delivered with camp nor does the book stop to admire their cleverness. However, the occasional relief allows the tension needed in battles between metallic knights of space to ratchet even higher than without it.
Perhaps the only thing missing from CY 40 II is the growing collection of mecha art and profiles currently hosted on Niemeier’s blog. The art and backstories for each mecha design are fascinating, and a profile or two of the most prominent mecha in each book would be a welcome addition to flip back and forth between. The visual element from these designs set XSeed apart from other military and martial science fiction series taking inspiration from familiar works. It wouldn’t hurt to lean into that more.
More XSeed is on its way, set even further into the future, and, from hints dropped on Niemeier’s blog, it’s a future of war and platypuses. Until then, CY 40 II and its page-turner prequels supply enough heavy metal mecha action to hold readers over.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Introduction to Captain Future

"The original introduction to Captain Future as it appeared in issue #1 The Wizard of Science! Captain Future!"
The most colorful planeteer in the Solar System makes his debut in this, America’s newest and most scintillating scientifiction magazine — CAPTAIN FUTURE.
This is the magazine more than one hundred thousand scientifiction followers have been clamoring for! Here, for the first time in scientifiction thrilling history, is a publication devoted exclusively to the thrilling exploits of the greatest fantasy character of all time!
Follow the flashing rocket-trail of the Comet as the most extraordinary scientist of nine worlds have ever known explores the outposts of the cosmos to the very shores of infinity.
Read about the Man of Tomorrow today!
Meet the companions of Captain Future, the most glamorous trio in the Universe! Grag, the giant, metal robot; Otho, the man-made, synthetic android; and aged Simon Wright, the living Brain.
Captain Future took off in 1940, and his futuristic super-science  adventures lasted, in various magazines, into the 1950s. The World Wrecker, Edmond Hamilton, penned most of the novels, although he was later joined by Joseph Samachson and Manly Wade Wellman. His adventures were revived, in Japan with the 1978 Captain Future anime, and in 2018 with a failed print reboot in America. A German film version is in development, with various sample trailers leaking onto YouTube. PulpFest has an excellent introduction to the good Captain Future, of whom I'll take a closer look this week, as I am currently reading "Captain Future and the Space Emperor". Wellman's Captain Future novel, naturally, is next.

What interests me about this introduction are the references to "scientifiction" instead of science fiction and the clear references to the most extraordinary scientist as the greatest fantasy character of all time. Sure, it may be marketing speak, but it is also a clear tie to C. S. Lewis's German definition of science fiction as "any futurist fantasy." (Perhaps that is why Captain Future was wildly popular in Europe, Japan, and the Arab countries.) Above all, it's a reminder that tastes and even concepts of science fiction weren't as set in stone--or even inevitable--as the fannish histories like to portray.

As of the spaceman Doc Savage and his fight against an almost-Darth Vader-like Space Emperor, we shall see them soon.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ruins, Warrior Reborn, and Is it Wrong?

In Ruins of the Galaxy, by J. N. Chaney and Christopher Hopper, an intergalactic peace summit between the Republic, the Jedi-like Luma, and the canine Jujari end with a bang when three explosions rip through the summit. Now Republic Marine Lt. Magnus and Luma peacekeeper Awen must escape the enraged homeworld of the Jujari, while trying to discover who in the Republic sabotaged the peace talks.
Another #StarWarsNotStarWars series, Ruins aims at a Clone Wars adventure feel, providing enough Jedi action for those who might think Galaxy’s Edge needed more of the Force. It combines military action with epic fantasy pacing. Like most recent military SF series, Ruins draws from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for inspiration, however, the focus is on Lt. Magnus and Awen rather than his regiment or life in the service. A lot of time is spent on where the bullets are flying, but the action doesn’t move the plot forward with the same breakneck pace. As such, Ruins needs to be read back to back with its sequel, Galactic Breach, to get a complete story. When done so, the full scope of the failed peace talks comes into focus, giving meaning to the extended tactical action scenes.

In M. H. Johnson’s Silver Fox & The Western Hero: Warrior Reborn, Alex, a billionaire’s son, attempts a desperate gamble to beat cancer. He volunteers to be cryogenically frozen until such time as a cure could be found, with his mind stimulated by an immersive MMO-like program while he sleeps. When he wakes up, Alex finds himself a barbarian in a Chinese fantasy thousands of years future that looks an awful lot like the past. To survive, he must master chi cultivation, even if it means drawing the attention of a trickster deity.
Warrior Reborn paints a light gloss of litRPG gaming elements over the currently popular chi cultivation and portal fantasy genres (xianxia and isekai) into a doorstopper novel. However, the litRPG elements are completely superfluous to the story, as Warrior Reborn quickly turns into a  Ringoesque logistics opener focused on how Alex cleared his meridians to use the non-games mechanics skills of chi cultivation. This pursuit fills 75% of the doorstopper, which means that the conflict for the series is not revealed until the denouement. Warrior Reborn needs an aggressive editor wielding a cutting knife. There is, however, a lot of potential and charm here. The chinoiserie elements are immersive, not intrusive. The characterization is strong enough to carry the story over long stretches of exposition. And there are tantalizing hints to Alez’s lost adventures as a Watson to a trickster god’s Holmes. Hopefully the sequel will better balance exposition and adventure.

Fujino Omori’s Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (Danmachi for short) returns for its fourteenth volume, on the heels of a sinkhole that sent Bell Cranell and Lyu Leon into the depths of the Dungeon, past where even Lyu’s impressive skills can prevail. As the denizens of the Dungeon swarm them, the injured Lyu plans to sacrifice herself so that Bell can make it to the surface. Unfortunately, the stubborn and idealistic Bell won’t let her. Meanwhile, the members of Bell’s guild mount an expedition to rescue him, but they too find themselves pressed to their limits. Will skill and determination be enough to rescue Bell and Lyu?
Danmachi‘s English name is somewhat misleading. Even with all the challenges and growing up he’s done over the course of the series, Bell is still too innocent for hand holding, much less the more rakish acts the series’ name might suggest. Instead, his efforts are focused on becoming a stronger hero, unaware of the second glances in his direction. Bell’s determination and idealism allow him to accomplish stunning feats of heroism that older, more jaded adventurers find unthinkable. In many ways, Bell is closer to shounen manga protagonists like Naruto, Deku, and Goku than the more jaded otaku protagonists of isekai light novels, such as Konosuba’s Kazuma. And, as this volume was originally intended as the series finale, Bell will need every bit if he is going to carry the injured Lyu to the surface as Danmachi throw the heroes into increasingly desperate and outnumbered situations.
However, this is also the first time since the contrived opening to the series that Danmachi’s plot comes close to its name. Lyu in Danmachi’s version of Batman, a masked avenger for justice that causes evil to tremble at her name. So it’s endearing to see the normally stoic elf’s facade crack into blushes, while Bell is oblivious as he is focused on their survival. Danmachi presents a rare inversion of the typical light novel romance plot where the boy helps the girl through a physical problem, and the girl helps the boy through an emotional one. Lyu helps Bell survive, and Bell unknowingly helps Lyu through survivor’s guilt. The romance plot is sweet, with far more puppy love than lust, but marred by the fact that there are at least three more girls Bell is going to rescue in future books—even if two of them have to contrive circumstances to get their turns.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Peter the Brazen: "A Princess of Static"

Radio operator Peter Moore, the man of brass and later to be called Peter the Brazen, gets caught up in Chinese intrigues in "A Princess of Static." Peter is called out as a major inspiration to Doc Savage, from the man of brass/Man of Bronze nicknames to the technologist as a heroic man of action. Peter, however, is not blessed with all of Doc's talents, nor colored after the metal of his name.

Peter is a brash, skilled radio operator in a Pacific merchantman company gifted with sensitive ears that allow him to hear radio messages at ranges well beyond his peers. As such, he's able to punch his own ticket in the company. Like most commo guys, this has gone to his head.

In his first adventure, Peter's friendship with certain shadowy gentlemen in San Francisco's Chinatown tip him off to a bit of human trafficking about the Vandalia. A "very high lady," in fact. So Peter joins the Vandalia's crew.

As the passengers embark, Peter notices a Chinese woman escorting another woman in a gray hood. They enter an empty cabin unregistered to any passenger.

Soon after, the Vandalia's radios are plagued by a noise jammer that defies all attempts of Peter's fellow signaleers to isolate. Peter listens to the signal and discerns a message below the noise. It's a cry for help, and it's coming from somewhere aboard the Vandalia.

Peter stalks the empty cabin for fleeting traces of the now-vanished women. Meanwhile, the captain is trying to force Peter to drop the investigation.

When Vandalia arrives in China, two passengers try to board a ferry from the ship in the dead of night. Peter interferes, and ends up rescuing Aileen Lorimer, the hidden signaleer, who he sends to the American consulate. He thinks he's done with her.

Aileen, once abducted to be a birthday gift for a Chinese lord, turns out to be the first of Peter the Brazen's love interests. Or maybe the third. Adventure and radio appear to be the first two.

Overshadowed is perhaps the best word to describe this first Peter the Brazen tale. It was popular enough to be collected into a novel in 1919. But with the rise of Black Mask and Weird Tales, "A Princess of Static" was quickly relegated to an honorable mention in pulp adventure.

The action is blink-and-miss-it quick, the exoticness of China and Chinatown is subdued compared to the chinoiseries of the late 20s and early 30s, and the less said about the Chinese accented dialogue the better.

Even for a current-day signaleer, the radio sections are dry. But this was one of the first stories by Loring Brent (also known as George F. Worts), and that newness can be seen in the story. Peter's character is still being developed. Here, he's more an excuse to discover a cute girl with radio skills in a faraway land. And while many elements of the story are thin compared to what would arise in the 20s, there was enough to catch readers' interests for decades.

Part of that is authenticity. Worts was a radioman sailing from one Chinese port to another. And, even as the technologies change with the decades, a signaleer can recognize his own. Worts’ China also has a nightmarish vividness to it that stands out from later Argosy chinoiseries such as Wirt's steppe battles in “War Lord of Many Swordsmen”. Even then, it is overshadowed by what the Weird Tales authors brought to the Chinese adventure.

Save Peter the Brazen for after you've read a number of pulps. This isn't one to make a new pulp enthusiast with.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Shadow: Gangdom's Doom

The Shadow cleans up Chicago in Gangdom's Doom, the fifth Shadow novella. 

Inspired by the April 1931 Chicago election, The Shadow takes on the crime empire of Nick Savoli, a thinly disguised stand-in for Al Capone. Gangland Chicago was a breeding ground for pulp stories, from Amusement, Inc. to Black Mask and a host of hero and detective pulps. But the editors thought that The Shadow needed a little more motivation to face their version of America's first celebrity gangster: The order came from on high to writer Walter Gibson: The Shadow's agent, Claude Fellows would die.

Fellows would be the first and only agent to fall in the pulps. And Gibson protested the decision. But the editors stood firm. The blow was softened as Gibson went to Bermuda, dividing his time between writing and running publicity for the magician Harry Blackstone. 

Gibson would later recount how he turned the noisy Bermuda streets, complete with the hammering riveting of construction, into scenes in side alleys of Chicago, complete with Tommy gun fire. "It gave me jitters to walk past the Bermuda building, but it helped the story."

Onto the story.

Claude Fellows has been assigned to investigate the Chicago mob. Soon after their talk, first, his contact, then Fellows himself are killed, with the latter falling in a Tommy gun drive by.

In response, The Shadow sends Harry Vincent to Chicago, where Harry works his way into the confidence of Marmosa, a gambling king. While Harry learns about the mob's organization, from kingpin Nick Savoli down to the hired killers, the same killers burst into the gambling den. The Chicago killers get into a firefight with New York thugs, including one Monk Thurman. They kill one of Marmosa’s guns before Monk Thurman drives them away. Suddenly, Thurman is of great interest to Marmosa--and to Savoli's organization. Should they hire him or kill him?

A familiar felonious face, Steve Cronin from New York, meets with Marmosa's henchmen and casts enough doubt on Thurman to convince Marmosa's goons to kill the New York gunman. But when they call a meeting with Thurman to kill him, no one shows. Confused, Cronin and Marmosa's henchman leave, unaware that, in secret, The Shadow is watching their every move.

Later, Cronin meets with mob boss Savoli, who tells him to murder Chicago's most aggressive district attorney. But before Cronin and his crew can pull the trigger on their Chicago typewriters, The Shadow appears behind them and knocks them out.

When Cronin wakes up, he crosses paths with Harry Vincent, who resolves to settle the score from earlier adventures between them. Soon after, Savoli gives Cronin a way to redeem himself from the night's failure:

Kill The Shadow.

Savoli then orders Monk Thurman to eliminate the Chicago killers who shot up Marmosa's gambling den. Monk goes out and antagonizes a set of toughs, tricking them into ambushing the killers instead of ambushing him. The toughs go into hiding. Monk Thurman claims the deed.

The killings spark a whirlwind of schemes as Savoli uses the opportunity to further cement his authority over the Chicago underworld. Monk Thurman is to be killed to appease another crime lord. That is unless he kills The Shadow first.

The Shadow is everywhere during this exchange, listening in from secret passages, cackling to himself under hidden disguises. Now he reveals himself. The Shadow interrupts a dinner between Savoli and his crime lords, defying the mob boss to his face. The Knight of Darkness pronounces judgment on Savoli for his crimes and twice over for the men who killed on his orders. The Shadow escapes, untouched a hail of bullets.

Enraged, Savoli spends days setting his murderers after The Shadow, including Monk Thurman. But they aren't the only ones watching the streets of Chicago. Harry Vincent is as well, and Cronin now suspects him to be working for The Shadow. Cronin takes his suspicions to Savoli, who hatches a plan.

Harry Vincent is captured and tortured, causing The Shadow to make his move. After rescuing his agent, The Shadow appears to be on a collision course with Monk Thurman. But Monk's efforts are seemingly spent more in fraying the fragile peace in Savoli's organization--accompanied by a familiar mocking laughter.

Savoli's empire collapses in a week of brutal gang fighting. But The Shadow is not done yet, for he still has to bring Claude Fellows' killer to justice. He distracts Savoli long enough for police to raid Savoli's hideout. In the fight, Cronin is killed, and Savoli is arrested.

Gibson does a lot to make his story easy to read. This doesn't mean simplified plots, flat prose, or childish vocabulary. Rather, he doesn't get lost in exposition or distraction and makes it so the plot can be easily followed without telegraphing future events. Additionally, Gibson has perhaps the cleanest chapter organization so far in pulpdom. Each chapter can be summarized in a sentence but tells a miniature story in its own right. Unlike the hero pulps that would follow, Gibson's prose is stylized but without all the gilt that imitators would tack onto the genre. And the tricks of the magician that Gibson was so fond of, especially misdirection, are prominent throughout the tale.

The Shadow truly owes a debt to Fantomas. Not just in the mastery of disguise, but the prose stylings are similar to those found in the French phantom villain's dime novel adventures.

Like in the Argosy stories, the villains' actions drive the story, not that of The Shadow or Harry Vincent. It's almost alien compared to these days of limited 3rd-person POV. Although in the shadows and cackles, the reader can sense The Shadow's schemes coiling around the mob occasionally striking through mistake identities and inciting mob on mob violence. It isn't like he's averse to using his automatics, but rumor had it that Street Smith did not want to ruffle the feathers of the mob by letting The Shadow cut loose.

So, did Claude Fellows need to die?

No. The Shadow already is an embodiment of vengeance, and, save for being the inciting action for The Shadow’s crusade, affected the story minimally. We never see into The Shadow’s thought, and he is such a mystery and an actor that we as the readers never get a clear glimpse into The Shadow’s thoughts and motivations. And for a series so dependent on mood and misdirection, there’s no need for such a glimpse to push the story forward. As such, Fellows’ death comes across as a cheap stunt at worst and a MacGuffin at best. Gibson was right to protest the editorial decree, but, as he was writing for hire, the decision was ultimately out of his hands.

But even with that compromise, The Shadow’s fame and sales continued to grow.

* * * * *

For all agents of the Shadow: Buy the Sanctum reprints while you still can. Sanctum's rights expire at the end of this year. Who knows what Conde Nast will do with the series, so this is the last chance for a while to get affordable copies of The Shadow.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Sheriff of Tonto Town

W. C. Tuttle's Henry Harrison Conroy is a lesser-known pulp character. A quick Google search finds pirate sites carrying his stories before any articles talking about him. Fortunately, there is a good intro to Sheriff Henry: 
"When we first meet Henry Harrison Conroy he's a down-at-the-heels vaudeville comedian who seems to be modeled on W.C. Fields...Just as he learns his stage career is over, he gets a letter saying he's inherited a ranch in Arizona. So to Arizona he goes."
"Along the way, Henry is elected sheriff as a joke, and turns the joke on the town by remaining in office. He knows nothing of the law, and cares less, but somehow - usually with a drink in his hand - manages to bring about some justice."
Sheriff Henry typically gets tied up in murder mysteries in Western towns, although later stories become more typically Western. In "The Sheriff of Tonto Town", "a dying man who has just discovered a rich Arizona mine" brings problems to Sheriff Henry's doorstep.

The first chapter has Sheriff Henry sorting out a card shark that stole property from a local. From his career on stage, Henry has seen more than a handful of magicians palm a card, and is wise to the card shark's game. 

Henry's vaudeville roots will play out throughout the story. Already, there's a sort of verbal and slapstick interrogation of the card shark, complete with a bit of "accidental gunfire". "Das har'ar gon," replied Oscar (the jailer working for Henry), "von't stay cocked." It's the first bit of deliberate humor I've read in the pulps. And Oscar also has the thickest, most cryptic dialect in pulp, a medium already given toward thick and cryptic dialects. Pulps typically err on the side of verisimilitude over readability. Here, it's a step into cryptographic analysis.

As for the Terrible Swede with the hair trigger and impenetrable accent, Henry says: "You underestimate Oscar. Oh, I am perfectly aware that he does everything wrong. But I have a system. I tell him to do something wrong, and he will invariably do it right."

Sheriff Henry soon finds himself embroiled in a Lost Dutchman Mine-style mystery, when a dying prospector tells of a rich strike before h passes on. Not only is the location unknown, so is the matter of who will inherit the claim.

Like Max Brand's Clovelly, much of the novel so far is taken up by the schemes of the characters around the main character, not Henry's actions. Here, Jake West and Doc Sargent scheme to take the dying man's claim, foil happy couples, and hide evidence that West is a wife beater. Henry foiled a plot or two--age and treachery are great equalizers--but the villains drive the plot. Henry spends most of the book offstage. It's almost an inversion of today's storytelling, where the hero drives the plot with his decisions and the villain is the backdrop.

Henry plays up the bumbling fat sheriff, but he, Judge, and the Terrible Swede play adroitly to interfere with their plans. Granted, it's slow reading, but that's to catch up on all the wordplay in the banter. There's no handholding here, even with the humor. Pratchett reads like Carrot Top by comparison. Henry doesn't stop and mug for the camera with his humor. There are no instances where the flow of the story breaks because "we told a joke, now laugh. Please laugh at how clever we are."
But that is part of the approach of the Argosy pulps and 1920s adventure fiction: there is no hand-holding. And if you aren't versed in Western tack and saddle or 17th-century swordplay, you better have a dictionary close at hand.

No hand-holding also carries over into the plot. 

The Argosy pulp writers accomplish more in 50,000 words than most writers at 120,000. And even those who write the books of endless pages. It isn't just that today's storytelling has been influenced by publishers preaching padding to meet price points--more than one author I know has remarked that publishers are in the lumber business, not the story business--storytelling and pacing have become decompressed. And with decompression comes indulgence. 

Those wanting adventure still won’t be disappointed. There have been murders, backstabbing, several one-punch KOs, claim jumping, poisonings, sackings, and buffoonery from a sheriff too old to find a saddle, much less ride in one. Henry even walks six miles barefoot with soles full of cactus spines. Ouch. Not something most Western heroes would do, but no less a feat of endurance than that of Conan or Stark. Of course, the latter two gentlemen would have avoided the cacti...

But then Henry is supposed to be the least likely sheriff possible. An old, fat, city slicker actor with a faster mouth than a gun. Despite this mismatch of character, the sincerity necessary for pulp adventure is never harmed. "The Sheriff of Tonto Town" is a cozy adventure, a bit more soap-opera-like than most pulps, far more humorous, too; but it doesn't skimp on adventure--or carefully crafted plots.