Friday, November 15, 2019

Amusement, Inc.

What if Doc Savage and bros. took on the mob with actual bullets? Let's find out in Theodore Tinsley's "Amusement, Inc."

The back story of "Amusement, Inc." is as interesting as their tales. Few people would actually believe that six millionaires would band together to fund an attempt to clean out the crime from a major city. It makes for great fiction, but unbelievable newsprint, yet, in the months before "Amusement, Inc." and Black Aces appeared on the stands, one such organization, The Secret Six, was revealed in Chicago as instrumental in bringing down Al Capone. Of these millionaires, Eliot Ness said:
"These six men were gambling with their lives, unarmed, to accomplish what three thousand police and three hundred prohibition agents had failed miserably to accomplish: The liquidation of a criminal combine which paid off in dollars to the greedy and death to the too-greedy or incorruptible."
That "Amusement, Inc." would use this story should come as no surprise. Chicago's crime scene and the longing of its citizens for justice left a lasting mark on the pulps--"Words do not count—deeds are their own explanation." And justice in the pulps was swift, violent, and final, as befitting the cries of a populace near their breaking point with violent crime.

Tinsley uses his version of the Secret Six as the money behind the muscle that will be known as Amusement, Inc. 
"I'm offering you danger and death to play with by day and night." 
How's that for a job offer? But crime is everywhere. One murder attempt later, and Major John Lacy is brought before the Emergency Council of six millionaires trying to clean up the city. Out of this meeting, a secret society grows, and the front organization: Amusement, Inc. To staff his amusement, Lacy draws upon the old soldiers' network to assemble a squad from his old unit--and an armory's worth of weapons.

Amusement, Inc. will need all the guns, too, as one of the Emergency Council's banks is targeted by arsonists for having the gall to refuse a racketeer's loan demand. These "torch bugs" are wanted dead...just dead. Alive is not an option.
"I'm not cop, you fool--I'm a death warrant! You'll talk fast to me or you'll burn in your own grease!"
Just a reminder that Major Lacy, for all his incorruptible strengths, is not John Law, nor is he paid to deal kindly with torch bugs and other thugs. Leaning on the rats compels them to give up the name and location of the racketeer who ordered the blaze. A few bullets later, and the first blow against crime is struck.

It's a pity that the bank burned down, though.

Certain pulp heroes like Doc Savage might instead chose rehabilitation, but the men of Amusement, Inc. are there for adventure--and vengeance.

"Amusement, Inc." is the pulp equivalent of an action movie, running from murder attempt to city chase, from explosion to gunfight. There's little investigation here, just action. And if you want to survive a gang war, you'd better have a gang of your own.

Like the rest of Black Mask's alumni, Tinsley's prose still sounds contemporary nearly a century later. The characterization is a bit scant, but this isn't about the men of Amusement, Inc., it's about the criminals terrorizing the cities getting their just and violent end. Amusement, Inc. is just the instrument of destruction.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Interplanetary Graveyard and Horror on the Links


Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton spins a tale of space-bound graverobbers in "Interplanetary Graveyard."

With the famous last words for soldiers and sailors, "I'm going to marry her tomorrow," Mark Raymond goes on leave after a long space freighter voyage. As expected, the surprise is on Mark, who is unaware that Ardra was "taken to the Moon"--now a cemetery world--while he was gone. Even though his rival for Ardra's hand, Burke Ullman, has dropped a meteor shower of snide hints at Mark.

Grief-stricken, Mark decided to sneak into the lunar necropolis, an act forbidden on all but a few official days. Slinking through the crypts of the moon, Mark soon finds his girl Ardra's grave, freshly disturbed and empty. Mark follows the clues and finds Ardra's body--drugged, not dead--in the spaceship of the man he beat out for Ardra's hand.

Burke taunts Mark with "I am going to revivify Ardra. I am going to give you the satisfaction of seeing her in my arms. And then I am going to give you the red drug." This red drug will doom Mark to an unrousable slumber. One ensuing struggle and the villain is done in by his own scheme. The ending is too traumatic to quite be happily ever after, but Mark's certainly making good on his promise to marry Ardra.

The similarities to a Caribbean zombie story are striking, both in the use of drugs to feign death and in the intended drug-fueled servitude. The religious aspect of this kind of zombie story is not present, which is to be expected in a science fiction retelling.

The prose here, in 1940--on the eve of war, paper shortages, and Congressional censure of the pulps--is that transparent Black Mask style that will be later erroneously called "Hemingway". It's odd that the pulps have a reputation for purple prose. Some genres courted it, generally the more Gothic influenced-including the hero pulps. Hamilton, out on the edges of respectable science fiction, yet in the mass market's cross-hairs, chooses the more accessible style.

"Interplanetary Graveyard" is short, sweet, and lacks screwdrivers. Compare to "The Iron God", it is grounded in human passions instead of intellectual conceits, yet grounded science produces believable methods and settings to the clash between suitors. Hamilton certainly raises the reputation of the science fiction entries in this month's pulp survey.


*****

"The Horror on the Links", by Seabury Quinn, introduces the adventures of the French occult detective, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin is a step on the progression from Semi-Dual, one of the earliest--if not *the* first--occult detective, to the weird menace of Marvel and beyond. (The Pulp Super Fan has an excellent introduction to Semi-Dual, whose Argosy stories we will see soon.) Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories were a cornerstone of Weird Tales throughout the Farnsworth Wright era. Today, however, he is overshadowed by Howard, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.
"Physicians’ sleep is like a park—public property." With that lamentation, Dr. Trowbridge is summoned to treat the long gashed wounds of Paul Maitland, who, in his delirium, cries out about an ape-thing chasing him. Meanwhile:
"Almost entirely denuded of clothing, marred by a score of terrible wounds, her face battered nearly past recognition and her neck broken, the body of pretty Sarah Humphreys, was found lying in one of the bunkers of the dub’s golf course this morning."
Sarah's wounds are similar to Paul's/ Dr. Trowbridge, as Paul Maitland's physician is drawn into the investigation, headed by Sergeant Costello, and assisted by a criminologist, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin's renown in the scientific world is such that Trowbridge recognizes his work.

Upon questioning, Paul says he was attacked by a hairy ape near the golf course. An examination of Sarah's body confirms the unlikely story. 
"It's terrible--"  
"But certainly, One does not look to see the beautiful in the morgue. I ask for what you see, not for your aesthetic impressions."
Meanwhile, another of Dr. Trowbridge's patients, a Mr. Manly, was shot out by the same country club. De Grandin, struck by the coincidence, goes digging through the trash and discovers a shirt belonging to Manly with gorilla hair on the inside. But how to reconcile the all-too-human Manly with the ape that attacked Paul and Sarah? Or, more importantly, should Dr. Trowbridge even entertain de Grandin's apparent fancy?

The result takes a hard turn into the strange, with the sudden appearance of a mad scientist previously only known to Jules de Grandin. It's enough to make a man appreciate the rules of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Except for Rule #2: No supernatural/preternatural causes. This is from Weird Tales, after all.

Rule #9 is also out; Dr. Trowbridge is certainly above my station in wit, vocabulary, and observation. Have a dictionary ready. De Grandin's future assistant, Dr. Trowbridge, serves as the narrator, and he's quite fond of the more elevated English of French and Latin origin.

Returning to the case, and the strange man-ape: 
"You start, you stare. You say to yourself, 'This de Grandin he is crazy like the April-fish!'" 
Any man hunting a man-ape-thing at night by himself has to be a little mad. As for Mr. Manly's identity, history, and fate, I'll save for the reader to discover. This is a Weird Tales story, after all, and the twist should be respected.

"Horror on the Links" is more a English detective story than an American Black Mask story, and I found it helpful to know what kind of mystery Quinn was playing theme-and-variation upon. It is inspired by Agatha Christie's "The Murder on the Links", although the polite rules of the style are disrupted for a sensational tale of mad science and revenge befitting Weird Tales. The story is dense with description and plot, requiring the need to flip back and reread every few pages, something I haven't needed in Wellman's occult detective tales of John Thunstone or the Black Mask hard-boiled adventures.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of "Horror on the Links" is Quinn's tendency to follow the climax of the story with long passages of exposition. It's yet another cheat in the game of the English-style detective mystery, set out in part in the introduction to Dashiell Hammet's "Arson Plus":
This is a detective story you’ll have a hard time solving before the end. Form your ideas of the outcome as you go along and then see how near you guessed it.
De Grandin hides all his cards--and most of the clues--until after the very end. The result is something that's not quite a mystery and not quite a campfire ghost story that relies on sensationalism for its initial hook. It doesn't fit into the expectations of readers trained by centuries of five-act and three-act structure, nor into the four rounds of trouble in the emerging pulp master formula. It takes getting used to, so it works, but it isn't a style or format I'd recommend imitating.

But, like many of the authors from the 1920s section of this survey of pulp, I will be reading more.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Lair of the Grimalkin

For five years, from 1943-1948, Richard Shaver exploded on the scene with his Shaver Mystery, an X-Files-like set of mysteries fille with secret worlds and hidden cavern cities, much to the frustration of science fiction fans. During this time, Amazing's circulation swelled to nearly 200,000 per issue. (Weird Tales and Astounding averaged 50,000) Meanwhile, SF fandom tried to cancel Shaver through boycott and letter-writing campaigns, creating an ugly tradition that still carries on to today. 1948, Amazing stopped publishing the Shaver Mystery, for reason unclear, and Shaver spent many years chasing after the success he once had.

"The Lair of the Grimalkin" is one such attempt, a sword & planet tale on Venus. Here, Venus is a green Hell here, teaming with a mix of life and chemicals that limit Earthmen to small sections of the planet. But the lush life covers vast mineral wealth, so men repeatedly set forth into the jungles. They just don't come back.

Tempted by riches and the verdant hellscape, Hal has a line on a massive deposit of platinum in the well-named Swamp of Despair, and the story begins with preparations for an expedition that's most likely doomed.

Then, deep in the Venusian Amazon, Hal finds the rarest flower on the planet--a human woman surviving where explorers never did. Her jungle home is threatened by the Grimalkin, a kind of dragon, so Hal decides to play St. George.

But things aren't as they seem, as a failed attempt at killing the alien Great One lands them in captivity, alongside the girl, in a Venusian village. Shaver doesn't bother filing serial numbers off of dragon myths here, so Hal and his companions have to escape--or be dinner. The resulting fight rages across Venus, back to the Earthman domes before the dragon finally is slain, and Hal earns his babies ever after ending.

I was expecting dreck from Shaver, as his memory is quite maligned. This wasn't bad. Frankly, The Lair of the Grimalkin holds up better as a story than Williamson's The Iron God. There's more humanity to this transplanted jungle adventure, for one. Shaver has imagination, to be sure, but he needs an editor. The folksy style doesn't lend itself well to the exposition needed for worldbuilding and Shaver's fascination with making up his own language.

For a man who is derided for his fascination with the paranormal, Shaver's chemistry is surprisingly crunchy. More than one compound and ore that sounded like blatant unobtanium actually exist with the compositions Shaver describes.

There are massive "Lost City of Z" vibes here, which shouldn't be a surprise as pulp was smitten with the real-life adventures of Colonel Percy Fawcett, who inspired elements of the adventure pulps, hero pulps, and the weird pulps.

As a result, I would love to see what Shaver might have done in an Argosy-style adventure. He had the formula and the verisimilitude. But the paranormal and the pseudoscientific were instead his fascination--and his reputation among the "notables" of science fiction fandom suffered for it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Iron God and Cardigan: Death Alley

Jack Williamson's career in science fiction is long and distinguished, starting with his first story, sold to Hugo Gernsback in 1928, and enduring into the 21st century. He is perhaps best known for his Legion of Space. And, to be fair, I wish my introduction to him was there.

Instead, curiosity got the better of me when I saw "The Iron God" in SFFAudio's Public Domain files. The combination of dive bombers attacking a metal giant and a science fiction story published in Marvel was too much to pass up.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to "The Iron God", as its hopeful optimism, mad science, and star child tropes have been ground into dust over the resulting seventy and more years of science fiction magazines, books, and drive-in movies have copied the same themes and plot elements. And the sea change that accompanied post-modernism shifted views about science away from the path to a rosier dawn towards the leading suspect of who will kill our tomorrows. From that vantage point, the clumsy attempt of a mad scientist to create a New Man who would not heed the Old Lies serve more as a warning against secret kings than a reproach of a species that kills what it doesn't understand.

That said, the reason "The Iron God" does not shine has more to do with the dross that followed it than it's own faults. At best, it is average. Really, the radioplay of the doomed dive bombers is the highlight.

Pulp fiction's fascination with Colonel Percy Fawcett continues, as the mad scientist father of the Iron God disappears into the South American jungles. However, it has changed from men of action and science like Doc Savage into brilliant lab rats content with mere moral victories.

I'll try Williamson again, as his presence inspired and shaped much of traditional science fiction since before the Campbelline Age. But this time, I'll stick closer to the beaten path

*****

Black Mask alumni Frederick Nebel's Jack Cardigan was one of the main reasons behind the success of the legendary Dime Detective Magazine. Cardigan first appeared in, "Death Alley."

This is a tale for jazz and bourbon. Cardigan's partner is dead--done in by drive-by--and the case is apparently closed. Only Cardigan believes otherwise. It doesn't take long for Cardigan, P. I. to find trouble, both with the crooks and with the law. Said trouble sends the rest of his private detective office into the hospital. After all, St. Louis is a rough city--and a blissful change from New York or Chicago.

The familiar hand of Lester Dent's Master Formula can be felt guiding events. Cardigan gets dropped into one peril after another, and not all he can fight his way out of. The murders of the detectives cross over with a spot of trouble that a newly widowed heiress finds herself in, drawn together into one final standoff, and a public gunfight.

"Death Alley" truly is a perfect four-chapter execution of Dent's formula, awash in gin, whiskey, and tobacco smoke. Compared to the more adventurous Race Williams, Cardigan actually has to rely on some proper sleuthing--and an ability to ferret out connections as tenuous as smoke. It isn't noir, Cardigan is never tempted and is instead vengeance personified as he searches for the killer, but you can see it from here.

There's something about Black Mask writers that, even when riddled by slang now long out of date, their prose has a freshness to it that the 1930s hero pulps and 40s science fiction lack. Even when the hard-boiled stories are dated, they aren't. Nebel is no exception. That's not to say that I didn't have to rely on a dictionary a click or so away for a couple terms. But in the end, with the required and satisfying twist, I want to see this done on the silver screen in proper black and white.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Whisperer; Six Pyramids of Death

Out of the foggy night steps a ghostly figure in gray -- The Whisperer! His super-silenced automatics spitting blue flame, he hurls a hissing challenge to the Law and lawless alike! And hot on his crooked trail, legendary lawman Wildcat Gordon!

In "The Six Pyramids of Death", Commissioner James "Wildcat" Gordon starts sneaking around a countess's house in the guise of The Whisperer, a vigilante in the same ominous mode as The Shadow. While searching for evidence that would convict the countess, The Whisperer gets mired in a net of bad luck--and frequent blows to the back of his head. For when he wakes up, he observes a secret meeting as cutthroats argue over six golden pyramids. But as the pyramids start disappearing, the cutthroats start dying. While The Whisperer is caught in a web of death, Commissioner Gordon must also fen off the machinations of his hostile mayor.

Billed as the most violent series Street & Smith ever published, The Whisperer wears its homage to The Shadow on its sleeve. Everything in that classic formula is present, from the ominous atmosphere to the brooding in the shadows, a radio-friendly calling card, and the twin automatics. Even the cadence of the story matches The Shadow, including the refrain of "For the man watching from the hiding place was The Whisperer."  Unfortunately, when assembling that classic formula, something broke along the way, as the sum is decidedly less than the parts.

Wildcat Gordon turns into The Whisperer through the addition of dental plates that build out his jaw. The catch is, they also affect his voice, reducing it to the whisper that gives his alter-ego his name. A novel solution to the quandary facing any vigilante trying to hide his identity--and one more convincing than the Moon Man's--but it undermines the ominous mystery of The Whisperer with weakness. Worse still, The Whisperer gets knocked out on a regular basis in this story. While it gives Gordon personal stakes in bringing the criminals to justice--or a grave, for the murderers--With how many times someone has snuck up on and decked the Whisperer, it's a wonder he still has a secret identity...or a life.

On top of that, the mood whiplash continues, replacing the dark, brooding ominous man of shadows with the folksy, good old boy commissioner. Knowing too much about the man behind the mask does undermine the story. Why not a folksy good old boy? Because, at least in fiction, most good old boys settle matters directly, without all the theatrics and sophistication a man of the shadows must use. But what is believable is the violence.

As for six pyramids of death, which have been an afterthought not just in this review, but in the story, a more classic example of a MacGuffin will be hard to find. There's no mystery here, just a lure to get the gunmen shooting at each other, and the reason for their existence is a disappointing capstone to such a violent treasure hunt.

For writers, the prose of The Whisperer is an object lesson. As Lester Dent says, wave those tags. Not only does it give readers quirks that identify characters, but they also allow writers to use more than full names and pronouns to refer to their characters. This is especially helpful in action scenes, where the constant usage of a character's full name brings The Whisperer's fights too close to the dreaded checklist.

The sum total is that in "The Six Pyramids of Death", The Whisperer misses the mark of the hero pulps. As such, he is more notable as being one of the many inspirations swept up into the plagiaristic Batman than for his own adventures.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Knights of the Open Palm

The June 1923 issue of Black Mask was notable, not only for its anti-Klu Klux Klan theme, but also for the appearance of the first hard-boiled detective, Carroll John Daly's Race Williams. Per pulp expert Robert Sampson,
"that strains the definition of detective. A hired adventurer who may occasionally detect if he blunders into a clue the size of a bathtub and painted bright pink. He has little use for clues, even less for chains of reasoning." 
Indeed, many of Willaims' first cases owe more to adventure pulps than the long already storied detective genre. But to listen to Race Williams describe himself:
“I’m what you might call a middleman – just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks. I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business, but I never bumped off a guy who didn’t need it..."
And in his first adventure, "Knights of the Open Palm", plenty of hooded goons need a little honest shooting. Race Williams is paid to retrieve a son held by the local chapter. The result is part infiltration of a secret society and part Western in hard-boiled clothes--the classic Man from Nowhere who wanders into a town run by a mob of crooks and toughs. But when the Klan tries to intimidate Race Williams, he stands firm and intimidates them back.

No Western--or two-fisted detective story--would be complete without a shootout. It's hard not to imagine this as Tombstone in 1920s Ohio. And, at the end, the white hat, er, Race Williams rescues the kidnapped boy and inspires the town to rise up against the Klan. After all, it is tough for a gang to intimidate people when a newcomer just killed four goons. There's no rabble-rousing on Race's part, just a tough man showing the powerlessness of bullies.

From the first, it is blatantly obvious is that there's no love here for the Klan, but not for the same reasons they're shunned today. Here, they're treated like racketeers and mobsters, a danger to both black and white. The Klan is revealed to be hucksters. "And you got'a have ten dollars--thought if you've got the ten the rest of it can be straightened out." "It" being the race and religion "requirements" to join this "esteemed" organization. The reason why the criminality is emphasized over race? There are a lot of sticky fingers underneath those robes when it comes time for intimidation, which attracts certain types of goons by the trainload.

While some of the slang is dated, the first-person narration is straightforward and current, lacking the "purple prose" that many people knock the pulps for. As far as lessons, the moral here, that hatred breeds criminality, is one that we're likely to relearn the hard way.

Monday, October 28, 2019

In Another World with CEOs

Here's a pair of reviews dealing with the unlikely mix of business and otherworldly fantasy. For those who prefer their fantasy to be more adrenaline-fueled than cutthroat cozy, expect a surprise soon.


In Andrew Karevik's  CivCEO, Charles Morris, a forcibly retired CEO, is spirited away by mistake to another world. Abandoned to his own devices, yet gifted with the same skills as an otherworldly champion, Charles settles into the the role of mayor for a small village. But when the villagers discover Charles lacks the blessing of their goddess, they give him an ultimatum: improve the prosperity of the village in a month or die. Now Charles must draw on fifty years of business skills to grow his village--and keep away from the gallows pole.

CivCEO is a variation of the growing dungeon builder genre of litRPG fantasy, bringing the management and building aspects above ground and into the light of day. Like many a dungeon builder and litRPG, CivCEO is exposition-heavy as it explains Charles' various strategies for trade and development, albeit without abusing statistics sheets. Unlike said litRPGs, CivCEO does not get swept up into epic world-changing events over the horizon. Instead, it settles in among a cozier setting of Charles' village and its nearby neighbors. And it's this coziness, combined with Charles' goal of making sure that both sides of a deal come out ahead, that gives CivCEO its charm.


Light novels are admittedly wish-fulfillment literature, often shaped around the race for power, respect, and popularity. Middle-Aged Businessman, Arise in Another World!, by Sai Sumimori, upends the usual light novel formula by appealing to a different set of wishes. The main character, Onigawara Shouzou, starts as a successful head of his household with a happy and adoring wife and three loving, well-behaved daughters. Instead of being a burned-out salaryman, Shouzou owns his own home, enjoying the benefits of being a measured risk-taker, a mentor to his employees, an trusted adviser to his bosses. And that’s all before the cosmic accident that sends Shouzou and his family to another world.

Upfront, Middle-Aged Businessman is a gimmick series, with average writing. Like most gimmick light novels, the main character goes a little too readily from success to success and stock situation to stock situation, so it is not a particularly deep work. The appeal is in the novelty. And a happy middle-aged man fulfilled through his work and his adoring family is quite the novel concept for a light novel. Not that this is aimed at middle-aged men, but at the teen and young adult crowd. Actual young adults who could use an example of what life as a middle-aged man should be, not the salaryman burnouts and disaffected, alienated teens who are flooding the genre.

Volume one established the isekai portal fantasy premise, with Shouzou choosing what is best for his family instead of adventuring. He establishes a guild, adds value to it to be competitive in a cutthroat market, and, through his experience in the real world, earns respect and success from his coworkers and the new world’s society.

Volume two focuses more on mentoring. And this time, Shouzou has more of a challenge. Here, he must mentor a lazy, fat failure of a prince into being a man. His advice–mostly given through example, action, and carefully arranged encounters–sounds familiar to certain corners of the internet. Work hard, lift heavy weights, talk to a pretty girl, stop living for approval of other people. Care about yourself and try to improve every day. And it works. Which is the most novel idea of this series. There have been plenty of anime/manga/light novel attempts to motivate boys like the prince into more productive members of society. This is the first time I’ve seen them get actual useful and practical advice. Most previous attempts have the same effect as throwing a whiskey bottle at a recovering alcoholic.

Unfortunately, novelty only lasts so long. This is an otherwise unremarkable story caught up in as many standard light novel conventions as the otherworld fantasy setting allows a man and his family. And by the end of the second book, the welcome is growing a bit thin. But portrayals of happy families are rare enough in the medium that the first book is worth a read by light novel fans.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Detective Fiction

I recently had the chance to contribute to a list of (mostly) 1970s and before crime and detective fiction, to include a healthy leavening of pulp and dime novel stories. Below is the final version of said list, mixing classics such as Arsene Lupin and Raffles with a host of Black Mask authors and a smattering of admittedly guilty pleasures such as The Destroyer, Kinky Friedman, and Fletch.

I'm looking forward to reading many of these in an upcoming project...

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Valerian and Laureline: Shingouzlooz Inc.

2010’s The Time Opener saw Valerian and Laureline’s forty-plus year search across space and time for the missing Earth come to an end. Soon after, Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières opened up their universe to a select few writers and artists, to write adventures from the time-travelling couple’s past–or perhaps even their future. Shingouzlooz Inc., by Wilfrid Lupano and Mathieu Lauffray, is the first to appear before English-speaking audiences, reuniting Valerian and Laureline with the series’ stool-pigeon troublemakers, the Shingouz.
Once again, the Shingouz run towards Laureline to make everything better, interrupting Valerian’s important negotiations with galactic bankers in the process. This time, the Shingouz somehow managed to gain ownership over the Earth, only to lose it in a poker game to the notorious Sha-oo, the Desiccator of Worlds. Sha-oo has designs on the Earth’s oceans, as well as special plans for Laureline. While Valerian struggles with quantum commodities and finance, it is up to Laureline to save Earth–if she doesn’t strangle the Shingouz first.
Shingouzlooz Inc. contains all of the whimsy and humor of the core Valerian and Laureline series, and none of its subtlety. While some of this comes from extending the normal couple pages of Shingouz cameo into a book length story, much of the humor relies on puns, including the elusive quantuna fish and glaringly obvious foretelling in the Shingouz’s unsuccessful holding company–Shingouzlooz, Inc.. But the same lack of subtlety affects the story as well. Valerian and Laureline has never shied away from social issues, but Christin and Mézières show the effects of masculinity, femininity, greed, and corruption throughout the graphic novels and without resorting to lecture. Lupano instead uses a snide reference to ocean pollution to save the Earth’s seas and lets Laureline rant about colonialism like an ingenue on her way to university.
Perhaps the biggest loss, however, is Laureline’s most potent weapon–her charm. Her role has been to show that persuasion is preferable to action. In Shingouzlooz Inc., Laureline is angry enough to use Valerian’s direct methods exclusively. Granted, the loss of Earth to Sha-oo through such dubious circumstances as a poker game has everyone violently upset, but Sha-oo’s plans to recover his losses in acquiring Earth include selling thousands of limited edition Laureline waifu clones throughout the galaxy. So Laureline’s sudden bouts of violence are understandable. Meanwhile, and just as uncharacteristically, Valerian uses persuasion to bargain his way into securing the funds needed on his assignment.
If Lauffray’s Long John Silver (reviewed here) was a book of vivid reds and inky shadows, he imbues each page and panel of Shingouzlooz Inc. with brilliant blues–as befitting such an ocean-centric book. The character designs combine the classic look established by Mézières with the costuming and actors from the Valerian movie (reviewed here) into a more realistic look without resorting to the heavy linework found in Long John Silver. The result is an evocative homage to the classic series while still remaining distinct. I look forward to more works by Mathieu Lauffray.
At its heart, Shingouzlooz Inc. is a fanservice book. Not just in the alluring poses of the Laureline clones, each taken from panels of Christin and Mézières’ years of work, but in the art and story itself. Among the treats for fans of the comic book are the return of beloved characters, artistic homages to favorite scenes of the past, and the Laurelines’ outfits. Meanwhile, the character designs and Laureline’s sudden action girl turn are designed to appeal to fans of the Valerian movie. While the intertwining paths of Valerian and Laureline through Shingouzlooz Inc. are accessible to newcomers, fans will get more out of the resonances and references.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Last Ancestor


Alexander Hellene’s The Last Ancestor follows the last remnant of Christianity in the galaxy, now on the alien planet of Yxakh. Refugees from persecution on Earth, the survivors of the long flight across the stars. But they are not alone on their new home. A lizard-like race nicknamed the Growlers shares the planet, and  their rulers have found Christianity as much of a threat as the rulers of Earth did. Only human technology and bravery keep an uneasy peace.
But while proximity breeds conflict, it also fosters curiosity. Garrett has forged a friendship with a Growler youth named Ghryxa over countless dives into caves and crash sites. What they encounter below the surface of Yxakh will carry Garrett into the Growlers’ Forbidden City and into the presence of the High Lord. A single world may doom humanity to extermination–or save it.
Action is the heart of The Last Ancestor, as ravenous lizardmen, Growler bullies, thrashing mega-predators, and even human police stand in the way of Garrett’s fateful appointment before the High Lord. Bravery takes many guises along the way: trickery, bluff, gunfire, grappling, and even escape. Although there is a philosophical question at the heart of the clash of cultures, it is not debate, but courageous and even rash action which settles the matter. It is one matter to profess faith, and another to wed it to deeds. And the action in The Last Ancestor is swift and perilous enough to bear the momentousness needed to perhaps sway the enraged and powerful. And, even more tellingly, The Last Ancestor does not shy away from the costs–both to Garrett and to the human settlement on Yxakh.
For The Last Ancestor was written out of frustration with Christian fiction steeped in weak protagonists, heavy-handed messages, surrenders to passivity, and unearned happy endings. And the response, like those of Vaughn Heppner and John C. Wright, is to marry decisive action and honest belief with coming-of-age stories. Alexander Hellene is but the first in a sudden wave of authors to move a masculine and deeds-based Christianity into science fiction, and he does so without falling into the cliches of either genre. For one, it is a relief to read of a clash of civilizations written without resorting to First Contact tropes.
The Last Ancestor calls to mind Jack Vance’s The Last Castle, both in the threat to humanity and in the ever-present mysteries that are but an arm’s reach away. The viewpoint, however is from the threatened oppressed, instead of the threatened oppressor, and the result draws more from the accounts of the lives of saints than the thin triumphalisms of previous Christian fiction and the faith in rational science.
But all that makes for pleasant ruminations in the hours after reading the very real story of a young man diving headfirst into mighty deeds as he tries to do right by his family, his friends, his people, and his God.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Tower of the Bear, Heart of Winter, and Eden



Fenton Wood’s Yankee Republic series returns in Tower of the Bear, sending radio engineer Philo Hergenschmidt into the depths of the sea, across the amber waves of grain, and into legends half-remembered to search for the secrets of an impossible metal alloy.
Tower of the Bear continues to create a world where all the legends and tall tales of Philo’s boyhood are not only true, but even stranger than he previously imagined. Science fiction typically pays lip service to the much-vaunted sense of wonder, but Philo breathes it in with every page, whether racing Russians to the bottom of the Arctic Sea with Captain Nemo, delving the secrets of a Library of Everything, or following in an exiled tyrant’s footsteps into the Indian Nations of the West. Yet Philo–and the whole of the Yankee Republic series–deftly navigates the opposing demands of wonder and practicality, and his hard-won radio skills only add to the grandeur of the legends he walks among in an America that never was–but should have been.

In Nick Horth’s novella, Heart of Winter, aelven corsair Arika Zenthe’s unsuccessful bid to kill her pirate king father places her as his pawn instead. Now she must find the Heart of Winter, an ancient magical artifact with the power to destroy cities, before the poison in her veins kills her, knowing full well that if she succeeds, her father will sacrifice her to extend his life by centuries.
Heart of Winter is a Warhammer novella set in the Age of Sigmar campaign. Like most media tie-in fiction, it is a serviceable example of its genre, in this case, a rogue’s form of heroic fantasy. It also means that the stories cannot rock the boat of the greater setting, which denies Arika of the permanent and satisfying end of a final confrontation with her father. However, what sets Heart of Winter ahead of its pack of ten Warhammer novellas is the imaginative beginning where a fleet of pirates attempt to storm the pirate king’s flagship. This terror of the seas is built on, around, and in the sides of a leviathan, and the action does not shy away from using the organic setting of the monster’s hide, mouth, and viscera without resorting to gore porn.

Vaughn Heppner’s Eden closes out the first trilogy of the Lost Civilizations series with holy warrior Joash trying to escape from Nephilim captivity. But the crafty sons of fallen angels trick him instead into helping him find the last relic from Heaven on Earth, believed to be the only way the giants can defeat the angel guarding Eden. Meanwhile, the Elonite armies, led by the Seraph Lord Uriah, pursue the Nephilim in a desperate attempt to keep the brutal giants from eating from the Tree of Life and proclaiming themselves as gods over the Earth.
Not every test a hero faces is one of strength or arms. Here, Joash’s wits, endurance, and will are tested, first by the Nephilim captors, and then again by the purifying aura of Heaven radiated by the relic. Even though the clashes of wits and philosophy between Joash and the might makes right beliefs of the Nephilim occasionally–and uncharacteristically–grow tin-eared, Joash’s feats of endurance rival those found in classic sword and sorcery. Heppner never undermines the verisimilitude of the pre-Flood era with modern detatchment or judgements. But strength of arms is not neglected either. The Elonites and the Nephilim clash in a battle worthy of song. And throughout all is woven the legend of the zealous Elonite Lod, dread foe to the sons of the fallen angels. For the fight for Eden is but one cataclysm that might befall the pre-Flood world, and Lod marches to prevent the next.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Leviathan

After their harrowing escape from the giants and First Born of Jotunheim, Joash and the Elonite warriors wait off-shore for a message from the wandering Lod, whose visions may hold the key to understanding the sudden moves of the Nephilim and their children. But the First Born are still hunting for the Elonites with all their servants. Now Joash must evade the roving patrols of giant pterodactyls, vampiric Gibborim, and even fleets of pirates as the Lord of the Elonites waits for a message that may never come. And then the giants rouse a legendary sea serpent to pursue the Elonites on sea…
While Leviathan might be the second in the now eight book Lost Civilizations series, it is the middle book of a trilogy featuring Joash’s adventures as a Seraph, a holy warrior for Elohim, and the mood follows the classic form of the trilogy. Leviathan is darker, moodier, and more perilous than its predecessor, Giants . Not only do the nets of the brutal Nephilim tighten around the Elonites, but the plans of the First Born are also laid bare. The children of the Fallen Ones aim to challenge even the angels to rule the world forever. Even as hope dies, mighty deeds still await for the Elonites, with Joash’s hunt of a giant pterodactyl a highlight in this more somber book. For faith in Elohim is not a passive one, and Joash and his Seraphs are called to fight evil, not endure it.
Also of interest are the first steps towards the impending clash of zealous Lod and vicious Red Cain. At this early stage, it seems to be a confrontation between Solomon Kane and Conan.
Leviathan serves as an excellent example of heroic fantasy and religious-milieu fiction. It is ironic that independent publishing, not traditional, has freed writers from word bloat, and heroic fantasy thrives in shorter novels compared to the doorstoppers of epic fantasy. The Lost Civilizations series focuses on the moment, revealing only the backstory and worldbuilding needed by its characters at this time and hinting at deeper lore. The perils and mighty deeds of heroic fantasy are more important to holding the reader’s attention, and the majority of the pages are spent on these. That focus also steers Leviathan away from the twin shoals of Biblical and religious fiction–preaching and passivity. Yes, the Elonites are men and women of faith, but the surrender and wait for God’s will stories of 90s Christian genre fiction are nowhere to be found. In the best traditions of heroic fantasy and its pulp forebears, Joash and the Elonites are decisive, eager to marry word and deed, and willing to endure the consequences of those decisions, even if it means chasing demon-spawn to the gates of Eden itself.
I eagerly look forward to reading Eden, the conclusion of this trilogy.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

GIANTS

“In this life, victory does not always go to the righteous. It rains on the wicked and on the good. In fact, evil is strong, for many hands work against Elohim. The rebellion begun in the Celestial Realm is now carried out on Earth.”— Giants, by Vaughn Heppner

A pre-Flood slave escapes his brutish Nephilim master by climbing down a cliff full of angry pterodactyls, only to be rescued by a warrior for Elohim. And that’s just the first chapter of Vaughn Heppner’s Giants, the first of the Lost Civilizations series. Drawing inspiration from Biblical and extra-Biblical stories of prehistory, Giants soon thrusts Joash, the aforementioned former slave, into the mortal struggle between men and the wicked sons of the fallen angels, the Nephilim. Or better known as giants.
Although Joash finds a home as a servant of the Elohim warriors, what scant freedom humanity enjoys from being the giants’ playthings depends on the spears and chariots of Elohim. And the best horses run wild on the plains of Jotunheim, far to the north of Elohim lands. Joash accompanies an expedition rounding up wild horses in the land of the giants, stalked by an unseen presence that seemingly directs sabertooth ambushes against the Elohim camps. While tooth and claw winnows away the ranks of the Elohim warriors, Joash comes face to face with Mimir the Wise, the most cunning of the Nephilim. And after that, a life-changing choice.
“Elohim lifts His own champions. He or she can be anyone: a singer, a patriarch, a warrior or even a groom. But no one is forced into the contest. Elohim’s choice must be accepted. A free will is needed for that.”
Prehistory has long been a popular setting for heroic fantasy, but few settings come with as much baggage as the Pre-Flood setting. More often than not, the action is yoked to proselytizing and apologetics, both for and against Judaism and Christianity. Giants is blessedly free of these distractions, using the broad outlines of Lucifer’s rebellion to fuel an epic clash of fallible and mortal good against brutal and uncaring evil. Broad strokes of Norse, Greek, and even Lost World elements round out the setting, which is drenched with mystery and hints of unexplored worlds. But what really matters to Giants‘ story is the action of the moment.
Like other independent fantasy tales, Giants offers a “good parts” version compared to recent entries in the traditional field. Survival in the wilds of prehistory is difficult enough without the threat of Nephilim attacks. The demands of scouting, sentry duty, and enduring the elements weigh heavily on Joash’s shoulders, with little time for indulging in the lavish histories and worldbuilding that fill epic history. Except when said history may offer a key to Joash and his companions immediate survival. This allows more time to be spent developing the suspense that heightens every ambush, chase, and standoff. The action is quick, imaginative, and dripping with verisimilitude. One particular action scene, where men, sabertooth tigers, and giants clash in the ocean’s waves was so engrossing that it was almost disappointing to turn the page and read “The End.”
Fortunately, there are now seven sequels to quench that particular thirst.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Radio Wednesday - Dragnet: "The Werewolf"



 "Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime, investigated and solved by the men who unrelentingly stand watch on the security of your home, your family and your life. For the next thirty minutes, transcribed in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case from official police files. From beginning to end—from crime to punishment—Dragnet is the story of your police force in action."

Found while investigating a pulp by the same name.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Elements of a Good Comic Script, by Stan Lee

In 1947, Stan Lee, then editor of Timely Comics, which would later be rebranded into Atlas, then Marvel, wrote in Writer's Digest that "There's Money in Comics!", explaining how a writer could adapt to the comics medium. As a result, Lee also explains many concepts of selling writing that are universal to all media before applying them specifically to the visual medium of comics.

Many a pulp writer made the transition.

After the comic legend's death, Writer's Digest hosted his article on their website, complete with script and artwork.

Here is another excerpt, dealing with the five elements of a good comic script.
But there’s more to comic strip writing than just knowing on which side of a page to type artist’s instructions. Let’s try to analyze some of the factors which go into the making of a good script: 
1. Interesting Beginning. 
Just as in a story, the comic strip must catch the reader’s interest from the first. The very first few panels should show the reader that something of interest is happening, or is about to happen. 
2. Smooth Continuity. 
The action from panel to panel must be natural and unforced. If a character is walking on the street talking to another character in one panel, we wouldn’t show him horse-back riding in the next panel with a different character. 
There ARE times when it is necessary to have a sudden change of scene or time, however, and for such times the writer uses captions. For example, if we have Patsy Walker lying in bed, about to fall asleep in one panel, and want to show her eating breakfast in the next panel, the second panel would have an accompanying caption reading something like this: “The next morning, after a sound night’s sleep, Patsy rushes to the kitchen to do justice to hearty breakfast.” 
Thus, by the use of captions, we are able to justify time and space lapses in our panels. 
3. Good Dialogue. 
This is of prime importance. The era of Captain America hitting Red Skull and shouting “So you want to play, eh?” is over! Today, with the comic magazine business being one of the most highly competitive fields, each editor tries to get the best and snappiest dialogue possible for his characters. In writing a comic strip, have your characters speak like real people, not the inhabitants of a strange and baffling new world 
4. Suspense Throughout. 
Whether you are writing a mystery script or a humorous script, the same rule applies: Keep it interesting throughout. Any comic strip in which the reader isn’t particularly interested in what happens in the panel following the one he’s reading, isn’t a good comic strip. 
All of the tricks you have learned and applied in writing other forms of fiction can be used in comic writing insofar as holding the reader’s attention is concerned. But remember, giving the reader well-drawn pictures to look at is not enough; the reader must WANT to look at the pictures because he is interested in following the adventures of the lead character. 
5. A Satisfactory Ending. 
An ending which leaves the reader with a smile on his lips and a pleasant feeling that all the loose strings of the story have been neatly tied together can cover a multitude of sins. It has always been my own conviction that a strip with an interesting beginning, good dialogue, and a satisfactory ending can’t be TOO bad, no matter how many other faults it may have.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Thousand Li: The First Stop

For those unfamiliar with the terms and conventions of xianxia cultivation fantasy, this copy of the Immortal Mountain's guide to the terminology might help.

Fresh on the heels of his acceptance into the inner circle of the Verdant Green Waters chi cultivation sect, Long Wu Ying returns in Tao Wong's A Thousand Li: The First Stop. Wu Ying quickly learns that while greater status can open more doors to knowledge and enlightenment, greater responsibilities are also demanded of him. As he takes the first steps to discovering his unique Way, Wu Ying struggles to find the right balance between his studies and the missions that grant him the contribution points needed to pay for his stories. However, outside the idyllic sanctuary of the Verdant Green Waters sect, war drums are beating, and the sect Elders lead Wu Ying and his friends on a desperate gamble needed to prepare for upcoming battles.

In The First Stop, Wu Ying switches from the well-defined goal of proving himself better than the nobles bullying him to the more open-ended trial-and-error of finding his life's Path. Each member of the sect has an occupation that both develops his or her Way and supports the sect materially. And, as Tao Wong wryly points out, every occupation feels the need to add 'spirit' in front of its name to make it more prestigious. For the first time in Wu Ying's life, he is judged solely on his merits as he diligently navigates his wandering way, by commoner and noble cultivator alike, although it takes months and quiet correction before he realizes that the nobles in the sect aren't judging him.

Of course, the nobles this round are easier to get along with--and easier on the eyes, as Wu Ying's kindly and refined medicine compounding tutor Liu Tsong and his spirited martial arts partner Li Yao both prove. Both women are merely setting out subtle hints at this stage, and if Wu Ying has yet to notice, he can be forgiven as progression along the Way requires studious diligence. It's admirable to see such a slow burn. Most xianxia stories embrace wholeheartedly the wish-fulfillment aspects of the story. Another protagonist in Wu Ying's footsteps would already be tilting his lance towards the sect's top beauty, the ethereal "Fairy" Yang Fa Yuan.

That restraint is evident throughout this second book. A Thousand Li is not a Chosen One fantasy, so Wu Ying does not need to be a wunderkind. In The First Stop, Wu Ying's chi cultivation progression is slowed down, and the admirable tendency to ground the abstract into the tangible permeates more than just chi cultivation magic. Whether martial arts strikes, blacksmith hammer blows, the turning of compost heaps, or identifying medicinal and poisonous plants, there are tangible descriptions and a sense of effort to each act. One of xianxia's genre weaknesses is that many of its authors treat items and actions as though they were selected via a Final Fantasy RPG menu. Tao Wong brings these abstract and throwaway ideas fully into the world for his characters to sense instead of just consume. This grounds the abstract and increasingly gamified Taoist concepts into understandable concrete actions. Leveling up isn't the abstract collection of experience or mana/chi, it is the forcible cleaning of clogged chi meridians--often accompanied by a moral, perceptual, or physical breakthrough as well. This rare appeal to verisimilitude makes the A Thousand Li series an excellent introduction to cultivation fantasy, especially those who may be drawn in by the "Hogwarts meets The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" settings of many a xianxia fantasy.

While mostly an idyllic exploration of Wu Ying's Path, The First Stop harbors an underlying foreboding as events outside the sect's cultivation sanctuary are escalating, both in the natural and in the supernatural. While the Verdant Green Waters sect makes desperate and costly gambles to keep with the cultivation and enlightenment arms race, it won't be until the upcoming The First Battle to see if these preparations will be enough. Whatever may happen, it is certain that Wu Ying, Li Yao, and the rest of their friends will be on the front lines of the upcoming war.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair

"We solved every case we worked on. It's just that the solutions weren't always pretty. An explosion here, an inferno there, and in the end, we're left with a mountain of corpses, and, incidentally, a solution."--Kei, "The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair"

*****

When science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler visited Japan in the late 1970s, he had no idea that a stray comment would spark a multimedia science fiction franchise. When his hosts, including Haruka Takachiho of Crusher Joe fame, took Chandler to see a joshi (women's) wrestling match, the antics of Takachiho's assistants prompted Chandler to say, ""the two women in the ring may be the Beauty Pair, but those two with you ought to be called 'the Dirty Pair'." That stray comment sparked a novella that mixed Western pulp science fiction, Japanese joshi wrestling and idol singing, and a double-helping of chaos into what would be a classic raygun romance--if the Dirty Pair's infamy didn't keep scaring off potential suitors.

The Lovely Angels (don't ever call them the Dirty Pair to their faces) is the code name for a pair of young trouble consultants. Kei, the narrator for the stories, is a brash, boastful, and lively hothead lifted from the covers of the pulps. Her partner, Yuri, is a demure Japanese beauty that acts as the brake to Kei's recklessness--and the occasional focus of Kei's jealousy as well. Together, Kei and Yuri form a set of complementary opposites--and a psionic duo straight out of John W. Campbell's dreams. The resulting property damage, however, is straight out of a nightmare. In the best tradition of wrestling heels, the ensuing chaos is never quite their fault.

Like many Japanese stories, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair wears its inspirations on its sleeve. From wrestling, the series gets the outfits, names such as Lucha and the WWWA ( World Welfare Works Association/World Women's Wrestling Association), Kei and Yuri's larger than life personalities, and their heelish yet sincere protests that the disasters in their wake are never their fault. The names Kei and Yuri are taken from the same assistants who entertained Chandler. From American science fiction pulps, the Dirty Pair steal liberally. Rayguns, heatguns, flying saucers, and Campbelline psionics feature prominently in the stories. Kei's hair and build is classic pulp cover-girl, while the interior art is a mix of 1940s Weird Tales and manga. Their adventures are the sort of trigger happy-detective story that filled the hero pulps. And, yes, that is a coeurl Kei and Yuri are riding on the cover, complete with the nickname "Black Destroyer"--and the ensuing special diet and property damage. The result is a strange East-meets-West version of Northwest Smith, if Northwest Smith and Yarol were replaced by sorority girls.

While the two novellas in The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair are standard and futuristic versions of crime tales, complete with the requisite twists and betrayals, Kei's narrative voice is the star of the show. Her larger-than-life exuberance practically drips from each word, even after translation into English. Some of this is due to Kei's constant wrestling-style self-promotion, but Dark Horse did a masterful job in translation. Few English-language science fiction stories--and almost no light novels translated since--have such a vivid, unrestrained, and selfish voice animating their words, much less one trying to style herself as a heartbreaker and a lifetaker to potential partners and rivals alike.

At the end, when the villains are arrested, all the worlds are wrecked, and the refugees resettled, the Dirty Pair novel always preserves its.pulpy sincerity, complete with the foreboding that the Lovely Angels will soon visit a new world.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Oklahoma Tradition

I've long said that instead of talking about science fiction and fantasy, we should instead be talking about science fictions and fantasies. Various mini-traditions are apparent, whether regional, such as John W. Campbell's New York coterie of writers and the Mormon writers of Utah, or by connecting lines of friendship and mentorship, such as the insufficiently celebrated mentor/protege line of Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Ray Bradbury. While different styles and perspectives gravitated around writers, editors, and regions, I had downplayed another pole around which writers cluster.

Fortunately, Bryce Beattie of StoryHack Magazine investigated one such group of writers:
And so the fiction writing theories I like best have their roots in this pulp era, which should be obvious to anyone who knows the online me (shameless self promotion.) There is one particular set of teachings that arose from that time I find most useful. For lack of a better phrase, I call it the Oklahoma Tradition. 
The first such teacher I became aware of was Dwight V. Swain. I was (and am) a fan of Randy Ingermanson’s writing instruction. In an article called “Writing the Perfect Scene” he mentioned Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” which has since become my favorite book on the craft of fiction. 
Dwight V. Swain was a pulp author, and he wrote dozens of published stories. Eventually, he was able to leverage that writing success and became a professor at the University of Oklahoma. 
Somehow, I came across Jim Butcher’s articles on writing. I liked him as an author, so I hoped he would have something valuable to say. The concepts he described were extremely familiar. A tiny bit of Googling, and low and behold, he went to the University of Oklahoma. 
At some point I decided I needed to know more where all these ideas came from, so I decided to do some digging.
Working back from articles by Butcher and other writers, Beattie discovered a teaching lineage stretching back to the 1940s and earlier, one whose alumni include Tony Hillerman and Louis L’Amour.

For more information on this formative group of Oklahoma professors and a taste of what they taught, check out the StoryHack blog.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Galaxy's Edge: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

The first book in the Galaxy's Edge series, Legionnaire, began as an attempt to bring back a little of that Star Wars magic in a form palatable to modern military science fiction and military veteran sensibilities. What Nick Cole and Jason Anspach delivered was science fiction's version of Black Hawk Down, a classic military science fiction novel worthy of mention alongside Starship Troopers and The Forever War. After completing the main series, Cole and Anspach opened up the Galaxy's Edge universe to their fellow writers with the Order of the Centurion series. While the tone of each novel varies from that set down by the first, Order of the Centurion (reviewed here), each new book delivered competent military science fiction action and heroism by some of the best military science fiction writers in independent science fiction.

Then came J. R. Handley's The Reservist.

Military science fiction--and military fiction in general--tends to fall into competence porn, or, in the case of farce, incompetence porn. Generally, the protagonist's leadership is sure, decisive, and unwavering, as are his troops. Incompetence, leadership failings, and, just as often, gross moral failings are reserved for the inevitable conflict between the protagonist and his risk-adverse superiors. What does not get shown is the forging process by which a newly promoted NCO or officer, often green and squirrelly, matures into a proper leader worthy of his position. That involves a lot of mistakes, counseling, and, more often that not, a "Come to Jesus" meeting or two. In garrison, there's time and space to learn the ropes in relative safety--for the leader and his troops. But on the battlefield, where dead leejs mean instant promotion, the learning process becomes a crucible.

That's the situation the newly-minted Lieutenant "Fetch" Ocampo finds himself in after a mine and an infiltrator leaves the former sergeant as the most senior legionnaire of Rage Company. He has to adapt to his new position as an officer in the middle of the latest Legion meatgrinder fueled by the Mid Core Rebellion's treachery. But the futuristic version of Isandlwana forces Fetch to come to grips with his shortcomings as a leader elevated above his current capabilities, and each growing pain threatens to cost lives.

It's a far different spin on a reservist's duty than the tired-out weekend warrior tropes thrown at the reserves. And Fetch's pain comes raw, from the first shot of whiskey at a legionnaire's dive bar to the slow whittling down of Rage Company on its way to its last stand. Faith is a solace here, a rarity in science fiction, and it is given the same authenticity seen in Civil War battlefield letters. In general, Handley avoids the common war story tropes cemented by decades of World War Two and Vietnam stories, and delivers a story that's personal and authentic, even to the ear of an extremely real-echelon commo puke.

The result is that Handley has given Galaxy's Edge its second entry into the military science fiction canon.

Currently, The Reservist is available only through Audible, or in ebook for Galaxy's Edge Insiders. A paperback version is on its way, as soon as the exclusivity window with Audible passes.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Light Novels: The Arrows of Time

Up to this point, this light novel survey has been focused on stories set in the writers' present. The recent history of the medium can be organized into three great periods: the secondary fantasy worlds of  the 1980s and 1990s, the primary fantasy adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, and the isekai portal fantasies of the 2000s and 2010s. More than twenty years of popular fiction has used the present as its staging ground, as primary and isekai fantasies are concerned with the affairs of the present--or, at least the present at the time of writing. But fascinations with the past and with the future are universal, and light novel writers have explored history and visions of the future in addition to the preoccupation with the present.

With that said, the arrow of time normally points forward in light novels. History tends to fuel the settings of the secondary fantasy worlds, as in the quasi-medieval Germany of Spice & Wolf, with classical China, Heian and Warring States Japan, and Continental Middle Ages Europe providing the common milieus. Historical figures do tend to be re-imagined into primary fantasies as well, such as in the complete re-imagining of the characters of Twenty Years After of the d'Artagnan romances into the isekai magical academy of The Familiar of Zero. As a result, those looking for historical adventures similar to the Sharpe series or the Three Musketeers might be better served by manga as Cesare, Vinland Saga, or Ruroni Kenshin. However, a handful of history themed light novels have made their way into English publication, including the previously mentioned Full Metal Panic, by Shouji Gatou, a military mecha adventure fueled by an alternate history of the Cold War, and Ryohgo Narita's Baccano, a Great Depression mobster fantasy that combines the farce of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels with European alchemical magic.

Science fiction is far more popular, but not quite in the same form as American audiences may understand the genre. Japan has a storied history in the genre, with weightier Campbellian and Wellsian speculative social fiction finding a home in more traditional novels, while Continental-style (1) futurist fantasies fill the pages of light novels. As a result, light novel science fiction embraces the genre-blending of "science fantasy", incorporating any plausible or implausible element as long as it can be dressed up in polished metal and shining composite plastic--especially in the use of magic, whether it be in the sufficiently advanced technologies of telepathy, telekinesis, and other forms of Esper mentalism, or the application of computers to Sandersonian hard magic.

Perhaps no genre better illustrates the blended futurist fantasy quite so much as the Battle Academy. These near-future settings combine the magical academies of places like Hogwarts with computers and other forms of technologically-assisted magic. Students at these academies strive to climb the rankings in their class, often through the familiar trope of fighting tournaments. Meanwhile, dark conspiracies play out at the academy, using the students as pawns. As combat and intrigue rage around the often troubled and ostracized hero, he earns respect and a place in the school's social scene through his prowess. The Irregular at Magic High School, by Tsutomu Sato, follows this outline best, with The Asterisk War, by Yuu Miyazaki, a more light-hearted take on the formula. Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index adds a layer of complexity--and the occasional whiplash from tone changes--by forcing the hero to navigate delinquents, predatory professors, and a silent war between scientific Espers and magic-wielding churchmen.

However, those looking for more familiar genres of science fiction will not be disappointed. Space opera looms large, with the True Tenchi Muyo novels expanding on the worldbuilding of the original anime's OAV continuity, and the classic Crest of the Stars (reviewed here). Haruka Takachiho's classic The Dirty Pair follows the Lovely Angels, a pair of intergalactic crime fighters who tend to forge an unmistakable--and unintentional--path of destruction. Asato Asato's 86 taps into the strong dystopian vein of Japanese science fiction as it investigates the forsaken soldiers forced to fight in their government's "bloodless war". And while video game isekai brushes up against many of the same themes as cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex further explores the setting and themes of the classic cyberpunk manga.

The arrow of time flies onward, and readers find themselves at the end of the isekai age, as the popularity of the genre and the web novels that fueled it are waning in Japan. What might replace it, no one knows. It could be a return to the detailed secondary fantasy worlds, the low fantasies of the current day, or even the grand space operas of the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, English publishers such as Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and Vertical are bringing the vast backlog of this medium to a growing and enthusiastic English-speaking audience.

*****

(1) "Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction." C.S. Lewis, "Unreal Estates". Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.