Monday, July 26, 2021

Cirsova Summer 2021

A new season brings a new edition of adventure magazine Cirsova, complete with unknown stars, feats of heroism, and quick-paced twists worth of the classic Argosy magazine. Continuing the direction set down by its fifth anniversary, the Summer volume presents a mix of old favorites and new stars, with an eye for longer tales this time. Also, the experiments with illustrations return, with work from Mongoose and Meerkat illustrator Dark Filly and newcomer UsanekoRin gracing the pages. And anchoring the volume is the second issue of the 1980s-era indie comic, Badaxe.

Cirsova’s Summer 2021 volume opens with the second part of Michael Tierney’s The Artomique Paradigm, the latest of his Wild Stars adventures. Wild Stars is a long and vast setting, previously told in comics. And while it takes a while for newcomers to move past the setting shock, this second set of chapters settles into a wild dash across a pirate planet. The locales are ambitious and pulpy, setting a backdrop for a plot that movies at the speed of Max Brand’s historic adventures. An internal logic to the gleefully over-the-top names reveals itself through quick asides between the inevitable setbacks and betrayals. This portion of The Artomique Paradigm ends with a masterful cliffhanger. While we are promised the conclusion in the next volume, that conclusion is still three months away.

Caroline Furlong’s “Lupus One” is a joyous homage to classic 20th-century anime, filled with mecha, monsters, gods, and alternate universes. And it is a pleasure to read something influenced by anime and manga without it becoming a mere Xerox of the original medium. No reluctant and depressed mecha pilots here. “Lupus One” transplants a class primary world fantasy like many of those found in Weird Tales, where the main character stumbles into a lost and almost legendary weirdness, into the futuristic setting of the moon. While “Lupus One” is self-contained and hints at a happy ending, plenty of hooks exist for continuation, which I hope Furlong will explore in the future. And, in a masterful stroke of editing, “Lupus One” also bridges the science fiction settings of the Moon and the Wild Stars to the fantasy worlds in the stories that follow.

Tais Teng’s “His Amber Eyes, His Pointed Smile” is a Central Asian-flavored revenge story, as little Iskander grows up wanting to avenge his mother’s abandonment by his father. Yet the path of revenge is also the path of following in his father’s footsteps. It is an earthy chinoiserie, and almost a warning of how pleasures can corrupt, wrapped up in a fairy-tale.

J. Comer’s “Sky Machine” follows the fate of the healer Sorana and her Roman compatriots as they are captured by a Scandinavian tribe. With certain death awaiting them, the Romans hatch a scheme for escape, one dependent upon the observations of the great “sky machine” of the heavens above them. It’s a more straightforward tale than the previous ones, but executed well, and the slight accent given to familiar names adds a touch of the exotic to the otherwise familiar Roman and Norse setting.

Kat and Mangos return in Jim Breyfogle’s “The King’s Game”. This time, the Mongoose and Meerkat are out seeking information. The best place for that may well be in the Regum Arena, playing an enchanted game similar to chess but only played by the rich and the powerful. Mangos’ sword is on the line, for not only must he play against the assembled worthies, but he must also play against the Meerkat herself. Breyfogle continues to mix exotic locales and unique plots for the Mongoose and Meerkat, forcing his characters to rely on their wits as much and even more so than the flashing of blades. And while Mangos is slowly gaining wisdom to match his formidable sword arm, the mysterious Kat shines again with her schemes.

Paul O’Connor’s Badaxe rounds out the Summer volume with an intervention by and an escape from the dread god Badaxe. Layers of obfuscation slowly peel away, leaving one to wonder how the all-too-female Tanree’s destiny will tie into the prophecy of the boy who will kill Badaxe. New players enter the game, ready for a final confrontation in the next volume. 

Cirsova also offers a preview of Jim Breyfogle's upcoming The Paths of Cormanorsoon to be accepting pre-orders on Kickstarter. As editor P. Alexander says:

Inspired by eastern European and Scandinavian fairytales, The Paths of Cormanor is the story of a beautiful young woman (who can turn into a cormorant), a handsome prince (who’s the seventh son of a seventh son), and more than a handful of dreadful monsters.

All in all, the Summer 2021 edition is a worthy addition to the long-running string of excellence readers have come to expect from Cirsova.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Perry Rhodan NEO #1

 “My name is Crest da Zolral.” The alien was waiting for them by the inner hatch of the airlock. “I am an Arkonide. In your terms, I’d describe myself as the scientific leader of this expedition.”

As tensions rise in 2036 between America, Greater Russia, and China, an American moon base goes dark. NASA attempts a rescue mission by sending the Stardust, commanded by Perry Rhodan. But when Rhodan and his crew find a giant metal sphere on the far side of the moon, their problems–and those of the entire human race–grow far more complex. And getting back home is no certainty as there is a bomb hidden on the Stardust.

Meanwhile, in Houston, John Marshall valiantly attempts to keep his children’s shelter running–and the street children away from each other’s throats. Marshall has always had an intuitive knack for reading people, but nothing prepared him for when one of his problem children suddenly teleports the two of them to Nevada Fields so that they can see the Stardust’s launch.

Thus begins Stardust, the first episode of Perry Rhodan NEO, a retelling of the world’s most popular science fiction series. Introduced to the world at WeltCon 2011, NEO updates the geopolitics and technologies from the Cold War and punchcards to a 2010 multipolar world, transistors, and information technology. Perry Rhodan NEO is published concurrently with the original Perry Rhodan series and is written by some of the same authors. Frank Borsch, the author of the first book in the Perry Rhodan: Lemuria series, revisits Rhodan’s first adventure in Stardust.

Rhodan is a veteran American astronaut of German descent who has won fame when his quick reactions saved a lunar shuttle from crashing. Who else should NASA send on a high-profile rescue mission? Rhodan is a mix between an old naval captain and a test pilot from The Right Stuff, although without all the Yeager-isms expected of such. He has an easy camaraderie with his crew akin to that of a Doc Savage or a Buck Danny, and serves as the competent leader of an equally gifted crew. As such, Rhodan’s an idealized pulp hero on a collision course with proud aliens and sinister governments–including his own.

The impending First Contact avoids the colonial mishaps that serve as the model for most science fiction. Technological sophistication is not confused for moral superiority While the American Stardust is more primitive than the Arkonides’ ship, Rhodan’s quick wits and keen insights keep him on equal footing with the humanoid Arkonides. These space invaders are a decadent people, wrapped up in the obsessions of their game worlds. Despite their mechanical sophistication, Rhodan has one bargaining chip: human medical technology that can treat the cancer wracking the body of their leader, Crest da Zolral. With that alliance secured, Rhodan must return home to a world filled with nations eager to deprive their enemies of whatever bounties Rhodan may have secured.

The second episode, Utopia Terrania, finds Rhodan and his crew in the Gobi Desert surrounded by the Chinese Army. Meanwhile, the world deals with the whispers and realizations of alien contact. While Rhodan verbally fences with the Chinese commander, the disgraced agents who told him about the bomb on Stardust are trying to reach him with information urgent to his survival. If Stardust was part pulp opera and part The Cross and the SwitchbladeUtopia Terrania is more conventional–and cynical–science fiction with a sprinkling of X-Files’ paranoia and the author’s own…fascinations. Hopefully, the third episode will bring the action back out of the bedroom into the boardroom—and the focus back to Rhodan.

Compared to The Ark of Stars, the translation is cleaner, without some of the awkwardness that plagued the 2004 Perry Rhodan release. Some of the sentence complexity has been swapped out for clarity, but those seeking a more robust prose than Perry Rhodan NEO’s publisher’s Japanese light novels will not be disappointed. 

While reimaginings have recently soured the idea of a reboot, a technical refresh of Perryvese technology is welcome, especially since 50 years has wrought modern marvels unexpected when the first series has written. However, the geopolitical update is already quaint. We may yet be heading into a multi-polar world with uneasy relations between America, Russia, and China, but ten years of popularism, nationalism, and mass immigration have eroded 2010’s cosmopolitan globalism and trust in the soft power of influence. So the utopianist assumptions of how the Perry Rhodan NEO world works ring more hollow than punchcard spaceships. Mix in Elon Musk and the commercial space revolution, and NEO is just as dated as the original series. Contemporary events, after all, move faster than those of fiction.

That said, Perry Rhodan NEO offers an alternative to space operas cluttered by Star WarsHoratio Hornblower, and Starship Troopers tropes. And it allows readers an easy entry point into the vast and nearly 3000 volume Perryverse, the world’s most popular science fiction series. Again, if Perry Rhodan NEO is successful, it may open the door to the main Perryverse returning to English audiences as well as the introduction of more European pulp series.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Sailor's Grudge

Robert E. Howard is best known for his sword and sorcery tales, and his heroes Conan and Krull. But Howard wrote more stories of Sailor Stevie Costigan than any other of his heroes with the exception of Conan. Costigan was a sailor in the Pacific, hot-headed, quick with his hands, and the fiercest boxer on the seas. Accompanied by his bulldog Mike, Costigan moves from port to port and ring to ring, avenging slights and proving naysayers wrong. Unfortunately, this means that Costigan takes lumps that a few moments’ hesitation may have prevented, something the old salt good-naturedly admits.

In “Sailor’s Grudge”. Steve Costigan’s troubles start where most sailors’ do, on shore, and this time in California. A chance meeting with a little blonde flirt named Marjory puts Steve’s heart into a flutter. When he finds a man named Bert browbeating Marjory for fancying a sailor, Costigan enrages. Not only will no man get between Costigan and his current fancy, Steve pegs the man as a fellow sailor. The ensuing grudge will take Costigan into Hollywood, where he assaults a Bert lookalike that turns out to be a famous actor, one to whom Bert is a stunt double in a boxing movie. Costigan muscles his way onto set, aiming to settle his grudge in the ring, recorded by the movie’s director. But will this production have a happy ending?

Not when Steve learns the real connection between Marjory and Bert.

Costigan retells this misadventure knowing that the joke is on him, and that this white knight was tilting at windmills of his own devising. Howard nails the voice convincingly and appropriately for a lighter tale than the Gothic-tinged fantasy he is better known for. Better yet, he does it subtlely, using a few choice words here and there instead of the thick and occasionally unreadable accents many of his contemporaries used in the name of “realism”. The result is a quick, even friendly read that speeds the reader along to the highlight–the fight.

The fighting is painted in broad strokes. Technical, as an experienced boxer might, but with an eye towards how the fight fits in Steve’s attempts at courtship. Verisimilitude is the name of the game. Just enough boxing jargon to preserve Costigan’s expertise in the ring, but not so much that it turns into the Dreaded Checklist of Action or to stall the story’s narration. The punches mentioned move the story forward, not to wallow in technique, and each punch moves Steve closer to the realization that he doesn’t have a puncher’s chance with Marjory.

While Conan and Solomon Kane are classics of the fantasy genre, Costigan’s voice and the approachable nature of his adventures make his tales my current favorite of Howard’s works.