Monday, December 9, 2019

Operation Hang Ten #8: Beach Queen Blowout

Operation Hang Ten #8: Beach Queen Blowout, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1971  Macfadden Books

Well it only took eight installments, but we now actually have a volume number on the covers of Operation Hang Ten. Unfortunately only two volumes were to follow, so one wonders if the numbering helped or hurt the series. George Snyder again serves as “Patrick Morgan,” turning in basically the same novel as the other three volumes I’ve read: egomaniac protagonist Bill Cartwright (aka “The Cartwright,” as he often thinks of himself) bumbles his way through a lurid caper in which at least one curvy young beauty is sadistically murdered, usually as a result of Bill’s own foolish actions. We also get sermonizing on the general shittiness of the world.

That being said, Beach Queen Blowout certainly promises a lot. In fact it has a setup frequent blog commenter Grant would appreciate: a gang of hotbod young women, led by a bikini-clad babe who sports a heart-shaped birthmark above her left breast, has been knocking over banks and terrorizing the business establishments around Huntington Beach, California. There’s also some stuff about oil rigs off the coast being sabotaged as part of a blackmail scheme. But Snyder takes this material – which possibly was devised by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel – and basically ignores it, instead intent on telling the tale of how “The Cartwright” falls in love for the first time

Yes, friends, it’s a “very special episode” of Operation Hang Ten, with Bill (as Snyder usually refers to him) falling head over heels for a young beauty named Lynn he meets early in his investigation. This at the expense of the more lurid (and potentially sleazy) setup promised by the back cover copy – no lie, much is made of this mysterious criminal babe in her bikini that shows off a heart-shaped birthmark, and while Bill makes some cursory attempts at finding out who she is, ultimately her reveal is almost casually dropped on the reader and Bill doesn’t even bother taking her down himself. And the rest of her bikini-clad gang is similarly dispensed with off-page, our hero more concerned with doling out justice to a handful of people.

As usual the entire premise of “Operation Hang Ten,” as devised by chief Jim Dana, is hard to buy, especially if Bill Cartwright’s performance in the line of duty can be taken as a sign of how the other operatives fare. Regardless Dana, who appears a bit more in the narrative this time than in previous volumes, vociferously defends his organization, claiming that the young surfers, punks, and whatnot he’s hired have a better chance of squaring counterculture problems than regular secret agent types could. So Bill’s been sent to Huntington Beach to figure out who the girls are behind these crimes.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, but John “Fast Black” Washington, the black surfer we saw in #3: Deadly Group Down Under, is again hanging out with Bill. We aren’t reminded as often that he’s black this time, no doubt because he isn’t in the narrative very much, other than to meet some local gal and fall in love with her. Love is certainly in the air in Beach Queen Blowout. Bill and John are hanging around Huntington Beach, complaining about all the lousy beaches given the recent oil spills. Bill meanwhile has been sent here specifically to find out who is damaging those offshore rigs, but instead he bitches about the “punk waves” and wonders if he’s ever going to crack this case.

We’re often told via Bill’s reflection on events that some hotbod women (along with a few “hard-core bitches” who are a bit more “Amazon” in stature) have been hitting businesses, led by the notorious birthmarked babe. Bill’s sure these girls are behind the oil rig hits – eventually we’ll learn the oil company which owns the rigs is being blackmailed for a million dollars or the rigs will be destroyed – but he doesn’t do much to investigate. Not that he needs to, as all the answers will literally fall into his lap. And I mean “literally” in the, uh, literal sense, and not in the figurative sense that most people mistakenly use it in, ie “Steam literally came out of his ears.” (A comment I’ve actually seen online.) 

Bill and John run into a pair of gals in a dune buggy, both of them “table stuff,” as Bill often reflects. He goes for the hotter of the two, Lynn, though keeps reminding us that the other one, Alice, is almost just as hot – she’s just more quiet and shy. Lynn seems to like Bill and tells him she knows of the one good beach left in Huntington, a private cove. She invites him to it, and Bill finds it inundated with women – some of them rather butch-looking – with “Beach Queens” painted all over the place. He makes cursory attempts at looking for any heart-shaped birthmarks; he’s determined Lynn doesn’t have one, thanks to her skimpy bikini, but shy and quiet Alice always covers her big ol’ boobs with a t-shirt, mysteriously enough.

The focus is more on the budding relationship between Bill and Lynn. He finds himself falling for her quick wit, and the great body doesn’t hurt. However, she has ulterior motives; she wants to hire Bill, having seen the “Private Eye” sign on his trailer. Speaking of which, we get a running tour of Bill’s swank trailer, with it’s refrigerator-sized computer that controls everything from the temperature to the drinks Bill is constantly “dialing up.” We also get a good look at his swinging bedroom, complete with mirrored ceiling, colored lighting which matches the mood and flow of the “violin” music that pipes through the speakers, and a roller bar that goes from the foot to the top of the mattress and back again. This latter element is put to memorable use when Bill and Lynn get to their inevitable tomfoolery, Snyder again not descending to outright sleaze but not fading to black, either. In fact this is the most explicit volume of the series I’ve yet read.

Next morning Lynn’s gone and Bill finds himself thinking about her all day. That’s right, folks, even “the Cartwright” can be bitten by the love bug. Meanwhile he’s accosted by Juanita, one of those “hard-core bitches” of the Beach Queen set; she demands Bill get his trailer off their cove by nightfall. While looking down Juanita’s shirt for the birthmark, Bill notices that “it’s a man, baby,” per Austin Powers (probably my favorite bit in that entire movie) – and promptly yanks off Juanita’s fake tits! Operation Hang Ten once again proves itself of a different era as Bill demeans Juanita for “soiling real women,” mocking the she-he good and proper. A dude could get hauled off to jail for shit like that in today’s enlightened era.

But seriously, Juanita’s penchant for cross-dressing is never explained…we do eventually learn “he-she” is the ringleader of the female heisters, even training them for the scuba missions to hit the oil rigs, and I was under the impression the cross-dressing was so as to fool people into thinking he was just “one of the girls.” But Snyder, even if he intended this, doesn’t follow through; he’s too intent on the Bill-Lynn subplot, which becomes the plot of Beach Queen Blowout. And speaking of Lynn, she returns that night to inform Bill she’s really the daughter of a senator, and has been working here undercover herself, helping her dad figure out who is hitting the oil rigs. Hence her interest when she saw the P.I. sign on Bill’s trailer; she feels she’s gotten in too deep and needs some help.

Well after another fairly-explicit all-night bang-o-rama, the two exchange declarations of love. Bill’s caught so off-guard by his own words that he doubts himself for a moment; later he’ll clarify that he’s never told a single woman he loves her, thus Lynn is a first. Finally Lynn gets around to telling Bill what she’s been up to on Queen Cove and how she’s helping her dad and whatnot. And folks this part is laughable because Mr. Bill Cartwright again proves himself to be a jackass of jackasses, probably the biggest dick in the entire men’s adventure universe. Without even hearing Lynn’s full story, Bill starts ranting and raving about her senator father, a guy Bill’s never met and doesn’t even know, accusing him of being dirty and only looking into the oil pollution affair because he’s in the pockets of the oil companies. A crying Lynn storms off to walk the beach and cool down, and jerkass Bill just stands there, fuming. Because Snyder knows we veteran readers understand what’s going to happen to Lynn, he decides to dig the knife in deeper, and has Lynn abruptly turn back and tell Bill he didn’t give her a kiss goodbye! This Bill does, and off Lynn trudges along the deserted beach

Then Alice comes along, asking for Lynn…and here we get more of those “earlier era sentiments” as Bill accuses Alice of being a lesbian, hot for Lynn, and launches off into another rant. But no, Alice has a thing for Bill, she’s just failed to act on it due to her best friend screwing him and all. At this point Alice slinks into Bill’s lap and info-dumps all the, you know, plot stuff we readers have been missing out on: conveniently enough, Alice’s mom runs a motel, and the leaders of the oil company blackmail scheme are all staying there! And Alice overheard their plans! Long story short, there’s some old former madam named Mamie who is plotting with a Mafioso named Eduardo, and Juanita is the hired goon who is training the Beach Queens to do the job – after which the Beach Queens will of course be set up as patsies. Oh, and Alice is worried about Lynn, because she overheard Juanita vow to kill her before storming out of the motel a few hours ago…

Friends, guess what that grisly cover image depicts? (Note even the gash in the poor girl’s throat; the uncredited cover artist is nothing if not thorough.) Yes, Lynn never makes it back from that little walk on the beach. Bill feels an icy coldness descend upon him as he discovers her corpse in the sand: the case no longer matters. His life mission is to find Juanita and kill him slowly. At this point we seem gearing up for a brutal William Crawford-esque revenge thriller, but Snyder just doesn’t have it in him – he’s still intent on doling out something more hardboiled. Thus Bill will ultimately swindle the saboteurs into turning on each other instead of killing them all himself. In this capacity he basically goes rogue from Hang Ten, keeping pertinent info from an increasingly-demanding Jim Dana, and the novel almost works as a finale for the series itself: Bill Cartwright going solo for his own purposes.

The shifting plot focus is displayed posthaste when Bill, about to go out for some vengeance, is accosted in his cabin by sexy Millie, a Beach Queen hotstuff who has been trying to get her hooks in him. She saunters in, announces they’re about to screw, and starts to undress. This was actually a well-conveyed scene because normally such a sequence would be done for titilating purposes, yet the reader is still numb from Lynn’s murder – she was just in Bill’s bed several pages before – thus the exploitation of Millie’s ample anatomy does as little for the reader as it does for Bill himself. Oh, and it’s casually dropped that as Millie doffs her top Bill notices a heart-shaped birthmark above her left breast and thus, literally as I said, the infamous heist-girl leader has fallen into Bill’s lap. So he ties her up, calls Jim Dana, and goes off on his vengeance quest.

But Bill Cartwright isn’t just a dick, he’s also a bufoon. Time and again he’s either outwitted, caught unawares, or makes some foolish mistake. For example, he gets Juanita in his sights several times but loses the “she-he” due to some goof-up on Bill’s part. Then Bill’s caught by Eduardo, the mobster who is backing the blackmail scheme. This at least leads to Bill finally killing someone; he outwits the two hoods who were ordered to kill him, has them lay side by side on a motel bed, then coldly shoots each of them in the head with his .22 Magnum, even after promising not to – and we even get a prefigure of Arnold’s famous Commando line when Bill informs one of the pleading mobsters, “I lied.”

Sadly, the cold revenge yarn Lynn’s murder promised is constantly derailed by Bill’s screwups. I wondered if this was Snyder’s commentary on Bill’s actual youth – the dude’s not even 25, I think – but instead I think our author was just desperately trying to meet his word count and didn’t know what else to do. His attempts at conveying suspense and tension actually make his protagonist seem like a foolish jackass, and this goes on for like 50 pages. And meanwhile Jim Dana’s about ready to fire Bill from the Hang Ten program, given how his “top operative” keeps hiding things. Bill does manage to get Dana to collect a million bucks from the oil company, all as part for Bill to bluff the blackmailers into killing each other – he’s swindled both Eduardo and Mamie into thinking he’ll get the money for them. Oh and meanwhile Bill’s sicced Dana on the entire Beach Queen gang, having snuck on the boat Juanita was piloting to one of those oil rigs. Bill merely waits until the girls have left, then commandeers the boat so that they’re abandoned there…and has them arrested off-page. And meanwhile Juanita escapes Bill yet a-friggin’-gain!

To make it worse, Bill watches on the sidelines as Eduardo and Mamie take each other out, the surviving Beach Queens going full-on Bacchante and tearing Eduardo apart. Then Bill finally gets to square things with Juanita – who incidentally has admitted to killing Lynn – but after shooting him in the kneecap Bill has a “what have I become?” moment and realizes torturing the bastard to death won’t help anyone. Thus Juanita is given a quick sendoff – and it’s a ripoff. I mean I was expecting some William Crawford-esque brutalism. Instead, Bill limps back to his trailer, tells a waiting Alice it’s a no-go on the sex thing (and I forgot to mention the unconfomfortable scene where Alice tries desperately to screw Bill, performing every trick she knows, but the poor grieving boy can’t get it up), because she’ll always remind him of Lynn. And then Bill goes to sit alone in his trailer in misery. “The Cartwright knew love.”

The helluva it is, Beach Queen Blowout is entertaining and sometimes gripping when you read it. At least the first half. But as the various subplots are cast aside, and as Bill constantly screws up his attempts at simple revenge, you start to notice how messy everything is. I mean it’s the second half that really undoes the novel. If only Snyder had gone through with the “cold-blooded Cartwright” plot he initially promised. Instead it’s a mire of crosses and double-crosses, of Bill constantly letting Juanita slip out of his grasp, of various hoodlums getting the advantage f our hero. However, the plot of Bill and Lynn’s romance is well handled, even if Snyder is a bit guilty of telegraphing what’s about to happen to the poor girl.

As stated this would’ve been a fine finale for the series; Bill’s relationship with Dana and Hang Ten is put to the test, almost at times reminsicent of the Timothy Dalton James Bond flick Licence To Kill. However there were two more volumes after this one, and I’m curious to see if Lynn’s even mentioned in the next one. I’ll be surprised if she is.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Alpha Centauri Or Die!

Alpha Centauri Or Die!, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1964  Ace Books

Here we have another Leigh Brackett novel which started life in the pulps, a decade before; Alpha Centauri Or Die! collects “The Ark Of Mars” (Planet Stories, September 1953) and “The Teleportress Of Alpha C” (Planet Stories, Winter 1954-1955), Brackett presumably tinkering with the narrative to make the two stories into one longish tale. I have the original pulp stories but haven’t read them – I glanced through them, though, and found that for the most part they were basically the same as what’s printed in this paperback. In other words, Brackett didn’t weld together two unrelated stories; the two Planet Stories novellas did indeed feature the same characters in a continnuing storyline.

In this regard Kirby, the ruggedly virile protagonist of Alpha Centauri Or Die! is similar to Brackett’s more famous creation Eric John Stark in that he was a recurring character. However, Kirby’s era appears to be much further in the future than Stark’s. While this tale occurs in Brackett’s familiar populated solar system, with ancient Martians and whatnot, it’s later in the chronology than the Stark yarns, and more in the timeline of the latter stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans. We know this because “Earthmen” have not only pretty much taken over Mars in this novel, with the frontier-esque outposts of Stark’s time now bustling hive cities, but also because the same overbearing galactic government is here, as seen in very early Brackett stories like “Child Of The Sun.”

Whereas the Stark-era stories feature an almost Wild West Mars and Venus, in that rugged individualists can strike out for themselves in alien territory, the era of Alpha Centauri Or Die! is well after these individualists have been replaced by a totalitarian gloablist government which has straightjacketed man’s individualism and liberty – like her contemporary George Orwell, Brackett seemed to understand the unfortunate direction Western society was headed in. The government of this novel’s setting has so curtailed man’s freedoms that space travel is banned, only robot spaceships allowed to travel the stars.

The book clearly shows its age with this resentment toward automation. Kirby at one point rails at all the things man has become reliant upon – including even time-setting ovens – and his sentiments are hard to understand in our modern era. I mean you wonder what this guy would have to say about smart phones. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t read Brackett or any other vintage sci-fi to judge what the author got right or wrong about the future, I just want to be entertained by the story, but in this regard Alpha Centauri Or Die! certainly seems like the product of an earlier time: the hunter-killer robot ship which is ultimately sent against Kirby and crew is seen as an almost supernatural force, mostly because it can pilot itself.

Kirby’s similar to most other Brackett protagonists in that he’s a brawny, taciturn individualist who just wants to forge his own way. But he’s different in one key element: he’s already married. His wife is Shari, a Martian native who unfortunately is only minimally described; we know she’s pretty, at least, and early in the book she’s topless, “per the Martian way.” Otherwise I believe we learn she has black hair, but that’s it. Brackett’s usually-rich word painting is toned down here, meaning that the novel lacks the typical memorable images of prime Brackett. But by the same token, the novel itself lacks the memorable setpieces of prime Brackett, coming off as rather low-key in the entertainment area as well – though thankfully it’s nowhere as dire as The Ginger Star.

The first half of the novel (ie the first novella) goes a bit into Kirby’s past: he was born on Earth, raised on Mars, and had a previous wife who must’ve been a miserable shrew. She’s dead now and Kirby appears to be much better for it. We never learn how old he is exactly, but he’s old enough to remember a time when there were still human spaceship pilots. But now all those pilots are too old to fly, and Kirby is literally the only guy on Mars who still could take a shot at flying a rocketship into space. We meet him as he and a colleague have stolen some gear from the factory in which they work – a factory near Kahora, a recurring port ciy in Brackett’s Mars – and head home, knowing they’ve crossed the line into full-on rebellion.

Brackett plays it out via the narrative instead of info-dumping at the start, but long story short, Kirby and some fellow individualists have managed to get hold of a ship and they are going to fly it, illegally, all the way to Alpha Centauri, where they’ve learned there’s a habitable planet. There they plan to live out their lives free of the yoke of the government. Oh, and none of the other guys have told their wives and kids – they’re just going to bring them along at the last minute! For a six-year journey in space!

So clearly the setup is hard to buy. But as mentioned Brackett just relays the info to us so that we learn it as the other characters do. Even Shari has been kept in the dark, or at least Kirby thinks she has been. Unfortunately, the lady is a psychic, one of the few Martians with this skill. I can’t recall if any other Brackett yarns make this claim, but so far as this one’s concerned, the odd Martian can read minds, and Shari happens to be one of them. She’s not only aware of the secret Kirby’s been keeping from her, but determined to join him in his quest, even if she’ll be leaving native Mars. She even gives Kirby a gun, something so rare in this era that Kirby has a hard time believing he’s actually holding one in his hands.

He’ll use it in one of the few action scenes in the novel, as some government thugs come to round him up. One of them’s his ex brother-in-law, and there’s no love lost between the two. Brackett here seems to be setting up a subplot – I figured this guy would be coming after Kirby later on – but she doesn’t follow through with it. Instead Kirby shoots one of the government soldiers and then he and Shari commandeer a flyer and escape, chased by one of the government patrols. This leads to one of the more illogical escapes in pulp history; they fly right above the treeline of the area in which they’ve hidden the rocket, and then simply jump out of their flyer to the ground below!

But then this first novella/first half of the novel is illogical throughout. As mentioned these other guys bring along their families with no prior warning for a six-year space voyage, and it’s laughable how unbelievable this is. But then, it’s a man’s world in Brackett’s future, so the guys call the shots…even if they’re gonna get nagged about it throughout an interstellar journey. Brackett also doesn’t much describe the spaceship (the “Lucy B. Davenport”) Kirby and crew have gotten hold of, but it appears to be of the rocket design of the ‘50s, with the storage section converted into a living space. They take off immediately, headed for this unknown planet orbitting far-off Alpha Centauri; Kirby has seen the secret reports from a robot ship that passed the planet, reports which indicated this planet was safe for human habitation.

The first half of the novel climaxes with an R-1 seek-and-destroy robot ship chasing after them. This is probably the highlight of the novel as Kirby, Shari, and a few others suit up, leave their ship, and go out into space to destroy the silent and sleek pursuing craft. They think of the ship as an almost alien presence, but again in our era of drones and the like it’s hard to understand their unease. Shari’s ESP is put to use in a novel way as she tries to communicate with the cold, inhuman mind of the R-1 drone. The colorful cover painting illustrates this sequence, as Kirby et al get into the core of the R-1 and Shari basically makes it go insane; Brackett is a bit prescient here with intimations that the R-1 has artificial intelligence.

The cutover to the next novella occurs on page 64; suddenly it’s six years later and this “reluctant space ark,” which has been travelling “something under the speed of light” is now a mere two hours away from landing. The novella nature of the original stories has robbed the novel of any potential for character building or even world-building; the Lucy B. Davenport is filled with families, including children and babies, but Brackett doesn’t put the spotlight on anyone other than Kirby or Shari (who have no children). While the novel prefigures the generation ship motif Heinlein and others would use, Brackett doesn’t much exploit it. The other characters are almost incidental, and we learn in passing that a few of them died during the long journey through black space.

And we’re even robbed of the tale of the journey itself. Six years in space on a “space ark” could make for a novel itself, a long novel, but the journey happens between chapters and we don’t even get any of Brackett’s typical word painting on the cosmos or anything. Well anyway, they arrive at the destination planet, Kirby after some nervous jitters manages to land the rocket without much fuss, and soon enough they’re all out running around on the verdant fields of this Earth-like planet. Then Shari feels some sort of evil presence in the distant mountains and wants to return to the ship, and doesn’t want to talk about it.

We’re now in the second novella, the hyperbolically-titled “Teleportress of Alpha C,” a title that is a lot more promising than the story Brackett actually delivers. It’s almost a prefigure of Predator, only without the action, suspense, or one-liners, as Kirby and crew slowly realize something is hunting them in this alien jungle. After they’ve been here some weeks, building a little village and working on the land – and Brackett again displays her lack of word-painting with hardly any description of this planet’s flora or fauna – Kirby decides to finally head into those mountains from which Shari picked up bad vibes.

From here it’s more of a suspense thriller as one of Kirby’s crew vanishes, then abruptly reappears, covered in mud and confused about the whole ordeal. Brackett keeps building up the suspense, with a gruff Kirby almost slapping around his men for “acting like girls’ in their growing fright. There’s also the added tension of the government contacting them and stating that an R-3 ship is on the way to pick them up and return them to Earth, where the president vows they will not be imprisoned; he claims that Kirby didn’t read the full report on this planet, and it was indeed deemed unsuitable for human life. Shari’s already picked up some strange hints from the presence she sensed, like that it can see into things down to the atom, so it almost starts to seem that some invisible demonic presence is afoot.

But folks what a copout. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want the surprise reveal of a 65 year-old pulp story to be ruined. Well basically, the presence Shari was sensing was the collective mentality of these baby animals, “stupid” ones at that! In fact their stupidity is so often mentioned by Shari and Kirby that I started to feel sorry for the damn things. But they’re just little dumb animals with psychic powers and have only been reacting to Kirby and the others due to the innate animal fear of anything new. Shari, who is zapped away by one of these animals, spends a few days communing with them, thus info-dumps what’s been going on to Kirby when he finally finds her after trekking through the jungle in his panic to find her. The creatures even use their mass ESP to send back the R-3 that comes to collect Kirby’s crew!

And this is where Alpha Centauri Or Die! ends, Kirby and Shari happily reunited and about to start their presumably idyllic life here on this new world along with a colony of pioneers. Plus they plan to put these ESP animals to work in some fashion. At least it’s a satisfying conclusion to the novel, but there’s no denying that the second half (ie the second novella) just seems to be cut from a completely different cloth than the first. Too bad Brackett didn’t wholly rewrite the second half to be a more satisfying resolution to the first novella, perhaps even with a payoff on the subplot about Kirby’s former brother-in-law. Instead we get like the ‘50s pulp sci-fi version of Lost, complete with even the same sort of unsatisfying cop-out of an ending!

Overall this wasn’t nearly one of Brackett’s best, but then it wasn’t one of her worst, either. Her writing, always of a high caliber, seems a bit subdued, with precious little of the memorable dialog or scene-setting she gave her other work. And Kirby seems less like a rugged individualist than he does a dick; he spends the entire second novella bitching at his crew and calling them “girls” and the like. Shari is much more memorable, but even she is a pale reflection of the typical Brackett female protagonist, so ultimately I’d just recommend Alpha Centauri Or Die! for the Leigh Brackett die hards.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Liberty Corps #2: Maracaibo Massacre

The Liberty Corps #2: Maracaibo Massacre, by Mark K. Roberts
December, 1987  Popular Library

Man these Liberty Corps covers crack me up – I mean shirtless and a beret; you can almost hear the Village People on the soundtrack – and sadly it’s the covers that are proving to be the only memorable thing about this series. Mark Roberts continues to write a war novel in all but name; while thankfully shorter than the first volume, Maracaibo Slaughter is still a long, trying read, with our author more concerned with how one supplies an army and entertains its men instead of providing the action thrills one would expect from the men’s adventure genre.

Also again Roberts assails us with way too many Legionnaires to keep track of, but he does at least settle on a nominal “main character:” Colonel Lew Cutler, who served in this capacity last time. It’s curious that Cutler serves as Roberts’s main protagonist, given that Cutler isn’t even officially a member of the American Foreign Legion (aka the “Liberty Corps”); he’s their contact with the regular army. He doesn’t do much in this one, though, mostly flying around on Legion business, hooking up with one babe, getting dumped by her, then hooking up with another. He doesn’t even factor into the climactic battle.

We get the same setup as last time, with the first third of the novel concerned with daily life at the various Legion outposts and bases in America and Africa, and the last quarter devoted to a practically endless military skirmish. And like the previous volume this battle is presented in a military fiction vein, to the extent that one feels he’s reading a nonfiction book about some obscure battle in South America. We’re talking tanks, airplanes, sea vessels, the works, and in all cases it’s one-off Legionnaires who are doing the fighting, robbing the book of any kind of basic action thriller vibe. These characters are all faceless ciphers so there’s no excitement on offer, or at least there wasn’t for me. The honest truth is the book was a bitch to read.

But the thing is, Roberts clearly was into it. He clearly strives to juggle a wide cast of characters, downplaying the pulpish nature of earlier work on The Penetrator and such. Even the usually-egregious Commie-bashing is gone, though we again get some reminders of the seditious US media (if only Roberts could see them now!!). Here we learn the phrase “CLAM,” ie “commie-liberal American media,” which an African native claims to have read in an American gun magazine years before, as he tells Cutler about it over some beers. Otherwise the Commies, again following the orders of mysterious Arkady, constantly try to get moles on Corsair Cay, ie the island HQ of the Legion, off the coast of South Carolina.

This actually leads to one of the few action scenes in the first hundred pages of the book; one of the Red spies tries to take out Cutler and Legion commander Stand Waite, but fails on his first attempt on Cutler, later to be captured by Waite. But man that’s about it. Otherwise it’s a long haul of Waite trying to hire a chef for the base, opening a brewery for the men…even tasking Cutler with hiring someone to retrofit a ship so it can be used as a pleasure cruise line for the soldiers! This actually causes Cutler to get laid, for the second time in the book, though both events happen off-page for the most part, Roberts also toning way down on the dirty stuff. First it’s via a blonde British babe who is hired to do computer stuff for Corsair Cay, then after she dumps him and he nurses a broken heart for a while, Cutler hooks up with redheaded mega-babe TJ Tarkington, who makes her living retrofitting sailing vessels.

Meanwhile we’ve met the villains of the piece; army-backed Colombian drug runners who are in the process of taking over Venezuela. We know they’re real bad because when they’re introduced into the narrative they’re in the process of gunning down Venezuelan innocents – men, women, and even little children. Unfortunately it will take a good hundred pages of padding to see these bastards get sent to hell; President Hunter doesn’t even task Waite with the Venezuela issue until page 84, and it’s not until page 142 that the assault begins. We get more confirmation that Liberty Corps is more of a military fiction series when Waite informs his troops that he plans for a six-month campaign.

As last time the action is given over to one-off Legionnaires on the ground, sea, and air engaging faceless enemy troops; there’s none of the personal thrust of the typical men’s adventure novel. Even the sadist who ordered the killing of the kids early in the book is sort of brushed off in the climactic action, the objective more around staving off the well-armed drug runners who are encroaching into Venezuela. In fact, this is the sort of thing that passes for action:

Dust and debris filled the air along the bank of the Uribante River. James Dean Watton’s spotter, Burke Norton, had shown up in time to convey the awesome news of the approach of Colombia’s crack armor and infantry. Across from the ford, Lieutenant Colonel Asiro Tachikawa deployed the First Cohort hurriedly. A mass of Colombian armor had been spotted approaching at high speed. While the harried Legionnaires hustled into fighting positions, Tachikawa sat slumped in his command post, eyes closed, while he sipped a cup of bancha. The bitter brew, made with green tea leaves and whole-grain rice, soothed him. Outside, all resembled fall-down day at the Tower of Babel.

In the end the Colombian army is crushed, Venezuela liberated, and the main drug runner gunned down, but man it’s a chore to get there. Overall Liberty Corps has become one of my least favorite series ever.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Time Rogue

Time Rogue, by Leo P. Kelley
No month stated, 1970  Lancer Books

Leo P. Kelley will always rank highly with me, if for no other reason than his novel Mythmaster, which I still think of often – pretty much the epitome of psychedelic pulp sci-fi. I was hoping for the same with this earlier novel, and while the psychedelic touch is there Kelley goes for more of a dramatic tale. In many ways Time Rogue is a prefigure of The Terminator, with heroes in the “present” (ie a 1980s very much like the late 1960s) finding out they unintentionally create a “cyborgian” future two hundred years in the future. Actually it’s more akin to Terminator 3 in that a female cyborg is sent back in time to stop them.

Indeed, it’s the “cyborgian society of Century Twenty-Two,” which Kelley introduces us to in a fast-moving first chapter which left me confused as hell. But that’s how sci-fi pulp rolls, friends; there’s no need for fancy-pants world building. Only gradually does one grasp that “Max Marie,” the hermaphrodite cyborg thing which initially is presented as your typical villainous robot run amok, is actually on the side of good…or at least what he/she believes is good in this skewed future. Max Marie has just driven insane one of the few mostly-human individuals left on this future earth, a guy named Caleb who is a professor of “temporal history.” As we watch in puzzlement Max Marie pulls out the essence of Caleb’s crazed mind, splits it into seven sections, sends these sections back to “Century Twenty,” and allows the “husk” of Caleb’s now-mindless body to die.

We will learn that Caleb has partnered with these cyborgs to prevent his future from occurring; it’s your typical nightmarish future of ‘60s sci-fi, a la The Mind Brothers, in which humans have become so roboticized and cybernetic that they’re no longer really human. Kelley is presicent in this, given how our own nightmarish present is quickly headed into a sort of post-human future, with gender now deemed “fluid” and the ACLU tweeting stuff like, “Men who get pregnant are still men.” Given this, it probably is only a matter of time before “humans” become biomechanical hermaphroditic creatures that have lost all touch with what they once were, and thus some people will no doubt yearn for the days of the past, as is the setup here.

Kelley doesn’t spend much time in this future world, other than a handful of cutaways to it, where we see the cyborg administrators of justice torturing Max Marie for info and then trying to figure out where in the past he’s sent Caleb’s splintered mind. We readers know it’s to the twentieth century, and while Kelley doesn’t pinpoint the date it seems to be 1983 or so, given the time stated since World War II. The novel plays out over the span of just a few days, and the main character for the majority of the narrative is Ruth Epstein, constantly referred to as “old and gray” in the opening chapters and on the back cover copy. Today she wouldn’t be considered old at all, given that she’s only somewhere in her sixties. Forty years before, in 1943, she was prisoner in a concentration camp, along with her younger sister; both were in their twenties at the time, and Ruth is still haunted by what happened there. 

There’s some unexpected character depth for a pulp sci-fi thriller, but then the same could be said of Mythmaster. What happened to Ruth’s sister in the camp is kept a mystery, but it’s something that has plagued Ruth throughout her life, something she’s blamed herself for to such an extent that she’s become a veritable old maid, living alone near her research facility in New Jersey. And her research is, you guessed it, centered around “uniting man and machine.” We meet her as she’s just successfully hooked a lab mouse into a computer. Of course the mouse dies but it’s a huge success. Thus in her own way Ruth will make possible the cyborgian world of the future, and must, per the hyperbolic back cover copy, die. Caleb enters Ruth’s mind in a memorable moment, quickly taking control and prompting her to follow strange requests – like driving to New York and attending a chess match.

This introduces the second of the seven characters who will mind-meld with Caleb: a twelve year-old chess prodigy named Barry Lamont who lives in a plush apartment with his wealthy parents. Barry proves to be a memorable character, somewhat wise beyond his years yet still retaining a childlike innocence about this possession of his mind by a man who hasn’t even been born yet – he just accepts this strange new reality for what it is. Unfortunately Barry is gradually minimized due to the other five characters who come into the fold. He makes a memorable first impression, taken over by Caleb on his way to a chess match, which he still manages to win. Then he meets Ruth, who has of course come to New York for him, Caleb pushing them to find one another so he can recreate himself here in this century. They also already know each other’s names, even though they’ve never met.

The next person is Sa-Hid, a Malcolm X type we meet as he’s giving a black power rant in Harlem (“Black is where it’s at!”). He of course brushes off Ruth and Barry when they approach him, but he too is unable to fight against Caleb’s mind control. Soon the three of them are heading back to Ruth’s home in New Jersey, Barry having gotten gruding permission from his parents, the story being that Ruth is a psychologist looking to study child prodigies. Sa-Hid contantly butts heads with them, which leads to Ruth nicely calling out Sa-Hid’s own racism and how he is “a mathematician of race,” only capable of seeing the world in black and white. A nice bit of shaming that would probably be deemed unacceptable in our victim culture society of today.

The fourth person is a flower child in a psychedelic print dress (one of the few topical touches that allow us to know the era) named Joan. There’s some off-page sex here as a penniless Joan offers her body to a taxi driver so he can give her a lift to New Jersey…plus an additional ten bucks! She has been compelled to Ruth’s clinic, and like the others she has her own sad background. I should mention that long stretches of Time Rogue aren’t even remotely sci-fi, particularly the parts with Ruth, Kelley more determined to examine the backstories of his various characters. This pays off, as he gradually builds a family dynamic, similar to what he did in the final half of Mythmaster.

And really, this is more of a character-driven piece than an action spectacular; the focus is more on this group of random people inexplicably thrust together by future events and how they work with one another, while temporarily being assailed by mental urgings from the disembodied Caleb. Action is promised though when we cut back to Century Twenty-Two and see the cyborg authorities of that era put together a Tracker who specializes in “detecting genetic continuities.” It is designed to track backwards in time through the various genetic streams to find the seven humans Caleb and Max Marie must’ve singled out as perpetrators of this future world. The Tracker is named Leda, and Kelley doesn’t do much to describe her, other than she is pretty.

The fifth person is Kirby, who shows up at Ruth’s house one day and promptly tries to rape Joan, whom he claims to love even though he’s never met her. Once this awkward bit is overlooked, Kirby turns out to be a swell guy. Seriously though at this point the brevity of Kelley’s paperback begins to rob his too-many characters of much depth. Kirby we learn is unhappily married and in his Caleb-possesion has learned that he and Joan are soul mates, destined to be married. But not much is made of this and the storyline comes off as hard to buy. Even worse treated is the sixth member of the group, a handsome gigolo type named Skeeter who lives in a cabin in the woods. He’s more of a cipher than anything else.

Kelley does a weird thing here; Leda, presented as the Tracker, gradually emerges to be a savior instead of a killer – unlike a Terminator, she’s not here to kill anyone, but indeed to prevent their deaths. It’s Caleb who plans to kill the seven, thus hopefully preventing his nightmare future. Leda explains this to Ruth when she appears to her one night; Leda’s capabilities are maddeningly vague, with her just appearing and disappearing with not much explanation. But Leda has gone back into the various timelines for each of the six – even she doesn’t yet know who the mysterious seventh person is – and has learned Ruth’s secret from the concentration camp. Leda explains what Caleb’s intent is and somehow instructs Ruth herself how to travel in time.

The seventh dude turns out to be a Mafia boss, and he’s so inconsequential to the plot as to be a waste of time; Kelley has it that this dude’s above-board business dealings, stuff he does to keep the prying eyes of the government from his mob activities, end up funding the cyborg research that will create the world of the twenty-second century. The other six are sent like automatons to a church, where the mobster’s daughter is getting married. Here the climax, such as it is, plays out. Rather than an action spectacular, Caleb is wrenched away in a mental fight with Leda, and ultimately the others realize that Ruth is gone – and, following Joan’s hunch, they deduce that she no longer even exists “in this timeline!”

Spoilers here, so skip the paragraph if you don’t want to know. Kelley unexpectedly delivers a toucing finale. We finally learn what happened at the concentration camp in 1943, the day that’s haunted Ruth. Her 1983 mind has traveled back in time to take control of herself in 1943, once again in the camp. The camp commander makes a daily game of choosing victims for the gas chamber, and each day Ruth has found a way to protect her kid sister. But on this particular day she has failed. We already knew this from the start of the book, but here in the finale we find out what happened afterwards: the commander, having chosen Ruth’s sister for the chamber today, asks Ruth if she would be willing to take her place. In the previous timeline Ruth said no, hating herself for her cowardice for the rest of her life. This time, of course, she boldly says “yes,” much to the commander’s surprise. So off she marches to the gas chamber, already forgetting Caleb and the others, as she has changed the future – perhaps the only book in history which features an uplifting finale involving a gas chamber!

While it doesn’t have the psychedelic vibe of Mythmaster, Time Rogue definitely scores in the character department. Kelley makes you care just enough about his characters that you want to see how they work their way out of this strange situation. The cyborg future is effectively portrayed, but still some of it could’ve been better fleshed out, like Leda’s character. Overall though I’d recommend Time Rogue for anyone looking for a quick pulp sci-fi read, one with an unexpected emotional depth.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

C.A.D.S. #4: Tech Strike Force

C.A.D.S. #4: Tech Strike Force, by John Sievert
February, 1987  Zebra Books

I’m really taking my time with the C.A.D.S. series, about one volume every two-plus years. I had to re-read my reviews of the first three volumes to remind myself of the characters and what’s going on. This was a smart move, as with the others Tech Strike Force opens en media res, with our armor-clad heroes emerging from the depths of the lake they escaped in at the climax of #3: Tech Commando, with only vague explanation of what came before.

Ryder Syvertsen (aka “John Sievert”) as ever whittles down his large group of C.A.D.S. so that we only focus on a few of them. That being said, a few “regulars” are killed off this time, but I still had no idea who they were or what they’d done in previous volumes. C.A.D.S. honcho Dean Sturgis is still the star of the show, the Ted Rockson of the C.A.D.S. world, if only less heroic or memorable. He still pines for his wife Robin, but won’t get much done in the way of his searching for her this time around; in fact, Robin doesn’t even appear this volume, which is a series first. Instead Syvertsen sticks with Sturgis throughout, and the dude manages to do pretty well for himself in the female companionship area, bedding three babes in this post-apocalyptic hellhole of America, circa late June of 1998.

Sturgis and Billy Dixon, aka the redneck C.A.D.S. soldier, separate from the rest of the squad as it makes its way back to the C.A.D.S. HQ deep in the swamps of the Bayou. This opening quarter of the novel basically just continues on from the denoument of the previous volume, with the two getting in various skirmishes with pursuing Reds and ultimately getting in a firefight with them in Colonial Williamsburg, which we’re informed has been kept undamaged due to the love the Soviet Premiere has for it. Syvertsen as ever doesn’t strive for realism, despite all the “tech speak” in the dialog; for example, we’re told that the C.A.D.S. suits weigh four hundred pounds, yet when Sturgis’s is so damaged that he can’t use it anymore, we’re informed that he gets out of it and pulls it up into the belfry of the house he’s hiding in.

Unexpectedly we get into some dark stuff, which goes against the grain of Syvertsen’s typical Saturday Morning Cartoon-esque vibe. Sturgis and Billy are taken aboard a sub, where they are interrogated by America-hating Veloshnikov and KGB torture artist Revin. The Reds immediately deduce that Sturgis won’t break, thus set their sadistic sights on Billy, judging that Sturgis will break so as to keep his young charge from harm. But Sturgis won’t break, refusing to give info even as Billy is beaten, his fingers broken, and then is friggin’ sodomized off-page by Revin. Meanwhile Sturgis has himself gotten some intel, shown a map of post-nuke US by Veloshnikov. Here Sturgis learns that the vast majority of the country has been destroyed by radiation, thus the “America” he and his C.A.D.S. are fighting to protect doesn’t much exist anymore.

The two are saved by the remaining C.A.D.S. soldiers, Sturgis’s buddy Tranh having taken command of the squad. Syvertsen keeps referring back to the first volume, thus the escaping C.A.D.S. happen to run into a group of mountainfolk who are fighting some Reds. They turn out to be none other than the McCoys our heroes met back in that first volume, and now these people have set up their own sort of backwoods utopia, complete with food, weaponry, and even New Age crystal healing. This is all like something out of Syvertsen’s Doomsday Warrior in tone and vibe; one thing that’s different, though, is that when Sturgis has sex with Cat, the hotstuff McCoy babe whose virginity he took back in that first volume, it happens off-page. The same can be said of Sturgis’s two other conquests in the book; Syvertsen, whether intentionally or not, seems at pains to whittle down on the crazy purple prose of his typical work.

Dr. Sheila de Camp, the Smurfette of the C.A.D.S., doesn’t much like these New Age crystals, and in fact barges in on Sturgis and Cat mid-boff to complain about them. This just turns out to be another instance of Sheila’s resentment for the women who bed Sturgis, with whom she’s gradually fallen in love. Meanwhile back at C.A.D.S. HQ our heroes learn that “mutated swamp fever” has returned in their absence and wiped out many of the “swamp women” who have taken up residence here, including Dieter, the tall babe Sturgis had some off-page lovin’ with last time. Not to be concerned, though, as soon enough he’s banging another leggy swamp babe, Gloria – but again off-page. 

Syvertsen delivers some unexpected character development with Billy Dixon going nuts due to his rape back on the Russian sub; he pretends as if nothing happened, claims he remembers nothing of his captivity and torture, but he’s a kettle quickly approaching boil. He snaps one day and attempts to perpetrate his own rape, on one of the swamp women. While the other C.A.D.S. are ready to wipe him out, Sturgis instead is able to confront Billy in a fistfight, knocking his ass out but keeping him alive. Despite his misgivings Sturgis has to bring Billy along on their latest mission, despite his insanity; he’s running out of soldiers. However not much else is made of this by novel’s end, with the vibe that Billy’s quest for vengeance allows him to get past his mental troubles.

Speaking of callbacks to the first volume; if you recall, the C.A.D.S. ran across obese billionaire industrialist Pinky Ellis in that first one, the Jeffrey Epstein-type who went around in an armored limo and kept a bunch of sex slaves at his disposal. Well, the sex slave who made eyes at Sturgis in the first novel, Morgana, managed to escape Pinky, get to the President, and inform him that Pinky plans to give the Reds an experimental tank Pinky’s company was developing before the war. I figured this plot thread from volume 1 would be dropped, but Syvertsen clearly planned to get back to it, given the narrative spotlight he gave Morgana in the first volume. She and the President talk to Sturgis over the radio, Morgana finding the opportunity to tell Sturgis she hopes to meet him in the flesh someday – perhaps another dangling subplot to be played out in a future volume.

Now the C.A.D.S. must head to New Orleans, prevent the handover of the tank, and kill Pinky. So it’s back across the blasted United States for our heroes, who have had to repurpose their armored suits as the government is all out of E-Balls, and now they have to make due with regular missiles and whatnot. Syvertsen appears to be minimizing the godlike attributes of the C.A.D.S. armor, or at least not presenting them as so invincible as before. I assume this is an attempt at conveying some tension to the series, but regardless it’s hard to buy that these high-tech, computer-operated suits can even still work in this post-nuke hellzone.

Syvertsen still doles out unexpected and welcomed goofiness, like when the C.A.D.S. on their way to New Orleans run into a crotchety old Western author who lives alone in his decimated town, cranking out “the greatest Western in history.” Dying of radiation and determined to finish his book, the dude begs for more narrative time but isn’t given nearly enough. Instead we get the tiresome return of Carl the King, the Manson-esque serial killer who also last appeared in the first volume. He’s now declared himself King of Biloxi (wearing a paper Burger King crown as evidence of his royalty), leading the same group of escaped mental patients as last time. The C.A.D.S. make quick and somewhat gory work of them, but inexplicably Sturgis allows Carl and his inner circle to escape, presumably to return and annoy us again in some future volume.

Sturgis scores for the third time in the book with none other than Sheila de Camp, Syvertsen paying off the long-simmer hate-lust relationship he’s been developing between them since the first volume. This one’s done for more of a comical effect given that the two are instantly spatting post-boink, as Sheila wants to get her hooks in Sturgis and keep him for herself. Meanwhile Sturgis tells her this is just a casual thing and he can’t get too involved with one of his subordinates. It seems clear that this will play out in ensuing volumes.

Pinky Ellis is a more interesting villain, weasely and obsese and commanding his private army from the safety of his armored limo. His secret weapon turns out to be a flying tank that shoots lasers, and given that it’s up against a squad of guys in armored suits, maybe you’ll get what I mean when I’m always comparing C.A.D.S. to a cartoon. One of the C.A.D.S. soldiers stands out here: Joe Fireheels, nicknamed “The Survivor,” who refuses to go into combat in the powered armor, pleading with Sturgis to allow him to follow his instincts. Also one of the “main” C.A.D.S. soldiers is killed in the firefight, one we’re informed has been Sturgis’s close friend for years, but again I didn’t much remember him.

As ever Tech Strike Force ends as soon as this latest battle is over, Sturgis and soldiers destroying the laser tank and delivering Pinky a memorable sendoff – one that involves fire ants! – but Syvertsen leaves many plot threads dangling. I’ll try to get to the next volume a little more quickly, but overall this series still comes off like a pale imitation of Doomsday Warrior.

Oh and due to the holiday only one post next week – it will be up on Wednesday.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Strange Stars

Strange Stars, by Jason Heller
June, 2018  Melville House

Jason Heller’s book focuses on science fiction-themed pop muisc of the ‘70s, with a few detours into the ‘60s and ‘80s; his definition of “pop” encompasses soul, disco, prog, and kraut. David Bowie is the unifying thread; in his intro Heller states that Bowie was at the forefront of what he terms “sci-fi music,” a term I don’t think Bowie himself would’ve used – I mean if you went back to the mid-‘70s and told Bowie he was doing “sci-fi music,” he’d probably look at you like you were crazy and then go back to drinking milk out of his baby bottle and snorting mountains of coke.

Heller is a few years older than me; he opens Strange Stars with a flashback to when he was fifteen in August 1987 and saw Bowie in concert for the first time. I was twenty when I saw Bowie in concert for the first (and only) time; this was in September 1995, when he toured with Nine Inch Nails. This was in Pittsburgh and I recall it being a great show, with an obscure group called Prick opening the ticket (Prick being run by some guy who gave Trent Reznor his start before NIN), followed by Nine Inch Nails. Once NIN was done their set the stage went dark and Reznor played a saxophone (or something), and suddenly you heard Bowie’s voice singing. A very cool moment. Bowie then did some songs with Nine Inch Nails, who gradually left the stage so that Bowie’s band could fully take over the show. I remember a lot of the audience left at this point, which I found disappointing.

Well anyway, prior to this I only knew Bowie through his hits, but I’d picked up the recently-released Outside CD. After this show I went down the road of Bowie fandom for a few years, picking up the majority of his catalog on CD or LP. Somehow though I moved on and these days I rarely play Bowie’s music, though I do think Diamond Dogs is pretty cool. And to tell the truth while I liked Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, I never loved it. Heller clearly feels different, as Ziggy Stardust gets a lot of focus, and indeed Heller not only inspired me to give the album a listen again but to also check out Simon Goddard’s Ziggyology (2013), a sort of pseudo-hagiography of Ziggy.

Bowie unifies the book, given that he initiated the ‘70s focus on sci-fi rock with 1969’s “Space Oddity” and then closed it with 1980’s “Ashes To Ashes,” which declared Major Tom a “junkie.” But this book is not solely about David Bowie. Actually it’s not so much about any one thing as it is a year-by-year overview of sci-fi pop music, with a focus on rock in the first half of the decade and then on a tide of increasingly-banal space disco in the latter half of the decade, the majority of it inspired by Star Wars. There’s also some stuff about punk and New Wave; I found the first half of the decade much, much more interesting.

Typically I stick to older rock books, as I feel something has been lost in today’s rock journalism. If you read old issues of Rolling Stone or Creem or Crawdaddy, you often get highly-literate pieces that are borderline exegeses, often pretentious but just as often thought-compelling. In particular Sandy Pearlman of Crawdaddy did these awesome essays which too explored science fiction’s intersection with rock music (what a shame he never published – and never completed? – his early ‘70s “Altamont cospiracy theory” rock book History Of Los Angeles, which only appeared via a twenty-page excerpt in Jonathan Eisen’s 1971 collection Twenty-Minute Fandangos And Forever Changes).

But you don’t get anything so probing here; you don’t get anything like that in today’s rock journalism, particularly journalism about classic rock. Instead, today’s rock writers have become historians, cataloguing instead of analyzing, thus Strange Stars is mostly a compiling of this or that event in “sci-fi music” of the era. Sentences are capably constructed, chapters open with brief snatches of scene-setting, hypens are egregiously employed. But there’s not a whiff of personality. In this way the book is about as bland in the narrative department as another recent classic rock book, Goodnight, L.A., and re-read value is similarly low.

I personally prefer a little more flash and flair with my rock writing; I mean give me something like Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age any day. Or even Lester Bangs, who I never liked as much as others because most of the time he just seemed to bitch for the sake of bitching. But at least his personality was evident – not to mention his creativity. Another thing missing here is that rarely does Heller describe what the music sounds like; similar to so many of those early Rolling Stone reviewers, for the most part he sticks to the lyrics. I can’t understand how a rock journalist could ignore the music itself, but so many of them do it; Heller isn’t alone in this. But, given that the theme of the book is science fiction, it’s understandable that he focuses on the lyrical sci-fi content of the songs in question.

Heller opens up with a brief overview of where sci-fi music was, pre-“Space Oddity,” in particular with a cool appraisal of CSN’s “Wooden Ships.” The chapter on 1970 is when the book really kicks in gear, as it was this year of course that Paul Kantner released Blows Against The Empire a sci-fi hippie rock opera which I love to death (and I reviewed here). Honestly though I felt that Heller could’ve explored the album a bit more, but throughout he just sort of notes this or that sci-fi album or song, quickly describes it, and then moves on to the next topic. I felt that the topic warranted a little more examination, not the least because there isn’t exactly a ton of sci-fi rock out there. Instead of getting into the banality of late ‘70s soul and disco Heller could’ve just elaborated on the actual sci-fi rock output of the early-mid ‘70s, but that would just be my preference.

Heller’s contention is that the success of “Space Oddity” sort of inspired other rockers to unshackle their inner nerds and do ful-on sci fi music, even if they didn’t get a release – such as, most notably, Pete Townshend’s incomplete Lifehouse concept, another topic that could’ve been greatly expanded upon here. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust of course took it to a whole ‘nother level, and Heller includes interesting tidbits about the character from the interview William Burroughs gave David Bowie in an issue of Rolling Stone, such as the factoid that Ziggy was killed by “black hole kids.”

As the ‘70s progress we get into krautrock and prog, the latter of which I’ve never really been into, and the former of which I can only take in small doses. Given the “pop” tag in the book’s subtitle (“David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded”), Heller too often breaks away from the more interesting world of rock to see what soul and jazz musicians were doing, so far as sci-fi music goes. In this regard we’ll get breakdowns on this or that soul song that deals with space themes or aliens or the future, and while it was interesting I would’ve preferred more material on the rock artists. I mean the guy spends a lot of print on the complex mythology of the Parliament-Funkadelic universe, and it would’ve been nice if he’d spent half as much time on Kantner’s sci-fi output, which too evolves a continuing theme over several albums.

Heller’s knowledge of the era is vast, and the book often had me heading to or Youtube to check out this or that obscure artist. But sometimes Heller veers a little too obscure, particularly when examing the science fiction-themed music of black soul musicians (sorry, “African-American Afro-Futurists”).  Which makes it very odd that Heller inexplicably overlooks more noteworthy material. Off the top of my head, here are some ‘70s science fiction albums Heller missed – obscure, yes, but all of them were released on major labels: 

Sounds Of Genesis: Journey To The Moon
Buddah Records, 1969 

This super-cool LP features a gaggle of studio musicians doing groovy, sub-psychedelic instrumentals, interspersed with actual recordings from the Apollo moon landing. Recently I discovered a modern day record that follows a similar path: The Race For Space, by UK electronic outfit Public Service Broadcasting, from 2015. But whereas that one uses atmospheric sampled sounds to tell its space-themed story, this LP is all about the mod rock vibe, complete with period-mandatory electric sitar. And with tracks like “Space Rock” and “Ninteen Ninety-Nine,” it’s definitely in the sci-fi mold, and somewhat similar to 101 String’s awesome Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000, from 1968. That one isn’t mentioned in Strange Stars, either, but then Heller restrains himself for the most part to the 1970s only, with an opening chapter that looks at sci-fi rock from 1969 and a closing chapter that looks at sci-fi rock from 1980.

Jimmie Haskell: California ‘99
ABC Records, 1971

Haskell was a film composer who here did a “thematic fairytale” of a rock concept LP, set in the far-flung year of 1999. Possibly one of the more elaborate packages of the era, the sleeve folds out (and keeps folding out) into a big wall map of the United States of 1999, complete with a “marijuana insect corridor” in the midwest. The belabored backstory has it that the US has gone bankrupt and renamed itself “California,” with legal dope and etc, and the story concerns a young man who has been tasked by the Big Brother government to find three “lifemates” instead of performing his otherwise-mandatory military service. Groovy orchestral stuff that would sound at home on the Barbarella soundtrack trades off with spoken word passages (complete with cool sonic trickery), random moog freakouts, and the occasional rock song (including an arbitrary cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Guest list includes Joe Walsh, who sings and plays guitar on two tracks.

John Keating: Space Experience and Space Experience 2
Columbia, 1972 and EMI, 1975

How very, very strange that neither of these get a mention in Strage Stars. This is far-out cosmic easy listening moog music, the first one going for a sci-fi soundtrack vibe, the second one incorporating some funk into the mix. Granted, it’s all instrumental, but still – Heller mentions a few instrumental sci-fi records in the book, but somehow missed both of these. Same goes for the two albums Keating recorded under the name Nova: An Astomusical Odyssey (1971) and Nova…Sounds Of The Stars (1974.)

Donovan: Cosmic Wheels
Epic, 1973

Lambasted in its day, this was Donovan’s response to the glam movement, complete with mystic-celestial inner art and sci-fi themed tracks like “The Intergalactic Laxative.” Overall the album’s pretty cool, boasting a psychedelic space rock vibe.

Kenny Young: Last Stage For Silverworld
Warner Bros. Records, 1973

I also reviewed this one here. This is another sci-fi concept record, again set in the future ‘90s – 1997, to be exact, and also concerning a pair of young lovers trying to find each other in a totalitarian society.

Neil Merryweather: Space Rangers and Kryptonite
Mercury, 1974 and 1975

I also reviewed Space Rangers here; both it and the followup Kryptonite were influenced by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, per Merryweather himself. Tracks like “King Of Mars” and “Star Rider” are pure sci-fi rock and thus perfect fodder for Strange Stars, but neither album is mentioned.

Various Artists: Flash Fearless Versus The Zorg Women Parts 5 and 6
Chrysalis, 1975

Perhaps the most inexplicable miss Heller makes. Flash Fearless was the rock opera equivalent of a big budget flop; produced by Who bassist John Entwistle under his “John Alcock” pseudonym, the record spoofs Flash Gordon, clearly tapping into a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. Alice Cooper sings on two tracks, Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas shows up, and Entwistle plays bass throughout. Another of those elaborate deals, the LP came with a big comic book explaining the clunky storyline (which the album itself doesn’t really stick to). Curiously, Heller appears to be aware of one of Cooper’s Flash Fearless tracks, “Space Pirate,” mentioning it in passing toward the end of Strange Stars, yet he doesn’t state the album it came from. This is a shame, as Flash Fearless isn’t bad at all, and certainly deserves space in a book that’s devoted to sci-fi themed ‘70s rock!

Alien: Sons Of The Universe
Elektra, 1979

Another inexplicable miss; not only is Sons Of The Universe a sci-fi concept album, the concept actually extends to the band itself – per the detailed story on the inner sleeve, the members of Alien are aliens! Descendants of Atlanteans, even! The story has it that, ages ago, some ancient aliens came along, took some Atlanteans back to their home planet, a planet devoted to music, and now their descendants have returned to Earth to spread their musical gifts. No one’s credited by their real name, and it looks like the LP only got very limited release, with still no CD issue. It doesn’t sound so much like a product of 1979, though; it’s more of a cosmic soft rock sort of thing, sometimes poppy, sometimes with David Gilmour-esque guitar work, and with only the most subtle of disco touches on certain tracks. It’s not a perfect album, but I’ve played it a lot and I like it, and it should’ve been included in Strange Stars.

Probably one of the more frustrating things about writing a book like this is that you’re locked in at a certain point, and thus even if Heller did realize he missed some of the above, it might’ve been too late to edit the text. This is one of the better things about running a blog (other than the fame and fortune, of course); I can edit and revise at any point. But still, you’d think that these above records – and I’m sure I could think of more besides – would’ve warranted an inclusion in the book, particularly given that Heller will devote pages to incredibly obscure space-themed songs by soul singers.

And this really is my main problem with Strange Stars. Important (or at least interesting) material is sidelined so that “diversity” can be introduced into the fold. I mean Jefferson Starship’s “Hyperspace” alone deserves a probing examination, but it’s rendered to nigh footnote level, same as the other sci-fi songs the group turned out in the ‘70s. But then we’ll get overlong digressions on this or that disco band or soul group that tried to tap in on the success of Star Wars. There was I think even potential to discuss sci fi rock that didn’t get made, like the Grateful Dead’s proposed soundtrack for Venus On The Half-Shell, or even Sammy Haggar’s planned sci-fi concept album.

But as the ‘70s progressed the wild and wooliness was replaced by a slick blandness, thus I found myself skimming through the final chapters of Strange Stars. The untold soul and disco groups who did Star Wars cash-ins became mind-numbing after a time, and I’ve never really cared about punk. Save that is for the Misfits (Glenn Danzig era only, of course!), but given the “1970s” constraint Heller only allows himself a brief mention of their “Teenagers On Mars,” thus ignoring their sci-fi heavy Walk Among Us, from 1981. And the New Wave stuff I totally skipped.

Bowie comes and goes in the text; per Heller, Bowie’s interest in sci-fi music waned after 1974’s Diamond Dogs, but Heller still provides some interesting details about his later albums, particularly Low (1977). I could’ve done without the writeup on Bowie’s 1979 appearance on SNL, totally not seeing the revelatory aspect of the freak-hairdoo’d mime type who danced behind Bowie during his performance and went on to a brief career of New Wave music. I did though find it cool that Bowie released a 12” mixing “Space Oddity” with “Ashes To Ashes,” something I only learned about via this book, but after listening to it on Youtube I don’t think the songs were segued together as neatly as Heller does.

But overall the book presents a cool concept, and Heller discusses the topic with enthusiasm. I would’ve preferred more of an in-depth study of the various sci-fi worlds these musicians created...again, something similar to what Sandy Pearlman was doing in the mid-‘60s. And hell, Pearlman was just writing about the Byrds and stuff; imagine if he was still doing rock reviewing when Diamond Dogs and whatnot came out (instead of serving as lyrical guru for Blue Oyster Cult). 

For that matter, I think limiting himself (somewhat loosely) to the ‘70s also hampered Heller; Jimi Hendrix was the most sci-fi of all rockers, and starting the book in say ’66 would’ve allowed him to be covered more adequately. And if the timespan of study had been expanded to the mid-‘80s, Heller could’ve explored Katner’s overlooked followup to Blows Against The Empire, 1983’s Planet Earth Rock & Roll Orchestra, which replaced the acousto-hippie vibe of the former with a sort of cold ‘80s punk-metal vibe. Well, at any rate maybe Heller could do a sequel.

Oh and PS – I see the blog is now up to 200 followers. Thanks, everyone!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Cosmozoids

The Cosmozoids, by Robert Tralins
No month stated, 1969  Tower Books
(Original Tower edition 1966)

Now folks this is Grade Z sci-fi; not even Grade B sci-fi. It’s also an “in the tradition of” sort of book, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers being the tradition it’s in. Only done as a schlocky low-grade pulp yarn, the literary equivalent of something William Shatner would’ve starred in back in the ‘70s. Which is not a criticism, just a gauge of what to expect if you decide to read it.

Tralins seems to have published at least a few novels, from sci-fi to the ‘60s spy-fy series The Miss From S.I.S. (of which I only have the first volume, but could never read it because it’s one of those “funny” spy satires of the day, a la The Man From O.R.G.Y.). The Cosmozoids was first published in 1966 by Tower, then republished a few years later with a new cover and under the banner “A Big T Science Fiction,” which, at least for me, elicits the image of a guy in a ten-gallon hat sitting behind a typewriter. 

Seriously though, that “Big T” tag doesn’t lie; The Cosmozoids runs 140-some pages of big print, so it actually comes off more like a novella, or a short story run amok. There isn’t much story here, other than your basic “Astronaut comes home with psychic powers and finds out there’s an evil alien genius plotting to take over the world” scenario. It’s all written in a very humdrum, half-assed manner (there’s actually a part my friends where the evil alien genius argues with the protagonist over “how many hairs are on the human head”), with completely unexpected periodic bursts of body horror.

It’s sometime in the near future (I assume), and our hero is Major Jim Keith, a karate-fightin’ military astronaut who is the first person “to walk in space, enter a spaceship, and return to Earth on it.” This has made him very famous around the globe, just like Major Tom. However he’s returned to Earth with a secret: he can predict the future. Not a full-on Carnac or anything, he just gets random flashes of future events which happen to pan out. As the novel opens he’s on his way to a funny farm in the Maryland countryside, sent there by his commanding officer, Colonel Jim Phelps. Jim, as Tralins refers to him, has brought along his fiance, a cipher named Dottie.

Jim’s ESP is explained posthaste, as he abruptly cancels their plane reservations; when they get to the clinic, Dottie is horrified to discover that the plane they were supposed to be on has crashed. She confronts Jim, who admits he’s a little psychic now; there’s some implausible “science” about space beams or somesuch giving him these powers. However Dr. Burr, who runs this particular clinic, has had success with helping other astronauts, so there’s hope Jim can figure out what his problem is.

But man it’s so clunky. They’re greeted by a mean old lady, who shows them their rooms (there’s zero sex afoot, nor even any exploitation of the female characters, for crying out loud!!), and Dr. Burr is introduced into the narrative with zero fanfare. Which is odd, given that Burr turns out to be the villain of the piece. His procedure is to basically speak to everyone in condescending tones, make eyes at Dottie, and keep Jim nice and drugged up, the drugs courtesy Burr’s nurse, hotstuff blonde Nanette.

Nanette makes for the only other character in the novel, save for a brief appearance by Colonel Phelps; Jim catches sight of his commanding officer sneaking around the clinic one night and watches as he’s attacked by two big guys who emerge from the bushes. Jim helps Phelps kick their asses, then is informed by Phelps that something fishy is going on around here – not, uh, that Burr himself is under suspicion! No, it’s just that those damn Commies might be up to something here, perhaps brainwashing people, so Jim’s to go back into the clinic and see if he spots anything out of the ordinary.

From here it gets even more goofy. Dottie’s suddenly become a drugged-out automaton, and Colonel Phelps makes a surprise return appearance, also clearly under mind control. At this point Dr. Burr reveals himself to Jim as an alien, one who came to Earth a year or so ago via a maser beam the real Dr. Burr was shooting out into space for some research project or something. The alien, who claims to be a “Cosmopath,” says that when Jim “crossed the interstellar dateline of time” during his spacewalk his mind was opened to the cosmic rays, granting him temporary psychic powers – powers which allow Jim to defend himself against Burr’s mental control. He’s also been granted with the ability to speak telepathically with Burr.

Burr’s goal of course is world domination, but the only problem is suckering people into his clinic so he can subdue them and then implant the mind control devices in them. Here ensues the argument over hair, folks, and I kid you not it really happens – one idea that’s discussed is Burr proclaiming he’s cured baldness, so that people from all over the globe will flock to his clinics. However Burr doesn’t know how many hairs are on the average human head, eliciting an argument between him and Jim. Weird, wild stuff, as Johnny Carson would say, or at least as I seem to remember him saying. And that’s two Carson references I’ve made in this review.

Anyway, plunging on, it’s of course up to Jim to stop Burr. Here’s where the unexpected horror element comes in. Burr reveals that he has “Cosmozoids” at his disposal, hulking brutes who come up out of the sewers and whatnot – the very same hulking brutes Jim and Phelps fought early in the book. But there are many of them, and Jim discovers by accident that despite their size and strength they are defenseless against noise, particularly metal banging on metal. And when you make a metallic din, the “husks” of the Cosmozoids will fall to the ground…and “globs of living gelatin” seep out of their noses and mouths and puddle on the floor. These gelatinous masses are the true form of the Cosmozoids, so we get some Blob ripoffage in addition to the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers lifting.

At this point the novel really harkens back to the vibe of ‘50s sci-fi B movie flicks, with Jim using this “secret weapon” against the Cosmozoids. There are many scenes of him banging this or that metallic object and the creatures quivering and quaking and gushing forth with gelatinous masses from their nostrils and mouths. Along the way Jim manages to free nurse Nanette from Burr’s yoke, as well as Phelps and Dottie. Burr’s latest plot is to take over the nearby military base, so there follows a memorable bit where Phelps broadcasts loud clanging noises to the assembled troops to weed out the Cosmozoids who are posing as humans.

Otherwise the big action is when Burr tries to activate the real Burr’s maser, which is in the bowels of the clinic, ultimately blowing the place up. The novel features a super weird ending where people Jim thought were friends turn out to be Cosmozoids in disguise, but it’s all handled so clumsily that it lacks much impact. Which, come to think of it, is why the introduction of the Cosmozoids’s gelatinous nature does have impact – it’s delivered in the same deadpan, meat-and-potatoes vibe as the rest of the novel, despite the grotesque nature of it all.

Tralins did some other books, among them a sci-fi paperback for Pinnacle, Android Armageddon (1974), and I can only wonder if any of them are as campy as The Cosmozoids. And while it’s good camp, I’ve found it’s much more entertaining to watch a campy movie than read a campy book, especially if said movie is being riffed on MST3K (classic MST3K, that is; the reboot on Netflix has replaced riffing with virtue-signaling and annoys more than it entertains).