Monday, January 29, 2018

The Butcher #6: Kill Time

The Butcher #6: Kill Time, by Stuart Jason
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

The sixth volume of The Butcher follows the same template as the previous five, once again courtesy James “Stuart Jason” Dockery, whose bizarre writing style is impossible to miss. I’d love to know more about this guy, but information seems less than scant. I also wish he’d been a bit more experimental in his Butcher manuscripts instead of turning in the same story, again and again.

This one offers a few new quirks: for one, we learn in a prologue the history of our godlike hero, Bucher, nee “the Butcher,” and currently “Iceman” for the top-secret intelligence agency White Hat. He was deposited as a newborn on the steps outside a church in Knoxville; Reverend Isham Green, a roaring drunk, happened to be reading a book on Church notables when the government clerk came by to name the baby, and the book happened to be on the page about Bucher, a famous 16th Century botanist or somesuch. The reverend was too drunk to realize he’d just given one name for the child, and the government clerk was too bored – so “Bucher” it was, and nothing more.

When he was a young boy Bucher ran away from the orphanage and ended up in Chicago, where he befriended the son of Tino Oragio, a kid Bucher’s age who was dying of leukemia and who looked upon Bucher as his brother. Tino Oragio meanwhile was the head of a newly-formed crime syndicate. When the boy died Bucher basically became Tino’s new son, going up in the ranks of the syndicate until he was a bigwig himself. We learn that Tino was gunned down 11 years later, when Bucher was 21, and from there our hero went on to even greater Syndicate heights until he had the famous bout of conscience which resulted in his quitting the Syndicate and eventually becoming an agent for White Hat.

That taken care of, it’s on to the Butcher template as we know it. Bucher’s in New York, on the latest case, and per the norm being hounded by a couple of freakish Syndicate gunners out for the reward on his head. Leading them is Coke Leedoe, a rat-faced ghoul who, in the usual grand guignol-esque vibe of the series, is known for crucifying his victims and flaying off their skin. Dockery actually tries to build up tension here, with Bucher surrounded by six gunners, and wondering if he’ll survive – as if the author thinks those of us who read the previous five volumes don’t understand that Bucher is practically God with a gun.

For once the elderly director of White Hat is on the scene, wielding an EX-M27 experimental machine gun which he doesn’t even use; cagey foreshadowing, as Bucher later uses this very same gun in the climax. Bucher takes out all six gunners before they can even fire, all while the director watches in satisfaction. Strangely, the director insists that Bucher allow the police to arrest him, to avoid more of a mess, so White House can spring him – cue the usual scene of the crusty police flunky getting his mind blown over how he has been ordered to let a notorious criminal like Bucher go scot free. However for once this time we don’t get the “illegal for God to own” bit about Bucher’s silencer.

The director gives Bucher his latest task: to prevent the “Uccidere Ogni” (aka “kill all”) that depraved, sadistic, simian Big Ugo Ugheri is trying to wage between his Syndicate family and the Talaferro family. The mere thought of Ugo makes Bucher have nausea – as usual he knows the guy from his own Syndicate past – and he considers Ugo “the worst of the lot by far.” Anyone who has read any previous volumes knows this is quite a statement. And Ugo truly is a horrific creature, a mass of muscle whose entire body is covered by hair, save for around his eyes; he likes to cage women, make them go insane, and rape them at his whim. But as usual with Dockery, he keeps this monstrous villain off-page until the very end of the book.

Bucher’s job is to find lovely young Theresa Talaferro, who Romeo & Juliet style plans to marry young Mark Ugheri, a union which would end the Uccidere Ogni and unite the families. But Ugo doesn’t want this, and Theresa has disappeared, last seen in familiar Butcher stomping grounds of Atlanta, where she was spotted with immigrants Jose and Francesca Hiacha. Bucher heads there promptly, even thinking back to the events of #1: Kill Quick Or Die and how he broke the local operation of Big Sid Lujac.

Action is infrequent, and follows the usual template: bizarro Syndicate flunkies tail Bucher, try to get the drop on him and collect the bounty, and Bucher summarily disposes of them with his silencered P-38. But Bucher sort of acts the fool in this one, practically falling in love with a woman to the point that his guard, for once, is totally let down. After getting zero info out of Francesca Hiacha, other than seemingly-unconnected info about a leftist anti-American party based out of Guatemala called the Contrados, Bucher ends up running into a young assistant theater director named Gretchen who has a top ten figure (“truly a priceless rarity of her sex”) mixed with a “comically ugly face.” 

Dockery has a grand old time describing how ugly indeed Gretchen is, but she is otherwise lovely and has maintained her schoolgirl crush on Bucher, even keeping a few scrapbooks of his exploits. She insists that Bucher come back to her place to hide out, and as per usual with these stories, Bucher has no leads and thus nothing to do, so he accepts the offer. Also as per usual, Dockery keeps the ensuing sex off-page. Indeed, Dockery is a rarity himself, at least in the world of men’s adventure authors, in that he rarely ever exploits his female characters – there is seldom if ever much salivating detail on “supple breasts” and whatnot, and, at least for me, his material with Bucher’s conquests each volume have almost a clinical feel.

On page 95 we get the expected plot switch – Whte Hat says skip the Ugheri-Talaferro jazz and head to Guatemala, because the big threat now is that Big Ugo got hold of an experimental weaponized fungus, created by Mark Talaferro (who happens to be a biochemist!), and he has sold it to the Contrados (remember them?), who no doubt will use it to destroy the US. Francesca Hiacha informs Bucher that her brother might be involved in this as well, and also if that Bucher goes to Tatzl, Guatemala, headquarters of the Contrados, to watch out for the Kechecotl Indians: notorious headhunters who nonetheless prophecize that a white man will impregnate one of their women with the Kechecotl messiah(!).

So who will be surprised when Bucher, clad in tweed outdoors clothing(!) and armed with C-4 and that EX-M27 gun, runs smack dab into these very same Indians not even an hour outside of Tatzl? But though they surround him, they smile in welcome. Strange shit here, as Bucher meets two captive westerners, each who have been here several years and who consider the place paradise. More goofy but expected stuff: Bucher just so happens to speak ancient Mayan(!) and easily converses with the Indians, who unexpectedly take this as a surefire sign that he is the prophecized one. Meanwhile the native women are described as squat and ugly and Bucher “harbor[s] no inclinations for shagging any of the Kechecotl women.”

Again reflecting on a previous caper – namely, how he found himself in a similar predicament in North Africa with a tribe of warriors in #4: Blood Debt – Bucher repeats history by bluffing his way out of this enforced stud service and putting together a band of warriors. The Indians hate the Contrados, who lurk nearby – but it’s another Dockery fakeout, as when they get there the action’s mostly off-hand as the Contrados are gone, the fungus virus taken with them. And guess where it’s gone? That’s right – back to Atlanta!! Again, it is clear that Bucher is cast in a sort of purgatory, reliving the same events over and over and over – it’s a recurring staple that the climactic events occur in one of the previous locations Bucher visited in his fruitless wanderings. Oh, and the entire Kechecotl subplot is abruptly dropped.

Meanwhile, in yet another recurring element, this volume’s leading lady has appeared as deus ex machina as possible; young Gretchen, who has chartered a plane and come down to Tatzl, due to her love of Bucher. Our hero has more off-page sex with the horrifically ugly but incredibly built babe, only to discover next morning that “Gretchen” is really Theresa Talaferro, who disguised her lovely face with makeup! She professes her love to Bucher, claiming the “Gretchen” scam was a way to avoid her Syndicate family, and also that the marriage to Mark Talaferro was itself a sham, as he plans to marry some Sicilian girl and thus the family war will be averted(!). Despite her young age of 18, she vows to Bucher that she is now “his woman,” like it or not.

The final scene has Bucher staging an assault on the Contrado HQ in Atlanta, where he finally comes face to face with Big Ugo in his room of caged, psychotic beauties – almost a prefigure of TNT #1. The grand guignol vibe continues as Bucher first beats Big Ugo to bloody meat with his brass knuckles, and then the psycho women are accidentally freed, and then they converge on Ugo and eat him. However the biggest shock is this – Theresa Talaferro survives the novel!! I figured it would be a given that she’d turn up in Big Ugo’s lair in the finale, his latest caged victim, but for once Dockery foregoes the usual template and Bucher’s latest bedmate lives through the novel. The last we see of Theresa, she’s in Atlanta and tells Bucher she’ll be waiting for him. We’ll see if she appears or is even mentioned next volume.

I’m on the fence about The Butcher. There’s something I really like about it – the sadistic, whackjob freaks of Dockery’s Syndicate are always fun to read about – but the repetitive nature of the stories kind of sink it. And I always find the stuff with Bucher being hunted more interesting than the latest “spy caper” he’s been sent on. As I’ve mentioned before, what’s most frustrating is that Dockery can write, so you expect more of him when it comes to the plotting. If he’d backed up a bit on the dark comedy and treated it all slightly more seriously, I think he would’ve had the best Pinnacle series of them all. But instead he’s content to basically write the same tale over and over again, which ultimately means that taking long breaks between volumes makes for the best Butcher reading experience.

Here’s the last paragraph:

With no little effort Bucher made himself look over the big room once more then he turned tiredly from the gory scene. Wearily he made his way toward the door through which he had entered, the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong in his mouth.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Logan's World (Logan's Run #2)

Logan's World, by William F. Nolan
December, 1977  Bantam Books

Ten years after Logan’s Run, William Nolan returned to the character he had created in July, 1963 (per the Author’s Afterward of this book); this time he wrote the book without a co-author, and picked up hero Logan 3’s life ten years after the events of the previous book. My assumption was Nolan was trying to catch fire, what with Logan’s Run the film coming out the year before and Logan’s Run the TV series (which was very short lived) coming out the same year as this book. But it does not appear that Logan’s World resonated as strongly as its predecessor did.

The original book was almost two halves; the first was about Logan in his psychedelicized future world, playing Sandman and slowly gaining a conscience. The second half was a series of mostly disconnected adventures, with Logan and new “pairmate” Jessica 6 running around their strange post-nuke world, being chased by other Sandmen and encountering a host of bizarre “outcasts,” all of whom wanted to kill them. Of the two halves, I vastly preferred the first, even more so in the film version, which as I stated in my review I also preferred to the source novel. So you can imagine my dismay that, for the most part, Logan’s World follows the vibe of the second half of Logan’s Run, with Logan running around a post-nuke Earth and encountering a variety of bizarre “outcasts” and former Sandmen, all of whom are out for his blood.

Nolan has published many, many novels, and is well respected in the sci-fi field, but I’m having a hard time connecting with his writing. I’m not the type of reader who needs every little thing spelled out for me, but boy, Nolan really expects his readers to do a lot of heavy lifting. Hardly anything is described, and what is described is done so in the vaguest manner possible. Most characters and items aren’t described at all – for example, Logan spends the first half of the book flying around the country in a “paravane,” and I had no idea what the thing was supposed to look like. But then it seems description would’ve made the book longer, and Nolan appears to have been going for speed, and thus brevity; the novel is filled with single-line paragraphs and in many ways comes off more like an outline than an actual completed novel.

Another hindrance to my enjoyment: the reader can’t help but feel, through the first quarter or so of Logan’s World, that he has missed an earlier sequel. It’s ten years on and all kinds of stuff has happened – Logan and Jessica escaped to the moon colony Argos, where they had a son, Jaq, but over the years the ships bringing the food stopped coming and famine has resulted in most all of Argos being dead, and now Logan and family have come back to Earth, ten years after the last novel, to survive. And six years ago Ballard, the guy who got Logan to the sanctuary of Argos and saved so many others, came down to Earth, destroyed the AI construct “the Thinker,” and thus broke down the entire roboticized civilization of America, sacrificing himself.

But all the above is slowy eked out in the fast-moving narrative, to the point that nothing has any impact. We’re caught up on important things almost in hindsight. For example, we’re told Logan and Jessica have a son, and the next page we’re told he’s already dying of an Earth-borne virus his Argos-raised body has no natural defenses against. For that matter, Jaq has like a line or two in the book, and makes no connection with the reader, and thus his fate, while terrible, doesn’t have the impact it should. We don’t even know for sure what happened to Ballard until midway through. But anyway all the stuff I liked so much about the first half of Logan’s Run is gone; when Ballard killed the Thinker and shut down the mechanisms that ran society, all that stuff like the “hallucimils” and the domed cities and whatnot ceased to be. Indeed, the city people are now known, goofily enough, as “the Wilderness people.”

Logan when we meet him is squatting in an old colonial mansion on the Potomac, fretting over his rapidly-dying son. Logan is not re-introduced to us with much fanfare, however he is consumed with guilt over his Sandman past. There are many scenes throughout where he will flash back or dream about a past Sandman kill, constantly reminding himself that he had no choice at the time. Local Wildnerness People leader Jorath tells Logan that a certain serum could cure young Jaq, but it’s a hot commodity on the black market; Logan will have to venture into the crime-ridden area of “the Arcade” to find any.

So Logan pulls the first of many dumb stunts in the novel, plumb leaving Jessica and Jaq to their own defenses, without even a weapon – Logan we learn threw away his own “Gun” (ie his Sandman Gun, always capitilized), and he himself goes into Arcade on his “paravane” with nothing to defend himself. Right on cue, a gang of “outcasts,” dressed in lace and Florentine styles and dubbing themselves “the Borgias” move in on the colonial mansion, abduct Jessica, kill Jaq (the cardinal pulp rule broken in like the first twenty pages – ie a kid is killed), and make off with their booty. We will later learn that Jessica is repeatedly raped and gang-raped and even lez-raped, given Borgia leader Lucrezia’s sapphic impulses. Gee, I wonder why this one wasn’t made into a movie, too?

Logan, after being chased by various thugs, gets the serum, only to get back home and find the corpse of his son. A harrowing moment, but one that is ruined by the terse, outline-esque treatment the novel receives. Worse yet, Logan hardly even reflects over the boy, and when he does occasionally think of him, it is to fuel his rage. Folks, my son turns a year old tomorrow, and if something God forbid were to happen to him, I don’t think I’d be capable of rushing into action for revenge, at least not as promptly as Logan does. I mean, you’d think the dude would be just a little upset. But then Logan is just a cipher, really. He’s out for blood and wants to get Jessica back, too. So he does what any other former Sandman would do, finds an old Runner named Andar who happens to be a seer, and who looks into his mind and tells Logan that Jessica has been taken to the Florida Keys!

Nolan also isn’t much for paying off on reader expectations; we want to see Lucrezia and her sadistic underlings pay, and pay bloodily. But when Logan sows his vengeance, wielding a newly-acquired Sandman Gun and blasting away with undescribed rounds like “Flamers” and “Rippers,” it’s merely rendered as: “It was over very quickly. In a pain-blurred rage, Logan killed them all.” That’s it, folks. I mean, I would’ve liked to have seen a few “Rippers” to the crotches of the rapists, and maybe some special torment for the bastard who killed Jaq. But it’s this very outline-esque vibe that undermines the novel throughout. Oh, and Lucrezia, before meeting her own quickly-rendered fate, informs Logan that Jessica is dead.

Well, we’re not even a quarter of a way through the novel yet, so that’s not good – I mean Logan’s already lost his wife and his kid. So eventually he hits on the idea of dosing himself with R-11, a drug that, in the old days, was used in special “Re-Live” parlors. R-11 allows users to re-live their lives, but the parlors gave exact doses that allowed specific moments to be re-lived; Logan wants to take a heroic dose and lose himself in the past, forever. He has to go all the way to “the New York Complex” to find any of the expensive and rare stuff; it’s in the hands of a woman named Lacy 14, who runs a black market empire from a building that still functions, given that it was not connected to the Thinker in the old days and thus didn’t shut down when Ballard destroyed the AI.

The novel is a bit more spicy than its predecessor, not that we get much detail or anything – Logan just gets laid a lot more. Lacy’s demanded “payment” for the R-11 is to watch Logan screw two sexy black women; Logan decides, what the hell, to “lose himself in flesh” and complies. The act happens off-page. In return, Lacy gives Logan a “full dex” of the drug, as well as a room to occupy for his trip. The novel takes a psychedelic turn as we get fractured moments from Logan’s past, presented wily-nily, from his childhood to his Sandman days to finally his time with Jessica and Jaq. But meanwhile Lacy has decided to kill Logan for his Gun (not sure why she can’t just take it, as he’s comatose from the drug), and poisons the room.

Logan’s ass is saved by the telepathic aid of Dia, beautiful blonde daughter of Andor. He gets his Gun, maybe kills Lacy (he shoots her with a “Tangler,” which I guess is maybe a net?), and escapes. But the reader questions why Logan even wants to live. His goal with R-11 was to escape this horrible new world without his wife and kid, and to live in the past. So why should he be concerned he’s going to die? Actually, he would die while in the re-live grip of the R-11, ie with his family again, so wouldn’t death be exactly what he’d want at that moment? But Nolan hopes the reader won’t think of this.

Instead, Logan goes and lives in a coral castle along the sea with Dia and her equally-beautiful sister. I mean why not?? More off-page sex for Logan, who is so consumed with the telepathic women that he’s about to give in to their requests that he deny his actual sight and join them in full telepathy, blinding himself via a large mirror(!?). Once again someone shows up just in the nick of time to save Logan’s ass; Wildnerness leader Jorath, who brings word that Jessica is alive, after all. Lucrezia Borgia was lying, in a vain attempt to save her life.

The final quarter of the novel is comprised of Logan freeing Jessica from the grip of Gant, a former Sandman who has gathered together an army of former Sandmen, all of whom still hate Logan for his treachery in the first book. And Gant, we’re told, has long been Logan’s archenemy. Gant might be black; I’m not sure, again due to Nolan’s vague descriptions, which merely inform us that Gant is almost seven feet tall and has “dark, burnished skin,” whatever that means. He also has replaced his teeth with rubies. He makes his base on Crazy Horse mountain, in the Dakotas, a familiar setting from the previous book, as here was the home of the Thinker, which sprawled across entire acres. Now Gant is repairing the computer with the intent of taking over the world anew.

Meanwhile he has purchased Jessica, from Lucrezia Borgia of course, and uses her to taunt Logan. Our hero again comes off poorly, captured promptly and thrust into a “stormroom,” where he is battered by artifcially-controlled elements to the point of insanity and incontinence. Gant tosses the near-vegetable Logan into a cave with Jessica, who tends to him, and periodically shows up to force Jessica to whip Logan for his amusement. Weird, wild stuff, as my man Johnny Carson would say. 

But Logan’s saved again, this time courtesy Mary-Mary, a teen girl who apparently once met Jessica, back when the City was still alive. She’s part of a resistance movement dedicated to stopping Gant. The finale sees an incredibly drawn-out sequence in which a healed Logan marshals a strike force against Gant’s men, with the intent of destroying the Thinker (again). Meanwhile various characters are captured anew, forcing periodic rescue attempts. The finale goes down as expected, with Gant’s plot foiled and the Thinker again destroyed – blown up real good.

“I intend to keep [Logan] running for a long time to come!” Nolan assures us in the Author’s Afterward, but as it turns out, only one more novel was forthcoming: Logan’s Search, in 1980. Perhaps the failure of the TV series, coupled with the failure of this novel to attain the fame of its predecessor, soured him on the idea of doing much more.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Marksman #15: Die Killer Die!

The Marksman #15: Die Killer Die!, by Frank Scarpetta
February, 1975  Belmont-Tower Books

Russell Smith takes The Marksman back to France, one year after the events of #9: Body Count. Anyone expecting a continnuation of that storyline, which was unceremoniously and inexplicably dropped, will of course be disappointed. But then anyone hoping for such things has come to the wrong series. As ever Smith is more concerned with documenting “hero” Philip Magellan’s sadism, in what proves to be the exact same story outline Smith has used in all his previous Marksman books.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why Magellan’s even in France this time; early on it’s hinted that he was “lured” here for some reason, but I don’t think Smith ever gets around to stating what it is. And there’s no mention of the previous year’s French adventure, other than a couple arbitrary parts where Magellan reflects to himself that he was here a year ago. But despite what I know about this grungy series – namely, that these books were probably pounded out over the course of a single coke-fueled weekend – I still sorta hoped for at least some callback to that earlier French excursion…you know, like at least how the hell it ended.

But Russell Smith has a template and he’s sticking to it, so there’s no time for any of that stuff. I’ve mentioned before how James Dockery’s The Butcher is based on a strict template, each installment basically a rewrite of the one that came before. Russell Smith’s volumes of The Marskman (including of course those that were transformed into Sharpshooter novels) are the same. Each volume follows the same outline – Magellan goes somewhere new, we get lots of dithering among the mobsters he’s come here to kill; Magellan will stay at a hotel, and coincidence be damned the very same mobsters are staying there too; Magellan will murder a bunch of mobsters, usually while they’re using the restroom; Magellan will pick up a floozy, who may or may not be a traitor. The end – if we get an actual end – will feature Magellan summarily shooting everyone or blowing them up. 

So for Die Killer Die! (lord knows who that’s supposed to be on Bob Larkin’s awesome cover – surely not Magellan??), Magellan is in France, and he’s being hunted by Santi Visalli, a “creeply evil-looking mobster” who tries to blow Magellan up on the train to Monte Carlo. Smith plays some narrative tricks with time, having Magellan escape the attempt and then backtracking to show how he boarded the train in the first place. But from here the story branches off into the usual detorus and digressions we expect.

For one, there’s this hazy backstory that, back in New York, Magellan bought traveller’s checks from pretty Ana Regio, checks which turned out to be counterfeit. He also at some point hooked up with a pretty gal with “delicious breasts” named Dominique, looking forward to lots of sex with her here in France – one of the few times Smith’s otherwise-robotic Magellan has actually displayed a libido. But poor old Magellan is crestfallen when he spies not only Anna Regio but Dominique herself consorting with Santi Visalli at the very same hotel Magellan has checked into!

These three are key players in a plot devised by Mafia boss Virginio Tranquili, a bigtime mobster on the European scene; surprisingly, Magellan has never heard of him, and doesn’t even learn about him until late in the novel. As far as Magellan is concerned, his main target here is Santi Visalli, and as usual Smith delivers a few “action scenes” which are comprised of Magellan sneaking up on unsuspecting Mafia soldiers and gunning them down in cold blood. There are however a handful of genuine action scenes in this one, with some of these guys getting off a shot or two of their own before meeting their expected fates.

Magellan meanwhile is all jazzed up about the latest addition to his arsenal: a “new Italian silencer” for his “new Beretta,” which we’re informed is “a modified Luger 8” overall,” whatever the hell that is. This silencer is enthused over throughout the novel – indeed, on the level of the Bucher’s silencer in those Dockery Butcher novels. When Magellan isn’t shooting people he’s doing weird shit, like when he discovers the two girls hanging out with Visali in the hotel courtyard, and immediately breaks into each of their hotel rooms and steals their luggage(!).

Smith without question wrote his novels in a hurry, with no time for pause or reflection, however he continues to dole out some bonkers lines, like this assessment of Magellan’s in regards to the hotel’s maid: “Her mental agility and her physical adroitness was comparable to that of a grammar school dropout.” That’s almost Joseph Rosenberger level weirdness. Then there’s the page-filling, banal dialog that goes on between Tranquili and his underlings, chief among them an Onassis-type dude named Emil Phatir; most of this stuff sounds like try outs for the Jerky Boys, with the focus more on inventive ways of cursing than any actual plot or character development. But this “mobster banter” is part of the Smith template, as are the inordinate, ultimately unimportant backstories he gives us for each of the main villains.

Another Smith Marksman mainstay: our hero begins to systematically drug, strip, and imprison his enemies, this time on a level unseen since Blood Bath. And this time he gets some women, too – both Dominique and Ana, the latter whom Magellan intensely dislikes, given her over-confident and aggressive manner, traits Magellan loathes in a woman. But each gal is drugged, tossed in Magellan’s rented car, and eventually deposited in a cabin of a yacht Magellan rents, nude and chained together – weird shit here when, late in the book, Magellan sees the nude women holding each other for comfort in their sleep, and thinks of it as one of the most “touching displays” he’s ever seen. WTF??

Right on cue Magellan picks up another babe, this one who becomes his accomplice – and he actually has sex with her, though Smith leaves it all off-page. Her name is Alice, and she’s a young American nurse working in the nursery in Magellan’s hotel. This entire subplot is super weird, as Magellan decides to use Alice, subtly letting her know he’s the Marksman, and Alice being all for helping him – they even have a goofy rapport of repeating the same jokes and loading their comments with sexual innuendo. Alice’s nursing skills come in handy when Magellan’s actually hurt, a rarity in a Smith Marksman, shot in the arm during the latest firefight with Visalli’s thugs.

But most of the shootouts are one-sided, and usually at the reader’s expense – not once but a few times, Smith pads out the pages with inordinate setup concering the latest special squad of thugs hired to find and kill Magellan, and each time Magellan stumbles on them, catching them unawares, and kills them without much fuss. Like the six goons who converge on Magellan’s yacht, only to be sniped from afar on the jetty. Smith continues with his fascination with stories set on or around a body of water, with the climax consisting of Magellan setting off on his yacht, which is now filled with prisoners he has accumulated, Santi Visalli among them.

Magellan summarily dispenses with them in yet another display of his cold-bloodedness; the fate dealt Ana Regio is particularly surprising. Having “already decided her fate,” Magellan takes her up to the deck, tells her to jump off, and when she won’t he shoots her in the heart, having determined that she’s done no good for anyone and has forefeited her right to life(!). The men he merely drowns. As for Dominique, he actually lets her go. And as for Alice, after treating all of this as a game, she apparently sees the true brutality of Magellan in the climax, when he guns down Tranquili and some goons in cold blood, moments after finally meeting them.

But folks, Smith is such a sloppy writer/plotter that he plumb forgets about Santi Visalli. Magellan’s brought him along, using Visalli as bait and also wanting to tease out his assured death, and the last we see of the “creepy” mobster, Magellan’s handcuffed him and thrown him on a couch. Smith never tells us what happens to him! He just has Magellan gun down Tranquili, wave goodbye to a propery-horrified Alice, and then get in his rental car and head out of town.

All of which is to say, Die Killer Die! is just as messy, rough, and wild as all the other Russell Smith Marskman novels. At this point if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all – they only differ in the particulars of Magellan’s sadism. For Russell Smith’s Philip Magellan is a complete whackjob, one that even the mobsters fear; or, as Santi Visalli so memorably puts it, “Only a beast like Magellan would murder a man while he was vomiting in the toilet.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Phoenix Prime

Phoenix Prime, by Ted White
No month stated, 1966  Lancer Books

Ted White was an editor of various science fiction magazines and, in addition to writing many short stories, published several paperbacks. I’m not sure how well they resonated with the readers of the day, as it seems that many of them only received a single printing, Phoenix Prime being one such example. And perhaps the novel itself provides the reason why – it’s a bit ponderous, self-important, and takes forever to tell a story that proves to be underwhelming and familiar.

Humorously, Phoenix Prime starts off being about one thing before taking a sudden plot change and becoming something else – almost a prefigure of the later Richard Blade series, but without the lurid charm. For White, strangely, wants to play it serious throughout, invoking the novel with a gravitas that comes off as more irritating than compelling. This is particularly strange when you consider that Phoenix Prime is about a superhero-type guy who is thrust into a Conan-esque world. One expects lots of comic book-type fun, but instead one gets lots of ponderous page-filling, including lots of walking in the desert.

I’m not sure when the novel is set. It seems to be the mid ‘60s, as there’s no effort to make it sound like the future; people still listen to transistor radios, there’s no mention of space travel, etc – though World War II is referred to as “long ago” and our hero apparently feels the need to explain what it even was to his girlfriend. But then that could just be the pedantic nature of our hero – and the pretentious tone of the novel itself. (Actually of the decade itself! Friggin’ hippies!!)

Our hero is Maximillian Quest(!), a 23 year-old New Yorker who has never applied himself; while intelligent, he dropped out of school and makes his meager living via various menial jobs. But the novel opens with Max waking with newfound, inexplicable powers – levitation, pyrokinesis, etc. He just plumb wakes up with superpowers, folks. His girlfriend Fran walks in on the latest display of superpowers – “the Human Torch and all that,” and freaks out; Max explains to her his new condition in a rambling dialog that displays the ponderous nature of the entire novel:

“It was like double vision, a second sight. I could turn it on and off. I could make it overlap my normal vision, or supplant it. The funny thing was, I discovered that I could function on my new sense equally well. I could look at the whole room that way, ignoring the minute patterns and seeing the larger ones. In a way, it blended right in with normal sight. I mean, have you ever really looked at things? If you stop just glancing over all the familiar objects, and look at the room as though you’d never seen it before, it can be fascinating. You can make out all sorts of relationships, the rhythms of color, the placement of masses and empty areas, the similarities and clashes in the lines of different furniture – this place is a real hodgepodge – and you can see the whole room as a three-dimensional area, an integrated whole.”

Have I mentioned yet that Max drives a taxi?

Seriously though, Phoenix Prime is so of its time you can almost hear The Jefferson Airplane in the background. Normally I like such things – any era is better than this one – but in this case it comes through most strongly in the pretentious vibe. On the other hand, I suspect I would’ve loved this novel had I read it several years ago, when I was into the hippie literature of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. White hits all those bases, from mentions of The Fantastic Four to Alan Watts. But he appears to want to take this sort of psychedelic superhero concept he’s come up with and treat it seriously, instead of the fast-paced pulp actioner the concept demands.

To put it another way, folks: at one point in Phoenix Prime we get a two-page dissertation on “What is love?”

Anyway, just a few hours after getting these powers, Max discovers that he’s being watched, and then tested in increasingly-dangerous (but pretty humorous) ways: first he’s attacked by a squirrel and some pigeons in Central Park, and later some kid turns momentarily nuts and tries to push him into the path of a train. Max dubs his unsees assailant “The Other,” assuming correctly that someone else has the same powers as Max. He gets confirmation of his theory later that day; a conservative-dressed but nondescript man gets in the back of Max’s taxi and tells Max he is to “renounce his gift” or else suffer the consequences. There isn’t just one “Other,” but a few, and they are evil and do not appreciate the fact that Max intends to use his gift for good.

Max tells ‘im to go to hell, the guy disappears, and later Max finds that, of course, Fran has been kidnapped. The Other had given Max an address in Manhattan, for a law office, and there Max finds a party of the jet-setters in full swing. In one of the novel’s few cool sequences, the Other and his comrade summon Max through a mirror, where they wait for him in some sort of pocket reality. Fran is there, unconscious on a couch. They tell Max they’ve sent her soul into another dimension, and he can follow her there to reclaim it. I guess it’s one way to get rid of the competition. Max takes the challenge, and is promptly zapped away, his body left behind here on Earth.

Now here, at page 54, the novel changes entirely. We’ve spent this first quarter expecting a story of superhero Max taking on the supervillain Others, but instead he’s zapped off to a new planet – a planet where he no longer has his superpowers! Folks this was so goddamn dumb I almost tossed the book, but I didn’t want to damage the awesome Frank Frazetta cover. I mean the entire point of the first 50 pages is rendered moot! Why even bother with the belabored intro of giving your protagonist superpowers, when in reality you just want to write a planetary romance about some guy sent nude and confused onto some alien planet?

But anyway here Phoenix Prime prefigures Andrew Offutt’s Ardor On Aros, only this one’s in third-person and it isn’t as snarky or satirical (however Offutt’s book also had a Frazetta cover, so how’s that for unironic irony??). Finding himself in the middle of a seemingly-neverending desert, Max trudges on…and on…and on. The novel is an uphill climb, as it’s nearly 200 pages of dense narrative, with hardly any dialog or white space – it’s practically all telling instead of showing. Even the action scenes are boring, like when Max is attacked by what he dubs “desert pups,” and later on when he takes on some wolves by a pool – a scene Frazetta captures in his masterful cover painting. 

Max picks up one of the wolves and it becomes his sort-of pet; he calls it “old boy” in what few patches of dialog we get in this turgid section of the book. Again befitting the style of the times, Max at one point drinks the “water” from a cactus even the wolf seems to shy from, and of course it sends him on an arbitrary drug trip which entails him carrying on a coversation with mental projections of Fran and his Other enemies. Eventally Max comes to a city, Ishtarn, and there befriends some desert folk; the tribe leader “gives” him 15 year-old girl Bajra, but Max turns down her offer of sex, as she’s too young. He apparently changes his mind later on, as they engage in some off-page screwing – Max consoling himself that the people of this world, despite their actual age, are of hardier, tougher stuff than the humans of his own world.

The Richard Blade parallels get stronger with a bonkers sequence that has Max and his new desert pals attacked by a tribe of gay desert warriors who put women in harems, using them only for procreation, but look to men for their true sexual delights(!). Bajra’s put in a harem, a development she takes almost casually, and Max himself is harrassed by the desert chieftan who “won” him in battle; Max makes short work of him before he can act on it. From a harem girl Max learns that Fran, for whom he’s been searching in vain, was briefly in the harem as well, and was the favorite of Rassandra, ruler of these desert warriors.

But when Max catches up with Fran, he finds that she’s already gone – through a “matter transmitter” that took her to another world! It’s like this from now on in Phoenix Prime, almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon, Max eternally just missing Fran. Anyway he steps through the portal and finds himself in another part of this world, which is called Qanar; this new place is an island kingdom, and the matter transmitter is used by a “sorcerress” who herself is from a different place – actually a different era, as she’s from this world, just not this age. Through her Max learns the transmitter creates a “local anomaly” in the space-time continuum which lets him, at much explanation, retain the use of those superpowers he had back on Earth, but here he draws the power from within himself and thus quickly tires.

Oh, and Fran’s no longer here, either – just missed her! But Max uses the machine to somehow track Fran, and gradually locates her in another place, one called Qar. After a fight with some Robin Hood-esque outlaws, Max frees Fran, who casually informs him, “I’ve been raped a number of times,” as if she were telling him the hour of the day. But hey, at least they’re together again. One problem, though: Max, the dumbass, only now figures out that the Others, back home, have destroyed his body, so he has no body to return to! So they continue with the ‘60s tenor of the novel and merge together into Fran’s body, voyaging back into the dimension of Earth.

Now Max-Fran wreak their vengeance on the two Others…and White, for reasons unknown, keeps the vengeance off-page. He keeps it off-page!! Instead we are informed the two Others have themselves been cast into Qanar. Now, vengeance sated, Max takes his leave of Frank’s body, having become a “phantom;” indeed, the “next step in human evolution.” He don’t need no stinkin’ body, folks. No, he’s gonna venture on into the infinite, to probe and think and whatnot, and he leaves Fran to her own devices – and meanwhile we learn that, during her own time on Qanar, her comatose body here on Earth was repeatedly raped by paying clientelle. She takes this raping just as casually as the raping she endured on Qanar.

White published two more novels that take place on Qanar, The Sorceress Of Qar and Star Wolf!, but I don’t think I’ll seek them out.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Butler #2: Smart Bombs

Butler #2: Smart Bombs, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

I was kind of lukewarm on the first volume of Butler, that leftist, late ‘70s take on James Bond courtesy Len Levinson (aka “Philip Kirk”). I enjoyed it, but I felt that the tone was inconsistent, unsure if it wanted to be a straight spy thriller or more of a light comedy. Also, the random left-wing diatribes were a bit jarring. I’m happy to report though that I really enjoyed this second volume, which not only dispenses with the diatribes but also sticks to a consistent tone. Plus it has the memorable characterization and witty dialog we’ve come to expect from Len.

It’s a few months after The Hydra Conspiracy, and when we meet up with him again, Butler (age 32, and as ever no first name given) is on a submarine in the Baltic sea, about to extract a Soviet defector. The defector claims to have the plans to a new bomb-guidance disruption system the Russians have developed, something that could upset the global power balance. Butler’s agency the Bancroft Insititute is dedicated to ensuring the world balance stays intact; whereas the regular spy hero would want to get the plans for the betterment of his or her country, Butler’s task is to get the plans so the Bancroft Institute can release them to all countries, so everyone has this new technology and one country won’t have superiority over the others.

Butler is undaunted by the physical demands ahead, as he bench presses 260 lbs (his “pectoral muscles nearly as big as pineapples”) and he “jog[s] like everybody else these days.” While he’s suited up for any potential trouble, as always relying on his .45 automatic, Butler doesn’t get in any scrapes. However his target, Dr. Kahlovka, is not on the beach. Instead, a pretty young Russian woman who claims to be his daughter, Natalia, is there. A stacked blonde, Natalia claims that her dad was captured by the KGB, but she escaped. With reservations, Butler takes her back to the sub – and here Len engages in a little of the in-jokery we saw back in the first volume, which featured a character named “Levinson.” This time we’re informed a crew member on the sub is named “Lt. Jordan,” which no doubt is a reference to Len’s pseudonym Leonard Jordan.

While Butler doesn’t trust Natalia, even when she passes the “infallible” lie-detector of the Bancroft Institute, he doesn’t waste much time getting into her pants – and she’s eager to comply after a strip search Butler gives her, in one of the book’s funniest sequences. The back copy of the book is headlined “SEXPIONAGE,” and Len does his best throughout to live up to it. Posthaste Butler and Natalia are getting it on in explicit fashion, though as ever couched in those somewhat-goofy terms and phrases Len used in the first volume, ie: “[Natalia] rubbed her little garden against his stiffening phallus.”

Butler gets a lot of action in this one; after dropping off Natalia at the local Bancroft office in Sweden, he gets it on with a pair of French babes, though Len leaves this one off-page. Back at the Sweden office, Butler is informed by the never-seen CEO of Bancroft, Sheffield, that this whole smart bomb technology, which scrambles the lasers that guide missiles, needs to be taken from the Russians, as soon as possible, and disseminated to other countries. So Butler’s going to have to go into Moscow (that is, if he doesn’t mind – Bancroft is a pretty easygoing spy institute). He doesn’t speak Russian, and he’s never been there, but he’s the most experienced field operative in Bancroft. Sheffield informs him that young Natalia will be going along with him.

This concerns Butler as it is becoming more apparent that Natalia, barely into her 20s, is falling in love with Butler. This doesn’t prevent him from engaging her in more XXX-rated shenanigans. After some training in Russian, Butler, disguised as a deaf mute peasant, ventures with Natalia into “the tractless space that was Russia.” In Moscow they meet their contact, an undercover Bancroft member who works in the munitions factory. Her name is Sonia and of course she’s a stacked beauty, but she is, much to Butler’s dismay, a lesbian. Even more alarming surprises ensue, when it turns out Natalia is in fact a KGB spy, and has led Butler and Sonia into a trap.

The goofy tone of the series is displayed as Butler endures the most easygoing interrogation you’ll ever read in a spy novel; mostly he just keeps bragging “I made you come” to Natalia, now revealed as a total KGB goon, one who keeps insisting to her comrade that Butler did not make her come, and that in fact she hated his every touch. Thanks to a laser pen that could’ve come out of one of the Roger Moore Bond movies, Butler is able to free himself and Sonia, though again the whole thing is so goofy…Natalia and her comrade don’t even take the pen from Butler when they catch him, and they naively fall for his request that he use his own pen to sign the confession letter they have prepared for him. Len does prove though that he’ll kill off characters without warning – I expected there would be more to come from Natalia, but that’s all she wrote for the character (so to speak). 

There’s a lot of funny stuff between Butler and Sonia, with Butler constantly hassling her for sex – even begging her at one point to close her eyes and think Butler’s probing fingers belong to a sexy actress! And mind you all this occurs while they’re running and hiding from the KGB. Butler has made a bet with Sonia that, if he gets them to safety, she’ll have to have sex with him, but curiously Len drops this subplot, even though Butler succeeds in getting them both – plus a Soviet bigwig and his mistress – into the US embassy. (A hilarious scene which has the bigwig debating on the embassy steps if he should emigrate to the US, and when he does so, bounding up the stairs and calling down to his former comrades: “I’m going to Disneyland!”)

Butler heads back to DC, Sonia now gone from the book – Butler later on mutters to himself how you can never trust women, using Sonia’s lack of screwing him, even though she’d said she would, as evidence. Instead we get walk-ons from various returning characters, among them FJ Shankham, Butler’s former boss at the CIA, still as duplicitous as ever – Butler catches him out on the balcony of his hotel room one night, recording Butler while he’s having sex with his ex-wife. This is Brenda Day, a promiscuous jet-setter now married to some government VIP. Butler runs into her at a restaurant and talks his way into her pants, as well, in another XXX sequence.

The smart bomb stuff isn’t done yet, though; Butler still needs to destroy the technology. The gizmos are built in Syria, and Bancroft sets Butler up with Farouk Moussa, a former professor turned Bancroft agent, and the sexy Wilma B. Willoughby, returning from the previous volume. And speaking of which, I just re-read my review of The Hydra Conspiracy, and in it I failed to clarify something; Wilma provided Butler’s entrance into Bancroft by staging her own murder. I forgot to clarify that Wilma wasn’t actually dead in my review of the first book. But she and Butler have a fiery relationship, mostly because Wilma refused to have sex with him; with reservations Butler agrees to have her on the mission into Syria.

Wilma is “a cute little bitch if ever there was one,” and her spats with Butler are another of the book’s highlights; a weary Farouk immediately figures out there’s something beneath the surface between these two and recommends they just screw and get it over with. There’s an interesting bit here where Len has Butler, Wilma, and Farouk – ie the Westerners – strap plastic explosives on their persons and sneak into Syrian – ie Muslim – territory. Almost a bizarro-world parallel of the current day. Some things are sadly the same, though; the trio slip through war-torn Beirut, Len documenting the hellish surroundings, with corpses of men, women, and children everywhere.

Humorously, Len sets up the mission into the Syrian munitions plant, with Butler and comrades in black and ready to take on the Russians there – meanwhile Wilma has honey-trapped a scientist that works in the place, so they can get the blueprints of the place via a Bancroft truth serum. But when they get inside the factory, they encounter no resistance and in fact find a team of Israeli commandos already on the scene, taking their own photos of the smart bomb tech plans. Rather, Len goes a different direction for the novel’s climax – that long-delayed Butler-Wilma banging.

“Hate me in the morning, but love me tonight. That’s my motto,” Butler tells an initially-skittish Wilma, in what is the novel’s most memorable and quotable line of dialog. Wilma you see wants to bang Butler as well, but resists due to his priggishness; he successfully gets her to slip into bed with him here in this slummy Syrian hotel, as they’ve checked in as a married couple (Wilma can speak the lingo here, while Butler can’t), and the security guards are known to randomly check rooms to ensure guests are really who they claim to be. But as Wilma suspects, Butler’s ulterior motive is to get Wilma in bed and have his way with her.

Folks, the ensuing boff runs for 11 pages, and is possibly the most explicit sex scene I’ve yet read in Len’s oeveure, complete with thorough descriptions of Butler getting Wilma worked up to the boiling point and screwing her silly – after which Wilma immediately starts the proceedings anew. The two go at it all night, but next day Wilma, while being debriefed in Bancroft’s Syrian office, requests that she never again be put on an assignment with Butler. She refuses to look at him and storms off, leaving both Butler and the reader confused – this after Wilma has sworn to Butler, during that night of nonstop sin, that she wants to go stay with him in some remote cabin for a week or two. Methinks Len is working up a long-simmer romance between these two characters, but time will tell.

All of which is to say I really liked Smart Bombs. Len finds the right vibe throughout; while it’s funny, it’s never a goofy satire a la The Destroyer, where nothing is taken seriously. Butler worries about his safety – a bit more so than the typical men’s adventure protagonist, in fact – and the stakes are always life and death. But it’s all delivered with the goofy charm we know and expect from Len, with characters trading quips and philosophical asides while hiding from jackbooted KGB thugs. I liked this one a lot more than its predecessor, and look forward to reading more of Butler.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Venus On The Half-Shell

Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout
February, 1975  Dell Books

I think this is maybe the third time I’ve read Venus On The Half-Shell, which as is now commonly known was really written by Philip Jose Farmer, posing as fictional author Kilgore Trout. The story of this has been told too many times to recount again, but in short in the early ‘70s Farmer found himself empathizing with Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout, a “sad sack” writer of science fiction who appeared in a few of Vonnegut’s novels. Farmer requested permission to do a novel as Trout, and after a bit of dithering with Vonnegut, permission was granted.

In 1988 Venus On The Half-Shell was reprinted by Bantam Spectra, this time under Farmer’s own name. In an intro he explains that he chose this story as the one to write because it was the only Trout novel (at that time) that wasn’t given a plot synopsis by Vonnegut; in the other novels that referred to Kilgore Trout, the plots of his books were expounded upon at length. Given that the only thing Vonnegut stated about Venus On The Half-Shell was a “racy scene” (Trout’s books and stories being published by sleaze outfits), Farmer felt that he’d be able to flex more creative muscle by writing this one.

In 1973 Farmer published a facetious monograph about Trout, “The Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout;” it was collected in the anthology The Book Of Philip Jose Farmer (DAW, 1973). Following the manner of Farmer’s pseudo-histories of Tarzan and the like, the piece discusses Trout as if he were a real author with a real body of work to his name. In it Farmer sums up Trout and his work:

Vonnegut calls Trout a science fiction writer, but he was one only in a special sense. He knew little of science and was indifferent to technical details. Vonnegut claims that most science fiction writers lack a knowledge of science. Perhaps this is so, but Vonnegut, who has a knowledge of science, ignores it in his fiction. Like Trout, he deals in time warps, extrasensory perception, space-flight, robots, and extraterrestrials. The truth is that Trout, like Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and many others, writes parables. These are set in frames which have become called, for no good reason, science fiction. A better generic term would be “future fairy tales.”

[Trout is] miserable, he wrestles with concepts and themes that only a genius could pin to the mat (and very few are geniuses), he feels that he is ignored and despised, he knows that the society in which he is forced to live could be a much better one, and, no matter how gregarious he seems to be, he is a loner, a monad. He may be rich and famous (and some science fiction authors are), but he is essentially that person described in the previous sentence. Millions may admire him, but he knows that the universe is totally unconscious of him and that he is a spark fading out in the blackness of eternity and infinity. But he has an untrammeled imagination, and while his spark is still glowing, he can defeat time and space. His stories are his weapons, and poor as they may be, they are better than none. 

Trout's favorite formula is to describe a hideous society, much like our own, and then, toward the end of the book, outline ways in which the society may be improved.

Farmer faithfully follows this in his own Trout pastiche; however, in the ’88 intro, Farmer states that he didn’t exactly follow the simple, “see Spot run” writing style Vonnegut deployed for his own Trout pastiches. While Farmer’s style in Venus On The Half-Shell is somewhat simple, it doles out a lot of puns and in-jokes, and indeed has a very ‘70s vibe to it. Ironically though, Farmer’s intention is that the book was really published in the ‘60s, but this Dell edition is a revision – to add an extra level to the in-joke irony, the “Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout” piece ends with the announcement that Venus On The Half-Shell will soon be “republished.”

I love the super-‘70s cover on this original Dell paperback (courtesy “Gadino”), but it is a bit misleading; protagonist Simon Wagstaff, aka “The Space Wanderer” (as Vonnegut solely referred to him in his own Venus On The Half-Shell pastiche), does not go around in star-emblazoned shorts, nor at any point does he wear a fishbowl-esque space helmet. Indeed the novel is so juvenile in regards to the science realm that at no point is Simon stated as wearing any sort of oxygen equipment, despite the fact he spends a few millennia traveling around the cosmos. Simon’s constant clothing is instead: black levis, a baggy gray sweatshirt (with the letters “SW” stitched on it at some point), and imitation leather sandals. He does however wear an eyepatch over his left eye, but the event causing this doesn’t happen until late in the novel. This look was faithfully captured on the ’88 reprint, courtesy cover artist Enric – ie, the guy who did the covers for the 1971 reprints of The Secret Of Sinharat and People Of The Talisman:

Re-reading the book this time, the one thing that most struck me is how similar the style here is to that of Len Levinson. Indeed, if Len had ever written a sci-fi novel, it probably would’ve been like this – not concerned with “science,” but more of a humorous, satirical probe into philosophy – a “parable,” as Farmer himself described Trout’s work in that 1973 monograph. But the question that compels Simon to scour the universe is itself simple: Why are we born only to suffer and die? At least, this is just one of the questions Simon constantly asks – what I mean to say is, this isn’t a deep philosophical work. It’s more about Simon visiting a few planets, encountering the repugnant creatures that live there, and noting their sexual proclivities, sometimes joining them in the shenanigans.

Farmer is likely most remembered for introducing hardcore sex to sci-fi. However it should be noted that there’s no actual sex in Venus On The Half-Shell. There’s a lot of focus on it (we’re always informed of each new alien’s sexual apparati, for example), but no actual sordidness. But I don’t think the sex-focus is Farmer being Farmer; rather, I think it’s Farmer providing an extra layer of in-jokery. For, like a regular Ennis Willie, Trout’s work was solely published by disreputable sleaze purveyors, most of whom changed the original title of Trout’s work to something lurid and put photos of nude women on the covers. The “sex” stuff in Farmer’s Venus On The Half-Shell is likely a reference to this, “Trout” smutting up his book to suit the sleazy whims of his publishers.

The novel opens in the year 3069; our hero Simon Wagstaff is getting busy on the head of the Sphinx in Egypt. The goofy tone of the novel is displayed posthaste as a sudden flooding wipes out civilzation (not to mention Simon’s girlfriend) in the span of a few pages. Simon manages to stay afloat on a plastic mummy display case. Along the way he picks up a pair of what will become constant companions: a dog, which he names Anubis, and an owl, which he names Athena. They are the last survivors of the planet Earth; eventually Simon will learn that the planet was wiped out by the Hoonhoors, an alien race that ventures around the cosmos and “cleans” planets that have become too dirty. At this point the reader of today will see that Venus On The Half-Shell was clearly an inspiration for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Simon and his companions come upon a spaceship floating on the water. It’s named the Hwang Ho and is of Chinese make. Simon moves into the empty ship and studies Chinese so he can handle the controls. After an encounter with an old space traveler (who has returned to Earth merely to find out who won a particular ballgame in 2457), Simon takes off into space. His goal is to get to “the Truth” behind reality and life. Instead he’s promptly chased by a Hoonhoor ship, and accidentally slips into a black hole, which takes him into another galaxy. The bizarre tenor of the book is further evidenced by the “69x drive” which powers the Hwang Ho’s engines; the 69x drive channels into the fourth dimension and sucks the life out of the stars there. Thus, passengers on ships traveling at 69x speeds hear a constant, terrible screaming – the victim stars wailing in pain.

The first planet up on the menu is Shaltoon, which is populated by humanoid felines. Here Simon’s “atomic-powered electric banjo” playing is a cause for celebration and he is feted by the native critics; a recurring joke throughout the novel is how Simon’s genius was neglected by Earth’s critics, yet more in-jokery via Farmer. But Shaltoon swarms with the “thick, ropy odor of cat-heat,” as the natives are permanently horny. This is because the Shaltoonians store their ancestors inside their cells, and due to a “rotation” each ancestor gets at least one day every hundred or so years to live again in a body. So all they want to do is screw when it’s their turn. All this is explained via lots of setup and exposition and background material.

Venus On The Half-Shell is one of those satires in which the “comedy” is mostly relayed this way – lots and lots of narrative setup, followed by a quick punchline. As if this weren’t enough, Farmer also handles this via novels within the novel itself. In what is intended as another tribute/reference to Vonnegut, Farmer has Simon Wagstaff often thinking of the novels of his favorite writer, Jonathan Swift Somers III, just as Vonnegut’s character Eliot Rosewater often thought of the novels of his favorite writer, Kilgore Trout. So, we have lots of in-depth plot rundowns (too in-depth, one might say) of various Somers novels and stories, from those concerning his intelligent dog protagonist Ralph von Wau Wau (and Farmer by the way published two Wau Wau stories – as by Jonathan Swift Somers III – in 1975 and 1976), to some about his parapalegic space explorer John Clayter. (Author Spider Robinson so liked Ralph von Wau Wau that the dog has appeared in several of his own novels.)

Simon gets his own taste of that “cat-heat;” invited to a personal meeting with Queen Margaret of Shaltoon, Simon enjoys some (off-page) sex with the lady, and more importantly is served an elixer by her that grants immortality. He shares the drink with Anubis and Athena after some mulling over if it’s right to make animals immortal. But he turns down the queen’s offer to rule beside her and heads off again, eventually landing on another planet: Giffard. This one is a bizarre world with “zeppelin” males that fly and “pyramid” females that graze on the grass. After the sexual functions are duly noted, Simon basically starts a revolution here by encouraging the females to demand their partners allow them some flying time.

More importantly so far as the novel goes, here Simon also meets what will become his other constant companion, though to tell the truth on this reading I discovered she’s less narratively important than I remembered her being: Chworktap, a blonde beauty with a “nice figure” that Simon first glimpses coming nude out of the water – just like the famous Titian painting of the title, though without, “Trout” notes, the clam shell or angels or whatnot. However, the clouds look similar to the painting(!). More time passes as Chworktap moves into the Hwang Ho with Simon and they learn how to speak each other’s language.

Only after they have the expected sex – which again occurs off-page – does Simon learn that Chworktap is…an android! She leaves with Simon when he must escape Gifford, when Simon pisses off the natives with his suggestion on how they manage the male-female discord he caused – a suggestion which ends up with Simon being labelled “Simon the Sodomite” by the angry natives. Next up is the planet Lalorlong, which curiously Chworktap suggests, as the natives there might have the answers Simon seeks, as they have nothing to do but ponder. I say “curiously” because all this is overlooked once they get there and the Lalorlongs turn out to be sentient tires that think of nothing but endlessly circling around the planet. This sequence is middling and plays more on a bunch of “tire” jokes, but caps off with more mulling as Simon puts an injured native out of his misery and wonders later if he should have done so.

Next up is the planet Dokal, which takes up a good portion of the text. Also here Chworktap drops out of the book for a long period, not even going onto the planet with Simon; they have a brief fight, after which Chworktap wants to study the computer that runs the Hwang Ho, as she’s certain it is capable of free thought. However Trout/Farmer completely drops this subplot, never revealing if the ship does or not; either it’s a pure miss on Farmer’s part, or more likely it’s yet another in-joke – playing up Trout’s notoriously sloppy/bad writing.

Dokal is populated by humans with tails, and Simon has a tail attached to his body via surgery, urged to do so by the natives. He goofs off here for a while, once again scoring some off-page sex, and eventually heads off into a no man’s land which is home to the planet’s wisest native. After weeks of hiking Simon finds a castle in which he’s ordered by the gross, obese “wise man” to fatten up – the ultimate intention, of course, to eat Simon. This part sees the only action scene in the novel, as Simon manages to defend himself, but loses his left eye in the process. However this is almost an afterthought and there’s no real pain for Simon; the loss of the eye is more of a minor setback. The novel suffers because Simon and the other characters never ascend beyond cipher status.

The planet Goolgeas is the next stop, and this one takes up nearly as much text as Dokal did. It is however the most irritating section of the novel, as the planet is a satire of litigation run rampant. First Simon gets drunk a lot, as all the human-like natives do is drink all the time, and he lets his pets drink too. But then he’s arrested for letting animals get drunk – Chworktap is arrested as well, after beating up a few cops in an escape attempt. They’re all thrown in prison for trial…and wait decades until it’s their turn, due to how swamped the courts are. Eventually everyone on the planet is in prison for some technicality, and our heroes are finally let go because so much time has passed that a “normal lifespan” has been reached. All told, they spend 130 years in prison.

By this point Chworktap and Simon’s love has run its course, having spent a century living in cramped quarters together. Simon drops her off back at her home planet, and this is a scene I always remember because “Trout” makes it clear that “eternal love” is impossible because people will eventually get sick of each other. We’re close to the end, so “Trout” skips over three thousand years; Simon is now a legend in the cosmos, the “Space Wanderer,” who still seeks the answer to his question. The reader feels a bit cheated, as it turns out the entire book is really just the opening quarter (or less) of Simon Wagstaff’s story.

And once again he’s in prison, arrested on the planet Shonk for covering his genitals but not his face, contrary to native custom. Five years later Simon’s sprung by a Hoonhoor ship; the occupants apologize for their ancestors having destroyed Earth, and to make up for it they send Simon off to the planet of the Clerun-Gowph. A recurring subplot in the book is Simon’s search for these elusive, impossibly ancient beings; in most planets in the galaxies, one will find a massive “candy heart-shaped” structure, planted there billions of years ago by the Clerun-Gowph. Simon’s certain if they are that ancient then they will know all there is to know about life.

The year is now 8,120,006,000 AC (“After Creation”), and the Clerun-Gowphs are massive cockroaches. Their leader is named Bingo and he was one of the first to plant those structures; he actually worked with the Supreme Being, whom he refers to as “It.” Those expecting a probing answer to Simon’s burning question have come to the wrong book; after much goofy back and forth, Bingo’s response to why “It” created life, despite all the suffering that would ensue, is a mere “Why not?”

And here the book ends, Simon trapped forever on this world of cockroaches, as the 69x drives have sucked the life out of the last 4th dimension stars. An unusual thing about Venus On The Half-Shell is that it’s kind of irritating as you read it…you start to want more from the characterization and a little less of the goofy vibe…and yet when you’re finished the book, you sort of miss it! At least that was my experience. I mean it’s not a great book by any means, but there is something indefinable about it that’s enjoyable. Maybe it’s that shaggy ‘70s vibe.

Farmer planned to do more novels as Trout, but this was scrapped by Vonnegut himself, who to tell the truth sounds like a bit of an ass. (Anyone read about how he snubbed MST3K’s Kevin “Tom Servo” Murphy?) It appears that Vonnegut misunderstood a comment some sci-fi scholar stated on a PBS program, about how Farmer was going to write his Kilgore Trout novel whether Vonnegut gave permission or not (which wasn’t the case), and he got ticked off. He was also supposedly angered by all the fan mail he got asking if he’d written the book – some claiming it was his best book ever. Further, Vonnegut prevented a planned animated film of Venus On The Half-Shell which would’ve had music by the Grateful Dead.

But by 1988 it appears Vonnegut had forgotten all about the book; in the Bantam Spectra reprint, Farmer gets a little dig in on Vonnegut, stating that, by the late ‘80s, college-age science fiction fans didn’t even know who Vonnegut was anymore, let alone Kilgore Trout. As mentioned Farmer wrote two stories about smart canine Ralph von Wau Wau, as “Johnathan Swift Somers III;” these were collected in the 2006 Subterreanean Press anthology Pearls From Peoria. I intend to read them someday, mostly because they would thus be a sort of continuation of Venus On The Half-Shell, at least so far as the fictional characters within the book itself go.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Penetrator #31: Oklahoma Firefight

The Penetrator #31: Oklahoma Firefight, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1979  Pinnacle Books

Mark Roberts turns in another installment of The Penetrator, proving again that he’s mostly using the series now as a platform to project his beliefs. Along the way Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin wastes a friggin’ ton of Muslim terrorists who have somehow slipped into the US, posing as employees of a new oil company, gunning them down in action scenes that are almost surreal.

Otherwise The Penetrator continues its downward trend, with a titular hero now such an emasculated, pale reflection of his former self that he doesn’t even get to score with this volume’s babe – though there’s a lot of hand-holding and staring into each other’s eyes. The casual sadism of the earliest volumes is also pretty much gone, as is the brutal charm of the series itself. So I guess you could say the blandness that overtook the ‘70s had overtaken The Penetrator as well.

But it is pretty surreal – there’s this new Arabic oil conglomerate, Al Jihad(!), taking over all the US oil companies. Their goal is to ensure oil interests are only in Arabic, ie Muslim, hands. To this end they want to keep American companies from oil-prospecting even within America itself. So of course they kidnap the daughter of one American holdout, Phelps Lucky Seven, to ensure the complicity of its tough-guy CEO, “Hot Hole” Harry Gorse(!), former oil “wildcatter” turned company executive. As the action opens, the Muslim fiends have sexy young Sheila Gorse in their custody, threatening her bodily harm if Harry doesn’t sign Phelps over to Al Jihad.

Enter Mark Hardin, already on the scene. Posing throughout as “Hulie Crowkiller,” claiming to be a representative of the possibly-mythical “Council of the Good Red Road,” Mark presents himself to fellow “full-blooded Indian” Harry Gorse. Mark lies that “the Council” is interested in this oil business because many of the American oil fields are on Indian land, or somesuch. At any rate this leads to the first of several action scenes, as Mark blasts away a bunch of Jihadists and frees Sheila – who of course instantly falls head over heels for “Hulie,” even though nothing comes of it.

Roberts never wrote for Gold Eagle Books, but it’s interesting that Oklahoma Firefight prefigures the template used by most of that imprint’s series novels. To wit, we have scenes with Mark waging war, and just as many scenes from the point of view of the villains – Arabic terrorists, just as in so many of those Gold Eagle books, who squabble among themselves and worry over what to do about the Penetrator. In this case the main Al Jihadi goon is Ali Hassan, who again is a sad reminder of the oldschool Muslim terrorist, most of whom looked almost like Mister Rogers when compared to the modern Muslim terrorist. Ali you see not only fears death, but is open to negotiation and wants to cement Al Jihadi’s oil rule in as above-the-board means as necessary.

In fact, Mark Hardin comes off as worse than the Jihadis; while they plot and maneuver, the most they do in the book is kidnap Sheila and threaten Harry. Mark meanwhile travels around Oklahoma and Texas and just murders them left and right. He even runs into them by accident, in what makes for some of Roberts’s humorously-convenient plotting; while hunting (and we’re informed the Penetrator isn’t much of a hunter…even though he has hunting licenses in just about every state!?), Mark runs into a roving patrol of Al Jihadis, who take him prisoner, wondering what to do with him. I forgot to mention – the Al Jihadis are also leftists, or at least pretend to be, mostly so they can play to the gullibility of Western leftists (my how times have changed, huh? Oh, wait…). So the leader of this batch sympathizes with Mark, being that Mark’s a Cheyenne Indian, and thus has “also” been exploited by the white rulers of America and whatnot.

Not that this stops Mark from butchering these guys, too, freeing himself by a hidden knife, a new tool in his arsenal which is so built up that it’s almost product-placement on the level of Jerry Ahern. Mark’s escape is damn easy, and it helps that all the Al Jihadi terorists are presented as incredibly stupid and inept. Mark soon captures one of them – a young boy he tortures for info in Sheila’s hotel room, and whose fate Roberts forgets to inform us about. Sheila meanwhile has fallen in love with “Hulie,” and Mark chastises himself that his on-again, off-again girlfriend Joanna Tabler (unseen this volume) would never let him hear the end of it.

The novel is pretty repetitive; both Harry and Sheila are abducted twice each. One of the Harry abductions leads to an actual car chase, one that occurs on the campus of Oral Roberts University – and once again Mark easily rescues his comrade, taking out a bunch of inept Al Jihadi goons in the process. This one features an unintentionally-humorous finale where all the hippie college kids start to take photos of the license plate on Mark’s rented car and he takes off before they can.

Speaking of humor, Roberts is back to his old in-jokery, at least; early on a character refers to “that Camellion fellow,” and a guard at Phelps Lucky Seven is chastised for reading “too many adventure novels.” A later action scene prefigures Die Hard, with Mark alone and surrounded in the Al Jihadi corporate headquarters in Houston. This might be the best of many action scenes in the book, with Mark tearing the place up and making an easy escape thanks to a handy fireman suit he’s brought along with him.

In fact the final quarter is comprised of lightning strikes Mark makes on various Jihadi strongholds in Oklahoma and Texas. There’s also a lot of setup to each of these action scenes, with padding about Mark driving around, talking to locals, asking if they’ve seen any strange new Arab companies opening in the vicinty, etc. Meanwhile Sheila Gorse is caught again, and her fate I admit was a bit surprising, almost casually relayed via Roberts. This incident leads Harry Gorse to whip up his own strike force of Cheyenne warriors – and ultimately he too is caught once again.

The novel does build up to a nice climax, with Mark dishing out bloody payback to Ali Hassan and American traitor Arnold Merritt; but since the Penetrator didn’t get laid by Sheila, Roberts delivers this out-of-nowhere 11th hour reveal that Sheila has a sister, even sexier(!), who works as a model in New York. Oklahoma Firefight ends with the Penetrator about to live up to his title with this particular Ms. Gorse – though per series norm he’s already fretting over his next mission.

Overall this one was okay, a passable time-killer, but I’m hoping the series picks up eventually. It’s never a good sign when the parts I most enjoyed were Roberts’s various diatribes – all of which, mind you, were about things that are sadly as prevalent as ever (the leftist bias of the news, the anti-US bias of the United Nations, etc). Unless of course you’re a fan of those things.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nightmare On Vega 3 (aka Space Probe 6 #2)

Nightmare On Vega 3, by Charles Huntington
No month stated, 1972  Award Books

The Space Probe 6 “series” limps to a close with this second and final volume that appears to have been published at the same time as the first volume. Perhaps Award Books wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. One wonders if producer Lyle Kenyon Engel had more volumes of Space Probe 6 in the pipeline, or if he too realized these two books were probably the worst things he’d ever associated his name with.

Because folks I hate to say it, but Nightmare On Vega 3 is, unbelievably, worse than The Soul Stealers. At least that first volume attempted to be science fiction; once it got out of the sadism and vaguely-described sex, it featured robots and space battles and whatnot. But man, Nightmare On Vega 3 is nothing but sadism and sex (a bit more described, this time), with the sci-fi vibe of the series gone and forgotten.

I’m not sure, but I think this one was written by another author than the first volume. Don’t get me wrong, the style is still clunky and the writing itself is bad, with hardly any description (except, curiously, when it comes to descriptions of the various clubs which are used to beat around our protagonist). If I had to make a guess, given Engel’s writing stable at the time, I’m wondering if Nightare On Vega 3 (and perhaps its predecessor) was written by Arnold Marmor, particularly given the sleaze angle. Marmor wrote a ton of sleaze, and while it wasn’t on display in the one volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster he wrote for Engel (Peking and The Tulip Affair), the same sort of clunky and bad style was on display throughout – in particular when it came to the vagueness of description and the paper-thin characters. 

One thing that makes me suspect this is courtesy a different author is that this one doesn’t seem to know what the hell to do with the series concept; at least The Soul Stealers made clear that Captain Matt Foyt and android Ivan 3-69(M) voyaged around the cosmos aboard Space Probe 6, looking for…something. Actually that part wasn’t made very clear. But at least there was a dymanic between the two, even if they were basically clones of one another (as mentioned, the author proved his lack of imagination with these two not only described as looking similar but also basically acting the same). This author however seems unsure what to do with poor old Ivan, and leaves him off-page for the entire narrative.

Instead, the focus is on getting Matt Foyt onto a planet he dubs “Vega” and having him screw a busty native gal, while at the same time engaging in a plot that is wholly ripped off from The Tenth Victim. One holdover from the previous book is that Matt is not presented as the most capable hero; in the first one he was arrested and spent the majority of the book in jail. In this one he briefly ventures around Vega, a planet he and Ivan come upon after getting sucked into a black hole (man I hate it when that happens); immediately he gets chased by a pterodactyl, falls while running from it – and gets amnesia. Yep folks, he gets amnesia, like right off the bat. (Oh, and he eventually gets put in jail in this one, too!)

As mentioned Ivan is back on the ship, where he stays throughout. Matt’s named this place Vega, and it’s the third planet in this new solar system – methinks, per Engel’s Book Creations Inc. norm, that Engel must’ve come up with the “Vega 3” title and story outline, and the author filled in the blanks. For humorously enough “Vega” turns out in reality to be the planet Alcantarn, thus named by its natives, human-like beings with yellow eyes. So “Vega 3” has nothing to do with anything, as the planet’s referred to as Alcantarn throughout. Matt, after waking up with no memory of Ivan or his still-undescribed Space Probe starship, finds himself in the undescribed city that is apparently the capital of the planet – the author doesn’t really bother with any details.

Rather, “Charles Huntington” wants to get to the sadism, same as last time – as we’ll recall, there were periodic depictions of public torture and extermination in The Soul Stealers, so hell, maybe it’s the same dude writing this crap after all. But Matt discovers these yellow-eyed locals murdering each other in wanton acts of cruelty, and strangely, no one bothers to help the victims. Matt does, though, getting in a couple fights, sticking out like a sore thumb due to his dark hair, eyes, and “blue uniform” (at least this time we learn his uniform is blue). But the action scenes are woefully inept: “The crunch of nose bone and a muffled yell from the fellow was heard, and he fell backwards.” Folks, when writing an action scene, don’t ever use phrases like “was heard.” Or describe your protagonist’s opponent as “the fellow.”

After beating up a few random would-be murderers, Matt next stumbles upon some guy trying to torch a friggin’ school. From the conflagration he saves the pretty, busty teacher – her name is Ryana, she’s a redheaded beauty, and she takes Matt back to her place. She explains that on this planet one can buy a license to do anything; given the levels of corruption, if you can pay the government to do something, no matter how horrific what you want to do is, they’ll let you do it. (Boy, sounds like a certain political party run amok – talk about “pay for play!”) So if you want to torch a friggin’ school building filled with kids, you can do it, as long as you can pay for it. And no one can stop you, unless they have a license to do so. However if you are the “victim” being “hunted,” you do have the legal right to defend yourself. (I wonder if Robert Sheckley was aware he was being ripped off?)

Actually the author isn’t just ripping off The Tenth Victim; he also rips off Logan’s Run, at least briefly. For Alcantarn also has an enforced termination once you reach a certain age, and guess what – Ryana’s mom has hit the age. What’s more, she’s due for extermination in a day or two, so how’s that for convenient plotting. Matt beats up the government thugs who come to collect her, then kills them with his DSA pistol, which as we’ll recall disintigrates people. Meanwhile the government thugs have batons (curiously overdescribed by the author, as are the clubs used in the previous street fights Matt gets in with would-be murderers – let’s’ all say “hmmm”), as well as guns called Tempistols that can freeze or enflame. It’s stupid.

Even more stupid, but hilariously so, is that Ryana’s friggin’ mom stumbles out of her room just in time to get blasted by a freeze ray, turns into a statue of ice, topples over, and her head smashes off!! Well, so much for Ryana’s mom. Matt “cleans up” Ryana’s apartment so no one will know there’s been a fight here, Ryana mourns her mom for a hot second – “It was her time to die soon anyway,” being her outlook on the sad situation – and then Matt and Ryana get down to the serious business of screwing:

Matt moved onto the girl decisively and thrust his manhood into her; he thrust it hard and deep, and a second gasp escaped her lips, this one more audible. 

“Ohhh!” she moaned. 

Matt thrust deeply and stayed there. And then it began happening. Her interior muscles began moving rhythmically all along him. The motion increased in intensity, and then something else deep inside her was caressing the most extreme part of him. In moments she was driving him crazy with the internal manipulation and caresses. 

She saw his face. “Now,” she gasped. “Now ravage me!”

Well, now! It goes on for a bit, and the two get along so famously that, I kid you not, practically every scene ends with them rushing back to Ryana’s place for another somewhat-explicit sexual excursion. But that isn’t even the funniest part – Matt gets his memory back thanks to Ryana’s incredible skills in the sack! So now Matt remembers he’s on some still unspecified mission and even has a spaceship nearby, complete with an obedient android best bud who is no doubt waiting frantically (or at least as frantically as an android can wait) for word from Matt.

So what does Matt do? He dials up Ivan on his handy belt communicator and tells the android to hang on for a bit. Why? So “Charles Huntington” can get back to more sin and sadism. Ryana’s got a brother who was banned from society for goofy reasons, and she wants to visit him with his fellow outcasts in the cemetery they’re hiding in. Matt goes along, and on the way out of the place they’re nearly caught by a trio of hunters who go after outcasts for sport. Ryana’s nearly raped, the author going full-bore with this particular grimy angle.

This is just the start of Ryana’s problems: first her mom buys it in spectacular fashion, then she’s almost raped, and now an old flame named Megnus shows up – and displays the license he’s just purchased which grants him the right to murder her! This sadly proves to be the plot of the remainder of the book; Megnus, a wealthy sadist, makes periodic attempts on Ryana’s life, Matt saving her each time. Our dumbass hero tries again and again to plead for Ryana’s life, trying to talk “sense” into Megnus before finally realizing he will need to kill him. Matt even visits the local government offices to try to get the whole thing called off. He proves himself a complete buffoon.

Not that this stops Matt and Ryana from screwin’ as often as possible. Each time we get reminders of those “internal manipulation” skills of Ryana’s; Matt thinks to himself that there can be no better lay in the entire galaxy! So you’d think he’d be a bit more determined to protect the poor girl from harm. But Matt is a buffoon, remember, and after dinner one night Ryana is abducted by some men Megnus has hired – and when Matt finally tracks her down to the abandoned warehouse where she’s been taken, he finds that Ryana’s already dead, her head crushed by Megnus.

I actually found this upsetting, which is more than can be said for Matt himself, who after a second of remorse finally gets hold of Megnus and puts him to death in one of Megnus’s own torture devices. I forgot to mention, but part of the uncountable annoyances in Nightmare On Vega 3 is that Megnus constantly escapes Matt in all the prior action scenes; he’ll make an attempted hit on Ryana’s life, Matt will stop it, Matt will then pursue Megnus, but Matt will lose him in some contrived fashion. This happens many, many times. So you’d think the author would let us relish Megnus’s long-demanded comeuppance a bit more. But nope – don’t forget, this author sucks, and he is incapable of delivering on any expectations. Except of course the expectation that his work will suck. He doesn’t disappoint on that one.

But since the book isn’t dumb enough yet, Matt’s arrested due to his various infringements upon the law, and he’s thrown into prison. There is no reflection on his part that he spent the previous book in prison. He’s to be exterminated publically as an example, and the natives gather in an excited throng. Here comes Ivan to the rescue, finally showing up in the text, skimming over the crowd in a flyer and dousing them with poisonous gas. Matt manages to escape, tells Ivan thanks, and doesn’t regret murdering all these bloodthirsty Alcantarns. Now the two of them head on back to Space Probe 6 to get back to that game of chess they were playing before the black hole interrupted them(!).

And that’s it for Nightmare On Vega 3, which truly was a nightmare, but I have to admit there was a clunky charm to it. I mean any book where an old lady’s frozen head shatters can’t be all bad. And the frequent Matt-Ryana bangings also had their own sleazy charm. But otherwise this was a bad book, and Space Probe 6 was a bad series. There is one mystery, though – namely, the cover art clearly seems to have been intended for the first volume, which did feature scenes of Matt Foyt blowing the heads off androids. No such scenes occur in Nightmare On Vega 3, so who knows what happened, there.