Monday, February 26, 2018

Yolanda: The Girl From Erosphere (Yolanda #1)

Yolanda: The Girl From Erosphere, by Dominique Verseau
May, 1975  Grove Press
(Original French publication, 1972)

This is one of those books I’ve wanted to read for a long time, but it was always exorbitantly priced. But, in one of those random flukes, I recently came across it at a jawdroppingly low price – pretty much the exact same thing that happened, years back, with another book I hunted for: Jackboot Girls. Anyway, enough preamble – Yolanda: The Girl From Erosphere is an English translation of a French sci-fi sleaze novel from 1972. “Dominique Verseau” was in reality prolific pulp writer Henri Rene Guieu.

A curious thing about this book is that it is packaged identically to a Dell paperback of the day, even down to the blue tippings on the pages. Was Grove Press a subline of Dell? I don’t think it was, but Yolanda looks just like a Dell book. Another curious thing is that no info is presented about the French provenance of this novel, when it was originally published, who Dominique Versea was, etc. About the only thing we get is a blurb on the very last page that another Yolanda novel, The Slaves Of Space, would be forthcoming from Grove. It came out in 1976, and that one is so astronomically priced on the used books marketplace that it’s not even worth thinking about tracking down.

Not that this is something to lose sleep over, as if it’s anything like this first volume, I can already guess what the contents will be – endless hardcore screwing, with occasional references to French poets, Classical literature, or philosophy. I was hoping for a Barbarella-esque softcore space yarn, but instead The Girl From Erosphere is pretty much all about the sex. In this regard it’s similar to another sci-fi sleaze yarn of the day, The Moonlovers. Like that novel, this one also has a humorous tone about it; not an outright parody or satire, but just a lighthearted romp about an oversexed four-person crew on the first voyage into hyperspace.

It’s the sexually-liberated future of 2107, and our heroine is Yolanda Hammerlove, a gorgeous, phenomenally-built blonde who works as a “sexologist.” In reality Yolanda mostly just sexually-bullies people throughout the novel. We only get vague setup about this future world, mostly that men and women now hardly wear anything, just “jerkins” or “minishorts.” Instead it’s really just all about sex, usually shoehorned into the narrative; like in the opening, in which Yolanda, on board a jet that’s taking her to Washington, reflects on her recent lez experience with a 16 year-old German girl, celebtrating her SF day (aka “Sexual Freedom”).

The sex scenes in this novel make those in The Baroness seem restrained in comparison. They are more along the lines of the sleaze in The llusionist, though not to the same gross-out levels, however it must be stated that some of the descriptions are so thorough that they do reach off-putting levels. At least in The Baroness Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt knew when to say when. Not so with Guieu, who goes to explicit levels that are not for the squeamish. As ever with ultra-hardcore sleaze, this only serves to make sex more repugnant than arousing.

Yolanda encounters test pilot Bob Rowland on the flight, and promptly they make plans to screw. This will serve to be one of the recurring jokes in the novel, as it takes forever for them to accomplish this, even though they think they have, multiple times over. Turns out they’ve both been called to the Pentagon, now a large black “monolith.” There General Murdock of the Spece Security Committee tasks them with taking the experimental ship Torgar, the first capable of hyperspeed, and heading for the Capella sun, in the Charioteer constellation, 42 light years away. Along for the ride will be Ted Cunningham, astrophysicist and co-pilot, and Jany Jankins, psychologist.

The mission is top secret and the four can tell Murdock has something up his sleeve. But regardless they get right around to sexually-harrassing one another; Jany in particular, she of the beautiful face, awesome body, and “flaming red forest” of pubic hair, is taken through the wringer throughout. The author is not concerned with sci-fi realism, per se; despite entering hyperspeed, and thus exiting the time-space continnuum, the crew is able to keep in touch with Murdock via a viewscreen, making periodic check-in calls to Mission Control.

The focus is instead on hardcore shenanigans. Soon enough Yolanda is bullying Jany into some lesbian action, our heroine taking umbrage at the redhead’s “prudish” demeanor. Apparently being a “sexologist” (and Yolanda even has a doctorate in it) means harrassing and bullying people over any conservative thoughts they might have about sex, and then forcing them to do the deed. It goes on like this for pages, documented in ultra-thorough detail. It gets even more outrageous in an interminable sequence which has Bob and Ted banging Yolanda and Jany, respecitively.

Only it turns out it wasn’t them – thick pubic hair is a recurring motif in the novel, often mentioned, save for the thin blonde “fringe” of Yolanda’s nether regions. Yet the women Bob and Ted screw all night are bare “down there,” and the men Yolanda and Jany have sex with – and they too think it is Bob and Ted, respectively – have massive wongs. All this occurs with the lights off, hence the confusion. Anyway when everyone’s nude on the deck of the ship next day, the guys can’t help but noticing those bushes and the gals can’t help but noticing how much smaller the guys are – Yolanda even speculates that Bob and Ted might’ve screwed ‘em with dildoes.

Gradually – plot development takes a leisurely backseat to hardcore sex – we will learn that Bob and Ted actually screwed an alien woman last night, one who came to Bob’s room and then went to Ted’s. Her name is Iyrinndoa and she’s a seven foot tall bald chick with big boobs. The women actually screwed a male bald alien of the same hieght named Kaloon Ghour. They are from the very planet our heroes are headed for, and teleported aboard to “test” the crew sexually. This leads to more screwing, Jany once again getting the most of it, probed and banged by all and sundry. Oh, and Yolanda busts out a host of sex gadgets from her attache case. It’s all kind of gross.

It gets grosser in the cliffhanger finale, which has the crew and their two alien friends captured by the Rigelians, known as the “sexually insatiable ones.” As tall as the other aliens but hairy (and memorably described as smelling “gamy”), the Rigelians immediately go to town on our heroes, screwing them endlessly – we’re informed Bob and Ted are abused by Rigelian women and men. And Jany gets the worst of it again. Even Yolanda is worn out after the “two hour orgy.” The novel ends with them all in prison on the Rigelian ship, wondering how they will ever get free – and here is where we leave them. And will leave them; as mentioned the sequel is atrociously overpriced, but to tell the truth I wouldn’t want to read it anyway.

This is another of those novels that is best described via quotes, most of which I’ve chosen at random:

Now it was their companions’ turns to emit muffled screams. For the penises of both men emerged out of thick forests of dark-brown pubic hair! -- pg. 88

Before either man could respond, Yolanda reached over and gently palpated both of their sexes. “The only rational explanation I can think of,” she continued, “is that you two came to us equipped with dildoes.” -- pg. 98

[Yolanda] held up a transparent plastic box containing some green pellets. 

“These, my dears, cause the anal sphincter to expand temporarily so that one cannot run the least risk of being ripped apart inside. In fact, one-half hour after swallowing two of these, one’s rectum walls have opened wide enough to allow a man’s fist all the way in without the slightest danger. I know, darlings, for I’ve tried it. And it’s wild, kids – wild and wonderful!” 

“Do you like being sodomized?” Now it was Bob’s turn to look astounded. 

Yolanda tossed her golden mane over her shoulders. “Doesn’t every woman, from time to time? What’s more, I’ve found that most men enjoy it also.” -- pg. 120

Ever the gentleman, Ted seized the end of the artificial member which still protruded from between Jany’s creamy buttocks and withdrew it – although not completely. -- pg. 126

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Great Spy Race (Philip McAlpine #2)

The Great Spy Race, by Adam Diment
June, 1969  Bantam Books
(Original UK publication, 1968)

Seven years ago I read The Dolly, Dolly Spy spy, the first of four novels about “bird-chasing, hash-loving” young British spy Philip McAlpine. I pretty much forgot all about the series after that, given that I didn’t much enjoy the book. But then I came across this second one, which I’d picked up along with the others back then, and figured I’d give the series another go. And I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed The Great Spy Race a lot more.

First of all, a big thanks to Aaron Jeethan, who posted a comment the other year on my review of The Dolly, Dolly Spy, linking to a 2015 Esquire UK article in which reporter John Michael O’Sullivan fruitlessly tried to track down the still-reclusive Adam Diment. The article, which is highly recommended, gives what little insight exists about the guy, who appears to have dropped out of sight in the early ‘70s, at least so far as the publishing world goes. It also gives the impression that the majority of his “hip” persona was created by his manager; even this American paperback edition goes to great lengths to compare Diment to his narrating protagonist, McAlpine, so I’m sure the gimmick was even more forcibly employed in England.

I enjoyed this installment more, but be advised it still suffers from the same problems as the first one, or at least what I consider problems. Mainly, the narrator-protagonist, Philip McAlpine, who comes off like a dick. The novel is infused with his cynical bitching about this or that; he has a massive chip on his shoulder, only equaled by his massive sense of entitlement. Nothing’s good enough for him, everything sucks. This, coupled with his first-person narration, gives the novel more of a hardboiled pulp vibe than the “mod spy” angle the publishers so desperately want to imply. Indeed, there’s nothing remotely “psychedelic” about McAlpine, other than occasional mentions of his mod clothing (colored satin capes, etc) or the occasional joint he smokes.

Special sidenote – anyone who wants to read a ‘60s “psychedelic spy” novel that does tap into the acid era zeitgeist and doesn’t feature a cynical protagonist should read, as soon as possible, The Psychedelic Spy, which is everything – everything! – the Adam Diment novels are supposed to be. (It’s even written in third-person!) If only there had been four books about that character.

Anyway, it’s a year or so after the previous book, and McAlpine just has three weeks left in his contract with Rupert Quine, “gargoyle”-like man behind “6,” the secret department McAlpine was roped into working for last time around. Quine is basically the M to McAlpine’s Bond, though this is an even grumpier M, one who is given to wearing all the latest fashions (up to and including an “LSD hallucinatory tie”). After a lot of scene setting – in which McAlpine’s “flat” is broken into by a dude McAlpine punches in the throat and escapes from – we get down to business: Quine wants to send our hero out on a “simple courier job.”

Meanwhile McAlpine has hooked up with sexy but “thick” Josephine, meeting her at a hip Chelsea party; we get a lot of talk courtesy McAlpine about how big-butted, thick girls are “nice to lie down on,” and also the sex scene is a bit more risque than those in the previous book. (Speaking of which, we’re informed that McAlpine’s girlfriend from last time, Veronica, is off chasing greener pastures or somesuch.) The Chelsea party by the way seems to exist so Diment can show off his “hip” cred, with mentions of The Who and The Stones, the chapter even titlted “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” 

McAlpine’s convoluted job has him getting money from Quine, to pay a “little, gay Gaul” in a mod clothing store for some ancient stamps, which the Gaul informs McAlpine are to be sold to a dude in Mali. This is a fictional island “on the Indian ocean” which is home to Club Oceana, a luxury resort for the mega-wealthy. Supposedly there is a Quine contact there who has some info he will sell in exchange for those stamps and twenty thousand pounds. Even Mali withers beneath McAlpine’s jaded, cynical eye, though we do learn you can buy “marijuana cigarettes” from vending machines, packaged and wrapped in “psychedelic” paper.

The resident spy turns out to be the owner of Club Oceanic, an old, clearly rich former spy named Peters who is very much in the Fleming mold. He is given to florid speeches and expensive tastes, and even retains a memorable henchman: Petite, a towering, very old butler who is superhumanly fast with a gun. This talent is shown off for McAlpine’s benefit in a sequence that could’ve come straight out of the classic Bond films. But don’t be fooled – McAlpine is no Bond. He’s more along the lines of the protagonists who starred in the more spoofy spy-fy series of the ‘60s: “There’s hardly a man alive more a coward than me,” he casually informs us.

But it turns out to be a typical Quine setup; McAlpine’s real job here is to deliver the twenty thousand pounds, which is Peters’s entry fee for “the Great Spy Race,” which he explains is “a competition to exercise the oldest virtues of our art: to wit, extortion, blackmail, and seduction Especially seduction.” Agents from organizations around the world (save for Red China) will compete for the grand prize: a list of every Red Chinese spy currently operating in the Far East. Daniel Honneybun, a portly Ministry employee who was the guy who broke into McAlpine’s apartment early in the book, shows up with a bandaged throat (and a grudge against our hero) to bring word from Quine: if McAlpine doesn’t take part in (and win) the Race, Quine will either have McAlpine killed or something worse.

McAlpine mostly slobbers over the sight of Mallia, Peters’s ravishingly-hot (and topless) fifteen year-old “child concubine,” who sits obediently on her master’s lap while Peters regales McAlpine with stories, taking the occasional moment to dab expensive champagne between the girl’s bare breasts. I don’t think you could swing a scene like this in the present day, but then such are the wonders of vintage pulp. McAlpine takes a few days off to bask in the “Malikin” sun and smoke some of those “manufactured reefers” (he also bumps into an old “friendlet” I assume returning from the previous book, but I couldn’t recall her), before heading back to London to begin the Race.

Anyone hoping for a peek of Swinging London will be disappointed. As in the first book, McAlpine is more focused on just mentioning the things that annoy him, rather than bringing to life the mod fashions, the swinging “birds,” and whatnot. This is I think the main thing that annoys me about this series; I read all the industry blurbs and expect this wide-eyed look at that long-ago world, but instead I get a dude who sounds like your average gumshoe, slouching through a world that both irritates and bores him. It’s like something a burned-out old contract writer would’ve turned in, instead of a “hash-loving” twenty-four year old.

McAlpine has another run-in with the “gay Gaul,” who turns out to be named Pierre Roussin, a Commie French agent taking part in the Race and given to wearing outlandish fashions (ie knee-high purple suede boots). But our hero isn’t much for Bond-esque action; even the literary Bond, who is mostly prone to kicking guys in the shins and running away, is more gung-ho. Instead McAlpine steals a camera and takes blackmail photos of a male bank employee having sex with Roussin; McAlpine threatens to send the bank board the photos if the employee doesn’t tell him the contents of the bank deposit box both he and Roussin (and the other Race participants) were after. It’s a note from Peters, informing the reader that the next step of the Race will occur in Nice.

Here McAlpine drafts Josephine in a plan to co-seduce Mr. and Mrs. Omega, the latter of whom is Peters’s latest step in the game – a notorious slut of incredible beauty (her exotic look courtesy a mixture of “African” and “Indo-Chinese” blood). While Mr. Omega is an old French general, Mrs. Omega is “upper-strata sexy” and when McAlpine first glimpses her she’s dressed in “modish chain mail.” Here he runs into an Irish agent and a “Jap” agent (who speaks with a “Harvard accent”), but manages to mostly see his plan through. McAlpine beds Mrs. Omega shortly after Samura, the Japanese agent, fails to satisfy her; again Diment delivers a somewhat risque sequence, but nothing outrageous. McAlpine tells Mrs. Omega she is “the greatest lay” of his life.

But to tell the truth, the “Great Spy Race” is kind of underwhelming. After the briefest of stopovers in Geneva, McAlpine ends up back off the coast of Mali; he gets there by booking passage on an International Charter flight, in a nice callback to the previous book – turns out his former employers hold no grudges over McAlpine having betrayed them last time. Diment finally delivers at least a little action as McAlpine must dodge machine gun fire from a pillbox to enter the building that holds the prize – which doesn’t turn out to be a list of spies at all, but plans, stolen from NASA, for hyperspeed engines.

As if tossing the entire “spy race” idea, Peters next has McAlpine run for his escape from Mali, an old Nazi plane waiting for him; he will be chased by eight fellow secret agents. This part is just downright dumb – Peters has left a handy table filled with guns and McAlpine grabs a “Schmeisser” (another callback to the previous book) and runs for his life, shooting no one. No one, that is, save for Petite, Peters’s quick-draw servant, who shows up at the plane for “the last test.” McAlpine guns him down accidentally and then feels like “crying” as he stands over Petite’s corpse. Mind you, this is McAlpine’s first and only kill in the book. And the dumbass manages to lose the hypserpeed plans in the plane, which ends up catching on fire after getting him to safety.

The funny thing about these McAlpine novels is that Diment was hyped as the hip, countercultural Ian Fleming, but in reality, Diment’s books are almost exactly like those by Fleming himself – dry, more grounded in realism than in outlandish thrills, and very, very British. Save for a single mention of McAlpine smoking a joint, or listening to rock music (at a party – and we get the impression that, surprise surprise, McAlpine doesn’t even like it), none of the material here would’ve been out of place in a Bond novel. (And even the literary Bond wouldn’t cry after killing someone who just tried to kill him!)

In this regard I’d say the New York Times blurb quoted on the cover is accurate – Diment truly was “Fleming’s successor.” And Diment, for a 24 year-old, is even more obsessed with WWII than actual war veteran Ian Fleming was; The Great Spy Race is filled with references to the war; at least every other page mentions Nazis or war surplus or what have you.

I’m still not sold on the series – I much prefer other swinging sixties spies, in particular Nick Carter: KillmasterMark Hood, and Joaquin Hawks.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Death Merchant #37: The Bermuda Triangle Action

Death Merchant #37: The Bermuda Triangle Action, by Joseph Rosenberger
February, 1980  Pinnacle Books

The 37th volume of Death Merchant treads familiar territory, as Joseph Rosenberger turns in an installment that seems much indebted to the plots of #17: The Zemlya Expedition and #30: The Shambhala Strike – this time nutjob Richard “Death Merchant” Camellion again visits a massive underwater Russian complex, and again (sort of) meets some aliens (of the outer space sort). However he’s more worked up about people who talk while eating. 

Rosenberger as ever goes full out with his manuscript – the book comes in at a whopping 177 pages of small, dense print; a whole heaping ton of it could’ve been cut for a more streamlined (and less taxing) read. For example, we know from chapter one that those wily Russians (aka “pig farmers” and “ivans”) are up to no good on the floor of the ocean, near Jamaica; drilling into the tectonic plates or somesuch to trigger massive earthquakes and other destruction across the United States. Oh, and while they’re down there, they might as well look into all those “UAOs” everyone’s been talking about (aka Unidentified Aquatic Objects).

Then when we cut over to Camellion, here in Kingston, Jamaica with the usual group of easily-confused comrades, we endure a long, long chapter where everyone exposits on what the Russians might be up to down there. As ever, Camellion’s the only one who gets it; everyone else doubts those damn pig farmers could be that evil. The fools! Meanwhile Camellion munches on figs from a box and insists on waiting until he’s finished chewing to talk – he becomes “annoyed” with those who talk while eating. And that’s pretty much the entire glimpse we get into our hero’s personality (such as it is). As ever, Richard Camellion is a total cipher, more of an android than a man.

He’s also the Walking Encyclopedia we know from other volumes; a US nuclear sub disappeared here three months ago, and Camellion’s certain that his own theory is the correct one – that the notorious Bermuda Triangle of this area is in reality a rift in the space-time continuum, and the ship has merely slipped over into another dimension! We get lots of exposition about the Triangle, as ever Camellion expositing from his encyclopediac memory. But unfortunately none of it will ever progress into full-blown sci-fi (despite the arbitrary appearance of aliens later on), and instead will devolve into the usual endless gunfights the series is known for.

Camellion’s main comrade here is Josh Forran, a Navy Intelligence operative stationed in Kingston for years. As usual, the supporting characters have more personality than Rosenberger allows for Camellion, even if the personalities manifest themselves at the most arbitrary of times, like for example during the climactic battle: “Forran was still fighting the nostalgia he felt over having been forced to leave Kingston, Jamaica. All his Dvorak records were still in Kingston.” This mind you is while he’s dodging Russian bullets. There’s also Billy Coopbird hanging around, a Jamaican with an Ivy League education who enjoys speaking like the cliched native for tourists.

But Forran is Camellion’s main teammate for the most part; together they board a mini sub that has fancy “invisibility” gear and head into the depths. On the way they, with the crew of the mother ship, see an actual UAO – a massive underwater craft that defies reality. They watch in shock as it sits there on the ocean floor, then takes off at an impossible speed. Camellion, who refers to the thing as a “OINT,” ie an “Other Intelligence,” takes it all with the same sort of casualness he displayed for the aliens he met back in The Shambhala Strike. And for that matter, Camellion never even once pauses to reflect to himself about those earlier aliens.

Nope, Camellion’s more like, “Okay, that’s that – on with the mission.” To me, this represents probably one of the main sources of frustration about the Death Merchant series. It has all this fringe science and supernatural stuff, but all of it’s just used as window dressing. What does it matter that you have aliens, UFOs, spontaneously-combusting people, and myriad other weird things, when your protagonst clearly couldn’t give two shits about any of it?? Even later, when after the mission the Navy dudes find an object of alien metal mysteriously deposited in their ship, clearly left (somehow) by those aliens, Camellion basically shrugs and forgets about it.

But anyway Camellion and Forran make their way to the massive underwater Soviet complex, which of course brings to mind the similar one in The Zemlya Expedition. Not that Camellion even once reflects back on that, either. It’s sad when the reader actually knows more about Camellion’s past assignments than Camellion himself does. About the only bit of continuity in the book is an arbitrary bit where Camellion thinks of “the coming horrors” of the 1980s, in particular those having to do with spontaneous human combustion – clumsy foreshadowing, I suppose, of the next volume

They infiltrate the place and sneak around, Forran “feeling as uncomfortable as an armless poker player.” Soon enough they’re spotted and engaged in a firefight with KGB guards, a bit where we see Camellion’s insanity, as he literally laughs in the face of death. To Rosenberger’s credit, Camellion’s comrades almost always realize that the dude’s a psychopath. After this we’re back to the exposition, as Camellion again faces off with the dumbass intelligence bigwigs who bicker over what the Russians might do, now that Camellion’s gotten visual sighting of their massive underwater drills. Once again, only Camellion insists that those damn ivans might nuke everyone.

One expects a Thunderball-esque underwater battle at the complex, but instead The Bermuda Triangle Action plays out in an overlong (way overlong) battle aboard the ship Camellion and crew are on, which is attacked by Cubans and KGB soldiers. The underwater complex is almost casually destroyed by submarines. Camellion leads a crew of Navy SEALS, armed with grenade-bearing crossbows(!), against the Cubans, leading into another mostly-boring Rosenberger action scene that seems to never end. But at least Rosenberger has a sense of humor, for after shedding copious amounts of blood, Camellion tells Billy Coopbird at the end: “I hate violence.” WTF?? Even Billy is thrown by that one, thinking to himself how there is something “alien” about Camellion, “another kind of presence staring out through his eyes.”

This volume does have a lot of underwater action in it, and I’ve always been a sucker for that stuff, having seen Thunderball at an impressionable age. Or was it the underwater part in For Your Eyes Only that hooked me? In fact it might’ve been, as I saw that one in ’82, or whenever it debuted on HBO, when I was seven or so. But anyway we get a lot of that in The Bermuda Triangle Action, which despite the title and (brief) appearance of an underwater flying object, is really just the same old, so far as the Death Merchant goes. 

Here’s Allan’s review

Thursday, February 15, 2018

My letter from Gold Eagle

Back in the early days of the blog I posted my 1988 letter from Gar Wilson; in it I mentioned that I’d also received a letter from Gold Eagle at the time. Well, here it is – but this time, thanks to the magic of technology, I was able to scan it.

As a bit of background, this response was to an unsolicited idea I’d sent Gold Eagle for Phoenix Force, in which the team goes to Mars for some reason that now escapes me. I should mention I was like 13 at the time, so it sounded like a good idea to me. So then it’s pretty cool that GE’s “Reader Management Editor” Judy Newton (who was married to Michael Newton at the time) actually took the time to write me back – she could’ve just trashed my letter and grumbled “stupid damn kid, wasting our time,” but instead she wrote me this nice letter:

I also love how she so politely butchers my far-out idea!

As I mentioned before, the biggest thrill I recall at the time was her mentioning that a copy of my letter had been sent to Gar Wilson, and it was just a few days later that I received a letter from him; big thanks again to Stephen Mertz, who let me know the other year that the “Gar Wilson” who wrote me was William Fieldhouse.

I recall I had another letter from Gold Eagle, from a little later or something, in response to a question I’d written them – there was a cable movie titled Jake Speed, about a men’s adventure character who was real, or something, and I saw it on HBO when it was first broadcast. The movie occasionally showed some Jake Speed paperbacks (I haven’t seen the movie since then, by the way), and I instantly noticed the Gold Eagle logo on them. I wrote GE asking if they had plans to release the actual novels, but as I recall their response, which was shorter than this one, informed me that those books were just props for the movie and that there were no plans for a Jake Speed series. Anyway I can’t find that letter, but if I ever do I’ll post it as well.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying (second review)

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying, by Paul Kenyon
March, 1974  Pocket Books

I’m still enjoying my re-reading of The Baroness; coming back to this series, you can see how it was a cut above the genre norm, despite the repetitive nature of each volume. But I’ve found that most all the series books “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel have been a cut above; regardless, Diamonds Are For Dying is still one of the weaker books in the series, though I have to say I enjoyed it more this time than the first time I read it.

As mentioned in my second review of #1: The Ecstasy Connection, enterprising Baroness fan ppsantos discovered, via series author Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt himself, that Diamonds Are For Dying was the first installment to be written, and should have been the first volume of the series published. Either Engel or Pocket decided to hold it back in favor of The Ecstasy Connection. If their intention was to hook readers with a stronger story, then I completely understand their decision – The Ecstasy Connection is one of the best men’s adventure novels ever, and, with it’s borderline sci-fi plot mixed with hardcore kinkiness, works as a much better series hook than this one does.

There were clues strewn about The Ecstasy Connection that it was actually second in the series; in particular there were a few mentions of Baroness Penelope St. John-Orisini’s previous mission, which took place in Brazil. That of course would refer to the events of this volume – humorously, though, the intros to the Baroness and her team aren’t much more fleshed out here than they were in the first volume. So clearly Moffitt was writing each of these books to stand on their own, with little focus on continuity.

Moffitt might’ve gotten better with his second-written installment, but that’s not to say Diamonds Are For Dying is bad. It’s just that, whereas The Ecstasy Connection hurtled along from first page to last, this one doesn’t feature nearly as many thrills. However Moffitt’s already got his series outline worked out – the only difference between this one and ensuing volumes is that it does not open with the inciting incident that will gradually get the Baroness on the job. Rather, Diamonds Are For Dying opens with what would normally be the second scene of each installment: the Baroness’s latest party for the jet-set.

“The Baroness stood at the center of it all, a martini in one hand and a joint in the other.” So we meet our heroine: long, leggy, busty (and lusty) brunette babe of all babes Penelope St. John-Borsini, throwing this massive bash in her Rome villa. She displays the randy stuff of which she’s made posthaste, taking a bet with another jet-setting gal that she’ll be able to get studmuffin Sir Hugh into bed – and Penelope succeeds, of course, within the hour. Moffitt delivers what will become the patented hardcore screwin’ the series would be known for, with the Baroness eagerly boffing Hugh not once but twice – the “back-to-back bangs” being another recurring element of the series. No detail is left unmentioned, though personally I felt The Ecstasy Connection was a little more hardcore, what with Penelope’s “foamy pubes” and all. Or hell, maybe she was just more excited in that one.

Right on cue her watch goes off, zapping her with the demand to contact her secret control at NSA, John Farnsworth, aka “Key.” The Baroness’s own codename is “Coin,” which means that, like The Butcher, this series isn’t titled after the protagonists’s actual codename (the Butcher’s codename was “Iceman”). But like with The Butcher, I wondered why Moffitt went to all these lengths, anyway; why all the busywork about “Key” and “Coin” when he could’ve just made Penelope’s codename “The Baroness” and have done with it? Anyway in this one Farnsworth flies over to Italy to give Penelope her assignment in person – US intelligence is in a dither over it.

Also another thing made somewhat clear in Diamonds Are For Dying is that “the President’s man,” who appears each volume in the meeting with the Intelligence heads and gives them their marching orders, is actually Henry Kissinger, real-life “President’s man” at that time; we are informed he has a “slight German accent,” and later on he is referred to as “Henry.” Speaking of “German,” this volume’s villain is that old pulp menace, the unrepentant Nazi who plans to launch the Fourth Reich and conquer the world, picking up where Hitler left off. His name is Wilhelm Heidrig, and he lives on an old coffee plantation deep in the jungles of Brazil.

The Baroness’s team is actually given less of an intro in this one than The Ecstasy Connection. Members like Yvette and Eric make their first appearance as ciphers and will stay that way throughout the series, though we do get the oddball comment that Eric is a “mathematical wiz.” We learn unusual stuff about some of the others – like for example that bulky Green Beret Dan Wharton is a chemist, and this time has made for Penelope a “synthetic black widow spider venom” which is uber-potent, and which she can eject via a hidden button on her cigarette lighter. Team geek Tom Sumo though as ever provides the main gadgets, which are heavy on the “co-polymer” tip this time, from sandals that can turn into blades to a bra that can turn into a bow. We also get lots of talk on series staple the Spyder, which is a grappling hook that gets Penelope out of many a pickle.

Perhaps the Baroness’s background bio is a bit more fleshed-out in this one; it runs from pages 39 to 46. After which it’s on with the show, and on with the template; promptly upon landing in Brazil, and being hassled by some asshole customs inspector, Penelope and team are saved by an attractive local male, same as in The Ecstasy Connection. This is wealthy lothario Silvio, who turns out to be a leftist who secretly provides medical help to the destitute inhabitants of the slums outside Rio; he’s banging the Baroness that very night, in yet another tour de force of hardcore shenanigans – back-to-back shenanigans at that.

Meanwhile we meet our villains, a curiously-uninmpressive lot, at least so far as this series goes. In addition to Heidrig, the stereotypical died-in-the-wool Nazi who is now in his 60s, there’s sadistic, effiminate Horst, a blonde-haired freak who will ultimately turn out to be Hitler’s son. Heidrig will tell Penelope all about it late in the book, but it goes that Hitler, insane after the war, was spirited out of Germany and hidden in Heidrig’s jungle villa, where he was fooled by his followers into thinking the war was still raging. In the mid-‘60s he managed to sire a son with a local whore, who was later killed off – Hitler himself died in ’65. But Horst doesn’t contribute much to the book, and mostly just enjoys feeding various unfortunates to the pirhanas in a pool on Heidrig’s estate. Or having his dogs tear people apart. Heidrig’s plot centers around Dutch jeweler Peter van Voort, who has figured out how to use diamonds to power a laser that will in turn power an atomic bomb, or somesuch.

Moffitt as ever makes The Baroness feel like the trash fiction equivalent of the typical men’s adventure novel, complete with descriptions of Penelope’s revealing, high-fashion clothing to topical mentions like “a bossa nova with the new, acid beat” that Penelope and Silvio dance to. But Penelope uses Silvio as her means to get into Heidrig’s orbit; dressed as Marie Antoinette for a Louis XVI-themed party the old Nazi throws, the Baroness succeeds in ensnaring Heidrig’s attention, much to Silvio’s dismay. Not that she doesn’t make it up to him. A few pages later and we’re getting more Penelope-Silvio double-banging (actually this time it’s a triple banging). For this Silvio is, unbeknownst to Penelope, beaten to a pulp by Heidrig’s men, but curiously enough Silvio just plumb drops out of the novel afterward, not appearing again until the end of the book, when he shows up at the airport to tell Penelope so long and thanks for all the sex.

Penelope ventures to Heidrig’s jungle estate, only bringing along Tom Sumo and blonde cipher Inga, whose big role this time is to get nude, put on a wig, and pretend to be Penelope to fool Heidrig’s hidden cameras. Oh, and at one point she also frees the Baroness’s big dogs, which have also come along for the occasion.

Here the novel comes to sort of a standstill, with Moffitt continually stretching things out as Penelope tries to maintain her cover as fussy jet-setting mega-babe while both keeping prudish Teuton Heidrig at bay and figuring out what he’s really up to. Meanwhile Sumo sneaks around and puts listening bugs in various places. The writing is good but it’s just sort of slow-going, almost a prefigure of #8: Black Gold, which similarly slowed to a dead crawl for a long duration (and which, now that I’ve re-read Diamonds Are For Dying, would easily have to be my least-favorite volume of the series).

Things pick up in the final quarter; Heidrig, assuming Penelope hates “the inferior races” as much as he does, blabs about his “laser-trigger fusion bomb” and how he plans to rally together old and new Nazis under Horst, proclaiming him as Hitler’s son and heir. Surprisingly, Heidrig then goes about finally banging Penelope – in a mainstream thriller, I doubt this would happen, and our heroine’s honor would be untarnished. But Penelope lays there and thinks of, well, not England, ‘cause she’s an American agent, but anyway she lets Heidrig screw her, then kills him while he’s climaxing. At least she gives the old sadist a memorable send-off.

Interestingly, the Baroness doesn’t spend a single second thinking about how she allowed herself to be probed by Heidrig’s “gristle-tough tool;” Moffitt is with it in that he understands that, as a female agent, the Baroness has no qualms about having sex solely for the mission. Oh, and of course she kills the old bastard with that black widow venom Dan made for her.

As I mentioned in my first review, though, the finale is sort of anticlimactic, as these old Nazis don’t prove much opposition for the Baroness and her team; there’s a nice part where Penelope and the others escape the compound while the main team infiltrates via the jungle, but regardless per series template Penelope is captured. Here too it’s less outrageous than similar such scenes, later in the series; Horst merely pulls her along, still clad only in the lingerie Heidrig gave her, and attempts to feed her to his precious pirhana. Instead, Horst himself becomes fish bait, thanks to the miraculous presence of Penelope’s dogs – those damn dogs save her ass just about every volume.

The finale is just as stretched thin as the middle half; the team splits up and heads for Rio, but Penelope is waylaid by a group of Nazi leftovers, soon to die thanks to radiation poisoning from the atom bomb her team set off in Heidrig’s compound. Here the Baroness puts to use her bra-bow, but despite the nice cover painting she’s not in her black catsuit while she wields it. As ever she’s barely clothed. And now that I think of it, even the gore level is subdued in Diamonds Are For Dying. While The Ecstasy Connection was rife with exploding heads and guts, this one is more reserved.

And that’s pretty much it – it’s back to Rome, where Penelope’s already set her sights on another jet-setting stud to share her bed. Overall Diamonds Are For Dying is fun, and certainly well-written, but pales in comparison to its predeccessor and the other volumes that were to follow, save for Black Gold. But I’m finding that I’m appreciating The Baroness even more upon this re-reading of the series.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Taurus Four

Taurus Four, by Rena Vale
January, 1970  Paperback Library

Hippies in space! Well, that’s sort of the premise of this paperback original, or at least what’s hyped on the back cover. In reality the hippies of this “2270 AD” are more along the lines of stone age primitives, with the intelligence level to match. Okay so they’re just like regular hippies…only they’re on another planet.

Rena Vale had a career that was sort of the opposite of Leigh Brackett’s; she started as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the ‘30s, then moved to writing science fiction stories and novels in the ‘50s. Taurus Four was one of her last novels; she died in 1983. The cool psychedelic cover, by the way (which I’m assuming is by Robert Foster, given its similarity to Foster’s cover for Mythmaster), has nothing to do with the actual contents of the book – not sure what the hell’s going on there, but you won’t find anything like it occuring in the novel.

You also won’t find any space hippies of the sort featured in the “classic” Star Trek episode “The Way To Eden” (I put “classic” in mocking quotes but I actually enjoy that episode…I mean Mr. Spock channeling his inner Hendrix on a Vulcan harp, what’s not to love?). Which admittedly is what I was hoping for when I cracked open this slim paperback. Instead, it’s more of a character-driven piece about a portly but determined “space sociologist” who crash-lands on a planet in the Taurus system and there encounters a group of hippies, descendants of ones who were abducted from Earth centuries before.

Our hero is Dorian Frank XIV, out on his first mission; his assignment is to inspect the planet Taurus Four with its two suns and determine if it is suitable for human colonization. But he crashes his ship and is stranded here for two months until the mother ship can come collect him. Dorian is an interesting character; coddled due to the emasculating nature of the 23rd century, in which women run everything. This is total prescience on the part of Ms. Vale, but don’t go dusting off your “I’m With Her” banners just yet – she clearly is not fond of the idea.

In Vale’s future, “space is the man’s world;” women, having cemented their authority on Earth, have no desire to travel in space. Thus it is men who fling about the cosmos, declaring habitable planets for Earth; the women who do go into space usually do so in the capacity of servants to the men. Space is the only place where men can be men, yet they are for the most part confused about what exactly “being a man” entails:

The male aggressiveness was fading out of the human race…Women forged ahead in the professions and in politics; they took over many, if not most of the Earthside positions. As a rule, they dominated their mates, made puppets of them.


Male-female relationships on Earth had become tests of strength…of willpower. Men loved women for their physical charm and grudgingly ceded as much of their independence as necessary to obtain their desires. Women loved men who obeyed their commands.

Damn, if I could go back in time I’d have the preacher read that last one at my wedding!

Dorian encounters all manner of flora and fauna on Taurus Four, which has an Earth-like atmosphere, save for the two suns; one is red, and the “night” sun is a white ball of fire that paints the sky in psychedelic hues. There are tree roots that move in the soil, fawn-like creatures that are harmless, bats that nearly rip Dorian to shreds, and intelligent bear-like creatures which Dorian is certain are not native to the planet. He will turn out to be correct; these are the daels, or at least so referred to by the transplanted hippies, and they too are part of a colonization party.

The hippies don’t appear until a quarter of the way through; Dorian stumbles upon them after a near-fatal encounter with vampire bats. Their presence initially baffles him, as Taurus Four was marked as an uninhabitated planet. Plus they are not only humans, but Earthlings – ones who speak to Dorian in English, at that. Though it is a crude, gutteral English, and these people have descended fully into tribalism. They go about nude, the men sporting long hair, rangy beards, and nails so long they are claws. The women are practically baby-making machines, some of them having born fourteen childreen. Even the “crones” are naked, much to Dorian’s discomfort.

Dorian gradually learns the history of the colony, his memory sparked by a tale told by elderly “witch” Bernedine, who recalls a story from the time of “twenty grandmothers ago.” Basically, a hippie in Haight Ashbury in the late ‘60s was approached by a reptilian being, which promised to take the hippie and his flock to a faraway place where they could live free, in the commune fashion the hippies so loved. Dorian instantly understands what happened; in the time of the “Space War,” two hundred years before, the “green Saurians from the Cygnus chain” abducted many humans; abductions which eventually sparked the war.

In his history classes, Dorian heard vague mentions of hippies that disappeared in that long-ago era, but Dorian in his time has no concept of the hippies, only that they were part of a “drug culture.” He realizes that he has stumbled upon the descendants of those Saurian abductees, living here in primitive squalor on Taurus Four. And they are a primitive bunch, sacrificing “virgin white” women to the “god in the well” so that the daels – ie the “devils” in their pidgin English – won’t come eat everyone. There is also the “daelsnarks” in the ocean, which apparently refers to sharks, but these go unseen.

Leading the hippies is a young man named Pete – all the leaders are named “Pete,” after the original Haight Ashbury hippie who brought them here – who uses his role to exercise his mean streak. There’s Billum, a young hippie who doesn’t appear to be as distrustful of Dorian as the others are. And most importantly there is “virgin white” Teeda, a lovely blonde Dorian falls instantly in love with, despite her innocent, “fawn-like” nature and primitive attitudes. Dorian is already engaged, his fiance back on Earth the usual strong female type, thus he constantly puts off the temptation to “take” Teeda, even though she clearly wants him and he her. There’s also the fact that she is being saved in her untouched condition to be given as the Great Sacrifice to the god in the well, part of the ancient belief structure that keeps the daels and daelsnarks at bay.

Speaking of which, these “savages,” as Dorian refers to them, are so primitive that the “god in the well” is merely one’s own reflection when gazing in a certain pool. They have regressed to such a state that they don’t even understand they are looking at their own face in the water. One thing they share with their hippie forebears is their love of weed; their “Sacred Garden” is filled with hemp, though surprisingly this isn’t much exploited by Vale. I mean there isn’t a single part where Dorian gets high. Instead, he spends most of his time transcribing “spools” of his sociologist findings, to be used as the material for a groundbreaking study upon his return to Earth.

Dorian also spends most of the time under guard in a cave, his precious “pack” with his stunner gun, clothes, and other gadgets separated from him. The hippies bring food to him; they only eat “manna,” a native fruit. He also gets occasional visits from Teeda, with the two falling in love, though Dorian has a habit of condescendingly referring to her as “dear girl.” Teeda’s need for Dorian’s strength is a new concept for him, given the strong females of Earth; subtext capably conveyed by Vale. Again, Vale’s connotation is clear that a “girl power” future might not make for the most attractive concept. 

Despite the coddled nature of his upbringing, with an overbearing mother and an overbearing fiance, Dorian is pretty tough, mostly due to his space training. Thanks to a few judo classes he can toss these dirty hippies around with ease; for “play” the hippie men like to engage one another in brutal wrestling matches, using those nails as claws. Even the toughest of them doesn’t stand a chance against portly Dorian, who due to the hardscrabble nature of hippie life on Taurus Four quickly slims down.

When Dorian learns that Teeda is planned as the next Great Sacrifice – to be raped by an increasingly-insane Pete beforehand – he makes his plan to escape the savages with her. But Dorian’s end game is a bit vague; he has no plans to take Teeda back to Earth with him, as his “grasshopper” transport ship is a single-seater. Also, he would be expressly forbidden to do any such thing by the captain of his mother ship. Dorian also has no plans to have sex with Teeda, to remain faithful to his fiance back home. But anyway he manages to stage an escape, thanks to a pair of friendly hippies, one of whom is Billum, Teeda’s brother.

Vale works in an imminent invasion subplot which is a bit clumsy; we’re told the bear-like daels came here long ago as part of a colonization fleet, but their ship crashed, and now the modern daels – who occasionally steal away hippie children and eat them! – are but pale reflections of the original crew. However a second colonization ship is supposed to come at a later date. Gee, guess when they’re coming? That’s right, shortly after Dorian crash-lands on the planet. Dorian learns all this from a dael female who “sings” her tale in their bizarre language, a language which Teeda understands, thanks to some tutoring from witch Bernedine. Dorian will be able to use Teeda’s knowledge of this language to get her off the planet, so as to warn off the invading ship of daels.

The finale sees Dorian finally mete out some payback to nutjob Pete, who we learn, upon finding out that Dorian and Teeda had escaped, went full-on psycho, even raping and killing an 8 year-old girl! His payback isn’t bloody enough, but he does show his cowardly colors when Dorian, a full-on man now thanks to the rigors of Taurus Four (not to mention the strength which has been borne in him thanks to the compassion and respect Teeda has shown him), challenges Pete to combat. Vale gets a few more digs in on her post-feminist future with the captain of Dorian’s mother ship, finally having come back to pick him up, marrying Dorian and Teeda as a slap in the face to Dorian’s mom and fiance, given how much trouble they got the captain in for abandoning Dorian when he crashed on the planet.

Overall Taurus Four is a quick, mostly entertaining read, though to tell the truth I would’ve preferred something more along the lines of “The Way To Eden,” with actual space hippies.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Black Against The Mob

Black Against The Mob, by Omar Fletcher
No month stated, 1977  Holloway House

This Holloway House paperback mines the same territory as the Iceman series – its characters are black and proud, baby! Omar Fletcher, who appears to have been a real person, turns out a fast-moving pulp crime novel (with touches of horror) that comes off very much like the literary equivalent of a Blaxploitation film. But speaking of which, disregard the misleading cover, with the Pam Grier-esque babe; the cover artist and blurb writer very much oversell the “sensuous voodoo goddess” angle.

This is quite possibly the angriest book I’ve yet reviewed on the blog. Anger against whites, Italians (aka “guineas”), America, you name it. The kind of book where the “hero” actually considers raping an otherwise-innocent mob secretary because his own woman was raped (and killed) by mobsters. Racist invective runs throughout the book, like how the protagonist, angry black criminal Malcolm Lemumba, thinks of Italians as, “Guineas! Jive mothers somewhere ‘tween white folks an’ gorillas!”

Not that Malcolm doesn’t have reason to be an angry young black man. In background material that is only hinted at, we learn that his wife and kid were “accidentally” killed by white cops during the riots of the late ‘60s. Now Malcolm hates “all whites,” though this doesn’t stop him from occasionally banging a white chick. In backstory that’s just as vaguely sprinkled throughout, Malcolm’s next round of hardship came just recently, when a girlfriend of sorts was raped and killed by mobsters out for revenge; Malcolm and his group had been knocking over mob-run establishments, culminating in a war between the two groups, with Malcolm even retaining the services of some “black Muslim brothers” in the fight.

Now, only Malcolm and his friend Omar Nusheba are still alive; even the Mafia don who was after them has been killed. Malcolm is known for a pair of pearl-handled Lugers, and he stashed these at the crime scene back in New York, hoping the two black Mulims with blown-apart faces would be confused with him and Omar, and the mob would think they were both dead. The two plan to drive to Los Angeles and fly to Hawaii with the cash they lifted, living out their years in paradise far from the Mafia.

Promptly the two get in a bar fight in LA with some whites who don’t cotton to how Malcolm and Omar are throwing money around, especially the way the two hot blonde waitresses keep responding so eagerly to them. The babes end up going back to their hotel room, but Fletcher is not an author to dwell much on sleaze – to be sure, there are some jawdropping phrases here and there, but as for actual hardcore stuff, nothing at all. Meanwhile our two heroes have indeed been spotted by the mob, and next day they are already running for their lives again. Malcolm puzzles over the how quickly this turnaround has occurred in one of those jawdropping phrases, “It was almost as if [the Mafia] had eyes in the pussy he had fucked the night before.”

Thanks to what appears to be an underground network of blacks who protect one another from “the Man,” Malcolm and Omar are able to evade the pursuing mobsters and get some guns from a dealer in Watts. Malcolm even gets a Luger, leading him to ponder over how fated all this seems to be. There are gunfights here and there, and Fletcher does dole out the gore, to a certain point, but nothing too extreme. There is some unintentional humor (at least from a modern perspective) when the Watts dealer has a master plan to get Malcolm and Omar’s guns onto the plane for Hawaii; all he does is stage a fight with some of his guys in the terminal, as a diversion, and then tosses a bag with the guns to our heroes as they pass by the security gate!

Near the halfway point the action moves to Oahu, Hawaii. However the mob is here, too, having found out Malcolm and Omar’s destination. The narrative often cuts over to Don Marco, in New York, consigliere to the previous don and still out for the blood of Malcolm and Omar. He wants to continue the vendetta. But our heroes are not without friends, themselves. The Watts gun-dealer told them to seek out Papa Loa in Oahu, a Haitian voodoo “hungan” who operates deep in the jungle, far from the “white man’s world.” The narrative treads an uneasy line between voodoo superstition and mob-busting action. Papa Loa has a group of followers, one of whom is Luani Kei, she of the vacant eyes and freezing cold skin; the “sensuous voodoo goddess” of the cover who barely even appears in the actual novel. Fletcher toys with the idea that Luani and many of Loa’s followers are actually zombies (of the voodoo sort, not the brain-eating sort).

The book is always entertaining, and Fletcher is a good writer, but it does settle into a repetitve rut…Don Marco heads on down to Hawaii to oversee the vendetta, and there are several parts that follow the same setup – Malcolm and Omar will sneak into the don’s high-rise hotel, threaten him or kill some of his goons, then head back to the plantation to talk to Papa Loa. This sequence of events repeats a few times. And these two are straight-up ‘70s mob-busters along the lines of The ExecutionerThe Revenger, or myriad others – only black!! Seriously though, these guys bust up some serious Mafia shit, making it all look easy.

The supernatural elements get stronger as the novel progresses. For one, Malcolm begins to wonder over how easily everything begins to happen for him – he sneaks to Don Marco’s hotel, for example, and it turns out the goons forgot to a lock a window, etc. In this way he suspects that Papa Loa is on to something, and that the voodoo gods are aiding he and Omar in their war against “the white man.” Also Malcolm is both infatuated and repulsed by Luani Kei, though Fletcher is maddeningly oblique about the repulsion part. There are a few parts where Malcolm sees Luani in daylight and something about her visage makes his flesh crawl. Again the insinuation is that she is a zombie. Also, Malcolm seems to forget what happens on the nights he spends with her, though it appears he does not have sex with her.

The climax is very much on the supernatural tip; Papa Loa vows to Malcolm that the voodoo gods have already deemed that Don Marco will die. Malcolm grudgingly waits to see what happens. The finale plays out with various mobsters either getting strangled or decapitated (by machete-wielding zombies!). Malcolm, who sort of stands on the sidelines while the final payback is being dished out, once again plants evidence that he and Omar died in the skirmish – and then the two bid Papa Loa adieu and head off for the “hidden island” of Nihau.

As mentioned, Fletcher’s writing is good, staying locked in Malcolm’s perspective for the majority of the tale, and thus filtering the proceedings through his rage. He doesn’t deliver much on the sleaze, other than the occasional oddball line, but he’s up there in the Joseph Rosenberger levels when it comes to the racist invective. I mean I even started to hate whitey while I was reading the book! However one can’t judge Fletcher for this, as the sequences with Don Marco are as anti-black as those with Malcolm are anti-white.

As I say, it’s an angry book, filled with the black and proud rage of the era’s Blaxploitation flicks, and if you like those then you will certainly like this – think of it as sort of a combo of Across 110th Street and Sugar Hill, filmed on the same location as Hawaii Five-O. Soundtrack by Isaac Hayes and Don Ho.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!)

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
March, 1957  Signet Books

Originally appearing as a four-part serial from October 1956 to January 1957 in Galaxy Science Fiction (available for free download at the Internet Archive hereherehere, and here), The Stars My Destination was published, in slightly different form,* in a single volume in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! in 1956. This Signet editon came out in 1957, under the Galaxy title and also featuring the edits of Galaxy editor H.L. Gold, more of which below.

I think I first became aware of this book over twenty years ago, when it received the Vintage Books reprint with the appropriate industry coverage. I got a copy at Half Price Bookstore, which I’d recently discovered, having just moved down here to Texas. (This was back in the days when books there were really half off, and LPs were super cheap…I mean I got “Abbey Road” for under two bucks!) When I read it at the time, I was surprised by how good the book really was. Re-reading it again these years later – I couldn’t believe how great it was.

At that time, one of the main proclamations about The Stars My Destination was how prescient it was, and how, despite being written in the mid 1950s, it felt so modern. In particular, it was championed by cyberpunk writers and readers. However I don’t think this is so much because Bester was prescient (not that he wasn’t); it’s that all those cyberpunk writers were ripping him off. There’s enough for five or six novels in The Stars My Destination, Bester hopping from plot development to plot development in true pulp style – it’s like comparing a super-compact, super-fast Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic from the ‘60s to a super-contrived, super-“cinematic” comic from today – and no surprise, given that Bester wrote comics for a time.

But the story changes, constantly. We meet our hero, Gulliver “Gully” Foyle, who is really more of a villain, adrift in space; the sole survivor of a ship called Nomad which has been crippled by a ship from the Outer Planets – it’s the 25th Century, the solar system is inhabited, and the inner planets of Earth, Mars, and Venus are at war with the outer ones. Foyle is a “common man,” a minor mechanic on the ship; at 30 years old, a guy who has never applied himself. But he’s managed to survive alone on this ship for 6 months. The ship is owned by Presteign, a vast corporation – another of those elments that makes the novel seem so modern is how powerful corporations have become – and when a sister ship, Vorga, finally passes him by, Foyle thinks he’s been saved. (We will later learn that this occurs on September 16, 2436.) But Vorga abandons him – and the common man is no more; Foyle is reborn for the sole purpose of revenge.

Bester made clear his intention to write a sci-fi version of The Count Of Monte Cristo, and that’s what we get here, but as mentioned it’s a lot more colorful, pulpy, and fast-moving. I wouldn’t say The Stars My Destination classifies as “forgotten fiction,” so I’ll forego my usual belabored, long-winded, digressive sort of review and just go for the highlights. Because basically if you haven’t read the novel, just go read it.

The stuff with “Foyle surviving in space” is enough for one novel, but before we can grasp it he’s been saved by “Joseph and the Scientific People” (a name for a ‘60s acid rock group if ever there was one), who live on the “Sargasso Asteroid” amid space detrius. Bester is a superb scene-setter and describer, and well brings to life these innovative future worlds – more presience in how these places are cluttered with the junk of the past. Joseph not only gives Foyle a “wife,” Moira, but also tattoos his face like a Maori mask, all in black, with “Nomad” emblazoned on his forehead. He does both these things without Foyle’s being aware of it, and much to Foyle’s wrath.

Before we can catch up with all this, we’re in New York, where Foyle’s secretly learning how to “jaunt” again. Another thing I recall from back when I first learned about this book; the reviewer in whatver magazine I was reading said something to the effect that, to enjoy The Stars My Destination, you’ll just have to accept the fact that, in this future century, human beings have abruptly discovered that they can teleport. I admit, I still think the jaunting stuff is goofy – and again, it’s enough for a novel all its own – but Bester has it that a scientist named Jaunte spontaneously teleported in the lab one day, and from there it spread that practically all mankind could do the same. Bester has really thought the whole jaunting thing out, too, with “jaunt-mazes” and people escaping citywide destruction instantly, to even the women of the 25th century being practically “cloistered” due to concerns of improriety.

Speaking of which, Foyle rapes a woman in this section – a scene which makes clear that he’s not a hero. Initially I thought this was so Bester could give the Galaxy artist a “spicy” scene to illustrate (which he does), but it turns out that there’s more here than that. The victim is a “lovely Negro girl” named Robin Wednesbury who also happens to be a telesend, meaning she can broadcast her thoughts – usually unintentionally – but cannot receive them. This is a “century of freaks” as Bester describes it, but in reality it’s like the comic books he had written, only normal people have superpowers. But Foyle rapes her – the act of course off-page – after she’s learned he can jaunt, despite being in her beginner’s class. In truth, the “rape” deal is sort of awkwardly used – it happens apropos of nothing and is not dealt with again until later in the book. Plotwise, Bester wants Foyle to do something awful for which he’ll later want to be forgiven.

Special warning: this rape scene is known to trigger the sensitive readers of today, most of whom fail to grasp that 1.)Foyle is not a good guy, or at least doesn’t start out as one; 2.)And, most importantly, that Foyle spends the entire last quarter of the novel wanting to be punished for his raping of Robin. I already had a run-in with a reviewer who took the opportunity to rail against the “fucking vile” treatment of the women in this novel. She was not grasping – no doubt intentionally not grasping – the two items mentioned above, not to mention the fact that Bester clearly states that, due to jaunting, the women of the 25th century do not have the freedoms of today’s women. Also not to mention the fact that, you know, the entire crux of the novel is sin, redemption, and forgiveness.

She also failed to grasp how important women actually are in The Stars My Destination, and that each of them has an impact on the future of the entire galaxy. More importantly, Robin Wednesbury has the power of forgiveness, telling Foyle in the end sequence – in a cool psychedelic bit that takes place thirty years in the future – that “all that is long forgotten and forgiven,” or something to that effect. I can’t recall too many pulp novels in which the act of forgiveness is employed. But this is just one of the many things that elevates The Stars My Destination above the norm.

Another thing elevating it is the multiple characters. While you have Foyle with his tattooed face running around like a bull in a china shop, you also have Presteign of Presteign, his daughter Olivia (who in another comic booky element can only see in infra-red), CIA honcho Y’ang Yeovil (who is Chinese but doesn’t look it – in another bit of prescience Bester has race becoming a moot point in the future; due to jaunting, races have mixed to the point that most everyone has the same complexion); female radical Jisbella McQueen, whom Foyle meets in prison and who basically educates him (and I have to admit I got a sophomoric chuckle out of how Foyle always called her “Jiz;” now you tell me if “Jiz McQueen” isn’t a pornstar name waiting to happen); Dagenham, a former scientist who now runs a sort of courier company, who is “hot” due to radiation; and a host of minor characters, from a doctor who keeps a circus of surgically-augmented freaks to a child telepath who is 70 years old.

Just as compelling are the colorful scenes Bester captures throughout, all of which are incredibly cinematic. Foyle is sent to infamous undergrond French prison Gouffre Martel early in the novel, a place that is pitch black; in his inevitable escape, Foyle gets hold of a pair of infra-red goggles worn by the guards, and Bester appropriately brings the setting to life. It’s in Gouffre Martel that Foyle meets Jiz, who teaches him over the course of several months via the “Whisper Line:” a freak occurrence in the caves which allows them to converse, even though they’re separated by miles. They take up a sort of correspondence class, and Foyle’s character begins to subtly change, losing the “gutter” language he started the novel with. They also fall in love, sort of, and eventually have sex – though of course Bester leaves it off page, and for that matter isn’t much for exploiting his female characters, in fact barely even describing them.

And again the material with Jiz and Foyle is enough for its own novel, in particular a gripping part where they take a “Saturn Weekender” out into space (one of the things I like about the novel is that it doesn’t stay Earth-bound throughout) to find the wreckage of Nomad, now integrated into the Sargasso Asteroid. Foyle has determined that something valuable must be there – he’s found out there are millions of credits, but what he doesn’t know is that the true treasure aboard is all that exists of PyrE, an experimental substance which we’ll eventually learn could not only hold the key to the balance of the Inner-Outer Planets war, but also to the future of mankind. The scene is masterfully built up and played out, as Foyle, consumed only with his vengeance, actually abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men.

My favorite part soon follows; now we are very much in the “Count Of Monte Cristo in the future” mold, as Foyle, a millionaire many times over, poses as eccentric Fourmyle of Ceres, who runs the punningly named “Four Mile Circus.” More importantly, Foyle has had “Space Commando” surgery to his body, which has augmented his reflexes to inhuman speeds. (I wonder if this “fast reaction time” business might have inspired author Robert Vardeman in his unpublished volume of The Baroness.) Foyle is now “more machine than man,” and with a touch of his tongue on an upper molar, he can go into Six Million Dollar Man-type superhuman speed.

More comic-booky is that, thanks to Jiz earlier paying some quack doctor, Foyle has had his face tattoos surgically removed, but he later discovers that, when he is angry or consumed with passion – or basically anything that makes him lose control of himself – the tattoo reappears on his face, but this time it is red. So now we have a red-faced “tiger” with “Space Commando” reflexes, and it’s very cool, and Bester delivers several thrilling parts where Foyle, face glaring red, activates his speed setting and takes out pursuers Matrix style, wiping them out in fractions of a second. However Bester does not dwell much on violence, and there’s certainly no gore in the novel.

Also returning here is Robin Wednesbury, whom Cyrano de Bergerac style Foyle has hired to be his social mediator, introducing “Fourmyle” to all the jet-setters, but really using her telesending skills to let him know who is who so that his cover never falters. More dramatic sparks here with Robin learning that Foyle is the same “monster” who raped her, but deciding at length to assist him, mainly so she can use him to discover the fate of her family, who appear to have been casualties of the solar system war. This entire sequence is a lot of fun, with the two jaunting around the world and tracking down the crew of Vorga; it also introduces the eerie “Burning Man,” a flame-consumed vision of Foyle which keeps appearing in front of Foyle and others at random intervals.

On and on it goes – the novel’s not even 300 pages but man is it meaty. In fact it’s breathless. Today, it would’ve been written as a trilogy (at least!), but then today it wouldn’t have been half as brutal or pulpy. Bester, despite writing in 1956, even factors in psychedelic stuff, from various reality-warping drugs to a finale which sees Foyle – having of course become the Burning Man due to PyrE – jaunting across the space-time continnuum, the text warping and expanding courtesy artist Jack Gaughan. There’s another great psychedelic visual sequence where Foyle stands beside Olivia Presteign while the Earth is being bombarded by intergalactic missiles; the Earth defense system kicks in, up in the night sky, but only Olivia can see it, due to her infra-red vision, and her descriptions to Foyle are downright lysergic.

The Stars My Destination starts off being about Gulliver Foyle’s drive for revenge, not to mention his lunkheadedness – he starts the novel so simple-minded that he literally wants revenge on Vorga, ie the ship itself, before Jiz informs him that it’s the crew who made the decision to abandon him – or, as she so wonderfully puts it, that Foyle must begin to use “brains, not bombs.” The novel gradually diverges into the Monte Cristo parallel with Space Commando trimmings, before changing again into a metaphysical probing of mankind’s right to determine its own fate, not to mention its right to travel the stars. Fittingly for old comic writer Bester, the philosophy behind this comes from a bartender android, whose circuits are shorting due to Dagenham’s radioactivity.

Anyway to finally sum up (and there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t even mentioned!), I rank The Stars My Destination as one of my favorite novels, up there with Boy Wonder.

*The publishing history of the novel is a little scewy. After a lot of research – imagine my “shock” when none of this could be found on “usually reliable” Wikipedia – I’ve discovered the following: 

There are three versions of the book extant: the original Galaxy serial, collected in this Signet paperback; the UK version, titled Tiger! Tiger!; and finally the 1996 Vintage Books edition, which per the copyright page features a “special restored” text. This last one might be the definitive version, as it tries to find a healthy balance between the original US and UK editions.

The Galaxy and Signet versions feature minor edits, courtesy Galaxy editor H.L. Gold; I found a reference in some book that Bester often complained that Gold made unwarranted edits to his text. However the differences I found when comparing the serialized version to the Vintage Books edition – and it wasn’t a thorough A/B test – were minimal. It appears that most of the material Gold added was for purposes of clarification. For example, early in the book during the Sargasso Asteroid sequence, Bester notes that the tattooed names on the faces of the women feature an “O” with a “tiny cross at the base.”  He leaves it at that, but Gold adds, “the sign of Venus and female sex.” When Dagenham visits Foyle in prison, he reminds Foyle (and the reader): “I’m dangerously radioactive, you know.” This does not appear in the Vintage/UK edition, and clearly was inserted by Gold because this sequence appeared in the second serialized installment; Dagenham was introduced in the first. Gold also removed minor things – sometimes, I feel, for the better. Like during the tense scene where Foyle abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men in space. In the US edition, Jiz merely screams, “Help me, Gully!”

The UK edition does not feature Gold’s edits, but it does feature the edits of some unknown and apparently skittish UK editor; most notably, all of Foyle’s promises that he will kill Vorga “filthy” are changed to “deadly.” In the sequence with Dagenham’s men capturing Jiz, mentioned in the paragraph above, Jiz has the additional dialog, “Do something, Gully! I’m lost!” I think these extra lines interfere with the intensity of the sequence. Finally, the psychedelic printing tricks of Chapter 15, courtesy artist Jack Gaughan, do not appear; at least, so I have been able to determine, in most of the original UK editions.

The Vintage edition from 1996 is basically the British version, Tiger! Tiger!, only with the US title and without the H.L. Gold edits, but it does have “filthy” instead of “deadly.” Otherwise I think it is the same as the version detailed in the paragraph above, save that this Vintage edition features the psychedelic font tricks in Chapter 15.

Personally, I most prefer the original US version, as presented here in the Signet edition. I think Gold’s edits are, for the most part, beneficial to Bester’s text. But the Vintage Books edition is much easier to acquire these days – it’s still in print 22 years after it was published – so that’s probably the one I’d recommend. Or you could just follow the links way up above and read the original version, as serialized in Galaxy.