Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Time Rogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

Strange Stars

Strange Stars, by Jason Heller
June, 2018  Melville House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmie Haskell: California ‘99
ABC Records, 1971

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

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

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

Donovan: Cosmic Wheels
Epic, 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alien: Sons Of The Universe
Elektra, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Cosmozoids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Cybernarc #5: Shark Bait

Cybernarc #5: Shark Bait, by Robert Cain
December, 1992  Harper Books

The penultimate volume of Cybernarc seems to pick up on the final scene of the previous volume – namely, Rod the titular Cybernarc watching as his human partner Chris Drake and his girlfriend Heather McDaniels have sex on the beach (literally, not the alcoholic beverage) – but later it appears that this is something Drake and Heather do fairly often. And apparently Rod must watch them from afar pretty often.

But of course I might be wrong and this does indeed pick up after the previous book; to tell the truth William H. Keith (aka “Robert Cain”) leaves it a bit vague. We learn that Drake and Heather are now an open item and have been for a few weeks, but the previous mission in Sicily is sometimes referred to as being fairly recent. It doesn’t matter, though. Keith still focuses on the same theme that’s grounded the entire series: Rod’s internal debate whether he’s human or not. Luckily though Keith doesn’t beat us over the head with this concept as Simon Hawke does in the somewhat-similar Steele (which I really need to get back to).

As we’ll recall, Rod used the PARET system to learn Drake’s battle skills and reflexes in the first volume, with the unintended side effect that he also picked up Drake’s grief and fury over the murder of his wife and teenaged daughter. Throughout Shark Bait Rod still grapples with this; he’s a robot, no emotions programmed into him, but he feels things akin to what he understands are human emotions. Keith thankfully steps away from the path he was seeming to build a few volumes ago, that Rod was developing rebellious tendencies toward Drake, Heather, and the other RAMROD scientists and technicians who serve as his family. This time the focus is solely on whether Rod’s feelings are “real.”

But Keith doesn’t beat us over the head with this, either. Like the previous volume, the majority of Shark Bait is given over to a single action sequence that just keeps going…and going…and going. It seems that Keith himself was struggling at this point, with the series itself. While the first and second volumes were fun, action-filled yarns with comedic banter straight out of the summer blockbusters of the era, starting with the the third volume a more sluggish vibe has descended upon Cybernarc. Inventive situations and wry dialog (particularly around Rod’s inability to grasp certain things) have given way to major action scenes that seem to exist mostly so as to fill pages. Another thing becoming more prevalent is the military fiction vibe, which I’ve argued before is completely different from the men’s adventure vibe.

We get straight into the action. Rod and Drake are sent over to Turkey to wipe out a heroin smuggler. An interesting note about Shark Bait is that Rod is the central protagonist throughout, particularly in the action scenes. For the most part Drake is relegated to the sidelines, seeking cover while Rod blitzes the enemy. This opening action scene is our first indication of this. Rod, in Combat Mode, first pilots in an Apache helicopter (flying being a new skill he’s been granted) and then runs roughshod over the smuggler’s base. Keith as ever displays an action movie-esque penchant for sending off villains in novel ways; here Rod hurls a pipe through the heroin smuggler before he can make good his escape.

Meanwhile the Mexican cartels have banded together to take down Cybernarc; in the intro we’ve already seen some creeps watching Drake and Heather from afar while they frolick in the sand and snapping photos of them – you almost think these two should start charging people to watch their beach escapades. Led by one of the Salazars, ie the cartel Drake and Rod dealt with in the first volume, they plan to kidnap Heather and use her as bait – presumably the “shark bait” of the title. We get a few sequences from Heather’s point of view as she’s abducted and then brutalized by her captors, lending the novel the tone of the average installment of MIA Hunter. Salazar keeps his men from raping Heather, though the threat constantly looms over her due to one of the thugs in particular. In time Salazar realizes he should put Heather’s mind to use, having her reprogram Rod to fight for the cartels.

This is something Rod himself deduces, whereas Drake and RAMROD honcho Weston figure the cartels just want to destroy Rod. Weston doesn’t go the expected “we can’t do anything to help Heather” route, instead coming up with a plan – Drake and Rod, in Civilian Mod, fly in to Salazar’s compound in Northern Mexico, “delivering” Rod’s Combat Mod. Rod pretends to just be a pilot, able to fool the bad guys into thinking he’s a normal human. Keith as ever excels in displaying the otherworldliness of Rod, capable of transferring his consciousness among a variety of interlinked bodies and devices.

Here we begin the massive battle sequence that will comrpise much of the novel’s runtime. The novel thing this time is that Rod’s in Civilian Mod throughout, still stronger than a human but not nearly as unstoppable as he’d be in Combat Mod. As mentioned Rod is the star here and for the most of the battle Drake’s on the sidelines, either hiding or sneaking around the compound and coming upon a huge stash of heroin. Their weapons memorably stored in the torso of the Combat Mod, the two take on an entire army, and Keith this time keeps bringing up Rod’s battery power and how the fight is wearing it down, particularly when he takes on a couple tanks and armored jeeps.

Another thing that’s gradually disappeared from the series is the gore factor; Rod wipes out a ton of cartel soldiers but it’s rendered in an almost PG-13 tone. Also the battle goes on way too long, with lots of chapters ending on cliffhangers as Rod sees a tank coming for him or whatever; the fight goes well past its expiration date, and it seems clear that Keith is filling pages. And meanwhile Heather isn’t even here, having been taken away by Salazar and fellow cartel sleazebag Contrera to another cartel stronghold, a few hundred miles away. Speaking of which Keith has a grating tendency to only use the metric system.

This takes us into the next and last major setpiece; Drake and Rod race against time to cut off Salazar and Contrera before they can get to their destination, where they’ll be informed Cybernarc has run roughshod and destroyed everyone at the previous location. In other words Heather will for sure be killed, as they’ve already threatened her death if Drake and Rod go against their orders. Here Rod’s depleting battery is really rammed home, as he’s down to around twenty percent and, still in Civilian Mod (because it would take too long to transfer him to Combat Mod), about to engage another army in battle.

This is handled via another long action scene, wth Rod piloting an Apache and taking out hordes of cartel soldiers. We get more interesting stuff with a return of the Spider remotes, so memorably introduced last volume; Drake fires them into the fortress stronghold and, when he’s able to, Rod transfers his consciousness to each of them to see which has come upon Heather’s hiding place. And while Heather spends the majority of the novel in captivity, Keith does give her a nice bit of revenge on her captors. After this the novel climaxes again on an action movie vibe with our heroes chasing down a runaway plane, one of the villains getting chopped into burger by propeller blades.

At over 200 pages, Shark Bait moves a bit sluggishly, mostly because the characterization and fun dialog of previous books have been replaced by endless action scenes. Also the military fiction vibe is strong, with lots of acronyms and “realistic” data on such and such weapons. Hopefully the final volume of Cybernarc restores the series to what it was.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers, by John Brunner 
September, 1972   DAW Books

This is the first John Brunner novel I’ve read, though I’m familiar with him and have several of his books. One of those wildly prolific British sci-fi authors, Brunner first wrote this as a short story in the early ‘60s and then fleshed it out in novel form in the ‘70s, updating the story to tap into the psychedelic era. Kelly Freas’s cool and subtly exploitative cover art (love the strategic placement of that transistor radio!) aptly sums up the theme of the novel – teens (and adults) are tuning in and dropping out thanks to mysterious space signals they’re picking up on special radio-esque gadgets called “Stardroppers.”

Brunner doesn’t really tell us when the novel takes place, but it would appear to be the ‘80s or thereabouts. The “LSD era” is referred to as years ago, and also we’re informed that Britain decided to “drop out of the arms race” a decade ago and thus has become a sort of hotbed of intrigue and spies. So in other words similar to the US of NYPD 2025. And also our hero, an agent named Dan Cross, is an American who works for “The Agency,” which isn’t the CIA – we’re told that this organization was only formed several years ago. And also that its interests are global; there is a bit of an elitist and condescending tone (redundant description, I know) to the novel, with Cross (and thus Brunner) often putting down populism and having his secret agent protagonist proclaim that he’s “A human being first and an American second. The way it should be!” Cross literally sneers at anyone who doesn’t belive in globalism. Unfortunately he’s a bit of a prick and doesn’t engender much reader empathy.

Well, we learn that Stardropping started fairly recently but has broken out in a major way. It’s not just limited to hippie types but people from all walks of life. India and England are the two main hubs of ‘dropping, and the Brits are going for it because it’s a way to tune out of all the tensions their country has gotten into. Cross has been tasked with researching the phenomenon as America is a bit behind on the fad, and there are rumors that something sinister is afoot, mainly that some Stardroppers have flat-out vanished while tuning in to the cosmos. We meet Cross as he’s just arrived in London, posing as a tourist and toting an expensive custom-made Stardropper he picked up from a Californian specialist.

But what exactly is Stardropping? Honestly folks the slim book is pretty much devoted to that entire question. You won’t find much in the way of action or intrigue here – and you definitely won’t find any lurid elements. Other than a random utterance of “fuck” the book is basically G rated. Anyway back to Stardropping. It was discovered a few years before by a British scientist named Rainshaw. Apparently this device he invented picks up signals from space, and just as with a normal radio there’s a spectrum of “stations” to chose from, with listeners becoming devoted to one or the other. Eventually the proposition was put forth that these signals are actually messages from alien beings. 

Brunner clearly has patterned this new world after the LSD era; “Dropped any good stars lately?” apparently being a common question among enthusiasts. But the novel lacks the psychedelic spark I wanted, which is curious given the publication date. In fact the Stardropper enthusiasts are clean and tidy, complete opposite of grungy hippies. There also isn’t as identifiable a culture, but then the novel’s perhaps too slim for it. The Stardroppers our hero meets are for the most part typical British people who have a tendency to gather together and listen to bizarre bleeps and bloops from space, but otherwise there’s nothing remarkable about them. Save that is for one or two basket cases who have been mentally unhinged by Stardropping; Cross meets one of these immediately upon arrival in London, but it’s the only one we get to see in the novel – and later we find out that there was more to this particular character than suspected.

Cross’s main contact is a Scotland Yard cop named Redvers, who in brief backstory was a young cop when the “LSD problem” was at its height. Now he’s middle aged, cynical, and bitter. There’s a bit of America-bashing when he claims it’s “about time” the Agency started looking into Stardropping, given that America has so far left the topic unexplored. This was a bit hard to buy, but I figured it was Brunner’s attempt at featuring a character who was just as clueless about the situation as the reader. Speaking of which Brunner does a fair job of capturing American speech for Cross – in other words he doesn’t sound just like the British characters in the novel.

Curiously, for a book with a secret agent and a device that might impact the world, The Stardroppers is pretty flat and slow-going. There’s no point where Cross does any “secret agent stuff,” and he operates more like a reporter. He just goes around, pretends to be a Stardropper enthusiast, and picks up what info he can. The only character who really sparks is Lillith, a sixteen year-old runaway whose mother destroyed her Stardropper; she enters the text when she attempts to steal Cross’s Stardropper. After a chase he gets it back, feels sorry for her, and lets her try it out. She also provides an in for another group of Stardroppers, ones who live together in a sort of commune (only it’s clean, of course), and Brunner takes this opportunity to fill up lots of pages with expositional dialog about what the Stardroppers might actually be tapping into.

More dialog comes courtesy the studious group of Stardroppers who meet at Cosmica, a store that sells Stardroppers. The sequence where Cross tours Cosmica is pretty cool, and was presented almost like an audiophile visiting a well-stocked record store. A guy named Watson runs the place, and there’s also an attractive young woman named Angel whose rationality about Stardropping appeals to Cross. Brunner doesn’t go the expected “romantic subplot” route but instead introduces more suspense here, as Angel was engaged to Robin Rainshaw, young Stardropper afficionado – and son of Dr. Rainshaw, Stardropper discover – who happens to be one of those who vanished.

We get to see two characters vanish while Stardropping, but the scenes are too goofy to have any impact. People sit there with their headphone – and Freas’s cover illustration is accurate because Brunner specifies that only one headphone is used with Stardroppers – listening to the cosmos (alternately described as white noise, surf, or even animalistic screams), and then suddenly zap away into thin air. It seems that they’ve become so attuned to a particular station that it beams them right into the great yonder; Robin Rainshaw was the first of these to vanish, and Cross’s assignment is to ensure something nefarious isn’t zapping these people away.

The climax solves the mystery, but in a way that detracts a bit from the suspense that’s gone before. Cross for once uses some secret agent skills and sneaks into Watson’s home. There he bumps into none other than Robin Rainshaw, who is wearing a space suit and seems to have just appeared. Long story short – and spoiler warning for the rest of the paragraph – the Stardroppers who have vanished are beaming out into space, and all of them are working with Watson on a secret project. The ones who zap and don’t come back “weren’t good enough,” per Watson. It gets a little goofy here when Cross himself beams momentarily into space, displaying a skill he of course didn’t know he had, and by novel’s end it’s implied he’ll be part of Watson’s venture, which happens to be the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the various military bases of Earth and depositing them in space. 

Since Brunner’s a “real” sci-fi writer and not a pulp sci-fi writer (guess which of the two I prefer), there’s a lot of print devoted to theories of how Stardropping works and how real-time exists with the space-time of the Stardroppers and other stuff I skimmed through because I just didn’t give a damn. I wanted a fun, fast-moving story with pschedelic overtones, and unfortunately that’s not what I got with The Stardroppers. And if that’s what you want, I still highly recommend After The Good War.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Spy At Angkor Wat (Joaquin Hawks #4)

The Spy At Angkor Wat, by Bill S. Ballinger
May, 1966  Signet Books

The fourth instalment of Joaquin Hawks is of a piece with the previous three, more of a study of Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s than an outright secret agent thriller. If you want to know what Cambodia was like before the Vietnam war really got raging, The Spy At Angkor Wat will be right up your alley. However I’ve gotta say I enjoyed this one, mostly because I put myself in the right frame of mind before I read it – I didn’t go in expecting any action or thrills or whatnot, just a slow-going Cold War thriller in the Asia theater.

I’m still having a hard time with Hawks himself, as he’s too much of a cipher for the reader to identify with. I mean don’t get me wrong, all these sub-Bonds of the ‘60s were ciphers, even Nick Carter, but at least they had modicums of personalities. Hawks just doesn’t. On the one hand he’s a swinging ‘60s type whose code name is, preposterously enough, “Swinger,” but on the other he’s a total chameleon who can slip into Southeast Asian countries and go around undetected, posing as a “Cham-Malay.” Plus he can play a mean acoustic guitar. Perhaps if more time were spent on the “swinging ‘60s” aspect of his personality he might be more relatable, but so far Ballinger has denied us this; Hawks’s intros in the Western world are over and done with in mere pages – usually rendered via flashback, as is the case here – and the novels play out entirely in Asia, with Hawks in disguise.

As ever Ballinger opens up on a nice setpiece; Hawks, newly arrived in Phnom Penh, finds his sole contact in Cambodia dead – and recently murdered at that. Hawks starts a fire in the man’s store to camouflage his escape, and later takes out a tail in a tense scene. Here Hawks employs his karate skills, quickly breaking the dude’s neck. Later he takes out another tail, this time killing with a knife. But that’s it so far as the action goes in The Spy At Angkor Wat, with the rest of the novel playing out more on a suspense angle. Until the very end, where Hawks’s belt-gun is once again employed. Wait, there is one arbitrary action scene, early on, but it’s just setup for what comes later: in Phnom Penh Hawks beats up two guys who are chasing a pretty young Chinese woman, but she hops in her car and takes off before he can learn who she is.

But why is Hawks in Cambodia? In the flashback briefing sequence he’s told of young Prince Thom, whose “pro-West” father was recently killed by Commie dissidents. Poor little Thom’s entire family was wiped out, and now the prepubescent prince is hiding somewhere in Cambodia. Hawks’s assignment is to find him and somehow sneak the kid out of Cambodia with absolutely no help from any in-country contacts. Essentially it’s a kidnapping venture, and Hawks is none too enthused about it. So what does he do, folks? He goes over to Phnom Penh, finds his sole contact there already dead…and then buys the restaurant of some expat Frenchman, disguises himself as a “Cham-Malay,” buys a fighting cock and a guitar(!), and begins to bicycle across Cambodia.

I mean friends this is really what Joaquin Hawks does. You have to wonder what the hell secret agent training school he went to. “No, don’t go in with guns blazing – buy a fighting cock and a bicycle and go deep in-country!” It’s all just so absurd, but as ever Ballinger delivers it with a dry, matter-of-fact narrative style so that the reader can only go along for the ride (as slow-going as the ride is). What’s most humorous is that Hawks’s “strategy” relies solely on luck; he comes across the fighting cock apropos of nothing, buys it (with no explanation given the reader why he’d do such a thing), then uses it as an “in” with the various villages he travels to.

Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that Hawks is planning to immerse himself in the country in the hopes that he’ll magically come across the hiding prince. After some interminable journeying deep into Cambodia, occasionally tending to his cock (I mean the fighting bird!!!), Hawks finally arrives in the village which Prince Thom came from and is most likely hiding in. Here he encounters a local who turns out to be a Malay, so Hawks quickly drops his Cham-Malay guise. I don’t even know what the hell a Cham-Malay is; my wife’s actually from Malaysia so maybe she knows. I doubt I’ll ask her, though. Some things are better kept a mystery.

Now posing as a Moro, same as he did last volume, Hawks befriends the dude and proclaims himself as “Yusef.” He plays the guitar for the townspeople, gaining fame, and eventually is admitted into the royal palace to play for the guards. Clearly Hawks is not working on a tight timetable. The next day Hawks is summoned again and told that he is to give a performance for the young prince, who as Hawks suspected is hiding out in his royal chambers. But when Hawks goes there that night he finds an attractive young Chinese woman acting as the little boy’s guardian, and it’s the same Chinese babe Hawks saved back in Phnom Penh. He hopes she doesn’t recognize him. 

Ballinger delivers an effectively-rendered scene in which Hawks is summoned, late that night, to an empty wat, and there the Chinese babe waits by a statue of the Sleeping Buddha. Her name is Shara Da and she knows “Yusef” as the same karate-fighting man who saved her life. First she confirms he’s not a Commie, then she asks for his help – she needs someone strong to help her and Prince Thom escape the palace, as the boy’s life is in danger. Along with his Malay buddy, Hawks initiates the escape that very night, the group of four slipping out into the dense jungle and narrowly avoiding various search parties.

Once they get in the jungle the novel settles back to the customary long-simmer. It takes weeks for them to make it through the dense sprawl; again Hawks’s “strategy” relies on luck. Originally he had no idea how to get Prince Thom out of the country, as they’d be surrounded by enemies or danger – one dangling threat Ballinger unfortunately doesn’t exploit is that if they’d taken the Vietnam route they’d go right through dense Viet Cong territory – but thanks to an off-hand comment from Shara Da, Hawks learns that Prince Thom’s dad had a private plane, stored over near Angkor Wat.

Ballinger doesn’t bring Angkor Wat to life as much as you’d expect he would; the travelers arrive after their long journey, rent rooms in a nearby hotel, and get some rest. And meanwhile Hawks gets lucky with Shara Da; it’s nothing explicit but slightly more risque than previous books. The commandeering of the airplane is where the real climax occurs; the fighting cock serves as a distraction while Hawks gets everyone on board, then his belt-gun is used in a memorable moment. But after this we’re treated to an overlong plane chase, as Hawks must fly them to safety while the enemy closes in. Our hero for once gets hurt, taking a shard of glass from the busted windshield in his leg.

The relationship between Hawks and Prince Thom is one of the highlights of the book. Ballinger, true to his era, doesn’t treat it with the maudlin gravitas you’d find in today’s dreck. I mean keep in mind, little Thom’s lost his entire family and is now all alone, and clearly this stranger “Yusef” is becoming a father figure for him, giving him lessons on bravery, temperance, and survival. So too is Shara Da falling in love with Hawks, but while Ballinger doesn’t go out of his way to bang us over the head with it, we do see at novel’s end how worn and lonely Hawks is at the completion of this particular assignment. Having gotten Thom and Shara Da out of danger and into friendly hands, he knows he’ll never see them again.

But then as I was griping before, it’s like we’ve never even got to meet Joaquin Hawks. The brief intros in California aren’t enough, with him trading glib dialog with his CIA boss. His in-country escapades have him practicing role camouflage to the extent that even the briefest flashes of “the true Hawks” come off like revelations. There is only one more volume to go, so my suspicion is readers of the day weren’t latching onto the series because they felt the same – your hero needs to have at least something memorable about him.