Science Fiction & Fantasy


JOHN BRUNNER – The Altar of Asconel. Interstellar Empire series #4. Ace Double M-123, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1965. Published back to back with Android Avenger, by Ted White (reviewed here ). Cover art: Gray Morrow. Previously serialized in If, April-May 1965. Collected in Interstellar Empire (Daw #208, paperback, 1976).

   Pure space opera, through and through — the kind of science fiction that might also be called swords and spaceships — but none the less enjoyable, as it should be in the hands of an author who would win a Hugo for his novel Stand on Zanzibar, published only three years later.

   The basic premise of The Altar on Asconel is that mankind is in the midst of a galaxy-wide decay after a huge expansion based on what they have found left behind by a prior empire, now mysteriously collapsed. Billions of interstellar spacecraft, for example, are there for the taking.

   But borrowing so extensively from another civilization is no way to build another one from the ashes, as mankind has now discovered. One world that has fallen to a cult-like ruler and a priesthood that follows him without question is Asconel. Can the three brothers of the former ruler fight to win back the planet on their own, with only the female companion of one and the fortuitous discovery of a young girl with as yet untapped telepathic powers?

   The answer, of course, is yes. You only need to read this book to just begin to understand what such powers can do on the behalf of a ragtag group of rebels such as this. (It’s almost cheating.) As I said earlier, this is pure space opera, such as that championed in the pages of Planet Stories a decade earlier. In one sense, this is more of the same, but with more than the usual amount of thought behind it, it’s also a jump higher — a solid, definitive jump.

TED WHITE – Android Avenger. Ace Double M-123, paperback original; 1st printing, 1965. Published back-to-back with The Altar of Asconel, by John Brunner.

   This was author-editor Ted White’s first solo novel — his first being a collaboration with Terry Carr entitled Invasion from 2500 (Monarch, 1965) under the byline of Norman Edwards. It’s by no means a major stand-out effort, far from it, but what it does have is momentum, and plenty of it.

   It begins in Manhattan in the year 2017 (!) as an ordinary citizen named Bob Tanner does his regular civic duty (every fourteen months, on the average) of taking part in an Execution, a government sponsored event in which those deemed insane and a threat to society are strapped down and electrocuted by in front of 1000 citizens who push the buttons that do the deed.

   The US has become a country of Compulsory Sanity, in other words. As every SF fan knows, however, there are pockets of resistance, or there will be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

   As Bob Tanner leaves the Arena, his responsibility done, he slips on the sliding walkways in the city, causing an open fracture in his leg. What the medics discover, to their amazement, is that instead of bones, Tanner has a metal skeleton, and that his body has a non-human ability to heal itself in hours and minutes instead of weeks and days.

   Naturally Bob Tanner is scared out of his wits. (I would be, too.) But even more frightening to him, once he escapes and is on the run, is that he has a new-found ability to kill people he meets, even those he believes are friendly, beautiful women included, with a laser-like ray that emanates from his mouth.

   Bob Tanner, it seems, is a killing machine, built by one man but under the control of another, and he is caught in between. The story is padded with some scenarios built by one side or another and that play out in his mind — I am not too clear about this — but as these are some of more interesting portions of this rather short book (113 pages), it’s padding that adds significantly to the overall ongoing thrust of the story.

   Which ends on a high note, as good stories should, but there is definitely room for the question to be asked, “What comes next?” A question that may be answered in the sequel, The Spawn of the Death Machine (Paperback Library, 1968). Perhaps it will be as fun as this one to read.

KEITH LAUMER “Ballots and Bandits.” First published in If, September-October 1970. Collected in Retief of the CDT (Doubleday, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, paperback, July 1978).

   After reading and reporting back on a novel by Keith Laumer called Catastrophe Planet a while back, I realized that I hadn’t read any of the series of stories he wrote about an intergalactic diplomatic troubleshooter named Retief in quite a while. I enjoyed them immensely back in the 60s and early 70s, but as time went on, I started to forget how good they were.

   Shame on me. I read this one a couple of days ago, and I found it as funny as I remember all of Retief’s adventures for the CDT were. Retief is “fighter” spelled backwards, or so I’m told (well, it’s close), and what the initials CDT stand for is Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne. The stories themselves are wicked, satirical jabs at diplomatic missions around the world, and the US in particular, based on Laumer’s previous career in the foreign service.

   The only difference being that instead of traveling around the world, Retief’s job takes him to all kinds of alien planets all over the galaxy. What’s the same is the dunderheadedness of all ambassadors and their ilk — all Retief’s superiors, but none of them, not one, can maneuver their way through an interworld diplomatic crisis if their lives depend on it. And often they do.

   In “Ballots and Bandits” Retief and entourage (well, technically speaking, he’s part of the entourage) are on the planet Oberon where the enemy Groaci have recently been sent packing, and the various races on the planet are about to have independent elections for the first time.

   Two problems: Ambassador Clawhammer thinks the Terrans should have their say in the matter, and worse, the various races on Oberon have mistakenly taken the idea of election battles and political war chests far more literally as the people of other worlds do. The question is, which is better, being pushed around by local hoodlums, of being exploited from afar?

   Retief is the kind of guy that cuts through diplomatic double talk with total impatience, and as a mere Second Secretary solves the problem as a man who thinks with his head instead of using it as only a place to rest his hat. And in the process this time around he teaches the Oberonians the Rituals of “Whistle-stopping, Baby-kisisng, Fence-sitting, and Mid-slinging, plus a considerable amount of Viewing-with-Alarm.”

   Great stuff. I’ve only scratched the surface of what made me laugh out loud with this one, and more than once.

KEITH LAUMER – Catastrophe Planet. Berkley F1273, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1966. Included in the collection The Breaking Earth (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback; June 1981) with two non-fiction essays by other authors. Also included in the collection Future Imperfect (Baen, softcover; May 2003).

   This one takes place some 30 years or more in the future from the time it was written, and although it’s definitely a science fiction novel, a good portion of it would make the best James Bond movie never filmed. The reason for the title is that massive plates in the Earth’s surface have begun to shift, causing earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, typhoons and all kinds of similar disaster all over the world.

   In the James Bond role is a guy named Mal Irish to whom all kinds of strange events happen, and he’s just the kind of adventurous guy to go with them. If anything similar were to happen to either you or I, we’d just find the nearest corner and curl up in a ball.

   First he comes across an old sailor trapped in a mostly demolished building who tells him a fantastic story of an expedition to Antarctica where they found a hidden city filled with signs of an ancient civilization. But strange beings nearly wiped out the party; the dying man may have been the last survivor.

   But before dying, the man gives Mal a strange coin, which he takes with him to the island of Miami, which is now one of the last remnants of life going on as before on the planet. In fact there is a coin collectors’ convention going on. He takes the coin in for evaluation, and when he leaves, he finds the coin has been switched on him.

   Mystified, the trail leads him to Crete, and to get there he crosses the Atlantic in a small one-man boat. There by sheer happenstance he meets an old friend, who by chance knows a fisherman who just happens to have been hired to strange two groups of strange men out to sea, where they have jumped overboard and disappeared.

   Have I mentioned the beautiful girl who speaks a strange exotic language but who seems to be the object of a worldwide hunt for her by persons unknown? The trail leads at length back to Antarctica, where things revert to pure science fiction, if not epic fantasy, at last what we have been waiting for, a grand finale replacement for the much more prosaic adventures it took to get there, at least in comparison.

   If you stop to think about it as you go, however, you will realize what a bunch of nonsense this all is. But like a James Bond movie, to continue the parallel, if you can sit back and let Laumer slide you along from location to location, you may find yourself enjoying this all out assault on your senses immensely. Mind-blowing? Yes, absolutely.

   Unfortunately, I made the mistake of stopping and trying to pick up the story line later on. It has its moments, but all in all, as you may have gathered, I think Laumer has done much better work than this. (Note that the later two versions may be expansions of the Berkley novel from 1966, which is the one I read.)

The GARRETT P.I. Series by GLEN COOK
by Barry Gardner


   Down these mean streets not only a man must go, but just about anything else you can think of. Garrett has a deceased representative of a race you never heard of who is slowly but inevitably decaying for a housemate, hires the occasional groll for strong-arm work, isn’t above banging a sexy copper-headed dwarf if the occasion arises, and has for a best friend a vicious half-breed vegetarian elf who makes Parker’s Hawk seem like a pussy.

   His cases involve not only gangsters, but vampires, ghosts, and assorted other malevolencies. No, Dorothy, we’re not in Southern California any more, nor West Oz or North Narnia either.

   Garrett is around 30, an ex-Marine and veteran of a decades-long war between the Karentine Empire (in whose capital, TunFaire, he lives) and the Venageti. He’s tough and flip, though his wisecracks haven’t the flair of the better of his “realistic” brothers. The retinue at his brownstone equivalent includes an aging servant with a bevy of marriageable but extremely ugly nieces; a large, colorful and profane bird known as the Goddam Parrot (a later addition); and the Dead Man, a yellow and much larger member of an enigmatic race who is quite dead but still kicking. In a manner of speaking.

   In general I haven’t been enamored of attempts to meld crime and fantastic fiction. Though Lee Killough and Mike McQuay have both gained some attention in this area, neither have particularly impressed me, the latter in particular. The Garrett books, to be fair and accurate, are more fantasy/adventure than detective stories, though there are mysteries and there is detection.

   Glen Cook is a prolific and in my opinion very, very good science-fantasy writer. He has authored a number of trilogies and series, among them the Black Company saga — one of my own all-time favorites — and a group known loosely as the Dread Empire series.

   He is one of the most adept of current writers at constructing mythic landscapes, but at the same time retains a focus on the characters who inhabit them; to me, a formidable combination. It’s unlikely that there are many with a liking for science-fantasy who haven’t discovered him, but for those few I have no hesitation in recommending any of his single books and series.

   There are seven books in this series to date, the last (and least) just having been released in February. All are paperback originals from Signet/ROC.

Sweet Silver Blues (1987). Garrett’s old war buddy, Denny, leaves his fortune to a lady whom his family doesn’t know, and they want Garrett to find her. Denny was a dwarf, by the way. Sister Rose, a dwarfish mixture of pulchritude and pure greed, would rather have the fortune than the heir. The trail leads to vampires, centaurs, and trouble.

Bitter Gold Hearts (1988). The son of a Stormwarden (a local variety of sorcerous very big shot) is kidnapped, and her deputy hires Garrett to help. The plot involves ogres and assassins, and if that wasn’t enough, the Stormwarden’s nubile daughter doesn’t seem to find Garrett unattractive.

Cold Copper Tears (1988). A woman from Garrett’s past and something almost as dangerous from the Dead Man’s make things interesting around TunFaire. Throw in a teenage girl’s street gang a few holy relics, a nihilistic cult, then stir twice and start counting the bodies.

Old Tin Sorrows (1989). Garrett owes a big favor to an old Sergeant who works for a retired General whom someone is trying to kill. Garrett takes up residence in the General’s mansion, which has a ghost who no one but Garrett can see. Then the dead come back to life, and more people die.

Dread Brass Shadows (1990). Garrett’s favorite redhead gets knifed for no reason, then two others show up who look a lot like her. An intra-species gang war starts among dwarves, and gangsters are after everybody. They all want the mysterious Book of Shadows, and Garrett hasn’t the foggiest.

Red Iron Nights (1991). A serial killer is gutting beautiful young women in TunFaire and removing their blood, raising spectres of cults and black magic. The City’s top cop wants Garrett’s help, and the lady gangster kingpin wants … something.

Deadly Quicksilver Lies (1994). While the Dead Man sleeps, Garrett is hired by a beautiful redhead, once mistress of a now-dead king to find her runaway daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple; it’s really about buried treasure and old debts, and everybody wants a piece of the action and of Garrett.

   These aren’t bad books at all. Lightweight, certainly, but decently written, and they furnish a passable way for some of us with a taste for both fantasy and crime fiction to combine our pleasures.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.


[UPDATE]   The series has continued since Barry wrote this overview, to wit:

8. Petty Pewter Gods (1995)
9. Faded Steel Heat (1999)
10. Angry Lead Skies (2002)
11. Whispering Nickel Idols (2005)
12. Cruel Zinc Melodies (2008)
13. Gilded Latten Bones (2010)
14. Wicked Bronze Ambition (2013)

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK – Shakespeare’s Planet. Berkley/Putnam, hardcover, 1976. Berkley, paperback; 1st printing, May 1977. Del Rey, paperback, 1982.

   Back in my teens and 20s when I was reading SF by the armload, two of my favorites were, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. I say “of course” because those were the two authors that my SF-reading friends were also reading (all two of them).

   But as time went on and I started reading Astounding and Galaxy and some of the other magazines that came out around then, I started finding other authors that appealed to me even more than the big two. (I won’t go into who the “Big Three” might be.)

   As you may have guessed by now, this is when I discovered Clifford D. Simak. He wrote simple stories about some not so simple ideas, and what’s more he made them sound simple. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest (Michigan), and Simak was if nothing else a master of small town ideas and values, and of creating characters who believed in them, no matter how far out in time or space they happened to be.

   Shakespeare’s Planet is a prime example. It begins with Carter Horton waking up on an expeditionary spaceship as the only survivor of four humans on board. His only companions, if you will, being a robot named Nicodemus and a ship named Ship, controlled by the minds of three people who gave up their bodies for the voyage: a monk, a scientist and a grande dame.

   The planet the ship has found is inhabited, as it turns out, by an alien creature named Carnivore. Recently deceased is a human dubbed Shakespeare from the book of plays he owned. Tunnels in space have led to this world, but something has gone awry, as they function only in one direction: in, not out.

   And the ship cannot return to Earth, which is now 1000 years away. One new arrival to the planet after Horton is Elayne, a female explorer of the tunnels through space. She is also trapped with the others. But there are other beings on the planet, each more fantastic than the next, nor do they get along as well as those already described.

   Before the book ends there is a lot of discussion of life, the universe, and the role of humanity in it. Some of this discussion may be dismissed by some as being on the level of sophomores living in a college dormitory, but Simak has a way of making it seem a whole lot more than that — he works with a canvas the size of the entire cosmos –and if I could explain what he does any better than that, I’d be writing SF instead of only reading it.

JAMES H. SCHMITZ – The Universe Against Her. Telzey Amberdon #1. Ace F-314, paperback original; 1st printing, 1964. Although not so stated, this novel is a fix-up consisting of two previously published stories “Novice” (Analog SF, June 1962) and “Undercurrrents” (serialized in Analog SF, May & June 1964). Gregg Press, hardcover, 1981.

   There were in all a dozen or more Telzey Amberdon stories, all first appearing in Analog SF and over the years collected and repackaged in various shapes and forms, most recently by Baen Books. From all accounts they were very popular at the time, often gaining cover story status.

   In this novel consisting of Telzey’s first two adventures, during the course of which she begins to gain knowledge and control of her one-in-a-million telepathic powers, she is only a 15-year-old girl going to law school. In “Novice” she manages to outwit her evil aunt who has plans of taking her pet away from her, a large cat-like animal Telzey has named Tick-Tock.

   What the aunt doesn’t know, nor does Telzey, is that Tick-Tock is the only member of his race of telepathic beings who has remained visible on the planet of his origin, which is where Telzey is visiting her aunt. By communicating with Telzey telepathically, Tick-Tock also awakens her latent powers.

   This is a good story, spoiled a bit by the lack of real motive for the aunt to do what she does, then by an ending in which Telzey fiddles with the aunt’s mind so that she no longer is a bad person. There ought to be law against that, is my thought, but apparently there isn’t.

   There is also not a law against murder for hire, as it turns out in story number two, which in book form continues immediately after the first. In fact, quite the opposite is true and is legally called a “private war.” Once again it is a female relative who is the evil antagonist, except this time it is that of a good friend of Telzey at school, a girl who is about to come into an inheritance worth a lot of money, if she lives that long.

   This one moves slowly, in one sense, since a lot is taking place, but a lot of exposition is used to explain what is happening. The way science fiction is written today, all of the action would be described with much more detail, with lots of dialogue to help move the story along, instead of longish paragraphs that summarize, telling not showing. It’s a good story, but to today’s readers, told in dull fashion.

   Not much is made of Telzey’s age, by the way, nor even the fact that she is female, both facts which were, I think, quite remarkable for the time the stories were written. By the time this book ends, her psionic abilities, seemingly getting a quantum boost whenever needed, are very powerful indeed, but with a strong hint that even more adventure — and danger — lie ahead.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime.” First published in Cosmic Powers, edited by John Joseph Adams (Saga Press, trade paperback; 1st printing, April 2017).

    Browsing at Barnes & Noble yesterday, a brand new science fiction anthology called Cosmic Powers caught my eye. I bought it almost immediately, brought it home, and I’m already three stories and 70 pages into it. The overall theme, according to the editor, John Joseph Adams, in his introduction are “stories of larger than life heroes battling menacing force, in far-flung galaxies, with the fate of the universe at stake.”

   Well, yippee! As long as the authors don’t go all early Edmond Hamilton on us, or E. E. Smith, Ph.D., this is the kind of science fiction I’m always on the lookout for, and so far, I’m happy to tell you, they haven’t. The stories are huge in scope, but up close and personal in scale. (I hope that makes sense.)

   The first story in the book, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” by Hugo award-winner Charlie Jane Anders, is a pretty good example. In fact, compared to the deadly dull military SF being published (what I’ve seen of it), it could be faulted in going too far in the other direction; that is to say, making too light of the affair — which in this case consists entering the realm of a huge blob of existence called The Vastness, escaping with a device called a hypernautic synchrotrix on a spaceship called the Spicy Meatball, one of the two perpetrators thereof (one male and one female) being someone who calls on a pair of gods totally new to me (“Thank Hall and Oates!”), and all this in only the first eight pages, with 26 more to go.

   I enjoyed this one. I think the author manages to keep both feet on the right side of fun versus slapstick, but this may very well be one of those situations where simply said, your mileage may vary.

ELEANOR ARNASON “Ruins.” First published in Old Venus, edited by Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin (Bantam, hardcover, 2015). Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martin’s Griffin, trade paperback, 2016).

   The stated goal of the anthology Old Venus is to showcase new stories based on the vision that SF writers had of the planet back in the 40s and early 50s; namely, a water-drenched planet with all kinds of exotic flora and fauna, a world where humans could live, but it would be a struggle.

   I don’t own a copy of that book, a companion edition to a similar anthology called Old Mars, but now that I’ve read this story in editor Dozois’s most recent best of the year anthology, which I’m slowly working my way through, I know I need to have it.

   In “Ruins” a young female photographer named Ash Weatherman is hired by a representative of National Geographic to put together a small guided tour of some of the more interesting locales on Venus. She agrees, finds a local crew,and off they go.

   This is all great fun. None of the sights and sounds the group comes across would out of place in an old back issue of Planet Stories, to pick a most obvious example. But all is not what it seems, neither with the people she hires as guides, or with the story itself. The crossbreeding of Terran wildlife with that on Venus was caused by a meteor glancing off Earth and hitting that other planet, or was there a second one as well?

   There are also two factions on Venus that ring strangely out of place. The CIA has a strong outpost there, with their primary protagonists being remnants of the Soviet Union, which collapsed economically by trying to keep their colony on the planet going, and this new expedition finds themselves caught up in the crossfire.

   Nor is this all that they find, hence the title. This is the kind of story, extremely well-written, that gave science fiction its grand sense of wonder in the past. It’s good to see that there are authors who can still provide us the same thrills today.

PETER SAXON – The Vampires of Finistère. The Guardians #4. Berkley X1808, paperback original; 1st US printing, April 1970. First published in the UK by Howard Baker, hardcover, 1970.

   I’m not too sure of the numbering, even though the cover of the Berkley paperback clearly says this is #4 in the series. But I also believe that this is the last of the series, and there are five of them in all. (The numbering may be Berkley’s doing. One of the books, The Curse of Rathlaw, was published first in this country by Lancer.)

   As for the author, there was no Peter Saxon. That was a house name used by many authors, including W Howard Baker, who used it as his own personal pseudonym at first, primarily for Sexton Blake novels, then used by other authors for other books and series.

   The author of Vampires is generally accepted as being Rex Dolphin, whose name and work has come up for discussion previously on this blog with a review of a tale he wrote for Weird Tales entitled “Off the Map.”

   I have read online some speculation that The Guardians may have been the first team of occult detectives, fighting among other evils in the world the following: vampirism, witchcraft, black magic, voodoo and sorcery. (I am cribbing from a list displayed on the back cover of the book at hand.)

   The members of The Guardians, based in a strangely out-of-the-way location in London, are:

Gideon Cross: Founder and most powerful member in terms of his own occult powers. He generally does not leave the team’s headquarter building. Sometimes his actual motives in their various investigations seem hazy.

Steven Kane: The leader, rugged and individualistic, a former professor anthropology with a vast knowledge of the occult.

Father John Dyball: A priest and a former wartime chaplain. Very handy when exorcisms and/or prayers are needed.

Lionel Marks: No psychic powers but a fine detective and a good man to have along when the going gets tough. A very minor participant in this adventure.

Anne Ashby: A beautiful mysterious woman with many secrets and psychic powers. A strong connection exists between herself and Gideon Cross, but none of the other members of the team are sure what it is.

   In this particular investigation, The Guardians come to the assistance of a young man whose girl friend disappeared while they were traveling in an isolated region of Brittany. Getting off a main road they leave their car and try to walk to the sea, but instead find themselves caught up in a pagan ritual harking back to ancient times.

   The first two-thirds of the book are simply terrific. Dolphin, if he indeed was the author, was a very descriptive writer, evoking both eeriness, and a sense of wonder, fear and dread in almost every passage he writes. It is easy to believe, once you fall under his spell, that there could be an isolated village on the coast of France where if anyone visits, they never come back a second time.

   Unfortunately, in terms of a team effort, this is very nearly a one-man show. For most of the book, Steven Kane is the only member who has any active role in trying to track down the missing girl. (She is a virgin, by the way. Her father forbade the trip if there were going to be any funny business going on between her and her boy friend.)

   Alas, that also means that Ann Ashby’s active presence is contained in only a few pages at the beginning. I’d like to learned more about her. The ending is perfunctory, but the getting there is quite a bit of fun. And, yes, that scene on the cover of the Berkley paperback, so evocatively portrayed by artist Jeff Jones, is actually in the book.

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