Science Fiction & Fantasy


JOHN BARNES – Orbital Resonance. Tor, hardcover, December 1991; paperback, October 1992.

   A lot of different people have compared Barnes to Heinlein on the basis of this book, and for once the comparisons seem to have a modicum of validity. If you liked Heinlein’s “juveniles,” or any of his books before he went weird, you’re very likely to enjoy this.

   It chronicles the life of a 12-year-old girl living in an asteroid colony thousands of miles from a devastated earth, if you want a bare-bones summary. You might call it a coming-of-age story, but that wouldn’t do justice to it. For one thing, it presents one of the more believable self-contained environments I’ve come across, both physically and sociologically as well.

   For another, the lead character is both likeable and credible, an all too uncommon juxtaposition. It;s a well-paced story that will hold your interest, and excellent science fiction of a kind too seldom seen nowadays. Try it.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #5, January 1993.


JOHN WYNDHAM – Out of the Deeps. Ballantine #50, US, paperback, November 1953. Michael Joseph, UK, hardcover, 1953, as The Kraken Wakes. Reprinted several times under both titles.

   From the front cover:

      *All over the world, great slimy monsters crept out of the seas — to feed on human flesh!

   I think “slimy” is a nice touch; don’t you?

   In any case, this is a fast-moving and fairly gripping tale of one of those idiosyncratic Alien Invasions typical of British Sci-Fi, unfolding over a period of several years and narrated by a journalist of the Clark Kent school: handy at crucial moments, and observant enough to see the implications.

   It all starts conventionally enough as strange objects streak to Earth from somewhere around Jupiter and mostly plunk into the ocean deeps, except for a few that streak across the U.S. and/or Russia and are promptly shot to space-smithereens, since this was at the height (or depth, if you prefer) of the Cold War.

   Some time passes before the Government organizes a research team that includes our narrator and the usual insightful, eccentric) and politically inconvenient) Scientist to see what became of the things, leading to a suspenseful chapter where bathyspheres are dropped, only to have loose cables hauled back up, severed and fused by some awesome heat.

   Things progress from here to worse: depth bombs are dropped, ships disappear, then more ships, and finally whale-size blobs start crawling out on land, discharging “millebrachiate tentacular coelenterates” (big honkin’ jellyfish) to devour the locals.

   There are some really fine pages of pitched battles with the damn things until (SPOILER ALERT!) they put the blighters to rout, And everyone slaps himself on the back for vanquishing the foe…. And then, very slowly, the polar ice caps start to melt — and at this point the whole thing got unbelievable.

   The thing is, there’s a strong subtext in this book of Official dithering and Politicized inaction. Wyndham spreads his story over years, with connecting phrases like “It was not till months later…” or “the following summer…” and that sort of thing. The icecap-melt uses a lot of these, as elected officials all over the world argue over what’s going on and whose fault it is.

   Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to swallow the notion that responsible elected officials, faced with clear evidence of climate change, would mostly just ignore it. There’s even a short bit about New Orleans getting flooded… makes the whole thing unbelievable.

   If you can get past this, however, there’s some good reading here, with large-scale catastrophe, small-scale personal crises, and a real feel for the characters involved. What impressed me most though was that Wyndham brought this whole epic in under two hundred pages. If it were done today, he’d have to spend five volumes detailing pointless subplots and diversions to tell the same damn story. No wonder I miss the fast, sharp writing of yester-pulp!


WILLIAM SHARP “The Graven Image.” First collected in The Gypsy Christ and Other Tales (Stone and Kimball, 1895). Reprinted in Great Tales of Terror, edited by S. T. Joshi (Dover, 2002). (Follow the link to read the story online.)

   Sometimes a story can leave you with an indelible sense of horror, indeed of terror. Skilled horror writers know exactly what imagery and settings can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the reader. Locales such as an abandoned mansion, a campground at twilight, and an uncharted island all can be utilized to great effect in transporting the reader into a realm of literary danger.

   In William Sharp’s “The Graven Image,” the reader is treated vicariously to a night’s stay in a haunted bedroom, a setting that should lend itself to a solidly constructed short story. Unfortunately, the setting itself is unable to carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.

   The tale follows the narrator, Cornwall native James Trenairy, as he recounts his disquieting stay at “The Mulberries,” an old house in Kensington, London inhabited by both the living … and the dead. Although the story is most certainly a well written and captivating supernatural tale, it nonetheless feels incomplete, as if it’s more of a vignette than a complete short story. The reason for this is as simple as it is oft neglected, particularly in stories that aim more for shock value than for dramatic effect. Other than resolving to never stay in the house again, the protagonist undergoes no fundamental character or life change as a result of his experiences.

   That’s not to say that Sharp wasn’t more than capable of both building tension in the story and envisioning a situation that surely would evoke a sense of horror in readers. It’s just that the story concludes without us wondering exactly how this horrible experience, described in exquisite detail, will affect the psyche of one James Trenairy.

A Reappraisal Review by Walter Albert:

SHE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1935. Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce. Based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. Directors: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel.

   Herewith my reconsideration of She, bringing, I hope, a close to my rediscovery (thanks to your astute reviewers) of my earlier review.

   I watched first the b&w version of She, then a few sections of the colorized version.

   No, Nigel Bruce’s role is not a “throw-away,” although he’s very clearly a supporting player and is best used in the sections that lead up to the discovery of Kor.

   I’m not generally fond of colorizing films, but the process is rather tastefully used in She, and is especially effective in the Hall of Kings segment. Harryhausen and James V. D’Arc both compare the musical accompaniment to the dances in the Hall of Kings to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which is certainly stretching it quite a bit.

   I have CDs of both the original score and its restoration and recording with William Stromberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. I don’t find it musically as compelling as the score for King Kong, but it’s an impressive record of Steiner’s musical genius. His scores for the two Merian C. Cooper fantasy productions are at the top of my favorites among his film scores, as are Rozsa’s scores for The Jungle Book and The Thief of Baghdad among his numerous film scores.

   Helen Gahagan is not conventionally attractive, but her imperious manner contrasts very effectively with Helen Mack’s performance, two roles that are the strong emotional underpinnings of the film.

   And the production design and special effects are outstanding.

   I must say that I’ve enjoyed returning to the film after three decades and I appreciate the comments about my earlier review that prompted this voyage — dare I say it? — of discovery.


CHARLES BEAUMONT “The New People.” First published in Rogue, August 1958. First collected in Night Ride and Other Journeys (Bantam, paperback, Mar 1960). Reprinted many times since, including in Perchance to Dream (Penguin, trade paperback, October 2015).

   It’s not every day that you discover that your neighbors are Satanists. But then again, the usual and the quotidian is hardly the terrain of writer Charles Beaumont. In “The New People,” one of the author’s stories assembled in Night Ride and Other Journeys (1960), the protagonist soon discovers that his typical suburban neighbors are anything but. It’s an altogether well constructed tale, one that ratchets up the suspense, all the while giving the reader the vague sense that he could just as easily find himself in the main character’s proverbial shoes.

   Beaumont, like Ira Levin and Stephen King following him, had a knack for taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Just lurking behind the niceties of Any Town USA and blissful marriages are secrets that are first gently, then abruptly, exposed. We never learn the name of the town where “The New People” takes place, but it’s hinted that it may be a place where Hollywood screenwriters reside.

   Soon after moving into their new home, husband and wife Hank and Ann, along with their adopted son Davey, begin to form social relationships with their neighbors. While Davey doesn’t want to have anything to do with the locals, Hank and Ann host a small gathering in their home for the new friends.

   As the night unfolds, one of the neighbors hints to Hank that he has secret, pertinent information that he must share. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the best conte cruels, Hank comes to learn that his newfound friend is anything but. Overall, a well-written story which bolsters my appreciation for Beaumont’s writing.


JACK LONDON “The Enemy of All the World.” First published in Red Book, October 1908. First collected in The Strength of the Strong (Macmillan, 1914). Anthologized several times, including The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London (Citadel Press, hardcover, 1993). Available online by following the link above.

   Jack London’s “The Enemy of all the World” reads more like a work of journalism than a work of fiction. That itself shouldn’t be surprising, given London’s journalism background and extensive corpus of non-fiction writings. What makes this particular short story worth reading, however, is that it’s a work of “journalistic science fiction,” an imaginative recounting of future events from the perspective of the then present.

   Published in the October 1908 issue of Red Book, “The Enemy of All the World” unfolds in purely narrative form. Absent is any dialogue or a writing style that would automatically give it away as a work of fiction. The anonymous, distant narrator recalls the life and times of one Emil Gluck, a neglected child who grew up into a vengeful mad genius and who was executed in 1941. Much like a villain in Jules Verne’s works, Gluck is a scientist socially cut off from a society that scorns him.

   Also similar to those madmen depicted in Verne’s fiction, Gluck utilizes technology to wage a one-man war against the world. Emil Gluck, dastardly villain that he is, utilizes electro-plating – his “apparatus” to wreak havoc with modern technology:

   In the meanwhile Emil Gluck, the malevolent wizard and arch-hater, left no trace as he traveled his whirlwind path of destruction. Scientifically thorough, he always cleaned up after himself. His method was to rent a room or a house, and to secretly install his apparatus— which apparatus, by the way, he so perfected and simplified that it occupied little space. After he had accomplished his purpose he carefully removed the apparatus. He bade fair to live out a long life of horrible crime.

   Fortunately for society, the western powers’ secret services are on Gluck’s trail. It is one intrepid U.S. secret service agent by the name of Silas Bannerman (a perfect name, right?) who finally tracks Gluck down and makes him his prisoner.

   A story with more than a hint of political commentary, “The Enemy of all the World” is worth consideration both as a work of early science fiction and as further evidence that London, who was involved in socialist politics in the Bay Area, had political views that weren’t so easily categorized.


ALICE & CLAUDE ASKEW “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire.” First published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, UK, July 1914. Collected in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer (Wordsworth, UK) as “The Vampire.” Anthologized several times over the years, including The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published, edited by Otto Penzler. Available online here.

   Psychic detective Aylmer Vance was the brainchild of husband and wife writer duo Alice and Claude Askew, English authors who were tragically killed when a German submarine sank the ship they were traveling on in 1917. Like his more well known and esteemed counterpart, one Sherlock Holmes, Vance also had an assistant/sidekick who recounted his cases in narrative form. Enter Dexter, Vance’s “Watson,” who acts as “recorder of his strange adventures.”

   In “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire,” the reader learns of a most unusual case investigated by Vance and Dexter, one that involves a vampire and a witch’s curse and unravels less like a mystery and more like a Gothic supernatural tale. Although it’s not a particularly compelling work of detective fiction, the story does contain all of the major tropes of the then emerging modern vampire story.

   There are references to an ancient race, an exotic Continental locale, and the tension between ancient superstitions and modern rational thought and skepticism. There is also a castle, which serves as the locale for strange happenings, one which the narrator Dexter described as a “gloomy edifice” with “the great stone walls, the long corridors, gloomy and cold even on the brightest and warmest of days …”

   All told, “Aylmer and the Vampire” is a solidly constructed vampire story and one that deserves more recognition. While reading it, I couldn’t help but picture Peter Cushing portraying Aylmer Vance in my mind’s eye. That surely counts for something. Recommended.


MASTER OF THE WORLD. American International Pictures, 1961. Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster, David Frankham. Screenplay: Richard Matheson, based on the novels Robur, the Conqueror and Master of the World by Jules Verne. Director: William Witney.

   For a film directed by serial and B-film maestro William Witney, Master of the World, the cinematic adaptation of two Jules Verne works, is a relatively tame, if not occasionally sedate, affair. There’s some action, to be sure. But it’s really not all that frenetic or fun. Instead, the viewer has to make do with a perfectly adequate script by Richard Matheson and some enjoyable scenery chewing from Vincent Price and some solid, if not particularly memorable, acting from Charles Bronson.

   Price portrays Robur, a visionary genius and diabolical madman determined to wage war on the very concept of warfare itself. His plan is to traverse the globe in the Albatross, an airship straight out of the imagination of late nineteenth-century fiction, and bomb the heck out of the world’s armies. Along the way, he ends up capturing U.S. government agent Strock (Bronson) and three of Stock’s civilian companions with personalities as exciting as cardboard.

   There’s a lot of dialogue, some of it incredibly tedious, about the morality of destroying the Albatross in order to thwart Robur’s designs. Likewise, the viewer is subject to similar speechifying from Robur. Fortunately, Price is such a unique screen presence that he makes the movie far more enjoyable than it would have been had another actor been cast in the role.

   Master of the World isn’t a total loss. There are some occasionally lighthearted moments and Price seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. It’s all just rather dated, I suppose. Perhaps it’s a movie than can only really be enjoyed on the big screen on a rainy Saturday afternoon where it’s escapist fun soon forgotten after leaving the theater.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MARTIN CAIDIN – The God Machine. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1969; Baen, 1989.

       — Four Came Back. David McKay Co., hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 1970; Baen, 1988.

   Martin Caidin, who wrote science fiction and adventure grounded in hard science and technology, and who is best remembered today for his novel Cyborg, which became the basis for the cult television series The Six Million Dollar Man, was never really part of the science fiction community his work most resembles. Most of his novels, like Cyborg, are thrillers using science fictional elements, and the writer he most resembles is Mickey Spillane in his narrative style and politics — which became increasingly bizarre (*) and dominant in his work later in his career.

   But before that he wrote some entertaining adventure novels with a bit of hard science and technology in a blend of SF and thriller adventure novel that was unique to him.

   The God Machine is the old supercomputer takes over the world trope. The hero, Steve Rand, works on Project 79, and as the book opens he is getting suspicious after an attempt on his life. He soon becomes convinced that it was the work of Project 79, a computer which may have achieved true AI (artificial intelligence).

   Caidin was a top notch suspense novelist when he wanted to be, and Rand’s first person narration has an immediacy that will likely remind you favorably of Mickey Spillane, both in some fairly explicit (for the time) Spillane style sex scenes and the violence.

   Rand manages to find a couple of allies in the project (one an attractive pneumatic fellow scientist) and in a suspenseful final down to the wire conflict must penetrate the near omniscient Project 79 and its lethal radioactive core in order to destroy the machine. It may not be as thoughtful as D. F. Jones’s Colossus: The Forbin Project of Charles Eric Maine’s B.E.A.S.T., but you can’t fault it as storytelling.

   Four Came Back has an international group of eight astronauts sent to a space station in near-earth orbit contaminated by an alien virus accidentally brought on the ship. As the orbit deteriorates and the virus spreads they have to face that not only will they not be rescued, they may have no choice but to destroy themselves to keep from spreading the disease to Earth.

   The crew is a mix of men and women, so there is a strong sexual element, kept in hand unlike some of Caidin’s later novels, and the narrative tension remains strong to the last page. It was a timely book when it first appeared, as NASA was seriously concerned they not bring anything back from space with the early Gemini missions, and it still works despite dating though Michael Crichton far surpassed it on all points with The Andromeda Strain. Four Came Back falls somewhere between Strain and Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug (published as by Ian Stuart).

   The immediacy of Caidin’s best work shows here, and many of today’s thriller writers could learn something about narrative drive from reading these. Caidin delivered a maximum of suspense and drive in the books of this era, and many are still worth reading, even if the science and technology that were his selling point are out of date.

   At his best, including Marooned (basis in an expanded version for the hit film with Gregory Peck), The Last Fathom, Cyborg, Whip, Almost Midnight, and Three Corners to Nowhere, Caidin wrote highly readable thrillers often with a strong basis in barely speculative day after tomorrow science and featuring strong narrative drive.

   He was always at his best writing about flying. His years as a pilot and his love of flying was another thing he shared with Mickey Spillane, and in addition to his novels he wrote several good nonfiction works about flying and space as a reporter. He also penned novelizations of films such as The Final Countdown, the Six Million Dollar Man series, an updated Buck Rogers novel, and books in the Indiana Jones series of paperback originals for Bantam. His work roughly spans from 1956 to 1990 including non fiction and fiction, novels and short fiction.

   I re-read the two reviewed here a few years ago, and while the science may not hold up and the technology has long since been surpassed, the narrative drive and Caidin’s convincing voice still shine through. These are solid entertaining and cinematic novels from his best period and are well worth a read, if you don’t mind your science well behind the contemporary norm and somewhat old fashioned pulpish writing.

(*) FOOTNOTE.  In the Eighties Caidin hosted a Joe Pyne style talk show in which he confronted extremist groups and their leaders, then late in his career he became convinced he was possessed with PSI powers which was reflected in his novels often featuring amoral murderous supermen as protagonists. (I don’t think even Caidin would call them heroes.)

   Some of his later books are disturbing reading for anyone who admired his earlier work, with some titles like Beamriders, Prison Ship, The Messiah Stone, and Dark Messiah just unreadable for me.

   These later books combine the worst of the late works of Robert A. Heinlein with Randian extremism and almost Sadean scenes of sex and violence. Be warned, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. Whether it serves as a warning or as an enticement, most of those late works were published by Baen Books. In general I would avoid most of his work past 1981 save for the Indiana Jones books and TSR’s Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future (1995), but everyone will be their own guide.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TERROR BENEATH THE SEA. Toei Company, Japan, 1966. Original title: Kaitei daisensô. Sonny Chiba, Peggy Neal, Frank Gruber, Steve Queens, Andre Husse. Director: Hajime Satô.

   Terror Beneath the Sea might not be a good movie per se, but it’s sure as heck an enjoyable one to watch. Directed by Hajime Sato, this alternatingly hip and schlocky 1960s movie features Sonny Chiba in an early screen role.

   Chiba portrays a reporter who, along with his female colleague (Peggy Neal) happens upon a mad scientist’s plan to create a master race of aquatic cyborg men! There are not a lot of martial arts on display, but there are some bizarre creatures with spear guns. That’s got to count for something.

   Comparable in visual style to both Edgar Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) that I reviewed here, and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), Sato’s movie works better as spectacle than as a story. Indeed, the plot doesn’t have all that much depth. But that’s easily forgotten when one sits back and appreciates the director’s skillful use of colors, lighting, and an electronic, jazzy score to heighten the atmospheric mood of a monster movie that isn’t so much frightening as it is entertaining.

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