Science Fiction & Fantasy

RICHARD COWPER – Out There Where the Big Ships Go. Pocket, paperback original; 1st printing, October 1980. Cover art: Don Maitz.

   A wonderfully designed and colorful work of art for the cover of a fascinating collection of short stories, also colorful, sparkling and intricately designed. I’ve never read any of Richard Cowper’s novels, many but not all of which have been published in the US, and perhaps I shall. Or perhaps Cowper was an author like Harlan Ellison, and his forte was short fiction only. On the basis of this collection, it is worth finding out.

   The first story is also the title of the collection, and the cover illustrates it well. A young boy unknowingly turns out to be the generational catalyst for mankind on our evolutionary path to the stars, based on one chosen leader’s proficiency in The Game, designed by an alien race to determine whether or not we are ready.

   Trying to summarize the story in one paragraph such as the above I realize is a hopeless task. I’ll refrain from trying further and say only that while it’s an old idea, Cowper comes at it from a new direction and tells it in fine fashion.

    “The Custodians” is a gem of a story about free will versus a preordained universe, one that stretches over nearly a thousand years time but one that takes place only in an isolated monastery in Europe. The question is, will Marcus Spindrift’s final vision come true, or can it be averted? Or if he had published the Exploratio Spiritualis, would the world have taken its warning about greed and the search for power seriously enough to avert a full-fledged worldwide disaster?

   Once again its the telling, sharp and precise, yet again at an angle, that makes the difference between this story and anything similar written in a 1940s issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

    “Paradise Beach” is the shortest story in the collection, and the slightest, about a piece of art, a neo-anamorphic window, if you will, upon, well, a paradise that may be more real than even the artist (may have) intended.

    “The Hertford Manuscript” takes the hero of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and as a sequel of sorts to that story flings him into the past, that of London in 1665 and (temporarily?) strands him there. By the time you have finished this one, you will have suffered through the Great Plague nearly as much as being there yourself. Beautifully written.

   But in many ways, even more so is “The Web of the Magi,” the last story in the collection and by far the longest. In the year 1886 an engineer trying to map the path for a telegraphic link across the land of Persia finds himself in a lost world, one whence came the Magi of the Christmas story. Overseeing this world is a beautiful woman, of course, and the two of them make beautiful music together, but in trade for the key to such a paradise, there is always a …

   The story gets a little too mystical for me at the end, but until that time it had me as enchanted as the hero of the tale himself. This is a story that is nearly as much fantasy in style as science fiction, but somehow Cowper manages to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. If you like lost race stories, you will love this one.

   This is a book that will be appeal to you if you prefer atmosphere rather than action in the science fiction that you read. I’m fond of space opera myself, but books such as this one seem to stay with me longer than do tales of derring-do on worlds light-years away from ours, as fun as they may be.



L. E. MODESITT, JR. – The Magic of Recluce. Tor, hardcover, May 1991; paperback, May 1992.

   I wonder how many created-world heroic fantasies have been written since Tolkien made them respectable? Quintscillions, at least, and most of them aren’t worth reading, and most of the rest aren’t anything special. I thought this one stood out a bit from the large and somnolent herd.

   A young lad (15) doesn’t fit in his culture, which is an island nation composed of a mysterious people who adhere fanatically to Order. Our hero finds them boring and is found by them to be an unacceptable influence, and a potential danger to order.

   He and some other misfits are given an option: exile, or go out into the wider world on a mission assigned them, to be allowed to return only when it’s completed. He is, of course, more than he seems or knows.

   Considered separately, the story’s components don’t sound too original: Order against Chaos, a youthful quest, good magicians and bad. It is, however, a lot better and more different than it sounds. The world is well thought out and constructed, and the characters a good deal more than cardboard.

   Modesitt writes well and I found his pacing excellent. Recluce is by far his best book to date, and though there will be at least one more book with this setting, this one stands alone well enough. It plows no startlingly new ground, but if you like fantasy at all it’s well worth your time.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

      The Recluce series —

1. The Magic of Recluce (1991)
2. The Towers of Sunset (1992)

3. The Magic Engineer (1994)
4. The Order War (1995)
5. The Death of Chaos (1995)

6. Fall of Angels (1996)
7. The Chaos Balance (1997)
8. The White Order (1998)
9. Colors of Chaos (1999)
10. Magi’i of Cyador (2000)

11. Scion of Cyador (2000)
12. Wellspring of Chaos (2004)
13. Ordermaster (2005)
14. Natural Ordermage (2007)
15. Mage-Guard of Hamor (2008)

16. Arms-Commander (2010)
17. Cyador’s Heirs (2014)
18. Heritage of Cyador (2014)

BOB SHAW – A Wreath of Stars. Doubleday, January 1977, US, hardcover, Dell, paperback, April 1978. Baen Books, US, paperback, November 1987. First published in the UK: Victor Gollancz, hardcover, June 1976.

   If you want science in your science fiction, albeit of the most sensationalist nature possible, look no further this rather dull and plodding tale of adventure. It starts well, with the invention of a special kind of glass that allows wearers to see in the dark — a discovery made just in time for the Earth’s population — but only those wearing glasses made of the material — to see a giant planet consisting solely of anti-neutrons bearing down on the planet. Or more precisely, to pass right through it.

   And causing no damage as it does so. But no matter. As it happens it swerves off from its oncoming path at next to the last minute. No one knows why.

   But what it does do is what the book is all about, beginning with the “ghosts” miners in an underground cavern in a post-colonial country in Africa begin to see at regular intervals. Turns out that an entire world made of anti-neutrino matter has existed within the Earth for perhaps billions of years, and only the onrush of the anti-neutrino planet has forced it out of its hiding place below the Earth’s surface.

   What follows is one of those old-fashioned Sci-Fi movies from the 50s and 60s that the British did so well. Is there a means of making contact with the race of people living on this new world? Problem is, the rulers of the African country are despots of tin-hat generals who do not want the outside world barging in.

   A fellow named Gil Snook (don’t snigger) is one of the outsiders on hand to give a hand to the lone scientist who learns early on what a find this new world within our world represents. There is a woman, too, who finds herself in the middle of all this, one both men find irresistible, one only wistfully, as the lady has a mind of her own, very much a creature of her time (the 1970s).

   Unfortunately this is one of those novels that slows down as it goes. Dull and plodding, I said up above, but not in the beginning, I grant you, and it is great fun for a while. The novel ends in a most uninteresting fashion, however, leaving way for a sequel, perhaps, one that never happened, not with the characters spread out between two worlds, never to see other again, with no opportunity for the strange, unconventional but somewhat interesting love triangle to ever have any chance of a resolution. I regret that.

   Nor if you were to ask me, do I know where the title comes from.


ROGER ZELAZNY – A Night in the Lonesome October. William Morrow, hardcover, 1993; paperback, 1994. Chicago Review Press,softcover, 2014. Illustrated by Gahan Wilson.

   If I were to play the “one author for a desert island” game with science fiction, Roger Zelazny would certainly be one of the finalists, and several of his books would find their way onto any 100 best list I made.

   Most critical opinion would have it that his work has been essentially trivial for the last decade, or longer. I wouldn’t argue the point, but would argue that even trivial Zelazny is of a quality of readability matched by relatively few writing in the field today.

   This is about a diverse group of characters who gather in England for a recurring contest between two factions: one who wants to open a gate so that the Elder Gods can return, one who wants to bar it. The tale is told from the viewpoint of the familiar of one of the “closers,” a dog (of a sort) named Snuff. Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll simply say that many of the players will be familiar.

   This is very much a Zelazny book in terms of style and obscurity, and by obscurity I mean that he never tells you as much about the characters and setting as you’d like to Know. Wilson’s many illustrations are as appealingly macabre as you’d expect, and add greatly to the book.

   This isn’t a work of substance. However, it’s pleasant if ephemeral, and it’s Zelazny, and that’ll do in a pinch.

– Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.

ANN AGUIRRE – Wanderlust. Ace, paperback original; 1st printing, September 2008.

   I have no idea why I started this, the second in a six book series, before reading the first one, Grimspace, but somehow that is exactly what I managed to do. It didn’t seem to matter, though. Whatever I didn’t understand in terms of what happened in the first one, I ignored and plunged blithely on, and enjoyed myself immensely, surprisingly so.

   The leading protagonist throughout the series is a “jumper” named Sirantha Jax, but she’s not alone in her adventures. She has a entire crew of fellow shipmates, each of whom has their own identity and individual contributions to the cause. Allow me to be sketchy on the details, but March, her lover, is a telepath who is always politely in her head, but is left behind partway through this adventure. Others include an genetically enhanced fighter; an alien who wears the skin of a human; an mechanic who may also be an heiress; and another pilot, female, who joins them midway through this one, about the same time March is left behind.

   It seems as though Sirantha is the focal point of trouble wherever she goes — and that’s Trouble with a capital T. In Book One, she was responsible for bringing down the Farwan Corporation, which had ruled known space for quite some time, and thus putting the Conglomerate in control. At the beginning of Book Two (this one), they appoint her as ambassador to a planet that is making hints of leaving the Conglomerate.

   I have the feeling that the six books are all one long novel, and this is Chapter Two. It begins at Point A, as just described, and continues to Point B, the planet to which Sirantha is sent on her way.

   And in between? All kinds of captures and narrow escapes: landing on a emergency space station controlled by vicious man-eating aliens; being trapped in the middle of a civil war on their next port of call, initiated by their own arrival; and being held prisoner by the Syndicate, a science-fictional version of the Mob which thrives on chaos in the galaxy, not peaceful co-existence between worlds.

   Sirantha Jax tells her own story in a delightfully sassy and punkish sort of way. Again the details don’t matter all that much. What’s fun is the reading of what’s otherwise a good old-fashioned space opera/romance, gritty but without all of the military trappings so many authors think I’m interested in. I’m not.

   PS. A jumper is a space pilot who plugs her mind into the ship’s controls to help guide it through grimspace, an ability that also seems to be killing her in this adventure.

       The Sirantha Jax series –

1. Grimspace (2008)
2. Wanderlust (2008)
3. Doubleblind (2009)

4. Killbox (2010)
5. Aftermath (2011)
6. Endgame (2012)

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Universal-International, 1957. Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, William Flaherty, Harry Jackson, Richard H. Cutting, Linda Scheley, Dean Cromer, Steve Darrell, William Schallert. Writers: Norman Jolley (screenplay) and Robert M. Fresco (screenplay); Jack Arnold (story) and Robert M. Fresco (story). Director: John Sherwood.

   The Monolith Monsters came near the end of the ’50s Giant Stompers film cycle that basically began with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953; pace, Ray Bradbury) and continued with Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Giant Claw (1957), Beginning of the End (1957; Peter Graves’ salad days), and a host of similar Big Critter films, with most of them escaping from Universal Studios.

   What distinguishes The Monolith Monsters from those other movies isn’t the acting (not much there) or the production values (an obviously low budget, signalling the studio’s lack of faith in the project). No, the best part of this film is the sheer inventiveness of the underlying premise.

   I can think of only one other science fiction movie that dared to bring novel IDEAS to the audience, namely Forbidden Planet (1956). The concept that ordinary, dumb, and inert ROCKS could constitute a threat to anybody comes perilously close to being a joke — but thanks to writers Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco and the straight-faced, earnest underplaying by the actors, the thing works.

   The Monolith Monsters is one of those ambitious little movies that you find yourself wishing had a bigger budget — but then upon reflection you realize that more money would have turned it into an empty special effects extravaganza and ruined everything. Note to anybody considering a remake: Keep it small; it works better that way.

   Grant Williams’ greatest role was his smallest as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), but he did have a regular gig on Hawaiian Eye (1960-63; 49 episodes).

   Most of us baby boomers remember Lola Albright for her 84 appearances as Peter Gunn’s steady (1958-61).

   Les Tremayne, English by birth, did quite well in American radio, TV, and the movies; science fiction fans know him from his small but memorable role in The War of the Worlds (1953).

   Even more ubiquitous in American entertainment from the ’30s through the ’60s was Trevor Bardette, who, as IMDb notes, “took on just about any role offered him,” thus racking up an impressive 239 film and TV credits, including a regular role as Old Man Clanton in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (34 episodes; 1959-61).

   If you’ve never seen Monolith Monsters, watch it first and be kind; then resort to IMDb’s “Goofs” page, where more than one of the movie’s shortcomings is adduced.


BRIAN STABLEFORD – The Werewolves of London. Carrol & Graf, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1994. First published by Simon & Schuster, UK, hardcover, 1990.

   I don’t read too much fantasy that I like any more, and much less that impresses me. This did. Stableford has been around awhile, and wrote a good bit of stuff I liked for Ace and DAW many years back, but this is quite different from his early work.

      It’s set in 19th century London, in the main, and involves the Werewolves of London, demons, angels, the Sphinx, aspiring saints, and any number of other interesting characters. It really isn’t a werewolf story, though. It deals with the conflict of evolution and creationism, how we look at the world, and what it’s really all about, Alfie.

   It presents a view of creation that’s a bit different and wholly intriguing. The characters are quite believable, even the non-human ones, and Stableford tells his story in a sometimes leisurely, sometimes rapid-paced, always entertaining way.

   It’s a big book, and I was sorry to see it end. Though the first in a trilogy, it‘s quite self contained. Unless period fiction and/or fantasy really turn you off, you ought to give this one a try. It’s good.

– Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.

        The David Lydyard (Werewolves) trilogy –

The Werewolves of London. Simon & Schuster, UK, July 1990.
The Angel of Pain. Simon & Schuster, UK, August 1991.
The Carnival of Destruction. Pocke, UK, October 1994.

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