Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Happy Will F. Jenkins Day!

Today is Will F. Jenkins Day in honor of the science fiction grandmaster Murray Leinster. Recently I posted my review of his book Med Ship which was a really enjoyable book showcasing the very best that traditional science fiction can be. As soon as I get out of the crush of books I’ve gotten from Paperback Swap, I intend to buy more Leinster books, likely one or both of his collections A Logic Named Joe and Planets of Adventure.

Speaking of Paperback Swap, I have now gotten 16 books in trade, which contain 30 novels as well as numerous short stories by Poul Anderson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Andre Norton, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert Silverberg, Stephen Baxter, Cecilia Holland, Stephen Lawhead, Jack McDevitt, James White and A. Bertram Chandler. I realize I cannot read all of them in 10 weeks’ vacation, but I plan to make a huge dent in the pile, starting with Andre Norton’s classic series Time Traders, all 4 novels of which I have now. Stay tuned for that review soon.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Showcase Presents

I have been a huge fan of comic books since the late 1950s when I started reading Tales of the Unexpected regularly. For some reason, those comics are all gone now, but my brothers and I still have the super-hero comics which followed it: Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman and Justice League of America. Shortly afterwards we expanded to several Marvel titles, especially X-Men. We did not stop buying comics until the late 1980s when we found our reading time so diminished that it was almost impossible for any of the three of us to keep up with the comics we were buying.

I still go back and reread old comic books though, especially my favorite ones. Those include:

• Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ great Green lantern-Green Arrow series;
• Mike Grell’s Warlord series of sword and sorcery adventures beneath the Earth’s surface;
• Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar space opera adventures;
• Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen;
• Steve Englehart’s Batman series;
• Roy Thomas’ Conan the Barbarian, based on the original Howard stories.

Lately I’ve been ordering DC Comics’ series of Showcase Presents, which are 500+ pages of comics from their so-called Silver Age in the 1960s. Already I have The Phantom Stranger, House of Mystery, Challengers of the Unknown and Adam Strange. They run the gamut from fair to good, the comic book equivalent of reading light pulp adventures from the 1930s-1950s, which I enjoy doing periodically.

What I generally do not enjoy though are movies based on comic books, since they generally have the same flaws as movies based on science fiction: all thrills and special effects to the exclusion of good storytelling and characterization. There is a handful of exceptions though, particularly the first X-Men and Batman Begins. I did not find either of the sequels as good as the first movies in those series. I realize that most people absolutely loved The Dark Knight, but I have a few complaints with it:

The Dark Knight was much less of a coherent story than Batman Begins, being almost entirely action-adventure interspersed with Heath Ledger’s scene–chewing. And while he did an excellent job of portraying the Joker as the psychopath he really was (as portrayed in the single best Batman story I’ve ever read, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke), keep in mind that he had a role ideally-suited for such a portrayal. Liam Neeson had a much more difficult role in Batman Begins since his character was low-key and much less exuberant, but he probably did as excellent an acting job as Heath Ledger overall;

• Christian Bale is a terrible actor and does not make a particularly effective Batman. I’ve seen him in four movies now (the others being The Prestige and 3:10 to Yuma) and he has not showed me he can do anything but play himself repeatedly. I feel that he was out-acted by his four co-stars: Neeson, Ledger, Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, and Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma. I still feel that Michael Keaton portrayed the best Batman.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Med Ship

I enjoy reading a good mystery, preferably not a routine crime story but one concerned with something more interesting, such as a historical mystery. I even enjoy medical mysteries such as James White’s series set in a futuristic hospital in space. So when I learned about The Virginia State Legislature declaring June 27, 2009 as Will F. Jenkins Day (the real name of sf writer Murray Leinster), I decided there was no better way for me to celebrate it than by reading Baen’s complete collection of his Med Ship series.

Leinster’s series is set in a galaxy in which all the planets form some type of loose union, a cross between Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League and Jack Vance’s galactic cluster. The main character Calhoun is a doctor who represents the Med Service by traveling from planet to planet, sometimes on routine surveys of their medical status, other times to investigate a specific medical crises. He is accompanied by an alien tormal named Murgatroyd who on the surface resembles a monkey who worships Calhoun, follows him around obsessively imitation every action of Calhoun, and whose vocabulary is limited to the single word, “Chee!”. But all tormals are valuable to the Med Service since they possess an immune system which immediately develops an immunity to any disease it encounters, thus serving as a living laboratory making serums Calhoun can use on his missions.

“Med Ship Man” is the first story story in the book and the only one I have read previously when it was originally published in Galaxy in 1963. In it Calhoun is sent to a planet whose entire population has been herded out of their homes by a mysterious wave of energy. It seems a totally useless form of attack until Calhoun figures out both its purpose and how to disable it without resorting to any blood-and-guts which would have likely been the climax of most stories of this type.

In “Plague On Kryder II”, a third consecutive planet is afflicted by a strange plague. The last two planets were devastated by the plague in a very suspicious manner. When a murder attempt takes place against Calhoun himself, he connects the two together. Another enjoyable mystery.

The Mutant Weapon is one of two full-length novels in the book, the other being Pariah Planet (which was previously released in book form as This World is Taboo). It involves a planet which has been selected for colonization by the inhabitants of the over-crowded world Dettra, but when Calhoun arrives there for a routine survey another murder attempt is made on his life, and he discovers that all the original settlers have been infected with a mysterious plague that was apparently caused by a group of invaders hoping to kill them off and take over the planet themselves. So Calhoun has the joint problem of curing the plague and somehow ridding the planet of the invaders, a difficult task for a doctor who is representative of a loose federation of worlds which has no military forces at its disposal.

The stories in Med Ship are clever medical mysteries whose solutions are never obvious, if a bit on the simplistic side, but none are either deus ex machina or so far-fetched as to be unbelievable. Calhoun rarely does anything stupid that artificially inflates the drama. The stories are all primarily cerebral: Calhoun arrives on a planet which is undergoing some medical crisis, he spends time investigating and analyzing, eventually realizing the cause of the situation and carrying out his solution to solve it. There tend to be villains in the stories since the crises are generally intentionally created to forward some person or group’s selfish needs, but whenever Calhoun confronts a villain, he handles him easily without a lot of stereotypical physical action.

I am about halfway through the book, and I anticipate finishing it by June 27th in time to celebrate Will F. Jenkins Day. Admittedly the stories are generally light reading, but cerebral rather than thrillers, and smart in the characters’ actions rather than stupid. They are giving me enough enjoyment that I am planning to buy Leinster’s Planets of Adventure collection from Baen Books next.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Brief History of Science Fiction

Vito Marchese was born in the small fishing village of Porta Canôn in the province of Calabria in southern Italy. He loved his native soil, but was barely able to feed his family on the meager wages he earned as a carpenter. Wanting to make a better life for his family, he emigrated to America in 189S, bringing with him his wife Josephine and his children Antonio and Vincenzo.

After passing through Ellis Island, where Vito resisted efforts to "Americanise" his name, he and his family settled in West New York, New Jersey, a bustling town filled mostly with other immigrants from his beautiful Italia.

Vito had always loved books, and he found them much more plentiful in America than they had been in Calabria. So after working six months as a carpenter, he took out a bank loan to buy the lease on a small bookshop.

It was a quaint little shop, nestled between a cigar store and a laundry, beneath the apartment where Vito lived with his family. The store had glass fronts and a small recessed entranceway Inside the door, a narrow aisle led between two walls packed from ceiling to floor with musty hardcover books. All their spines faced outward, showing titles by such great writers of antiquity as Dante, Boccaccio and Shakespeare, as well as such recent writers as Dickens, Tolstoy, and the American Twain.

But Vito's greatest love was the wondrous adventures of the Frenchman Jules Verne and the Englishman H.G. Wells. Their books were not crowded onto the high shelves, but in a beautiful teak bookshelf Vito had built himself. It stood at the rear of the store, next to the counter. Its sides were decorated with gargoyles and demons, created with love and care by Vito^s own calloussed hands.

Nearly every customer who entered Vito's store was eventually attracted to the handmade bookshelf in the back. While they ran their fingers over the beautiful wood, Vito described all the universal truths contained in those books. How technology was shaping the future of humanity, making a better world for all people just as America was making a better life for so many paisanos.

The fervor of Vito’s words moved many customers to buy a book from the shelf. The majority soon returned to buy more from it.

For twenty years Vito tended his bookshop. Always the long shelves reaching from ceiling to floor were filled with books, and customers frequently bought those items. But the little handmade shelf beside the counter provided the most sales. Vito could barely keep it full. As fast as he placed new books on it, another customer bought them. H.G. Wells. Jules Verne. Edgar Allan Poe. H. Rider Haggard. Frank Reade, Jr.

In 1912, Vito began stocking a cheap pulp magazine called All-Story Weekly on the little shelf. He had fallen in love with the magazine because of a serial called Under the Moons of Mars by a writer with the unlikely name of Normal Bean. The color! The exotic adventure! The wonder of it all!

Since Mr. Wells no longer wrote his wondrous stories, Vito encouraged his steady customers to buy All-Story Weekly. What wonders its pages contained! More adventures by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer behind Normal Bean. An exciting saga of the future called Darkness and Dawn by George Allan England. A catastrophe thriller called The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss.

And then, in 1918, an eerie thriller excited Vito nearly as much as Burroughs’ otherworldly adventures had. It was called "The Moon Pool," by A. Merritt. It sent as many chills up Vito's spine the second and third times he read it as it had the first time. And soon thereafter came the sequel The Conquest of the Moon Pool.

In the 1920s, more magazines began printing the exciting fiction that excited Vito so loved. Argosy-All Story, a merging of his two favorite pulp magazines. Weird Tales, which published only Vito's favorite type of fiction. Amazing Stones printed exciting new adventures set in the far reaches of time and space. Writers such as E.E. Smith, Jack Williamson, and Edmond Hamilton became Vito's new favorites.

The fiction even had a name now. Scientifiction at first, soon afterwards changed to science fiction. Vito gushed his love to all his customers, many of whom fell under his spell. He sold more and more books and magazines, and attracted more and more regulars customers.

Thursday nights became a regular meeting night at Vito's. Lovers of science fiction, all from the old country or sons of immigrants. They arrived around seven p.m., each bringing an offering for the group. A bottle of wine. A loaf of hard-crusted bread. Salami. Mozzarella. Little pastries. Thursday nights became veritable feasts of culinary delights and soaring imaginations. Truly this was how life was meant to be lived!

Until that black day in Fall, 1929, when numerous lives crashed along with the stock market. Many of Vito's customers no longer had the money to afford so many books and magazines. Vito tried to keep the bookshop alive, but his income dwindled while his expenses remained high. The stress was too much for a sixty-year old heart to take. One night, while cleaning up his shop for the night, Vito had a heart attack. He died quietly two days later.

One of Vito's most faithful Thursday night participants had been fortunate enough not to be broken by the stock market crash. He knew a lot about selling short, and somehow emerged from the stock market crash with considerably more money than he had previously. Enough money to quit working for the rest of his life. He would not be happy sitting idly at home though. So Adamo Miceli bought Vito's bookshop from his creditors, and in 1930 re-opened it as Adamo's Books.

The shop changed little from its former appearance. Still two ceiling-to-floor shelves lined the single aisle. And still Vito's handmade bookshelf stood next to the counter, holding all the newest science fiction books and magazines.

The Thursday night gatherings continued as well. The only difference was that now Adamo provided all the refreshments. The nature of the group changed drastically too. Adults were too busy feeding their families to spend time on frivolities. In their place youngsters were drawn to Adamo's group. Their love of reading and sense of wonder soon burst into various activities. They wrote letters to their favorite magazines. One of them even produced a newsletter discussing recent events in science fiction. Which big name writers had published what new stories. What new magazines had emerged. What new editors had taken over the reigns of which old magazines.

In 1935, the Thursday night group gave themselves a name, the West New York Science Fictioneers. A year later it became merely the Science Fictioneers. They began the practice of inviting guest speakers to their meetings. Frank R. Paul came. So did F. Orlin Tremaine. John W. Campbell, Jr. came and dropped the bombshell that he was taking over the editorial reins of Astounding. The group was ecstatic. Campbell, under both his own name and that of Don A. Stuart, was one of the two best science fiction writers in the country. The other was Stanley G. Weinbaum.

The Science Fictioneers' newsletter evolved into a fanzine, through which they contacted other local fans. Apparently a feud was taking place between two groups on both sides of the Hudson River. The Science Fictioneers declined to take sides in the feud. Hence they were fortunate enough to be invited to attend the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. Frank R Paul was the Guest of Honor, and nearly ever major science fiction professional on the East Coast attended.

Their enthusiasm raised to a fever pitch, the Science Fictioneers continued inviting guest speakers to their meetings. Over the next few years they met the debonair L. Sprague de Camp, the stately Robert A. Heinlein, the brash young Isaac Asimov, the outspoken Lester del Rey, the phenomenal A.E. Van Vogt.

Several wrote stories of their own, all of which they sent to John W. Campbell, Jr. He did not buy any of them, but did send long, detailed letters explaining why, and also how the stories could be improved. Most of the Science Fictioneers gave up their writing ambitions, but others persisted. Two were eventually published in semi-professional magazines edited by New York City fans Frederik Pohl and Donald A.Wollheim.

Then came World War 2. Along with many of the leading science fiction writers, the Science Fictioneers went off to war. Several never returned. Others were so disillusioned by war that they lost their sense of wonder entirely. Others matured and, in the rush to make careers for themselves, no longer had time for fannish activities.

But others continued. Astounding lost some of its excitement after the war, but that joy was soon renewed in such new magazines as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy. New York fan Donald Wollheim began editing a major line of mass market paperback science fiction called Ace Books. So did Ian Ballantine with Ballantine Books. The 1950s were filled with an incredible variety of science fiction. Important books appeared by writers such as Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Wyndham. New writers appeared, many in back-to-back Ace Doubles. Philip K. Dick. Robert Silverberg. Walter M. Miller, Jr. James Blish. Jack Vance. Most of them made trips to West New York to speak to the Science Fictioneers.

Then came the 1960s, an exciting time for the entire country. The Beatles' British pop music surpassed Elvis Presley's rock and roll in popularity. The Vietnam War divided the entire country, including the science fiction field.

And the "New Wave" came. The Science Fictioneers argued bitterly over it. Old-timers, including Adamo himself, thought it too pretentious, not wondrous enough. The youngsters in the group considered it better. “Now we have wonder and excitement side-by-side with characterization and eternal themes," one college student from nearby Seton Hall University insisted. He was an English major, an area of study the old-timers could not understand. Twenty years ago their group had taken Physics and Engineering. English and science fiction? They seemed as incompatible as oil and water.

But still most of the group agreed on the talents of several new science fiction writers, and invited them to address the group. The shy Roger Zelasny ("He's a damned poet!" one member cried). The bright Samuel R. Delany. The outgoing Harlan Ellison. The wise Ursula K. Le Guin.

As the 1960s evolved into the 1970s, the excitement of the previous decade vanished. The Vietnam War ended in defeat for America. The president of the United States was forced out of office, causing several Science Fictioneers to wonder how many prior scoundrels had escaped scot-free. But science fiction thrived, with the changes of the "New Wave" merging into the traditions of the previous seven decades.
Talented new writers kept visiting the Thursday Night group. George R.R. Martin. John Varley. Michael Bishop. C.J. Cherryh. Gene Wolfe. There seemed to be no end in sight.

Until one fateful day in 1981 when one of the Science Fictioneers received a phone call from another one. Adamo Miceli was dead. Word spread through the group rapidly, indeed through all of science fiction fandom. His son inherited the bookshop, but wanted nothing to do with it. Unlike his father, Emilindo wanted nothing to do with books. He was an investment counselor, and a very successful one indeed. He put Adamo’s Books up for sale. Several Science Fictioneers tried to pool their money to buy the shop, but the asking price was too high. They watched sadly as a developer bought it, and turned it into part of a strip of yuppie stores.

For several months the Science FIctioneers tried meeting at other locations. A local library. A church basement. But it was not the same, and gradually members drifted away.

Finally, only two members remained, meeting regularly in the living room of one of them. Both knew it was time to disband.

"We have outlived our purpose," one said. A bookstore devoted to science fiction is unnecessary when science fiction has been thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream."
"True," said the other. "Every book chain sells science fiction now."

"And what purpose is a group devoted to fanzines and visits from professional writer? Everybody discusses science fiction now. Our uniqueness is gone."

They sighed as the last meeting of the Science Fictioneers ended. Neither wanted the aging mimeo, so one of them dropped it off at a junkyard on his way home. When he reached his townhouse, he picked up a book to read. A new horror novel. But two pages into it, he got bored and turned on the television instead. Maybe something good was showing on The Sci-Fi Channel.