Category Archives: Science Fiction

Fred Patten Reviews War Over Lemuria & The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey

WarOverLemuria

War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction, by Richard Toronto.  Illustrated.  

Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Co., April 2013, trade paperback $45.00 (vi + 256 pages), Kindle $16.19.

Now It Can Be Told!?

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I read a lot of science fiction – novels and short-story collections by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and many others.  When I was in college in 1960, I discovered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and s-f fandom.  Many of the LASFS members had been s-f fans since the 1930s, and they told me about the history of s-f literature; personal information about the writers, the s-f magazines, and so on.  Most of this was related casually, yet there was one subject that still stirred high emotions:  editor Raymond A. Palmer and the major s-f magazine Amazing Stories from 1945 through 1949.  Palmer (or RAP and Rap as he was known) claimed that his most lurid s-f yarns were not fiction but were based on fact!  There really were dwarfs in underground caverns beaming evil rays at surface-dwelling humans that caused disease and wars.  Most s-f fans felt that this was just a cynical ploy to increase his magazine’s circulation, which it did; but at the cost of giving all s-f fans a reputation among the general public as credulous simpletons who believed in flying saucers and that Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were real people.  Most s-f fans wrote thundering denunciations of RAP in their fanzines.  The LASFS had sent a letter signed by all the club’s members to the publishers of Amazing Stories threatening to boycott the magazine if RAP was not replaced as editor.  He finally was (actually, he resigned in 1949 when the publisher moved Amazing Stories’ editorial offices from Chicago to NYC), and went on to start his own minor magazines during the 1950s that were insignificant and largely ignored.

RAP and the s-f controversy of the late 1940s were never important beyond s-f circles, and are generally forgotten today – which makes it strange that two books about them have been published almost simultaneously:  War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction, by Richard Toronto in April, and The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, by Fred Nadis in June.

Both cover the subject in rich detail, and know it thoroughly.  Both have interviewed Palmer’s closest associates still alive, and have gotten descriptions of RAP ranging from a charlatan and deliberate liar, to a misguided but true believer in what he was promoting.  Both quote from and analyze RAP’s statements in his own autobiography, Martian Diary (in The Secret World, by Ray Palmer and Richard Shaver; Amherst, WI, Amherst Press, 1975).  Toronto’s approach is slightly more scholarly, and his citations include his correspondence with the principals from the 1970s, showing his lifelong interest in the subject.  Nadis’ book is more popularized; it is described in its blurb as “The rollicking true story of the legendary writer and editor who ruled over America’s fantasy and supernatural pulp journals in the mid-twentieth century, and shaped today’s UFO and sci-fi cultures: Ray Palmer.”  Nadis apparently did not become interested in the subject until after RAP’s death, but he also interviewed RAP’s colleagues and his son, and studied RAP’s writings in s-f fan correspondence and fanzines of the 1930s in the collections of the Universities of California at Santa Barbara and Riverside, and numerous other universities and colleges that have extensive specialized holdings.  Both books have pages of notes, bibliographies, and indexes.

Raymond A. Palmer (1910-1977) was easy to document because he became an active, enthusiastic s-f fan when he was 16 years old in 1926, and began corresponding with other young fans.  RAP published some of the most widely-read s-f fanzines in the early 1930s, and his editorials, promotions of s-f, and thoughts are on record.  During the 1930s he was a leading s-f fan, and was dubbed “the Son of Science Fiction”.  When he became the editor of Amazing Stories for its new Ziff-Davis publishers in 1938, he was hailed as Fan Turns Professional – S-F Fan Makes Good.  However, by the mid-1940s Palmer had told the fans that one of his main duties as editor was to increase the circulation of Amazing Stories, and that the “educated s-f fan community” was only a small percentage of the pulp adventure magazine’s readership.

In 1943, Amazing Stories got a long letter from a Richard S. Shaver, who claimed that he had found the alphabet of the lost civilization of Atlantis.  Palmer’s assistant threw it in the wastebasket; Palmer fished it out and printed it.  In correspondence, Palmer said that Shaver’s revelations were too dry for the magazine, and urged Shaver to rewrite them as adventure fiction.  Shaver’s first story, heavily revised by Palmer, was “I Remember Lemuria” in the March 1945 issue.  To quote Nadis, “After ‘I Remember Lemuria,’ more than twenty Shaver stories followed in the next four years.  Shaver’s pay increased from one cent a word to one and a half cents, and then to two cents a word.  But it is clear that many of his submissions underwent serious revisions.  In June 1944, a half year after the Mantong alphabet letter had been published, and while the Ziff-Davis crew was still working over Shaver’s raw submissions, he wrote to Rap, ‘Naturally I am overjoyed that you can use my stories and am sorry that they must be rewritten – but believe me I know why – for I have been through much and it is work for me to write.’” (p. 89)

It was later learned that “Shaver had spent up to eight years in a catatonic state in the state hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan” (Nadis, p. 82)  As the Shaver stories progressed, RAP became more editorially emphatic that, while they might be fictionalized and dramatized, they were based upon prehistoric truth.  The s-f fan community became more strident in demanding Palmer’s head.  Fans who visited Amazing’s Chicago editorial offices while Shaver happened to be there reported that he seemed to be a sincere but harmless lunatic, while their kindest description of Palmer was that he was a flimflammer and hoaxer in the tradition of P.T. Barnum and 19th century medicine show barkers.

In June 1947, the first claim of a flying saucer sighting was made by Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot with no association with science fiction.  Further claims of U.S. government cover-ups soon built up a public conspiracy theory that was much more widespread than what was called “the Shaver Mystery” in Amazing Stories ever was.  In early July 1947 Palmer wrote to Arnold suggesting that they collaborate on an article or articles.  In Spring 1948 Palmer started his own magazine, Fate, devoted to examining “unexplained mysteries”.  When Ziff-Davis consolidated all its magazines in NYC in 1949, it was no hardship for Palmer to leave Amazing Stories and concentrate on his other interests, which focused increasingly on the occult such as the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, Theosophy, and Hollow-Earthism.  Since these bore no connection to science fiction, the wrath of the s-f community died away.  In 1960 Julius Schwartz, a leading s-f fan of the 1930s and now an editor at DC Comics, named the secret identity of a new superhero, The Atom, Ray Palmer.  RAP was not amused, partially because The Atom’s superpower was to shrink to miniature size, and the real Ray Palmer, because of a childhood almost-fatal accident, was a hunchbacked 4’8” dwarf.

Both books continue the biographies of RAP and Richard Shaver to their deaths.  The two became close friends, and when the Palmers bought a large farm in rural Wisconsin, Palmer persuaded Shaver and his wife to come from Pennsylvania and become their neighbors.  Shaver took to listening to rocks and painting surrealistic canvases of his visions.  The art world didn’t care about his beliefs but liked his artistry.  Shaver became despondent over being appreciated for what he felt was the wrong reasons.  He allowed Palmer to publish his paintings as the covers on Palmer’s new magazines, edited from Palmer’s farmhouse.  Shaver died in November 1975, and Palmer in August 1977.

I always felt that the story of Ray Palmer and the Shaver Mystery deserved a larger and more permanent documentation than the gossip of now-elderly s-f fans; and here it is. Buy where there is any interest in the history of s-f literature, of popular fiction during the 1940s, or of the beginnings of flying saucer cultdom.

 manfrommars

The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, by Fred Nadis.  Illustrated.

NYC, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, June 2013, hardcover $28.95 (xiii + 289 [+ 1] pages), Kindle $11.99.

The rollicking true story of the legendary writer and editor who ruled over America’s fantasy and supernatural pulp journals in the mid-twentieth century, and shaped today’s UFO and sci-fi cultures: Ray Palmer.

 Meet Ray Palmer. A hustler, a trickster, and a visionary. The hunchbacked Palmer, who stood at just over four feet tall, was nevertheless an indomitable force, the ruler of his own bizarre sector of the universe. Armed with only his typewriter, Palmer changed the world as we know it –  jumpstarting the flying saucer craze; frightening hundreds of thousands of Americans with “true” stories of evil denizens of inner earth; and reporting on cover-ups involving extraterrestrials, the paranormal, and secret government agencies.??As editor for the ground-breaking sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories and creator of publications such as Other Worlds, Imagination, Fate, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers, Hidden World, and Space Age, Palmer pushed the limits and broke new ground in science fiction publishing in the 1940s and 1950s—and was reviled for it by purists who called him “the man who killed science fiction.”??In the first-ever biography devoted to the figure who molded modern geek culture, pulp scholar Fred Nadis paints a vivid portrait of Palmer—a brilliant, charming, and wildly willful iconoclast who helped ignite the UFO craze, convinced Americans of hidden worlds and government cover ups, and championed the occult and paranormal.??Palmer overcame serious physical handicaps to become the most significant editor during the “golden age” of pulp magazines; he rebelled in his own inimitable way against the bland suburban vision of the American Dream; he concocted new literary genres; and he molded our current conspiracy culture decades before The X-Files claimed that the truth was out there.

War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction Paperback

by Richard Toronto

McFarland, April 25, 2013

 

Shaverology: A Shaver Mystery Home Companion Paperback

by Mr. Richard Toronto

Shavetron Press, August 29, 2013

 

 

 

Fred Patten Reviews The Best of Alter Ego, Volume 2

Disclosure:  A free copy of this book was furnished by the publisher for review, but providing a copy did not guarantee a review. This information is provided per the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission.

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The Best of Alter Ego, volume 2

Editors:  Roy Thomas and Bill Schelly

Publisher:  TwoMorrows Publishing

ISBN-10:  1-6054-9048-2

ISBN-13:  978-1-6054-9048-9

 

“This sequel to Alter Ego: The Best of the Legendary Comics Fanzine presents more fantastic features from the fabled mag begun in 1961 by Jerry Bails & Roy Thomas-covering undiscovered gems from all 11 original issues published between 1961 and 1978!” (back-cover blurb)

 

Comic book fandom was invented in the early 1960s.  There had been sporadic articles on one or another science-fiction newspaper comic strip like “Buck Rogers” or on individual comic books like “Captain Marvel” in s-f fanzines during the 1940s and 1950s, but they were limited to what the fan-author – usually an enthusiastic teenager — could deduce from the issues in his collection.  Starting with Dick and Pat Lupoff’s fanzine “Xero” in 1960-1963, some of the most knowledgeable comic-book enthusiasts at the time were asked to write, not just nostalgia pieces on their favorite comic books, but well-researched articles on their publication history.  This was to have been a dignified epitaph to a colorful but short-lived portion of popular culture.

 

Nobody realized it at the time, but this was just the period when what is now called “the Silver Age of comic books” was starting.  DC Comics reinvented costumed superheroes with the revived “The Flash” in 1959, and Marvel started “the Marvel Age of Superheroes” in 1961.  “Xero” became the new model for comic-book scholarship.  Suddenly every young fan who could get access to a mimeograph or a spirit duplicator was starting a fanzine that was not only devoted to his favorite costumed hero, but that included reports of visits to the DC or Marvel publication office, interviews with comic-book writers and artists, and the fan’s (and his friends’) amateur comic-book stories.  Most of these fanzines lasted less than a dozen issues and were very amateurish, but, boy, were they enthusiastic!

 

“Alter Ego”, started in 1961, was one of the first and best of these, and after fifty years it is still going, as a professional full-color magazine today.  Where other fanzines were discontinued when their teenaged editors grew tired of them, “Alter Ego” was passed along to new editors, ending up with issue #7 in 1964 in the hands of Roy Thomas.  Thomas, a fresh college graduate and beginning high-school English teacher, parlayed his editorship of “Alter Ego” into a professional job at Marvel Comics a year later as editor Stan Lee’s assistant.  Full-time work in the comic-book industry left Thomas with no time to continue his hobby, so “Alter Ego” became more and more erratic and finally went on hiatus in 1978.  He revived it over twenty years later in 1999, and it has been published bi-monthly ever since.

 

“The Best of Alter Ego, volume 2” is a $19.95 160-page trade paperback collection from the original 1961-1978 issues of the magazine, combined with Thomas’ detailed history of its start up to its long hiatus.  Frankly, the book is most worthwhile as a piece of fannish nostalgia, and as an inspiration to today’s teens of what can be done as an amateur in a given field.  Thomas and co-editor Schelly have produced a scrapbook of photographs of the leading comic-book fans of the 1960s; some complete, amateurishly written & drawn superhero adventures; and documentation of the activities of comic-book fandom in the 1960s, like “The Academy of Comic-Book Arts and Sciences presents:  The Alley Awards for 1962.”  (The Alley Awards, named for the comic-strip character Alley Oop, were a short-lived award voted on by comics fans and given to the professional creators.)  Most of the “fact” articles herein, such as “‘Merciful Minerva’: The Story of Wonder Woman” by Jerry Bails (1961) have long ago been supplanted by better-written articles by other writers; in many cases during the last twenty years by whole books by professional authors with the publisher’s complete archives to draw upon.

 

But, as they say, This Is Where It All Started.  It is arguable that if it were not for the pioneering fanzines of the 1960s, there would not be a scholarly historiography of the comic-book industry today.  The fans of the 1960s onward interviewed many of the professional editors, writers, and artists while they were still alive; and when those publishers were clearing out old files, they gave them to fans whom they knew wanted them instead of throwing them in the trash.  Among the book’s contents are an unsold “Tor” newspaper strip proposal by professional Joe Kubert, and a 1977 interview with French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud.  Some of the new material in this book includes friendly letters from those editors in reply to their fans, showing that the wise editors of the 1960s encouraged their fan base instead of brushing them off; and articles for the 2010s reader to explain what a mimeograph or a spirit duplicator was.

 

Full disclosure:  I am one of the fans included in this book, with an article on the Mexican s-f comic books of the mid-1960s that was my first “professional” writing credit.

 

Buy where there is interest in comic books, or the beginnings of comic-book/costumed superhero fandom, or in the popular culture of the 1960s.

 

The Originals

 

The Originals
Author: Cat Patrick
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (May 7, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0316219436
ISBN-13: 978-0316219433

Trust Cat Patrick to write something wild and crazy, told in the most normal of voices.  I first came into contact with her work when I read Revived and was completely blown away.  When I saw The Originals, I knew I just had to read it.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The Originals tells the story of three sisters who are not triplets…they are clones.  Because their scientist/geneticist mother is on the lam and the FBI is searching for girls of their age masquerading as triplets, they are forced to live a sort of half-life; rather a third of a life.  Each girl takes a part of the day and has to be careful in how they wear their hair, clothes, etc.  One heads to school in the morning, then rushes home at lunch to switch.  The third sister takes over the evening.  Occasionally, they switch to accommodate illness or other issues.  Needless to say, it’s kind of nuts, but they take it in stride. Continue reading

Fred Patten Reviews Men Into Space

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Men Into Space
Author: John C. Fredriksen
Publisher: BearManor Media
ISBN-10: 1-5939-3231-6
ISBN-13: 978-1-5939-3231-2

The 1950s were, practically speaking, the first decade of television. Popular “everybody knows” knowledge is that the first serious science fiction TV program was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, from October 1959 to June 1964. Earlier TV science fiction programs like Captain Video, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett: Space Cadet were for children. Fredriksen, the author of thirty other reference books such as The United States Air Force: A Chronology, points out that earlier TV s-f for adults did exist, such as Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957). One important but now-forgotten program was Men Into Space, 38 episodes, September 1959 to September 1960.

A major factor that sets Men Into Space apart from all other TV science fiction, then or later, was that it was “hard science” science fiction. Presenting the fictional adventures of astronaut Col. Edward McCauley (played by William Lundigan) in the near future (the 1970s were implied), the program closely forecast the real U.S. space program of the 1960s. Men Into Space built upon the popularization of Lunar and Martian space exploration in the 1950s through books and magazine articles by such experts as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, and the “Tomorrowland” episodes of Walt Disney’s TV series. The program consulted closely with the U.S. Air Force as an advisor, and “The Air Force retained supervisory control of scripting and insisted that all episodes depict the American space effort in a strictly realistic vein. No bug-eyed monsters or mad scientists were permissible, so story lines invariably turned on conflict arising from faulty equipment or personality clashes among crewmen.” (pgs. 7-8) Chesley Bonestell, the noted astronautical and astronomical artist who illustrated many popular 1950s articles on space exploration for magazines like Collier’s, designed the space and Lunar sets and the spacecraft for Men Into Space. Guest stars in the 38 episodes, appearing in one episode each, included Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Werner Klemperer, Whit Bissell, James Drury, Gavin MacLeod, and many others who became better-known actors during the 1960s and 1970s.

Fredriksen first presents a general history and overview of the program and its production company, ZIV (Ziv Productions), followed by profiles of the “Cast and Crew”: a lengthy biography of Lundigan, shorter biographies of the actors who played his wife and son, the program’s producer, set designer (Bonestell), and composer, and the real Convair Atlas rocket that was the model for the program’s fictional spaceships. Each profile includes one or more publicity photographs and its own bibliography.

All the foregoing are on pages 1 to 36 of this 314-page book. “Episodes” are the main feature, from page 39 to 291. Each of the 38 episodes is given a usually-seven page profile that includes a still, the episode title, air date, list of actors and their characters, script author, director, technical advisor (a U.S.A.F. officer), and a long (usually five pages) plot synopsis. There are two appendices; a July 2012 interview by Fredriksen of William Lundigan’s daughter, and a photogallery of the program’s few children’s merchandising items. There are six pages of Endnotes and a Name Index.

This is one of those “all you want to know” books about its subject. Men Into Space was a minor program on the list of all the TV science fiction programs there have ever been. But it will always be known for its presentation of “real” or “hard” science astronautics, as distinct from the other programs that featured robots, Earth-conquering aliens, fanciful views of the far future and other planets, cinematic adaptations of prominent literary s-f stories, and the like; including today’s TV s-f which mixes s-f elements with werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Buy wherever there is any interest in Men Into Space itself, in TV science fiction, in TV productions of the late 1950s-early 1960s, or in American history of the 1950s Space Race period.

Fred Patten reviews When Diplomacy Fails …

When Diplomacy Fails …
Author: Michael Z. Williamson
Publisher: Baen Books
ISBN-10: 1-4516-3790-X
ISBN-13: 978-1-4516-3790-8

This is the seventh novel in Williamson’s Freehold interstellar action-adventure science-fiction series, which started with Freehold in 2003; or the third novel in his Ripple Creek Security subseries, which began with Better to Beg Forgiveness ….

The series is set about two hundred years in the future, in a human interstellar civilization in which most planets of the galaxy are divided among a tyrannical socialistic United Nations union (the villains), the lone-planet freedom-loving Freehold of Grainne (the heroes), and various worlds loosely aligned in a Colonial Alliance.  After the first couple of novels, Williamson began concentrating on the exploits of the Freehold-based Ripple Creek Security Service, a commercial company of mercenary bodyguards who hire their services to the president of an independent planet in the throes of civil war (Better to Beg Forgiveness …, 2007), and the Richest Person in the Universe (Do Unto Others …, 2010).  In other words, these novels are a s-f extrapolation of the private military companies such as Blackwater Security that contracted their services to the U.S. government in Iraq during the 2000s.

In this third novel, Ripple Creek is hired to guard and protect their traditional enemy!  Well, politics has no personal enemies, and Ripple Creek has the reputation of being the best in the business.  Ripple Creek is asked to assign its ace team of Alex Marlow, Jason Vaughn, Eleanora Sykora, Bart Weil, Horace Mbuto, and Aramis Anderson to protect the U.N.’s Bureau of State Minister Joy Herman Highland, a bureaucrat with very many enemies, both professional and personal.

There is little padding in Williamson’s prose.  His team know each other well and are personal friends, but their conversation is heavy in shop talk; and the third-person narration is heavy in tech talk:

“[Alex] said, ‘We’re protecting a high-ranking UN bureau official out of system.’
Bart asked, ‘Are there specific threats?’
‘Some.  We’ll be able to cover those during transport.  We’re traveling together.’
Elke asked, ‘What restrictions do we have on weapons and gear, and rules of engagement?”
He understood she was asking if she could have explosives.  ‘Unknown yet, but I do know the usual security contingent are armed.’
‘Then why us?’ Bart asked.
‘The threat level is perceived as higher than typical.’
‘So the free market is better at protecting the government than it is at protecting itself.’
‘Fundamentally, yes.’
‘Very amusing.’
‘We’re going to Mtali for the Environmental Summit and some other meetings.’
Bart raised his eyebrows.  Yes, if they were up to date on newsloads, that pretty well gave away who the principal was.
‘Perhaps I will like this person,’ Elke said.  ‘I respect ruthlessness.’”  (p. 11)

and

“Their quarters were quite comfortable for the field.  They had billets on par with officers or other high-end contractors: hard buildings, private rooms where enlisted personnel would have three to five, basic bunks and lockable closets.  The problem, of course, was the weapons, which in theory were supposed to be secured whenever they were not on escort, which would mean a lot of back and forth to the armory.  In practice, they usually left someone in the billet to watch things, armed.  He also knew Aramis concealed a small pistol when out.  He was sure Jason did, too, though he’d never seen it.  He made do with a knife.” (p. 63)

For interstellar political reasons, the Environmental Summit is on a planet with a lot of factional religious groups fighting each other; so Alex and his teammates do not know whether they are protecting Highland from “incidental” Mtali religious violence, a specific assassination attempt against her by the partisans, an attempt by one of her political enemies back on Earth, or if they are there to guard her as just a publicity stunt.  What they quickly find out is that, unlike their previous assignments where they were working with the full cooperation of their principals, Highland seems determined to make their job as hard as possible.  Anti-terrorist security depends largely on secrecy and keeping as low a profile as possible.  Highland wants maximum publicity for her political career and appearances, and even publicizes the names and portraits of her security team without their knowledge.  The Ripple Creek team soon come to despise their current principal, who is clearly prepared to sacrifice some or all of them for her publicity’s sake.

Alex and the others are determined to not let this affect their professionalism.  Besides their own self-honor, Ripple Creek’s reputation is at stake.  But as the attacks against them increase, three patterns emerge.  There are genuine non-deadly factional protests against Highland as a symbol of the U.N., assassination attempts against Highland presumably by her political rivals, and attacks designed to discredit the Ripple Creek Security team by causing civilian casualties that can be blamed on them.  Alex and his teammates must become detectives to outwit and expose their adversaries, while protecting Highland despite her attempts to exploit them for political gain.  The lengthy climax provides surprises and lots of military violence.

According to the “About the Author”, Williamson is an ex- military veteran of the U.S. Army and Air Force with considerable Middle Eastern experience, and a current weapons tester and reviewer for several firearms manufacturers.  His professional expertise shows in this well-written military s-f series.

Fred Patten Reviews Redshirts

Redshirts
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tom Dougherty Associates/Tor Books
ISBN-10: 0-7653-1699-4
ISBN-13: 978-07653-1699-8

What used to be called “sacrificial lambs” or “cannon fodder” became institutionalized in s-f as the “redshirt” in the original Star Trek TV series of 1966-69. The Star Trek uniforms consisted of several colors. As the TV Tropes website puts it of the red-shirted uniforms, “The color of shirt worn by the nameless security personnel on the original Star Trek series. Their only job was to get eaten, shot, stabbed, disrupted, temporally-shifted, frozen, desalinated, or crushed into a cube. Their death would give William Shatner and DeForest Kelley a corpse to emote over, and Leonard Nimoy a corpse to, well, “not emote over.” The tradition that a character wearing a red shirt would die became so widespread that subsequent TV series with no connection to Star Trek such as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Lost dressed characters fated to die in red shirts, and reviewers began to refer to characters who exist only to meet dire fates as “redshirts”.

What if a story’s low-ranking characters became aware that anyone dressed in a red shirt is fated to die? That is the premise, handled both humorously and seriously, of Redshirts by John Scalzi.

In the late 2460s, young Ensign Junior Rank Andrew Dahl requests assignment to the Universal Union flagship Intreped, specifically to the Xenobiology Department which specializes in exploring new planets. Dahl is proud of his prestige posting, which will give him a chance to ‘get out into the field’. “‘Yes, sir,’ Dahl said. ‘It’s that front line science that appeals to me. The exploration.’” (p. 30)

But when he discusses his assignment with some other friendly new crewmen, Andy learns that they are all replacing recent fatalities.

“‘People here have away missions on the brain.’ [Dahl said]
‘It’s because someone always dies on them,’ Hanson said.
Duvall arched an eyebrow at this. ‘What makes you say that, Jimmy?’
‘Well, we’re all replacing former crew members,’ Hanson said, and then pointed at Duvall. ‘What happened to the one you replaced. Transferred out?’’
‘No,’ Duvall said. ‘He was the death by vaporization one.’
‘And mine got sucked out of the shuttle,’ Hanson said. ‘And Andy’s got eaten by a shark. Maybe. You have to admit there’s something going on there. I bet if we tracked down Finn and Hester, they’d tell us the same thing.’” (p. 36)

When Andy investigates further, he learns that the Intrepid’s explorational ‘away missions’ usually consist of Captain Lucius Abernathy and Chief Science Officer Q’eeng as observers, and Astrogation Lieutenant Kerensky as the mission leader of several non-coms; and that in 100% of past missions, they have encountered a deadly threat that the three officers have survived (Kerensky barely), but the redshirted minions have always fallen victim to. Naturally, none of the Intrepid’s more experienced non-coms, including Andy’s Xenobiology teammates, want to be assigned to an away mission.

Andy decides that this is more than coincidence. Since when does a large ship’s captain personally accompany an exploration mission, especially after experience shows that these missions are highly dangerous?

“‘Dahl, tell me,’ Collins said. ‘When Q’eeng and Abernathy were here, how were they talking to you?’
‘What do you mean?’ Dahl asked.
‘Did they come in and quickly tell you what you needed?’
Collins said. ‘Or did they go on and on about a bunch of crap you didn’t need to know?’
‘They went on a bit, yes,’ Dahl said.
‘Was the captain particularly dramatic?’ Cassaway asked.
‘What is ‘particularly dramatic’ in this context?’ Dahl asked.
‘Like this,’ Mbeke said, and then grabbed both of Dahl’s shoulders and shook them. ‘Damn it, man! There is no try! Only do!’
Dahl set down the vial so it was not accidentally shaken out of his grip. ‘He said pretty much exactly those words,’ he said to Mbeke.” (pgs. 41-42)

Why is Kerensky always chosen to lead the away mission, and why is he the only one of the low-ranking explorers to barely survive? Why is an Astrogator chosen for planetary exploration, anyway?

‘Why did you want Lieutenant Kerensky’s medical records?’ Hanson asked.
‘Kerensky was the victim of a plague a week ago,’ Dahl said. ‘He recovered quickly enough to lead an away mission, where he lost consciousness because of a machine attack. He recovered quickly enough from that to hit on Maia sometime today.’
‘To be fair, he still looked like hell,’ Duvall said.
‘To be fair, he should probably be dead,’ Dahl said. ‘The Merovian Plague melts people’s flesh right off their bones. Kerensky was about fifteen minutes away from death before he got cured, and he’s heading an away mission a week later? It takes that long to get over a bad cold, much less a flesh-eating bacteria.’
‘So he’s got an awesome immune system,’ Duvall said.
Dahl fixed her with a look and flipped Finn’s phone to her. ‘In the past three years, Kerensky’s been shot three times, caught a deadly disease four times, has been crushed under a rock pile, injured in a shuttle crash, suffered burns when his bridge control panel blew up in his face, experienced partial atmospheric decompression, suffered from induced mental instability, been bitten by two venomous animals and had the control of his body taken over by an alien parasite. That’s before the recent plague and this mission.’” (pgs. 67-68)

Andy and his four buddies learn that this is just the beginning of the weird stuff. Kerensky is going psycho wondering why he is always the leader of the away missions that go to hell, and that he is the only survivor. Barely. Andy discovers discrepancies between the Intrepid’s blueprints and the shipboard reality. They aren’t the only ones to notice things. Andy suddenly finds himself and some of his official Xenobiology teammates assigned to a special away mission by Q’eeng. When Andy is the only survivor, he is ostracized by the rest of the Xenobiology Department and transferred to the bridge crew:

“‘Someone once told me to stay off the bridge,’ Dahl said, and then nodded over at Trin. ‘Two people did, actually. But one of them was more forceful about it.’
‘Nonsense,’ Collins said. ‘The bridge is the perfect place for someone like you. You’ll be in contact with senior officers on a daily basis. They’ll get to know you very well. And there will be lots of opportunities for adventure. You’ll be going on away missions weekly. Sometimes even more often then that.’ She smiled thinly.” (p. 91)

Dahl and his friends find Jenkins, an older crewman who has a theory about what is going on that is so far-fetched, so incredible that none of them can take it seriously – except that it is the only theory that fits all the facts. After one of the friends is killed, the others are forced to discuss it seriously.

“‘I hate it that we now have discussions like this,’ Hester said.
‘I don’t think any of us like it,’ Dahl said.
‘I don’t know. I think it’s interesting,’ Duvall said.
‘It would be interesting if we were sitting in a dorm room, getting stoned,’ Hester said. ‘Talking about it seriously after our friend has died sort of takes the fun out of it.’” (p. 138)

Redshirts is a masterpiece of deadpan humor mixed with suspense. For all the ridiculous implausibility of their situation, people are dying painfully and messily. Can Dahl and his friends figure out the secret of survival?

And then, after the story ends, there are three codas in which Scalzi drops the humor and gets intimately serious.

Redshirts is not only an in-depth dramatization of an increasingly frequent TV trope, it is also a very funny parody of the TV series that started it all. Commander Q’eeng is emotionless and, by his strange name, probably partially inhuman. Captain Abernathy dramatically overemotes whenever he is at center stage. Chief Engineer West stays in the engine room. Lieutenant Kerensky lives only to fall into near-death situations. Everyone runs about breathlessly delivering messages in person that could just as easily be delivered by phone or intercom.

For all its seeming originality and uniqueness, Redshirts’ basic plot is very similar to a previous s-f classic novel – but if I told you which one, then I’d have to kill you! Two novels with similar plots in a hundred years? That’s not too many.

Read Redshirts! I’ll bet that you don’t guess the solution.

Is ‘sphagettify’ a real word?

Shannon Muir Reviews Earth Unaware

Earth Unaware

Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

Publisher: Tor (a division of Macmillian)

ISBN-10: 0765329042

ISBN-13: 978-0765329042

ASIN: B007IM0IIW

 

The backstory behind the classic, popular ENDER’S GAME series by Orson Scott Card is brought to life in this series of novels describing the two Formic Wars that make up the history leading up to the world in which Ender Wiggin will later come to exist. Yet it is a passionate rich story in its own right, with a young hero named Victor who works as a free miner whose family in the wake of tragedy must entrust this young man to get to Luna with evidence of the coming alien invasion. More than just simply an adaptation of the Marvel Comics release of the same storyline, these novels include characters and subplots originally cut from the comic book making for an even richer experience. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the ENDER’S GAME universe, or completely new to it, EARTH UNAWARE is a great place to jump in… or jump in again.

 

Disclosure:  A free copy of this book was furnished by the publisher for review via the publisher, but providing a copy did not guarantee a review. This information is provided per the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission.

Fred Patten Reviews Judgment at Proteus


Judgement at Proteus
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Tom Dougherty Associates/Tor Books
ISBN-10: 0-7653-2213-7
ISBN-13: 978-07653-2213-5

“The climactic novel of the star-spanning Quadrail space opera!” (blurb) In the first four Quadrail novels (Night Train to Rigel, 2005; The Third Lynx, 2007; Odd Girl Out, 2008, and The Domino Pattern, 2010), galaxy-traveler-by-alien-superscientific-railroad hero Frank Compton (conveniently a top human secret agent) and his mysterious woman companion, Bayta, have unmasked a plot by the extraterrestrial Modhri group mind to take over the bodies of all the “peoples” of the galaxy, including the humans of Earth and its space colonies. There is much hugger-mugger in the style of the 1930s Orient Express spy thrillers, skillfully updated into the far future. (Does a galactic railroad train sound ridiculous to you? Zahn pulls off enough pseudo-technological legerdemain to make it seem plausible.)

But in the climax of The Domino Pattern, Compton learns that he and everyone else during their almost-two-years secret war have been deceived! The real villains are the believed-long-extinct Shonkla-raa, who have been secretly manipulating the strongest races (species?) of the galaxy to kill each other off – and they have been successful enough that the hidden Shonkla-raa armies are about to pour forth and complete their conquest.

In Judgment at Proteus, the fifth and final Quadrail novel, Compton and Bayta are closing in on the Modhri at the headquarters of the horselike Filiaelians at the Proteus super-space-station. (Other non-Humans of the Twelve Empires galactic government are the Shorshians, the Nemut, the Homshil, the Halkans, the Jurskala, the Bellidos, and the Tra’ho. The Humans are the newest and most junior of the Twelve Empires.) Compton has not decided yet what to do about the revelation about the Shonkla-raa.

The second paragraph of the opening page is: “The [Filiaelian’s] expression, and the face, shook briefly as the hand gripping my throat slammed my head and back hard against the display window of my first-class Quadrail compartment.” (p. 9) Judgment at Proteus begins with a bang and never slows down. The reader who is beginning at this point will be plunged into a trainload of a few Humans and many exotic aliens. “‘What an odd question,’ I said, hiding my mild surprise. It had been over four weeks since Muzzfor died his violent death aboard the super-express Quadrail traveling from the other end of the galaxy, and nearly two weeks since Emikai [a bipedal horselike alien] and I had begun these occasional sparring sessions. Not once in all that time had the Filly asked me for details on exactly how Muzzfor had died.” (pgs. 11-12)

In addition to all the aliens, there is the colorful but vague tech of the Quadrail itself. “Our train pulled into the Ilat Dumar Covrey station exactly on time, which was the way things always worked with the Quadrail system. The Spiders, creatures encased in metal globes carried around on seven spindly legs, kept the trains running perfectly as they facilitated the transfer of passengers, cargo, and information across the galaxy with a calm and understated efficiency.

“And as Bayta and I headed across the platform, making our way past Fillies, Shorshians, and assorted other non-Humans, I thought about truth.
[…]

“Did they really want to know about the Modhri, the group mind that had started out based in exotic Modhran coral and was now also embedded in thousands, perhaps even millions, of unsuspecting beings? Did they want to know that any of their friends might have a Modhran polyp colony inside him or her, linked telepathically to all the other nearby colonies and coral outposts to form a group-mind segment? Did they want to know that their same friend’s words or actions might actually be inspired by subtle suggestions whispered to him or her by that mind segment?” (p. 13)

At Proteus, the Shonkla-raa strike first by trying to eliminate Compton by framing him for murder. Multiple murders. Compton and Bayta are surrounded by rival horselike Filiaelian police, and civilian friends who have come to know them during their Quadrail travels and do not believe that Compton could be a murderer, including a volunteer defense attorney. The secret-agent action is augmented by courtroom drama. More than one, since Compton is no sooner temporarily freed on one charge then he is framed for another murder – and after being found innocent of one murder, being assigned as a detective to investigate it. This leads to one-on-one martial-arts duels against deadly Shonkla-raa assassins. Compton believes that the police are innocent pawns, while some of the friendly aliens are disguised Shonkla-raa agents; but which?

Eventually, the Shonkla-raa seem so unstoppable that the Modhri reveal themselves/itself and, on the old theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, propose a Human-Modhri teamup against them. Compton is forced to agree, playing for time to figure out how to outwit and defeat both of the would-be galactic conquerors.
“I keyed the driving thrusters, and the desk took off like a carved wooden bat out of hell. It shot across the room and with a thunderous crash slammed into the door, bending and then shattering the panel as it was itself bent and shattered. Thumbing off the Beretta’s safety, I charged.”

For those who like shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em up, smash ‘em up, blast ‘em to atoms space opera, Judgment at Proteus by Hugo-winning Timothy Zahn, who has written plenty of authorized Star Wars novels, can’t be beaten.

Fred Patten Reviews 1636: The Kremlin Games

636: The Kremlin Games
Author:  Eric Flint, with Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett
Publisher:  Baen Books
ISBN-10:  1-4516-3776-4
ISBN-13:  978-1-4516-3776-2

It’s wonderful for an author when a novel is not only successful, it can be turned into an industry.

Eric Flint wrote 1632, the first in his Ring of Fire series, in 2000.  In it, a modern small West Virginia town of about 3,000 people and its surrounding six miles are transported by “a cosmic accident” back to 1631 northern Germany, in the midst of the Thirty Years War.  The inhabitants of Grantville are hard-pressed to remain out of the fighting, and unannexed by the duke of Saxe-Weimar.  Although the West Virginians soon run out of the gasoline and electricity to power their 20th-century marvels, there is enough to convince the 17th century heads of state that they really are from the future.  The Americans try to introduce 20th-century democracy three centuries early, while the 17th-century rulers – King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Christian IV of Denmark, Cardinal Richelieu, umpteen petty German dukes and electors and margraves, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope, etc. – try to figure out how to take advantage of futuristic technology without losing their thrones.  Within months, events are so changed that what the Americans know about future world history is no longer valid.

1632 was not only popular, it brought lots of fan mail to Flint suggesting how the future might be changed this way or that way.  Flint has swept all of his fans under his wings, encouraging them to suggest sequels and to write their own Ring of Fire short fiction.  Flint has taken the best ideas and turned them into novels, written in collaboration with his readers who suggested them.  1636: The Kremlin Games is the 14th novel co-written by Flint and others in the series, while the best of the short stories and novelettes have been collected into Ring of Fire (three volumes) and The Grantville Gazette (six volumes so far.)

1636: The Kremlin Games introduces a new protagonist and locale.  Bernie Zeppi is an average guy from the 20th century, not one of the politicians who are trying to set up a United States of Europe, or a skilled mechanic who can maybe recreate some piece of 20th century technology out of what the 17th century has available.  But he is available when a delegation comes from far-off Muscovy in late 1631 to offer great pay for one of the American wizards to drag the feudal Russian court kicking and screaming into the future.  Even updating to the standards of 17th century Western Europe would be an improvement.  Bernie figures that he can accomplish at least that much, so he blithely accompanies the envoys to Moscow.

What he does not count on are the Byzantine plottings of the boyars of the court of Mikhail I.  It is impossible to please one nobleman without making several political enemies.  Bernie is horrified by the state of public health in 1630s Russia.  Even if he knows nothing about how to recreate 20th century technology, he can introduce modern sanitation.

Despite the 1636 title, this novel also begins in 1632.  Bernie settles into life in 17th-century Russia.  He gradually makes friends with one fairly powerful family, the Gorchakovs.  Since Czar Mikhail officially approved bringing Bernie to Moscow to modernize Russia, nobody openly opposes him, but the Gorchakovs’ influential enemies have their knives’ out to sabotage Bernie’s improvements, or to try to take credit for them themselves.  Prince Vladimir Gorchakov, the Russian nobleman who led the delegation to Grantville that recruited Bernie, stays in Grantville to send what 20th-century books and technology he can copy back to Moscow.  Vladimir gradually makes social ties with the American community and marries into it.

As much as 1636 is a novel about its cast, it is a sugar-coated  education for modern readers into the culture and sociology of 17th-century Russia.  There are also concentrated glimpses of the technological improvements that Bernie tries to introduce.  Sanitation is pretty obvious with all of the uptime medical textbooks agreeing on its importance, so he has little trouble getting that adopted.  The czar’s court wants the 20th-century airplanes that they have heard about.  Bernie hasn’t the slightest idea how to build an airplane, and 17th-century Russian technology would not be up to it in any case; but what about dirigibles?  They’re just big gasbags filled with hydrogen, aren’t they?  Bernie doesn’t know much about firearms, either, but he can kibitz what the Russian gunsmiths are making.  He makes converts:

“Daniil Kinski set the butt of the AK3 on the ground and the tip of its barrel came not quite to his shoulder and Daniil Kinski was a short man.  If any of them had been familiar with the up-time weaponry, they would have thought of the AK3 as the illegitimate child of a Kentucky long-rifle and a Winchester 73.  Like the long-rifle, the AK3 was a flintlock, and like the Winchester it had a lever action.  But the AK3 had a removable firing chamber.  Daniil lifted the AK3 and showed them how the chamber was removed.  He opened the lever action chamber lock and pulled out the chamber.” (p. 269)  The demonstration’s tech-talk goes on for another page, and the Russian military is indeed impressed.

In 1634 Poland invades Russia.  (Not in our history.)  This puts Bernie and his supporters into a put-up-or-shut-up position.  For the fans of military fiction, the story follows a small cast of fictional soldiers in detailed maneuvering through 17th-century sieges and battles.  Military events lead to political influences.  Soon Bernie and his friends realize that they are no longer controlling Russia’s modernization, they are being controlled by it.  The modernization, rather the changes brought about by the attempts at modernization, have gotten out of anyone’s control.  The year 1636 does not come into the novel until page 327, just in time for a slam-bang climax that has Bernie and his closest Russian friends fleeing from Moscow in a 1972 Dodge Charger!  Flint and his co-authors clearly know their 17th-century Eastern European history in detail, and make believable guesses at how the knowledge of 20th-century sociology and technology might affect the rigid Russian aristocracy, in a lively alternate-history novel.

Rest in Peace Ray Bradbury

The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.’
~ from Fahrenheit 451

I woke up to the news that Ray Bradbury, one of the hugest icons in Science Fiction, had died.  This has been a horrible year for book lovers.  We have lost Maurice Sendak, Carlos Fuentes, Lee Dillon, Jean Craighead George and others.  While these authors and illustrators have lived long and full lives, bringing wonder, enjoyment and beauty to millions of people, they are deeply missed and their passing felt keenly.

A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?

~ From Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury was a huge influence on me and to all AmoXcalli’s writers.  One of the first books I read of his was Fahrenheit 451 and it made me think.  It was my first experience with dystopia and was one of the reasons I took television away from my own children years later (they still grumble about it 20 years later but they are prodigious readers).  After Fahrenheit, I fell in love with Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes.  I can’t imagine a life without those well worn covers on my shelves or a life without his gift for words and language or his flair for styling a story.

We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.” — Granger from Fahrenheit 451

Others from AmoXcalli will be posting their own thoughts and, as is our custom, we will be collecting links about him here.  Rest in peace Ray Bradbury and thank you for a lifetime of beautiful words.  I like to think that he followed the Transit of Venus and left this world piloting the planet as it crossed the sun.

~~~~

The first book I read by Ray Bradbury was Something Wicked This Way Comes. I remembered liking the book, but didn’t retain remembering who wrote it. I saw it mainly as “just one of those books I was assigned”. It wouldn’t be until years later when another book – again assigned as reading, but this time in high school – would make an impact forever.

Fahrenheit 451.

This would be the first time I ever read a required book in school that made me cry. Ever since sixth grade I knew with conviction I wanted to be a writer. So now I found myself reading a book proposing a world in which the written word is destroyed. The thought that anyone might even want to do that was devastating enough; the fact Bradbury created such a world where it seemed possible with such believability amazed me. It also changed my definitions of what I perceived as “science fiction” – another fact for which I am forever grateful. Also, when I was reminded that he’d written Something Wicked This Way Comes, this also impressed me. I’ve now never forgotten that book.

My exposure to Ray Bradbury’s worked increased greatly once I moved to Los Angeles. It turns out that my longtime friend and now fiance’ Kevin Paul Shaw Broden considers Mr. Bradbury to be one of his most favorite authors. Through Kevin, I finally gained exposure to The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, The Toynbee Convector… and more I can’t think of right now. I still can’t believe Ray Bradbury’s gone.

Every year, Kevin and I made sure that on our list of things to do at Comic-Con, we always went to the Ray Bradbury panel. This year we’ll be fitting in the tribute panel, I suspect. It better be Standing Room Only. Mr. Bradbury deserved no less.

A few years back when Worldcon was in Anaheim, I also went to Mr. Bradbury’s panel there. Afterwards as we all filed out, he came out the door near where I was and some people approached him and started crowding around. Part of me wanted to go up to him – he was so very close – but for some reason I didn’t want to crowd him there in the Convention Center hall. I think part of me will always regret that.

Farewell, Ray Bradbury.

— Shannon Muir, Writer/Reviewer for AmoXcalli

~~~~

Watch this wonderful little documentary, Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer by David L. Wolper.

Official Ray Bradbury Site

MSNBC

Los Angeles Times

CNN

CBS

Inky Girl

Huffpo

New York Times Ray Bradbury News Page

The Lookout

USA Today

Washington Post

Chicago Tribune

 Variety

Newsday

Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Christian Science Monitor

Chicago Sun Times

The Guardian

NY Daily News

Neil Gaiman at The Guardian

Los Angeles Times Essential Ray Bradbury Reading List

Discovery News

Wired

Seattle Times

WSJ

Shel Israel at Forbes

Salt Lake Tribune

Salon

The Atlantic

New York Times

L.A. Times on his influence on anthology TV

An Appreciation by David Ulin

Dreams of Ray Bradbury: 10 Predictions That Came True

Entertainment Weekly

Musical Works Inspired by Ray Bradbury

Meeting Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury and the Fever of Inspiration

A Ray Bradbury Sampler

E! Online

Pat Morrison

Boston Herald

Jacket Copy

USA Today

Celebrities Tweet About Ray Bradbury

Kansas City Star

Ventura County Star

Globe & Mail

The Scotsman