Friday, April 29, 2016

Book Review: Lord Tedric



    E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith is one of those authors I’ve always been aware of, but never really read. I know his Lensman series is one of the major inspirations for Star Wars, and kinda archetypal Space Opera. With Lord Tedric, he plays with time travel and alternate dimensions, as well as various bits of Science Fiction and Fantasy to tell the story of a man, made god.  

    Maybe I was just not tuned into this one, but I had a devil of a time paying attention. I never really connected with any of the characters or the plot. I feel like there was something interesting at the core, but the execution is lacking. I think there’s a humorous bent to the writing that I simply wasn’t catching. Like in-jokes you recognize but don’t understand.

    One of these days, I’ll finally sit down to the Lensman series. One of these days. But this isn’t going to make that day come any faster.

    This story would later be expanded into a novel and follow-up series by Gordon Eklund. It seems like it became much more of a science fiction-y type thing under Eklund. But this original novella drops its kinda crazy opening for a dull Medieval procedural about knights and kings talking in semi-Shakespearean language.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Book Review: Endless Shadow



    Somehow, being an avid science fiction reader for more than 30 years, I’ve managed to never read any John Brunner. I know I’ve bought some of his books over the years, but unless I’m forgetting a short story somewhere along the way, Endless Shadow is the first thing I’ve read by him.

As half of an Ace Double, Endless Shadow is a novella set in a future where Earth is building a network of transport gates to re-unite its scattered descendants on distant worlds. Two new worlds are about to be opened, one a stagnant matriarchy and the other a world of death obsessed cultists. Could one of these worlds bring down everything Earth has built?

While the Science Fiction concepts certainly feel like they come out of the Golden Age, this 1964 novel feels intensely modern in some ways. It’s a reminder that women and people of color were given much more to do in science fiction of this era. Not by every author, sure. But not infrequently. And it wasn’t uncommon for novels and novellas to be about philosophical ideas, which is where this books main thrust aims. Does death make life worth living? Is life worth anything? Where does one find meaning or a reason to go on? Heady stuff.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: The Rim of the Unknown



    When I was a lad, and first getting into the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other weavers of weird tales, Frank Belknap Long’s name quickly entered my literary world. His story “The Hounds of Tindalos” was one of my favorites from the circle of Mythos writers I tapped into. Years of shopping at my favorite book store (Pro Libris on 3rd Street in Bangor, ME) netted me a lot of Lovecraft related books and collections by authors from that ever growing circle, including several by Long. Like so many of the books I hoarded, I never got around to reading them. Until now.

    With “The Rim of the Unknown” I got a sampling of his work from the late 20s through the mid 50s. A few were clearly of a Lovecraftian bent, especially 1927’s “The Man with a Thousand Legs.” While others felt more like a Ray Bradbury pastiche, like “Fuzzy Head.”  Many of the stores featured the Atomic Age fear (of nuclear annihilation) and hope (of a new, superior breed of humanity) that so marked the mid 20th century Science Fiction. Several of the stories had the Twilight Zone style “twist” endings (“The Cottage,” I’m looking at you!). And there were several stories with that 50s assumption that space flight would just be a thing we did; no big deal.  He also wrote a lot about families and family dynamics.  This seemed a bit odd, considering he was not a family man.  He got married around the age of 60, but never had children.  

    My favorite stories were the ones that tended toward the weirder, more “big idea” Science Fiction side of the spectrum.  “The Trap” was has a very Twilight Zone feel to its plot and resolution.  But the core concept of the alien in it is something kind of special, and I think puts it firmly in the Lovecraft Mythos.  At the end of the volume there are three companion stories that I really, really enjoyed.  “The Great Cold,” “Green Glory,” and “The Last Men” were all written in the mid 30s, and all take place in an extremely distant future of the type envisioned in books like William Hope Hodgson’s “Night Land.”  So far into the future, the Earth is nearly unrecognizable, and what we consider the “natural order” has been disrupted. In this case, Humanity has fallen, to be ruled over by alien (not extraterrestrial) intelligences descended from what we once saw as lowley. Each story looks at Humans living under the yoke of millennia of controlled breeding and institutionalized servitude, and how a thread of what makes us who we are might survive.

    The thing I probably most came away with from this anthology is that Frank Belknap Long was, perhaps, not a great writer.  He was creative.  He was certainly prolific.  But while I sit back and wonder why people aren’t reading Andre Norton, or Robert E. Howard, or some of the other really great talents of Weird, Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror stories, I understand why Long may have fallen mostly into obscurity.  His prose is acceptable, without being especially artful or impressive.  Many of his tales have a very dated feel, not just in language, but in general concerns.  This might work more as a glimpse at the psychology of the day than as a compelling read.  Go read “The Hounds of Tindalos” (not in this volume), for sure.  It’s great.  Much of this...There’s a reason it’s forgotten.  But for fans of the weird tale, for folks into this kind of fiction, it’s worth a read.  You’ll find things to enjoy throughout. 



-Matthew J. Constantine

Friday, April 1, 2016

Comic Review: Red Lance Issue 3



Issue 3 of Gary Bloom’s Red Lance comic series continues to put stresses on the team, as one member recovers in the hospital, another tries to suss out a recruit, and all the while Vycia continues to mentally manipulate the scientist turned costumed villain, Cataclysm.

I think I’ve figured out what it is that I don’t care for in the art from issue 2 and 3. It’s the prevalent use of digital effects, from the coloring to the manipulated photo backgrounds. As I said in my previous review, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just not my thing.

I’m curious to see where some of the various plotlines are headed. I’m especially interested in finding out what Vycia’s deal is. Why is she doing what she’s doing? What’s she planning?

Red Lance feels like a Silver Age comic series, run through a 90s filter, without picking up too much of that decade’s more unfortunate aspects. It’s also nice to see a diverse cast of characters, without tokenism. Check it out. And support independent voices in comics ( http://redlancecomic.com/index.html ).

-Matthew J. Constantine

Comic Review: Red Lance Issue 2



A few weeks ago, I reviewed the first issue of Red Lance, and independant comic written by Gary Bloom. The first issue introduced several characters and the beginnings of some ongoing conflict. The second issue clarifies the conflict, somewhat, by introducing another antagonist MedryTech, and hinting at some larger goings on.

The first thing you’ll notice about the second issue is that there’s been a change in artist. While the coloring is more vibrant and the panel work pretty good (good panel design/flow can be a challenge even in big publisher comics), I’m not as into the art in the second (and third) issue. I can’t even put my finger on why. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it; it’s simply not my thing. Hey, millions of people like the art of manga, and I don’t. So, take that for what it’s worth.

Other than a few places where the dialog is a touch clunky, this is a solid superhero comic. The characters are diverse, and I get the feeling the author has story arcs and motivations in mind for most if not all of them. I’m curious about the two reporters occasionally cut to. Are they going to murder each other on live TV at some point?

Check out Red Lance ( http://redlancecomic.com/index.html ). It’s always good to read new voices. And I always recommend trying out work from outside of Marvel and DC, where you’re not likely to get any fresh ideas or new takes on anything.

Matthew J. Constantine

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Railhead



My recent re-engagement with the works of Andre Norton, and something of a re-awakening of an only slightly dormant infatuation with Golden Age Science Fiction couldn’t have come at a better time. My brain was in just the right condition to receive Railhead, the new novel by Philip Reeve. Longtime readers of the blog will know that Reeve is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I first discovered him through his juvenile Jules Verne style romp Larklight, but really came to be a fan with his book Mortal Engines and its follow-ups. With those books, he delved into a lot of the ‘big idea’ Science Fiction spirit I love so much. And he has returned to that with Railhead, a very big idea, Golden Age soaked adventure yarn. A galactic railroad network, threading through stargates, taking humanity from world to world; all under the watchful eyes of ancient AI. Excellent.

What Reeve does that was less common during the era of Asimov, Norton, Heinlein, and others, is populate his wild settings with interesting, nuanced, challenging characters. In Railhead, Zen doesn’t always make great choices. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He’s not a perfect young man. And he’s not alone. Are the villains really villains? Are the heroes heroes? Or are they just people trying to do the best they can with the things they’ve got? Whatever the case, I really like reading about Zen. I love Flex, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and Nova. I was curious to find out where the Threnody Noon story would go. And the Guardians? The Hive Monks? I want more.

This is the beginning of a longer story; that much is kinda obvious. There are a lot of things introduced, and not all of them are explored to satisfactory degrees. But there is a satisfying story arc to the book. While leaving things in place for events to continue, I like that there is some closure, some resolution. And I’m certainly looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Also, and you’ll know this if you’ve read his other Young Adult novels, Reeve is one of those authors who seems to delight in abusing his characters, and yes, killing them off...especially if they’re one of the ones you really love. This is something that I find thrilling. Knowing that any character, at any time, could get snuffed out makes the reading more intense. And it challenges me, in my own writing, to be more daring; to remember that in life and so in stories, stuff happens. People get hurt, they die, they come into sudden fame or glory or infamy, they fall in love with the wrong person, that make the wrong choice, they find unexpected beauty.

Like Heinlein’s “juvenile” books, and a lot of others from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Railhead features some young protagonists and there’s no explicit sex. Otherwise, it’s written as though for adults, without condescension or the accepted lowering of writing standards frequently found in young adult fiction. This is a good book. And it happens to be appropriate for teenagers. Sci-fi readers of all ages should check this out. And of course, go back and read Mortal Engines and the other books about the Predator Cities. Great stuff. Hester Shaw, man. One of the great characters.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Comic Review: Red Lance issue 1




You know I’m all about the can-do spirit; the ‘little guy (or gal)’ putting their heart on their sleeve and doing it. I love it in film, for sure. But I also love it in comics. That’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed many visits to SPX (the Small Press Expo) and why Artists’ Alley is always my favorite place to check out at comic conventions.

I just got a chance to check out the first issue of Red Lance, which is about as independent as they come. Created by Gary Bloom and crowd-funded into reality on KickStarter, this captures the feel of Silver Age marvel comics. While superheroes aren’t my bag, generally, I’m always interested in seeing someone try to do a unique take. And without the weight of decades of history weighing down plot and character options, unique takes can flourish in the indie scene.

While this is a first issue, so it’s mostly about establishing character and tone, there are several ideas that make me curious. I especially liked Vycia’s manipulation of minds, which made me think there might be a reason that crowds in old Marvel comics seemed to turn on a dime. What if someone were driving them to increased passions and illogical behavior?

Just because a comic doesn’t have Batman or Wolverine in it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. If superheroes are your thing, check out Red Lance. The art is professional (better than a lot of stuff making the cut at the Big Two) and the dialog (often the weakest part of indie comics...and no few major titles) is fairly natural.

Go on over to the KickStarter and make the magic happen.

Matthew J. Constantine