The Omnibus Volumes of Jack Vance, Part II: Tales of the Dying Earth

Thursday, March 5th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Tales of the Dying Earth-smallI’ve been reading Jack Vance recently. My interest was initially piqued by the beautiful collections of his earliest stories from Subterranean Press, The Early Jack Vance, including the upcoming fifth book, Grand Crusades. Two weeks ago I started a project to examine the current crop of omnibus volumes collecting his most popular series, starting with Planet of Adventure.

Part of the reason I do this, of course, is that these books are a terrific value for collectors and new readers alike, gathering as they do multiple novels — many of which have been out of print for decades — in inexpensive trade paperbacks. But seeing these fat volumes on bookshelves doesn’t always do anything for me… until I have a clear picture of exactly what’s inside.

I’m a visual guy, so for me that usually means the covers of the original paperbacks. Once I see those, these handsome omnibus volumes become a lot more desirable.

Of course, we’re dealing with Jack Vance here. His books were some of the most popular fantasy of the Twentieth Century, and went through multiple editions from a whole host of publishers. And his Dying Earth novels are perhaps his most popular and enduring works — I count more than two dozen English language editions just of the first book alone, since it first appeared in paperback in 1950.

So that presents a bit of a quandary. What I’m aiming to do here is provide a snapshot of the books contained within Tales of the Dying Earth that will jog the memory of the casual reader… perhaps remind them of that fascinating paperback they picked up at the cabin back in 1979, or that forgotten series they briefly glimpsed on bookstore shelves in 1994. I won’t attempt to catalog every appearance of the four novels in the Dying Earth sequence here, but instead just focus on the most popular editions that have been in circulation for the last sixty years or so.

I hope that if this article does jog your memory, perhaps reminding you of that long-forgotten paperback copy of Eyes of the Overworld or Rhialto the Marvelous you devoured twenty summers ago, you’ll seek out one of these omnibus editions and give it a try. The publishers who have brought these vintage classics back into print deserve your support.

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Northern Matter in Poul Anderson’s “Middle Ages” of The Broken Sword and in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword originally was published in a different form in 1954, which is why I’m discussing it at this time and not later. It is important to note that in Anderson’s introduction to the 1971 edition, he refers to his earlier self, the writer of the 1954 version, as if that person were not himself but in fact a different writer with the very same name. Anderson’s 1971 introduction also specifically takes into account J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Anderson asserts that, like Tolkien, he has mined the rich veins of the Northern fantasy tradition, but he claims that, unlike Tolkien, he has found riches of a slightly different hue, perhaps gems with deeper or gloomier lusters. He writes:

In our day J.R.R. Tolkien has restored the elves to something of what they formerly were, in his enchanting Ring cycle. However, he chose to make them not just beautiful and learned; they are wise, grave, honorable, kindly, embodiments of good will toward all things alive. In short, his elves belong more to the country of Gloriana than to that house in heathen Gotaland. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it was necessary to Professor Tolkien’s purpose.

I was at first horribly confused by this reference to Gloriana, able to uncover at first only a post-dated work by Michael Moorcock of that title. Until I realized that Moorcock’s novel borrows from the very thing that must be Anderson’s reference – Gloriana, or the Queen of Faerie in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (a work of whose ending I have not yet got to) who is herself an allegory of Queen Elizabeth.

What a very puzzling suggestion. Of course we know, from Tolkien’s own introduction to The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien detests allegory, so this certainly isn’t the point of comparison that Anderson finds. So it must be Gloriana’s character, and in Spenser’s medieval reconstructionist tradition Gloriana must of necessity stand as the ideal form of every human virtue. But does this truly characterize Tolkien’s Elves? One may even become incensed when Anderson appears to make a slightly disingenuous comparison by claiming that he harks “further back” than Tolkien, to medieval Europe in which “cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness ran free.” Um. Tolkien’s Elves lived in a vanished Earth Age, not in Spenser’s proto-Romanticist reimagined “Arthurian” England. If we’re talking in terms of scope, Tolkien’s setting might have more to do with Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age than even Anderson’s Middle Ages.

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Vintage Treasures: Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Damnation Alley hardcover-small Damnation Alley Berkley Medallion-small Damnation Alley Movie tie-in-small

Roger Zelazny is one of my favorite authors. He wrote a wide range of fantasy, from Hugo-winning science fantasy (the brilliant Lord of Light) to a wildly original epic (the ten-volume Chronicles of Amber) to Sherlock Holmes-Lovecraft pastiche (A Night in the Lonesome October). Only one of his novels has ever been adapted for the screen, however: his post-apocalyptic adventure Damnation Alley, first published in hardcover by Putnam in 1969 (above left, cover by Jack Gaughan).

The book follows Hell Tanner, a condemned murderer, who’s offered a pardon if he will attempt a suicidal run across the blasted terrain from L.A. to Boston to deliver a plague vaccine. Tanner faces radioactive storms, 120-foot-long snakes, killer bats, giant mutated scorpions, and desperate human survivors as he traverses the thin habitable zone zig-zagging across the nuclear-scarred ruins of America.  The movie, which barely rises above the level of camp, was expected to be a major blockbuster. But it had the misfortune to be released the same year as Star Wars, and it sank without a trace.

The movie did a lot of things wrong… but one thing it did right was to focus much of the marketing on Tanner’s sweet ride: the Landmaster, a gigantic, grenade-throwing, nearly impenetrable all-terrain vehicle. It was custom designed for the film. Only one was every built — at a staggering cost of $350,000 in 1976 — and it still survives today. That’s why it pays to get the extended warranty, especially during periods of nuclear armageddon.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: The Lords of Dus

Monday, March 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Dus_BasiliskThe eighties was full of epic fantasy series’ by the likes of David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks and Katherine Kurtz, to name a few. While many remain giants in the history of the genre, Lawrence Watt-Evans wrote a largely forgotten series: The Lords of Dus.

Watt-Evans has written quite a bit of fantasy, science fiction and horror and is probably best known for his Ethshar series. Ethshar was created as a role-playing game world and he ended up writing many novels and short stories using the setting.

Watt-Evans had flunked out of Princeton’s architectural school and had to wait a year before he could re-apply. He had heard (the possibly apocryphal story) that Larry Niven started his career by deciding to write for one year and if he sold something, continue on: if he didn’t, he’d give it up. Watt-Evans decided to do the same and wrote a slew of short stories, selling one.

He did go back to school, but he wrote a novel (The Cyborg and the Sorcerer) on a summer break and after two years of college, gave it up to make a living with the typewriter (as a writer, not a typewriter salesman).

Influenced by Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter’s anthologies (Flashing Swords, anyone?), he was ready to spin a fantasy saga featuring a non-human (but less effete than a Melnibonian) hero. Thus, the race of overmen.

He wanted to write a ‘quest’ series, so he needed somebody to tell Garth what to do. He borrowed from Robert Chambers and came up with The King in Yellow (yes, people were influenced by Chambers before HBO’s True Detective). So, we had a sort of Elric meets the Labors of Hercules.

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High Space Opera: Jim Starlin’s Metamorphosis Odyssey and Dreadstar

Monday, March 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Marvel Graphic Novel #3: DreadstarRecently, Black Gate overlord John O’Neill reported the news that Jim Starlin’s comic-book creation Dreadstar was in development as a TV series. Starlin will be a writer and executive producer of the new show, which is to be developed for television by Universal Cable Productions and Benderspink. No network was announced for the series, but io9 observed that Universal’s behind a number of shows for Syfy, where a Dreadstar show would presumably fit nicely.

As it happens, I was a fan of Dreadstar when it was being published back in the late 80s. It had been years since I’d looked at an issue, though, so the news of the TV deal prompted me to dig out the old comics and go through them again. I ended up with mixed feelings. For me, at least, the golden age of Dreadstar was about twelve. But if I can see problems with the book more clearly now, I can also see what works. And I can see how an ongoing TV show makes a certain amount of sense.

To explain that I need to start by going through the book’s publishing history. This gets complicated. Before Dreadstar there was The Metamorphosis Odyssey, a painted serial that ran for the first nine issues of Marvel’s Epic Illustrated. Epic was an anthology of creator-owned work somewhat along the lines of Heavy Metal magazine. By the time Starlin’s serial ended, late in 1981, he’d also published a related story through Eclipse Comics, a painted story called The Price. (Originally in black-and-white, it would later be reprinted by Marvel in colour. The Metamorphosis Odyssey, meanwhile, was in black-and-white for its first few chapters, then switched to colour as it went on.) The next chapter of the story came in Marvel’s third “graphic novel” — a line of books which somewhat resembled softcover European graphic albums — called, simply, Dreadstar.

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The Son of Satan: A Gem from the Marvel of the 70s

Saturday, February 28th, 2015 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

Son of Satan 2

So many demons to fight.

While interviewing Associate Editor Jake Thomas of Marvel Comics for my last blog post (see Middle Child) , we also talked a bit about horror in comics and where it fits, what fans are looking for, etc. It turns out that until recently, I hadn’t gone all the way to thinking about comics as a horror medium, partly because I’d never found them scary.

Marvel Spotlight 22

Human side versus devil side plus sister thrown in for family angst, and a guy on a flaming motorcycle. Freud! Help!

The old saw is that, other than superheroes, comics chased movies and TV, so that when westerns were popular, the comic industry produced cowboy books, and when SF movies were popular, they made SF comics, etc. And the 70s of course was the era of The Exorcist, The Shining, Jaws, and so on.

Some of the grotesqueries of the 1950s drove the creation of the Comics Code, but I guess I’d looked at the post-Code books like Tomb-of-Dracula and Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night as monster books, rather than horror.

There’s only so much you can do within the code, which was part of the reason why Marvel experimented with magazine-sized black and whites in the 1970s, which, by today’s standards (ex.: Severed or Wytches, from Image) look like a tea party… the little kid play, not the political movement.

However, despite being not scary, there was a rich subtlety in some of Marvel’s spooky books, an unreliability of perception, that drew me in, as a pre-teen and teen, and probably helped form some of my tastes.

In the summer of 1981, my mother gave me four comics, one of which was Doctor Strange #43. Doctor Strange was soooo wierd, but good, knock-off Chthulhu good.

And I hunted down Doctor Strange everywhere I could find him, which led me to the Defenders, another oddball child of the 1970s.

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Vintage Treasures: Echoes of Valor III, edited by Karl Edward Wagner

Saturday, February 28th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Echoes of Valor III-smallAnd so we come to the end of our all-too-brief series on Karl Edward Wagner’s ambitious and highly regarded sword & sorcery anthologies. Echoes of Valor III was published in paperback by Tor Books in September 1991, just three years before poor Karl drank himself to death in 1994.

The three Echoes of Valor books are perplexing in some regards, especially for collectors. Wagner had taken a huge step towards literary respectability for Robert E. Howard in 1977, by compiling and editing the definitive three-volume hardcover collection of the unexpurgated Conan for Berkley: The People of the Black Circle, Red Nails, and The Hour of the Dragon. It’s clear that he intended Echoes of Valor to accomplish the same feat for a wider rage of his favorite writers, by assembling the defining collection of their best heroic fantasy in hardcover — and with non-fiction commentary that treated them to genuine scholarship.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The first volume of Echoes of Valor appeared only in paperback in 1987, and it had no non-fiction content at all. It was also burdened with a Ken Kelly cover that pretty obviously had originally been intended for Tor’s Conan line — I wouldn’t be surprised if most book shoppers in 1987 mistook it for just another Conan pastiche, and didn’t give it another glance.

With the second volume, Echoes of Valor II, Wagner finally got the book he’d aspired to. It appeared in hardcover in 1989 with an original cover by Rick Berry, and no less than eight non-fiction pieces (autobiographical sketches, forwards, and author appreciations) from four distinguished writers: C.L. Moore, Forrest J. Ackerman, Sam Moskowitz and Wagner himself.

Echoes of Valor II was one of the first books to treat sword & sorcery as serious fiction, and the hardcover format meant that Tor was able to sell it into libraries and schools across the country. It was a groundbreaking book for the genre. So it was a bit puzzling when Echoes of Valor III appeared three years later — exclusively in paperback, and with only one brief essay from Sam Moskowitz.

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Fantasy Literature: That Conan Thing & The Sword of the Lady, Part 1

Friday, February 27th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

The Sword of the Lady-smallAs the treasure map says, here there be spoilers. This isn’t exactly a review, and besides this is just Part 1 of my look at The Sword of the Lady, of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. As the novel begins, the CUT are determined to kill Rudi McKenzie no matter the political cost of attacking him and the leader of Iowa, a powerful post-change entity. After the attack fails (naturally), Iowa becomes a Good Guy, Rudi & Co. head off to Wisconsin, Major Graber & Co. regroup with some new allies, and the quest continues.

But enough plot. Let’s talk Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Let’s talk S. M. Stirling’s Rudi McKenzie. Let’s talk the hard-eyed desert of the real making it with the saucy romantic.

In Fantasy Literature: The Scourge of God & “I See You” I referred to Conan/Rudi as a way of highlighting how Stirling manages, in a somewhat realistic way, to portray the ultimate warrior at work. Able to reach down and tap deep bodily resources at will, in a tall, well-muscled frame, with a lifetime of martial training (from the very best instructors), and equipped with the best that can be made, Rudi is indeed like Conan himself, a practically unstoppable killing machine. Yet Stirling keeps it real, or a reasonable facsimile of real, making the danger to Rudi palpable. For example, Odin foretells Rudi shall not live so long as to see his hair go gray with age. Better yet, Rudi will die with a blade in his hand.

Conan himself could wish for no better end. Indeed, as mercenary, thief, pirate, and eventually king, Conan risked far worse during his career. Of course, when it comes to career path, Rudi McKenzie, Artos, Ard Ri of Montival, owes more to Aragorn than to Conan, but for now a comparison of how melee is portrayed serves us better than mere kingly politics.

Let us first enjoy some Conan, dug from the very roots of Sword & Sorcery (for this IS Black Gate, isn’t it?).

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Take a Visual Tour of the Early SF and Fantasy Pulps in Futures Past #1

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Futures Past 1926-smallI have a great curiosity about the beginnings of science fiction and fantasy in the United States — particularly what’s known as the Gernsback Era, beginning when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926, and virtually created modern science fiction. Nearly simultaneously, Weird Tales (founded in 1923) was publishing the first stories of the greatest fantasists of the 20th Century: Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.

So I was delighted to discover a brand new magazine devoted to covering the birth of modern science fiction: Futures Past: A Visual History of Science Fiction, edited by Jim Emerson. The first issue of this 64-page, full color magazine, subtitled 1926: The Birth of Modern Science Fiction, appeared in July 2014, and is now available in e-book PDF format. Future issues will cover the whole field of science fiction — including magazines, books, movies and conventions — year by year, in an attractive and easy-to-read format.

Here’s the description of the entire undertaking from the publisher:

Welcome to one of the largest and most ambitious projects ever attempted in the field of science fiction.  In the pages of Futures Past we will be covering, in detail, the birth and development of modern science fiction over its first 50 years – from 1926 to 1975. Designed in a yearbook format, each issue of Futures Past will cover all the works, people, organizations and events in detailed chronological order.

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By the Numbers: Encountering Classic Fairy Tales with a Box of Crayons

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 | Posted by Nick Ozment

color by numberTonight my kids and I took some 40-year-old coloring books — vintage uncolored collectibles — opened a box of Crayola crayons and went to town!

Let me back up. A few weeks ago I was reminded that some of my earliest experiences of classic fairy tales came from a series of color-by-number books. Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves — my Nan had the whole set for my cousins and me to color in.

Vintage books and toys on eBay that catch my attention fall into roughly three categories: 1) ones I cherished as a kid and have long wanted to reclaim, 2) ones I never heard of but are so cool I can’t believe they never crossed my radar before, 3) ones I had as a kid but had completely forgotten until coming across them by accident and feeling a sudden rush of recognition and nostalgia.

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