What I’ve Been Reading Lately: January 2020

Monday, January 20th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Garrett_SweetsilverEDITED“Say, Bob, it’s been an ENTIRE month since you told us what you’ve been reading lately. The suspense is keeping me up at night.” OK – so nobody said that to me. I’ll tell you some of the stuff I’ve taken off of the shelves lately, anyways.

GLEN COOK – SWEET SILVER BLUES

I’ve already written about Glen Cook’s terrific hardboiled, fantasy PI series featuring Garrett. It combines Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolfe, and Terry Pratchett in a terrific fashion. I have a hard time imagining a better series. I’ve talked to a couple fellow Black Gaters about a round-robin look at several books in the series: So many ideas, so little time.

I’m working on this essay on Sunday evening, mere hours ahead of deadline, because I spent a couple hours yesterday re-reading book one, Sweet Silver Blues, instead of sitting at the keyboard and writing. I like it quite a bit, but it’s in book two, Bitter Gold Hearts, that the series really settles in. I’ve read most of the series at least twice before over the years. A few of my friends didn’t care for 2013’s Wicked Bronze Ambition, the last (but hopefully not final) book. It’s definitely not one of my favorites, but it’s still Garrett, and I hope there will be at least one more.

This is one of my favorite series’ in both the fantasy and private eye genres. HIGHLY recommended. And I’m also a huge fan of Cook’s The Black Company, which is light years away in tone and style. He’s simply a very good writer. Black Gate buddy Fletcher Vredenburgh did a fantastic walk-through of the entire series last year.

JOHN D MACDONALD

John MacD has been my favorite author for about three decades now. I enjoy his standalones, his short stories, and his Travis McGee books. I’ve written about him several times, and if all I did was write for Black Gate (sadly, I need to pay my bills and other such nonsense), you’d be reading a LOT about him here.

Earlier this month, after holding off for over twenty-five years, I finally watched the 1970 adaptation of Darker ThanAmber, with Rod Taylor as Travis McGee. Then, I went and re-read the book over the next couple of days. Taylor grew on me as the movie progressed, and they followed the book fairly faithfully. The final fight scene between McGee and Terry was really something to see.

I think this is a better version of a McGee novel than the 1983 film starring Sam Elliot (why in the world would you transplant McGee to California?!).

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Vintage Treasures: The Space Magicians, edited by Alden H. Norton and Sam Moskowitz

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Space Magicians-small The Space Magicians-back-small

Cover artist unknown (which is kinda tragic)

And so my quest to write up all the interesting science fiction anthologies of the 20th Century brings us to The Space Magicians.

This is kind of an oddball anthology. Yes, it has a theme. (That theme is not space magicians.) The idea appears to be a collection of rare and hard-to-find science fiction tales by “science fiction’s major talents… each one a masterpiece in its own right,” and each of which has never been reprinted in paperback before.

The result is an eclectic mix of pulp tales by, yes, seven major SF writers: John Wyndham, Henry Kuttner, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Bloch, and Robert W. Chambers. The stories within originally appeared between 1899 and 1953, in Wonder Stories, Super Science Stories, Astonishing Stories, Science-Fiction Plus, Universe Science Fiction, and other fine venues. They include the first reprint of Asimov’s “Half-Breed,” written when he was 19 years old, and Robert W. Chambers science fiction story “In Search of the Unknown.”

The stories are packaged in a 206-page paperback with a gonzo wraparound cover featuring cartoon characters on a gloriously colorful alien landscape. The artist, tragically, is unknown. The editors offer a chatty two-page introduction in which they wonder aloud why none of these stories have been reprinted, and tell us a bit about each one to whet our appetite. Here’s the complete intro.

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Bob’s Books: “Fast, Loose Money” by John D. MacDonald

Monday, January 6th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

MacDonald_EndTigerCover2EDITEDJohn D. MacDonald broke in near the end of the Pulp Era, writing for science fiction and mystery magazines. He appeared in Dime Detective his first year of writing, and made it into Black Mask the next. Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw became his agent after the legendary editor left the magazine. He quickly became a staple for Fawcett Gold Medal’s paperback origscoinal novels, while still writing short stories, including for slicks like Redbook and Cosmopolitan. With seven stories in 1958 (the same as in 1957), Macdonald effectively ended his run as a short story writer and shifted almost completely to novelist.  He would only write that many short stories in a year twice more for the rest of his life.

The last story published in 1958 was “The Fast, Loose Money,” in the July issue of Cosmopolitan. It was included in the 1966 collection, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. One of the fourteen other stories in that book is “The Trap of Solid Gold,” which I think is one of his best; and which Steve Scott used to name his blog – the best John D. MacDonald site on the web. You can read Steve’s two-part essay on MacDonald’s Park Falkner, here.

At eleven pages of tightly spaced small print, it’s a little longer than almost every other story in the book.

During World War II, MacDonald was an ordnance officer in the India-China-Burma Theater, working in procurement. He was initially assigned to New Delhi, and he did not like India, writing over forty years later, that it “was a sorry country, full of sorry people.”

He was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which became the CIA. He worked out of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, and China. MacDonald would use his experiences and knowledge of his wartime service in the Far East, in several of his short stories. 1958’s “Taint of the Tiger” was expanded into a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback, Soft Touch. Another ‘war-roots’ story from that year is “Fast, Loose Money.”

Something has gone very wrong in Jerry Thompson’s day. Jerry owns three parking lots in a nearby city. He and his wife Marie live well enough off of them, but as he says, “If you play by the rules, you’re a sucker.” So, Jerry had been using a duplicate ticket scheme to grab some off-the-book income, totaling about $26,000, which he kept at home in a wall safe, and spent low-key, to avoid the danger of getting caught.

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Ten

Friday, January 3rd, 2020 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

MOKF 44Master of Kung Fu #44 kicks off an eight-part story arc that builds upon the events of the series’ preceding six issues while also serving as the culmination of the ongoing storyline involving Shang-Chi’s father Fu Manchu and sister Fah lo Suee and their decades-long battle for control of the Si-Fan. Marvel approved a six-part story with some reluctance, but the team of writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy were making the series one of Marvel’s very best of the 1970s and had the clout to push boundaries further so long as sales and critical recognition continued. Of course, the first thing the two men did was plot a prelude and epilogue which extended the story from six chapters to eight. The results are both more and less than what one might reasonably expect, though they certainly succeed in terms of ambition and scope.

The principal difference in quality is Gulacy’s art. While never disappointing, he simply fails to match the standard of the previous five issues he illustrated. The challenge of maintaining such a high standard month after month was wearing and would result in Gulacy’s decision to leave the series that had brought him such acclaim. Likewise, Moench remained one of Marvel’s most overworked writers and despite the care he took in structuring the story, it was inevitable that moments appeared rushed and even underwritten. It was never a question of Moench’s skills, simply that he also could not maintain the same high level of quality writing when juggling so many titles each month.

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Sixty Years of Lunar Anthologies

Saturday, December 28th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Men on the Moon-small The Moon Era-small Blue Moon-small

Men on the Moon (Ace, 1958, cover by Emsh), The Moon Era (Curtis Books, 1969), Blue Moon (Mayflower, 1970, Josh Kirby)

This past July was the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — a pretty major milestone in human civilization. A major milestone for science fiction fans as well, and we celebrated it in our own way. Most notably, Neil Clarke published The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction, a fat 570-page reprint anthology that I finally bought last week.

Neil’s book is the best moon-centered anthology I’ve ever seen, but it builds on a long history of classic SF volumes dating back at least six decades. While I was preparing a New Treasures article about it I kept going back to look at favorite moon books in my collection, and eventually I got the idea to craft a longer piece on half a dozen Lunar anthologies that all deserved a look.

I don’t mean to slight Neil’s excellent book, which we’ll dig into in detail. But if you’re like me and you can’t pick up a modern book about the moon without thinking of Donald A. Wollheim’s Ace Double Men on the Moon (from 1958), or Mike Ashley’s terrific Moonrise: The Golden Era of Lunar Adventures, then this article is for you.

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Back to the Books for the Theater of the Mind

Friday, December 20th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Johnny Dollar tradeI came to Old Time Radio late in life. My parents were born in 1940 and 1942, respectively. They remembered radio shows from their childhood, but the advent of television made more of an impact on them. During my teen years, one of our local UHF stations briefly picked up reruns of the jazz noir detective series Peter Gunn (1958-1961) in the mid-1980s and I was instantly hooked. A set of Peter Gunn episodes on VHS followed in 1989 from Rhino Records. Before long, I was hunting for Henry Kane’s well-written paperback tie-in and the goofy Dell Comic (where Pete tracks down villains trafficking in counterfeit collectible postage stamps). 2002 would bring the first DVD sets of Peter Gunn. By the time the entire series was on DVD, so was its companion series, Mr. Lucky (1959-1960); and then I discovered the imitation series, Johnny Staccato (1959-1960) which successfully blended concepts from both series before adding a healthy dose of angst-ridden method acting to the mix.

I couldn’t stop there of course, not with gray market sets of Peter Gunn‘s progenitor, Richard Diamond (1957-1960) and Mr. Lucky‘s successor, Dante (1960-1961) circulating among collectors. Eventually, I discovered a terrific, but nearly forgotten television adventure series, Hong Kong (1960-1961) and reached back to find Dante had actually preceded Mr. Lucky via an earlier series, Dante’s Inferno (1956). Having reached the end of the line for the uniquely sophisticated and stylish Golden Age of Television detective and adventure series that appealed most to me, I decided to venture into the largely unknown waters of Old Time Radio.

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Vintage Treasures: The Astounding-Analog Reader edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss

Saturday, December 14th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Astounding Analog Reader Volume 1-small The Astounding Analog Reader Volume 2-small

The Astounding-Analog Reader (Sphere 1972 and 1973). Covers by unknown (left) and Chris Foss (right)

I used to scoff at the idea of online bookstores. How will you browse for books?, I demanded to know. You’ll never replace that wonderful moment of discovery, of serendipity, finding a treasure you weren’t looking for, which happens all the time in great bookstores.

Of course, these days I find books online all the time. I’m a huge fan of Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss’s top-notch science fiction anthologies, like the long-running The Year’s Best SF series and Farewell Fantastic Venus! But I had no idea they’d collaborated on a two-volume collection of Golden Age pulp SF, The Astounding-Analog Reader, until I stumbled on a copy of the second volume on eBay a few weeks ago. I tracked down the first one, ordered both, and have been dipping into them ever since they arrived.

The Astounding-Analog Reader is a fantastic assortment of (generally longer) fiction from the pages of Astounding, circa 1937 — 1946. It was originally published in hardcover as The Astounding-Analog Reader, Volume 1 by Doubleday in 1972, and reprinted in paperback in the UK by Sphere as The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book 1 and Book 2 in October 1973. It has never has a paperback edition in the US.

The editors completed the series a year later with The Astounding-Analog Reader, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1973), which contained stories from 1947-1965. That volume has never had a paperback edition, which makes me sad.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)

Monday, December 9th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Davis_DeadMansBrandEDITED

You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Wasn’t sure what to write about this morning. I went on a mini Sword and Sandals kick and recently finished Scott Oden’s Men of Bronze, and Howard Andrew Jones’ Desert of Souls (reviews coming, time willing). I’ve played a lot of Conan Exiles the past few months (when I could) and I definitely want to do a post on that. It’s Minecraft on Steroids (now THERE’S a post title!). My Game Night group dug into Shadows of Brimstone earlier this year and that was a lot of fun (not as brutal as Descent). And my son and I are revisiting Star Wars Destiny (a neat card/dice game).

I’ve continued to work on what I hope will be the definitive Max Latin (Norbert Davis) essay. Though, to be honest, there isn’t really much competition for that honorific. His Latin stories are even more woefully neglected than Davis himself is. Being in a Davis mood, I decided to get Black Dog Books’ Dead Man’s Brand. Davis is best known for his screwball hardboiled comedies (a style that didn’t get him many sales to Cap Shaw, famed editor of Black Mask).

But he wrote for several pulp genres, as well as for the higher-paying slicks. This collection includes eight solid westerns from the pulps, including Dime Western Magazine and Star Western. There’s a good introduction by Bill Pronzini, and in the afterword, Ed Hulse talks about the lone movie adapted from a Davis story (there’s further proof of the under-valuing of Davis’ work).

Maybe I can talk James Reasoner or Duane Spurlock into doing a much better essay on Davis’ westerns than I could possibly ever hope to write, but I’m just going to talk about the first story: “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain,” which appeared in Dime Western in October, 1940.

We don’t learn all the details right away, but the story opens with a young girl named Missy trying to crawl under a covered wagon while her drunken uncle (Pops Reese) whips her with a quirt (a short-handled riding whip with a braided leather lash). The coffee she gave him was too hot and burned his tongue. That’s the kind of guy he is. Well, that, and he’s taking her to the town of Cranston to sell her to the local boss – presumably to become a whore in his saloon.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Forry Award: C. L. Moore

Saturday, December 7th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Astounding Science Fiction Judgment Night August 1943-small

Astounding Science Fiction August 1943,
containing “Judgment Night” by C.L. Moore

The Los Angeles Science Fiction Society (LASFS) began presenting the Forry Award in 1966 for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction. The first award went to Ray Bradbury, who, besides his towering achievements in SF, was a prominent member of LASFS. Over the years, the list of Forry Award winners is a curious mix of the obvious (Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. Van Vogt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lois McMaster Bujold, etc.), with those whose accomplishments are not as writers but still seem significant (Mike Glyer, Chuck Jones, Fred Patten, Ray Harryhausen), and with those whose importance I have probably unforgivably missed (Charles Lee Jackson II, Len Moffat, John de Chancie.)

The 2002 award went to the award’s namesake, Forrest J. Ackerman. Here I will confess a personal bias… If awards like the Campbell and the Tiptree are going to have their names changed, can the Forry Award retain its name for long? Some of my bias is undoubtedly unfair: I think Ackerman’s taste in science fiction was appalling. But that’s just “taste”, and surely he can be forgiven that, and his enthusiasm for the type of SF he loved was no doubt real. But his ethics as an agent, for one, were distressing. But much more seriously, there are credible accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of women fans, and indeed very young women, at least as young as 13. I can’t but feel icky about the worship some express towards him, and while I’m opposed to changing the name of the Tiptree Award, and ambivalent about changing the names of the Campbell Awards, it seems to me that the Forry Award (justified as it may be by Ackerman’s strong association with LASFS) is right out.

But that doesn’t mean the Forry Award winners (Ackerman himself excepted) should be thrown out with the bathwater. And the 1973 winner, C. L. Moore, qualifies as one of the “obviously worthy” winners.

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Nine

Friday, December 6th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Master_of_Kung_Fu_Annual_Vol_1_1Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 was a reworking of what would have been Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #5 had Marvel’s short-lived line of quarterly publications not been prematurely discontinued. As it stands it was the only King-Size Annual Marvel published for the series. Marvel Annuals were generally a mixed bag and this is no exception. A few select ones offered truly special longer stories which were a delight for loyal readers, but most were either hurriedly produced or generally disappointing tryouts for aspiring Marvel writers and artists to demonstrate their handling of established properties. Master of Kung Fu Annual fell in the former category with Doug Moench and Keith Pollard tossing off Shang-Chi’s first encounter with Iron Fist.

The story itself isn’t terrible, but Shang-Chi is almost a guest star in what is essentially an Iron Fist story that is centered on the character’s origins. The visit to the otherworldly dimension that Iron Fist calls home to take on an invasion force led by a sorcerer really seems to be more of a martial arts spin on Doctor Strange. The artwork utilizes some of Steve Ditko’s interdimensional concepts, but without any of his sense of abstract wonder. I was not acquainted with Iron Fist having a mystical background and the story did nothing to make me care much either way as it was clearly knocked off quickly by the overworked Doug Moench. Like the companion magazine, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, this seemed largely a wasted opportunity. Fans of the character may be interested that there is a brief continuity reference to an ongoing storyline involving Daughters of the Dragon in the companion magazine which one suspects might have made for a more engaging crossover for Shang-Chi, although based on their crossovers in the magazine, perhaps it would have fared no better.

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