Voodoo, Sea Monsters, and Rebel Colonies: Rich Horton on Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Sunday, May 31st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton. Ace Books F-147, 1962. 176+80 pages, $0.40. Covers by Ed Valigursky/Ed Emshwiller

During the months-long lockdown here in Illinois as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I know I should be reading the massive TBR pile by my bedside. It’s filled with Nebula award winners, advance proofs of books coming out this fall, and all the new books my friends are talking about. But instead, I want to be reading Ace Doubles.

I blame Rich Horton. Like everyone else, I’m influenced by what I read, and what I’ve been reading recently is Rich Horton’s excellent blog Strange at Ecbatan. Like a superb DJ, Rich knows how to blend the old and the new, and in the past few weeks he’s reviewed The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe (from 2010), Avram Davidson’ acclaimed 2001 collection The Other Nineteenth Century,  the brilliant Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly (1997), the overlooked novel The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996), and a Mack Reynolds/A. Bertram Chandler Ace Double from 1967.

That Ace Double piqued my interest, of course. Like Rich, I have an enduring fondness for these peculiarly collectible science from the 1950s and 60s, although I don’t have nearly the reading muscles he does. I’m mostly familiar with the earlier D-Series, and recently I’ve been re-reading some of Rich’s reviews of those older books, especially the ones I first collected. One of the very first was Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster, a pair of Andre Norton novels issued as an Ace Double in 1962, which Rich reviewed on his blog back in 2017.

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Adventure and Tragedy on a Far Future Earth: Keith West on Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith. Ballantine Adult Fantasy #16, 1976. Cover by George Barr

Some years back Keith West wrote a series of articles for Black Gate on the legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter. In fifteen pieces between 2013-2015 Keith covered the first fourteen or so titles, including The Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, and The Doom that Came to Sarnath by H. P. Lovecraft. Yesterday I was delighted to see that Keith picked up the reins again at his own blog, Adventures Fantastic, to review the 16th book in the series: Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith. Here’s a taste.

Zothique was the first of four collections of Clark Ashton Smith’s short fiction that appeared in the BAF series. The wrap-around cover is by George Barr. (One of the best things about this line of books was their covers.)… Zothique is the last continent on a far future Earth in which much science and history has been forgotten, and magic has returned. If this reminds you of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, keep in mind Smith did it first. Some of the stories are better than others, but all are well-done. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • “Xeethra” tells the tale of a young man who wanders into a magical vale, and when he returns he travels to the far side of the continent, where he makes a bargain that ultimately brings him sorrow.
  • In “The Isle of the Necromancers,” a man is searching for his lover, who has been kidnapped by slave traders. When his ship is caught in a current, he finds himself on an island of necromancers. And then things get interesting…
  • “The Dark Eidolon” tells the story of an abused beggar who returns years later to seek revenge on the prince who injured him. This is a close second for my favorite story in the book. There are passing references to Hyperborea and Poseidonis, two other story cycles Smith wrote that were collected in the second and third volumes of Smith’s stories in the BAF series. Shucky darn, I guess I’m going to have to read those, too. How awful.

Check out the whole thing here, and Keith’s previous articles for BG here. While you’re at his website, leave a comment encouraging Keith to keep going! I’d love to read his thoughts on all 65 books in the set.


The Art of Author Branding: The Paperback Robert Silverberg

Sunday, May 24th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Next Stop the Stars Silverberg-small Collision Course Silverberg-small Stepsons of Terra-small

The Ace Robert Silverberg: skewed titles and unclutterd art. The Seed of Earth, The Silent Invaders, Recalled to Life,
Next Stop the Stars, Collision Course and Stepsons of Terra. All from 1977. Covers by Don Punchatz

If you cruised the bookstore and supermarket racks in the 70s and 80s for science fiction paperbacks, Robert Silverberg was everywhere. I mean, everywhere. It wasn’t just that he was enormously productive — that was certainly true. But his books remained in print, or were returned to print, countless times by different publishers.

This was the era when agents would package up backlists by top writers en masse, selling the rights to multiple novels, and publishers would release them virtually simultaneously, usually with the same cover artist. If you had a popular novel — and Silverberg had many — a diligent agent could package and re-package it many times. That’s how Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station was released by Doubleday, The Science Fiction Book Club, Avon, Tandem, Berkley, Star, Warner Books, Tor, and many others between 1968 and 1990, just to pick one example.

The 1977 paperback edition of Robert Silverberg’s Collision Course was one of the first science fiction books I bought (the other was Star Trek 2, by James Blish). Mark Kelly reviewed it for us here last month, calling it “a fascinating, ordinary 1950s science fiction novel.” The mix of far-flung space adventure and galactic intrigue was perfectly pitched for a 13-year old however, and I loved it. Naturally I returned to the bookstore to find more in the same vein, and lo and behold, I did: five more Robert Silverberg novels, cleverly packaged by Ace Books to capitalize on the natural brand loyalty of young SF fans (see above).

This practice of bundling authors, and creating custom cover designs for each, was by no means unique to science fiction, of course. But if you’re a student of SF art there’s an enormous amount to learn by examining the visual language built up around the most popular SF authors in the 70s and 80s, and the ways editors and Art Directors at the major publishers used that language to draw in readers with familiar images and themes, and simultaneously differentiate themselves from the competition on overcrowded paperback racks.

There are countless examples, of course. But for our purposes, I’m going to single out Robert Silverberg, mostly because he’s the one I think of when I think of author branding. Well, Silverberg and Larry Niven (whom we’ll get to in a minute).

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Isaac Asimov’s First Actual Novel: 1950’s Pebble in the Sky

Thursday, May 21st, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov; First Edition: Doubleday 1950.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)

Pebble in the Sky
by Isaac Asimov
Doubleday (223 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

Isaac Asimov’s most famous works are likely the Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot, but these are story cycles, not novels. Concurrently with the publication of those books, Asimov published his first three actual novels: Pebble in the Sky; The Stars, Like Dust; and The Currents of Space, from Doubleday in 1950, 1951, and 1952. They share a common future history background (presaged by earlier short fiction like “Black Friar of the Flame” and “Mother Earth”), in which humanity has colonized many planets across the galaxy, while Earth, for reasons of apparently having suffered a nuclear war, is a backwater, despised by the outer worlds. Yet the books vary in the degree to which they are science fiction, and not merely space opera (that is, melodramas with good guys and bad guys fighting for dominance) or historical incidents translated into future settings. Asimov was a sophisticated writer, and all three of these early novels offer complex mysteries in which problems must be solved and villains identified. But in terms of their speculative content, they vary: the middle book, The Stars, Like Dust, is the weakest; the third, The Currents of Space, the strongest; and this first, Pebble in the Sky, somewhere in between.

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Vintage Treasures: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy by Keith Laumer

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy (Berkley Medallion, 1968). Cover by Richard Powers

Science Fiction comedy isn’t much of a subgenre these days. Well, it never really was, to be truthful. But a few brave souls — Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Harry Harrison, Robert Asprin — made a career of it over the years.

Keith Laumer is one of those who occasionally dabbled in SF comedy, or at least light-hearted fare, with fine results. His satirical tales of Retief the galactic diplomat ran to more than 15 volumes during his lifetime, and many of his short stories showed a humorous bent. His 1968 collection It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy — a riff on the zany and wildly popular United Artists film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), a stable in Saturday afternoon reruns even in the early 70s when I was growing up — collects four long novelettes from Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow, all written between 1963-67, and one tale original to this collection.

Unlike Laumer’s Retief collections, which remained in print for decades, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy came and went without leaving much of a ripple. It has been out of print for over five decades. It still finds favor among modern readers, however. In a fairly typical 4-star review at Goodreads from 2016. Mike S wrote:

A collection of Laumer short stories, typically fast paced, imaginative, witty, gritty, funny… classic Laumer. I liked them all, a couple were really good, one was outstanding.

Although copies are cheap (I acquired mine very inexpensively on eBay), they can be a little tricky to find. A better option may be Eric Flint’s generous 2002 collection from Baen, Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side, which contains three of the stories, and much more, packed into a generous 500-page volume.

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Another Childhood Classic Disappoints: Thuvia Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Saturday, May 9th, 2020 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

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Thuvia of Mars paperback editions (Ace 1962, Ballantine 1969, Four Square 1962). Art by Roy Krenkel, Jr., Bob Abbett, and Roy Carnon

During confinement and adjusting to a new job (while writing a new novel!), I’ve been feeling like my bandwidth is restricted. To calm my brain at times, I’ve been rereading books I enjoyed. My reread of the X-Men is well underway (here’s post X in the blog series), and I’ve also relistened to R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing (covered here by Theo), Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings. They were all good.

I’ve had rocky experiences on rereads before though. Dune aged poorly for me in some important ways (I detailed it here) and Anthony’s Spell for Chameleon had little redeem itself in my mind (the ways that reread fell flat are here).

I was optimistic about rereading my first novel experiences, Edgar Rice Burroughs though. I’d previously talked about Burroughs and the amazing biography written about him here. Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars were all too well remembered so I downloaded Thuvia Maid of Mars at Librivox.org, which does audio recordings of public domain books. This novel was also discussed by Black Gate blogger Ryan Harvey a few years ago, so if you want an alternate view, it’s here.

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Vintage Treasures: The Fantastic Imagination Anthologies, edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski

Friday, May 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Fantastic Imagination, volumes I and II (Avon, February 1977 and December 1978).
Cover artist: unknown (left), Elizabeth Malczynski (right)

Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski were quite the dynamic pair in the late 70s and early 80s. They edited five anthologies between 1977-81, all but one paperback originals from Avon, and a sixth a decade later, from Academy Chicago specialty press. All are fine volumes well worth your attention today.

The Fantastic Imagination (1977)
Dark Imaginings (1978)
The Fantastic Imagination II (1978)
The Phoenix Tree (1980)
Visions of Wonder: An Anthology of Christian Fantasy (1981)
Visions & Imaginings: Classic Fantasy Fiction (1992)

It may be giving them too much credit, but for me at least Boyer and Zahorski defined fantasy and its related genres for a generation. With their popular and highly readable paperback anthologies they helped new readers explore Gothic Fantasy (Dark Imaginings), Mythic Fantasy (The Phoenix Tree), and Christian Fantasy (Visions of Wonder).

And with The Fantastic Imagination volumes in particular, they drew clear boundaries around the particular sub-genre that more or less defined English fantasy until Tolkien upended things in the early 20th Century: the fairy-tale, and the High Fantasy genre that grew out of it, rich with fairies, elves, dwarves, kings, queens, and knights.

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A Scientist’s Science Fiction Novel: Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud

Thursday, May 7th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle First Edition: William Heinemann, 1957.
Cover by Desmond Skirrow (click to enlarge)

The Black Cloud
by Fred Hoyle
William Heinemann (251 pages, £1.50 in hardcover, 1957)

Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud was the first novel by the renowned, perhaps now forgotten (because his big ideas turned out to be wrong), astronomer of the mid-20th century. It’s still his most famous, and likely best, novel, out of some nearly 20 novels he would subsequently write, some in collaboration. Hoyle’s novels are significant because they are science fiction novels written by a real scientist, perhaps the most famed scientist to have ever written science fiction. Hoyle is remembered as an advocate, in the 1950s, of the “steady-state” theory of the universe, in contrast to the “big bang” theory that would eventually prevail. (Ironically, Hoyle created the term “big bang” as a derisive term for an idea he didn’t like.)

The Black Cloud is memorable for its depiction, more or less successfully, of a truly alien intelligence. But it’s as much a disaster novel, of the “cozy catastrophe” variety (i.e. most of the death and devastation occurs off-stage), and a novel of scientific manners, as a first contact story. We see the sharp contrast between how scientists understand the world with how politicians try to manipulate it, and we see a milder contrast in the rivalry between an American group of scientists and a British group.

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Vintage Treasures: Beyond the Beyond by Poul Anderson

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Beyond the Beyond paperback original (Signet first edition, August 1969). Cover artist unknown.

When I pick up an old paperback these days, it tends to be an anthology or collection. There aren’t very many published nowadays, and I miss them.

So naturally I’m reading many of the old paperbacks I missed out on in my youth. One of my recent favorites is Beyond the Beyond, a thick collection of six stories by Poul Anderson. Anderson was one of the most prolific SF writers of the 20th Century, and he produced dozens of collections in his lifetime. This one is particularly interesting to me because, as far as I know, it’s his only collection of novellas.

Anderson was a terrific science fiction short story writer, and he was even better at length. Beyond the Beyond contains six long tales published between 1954-1967, including a story in his David Falkayn: Star Trader series, one in his Technic History, and two in his popular and long-running Psychotechnic League saga. These aren’t Anderson’s best-known stories, not by a long shot, but this is a decent snapshot of his work in the SF magazines during his most productive period in the 50s and 60s.

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Weird Tales Deep Read: July 1933

Sunday, April 26th, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

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Somewhat fanciful Brundage cover for “Hand of Glory”

This is the first in a series of posts I’ve wanted to do for awhile now, a detailed look at a single issue of Weird Tales magazine where I do a short analysis of each story, the famous, the infamous, and the forgotten. Just to make things a little confusing, I rate these stories, unlike movies, on a 1-5 scale, with the lower the number, the better the story. You can look at these ratings as A-B-C-D-F, or Excellent – Good – Mediocre – Below Average – Poor.

I wanted to start with a memorable issue, so I chose the July 1933 entry, one of the best I’ve read so far. I’ll start with a short overview and then get into the specifics of each story.

This issue is at the beginning of the Unique Magazine’s (as it sometimes called itself) Golden Age (roughly the early to late 1930’s) with a total of four of the nine stories penned by what I like to think of as the Holy Trinity of Weird Tales writers, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. The ubiquitous Seabury Quinn is also present with one of his ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories, along with tales by early giants of science fiction Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson. Sheridan Le Fanu contributes a classic reprint. The final story is by Harold Ward, a fairly prolific pulp writer noted for complicated plots often bordering on the incoherent.

The Howard story is one of his slightest, but moderately effective. The Smith, set in what is probably the first shared-world universe in science fiction — the Cthulhu Mythos — is also rather slight, but vastly more imaginative. The Lovecraft story under his byline is one of his classic Cthulhu Mythos tales. His second story in this issue appears under the name of Hazel Heald, which requires a bit of explanation.

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