Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Warriors of Day, by James Blish

Rating: 2
Pages: 160
Better than Moby Dick?: The Warriors of Day are giants who eat Moby Dick for a snack, like a sardine.

The Warriors of Day is a useless book. It would never be published today, but standards were lower in the 1950s. The book starts out promisingly: Tipton Bond goes toe-to-toe with a Kodiak bear and emerges the victor. It's a gripping fight scene. But the book goes downhill quickly.

Tipton Bond finds himself magically transported to another world, called Xota. On Xota he stumbles upon the Temple of Mahrt, where he discovers that he is the Sword of Mahrt. Apparently, the Warriors of Day have vowed to destroy Xota as part of their quest for galactic domination. The legends tell of the god Mahrt, who will call forth his Sword to defeat the giant Warriors of Day.

It's all ludicrous and not in the least interesting. Tipton Bond taps into the planetary consciousness of Xota, which has some sort of gaia collective subconscious mind. He uses that power to destroy the huge spaceships of the Warriors of Day. It's all rather inexplicable.

It's too bad The Warriors of Day is such a poor book. Blish is a good writer, and flashes of his brilliance show through. But the plot is so utterly outlandish that it comes across as nothing but a cheap third-rate fantasy. I am tempted to give it a rating of 1, but it isn't quite that actively bad. The Warriors of Day rates a 2.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Missile Gap, by Charles Stross

Rating: 3
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

This short novel--really more of a novella--begins with a bizarre premise. At the height of the Cold War, the Earth suddenly becomes flat. Instead of a spinning globe wheeling through space, all the continents and oceans of Earth are spread out on an enormous flat disc. And the disc is unfathomably huge: its surface area can hold billions of Earths. In the oceans beyond the continents of Earth lie strange continents peopled by unhuman beings.

Humanity has no idea how it has come to be transported to the disc, but the change has severe geopolitical consequences. The nuclear deterrence between the superpowers is based on the ability to launch missiles in a polar orbit; polar orbits no longer exist, and nuclear missiles from America can no longer reach the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Soviets overrun Europe, and extend communism across their continent.

Both superpowers explore the unknown continents on the disk. The Soviets send Yuri Gagarin off in a huge Ekranoplan (a ground-effect aircraft), on a five year cruise to "boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before, explore new worlds and look for new peoples, and to establish fraternal socialist relations with them." Gagarin's expedition discovers an eerie secret: there are other Earths on this disc, and one of these alternate Earths has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust.

It's a pretty good book, and it's short enough to read in a couple of hours.

You can read Missile Gap online for free at Subterranean Press.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Horror in the Museum, by H.P. Lovecraft and others

Pages: 453
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

These are not Lovecraft's best stories. The early ones particularly show a lot of racist sentiment. Medusa's Coil relies on a racist premise as a key plot point: Marceline is revealed to be black (which is supposed to be the ultimate horror.) I found The Last Test to be interesting enough to hold my attention, though not unpredictable. The Mound is better; the exploration of the subterranean world makes the story worthwhile. My favorite story, by far, is 'Till 'A the Seas'. Also good are The Horror at Martin's Beach and The Loved Dead. The rest are second-rate fare.

  • A Note on the Texts, by S. T. Joshi

  • Lovecraft's "Revisions", by August Derleth

  • The Green Meadow, by Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun. - A meteorite contains a notebook with a message from a man who has passed over to The Green Meadow, "where young men are infinitely old."

  • The Crawling Chaos, by by Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun. - A drug-induced vision of the end of the earth. "And when the smoke cleared away, and I sought to look upon the earth, I beheld against the background of cold, humorous stars only the dying sun and the pale mournful planets searching for their sister."

  • The Last Test, by Adolphe de Castro - Dr. Alfred Clarendon experiments with a deadly black plague, which is revealed to be not of this world.

  • The Electric Executioner, by Adolphe de Castro - A train ride with a madman and an electric chair.

  • The Curse of Yig, by Zealia Bishop - The snake-god Yig wreaks his vengeance on an Oklahoma family.

  • The Mound, by Zealia Bishop - A mound patrolled by a phantasmic Indian guard is a gateway into a vast subterranean world of Tsathoggua worshippers.

  • Medusa's Coil, by Zelia Bishop - Marceline, the wife of a young American man, is actually a fantastically ancient evil being.

  • The Man of Stone, by Hazel Heald - To get revenge on his cheating wife, a degenerate hillbilly perfects a potion that turns people to stone.

  • The Horror in the Museum, by Hazel Heald - Spending the night in a wax museum filled with living horrors.

  • Winged Death, by Hazel Heald - Mad scientist murders fellow scientist with a strange African disease spread by fly bites--but those bitten by the flies lose their souls.

  • Out of the Aeons, by Hazel Heald - An old statue found in the Pacific Ocean is actually a living man, frozen forever because he looked upon the god Ghatanothoa without carrying the proper protective charms.

  • The Horror in the Burying-Ground, by Hazel Heald - Burying people alive.

  • The Diary of Alonzo Typer, by William Lumley - Diary of a man whose old family home draws him in and kills him.

  • The Horror at Martin's Beach, by Sonia H. Greene - A lurking sea creature engages the villagers in a macabre tug of war.

  • Ashes, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - Mad scientists turns assistant's girlfriend to ashes.

  • The Ghost-Eater, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A traveller through the forest at night stays with a strange old man/werewolf who tries to eat his soul.

  • The Loved Dead, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A twisted serial killer gets his only satisfaction from surrounding himself with death.

  • Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, by C.M. Eddy, Jr. - A blind deaf-mute records his final moments on a typewriter as some horrible presence draws near.

  • Two Black Bottles, by Wilfred Blanch Talman - The undead.

  • The Trap, by Henry S. Whitehead - A sorcerer traps a young boy in a mirror.

  • The Tree on the Hill, by Duane W. Rimel - A tree on a hill is a glimpse into another world.

  • The Disinterment, by Duane W. Rimel - Mad scientist transplants the narrator's head onto a non-human body.

  • ‘Till A’ the Seas’, by R. H. Barlow - The extinction of mankind comes at the hands of a merciless, scorching sun.

  • The Night Ocean, by R. H. Barlow - A vacationer spies something unhuman in the ancient sea.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher

Rating: 4
Pages: 218
Spoilers?: Major
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The final installment of the Tripods trilogy is as good as the previous book. In The City of Gold and Lead, Will Parker and Fritz infiltrate the Tripods' domed city. Will escapes from the city and brings back much-needed information about the Masters, including the news that the Masters are planning to destroy the Earth's atmosphere. Humanity has only a few short years to defeat the Tripods before every last creature on Earth will choke to death in the poisonous air of the Masters.

The Pool of Fire moves quickly. Will and Fritz spend a year traveling through Asia recruiting freedom-minded boys to their cause. Then Will helps the Resistance capture a Tripod and kidnap a living Master for their scientists to study. Will serves as the Master's prison guard, and inadvertently makes a discovery: alcohol incapacitates the Masters.

That leads to a plan: small teams will sneak into the Masters' domed cities and dump alcohol into the city water supply. Will and Fritz are chosen to lead the attack on the domed city in Germany.

The attacks succeed. The Masters are incapacitated, and the Resistance cracks the city domes, asphyxiating the Masters in Earth's oxygen atmosphere. Except at one city: the attack on the domed city on the Panama Canal fails.

The Resistance has a backup plans: primitive airplanes and bombs. This plan fails too. The backup backup plan is balloons and bombs. Will, Fritz, and Henry are among the balloonists who attack the domed city. The attack is nearly a failure, because the bombs keep bouncing off the city dome before exploding. Finally Henry lands his balloon on the dome, and, cradling his bomb and holding it against the dome, sacrifices his life to ensure the bomb cracks the dome. The Masters are defeated.

The Pool of Fire--and the whole Tripods trilogy--makes a big deal of Will's shortcomings. Will, as the first-person narrator, is frank about his impatience, his rashness, and his foolish pride. His struggle to control himself is a constant throughout the story.

John Christopher comments on humanity, too. When the Masters are defeated, Will assumes that men will remain united. Why should they war with one another, as they did in the past? That would be foolish. But Will is in for a shock. At the first Conference of Man, bitter partisanship rules the day. The Americans and the Chinese leave in a huff, the Germans blame the French for instigating trouble, and the English delegation withdraws in disgust. Will, Fritz, and Beanpole realize that although they have defeated the Masters, their work is not done.

Fritz said, "I think perhaps I will give up my farming. There are things more important."
Beanpole said, "I'm with you."
Fritz shook his head. "It is different for you. Your work is important, mine not."
"Not as important as this," Beanpole said. "What about you, Will? Are you ready for a new fight--a longer, less exciting one, with no great triumphs at the end? Will you leave your seas and islands, and help us try to get men to live together, in peace as well as liberty? An Englishman, a German, and a Frenchman: it would be a good start."
The air was cold but exhilarating. A gust of wind scattered powdery snow from the face of Jungfrau.
"Yes," I said, "I'll leave my seas and islands."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The City of Gold and Lead, by John Christopher

Rating: 4
Pages: 218
Spoilers?: Major
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

The second book in the Tripods trilogy is far better than the first. The White Mountains chronicles the adventures of three young boys on their journey to the community of free men in the Swiss Alps. In The City of Gold and Lead, the free men decide to strike back against the Tripods that rule the world.

But first they need information. Little is known about the Tripods, and nobody has ever entered the Tripods' huge domed city and returned. The Resistance comes up with a plan. Will, Beanpole, and Fritz Eger are fitted with false Caps sent to compete in the Games. The winners in each sport are selected to serve the Tripods in the City. If the boys win, they must gather as much information as they can, and escape the city.

Will wins the boxing championship, and Fritz wins the sprint. Both are selected by the Tripods. Inside the great domed city, they meet the Masters. The Tripods are merely mechanical vehicles. The Masters are tall, thin, tripedal, tentacled, hideously ugly creatures. They breathe a poisonous atmosphere--hence the domed city. Will, Fritz, and the other slaves wear gas masks as they serve the Masters.

Will and Fritz gather much information about the Masters. Will's Master is particularly forthcoming, and he confides to Will that the Earth will soon be rendered uninhabitable for humans. A thousand great atmosphere will spew out the poisonous concoction the Masters breathe, and soon the world will be ready for fullscale colonization. All this is set to occur within four years.

Shocked--the Resistance had expected to have decades to plan a decisive strike against the Tripods--Will and Fritz realize they must escape immediately. The Resistance must be warned so they can act right away.

The City of Gold and Lead is a fun book. My one objection is that Beanpole should never have been permitted to compete in the Games. His brilliant mind and his inventiveness would have been too precious to risk.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The White Mountains, by John Christopher

Rating: 2
Pages: 214
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

My dad read the Tripod books to me when I was a kid. When I saw a set at Half Price Books, I had to buy them. The White Mountains is not as good as I remembered. The book does little more than set the stage for the sequels. The sequels are awesome, though, so it's worth it.

Giant metals tripods from outer space enslave humanity. People live simply in rustic villages. Technology as basic as clockmaking has been lost. They tell dimly-remembered stories about the time before the Tripods came, when men overpopulated the Earth and fought wars amongst themselves. At the age of 14, every boy and girl is Capped. The metal Cap melds with the skull and ensures complete loyalty to the Tripods.

In a small hamlet in England, a 13-year-old boy named Will Parker has just lost his only friend. He has just watched his only friend Jack get Capped; Jack is now a man, his personality has changed, and Will realizes he wants no part of Capping.

A passing Vagrant called Ozymandius notices Will's dissatisfaction, and tells him about a community of free men. He tells Will to travel south, cross the English Channel, and continue on the the White Mountains. There, in the cold mountains where the Tripods never go, he will find the last remaining community of free men.

Will sets off to find the White Mountains. He picks up traveling companions: Henry, a boy from his village; and later Beanpole, a brilliant young French boy with a penchant for inventing. Together they find the White Mountains--but not before they have a run-in with a Tripod, which Will manages to destroy with a hand grenade scavenged from a weapons cache in a bomb-out subway.

Most of the action is boring, though. We learn very little about the Tripods--that comes in the sequel, The City of Gold and Lead. Beanpole is annoying--he keeps trying to invent things like the steam engine. And half the book is about how hungry the boys are, because they have to subsist by stealing food along the way. That's realistic, but it's not an interesting story.

Monday, November 5, 2007

At the Earth's Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2
Pages: 210
Spoilers?: Minor
Better than Moby Dick?: Yes

Edgar Rice Burroughs has a pretty good formula. A hero gets stranded in a strange alien world, sees a princess, and falls in love. The princess is kidnapped, and the hero rescues her. Along the way everybody does lots of fighting with swords, knives, arrows, and other honorable weapons. At the Earth's Core does not deviate from the formula.

The alien world is Pellicudar, a world inside the hollow crust of the Earth. A tiny sun at the center of the Earth provides eternal daylight in Pellucidar. Without day and night, time in Pellucidar is variable. What seems a month to one man--as he fights his way through the savage jungle--is a mere hour for his companion studying quietly in a library. It's a ludicrous concept, but no more so than the idea of a hollow Earth.

The hero is David Innes. No Tarzan or John Carter, Innes is nonetheless a true Burroughs hero: athletic, educated, but a man of bold action rather than study. The love interest is Dian the Beautiful. Unfortunately for Innes, in his ignorance of Pellucidarian culture, he offends her grievously. He must go after her, but he is captured and enslaved by the Mahars.

The Mahars are intelligent winged dinosaurs, and are the dominant species in Pellucidar. They are served by the Sagoths, a race of primitive ape-men. Together, they enslave the true men of Pellucidar. Innes and his companions escape from the Mahars, Innes gets the girl, and then--in a surprise twist that surprises no one--Innes unites the men of Pellucidar and frees them from the tyranny of the Mahars. Hooray for happy endings.