Thursday, August 31, 2017

Moon Mist on a Planet with No Moon

Venus is, of course, a tropical planet overrun with thick jungle and nigh-impenetrable swamps. That's how its often described in the excellent Sword-and-Planet stories of Leigh Brackett and--by golly--no one should question to will of she who wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.  Her husband, Edmond Hamilton, also wrote about a Venus like that in his Captain Future novels.

Of course, her Venus and his Venus don't quite match up with one another, nor do they match with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Venus or any of the other Venus' of fiction. So each inhabits their own universe, but still give us swamps, jungles and dinosaurian monsters of various shapes and sizes. They beat our boring Solar System in just about every area. NASA should do something about that.

Brackett's best Venus story--what is also considered one of her best short stories period--is "The Moon That Vanished," published in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.  Here we meet expatriate American David Heath, who spends most of his time in a drug-induced stupor in a tavern located on the shores of the Sea of Morning Opals. Desperate to bring back a dead lover, he had once tried to sail into an area called the Moonfire--where legends say a person can become a god if he survives the ensuing agony and makes it to the center of the area. David had not gotten past the outskirts and, though he now had the minor ability to manipulate free electrons in the air and form a ghost image of his dead girlfriend, he hadn't achieved godhood.

He gets another chance when a couple of Venusians--a man named Broca and a woman named Alor--kidnap him and force him to sail his own ship back to the Moonfire. By doing this, though, they may have saved--or at least prolonged his life. The priests called the Children of the Moon figure that Heath should die for the blasphemy of entering the Moonfire and, since he hasn't been courteous enough to die on is own, they have decided to help him along.

The two Venusians are also on the priests' hit list, though Broca wants to get to the Moon fire primarily because he wants to become a god and make Alor his woman. Alor isn't necessarily on board with this. In fact, during the long voyage, she falls for David Heath. Broca is very displeased with this.

A reader might be wondering how a planet that has no moon developed a cult revolving around the idea of one. Heath's idea is that there was one once, but it eventually crashed into Venus, forming the area called the Moonfire. Whether the powers said to be available there were granted by the gods or a result of radioactive contamination doesn't really matter in a practical sense--in either case, the results are the same.

The journey itself takes up the bulk of the story, with the priests pursing them in another ship, storms and sea monsters to keep things exciting. When they reach the Moonfire, they do penetrate far enough to find out exactly what the power you get does. In a sense, it does make you a god. But it can also lead to self-destruction. David Heath has to decide whether to embrace that power and gain back an illusion that his lost-love still lives or accept that life goes on and that Alor is living and real and that he loves her now. Of course, there's also the necessity of rescuing Alor from a madman who has embraced godlike powers. But no one ever said love was easy.

That's the sort of Venus we should have. There really ought to be someone to complain to about this sort of thing.

I think in a few weeks, we'll take a look at one of the Sword-and-Planet stories of Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton--one of my favorite pulp and comic book writers. We'll tag along with him to another solar system rather than make the short hop to Venus, but I expect we'll still have a good time.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Micronauts, Part 6

Micronauts #11 (November 1979) is pretty much the conclusion of the initial adventure, with #12 (December 1979) tying up a few loose ends and setting up future story arcs.

Which is fine, because Bill Mantlo's scripts and Michael Golden's art are all still meshing together to bring us an epic story set in a superbly constructed universe. I'll have to say it one more time--This series is one of the best examples of coherent and intriguing world-building I've ever run across in any fictional universe.

The Acroyears had defeated Karza's forces on their home planet, while Argon had led an apparently successful rebellion on Homeworld. But Karza is still in space with an overwhelming army at his command, holding Rann and Mari prisoner. Argon's forces have pretty much used up their weapons and resources, so are unable to fight back.

Karza had supposedly captured Rann to learn about the Enigma Force, but we now learn that this knowledge is buried in Rann's subconscious. Karza knows this, so holding him prisoner is really just a red herring--a distraction while Karza crushes the rebellion.

And Karza, despite the setbacks he's suffered over the last few issues, does seem to be unbeatable. He smacks down Agron in a hand-to-hand fight and is about to order his troops to slaughter everyone.

But then we finally learn what the Enigma Force is. The Shadow Priests--who had also rebelled against Karza--turn out to be different aspects of Rann, created and split off from him during his 1000 years in suspended animation while he explored the Microverse. 

The meta-physics behind all this are left a bit vague, but it's the sort of thing that makes perfect sense in the context of a Comic Book Universe and the super-science of the Microverse. It's a plot twist that does not at all seem like a cop-out or a dues ex machina because Mantlo has been careful to set up the background for all this gradually throughout the last 10 issues. It's another example of why I think this might be Mantlo's best work in a career full of incredibly fun storytelling.

All the aspects of Rann combine with him to form a powerful personification of the Enigma Force.
Another fight ensues, with Karza coming out on the losing end. He makes a last effort to simply destroy Homeworld (if he can't have it, by golly, nobody can), but the Acroyear fleet shows up in the nick of time to put a stop to that. Karza plunges into a bottomless pit to his apparent death.

And that brings the main story to a very satisfying conclusion. Micronauts #12 is an epilogue, with most of the action involving a formal duel between Acroyear and his traitorous brother Shaitan, which gives us some additional insights into Acroyear's character and ends with Shaitan's death.

We also get indications that Bug is still alive and there's a scene on Earth to give Ray and Steve Coffin a happy ending (a search of the Grand Comics Database doesn't have any future appearances by them other than in a What If?) and set up some future story lines set on Earth.

I do know that Shaitan and Karza are both later resurrected. Remember that I haven't read this particular issues before and the only other issues I have read are the ones I've reviewed in the past: HERE and HERE. I know I missed out on something cool by not getting this series during its original run. On the other hand, this story arc comes to a very satisfying and definite conclusion in regards to the bad guys. Without having read the later stories involving them, I admit to being a bit leery about them returning to life later on. It really is a very over-used trope in both Marvel and DC Comics. On the third hand, though, I trust Bill Mantlo to come up with a good concept for bringing them back. 

The series ran for 59 issues, so, like ROM Space Knight, it's unlikely my finances will allow me to collect the entire run and licencing issues will probably mean reprints are always unlikely. So I may review random issues that I happen to snatch up in the future, but for now we'll be leaving the Microverse behind.

Next week, we'll take a look at a 4-part Batman story from the Bronze Age.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

Tales to Astonish #9 (1960) and Where Monsters Dwell #28 (1974), in which "Droom: The Living Lizard" is reprinted. Art by Jack Kirby.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "Sundown" 6/23/50

A boy's only possession growing up is a six-gun--a weapon he plans to one day use to kill a certain outlaw as soon as he's old enough to do so.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Merely the Comedic Sidekick? I Don't Think So!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #85

I have, by the way, been reviewing the Nick Carter films in the order they appear on the DVD menu (they are all on a single disc). Phantom Raiders (1940) is the third movie on the disc, but I have just run across a reference online to this one being the second film. The latter two films were both released in 1940. Sure enough, a little extra checking showed that Phantom Raiders was released on June 7 of that year, while Sky Murder hit the theaters on September 27. So I'm afraid I have been out of order in my In Order reviews. Hopefully, civilization will survive this error, though it will be a close thing.

Anyway, this time out Nick Carter is on vacation in Panama, where he reluctantly agrees to work for an insurance company and look into the recent sinkings of several cargo ships--all from the same shipping line.

The movie actually shows us the bad guys right off and lets us in on how they are sinking the ships. Bombs are hidden aboard the ships' radios, then set off via remote control. With the help of several corrupt shipping company executives, the main villain is shipping worthless cargo that was insured for a lot of money.

So the movie isn't a whodunit, but rather a how-will-Nick-catch-them. Nick suspects the main villain right from the start--a crook named Al Taurez (Joseph Schildkraut) with whom Nick had tangled back in the States. But proving this, as well as figuring out how Al is blowing up the ships, will take some doing. Al is also a knife-throwing expert, which makes it particularly dangerous to get on his bad side.

Schildkraut's suave but ruthless turn as the villain is a good one--he really does exude menace. The rest of the supporting cast--as is so typical with the best of the B-movies from that era--is a lot of fun. Nat Pendleton, for instance, plays Gunboat Jacklin, an ex-boxer now working as Al's bodyguard. Pendleton--an ex-wrestler in real life--was never in danger of having to write an Oscar acceptance speech, but his career playing often likable thugs and tough guys in B-movies is an honorable one. Even when he is one of the bad guys, you always kind of like him and think its nice to have him around.

I also particularly like the performance of Cecil Kellaway as a corrupt shipping exec who is having a crisis of conscience over the men who have died on the sunken ships.

Special mention, though, has to go to Donald Meek, who played Nick's sidekick Bartholomew ("Beeswax," as Nick calls him) in all three films. Meek is the comic relief and his slightly manic turn as Bartholomew is funny. But though he started as 90% comic relief & 10% useful in Nick Carter, Detective, he turns out to be quite awesome in the remaining two films.

In Phantom Raiders, he saves Nick at least twice. After one of these occasions, Nick has decided the money he's being paid isn't worth the risk and plans to quit. It's Bartholomew who eggs him into continuing by delivering an "anonymous" threat to Nick's room, thus playing on the detective's pride. Bartholomew also does some clever work in luring Al out of his office so Nick can search it. Heck, he's more co-hero of the film than sidekick. When I finally get around to my career of solving crimes, I'm going to be on the look-out for an assistant just like "Beeswax!"

All three Nick Carter movies are great, but Phantom Raiders is my favorite, both in terms of good story construction and fun characters.

That finished up the Nick Carter films and brings us up-to-date in the current batch of In Order reviews. As of my writing this post (about a month before it posts), I am undecided on what to do next for this series. But I'll think of something before long. Civilization isn't going to collapse on my watch.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Blue Phantom

Written and drawn by Fred Fredericks, The Blue Phantom (cover-dated June-August 1962) was a one-shot published by Dell Comics. It's a fun story--a well-researched and well-written saga from the War Between the States.

The protagonist is Rex Kingsbury, the son of a Virginia plantation owner. Rex and a band of 150 men have been out west working the gold fields. Now they're on their way home, with enough gold to make each of them wealthy.

But there's trouble afoot on the home front. Fort Sumter has been fired upon and all Brad's neighbors are eager to fight for the Confederacy. Rex's dad has passed away, but not before ticking everyone off by freeing his slaves. Rex's sister Jane thinks their father essentially died of a broken heart after being shunned by the community at large for his anti-slavery position.

Rex and Jane share the anti-slavery sentiments and also still feel loyalty to the Union. So when they throw a barbecue to try to mend fences with their neighbors--well, that doesn't end happily.

Rex's plantation ends up being burned to the ground. But remember the 150 men with whom Rex rode west? You don't go West, work in the gold mines and come back rich unless you are tougher than any two other men.  150 of them make one heck of a cavalry unit and, when Jane is hidden away in a remote cabin, Rex and his boys start making trouble for the Rebs.

By the way, those battles mentioned in the panel above are all real ones. Though this story is fiction, it is indeed well-researched and all the events involving Rex are nicely meshed with real-life history.

Anyway, Rex finds out about Rebel plans to attack the Northern army and delivers a warning. He realizes that the battle will overrun the plantation of Diana Rutherford, the love of Rex's life. Diana, though, is loyal to the South and their relationship has long since gone sour. So getting her out of the line of fire involves not simply warning her of the danger, but actually kidnapping her and dragging her away.

Rex stashes her away in the same cabin his sister is using. The two women, both strong-willed and both loyal to their respective causes, do not have a pleasant visit.

In the meantime, Rex joins in at the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite Rex's information, the Union Army is whipped, but the war goes on. Diana is returned to her only-partially ruined home and Rex rides off to continue to fight for the North.

With nearly four years of war still to go, there is plenty of room here for more stories involving Rex and his cavalry unit, as well as a continued examination of his relationship with Diana (who mostly claims she hates him, but has occasional second thoughts). For instance, having Rex encounter Diana's father or brother in battle would have made a powerful tale.

The climax of this story is open-ended enough to imply that later stories might have been at least tentatively planned. Perhaps the issue didn't sell well enough. Also, this was published the same year Dell broke away from Western Publishing (which started Gold Key Comics), so there may simply have been confusion among the staff as they scrambled to find their own footing and acquire rights to TV shows/movies/etc to replace those properties still owned by Western. For whatever reason, poor Rex was left in the dust of fictional history.

You can read The Blue Phantom online HERE.

Next week, we return to the Microverse to finish up our look at the first twelve issues of the Micronauts.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Murder of Necessity" 3/24/52

Robert Young plays a man who murders the sleezy private eye who had been blackmailing him, but only then notices that the phone is off the hook and someone has listened in on the crime. With a few names scribbled on a pad for clues, he must now track down the "witness" to his crime.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Haunted Corpse

A co-worker pointed out to me recently that many issues of Galaxy Science Fiction have been scanned into the Internet Archives and are available to read for free. Since we work in a library, we wondered about copyright issues, but after a little research, discovered that the Internet Archives just makes stuff available and only takes it down if someone complains. So it's likely that Galaxy will be around for awhile--I suspect many of the original writers or their estates will just be happy to have their stuff read again.

Anyway, I pulled up a random issue (January 1957) and--seeing it included a Frederik Pohl story--immediately read that one. (Um... I mean I waited until I got home that day rather than reading it at work. Yeah, that's it. I wouldn't be reading fiction at my desk while at work. I'm shocked --and appalled--that any of you would even suggest such a thing!)

The story is "The Haunted Corpse" and its narrated by a very by-the-book, get-the-job-done Lt. Colonel named Windermere. The Pentagon has just learned that an elderly (and very crotchety) scientist named Dr. Horn has invented a method to kill people electronically without actually touching them.

Windermere immediately sets up a perimeter around Horn's home/lab and insists that the scientist submit to all security procedures, including giving daily reports on progress. Horn--a standard-issue ill-tempered scientist who brooks no interference with his work--is a bit ticked off about this, but he soon realizes he has no choice.

When he finally concedes to giving reports, he drives a corporal taking dictation up a wall by using complex scientific terminology. But the gist of it is that his machine doesn't literally kill people. Rather, it removes and electronically stores the target's mind. That mind can then be transferred into another body. It's pretty much the same machine that Captain Kirk was subjected to in the 3rd-worst episode of the original Star Trek or what the denizens of Gilligan's island were zapped with in the episode "The Friendly Physician," which is actually about 200 more watchable that the Trek story.

Horn proves that his machine works by swapping the minds of a hen and a dog. Windermere immediately gets excited about the espionage possibilities, but a test with humans is still necessary. Horn hasn't been able to find any volunteers.

But it there's one thing the Army is good at is finding "volunteers." Windermere's executive officer, for instance, is"a courageous man, typical of the very best leadership type"--who also would really, really like his upcoming transfer to Korea called off. A latrine orderly with a history of going AWOL is also recruited with the promise of cancelling his court martial.

The two men's minds are switched, then switched back. The machine works perfectly.

It's only then that Windermere discovers Horn (who is very old and very ill) might just have his own plans for the machine. This leads up to a not-quite-predictable twist ending.

Pohl's stories are always full of wit and very enjoyable. This one, which I don't believe I've read before--is typically excellent. I'm especially impressed by Pohl took stereotypical characters (crotchety scientist and by-the-book soldier) and fit them so smoothly into the plot without those stereotypes in anyway taking us out of the story.

The story is available to read HERE.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Substitute Heroes

cover art by Curt Swan

The Legion of Substitute Heroes don't get no respect. Heck, in their first appearance (Adventure Comics #306--March 1963), they didn't even rate a cover appearance (though they did at least get a blurb along the bottom).

The Substitutes are made up of five people with superpowers who tried out for the Legion of Superheroes. Because their individual powers were not quite up to snuff (or--though no one is mean enough to say it--kind of dumb), all were rejected. But they still admire the Legion and want help, so they secretly form the Substitute Legion, waiting for a chance to step in and save the day when the real Legion is on the ropes.

The Substitutes are led by Polar Boy, who can generate cold. Over in the Marvel Universe, the X-Men's Iceman was demonstrating that this is indeed a useful power, but Polar Boy doesn't have proper control over his ability yet. He's joined by Night Girl (super-strength when not exposed to sunlight), Fire Lad (literally breaths fire), Chlorophyll Kid (can accelerate plant growth) and Stone Boy (turns into a statue).

Though they are eager to help, the Substitutes don't get an opportunity to do so. They start to jump in whenever there's an emergency, but the real Legion is always there before them and always has the situation well in hand.

But then the Legion is lured into space by an alien race that intends to use mobile, man-like plants as an army to conquer Earth. The Substitutes finally get a chance to show their stuff, destroying the plant army on Earth, then back-tracking the aliens to their home planet. The heroes use their powers in clever combinations to defeat the aliens.

John Forte did the art and Edmond Hamilton was the regular writer for the LSH at the time. Long-time readers of my blog will know that Hamilton is one of my favorite pulp/comic book writers and this story really demonstrates why. The idea of idealistic young people determined to do good--while remaining in the background and taking no credit--is by itself an awesome concept. Hamilton skillfully constructs a situation in which their powers--despite their limitations--can be used effectively. I have to say that Hamilton's use of Stone Boy does come across as contrived. But Stone Boy may have the world's most useless superpower, so making him useful probably can't help but be contrived. Despite this, the story is a fine example of Hamilton's skill at clever plot construction. 

cover art by Curt Swan

The Legion's second appearance is also an impressive story. Adventure Comics #311 (August 1963) finally earned the Substitutes a cover appearance, but the story itself brought them trouble. The real Legion apparently finds out about them, but it also appears that the Legion has betrayed Earth and is soon tracking down the Substitutes with the intent to kill them. In fact, it briefly appears that they succeed in killing Stone Boy.

It turns out that the real Legion was trapped in a space warp by yet another alien race bent on conquest. (One wonders why aliens don't concentrate on conquering planets that don't have a Legion of Super Heroes based on it.)

The Substitutes figure out what's going on, stop the bad guys and free the Legion from the warp--all while still keeping their existence a secret.

Both stories clearly show that the Substitutes do indeed have limited powers or are as yet undisciplined in using them. (Polar Boy did eventually become a member of the real Legion.) But all five are shown as eager to be heroes for the right reasons, to be able to think their way out of dangerous situations and to keep going when things get tough. Their powers might be limited (or even just plain dumb), but they are indeed heroes.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll jump back to the Civil War and ride with a Union cavalry officer.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: "The Big Book" 9/29/50

Marlowe almost accidentally gets involved investigating the apparent suicide of an aging actress, Usually, it's Marlowe's job to uncover secrets. This time, he ends up feeling obligated to keep a secret.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I Have a Bone to Pick with Christopher Morley

Read/Watch 'em In Order #84

Christopher Morley's sequel to his delightful 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels was written in 1919. By this time, the U.S. had fought in the Great War and Germany had been defeated. This is a factor in The Haunted Bookshop, which is still drips with a love of good books, but also adds a really nifty mystery to the plot.

Roger and Helen Mifflin have given up their travelling book wagon and opened a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn ("that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby carriages"), where they have just taken in a young lady named Titania Chapman as a clerk. A young man named Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man looking to get Mifflin's business, also enters the story. In fact, Aubrey soon takes over as the main character.

Aubrey quickly falls in love with the charming Titania. At the same time, he realizes there's a mystery afoot. A certain book keeps appearing and disappearing from the shop. This inexplicably ties in with a German pharmacist whose shop is nearby and a German cook who works at a local hotel. Aubrey has no clear idea what's going on, but he fears that Titania might be in danger. In fact, his best guess is that Mifflin is working with the Germans to kidnap her for ransom (Titania's father is wealthy).

Aubrey is, though, an amateur detective. The bad guys almost manage to do him in at least once and he makes several mistakes and comes to several erroneous conclusions. But overall, Aubrey does pretty well and it is he that saves Titania and the Mifflins during a literally explosive conclusion.

The mystery is a good one, while Morley's prose is full of wit & gentle humor, while his characters are all immensely likable. Seeded throughout the mystery plot are opportunities for Roger Mifflin to talk about books, the importance of reading and refining one's taste in books. Morley does this skillfully, both through his honest passion about this subject and in fitting it into the story without usually slowing down the A plot.

Morley even uses Mifflin to fit in his opinions about the then-upcoming peace conference in Paris. It's really too bad that the world leaders weren't given a copy of The Haunted Bookshop at Versailles. His prescient urging of something like the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan would have been a vast improvement over the disastrous Treaty of Versailles.

But I do have a particular bone to pick with Christopher Morley. Presuming Mifflin is a mouthpiece for Morley's own opinions, then I do take issue with his slightly snobbish dismissal of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Gee whiz, Chris, if Burroughs' style didn't appeal to you, then that's fine. But a complete failure to recognize Burroughs as the enormously skilled storyteller he was is disappointing. You hear that, Morley? I'm very disappointed in you.

Both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop are truly wonderful books and, leaving aside the lack of respect for Tarzan, both books share Morley's love of literature and reading. What's not to like?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Micronauts, Part 5

At the end of Micronauts #8, the heroes had wrapped up their business on Earth and headed back to the Microverse. This changes the feel of the series in a way--we go from what were relatively small-scale fights to epic space battles and world-wide rebellions. This works, though, as the story has effectively built up to these events.

In Micronauts #9 & 10 (September & October 1979), the Micronauts arrive on Spartak, the home of Acroyear. The Acroyears had been fighting for Baron Karza, but this was the result of a planet-wide "thought-washing." When Acroyear's rotten brother Shaitan failed to defeat the heroes on Earth, Karza sent him home and released the planet from his control, leaving the population very, very displeased with Shaitan.

This might seem a tactically unwise move--allowing a planet of kick-butt warriors to go from loyal minions to angry enemies. But Karza has already sent a fleet to Spartak large enough to destroy the Acroyears. This is actually an effective look at the pettiness and evil of Karza. He's essentially willing to commit genocide as part of an off-hand gesture to punish an underling who failed him.

But he has another motive as well. He knows the Micronauts are on Spartak. He wants to capture Rann alive to hopefully find out more about the Enigma Force (the power that the mysterious Time Traveller embodies or is a part of). Get rid of the Enigma Force, Karza figures, and nothing else can stand against him.

The Micronauts join in the defense of Spartak, but they are badly outnumbered. The good guys  are getting curb-stomped. Before long, Rann and Mari are both prisoners of Karza. Bug is presumed killed in action.

What is Acroyear, once again the leader of the Acroyears, doing while all this is going on? He's having a heartfelt conversation with the planet.

According to ancient legends, Spartak is actually a living being, pledged to help defend itself and the Acroyears in times of great need. This definitely qualifies. Acroyear wakes up the planet, which then starts tossing chunks of itself at the invaders.

The series has taken not just a more epic, but a much more brutal turn with this issues. This is not a criticism--everything that happens makes sense in context of the story. But bad stuff happens, especially when some of Karza's troops manage to land on Spartak and go on a killing spree, taking out women and children as well as enemy soldiers.

In the meantime, back on Homeworld, Prince Argon takes advantage of Karza being off-world and leads an open rebellion, attacking the body banks. With the Shadow Priests switching sides, they soon overwhelm the enemy troops.

As the good guys achieve victory on both Spartak and Homeworld, we get some more examples of how brutal life in the Microverse can be. Are you a snotty rich person who has oppressed and killed the poor to achieve immortality? Are you a murderous invader who has been slaughtering civilians on Spartak? Then don't expect much in the way of due process.

Michael Golden's art work gives the entire story an appropriately epic feel. And I must once again repeat what has become a standard refrain during my look at the Micronauts: Writer Bill Mantlo continues to give us sophisticated, complex world-building wrapped around a strong, well-constructed plot.

Next week, we'll jump from the Microverse to the 30th Century and visit with the Legion of Substitute Heroes.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nick Carter: "Death Plays the Lead" 12/3/44

Nick investigates the murder of an actress playing in an U.S.O. show. This leads to a case which, as Nick says, "has too many suspects and two few clues."

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the World No Longer Turns

"Swordsman of Lost Terra," a novella by Poul Anderson, fools you a little at the beginning by making you think its a straight fantasy. It's set on a version of Earth which doesn't rotate and has a Medieval level civilization and involves some apparently magical bagpipes that--if played just right--can instill panic in attacking enemies.

In fact, at first it's only the story's title that tells us the planet is Earth at all. But if we find out that it was originally published in the November 1951 issue of Planet Stories, then we have our first clue that it is in fact science fiction. Not hard SF--Planet Stories was not terribly concerned about getting the science right--but science fiction all the same. Those darn bagpipes are an artifact of lost science from before the world stopped spinning and old civilizations collapsed.

We get more details as the story progresses. There are legends of a time when the Earth rotated and at least one small kingdom has men who have developed scientific thought and deduced things such as the Earth being round and distant stars being suns. At some point in the distant past, another planet or large asteroid passed near the Earth; its gravity stopped our world's rotation.

But mostly the characters in "Swordsman of Lost Terra" are concerned with hacking one another to death. The reader travels with what is essentially a nomadic warrior band--wandering around the Twilight area of the world until their homeland recovers from a famine. They make a living either hiring out as mercenaries or plundering what they need from others. They remind me a little of Vikings, which is not surprising in a Poul Anderson story. The man loved his Vikings.

There are three clans joined to form the band. Their overall leader is Red Bram, who is a pretty impressive kick-butt warrior. One of the other clan leaders is Rhiach, who is the only person able to play the god-pipe that brings madness or even death. Rhiach's son Kery--also a skilled warrior--is the story's main character.

When the band is attacked by a horde of well-armed, disciplined warriors from the dark side of the planet, it is only Rhiach's well-timed use of the pipes that saves them. But Rhiach is killed by a stray arrow. Kery inherits the pipes, but he has not yet been trained to use them. Now no one lives who can teach him.

All this is setting up a lively and exciting tale. Anderson puts his remarkable skill at world-building to work here, creating an Earth that in many ways has become an alien world compared to what we know. Then he manages to smoothly fit quite a lot of plot exposition and several epic battle scenes into the novella, along with several engaging characters.

The band soon allies itself with a city that is under siege from the Dark Lander army. There's a beautiful queen who falls in love with Kery, bloody battles, betrayals, kidnappings and desperate escapes. Everything revolves around the god-pipes. If either Kery or the leader of the Dark Landers can figure out who to use them, then the balance of power will rather abruptly shift.

"Swordsman of Lost Terra" is an excellent example of Sword-and-Planet fiction. It's really too bad Anderson never returned to this particular world. There are, I think, a lot of cool stories left to tell about it.

By the way, I read this story in a long-out-of-print anthology titled Swordsmen in the Skyi. I recommend this highly--keep an eye peeled for it in used book stores or online.

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