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.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Home for Retired Outlaws

Western Round-Up was published by Dell Comics from 1952 to 1959, featuring stories about Western B-Movie stars (some of whom, such as Roy and Gene, had moved to TV by then) and eventually also including stories based on TV Westerns such as Wagon Train and Tales of Wells Fargo. Many of these guys had books of their own as well, but in the 1950s, people could not get enough Westerns. Printing a western-themed comic book with good quality stories and recognizable stars was essentially the same as printing money.

The first issue (cover-dated June 1952) starts out with a nifty Roy Rogers story titled "Gunfighter's Retreat." The writer is unknown, but the solid artwork is by Pete Alvarado.

Roy has been asked for help by Ma Stebbins, who has bought an old, abandoned fort and opened a sort of retirement home. The old coots living there are all aging gunfighters--many of them former outlaws. But all have done their jail time and now they have a good, clean home, allowing them to swap tall tales and re-live old battles using blanks. (No one is allowed to have live ammo.)

Ma Stebbins has done this out of the goodness of her heart and now has the cash to pay off the last of the loan she had taken to buy and set-up the home. But the man to whom she owes the money--Toothpick Tolin--would rather foreclose than collect the money. He plans to use the fort as a base for an outlaw gang.

Roy is asked to deliver the money. This proves to be no easy task, but with the help of Trigger (who twice alerts Roy to ambush) and Pa Stebbins (a former quick-draw who now has an artificial arm), they fight their way past some thugs, deliver the money and force Tolin to give them a receipt. All this includes a wonderful scene in which Pa Stebbins, despite now being short a right arm, forcing a frightened Tolin to back down rather than draw on him.

Tolin isn't giving up, though, sending a small army of outlaws to stop kill Roy and get back the receipt. This forces Roy to stage a last stand, holding off the outlaws while Pa and Trigger make it back to the fort. Pa then forms the ageing gunmen living there into a kick-butt posse that saves Roy and sends the outlaws packing.

This is a fun story--a great example of just why Westerns were so popular. Clear storytelling, interesting characters and solid action scenes all combine to give us a very entertaining tale. I love the idea of the old gunmen bringing a gang of young whippersnappers a well-deserved comeuppance. Our culture has lost touch with the idea that our elders have wisdom and experience to share with us. This story--and especially Pa's confrontation with Tolin--reminds us of how important it is to recognize that wisdom does indeed come with age.

You can read this one online HERE.

Next week, we return once more to the Micronauts.
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