Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg

We spring toward the bed. Still stiff, I top her and take her. Gasp gasp gasp, moan moan moan. I can get nothing on the mental band. Suddenly she goes into a funny little spasm, intense but quick, and my own spurt quickly follows. We curl up together, cuddly in the afterglow. I try again to probe her. Zero. Zee-ro. Is it gone? I think it's really gone. You have been present today at an historic event, young lady. The perishing of a remarkable extrasensory power. Leaving behind this merely mortal husk of mine. Alas.

Ballantine Books, October 1973. Cover by Philip Kirkland
This is the third novel by Robert Silverberg that I've read in the past year. The others being A World Inside and Hawksbill Station. All three novels are excellent, and I can't recommend them highly enough. It's amazing when you consider the output that Robert Silverberg accomplished at the time. I've come late to reading Silverberg's novels. It should have been a natural progression from Asimov and Clarke. I'd like to blame Walden Books at my local mall when I was growing up. At some point their meager Science Fiction section got invaded by elves, dragons and runes...and I scrammed for the Mystery section. My bad, I should have looked harder for the good stuff hidden behind the hobbits and wizards. Thank God for used bookstores.

As for Dying Inside, I'm not sure I'd call it a Science Fiction novel. It's got a cover that's cool, but has nothing to do with the novel it masks. To my mind it's more of a psychological study of an unpleasant man who believes he's losing his power to read minds. It would be right at home in the Lit section, but that's not how publishers like to work. Anyway, that's the plot. But it's much deeper than that simple summary. It's the study of a man bearing his soul, warts and all, to an unknown observer (the reader? an old love? God?) and exposing his fears and insecurities not just of losing his power to probe minds, but of love, family, career and life. David Selig makes a meager living ghosting term-papers for distracted undergrads. He's brilliant enough to have made a hell of a life for himself. Instead, he lives in a cheap apartment in a bad part of town hammering out essays for students at $5 bucks a page. He ambles through life mourning the past, the loss of his girlfriend, the animosity of his sister, and the rootlessness of life. A rootlessness he blames on the diminishing strength of his ESP. Clearly there are a number of ways to interpret the novel, which made reading it such an exhilarating experience. It's a snapshot of America in the 60's and 70's, it's a study of psychology, and a portrait of the lost. Give it to an earnest undergrad in American Lit today, and let them run with it.

Anyway...I really liked it as you can tell.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Virgin Planet - Poul Anderson

Kathleen slipped off her mantle and let it fall at her feet. She wasn't wearing anything beneath. She stood up straight, throwing her shoulders back and bosom forward. Well she's got to make the most of what she has! thought Barbara. But then, driven by a stubborn realism: What she has isn't so bad. Not really. She's too thin, but nothing haggard about her. She has the muscles to bounce around as readily as anyone.

cover by Emsh - 1959
Okay, I'll give everyone a second to cool off...'cause that's about as hot as anything is going to get on Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson.

Look, I'm not going to rag on this novel...well, maybe I will a little bit, because I came into it without high expectations. But, even giving this novel the benefit of a low hurdle to clear, I still think it's pretty much a stinker. Okay, it's from 1959, and its appeal had to have been for a sea of sci-fi dorks (much like I was once!) still in their teens and waiting for their first slobbery kiss from that cute girl by the Bunsen burner in chem lab...but dang! No wonder "virgin" is prominent in the title!

Briefly, the plot concerns a space adventurer, Davis Bertram, who goes exploring in the Delta Capitis Lupi sector of the galaxy and winds up veering off course to land on...the Virgin Planet! Virgin Planet is an outpost populated only by females. How this happened was 300 years earlier, an expedition of females was on it's way to an outpost somewhere in the another part of the galaxy and got blasted off course by a vortex of some kind to end up on a lone planet in said Delta Capitis Lupi System. Since there are no men around to procreate with, the babes on Atlantis (that's the name they've given their planet) carry on their race by a process of cloning. The cloning is overseen by a caste of "doctor-priestesses" who in effect run the planet. Meanwhile the females of Atlantis wait for the return of man as a kind of race of godlike beings who will rescue them from...well, they're just waiting for man to return, that's all.

So this is the setting that our hapless hero, Davis Bertram, finds himself in when he lands on Atlantis. First he's captured by a warrior babe named Barbara Whitley who takes him back to her village. She doesn't recognize Davis as a man because he doesn't fit the mythical descriptions of "Man" handed down in 300 years of religion. But he makes for an interesting "monster" because he's flat-chested and has a dingus where no one else does. No mention is made by Anderson of any kind of phallic substitute that a planet of women would have developed an interest in...and that's the first of many issues I had with the novel.

Anyway, the captured Davis manages to convince Barbara that maybe he is a man after all. He does this mostly by managing to get her hot and bothered whenever she's around him. Of course, she doesn't understand these weird "urges" she has.The elders aren't convinced though, and are debating having him killed as a "monster" or sent to "the doctors" for further study. Into the mix is Barbara's look-alike cousin Valeria, who is much more tough and warrior-minded than Barbara...and just as hot! Soon, our little gang is off gallivanting around Atlantis having run-ins with other villages and tribes of women. Everyone uses dialog sprinkled with "yipes" and "ulp" and "oof" to the point of distraction. Davis never manages to seal the deal with Barbara or Valeria, or anyone else for that matter, because Poul Anderson is more interested in setting up "Three's Company" type scenarios of confusion and hi-jinx. Eventually, a representative of the "Doctors" shows up and determines that if Davis is the real deal, then their status as rulers of the Virgin Planet is moot. So, Davis Bertram has to go!

And there you are. It could have been a far more interesting novel had Poul Anderson given a few ounces more thought and consideration into the potentials provided by such a setting. Instead, we're treated to a lot of running around and nonsense. This novel is also part of the Psychotechnic League series of novels that are loosely coordinated in Anderson's output. That's fine. This one is plenty for me, thanks.

So, yipes and away...for now!

Beacon edition

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Ticket to Hell - Harry Whittington

The door swung open, spilling light around him when he released the knob. The smell of gas was strong. He thrust the door wide open and entered the cottage. It was furnished precisely as his was, but in greater disarray. The man and the woman had been here for some time or were extraordinarily messy. Makeup and lotions littered the dresser top, both men's and women's clothing were strewn all over the chairs. The green bathing suit was wadded on the rug. Near it, in a wide open expensive housecoat, the girl was sprawled. 

1987 Black Lizard Books, cover art by Jim Kirwan
And with that scene our hero Ric Durazo shifts into third gear on his ride into hell in Harry Whittington's 1959 novel, A Ticket to Hell.

I chose to show the Black Lizard Books issue of this novel, since it's the version that I read. Back in the late 80's Black Lizard Books re-issued a number of classics, notably Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Harry Whittington. The Whittington novels came with an essay entitled "I Remember it Well" that Whittington wrote in 1987. In it, Harry Whittington looks back on his long career as a paperback novelist. I grab these Black Lizard Books whenever I see them. Thanks to them, writers like Thompson and Whittington found new audiences in the 80's and 90's.

A Ticket to Hell is a lean and nasty little novel about a guy with nothing left to lose finding either oblivion or redemption in the ass-end of a desert town deep in New Mexico. It begins as Ric Durazo has just picked up a hitch-hiker in a forlorn desert wasteland. The hitcher is one of those hopped up beatnik types, "jazzing" to their own tune. It's only a few minutes into the ride that he makes the mistake of pulling a gun on Ric, and finding out what road-rash feels like firsthand as Ric boots him back out onto the desert asphalt. It's one of those scenes that foreshadow the kind of journey Ric is going to experience as he reaches his final destination on Highway 58 in Los Solanos, New Mexico.

The motel is named La Pueblo. It's one of those respites from the road that dotted desert highways before the interstates took the adventure out of driving across the country. Cabins among the cactus and sage, corralled around a blue-lit pool where weary travelers smoke and drink whiskey as they plot their various paths in life. The kind of roadside motel with an office manned by a distracted middle-aged Joe and his younger, horny wife. The sort of wife that takes an immediate notice of Ric as he checks in. It's not long before she's offering Ric some personal R 'n R. Only Ric isn't interested. Across from his cabin is a young couple driving a new Cadillac. The girl appears cool, bored and rich and wears a revealing green bathing suit as she lounges by the pool. Her husband is too slick and good-looking for his own good, and spends his time knocking back highballs and shoving the babe in the green bikini around.

Ric has enough problems of his own to pay them all much attention. He's got a broken heart, a tired head, and a suitcase full of money. He's got a history of losing, and a life without a future. And he's in Los Solanos because he's got an appointment to keep. And it's while he's waiting for the phone to ring when he see's the too-handsome young husband from the cabin across the way attempt to kill his beautiful young wife.

A Ticket to Hell is the kind of noir tale that breezes by in a few hours of reading. It's got the kind of plot that moves so fast you don't spend any time looking for the lapses in logic. It's not rational and no one does anything that a "normal" person would do. But that's the fun of it all. Otherwise the motel would be a Red Roof Inn, infested by families from Florida and Kansas with their noisy fat kids yelling in the hallways and splashing in the pool. And that's a nightmare of a whole different order. One that nobody would ever write books about.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Some Slips Don't Show - A.A. Fair

For a moment they faced each other, then suddenly there was a tangle of arms and legs, a slapping, scratching, and panting. Then they were wrestling. They went over on the floor. No one paid any attention to modesty or the rules of fair fighting. They thrashed their legs and arms about in wild abandon. They used words which ladies were not supposed to know. They pulled each other's hair. They ripped clothing.

Pocket Books August 1970

Um...pardon me while I grab a beer and some potato chips until our ladies are finished! ...Oh yeah, I'm putting the spotlight on a nifty little caper from A.A. Fair, or rather Erle Stanley Gardner, featuring detectives Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. This novel was originally published in 1957 and lasted through numerous reprints, as most of Gardner's novels did. It's my first introduction to the Cool - Lam detective due and I liked it enough to go out and look for others. Plus, I have a thing for those 70's era paperbacks with the random babe on the covers, like the one shown here.

This is one of those novels that comes with the Cast of Characters printed at the beginning, much like many of the Ellery Queen's and Perry Mason's did. Good thing too, because I'm getting on into my middle-age and I appreciate a nice list of names to keep track of. Especially in a book where the plot takes off in so many directions you wonder how the hell it's gonna get all wrapped up by the last page. But no worries, friends, Erle Stanley Gardner was a pro at this.

As for the plot, well it goes something like this: Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are hired by a wimpy cat named Barclay Fisher to look into a little mess he's gotten himself into. Seems on a recent sales trip to San Francisco, our Mr. Fisher whooped it up too much and woke up from a blackout in the apartment of a young lady named Lois Marlow. Lois was hired to attend the sales convention as one of those curvaceous beauties who ensure drinks are poured and egos are stroked and deals get made. She was specifically tasked to make sure Barclay Fisher enjoyed himself to the fullest. Well, all is well and good, except our pal Barclay Fisher is married to an uptight and righteous cold dame named Minerva. Minerva Fisher can't abide drinking, smoking, cursing and, most of all, philandering! Barclay Fisher feels bad enough that he got tangled up with a sweet young thing like Lois. But now someone by the name of George Cadott has been sending him letters threatening to reveal his midnight cavorting to Mrs. Fisher. If only Bertha Cool and Donald Lam could do something to prevent these letters from reaching his wife, he'd be ever so grateful.

Donald Lam flies up to San Francisco where he meets with Lois. Lois quickly became my favorite character in the novel. She's got beauty, brains, and plenty of cynicism to spare. She also knows how to flash the nylons to cloud men's minds. She reveals that her old flame, George Cadott, has been following her around and getting all sanctimonious on her lifestyle. She's not surprised that Cadott is sending threatening letters to Barclay Fisher. But Lois insists that Cadott isn't interested in blackmail since Cadott has inherited a boatload of dough from his deceased grandfather. Donald Lam's search for Cadott quickly leads to Horace and Caroline Dutton. Caroline Dutton is George Cadott's cousin, and also happens to be Lois Marlow's nosy neighbor. Too goddamn nosy as far as Lois is concerned. She just wishes they'd all take a slow boat to China and leave her the hell alone.

Can you see where all of this leads? Why to a dead body of course! Not only a dead body, but a missing diary linked to a possible murder, and finally a recent kidnapping case. Things progress with a lot of smart-aleck patter and cracking wise. Legs flash, booze is consumed, knuckles pop and capers ensue! In other words, this novel is a lot of fun for the reader looking to spend a few hours dodging the summer heat.