Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Nullifier (Joe Gall) - Philip Atlee

The next number was a blue tango. This tango does not depend on gyrations, clutchings, or simulated copulation, and yet there is more sexuality in it than any other dance. The movements are all grace and pointed pause, in slow time, and in them the man defers to the object of his chase. So I held her lightly, fingertips and hip, and we moved to the controlled tempo. 

And when that dance had ended, I did not step away. Instead, I thrust my hands under the rajah coat and cradled her firm breasts.  (-- The Silken Baroness Contract)

I thought it would be fun to look back at the couple of  Philip Atlee's Joe Gall novels that I've read. Joe Gall was an American response to James Bond much like another hardboiled spy of the time, Matt Helm, His first adventure occurred in the novel Pagoda by Philip Atlee, however the proper series of Joe Gall adventure starts with The Green Wound Contract, originally published under the title The Green Wound, way back in 1963.

You certainly do not have to read these in order, because continuity between contracts really goes out the window as Joe Gall's adventures progress. Looking back at his first "contract" known as The Green Wound Contract (which was the 4th one that I read) we have a plot that careens from one set piece to the next with all the logic of a dream in which there is a race riot, a blackjack wielding nun, a blues guitarist who kills for kicks, a bunch of "Arab-gowned goons" and a couple of screwy women to spice things up. The whole thing is delivered in a cynical hardboiled tone that I find kind of enjoyable. You learn fast that Joe Gall can be a real dick, and he's no fan of politically correct observations.

My first exposure to Joe Gall's world, (and reading these adventures you have to accept that it's Joe Gall's world and no one else's!) was in the novel The Ruby Star Contract. In this one, Joe Gall gets sent to Burma where he hires an escort, has lots of sex and curry, blows shit up, plays poker for his life against a drunken monk, is captured by a tribe of headhunters, somehow manages to play one dictator off against another, and (mostly!) comes out in one piece by the end. And I'm not sure what the damn thing was about.

Then there was The Rockabye Contract in which Joe Gall was assigned to act as bodyguard, under the guise as manager, for a 6'2" folkie singer named Hester Prim. This one had a loopy chase through Europe that included a factory of walking teddy-bears wired to explode. Then somehow it ended up on a Caribbean island run by a dictator who wanted to kill our hot singer Hester Prim. And yes,this is all during a rebellion.

I lay listening, staring at the sky. The airport was only a few miles from town. The ring of tanks around the Palace was still blowing up foolhardy rebels who tried to rush the gates and the lighter fire from the roof and the gatehouses continued. (-- The Rockabye Contract)

Joe Gall will go to any lengths in his adventures as long is it involves bedding plenty of babes. For example, in The Death Bird Contract from 1968, Gall takes an assignment to investigate the background of a potential diplomat (and millionaire) named Lewis Wardlaw in Mexico. We know it's not going to be easy when we learn that two previous agents assigned to monitor Wardlaw had come to bad ends. The crazy thing about this "Contract" is that in order to go undercover and appropriately blend into the scene in Mexico Joe Gall must first become a heroin addict. With that setup, we're off and cooking in a plot wherein Gall hooks up with a beautiful dancer, goes to jail, lives in a party-house, attends an opium-fueled orgy, takes a dip in a pool filled with piranhas, escapes from a clinic specializing in black-market organ stealing, gets chased by federales and all while suffering withdrawals from the needle. Proving once and for all that spying ain't a game for sissies!

It all sounds crazy, but I must say that in all seriousness, these novels are really well written. Philip Atlee has a compelling eye for detail, especially in all the exotic places he sends our hero. There is also an appealing charm to Joe Gall's attitude that grows on you, in spite of his being a bit of a jerk. I'm not going to say they're any better or worse than some of the better known spy series novels out there. They're full of confusing plots and odd diversions that make you wonder if the whole thing was done in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along manner. Women are props and not much else. Gall is a chauvinist just like any proper secret agent from the 1960's should be. So with that in mind I am going to say that they're a lot of fun to read.

I think it would be just fine if these were made available again for e-readers, noting that I prefer the smelly old paperbacks first and foremost. And wouldn't it have been something if we had a team-up of Joe Gall and Matt Helm out there on a caper? I can only imagine! There wouldn't be a safe broad in sight, unless they did something unforgivable like wearing slacks!

Happy hunting.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Infinity Science Fiction - November 1957

After a year of being stationed on the Lunatron, Jim Britten had the feeling of being fed up. Lunatics they call us, he thought. Real crazy.  - From "Formula for Murder" by Lee Gregor

November 1957 - Cover by Ed Emsh
Digging back into the stack of 1950's Science Fiction mags I picked up last year for this one. The line-up of writers in this issue includes: Gordon R. Dickson, Robert Silverberg, Lee Gregor, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Allen K. Long and David Mason. Clearly you have a selection of Science Fiction heavyweights represented here. Also, not a single woman writer in the bunch. Something I just now noticed. Which may explain somewhat the reason this issue came off as just a tad dry for me.

I've read Silverberg, Blish and Budrys before tapping into this digest. All of the others, including Dickson, were new to me. Yes, I've seen Dickson's name on tons of science fiction racks in used bookstores, but I've never been tempted to read anything by him. His story here, "The General and the Axe" didn't do anything to change that. The plot concerns a settlement of pioneers on an Earth-like planet after the destruction of our own Earth. It seems that, although all of their needs and comforts are provided for, they have no desire to populate their new home with a new race of Earthlings. General Tully, an Earthling himself, is assigned to motivate the pioneers into action. It's understood that our home planet has been decimated in what is assumed to be a nuclear holocaust of some type. The other planets in the solar system are populated, and interstellar travel has been conquered. Given all that, the concern of these pioneers makes no sense. So Earthlings take to their new planet with a malaise, and don't seem to care about their pending extinction. I just wasn't hooked on the premise with this one.

"One Way Journey" by Robert Silverberg was a lot more interesting. In this story, we have a planet, Kollidor, which is essentially a military outpost wherein one of Earth's soldiers falls in love with a native and desires to remain after his tour of duty is up. The "problem" is that the natives are considered so unattractive and appealing that there is no clear reason why an Earthling could ever fall in love with one and want to remain. In fact he's so adamant on remaining on Kollidor that he's willing to become a deserter. The story is a study in psychology and motherhood as his reasons are discovered. It was decent, but one expects that in a Robert Silverberg story.

"The Skirmisher" by Algis Budrys is the best in the magazine in my opinion. It's also the shortest. This story could have been at home in a crime digest of the time. That's probably why it appealed to me so much. In it, a cop named Hoyt investigates the seeming random deaths of a number of people across the U.S., all of which are connected to one single man named Albert Madigan. Hoyt attempts to interrogate Madigan as he is performing target practice with a rifle. Through a tense exchange between the two we learn that there is nothing random to a man who controls time.

"The Long Question" by David Mason is about a strange, really strange, televised game show where the lone contestant, in this case an accountant named Don Gerson, is sent to an isolated island for 2 months. The island has all the creature comforts Gerson could want; food, shelter, books, music, everything except companionship. At the end of two months Gerson will be retrieved from the island and have to answer a quiz in the hopes of winning $100,000. If he loses...well, we don't know what happens. Because two months go by and no one returns for Gerson. It's a weird story, hinting at an end-of-the-world scenario and what the last man left can create for future history. I liked this one a lot also.

"Nor Iron Bars" by James Blish involves interstellar travel on a microcosmic level. It didn't engage me at all. I was never once pulled into the story in spite of some sort of cool settings. This is where I might as well admit that my taste in Science Fiction is probably not very mature by some people's standards. I look for escapist entertainment in my Science Fiction, or at the least characters I can relate to. A lot of Science Fiction I've encountered seems to present what could be intriguing ideas played out by bland characters who use bad dialog (calling out Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein here!). That's what happens in this story. Same thing with "The Railhead at Krystl Khoto" by Allen K. Long. It's just people talking about stuff, in this case, building a rocket to the moon before the Soviets do until "the end" is typed.

"Formula For Murder" by Lee Gregor is more like it when it comes to escapist Sci-Fi. It involves espionage, brainwashing and murder on a satellite orbiting the Earth. It's a lot of fun and the only fault I had with it is an ending that is rushed.

This issue of Infinity also contains a column by Damon Knight reviewing Big Planet by Jack Vance, The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer, and Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick. He liked Big Planet and Eye in the Sky. As for The Green Odyssey, not so much.

And that's that for Infinity Science Fiction in November of 1957. Old fashioned, square-jawed entertainment for less than a dollar! Some good stuff, some not so good stuff.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Glass of Darkness - Philip K. Dick

Motionless--but alive. This was no stone image, no frozen statue. This was life, but life outside of time. There was no change, no motion for him, as men comprehended change and motion. He was eternal. The averted head was his most striking feature. It seemed to glow. It was clearly a radiant orb, apulse with life and brilliance. 

His head was the sun.

Satellite Science Fiction, 1956 - Cover by Kelly Freas
Whoa, man...that's cosmic! Well, yeah, it is kinda cosmic just like the really cool cover by Kelly Freas indicates. Some Philip K. Dick fans will know that A Glass of Darkness was later reprinted as The Cosmic Puppets in 1957 by ACE Books. I have the Vintage Books edition that was published much later. I don't have to read it, since I've now read the original Satellite Science Fiction version, thanks to picking up a bunch of old Sci-Fi digests not long ago.

Back in the early 80's, after seeing Blade Runner in the theater, I went out and picked up a bunch of PKD's novels in paperback and went on a binge. I still wish I had them. I had no idea that good clean used copies of his books would be so hard to come by in later years.

As you can see by the date, this is early Dick, when he was still working out the themes that would come to dominate his later novels and stories. Here you have something closer to The Outer Limits, or the Twilight Zone, wherein our hero Ted Barton takes his wife Peg on a detour into the hills of Virginia to see his old hometown Millgate. Peg couldn't give a rip, and is more interested in knocking back cocktails in the city than having to endure a tour of Millgate. Peg is kind of a shrew, but an interesting character in that she seems so unlike the type of woman that would marry Ted Barton. I was curious who she was in Philip K. Dick's imagination, and why she was introduced beyond getting descriptions of her legs and breasts whenever she's on the page. But sadly, she's dispatched off to some hotel in Martinsville to cool her jets for the rest of the story. Clearly Dick want her around bitching about how boring Millgate is and how crazy Ted has become.

You see, Millgate is definitely not the Millgate that Ted remembers from his childhood. Gone is the park, the school, the stores, the streets, even his own house. Instead they've been replaced by different streets, buildings and businesses. No one Ted talks to admits to ever knowing anything about the places he remembers. A research in the local paper reveals something even more disquieting for Ted. That instead of moving away at the age of 9, he's reported to have died of Scarlet Fever as a child! Is Ted Barton someone else? a man with false memories? Or is the town locked in some kind of mad hypnosis? To make matters even worse, Ted discovers that he can no longer leave Millgate, as all roads out of town are now blocked.

So you have a good setup here, but then things get really weird. In Millgate, you have this odd kid named Peter Trilling who is able to make clay figures come to life. You also have another kid name Mary Meade who can verbally communicate with bees and cats and moths. You also have these strange figures referred to by the locals as "The Wanderers." The Wanderers are ghostlike apparitions, beings, that can walk through walls. It's all very upsetting for Ted Barton, who probably should have taken Peg's advice and ditched Millgate for a bar in D.C.

Ted takes up room and board in Mabel Trilling's home, where he meets the strange kid Peter. Peter right away senses that Ted is an outsider, that somehow he's managed to cross into the town when others could not. Ted also meets Dr. Meade who runs a private hospital named Shady House. As things progress in the novel, Ted encounters the town drunk, William Christopher, who seems to be the only person in Millgate that remembers "the change" that occurred 18 years in the past. It's now Christopher's mission to return the town back to its real version, something he can only manage in small doses,

So what's the deal with Millgate and all weirdness? Well, it turns out that there is a cosmic battle of sorts between to godlike entities Ahriman and Ormazd and Millgate is the terrestrial arena. Yup!

Yeah, it all kind of goes a bit bonkers and sort of lost me at that point. I found myself thinking more about Peg and her heaving breasts back in a dingy hotel bar in Martinsville while the cosmic battle is playing out in Millgate. But, as far as pulp novels go, it was cool. You can see the early makings of Philip K. Dick's talent for unsettling paranoia and what is the nature of reality going on. I think most fans of mid-century science fiction would dig it.