Brigands of the Moon

Brigands of the Moon
Ray Cummings

I’m squeezing in one last Vintage SciFi post, here at the very end of the month. As with every other book in this year’s series, I consumed today’s subject as an audiobook, listening while at work. This time I bypassed my supply of dodgy audiobook apps and went straight to the source: librivox.org. I chose the book in question because, when one is browsing randomly, a title like “Brigands of the Moon” is pretty much impossible to resist. I knew nothing of Ray Cummings, but if there are moons and brigands, well, I’m all in. I defy any reader to pass up a chance like this.

To be honest, I was expecting a steaming pile of pulpy garbage. Anything using the word “brigands” in an SF context just seems destined to be a Roger Corman movie, complete with cardboard rocket ships and “robots” wrapped in tinfoil. (Also, the word brigand will forever be tied in my imagination to the sadistic board game Dark Tower, but that is probably another story.) So while this is indeed pulpy, I am happy to report that Brigands of the Moon is not nearly the disaster it could have been. It’s not perfect, or even great, but it’s certainly not embarrassing.

The story centers on Greg Haljan, officer on a ship that plies the routes of the near Solar System. His ship is somehow shanghaied into a secret government mission to bring back some guy named Grantline, who is exploring the inexplicably ignored Moon and has found a motherlode of one or another valuable minerals. Things quickly go south when a devious band of Martians (colonists, not aliens) plots to take the treasure for themselves. Haljan has to be heroic and resourceful to save the day and win the girl. The story is conventional, but fast moving and entertaining.

The plot breaks down a bit if the reader thinks too hard about things. Why is everywhere colonized but the Moon? The government types admit that the cover has been blown on their secret mission to the Moon, so why are they sending a single, civilian ship to make the pickup? If this cargo is worth what they say it is, where is the cavalry? Why is this the single most incompetently planned operation in the history of operations? And while we’re at it, why do all the chicks dig Haljan so much? He has to beat them off with a stick. I ignored most of this as a way to keep my sanity. At least the action was fun and the fights dramatic. Also as a bonus, Haljan makes plenty of mistakes and miscalculations, rather than just being constantly triumphant. It’s an interesting mix of face palms and wise nodding when reading Brigands.

The science is probably my favorite part of it all. Brigands is from that magical time when attaching the word “ray” to the end of pretty much anything made it instantly respectable. There are heat rays, death rays, zed rays (my favorite!), and who knows what else. Rays everywhere. I don’t even know what zed rays do. There was also a mind bending scene when an undetected asteroid flew by the spaceship somewhere in between the Earth and Mars. Apparently nobody in this future saw the movie Armageddon and they remain blissfully ignorant of what such a giant rock might do to our delicate homeworld. We later find out that the asteroid has lakes, a breathable atmosphere, and jungles. Colonies on Mercury and Venus I can go with, but this is a bit much, even for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Sexism Fairy makes an appearance or two. Oh, who am I kidding. The Sexism Fairy is everywhere and it hurts. In fact, in honor of the upcoming Super Bowl, here is a Seahawk-y version of what the Sexism Fairy is doing to the story. (Go Hawks.) To Cummings’ credit though, while Haljan makes me want to sear my eyes with fire, a pair of the ladies is actually quite capable when they want to be. Maybe he really wants to have strong women, but feels constrained by the realities of publishing in the 1930s? I don’t know, but there is a strange tension going on there. And I will just toss in here that the romantic subplot was within a page or two of bursting a blood vessel in my forehead. At least one chapter in its entirety should be skipped for those disinclined to endure a litany of Depression-era sweet nothings. Gag me, to borrow a Valley Girl phrase, with a spoon.

Mocking aside, this is a perfectly respectable effort. Action jumps from the Earth to Haljan’s ship, onto the Moon, and into a desperate siege defense. The villains talk too much, plan poorly, and would twirl moustachios if they had any. The heroes are bold, benignly misogynistic, and resourceful. There are flying carpets (or at least an equivalent). There is tragedy, sacrifice, bravery, and love. There is a boatload of plot convenience. I can’t recommend this to anyone looking for the best that SF has to offer, but I would say that anyone who feels like digging into the dusty attic of SF will be amused. Zed rays for everyone.

Advertisements

Best of 2013

Best of 2013

In the midst of several other writing projects, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize some stand outs from the last year. Unlike 2012, I didn’t keep close tabs on new releases. To be honest, 2012 was a bit of an aberration, as I normally spend more time digging through archives than staying current. Add to that a dearth (to me at least) of high profile SF publications, and I find myself unable to even make a page worth of 2013 reviews. So in this, the third annual wrap up on Two Dudes, we will switch format yet again and present randomly titled awards to deserving books, in reverse chronological order (because that’s how I pulled the titles off of Goodreads).

Ultimate in Tall, Dark, and Handsome Award: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin
Explanatory post is forthcoming, even though the read-along ended sometime before Christmas.

Inexplicably Still Going Strong, Even After 3000 Pages Award: Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson
I really should write a review for something in the Malazan series, but where to start? I’m now five books in and, while I’ve heard things start to peter out towards the end, Midnight Tides is still part of a remarkable run as a standard bearer for epic fantasy.

Dual Mention for Best Debut and Best SF of 2013 Award: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Great stuff here, one of the most talked about books of the year. Not everyone liked it, but it’s probably my favorite book from last year.

Omigosh Where Have You Been All My Life Award: The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
Why didn’t I read Kage Baker sooner? I have no idea.

Seriously Intimidating But Basically Everything SF Aspires to Be Award: Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
Cyteen is as dense and claustrophobic as anything Cherryh has ever written, which says a lot, but is the Platonic form of SF. Not only is she digging deeper than almost any other SF writer out there, but the very science fictional-ness of the book allows her to take on subjects that mainstream literature can barely touch. Must read for anyone serious about the genre.

Simultaneously Mind Blowing, Creepily Perverse, Too Long, and Thoroughly Literate Award: 1Q84 by Murakami Haruki
Many deep thoughts about this covered here.

Onward Comrade! To the Taiga! Award: The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley Beaulieu
Action-packed, raucous, Russian-esque fun. Also earned me a nod on the author’s homepage for a gamboling pandas joke.

Best Plug for Two Dudes Award: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck
A throw-away, grossly stereotypical gag about Swedes landed me a coveted blurb here, right underneath names like “Le Guin” and “Mieville.” (!!!) I still can’t get over this one. (Also, this is a remarkable book of stories and should be read by all.)

Our Man in Havana Memorial Award: Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer
Gorodischer is actually from Argentina, but I prefer the movie in the award name to Evita.

Not a Great Book but Really Fun to Review Award: Parasite Eve by Sena Hideaki
Marauding, sentient lady bits? Check. Pederasty? Check. Mitochondria plotting to take over the world? Check. Must come from Japan.

Unjustly Overlooked, Hidden Gem From the Past Award: Carve the Sky by Alexander Jablokov
I am now a huge Jablokov fan and looking forward to reading and reviewing more of his books this year. This guy deserves a Scalzi-like following.

Holy Cats There Are Awesome People All Around Us Award: All of the new friends I met in the past year. This whole project is much more worthwhile because of all of you. Thank you!

Some Lester Del Rey

The Sky is Falling
Let’em Breathe Space
Victory
Lester Del Rey

Some may remember the stash of sketchy audio books I mentioned in a recent post. Among them was a Lester Del Rey novel. I have read many “Del Rey Books” as it were, but never one of Del Rey’s books. Anymore, I think he and his wife are much better known for the SFF they put out for Ballantine than for any of the books he wrote. Thinking of this, I put on Victory out of curiosity. After finishing it, I realized that many more public domain audio books awaited me at LibriVox and went over for a look. Sure enough, there were several more Del Rey options, so I decided to try out a few. All three discussed here are short – between 90 and 125 pages – so it seems best to combine them into a single essay. We will start with the most preposterous and end with the most enjoyable.

Incidentally, these audio books have been a game changer for Two Dudes’ Vintage SF Month efforts. I’m totally underwater with reading and writing commitments right now, to say nothing of real life time constraints, so swapping my music listening time at work for audio books has made all the difference. I probably won’t keep this up, since my ability to focus while I work is limited, but for the pulpy stuff it’s about right.

The Sky is Falling

Del Rey plays this totally straight, so I can only assume that he was serious. There are no winks or sly remarks, just a seemingly honest story. And yet, is it really? Our hero, Dave, starts the story in trouble because he has knocked up his lovely fiance, Bertha. If I recall correctly, Bertha is of S. Asian extraction, but I may be conflating some work requests with the story. Anyway, while wondering how to handle the beautiful and dainty Bertha, Dave is run down by a renegade bulldozer. Whoops! Luckily for Dave, he soon finds himself brought back to life by a gaggle of magicians who have bound his soul to a bit of mandrake root and are commissioning him to solve the great engineering problem of their time. It seems that their sky is falling.

This is SF, so I am thinking, “I suppose Dave will head out, realize that it’s actually a comet, and do science-y stuff to save the day.” Boy was I wrong. The sky is, quite literally, falling. In this world, wherever and whenever it may be, the sky is an actual dome that encircles the world, with little pinpricks of stars in it and a giant, glowing ball that is the sun. Chunks of the sky are falling on cities, crushing people and leaving gaping holes in the sky. (The sun also crashes into the surface at one point, a drama of Monty Python-esque proportion.)

Things march on from here. There is a bit of magic, random hard science, a dollop of planetary romance, the requisite cringe-inducing love subplot, a wee bit of anti-communist propaganda, and American ingenuity saving the day. The world Del Rey creates is impressive for just over 100 pages, though in the end there is no explanation of why such a world should exist. It’s not bad or offensive, but it is definitely strange. I’m not sure exactly how to recommend this, except as a curiosity. I’ve read much better, but someone looking to read something completely different might be entertained.

Let’em Breathe Space

Continuing our series of unholy genre combinations, Let’em Breathe Space is a noir-ish murder mystery. It’s not really a noir atmosphere, taking place as it does on a cramped spaceship headed towards Saturn, but it is peopled with tough talking, resourceful types who can do science, perform feats of engineering, solve crimes, and woo the ladies. “This here is a fusion drive, see? And the first one of you who messes with it is getting cement shoes out the airlock.” It’s also another fine example of the reliable “holy crap we’re running out of air on this ship, so we’d better kill off some crew” trope. There’s a whiff of noble sacrifice, just to bring a tear to the eye.

This story is at its best when it deals with the practicalities of interplanetary travel on a junky ship. Weaker points include the dialogue, some visits from the Sexism Fairy, and a sense that the antics driving the plot are a somewhat overstated. By the end, I was thinking to myself, “Isn’t there a better way this could have been handled? Did (s)he really need to go that far?” Some credit to Del Rey though. Even if his portrayal of women lacks nuance, he does call out racism in the story.

Like the first book, I won’t call this bad, but I think it’s a weak effort. Some of the SF parts are entertaining, but the mystery is half-baked. I am more interested in the going to Saturn parts that the who killed who parts. It was only an hour or so out of my life though, so I can’t complain too much.

Victory

Our last book (novellete?) is likely what happens when a pulp author asks himself/herself the question, “What sort of book would most thrill the Two Dudes?” The answer, of course, is space adventure mixed with International Relations theory. I have no idea what Del Rey’s thoughts on global politics are, beyond the obligatory anti-Communism, or his impetus in writing Victory, but it is very much a product of its age.

At the center of story is Earth, in a position similar to the US in and around WWII. Earth has the strongest economy and the potential to be a military super power, but remains on the outskirts of galactic conflict. Most of the story follows a grumpy military vet, who has watched Earth stand by as other planets are ravaged by war. Del Rey shows the aftermath on one planet in particular, but then jumps around to show other systems failing to execute a good, clean victory. The grumpy vet is offered the chance to “make a difference” in a way that conflicts with his vague, but fervently held, beliefs.

Undergirding all of this, and coming to the fore in a couple of lengthy passages, is something called The Security Dilemma. This framework for understanding global politics and the seeming inevitability of war is the product of one John Herz, a political theorist who emigrated from Germany before WWII. Essentially, The Security Dilemma assumes that a nation will arm itself for defense. Defensive weapons being indistinguishable from offensive weapons, the nation’s neighbors will themselves arm to counter the first. This causes others to arm, to escalate, and eventually to fight, in a cycle that quickly spirals out of control. Herz, a melancholy and persuasive writer, was building this theory throughout the 1950s under the shadow of the rapidly escalating Cold War; it quickly became a foundation of the dominant Realist strain of International Relations. Del Rey wrote Victory in 1955; clearly, he was aware of the political zeitgeist.

Even as Del Rey’s characters are discussing this dilemma inside the story, Earth seems to have found a way to short circuit it and step outside the endless cycle. This is, I suppose, Del Rey’s earnest hope for the future, though even successful Earth doesn’t really escape until a deus ex machina comes to its aid. Oddly enough, some of the answers to this problem came hundreds of years earlier than he expected, and without certain technological marvels. In fact, those that have sidestepped out of The Security Dilemma in the real world, notably Europe, did so through ideas first popularized after WWI: something we now call globalization. (It’s a bit more complicated than this and also concerns nuclear weapons, but most informed observers agree that trade agreements and economic union defuse the root causes of war.)

That said, Victory is also not the most amazing story I have ever read. At written length, things jump about too much for real coherence to take hold. The world Del Rey creates has potential, but remains half baked. A longer story that takes more time to flesh out connections, characters, and history would have given Del Rey the chance to make a book that delivers the full impact of his premise. There is promise here, and an intellectual depth not seen in the other two books, but it is betrayed by some combination of publishing convention, talent, and imagination. Still, it is an interesting examination of the psychology of the 1950s.

2013 Reading Statistics

2013 Reading Statistics

For the statistics loving, OCD part in all of us, I too have compiled some data on my reading in 2013. It is taking all of my self-restraint powers to not crank out a pile of Excel-generated graphs and charts here; that seems a little crazed even for SF fandom.

Total books read in 2013: 67
I’m a little surprised by this number, as I expected something in the 80s. I will have to chalk this up to an above average consumption of 600+ page books this year. In fact, I believe I cracked the 1000 page barrier not once, but twice. Yikes.

Genre breakdown:
SF: 44
Fantasy: 14
Other: 8
Political science tailed off a bit this year, to be replaced by World War II books. Something lit a random fire for Pacific War history and I read three. This looks to continue in 2014, which, paired with an increase in baseball related reading, will likely see a higher proportion of non-fiction. Also, I probably read more fantasy this year than at any time since seventh grade.

White Patriarchy breakdown:
Men: 32
Women: 13
Anglo: 30
Other: 15
Disappointing numbers here for gender, though it’s not something I started thinking about until late summer. I am aiming for a more even split in 2014. No surprise at the numbers of non-US/UK writers, considering the stated Two Dudes mission to bring Japan to the fore. If I make a White Male / Everyone Else split, things push closer to even; I hope to maintain this moving forward.

Languages:
English: 64
Japanese: 3
This is the highest number of Japanese novels I’ve ever read. If I can discipline myself better, the number will rise somewhat each subsequent year. (Gotta push up that reading speed.)

Total posts on Two Dudes in 2013: 60
I’m sad about this. I used to put up two posts per week, but life has intervened. I’m not sure that I can produce more this year without sacrificing length and quality, so the once per week pace will likely hold. I wonder sometimes how my blogging friends can write so much, so well. The only answer I can think of: no small children.

Category breakdown:
Reviews/Commentary: 46
Lists: 8
Misc.: 6
Housekeeping posts are inevitable. Lists increased suddenly at the end of the year, as my available review time shrank. I would like to produce more critical essays in the future, rather than just book reviews and reading lists. We shall see – those essays can take a lot of time. Taking into account combo posts, long series (1Q84 and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn), and commentary not related to completed books, there are somewhere between 15 and 20 books I read but did not review. Ideally I would write about everything I read, but as a practical matter it is impossible. Several of these will eventually creep into 2014 posts, but that will just increase the backlog for next year.

White Patriarchy breakdown:
Men: 29
Women: 8
Anglo: 25
Other: 17
This is calculated by the main topic of the post, i.e. author gender/ethnicity, essay subject, etc. Posts lacking an identifying characteristic (announcements, genre-wide topics, etc.) were excluded from the count. As before, no surprise that non-Anglo writers feature heavily. A bigger question is whether or not Two Dudes branches out from Asia more. The gender split is dire however, and efforts will be taken to adjust that in 2014. Part of the problem stems from book reviews basically falling off a cliff after Thanksgiving. Even with the push in reading more women, I just didn’t get to writing about them.

Looking ahead, I hope to both read and write more in 2014. In both, I am pushing for greater diversity. I don’t do this by sacrificing things that I want to read and write about, but rather by seeking out new things that I want to read and write about. (I hope that distinction makes sense.) My writing time is wholly at the mercy of work, family, and music; I can only wish to balance them better this year than last.

Storm Over Warlock

Storm Over Warlock
Andre Norton

Getting into Vintage SF Month, I find myself behind and in need of quick, vintage reads. It just so happens that I have access to a small supply of sketchily narrated and produced audiobooks that were taken from the Gutenberg library. Among them is Andre Norton’s Storm Over Warlock, which appears to be in the public domain. I have read five Norton novels in the last few years, with the same result each time. I generally enjoy the books while I’m reading them (less so for The Zero Stone), but none of them have left much of an impression. This may be because the majority of her books read like YA fiction to me, though I’m not sure if that was the intention. It is no coincidence, I suppose, that the most adult of her novels was the most enjoyable. (That would be Witch World.)

I listened to this at work, so I wasn’t always paying complete attention. The quality of the recording was also pretty low, so there’s going to be parts that I missed and nuance that I didn’t understand. I am taking this into account for my review. Storm covers much of the same ground as the other Norton novels I’m familiar with: young protagonist on an exotic world facing some sort of peril, having adventures, and growing into an adult. Animal sidekicks make frequent appearances in her books, and this is no exception. Shann (our erstwhile hero) is accompanied by Taggy and Togi, the genetically boosted wolverines.

Things start with a bang, as Shann finds himself the only fortunate survivor of an attack on the lone Terran base camp on the planet Warlock. The evil alien Throgs have blown everything up, so the rest of the book is spent following Shann as he tries to put life back together. Like the other Norton books I am familiar with, this is a rural and/or frontier-type story, free of large cities or complex societies. The cast is small, with the whole of the story focused on Shann, the animals, and a couple of other minor characters. Finally, Warlock is naturally full of secrets that will slowly make their way to the fore. It is to Norton’s credit that Shann is not a child of destiny or other such nonsense. He is resourceful and strong, but not some sort of golden child.

Warlock ages well. The survival story keeps technology to a minimum and advanced civilization on the sidelines, which avoids any sort of obsolescence pitfalls. The pacing and length are artifacts of a day gone by, as are the psi powers that make an appearance. Still, nothing about Norton’s writing is cringe-inducing. In fact, the way that the story unfolds into something larger over just a couple of hundred pages is probably the clearest indication of its age; most writers now take all the time they are given yet somehow manage to say less.

Of my five finished Norton books, this one comes in at #2, behind Witch World. It was fun and engaging, though not anything that will leave a mark. It’s the kind of story I could give to someone who wanted an easy SF primer, or maybe to one of my kids in a few years. I can’t really recommend it to a serious SF grognard who demands increasingly esoteric and exotic stories to tickle a grizzled palette, but that was probably never the author’s intent. We’ll all just agree on wholesome, family fun for this one.

Rating: Many a reader may have thought I’d given up on vaguely related football segues, but they are sorely mistaken. In proper homage to Vintage SF, let’s pull some vintage English footy out of the ether and enjoy highlights from a 1972 match between Leeds and Manchester United. (A pox on both their houses.)