Tag Archives: Henry Kuttner

Gymnasts, librarians and disability cliches: books read

BELLA AT THE BAR by Jenny McDade and John Armstrong is one of a number of British sports comic strips for girls (I know of several ice-skating ones for instance). Bella Barlow is that classic figure of children’s adventures, an orphan with cruel caregivers (Uncle Jed and Aunt Gertrude) who use her as unpaid slave labor. Bella, however, is a naturally gifted gymnast who has a shot at become a serious competitive athlete — as long as Uncle Jed doesn’t find out. While this doesn’t appeal to me as much as Fran of the Floods, it is an engaging enough adventure to work.

By contrast, CHIAROSCURO: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci by Pat McGreal and Chaz Truog was a slog. This is the story of DaVinci as told by his thieving, conniving but handsome servant Salai, who bitterly resents Leonardo for not being the father-figure he needs. Salai’s an unpleasant character and I know enough of the historical Leonardo that the details of his life, as presented here, aren’t terribly fresh. Truog’s art didn’t work for me either.

BLUE BEETLE: Shell-Shocked by Keith Giffen, John Rogers and Cully Hammer launched the Jaime Reyes incarnation of the character (the names been in use since the 1940s). El Paso teenager Jaime discovers a strange scarab which then bonds to him, turning him into a powerful armored superhero. This upends his life and puts him into conflict with the metahuman street gang the Posse, local crimelord La Dama and a lot of superheroes who aren’t sure he’s trustworthy.

The idea of introducing a young rookie superhero to the world of metahumans is one comics have tried several times in the past three decades. This is one of the few times it works. Jaime’s a likable character, the stories are fun and this seems to avoid Hispanic stereotypes (I don’t deny I could miss one). However because it’s tied in to Jaime’s role in Infinite Crisis some readers have a hard time figuring out some of what’s going on (a perennial problem with TPBs including Big Event tie-ins).

THE DEPARTMENT OF RARE BOOKS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS by Eva Jurczyk is a literary mystery in which the aging second-in-command of a university rare book library steps in for her ailing boss and discovers the collection’s most prized antiquity has gone AWOL While I liked the premise, I gave up after fifty pages — Jurczyk is doing a literary mystery and her literary style left me cold.

HIGH SORCERY is a five-story Andre Norton collection in which four of the stories involve disability cliches about tragic deformed or disabled figures such as the musician in Ully the Piper (who gets a Miracle Cure as his reward). That aside the collection is okay, not great; Ully is a witchworld book but it could just as easily have been set on Earth. The most interesting is Toys of Tamasen about a dream-inducing psi who finds herself and her client trapped in the dream and Wizard World, which reads like a Witch World riff (Esper flees to a setting very reminiscent of Estcarp or Alizon).

Much like The Time Axis, Henry Kuttner’s Well of the Worlds seems overstuffed with ideas for a short novel. For instance, this 1953 book is set in 1970 but that doesn’t affect the story at all. The government assigns Sawyer, an investigator, to help Klai, the amnesiac owner of a uranium mine which is slowing production because of ghosts. Investigating the supposed spirits delivers Sawyer into the hands of the mine’s malevolent co-owner, then they and Klai get hurled across the dimensions to a world under the control of the godlike Isier. Being on an immortal race’s shitlist isn’t a good position to be in, but Sawyer’s ready to fight against all odds. This gets so wild, the climax resembles an acid trip of special effects, but I enjoyed it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by John Armstrong, bottom by Duncan Rouleau, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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The Victorian Past, the Unimaginable Future and parallel worlds

After reading Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead, I thought THE INVENTION OF MURDER: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders would provide more insight in the same vein. Unfortunately it’s more like a listicle of once-sensational crimes — a lot of them don’t stand out by today’s standards — and the press coverage and stage dramatizations that fed on the public’s interest in them. Black Swine had more insight into the Victorian psyche and Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana is more interesting on the development of crime and detective fiction. So I put this one down unfinished.

In his historical notes on Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser referenced A JOURNAL OF THE FIRST AFGHAN WAR by Lady Florentia Sale as a good source on the disastrous events in his novel; discovering TYG had a copy I finally got around to reading it. Writing in 1842, Sale chronicles a long string of missteps and bad judgments made by British military and diplomatic leaders in Afghanistan, ranging from soldiers retreating when they should have won to wildly misreading who among the Afghans was trustworthy. This ultimately led to a disorganized withdrawal bogged down by servants, camp-followers and families, that ended for most of the retreating Brits as corpses strewn across the landscape, though Sale herself made it to safety. A grim study of military ineptitude and some tart-tongued writing.

THE TIME AXIS is a very Olaf Stapledon-ish epic by Henry Kuttner in which a boozing journalist doing an article on a high-powered scientist discovers the real purpose of his assignment is to join a team traveling to the end of time and finding a cure for the mysterious indestructible substance slowly taking over the world’s matter. The story that follows (Arnold Schoenberg’s cover captures a lot of it) seems like Kuttner just kept pumping out ideas and throwing them in — mandroids, transporters, time travel, psi-possession — but it worked for me.

Leigh Brackett’s THE BIG JUMP has a protagonist investigating the aftermath of Earth’s first interstellar expedition: what happened to his friend who apparently didn’t come home with the ship? Why is the Solar System’s most powerful corporation covering up what happened on the journey? Learning that something bad happened to the crew, the protagonist deals himself in on the follow-up flight, only to discover their destination holds a threat he hadn’t anticipated. I love the monstrous alien Transuranea but the sexism of this hardboiled SF yarn gets heavy.

CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Every Me, Every You by Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming starts poorly: a flashback to a Superman crossover, then some really confusing jumping to parallel worlds for more battles with the Whisperer. Things pick up after they finally land on another world where they join forces with an older counterpart of Cave and Cave Carson Jr. against the bad guys. The end result is not as fun as the first volume, but it’s good enough I’ll try the third and final volume eventually.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.




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Heroes with Secret Pasts and a dying Earth: books read

Andre Norton’s THE JARGOON PARD is the first sequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in Arvon, the homeland of the Wereriders. Arvon comes off much like Estcore, a land that sealed itself off after arrogant mages opened dimensional gates to Very Bad Things, and protagonist Kethan has a backstory similar to Kerovan of Crystal Gryphon, a son born touched by magic so that his mother can use him as a tool to attain power.

Surprisingly, though, the book charts it’s own course, starting with Mom bearing a girl, whom she promptly swaps for the son of another woman (Gillan of Unicorn). Like so many Witch World protagonists, Kethan grows up feeling something of an outsider, then one of his mother’s rivals gives him a magic belt that triggers his innate shapeshifting powers. Now he’s a pard (big puma — the jargoon is the carved gem on the belt’s clasp) but he can’t turn back unless he submits to the will of his mother’s resident sorceress — and Kethan would sooner die. The results are solidly entertaining; this is also the first book to spotlight the worship of the harvest/mother goddess Gunnora, which plays a big role in many later books.

THE DARK WORLD has Henry Kuttner’s name on it but some researchers suggest C.L. Moore is co- or sole author. While it has a lot in common with Mask of Circe, it also resembles Dwellers in the Mirage (amnesiac hero with buried memories, good vs. bad girl, other-dimensional soul-sucking horror) and would later inspire both Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Falcons of Narabedla.

Oh, wait, you might want to know about the story too! The protagonist is a WW II veteran suffering strange blackouts and odd memories. When he’s drawn into the eponymous alternate timeline, he discovers that’s because he’s actually Ganelon, a member of the ruling coven of mages, bound to the other-dimensional horror Llyr; the resistance against the coven managed to swap him and the real veteran (parallel world counterparts), leaving Ganelon with the veteran’s memories. Now that Ganelon’s back, he’s ready to regain power, which requires working with the resistance against the coven and somehow driving Llyr back from this plane of existence. The result is a lively fantasy, though the random mix of myth names (Llyr, Medea, Freydis) is jarring (as Lin Carter says, names matter).

In THE STARMAN OF LLYRDIS by Leigh Brackett, an Earthman who’s spent his entire life as even more of an outcast than Kethan learns the reason: he’s only half-human, the other half being Varddan, the one race that can survive interstellar travel due to a gen-engineering breakthrough a millennium ago. The protagonist proves his Varddan genes hold true and wins the right to live and work in space — but then allies himself with revolutionaries who want to share the genetic breakthrough with all the races of the galaxy. A perfect example of Brackett’s fondness for characters who achieve their dreams only to find them hollow (as her husband put it).

Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH is probably best known as the basis for spellcasting in D&D (Gary Gygax copied Vance’s idea that mages can only hold a limited number of spells in their mind) but deserves to be known in its own right. On a distant future Earth, various wizards and occasional mortals feud, seek love or quest for knowledge amidst ruined cities, ancient secrets and unpleasant cults.

This blew me away when I read it as a teen, but less so now. The treatment of the female characters is sexist and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (which I suspect was a big influence) is a much eerier, darker setting, and Smith is a better writer. That said, this is still entertaining and enjoyably eerie.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gray Morrow, bottom image is uncredited. Rights to both remain with current holder.




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