Saturday, 7 December 2019

Fantasy Roundup

An assortment of fantasy novels I've read recently.

The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

THotB was first published in 1908, and is regarded as an early classic of supernatural horror. It is not exactly my usual type of reading, but I'm trying to catch up with Books I Ought To Read, and this one kept popping up in recommendations concerning the history of SFF; it is regarded as highly influential. A check on Hodgson's Wiki page revealed an interesting character who published a range of stories, many of which are still available. He was killed in the First World War at the age of forty.

THotB is a story within a story. It is topped and tailed by an account of a fishing holiday undertaken in a very remote part of Ireland, in which the two fishermen do some exploring and discover the ruins of a great house, hidden in a huge overgrown garden which contains an enormous pit with a fast-flowing river at the bottom. In the ruins they find a book, hand-written by a former resident of the house to describe his strange experiences. The bulk of THotB consists of the resident's tale.

The resident lived in the house a long time ago, alone except for his sister and dog. He moved in because it was cheap, having already acquired a grim reputation for supernatural events. His strange experiences began with the sighting of hideous creatures, vaguely humanoid but with porcine faces, which instilled in humans a powerful sense of dread.  They came from the pit and laid seige to the house, during which the resident experienced his first out-of-body journey, arriving at a strange land. His spirit travelled to a place surrounded by mountains, in the centre of which was an exact replica of the house in Ireland, only much bigger and made of some glowing green material. In the surrounding mountains he observed vast beings, the old gods of the pagan religions, while a giant version of the porcine creatures was trying to get into the green house.

In subsequent out-of-body experiences he travelled in time at a gradually accelerating rate to the death of the sun (a sequence surely inspired by H.G. Wells's The Time Machine); a powerful and sustained piece of imaginative writing.

I found that finishing the book was no problem (assisted by the fact that it is a novella of only around 100 pages) even though it didn't really engage me. The plot lacks coherence, consisting of a series of loosely connected events, with the significance of the house never explained. Despite this, it is worth reading for the imaginative visions the resident described.


In Search of the Shining World, by Mary Beth Melton

This is another kind of story that I normally don't read. It is a fantasy, featuring an unhappy fifteen-year-old girl who passionately believes in fairies, treasuring the memory of once having seen some, and would like nothing more than to enter their world. This she does, and finds a strange culture with its own rules and practices. She is sent on a mission to prove her worth, and encounters dangers that she had never dreamed of before the unexpected conclusion.

I am not the best person to assess this book, as I suspect that it is mostly appreciated by young teenage, or pre-teen, girls, with whom I have so little in common that they might as well belong to an alien race. However, I not only finished it, I read it in only two sessions. Which is a tribute to the author's story-telling ability.


Limited Wish, by Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second of the author's Impossible Times trilogy: the first volume, One Word Kill, I reviewed here on 24 August 2019, the final part, Dispel Illusion, being due out in a couple of months.

This continues the story of mathematical genius Nick Hayes and, as before, is written entirely from his viewpoint, in the first person. He is now a 16-year-old student at Cambridge University, working at the cutting edge of physics in order to develop the time machine which (he learned in the first volume from a time-traveller) he was due to achieve later on. Life is not simple, however; strange effects and manifestations keep occuring as the paradoxes of time-travel seem to be closing in on him. Two young women are to be involved, apparently in some kind of competition for his favour. To add to his problems, his leukemia has relapsed and he is pursued by a deadly relative of an old enemy. Fortunately, his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are there in support, along with more visitors from the future.

This book was just as much a pleasure to read as the first volume, and I am eagerly awaiting the third.


Fallen, by Benedict Jacka

Fallen is the tenth of the author's Alex Verus series, following the fortunes of the maverick diviner living in a present-day London in which magic very much works (albeit unsuspected by the general, non-magical, public). The other nine books have already been reviewed on this blog, so I won't repeat the background; I'll just point out that the books are effectively telling one long story, so it is essential to read them in the right order.

At the start of this volume, Verus has achieved a degree of acceptance, being appointed to the magical Light Council with his friend (and now girlfriend) Anne also accepted as his assistant. Needless to say, this does not last and Verus's world comes crashing down around his ears, with the support he has enjoyed from various others being brutally kicked away. Almost alone, he has to take drastic, life-changing measures to acquire the ability to defend himself against his powerful enemies. He succeeds – at a cost. The story ends abruptly, so we'll have to wait for the next (and last) two volumes to discover what happens. This whole series is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of contemporary urban fantasy,

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Screen Time

Inferno (2016)

Another techno-thriller with a fantasy streak based on a Dan Brown book, and again featuring Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon, a university professor with a habit of getting involved in violent adventures. I read the book long enough ago to have forgotten all but a few snippets of the plot, so I watched the film unaffected by prior expectations.

The problem with all of these Dan Brown films is that the book plots are very complex and arcane, with lots of codes and clues to follow and unpick, which there isn't really time to deal with in a movie-length production. By and large it was interesting enough to hold my attention but the ending was particularly rushed, with an extremely improbable explanation for what had been going on made in one compressed infodump. Not good, but just about watchable.

The Humanity Bureau (2018)

I can't recall what prompted me to acquire this one, as it is not the kind of setting which normally interests me – a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Much of the USA has become a semi-desert wasteland for various reasons, environmental devastation apparently being uppermost. The government seems to be totalitarian (not a lot is spelled out clearly, most of the background has to be deduced by the viewer) and everyone is expected to work very hard. Those who are judged insufficiently productive by the government Humanity Bureau are transported to a planned settlement, New Eden. What follows contains some spoilers.

Noah Kross (Nicholas Cage) is a Bureau agent whose job is to travel round interviewing those suspected of being unproductive, to see if they should go to New Eden. He begins to have doubts about what he is doing as rumours circulate that New Eden is not the new opportunity it is claimed to be. This comes to a head when he travels to see a single mother (Sarah Lind) and her 11 year old son, who he decides to help instead of condemn, putting himself at odds with his superior officer. It later transpires that the woman is not the boy's mother, but has acquired her identity along with her son – who's father is Kross. The trio head for Canada in a forlorn attempt to escape. The climax of the film is a mix of tragedy and hope.

There are some odd aspects to the plot which indicate that Kross is not what he appears: he is contacted by people resisting the Humanity Bureau's operations and supplied with information about New Eden; and near the end a Canadian border guard remarks that they had been expecting Kross to arrive bringing evidence about New Eden, suggesting that Kross may have been an intelligence agent for Canada all along. One ironic aspect is that the Canadian border is heavily guarded to keep out refugees from the south… no great surprise to learn that the film is a product of Canada rather than Hollywood! Whether or not this affected the low critical ratings I don't know. In my judgement it is not a bad film, just depressing.

Avengers Assemble (2012)

I really must look at my own blog more often. I watched this film and did not realise at any point that I had already seen it, and reviewed it on this blog in October 2012. Only a vague air of familiarity prompted me to check my blog index to reveal the horrible truth: I had wasted a couple of hours, twice over. This time around, I found it just as tedious and monotonous as I did the first time, and can now add another description: completely forgettable!

Dr Strange (2016)

A bit different from the usual Marvel Comics superhero fare, with Benedict Cumberbatch in commanding form as the eponymous surgeon who goes searching for a mystical cure to the injuries which have ended his career. He finds more than he expected, and becomes involved in titanic magical battles between good and evil for the future of the Earth. Except that the good guys are not entirely good… One of the better films in this franchise, and well worth watching.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I was looking forward to this one, having enjoyed the first two of the Thor films. Ragnarok is in most respects more of the same, but apart for a brief glimpse of a Norwegian cliff-top sadly lacks any scenes set on Earth – the interaction between the present-day Earth and the heroes of Asgard being, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of the earlier films. So what we are left with is various fantasy sets, very good CGI, and lots of comic-book violence accompanied by loud music. Fortunately, the humour is retained and enhanced, providing most of the enjoyment.

To ring the changes a bit (or cross the plot threads) Hulk and Dr Strange make appearances (the latter foreshadowed at the end of Dr Strange), and it's always good to see Cate Blanchett in anything.  Do not miss the final clip which occurs after most of the credits have rolled – a great tee-up for the next film!

Black Panther (2018)

Another product of Marvel Studios, this received universal praise and many award nominations. To sum up: it deserves the praise, and joins Wonder Woman as one of my top-rated superhero movies. The only criticism I have is that I initially had some problems remembering who was who, as there is a large cast of characters who appear from the start and I was familiar with hardly any of the actors. Which is a good excuse to watch it more than once!  As seems usual these days, there are final clips inserted in the credits.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike, and The Question Mark, by Muriel Jaeger

I decided to acquire Orconomics after some enthusiastic comments by members of the Classic SF Group. It is subtitled "A satire", about which more later. The setting is a land populated by a wide variety of more or less humanoid races (the usual dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves etc) with technology at the usual medieval level, plus magic wielded by suitably talented and trained wizards.

The story is a tongue-in-cheek variant of a traditional fantasy quest, with an assorted group of unwilling adventurers all press-ganged into undertaking a search for some stolen marble heads of symbolic importance. Their leader is an experienced "professional hero", a dwarf called Gorm, who has fallen on hard times. On the way the group encounter various dangers, set-backs and surprises, with the ending being rather different from what might have been expected.

Apart from the names of the races, there are other borrowings from elsewhere – both fact and fiction. For example, a firm making fine quality edged weapons is named Vorpal, which is first used in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky poem. Also, the stone heads are known as the Elven Marbles, presumably a reference to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, sculptures which were "liberated" from the Athens Parthenon long ago and are the subject of a long-running ownership dispute. 

There is a lot of humour in the story with the satirical element being focused on economics. The economic system of the entire country is based on heroic adventures, with speculators trading in the profits to be expected from successful adventures (those being ones in which vast wealth is recovered, e.g. from stolen hoards). There is an organised system for professional heroes or quest-givers to lay claim to some expected hoard before setting off to recover it, bringing in investment to fund the mission, with any profits being divided up pro-rata among the investors.

The author explains at one point: "The speculators who bought those shares often bundled them into plunder finds, which were then divided and sold to other companies, who were owned by other companies, and beyond that…well, it hurt Scroot's head to think about who owned what." The target of this satire is obviously the packaging of sub-prime mortgages which were a major factor in the 2008 financial crisis. The problem from the dramatic viewpoint is that this specific event happened years ago and the details have probably been forgotten – if they were ever understood – by most potential readers. Satire based on current affairs dates rapidly.

At first I was rather underwhelmed by the story, but as it progressed and the characters developed I became increasingly engaged and ended up thoroughly enjoying the tale.

Orconomics is the first of the Dark Profit Saga trilogy, the others being Son of a Liche (already available) and Dragonfired (being written). I was looking forward to reading the sequel until I saw that the price for a paperback (the only format I buy) listed by amazon as just under £15, which is two or three times the going rate for a standard paperback, so I'll pass on that.


One of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series, The Question Mark was first published in 1926. It was the author's first novel, followed by three more over the next decade. As Wiki says: "Her novels deal with such topics as extrasensory perception, utopian speculation, and genetic engineering and are considered important for their place in the history of science fiction. At the time, her work was not well-received by critics, and she abandoned her career".

The plot of The Question Mark concerns a young man from the 1920s who wakes up two centuries later. He finds himself in a socialist paradise, with economic equality for all having been achieved and automation having reduced the need to work to a bare minimum. However, that does not mean that there aren't flaws – and these concern human nature. The population is divided into the great majority, described as "normals", who are poorly educated (by choice) and driven by emotion rather than reason, and the rational "intellectuals", who run the society and drive its technological advances.  Jaeger has some sympathy for the normals but shows how they are infantilised by their lack of responsibility, flitting constantly between different fads, fashions and esoteric religious beliefs (a theme picked up by various later SF books I have read – the one which first springs to mind being The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys).

One aspect of the future society which is portrayed as controversial is the availability of peaceful euthanasia on demand, also used as a means of disposing of hardened criminals and other troublesome individuals. However, another aspect of population control which would be even more controversial today is eugenics – specifically the used of selective breeding to weed out undesirable characteristics from the gene pool. This was historically very popular among intellectuals when the book was written, but forever discredited as a result of being put into practice by Nazi Germany. The author seems to assume that population control would have been drastically enforced, given that her England has been turned into a pastoral country with a relatively thinly spread population, but there is little comment about this. The ending is rather vague, as the story just stops when the author has said what she wanted to.

The Question Mark was a reaction against the idealised future societies portrayed in fiction popular at the time, and was intended to paint a more realistic picture of how society might develop if everyone's physical needs for food, housing and travel were met. The apparent utopia gradually becomes more dystopian as the protagonist learns more about it, so this story is really an initial step towards the far more dystopian Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949).

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Menace of the Monster, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology, subtitled Classic Tales of Creatures from Beyond, is one of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series of reprints, sent to me for review. As with others in this series, it begins with a substantial introduction by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short intro to each of the stories.

The editor traces the origins of monster stories to The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from around 4,000 years ago, which includes the monster Humbaba. Greek legends are full of terrible, frightening monsters such as the Minotaur, such tales being given credence by the discovery of fossils of dinosaurs and other huge extinct animals. Much later, SF enthusiastically featured monsters, mostly from other worlds (and I might add, at the less intellectual end of the publishing market, mysteriously attracted to scantily-clad human females). This anthology concentrates on monster stories from the "classic period, the 1890s to the mid-1960s", with the 22-page introduction providing the usual comprehensive and worthwhile survey of the field.

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. Those hideously alien monsters from Mars are too well known to need any introduction, but this particular version of the story is of interest in that it is only 14 pages long, written (by Wells himself, in 1919) to provide a "compact summary" of the story, apparently to accompany illustrations by the Dutch artist Johan Briedé. Unfortunately the illustrations are not included in this publication, so all we get is a colourless precis; a graphic novel without the graphics.

The Cloud-men, by Owen Oliver. The author (real name Joshua Albert Flynn, 1863-1933) was a senior civil servant in the War Office who wrote many short stories, mostly SF, from 1898 onwards. This 1911 example, set in an alternative 1915, is very strange. It begins with some offical government notices laying down draconian punishments for (among other things) distributing false news (we could do with that today…). It included the results of a recent census of the UK population, totalling 120,000 people (the actual number at that time was around 40 million). The main part of the story explains how this disaster occurred as recounted by a couple of eye-witnesses. The monsters were "Cloud-Men" who could vary their size and density from being huge creatures as diffuse as clouds, to being much smaller beings as dense as people; their touch was usually fatal. A particularly imaginative approach to monsters.

The Dragon of St Paul's, by Reginald Bacchus & C. Ranger Gull (1873-1945 and 1875-1923 respectively; Gull was also published as Guy Thorne). A more conventional story from a pair of journalists who collaborated on various strange tales. This one features a dragon found in an Arctic block of ice which was thawed out and escaped to terrorise London. The plot seems very familiar, but given that this story was published in 1899 it might well have been the first to include such elements.

De Profundis, by Coutts Brisbane (real name Robert Coutts Armour, 1874-1945). An entirely different form of monster terrorises the Earth in this bleak and horrific 1914 story from a prolific writer of SFF, which demonstrates that numbers can be more important than size and strength.

Dagon, by H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). The author is of course very well known as a specialist in horror stories – particularly the Cthulhu Mythos – and this one emerged in 1919. It takes the form of a farewell note from a sailor who has witnessed a horrific event at sea and is now being hunted by a hideous monster.

In Amundsen's Tent, by John Martin Leahy (1886-1967). A curious but apparently influential tale first published in 1928. It is set against the background of the race to be the first to reach the South Pole (actually achieved by Roald Amundsen in December 1911).   A later visitor finds a tent which contains the severed head of an explorer, together with a written account of the events which evidently led to his death. The account involved the discovery by the explorers of a tent close to the Pole, which contained something so hideous that the witnesses could not describe it. They fired at it with a rifle but it came in pursuit… Again, strong horror elements in this tale.

King Kong, by Draycott Dell & Edgar Wallace. An oddity, this one, as the story started off as an idea for a film by director Merian C Cooper in around 1930. Edgar Wallace, a famous author of popular thrillers, was recruited to work on the script which was duly delivered in 1932, just before Wallace's death. Other writers then became involved before the film's release, and a novel based on it also appeared, Wallace still being credited for publicity reasons. The short story in this anthology was written by Dell, the editor of a British boys' magazine, and was published in 1933. The tragic story of the giant ape is too well-known to require repeating here; this story is a straightforward version.

The Monster from Nowhere, by Nelson S. Bond (1908-2006). The author produced a large quantity of SFF stories, often amusing, but with some darker tales such as this one, which emerged in 1939. The narrator is a journalist who is contacted by an explorer who had disappeared two years before on an expedition to Peru. Now the explorer wants advice about what to do with something he has brought back. This takes the form of a black mass of constantly and rapidly changing size and shape, whose nature he is unable to determine. I will say no more about this interesting story, except that I was evidently mistaken when I commented in my review of Flatland by Edwin A Abbott (on this blog eight years ago): "It is difficult to describe or draw parallels with this book, since as far as I'm aware it is unique."

Discord in Scarlet, by A. E. van Vogt (1912-2000). Van Vogt needs no introduction here (reviews of several of his works are listed in my blog index) so there are plenty of tales to choose from. This one was first published in 1939 and eventually, in modified form, became part of the 1950 fix-up novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It concerns an alien stranded in space, who takes an opportunity to board a passing human spaceship. Typical of this author, the viewpoint lies with the alien monster for part of the story, not just the frightened humans, which adds another dimension to the tale.

Monster, by John Christopher (real name Samuel Youd, 1922-2012). I remember this author from several decades ago, principally for writing The Death of Grass, a 1956 catastrophe novel (the title tells me all I want to know…). This 1950 tale is one of his many short stories and, like the van Vogt story above, features the aliens' viewpoint as well as the humans'. An intelligent acquatic race is facing extinction due to attrition by predators but is aware of the existence of a land-living race, so one enterprising soul is fitted with a pressure suit and sent to ask for help. Unfortunately, there are problems…. Interesting in that the conclusion ties events into our modern world.

Resident Physician, by James White (1928-1999). This author is best-known for his long-running series featuring the Sector Twelve General Hospital, located in space and equipped to deal with all alien races. This is one of those stories from 1961, concerning a patient who is certainly a monster, but (as it turns out) not a hostile one. I have to say that I found the basic premise – of skilled medical staff trained to deal with all races – unconvincing, in view of my experience of the profession. The tendency is for surgeons to specialise in some particular type of medical problem (e.g. ankle injuries) so that they become very skilled and experienced in dealing with that, and that's just with one race – ours.  However, it's a fun story!

Personal Monster, by Idris Seabright (real name Margaret St. Clair, 1911-1995). This author wrote many SFF stories, notable for their sophistication and the high quality of the writing. This one was published in 1955 but seems much more modern than that, simply presenting events as they affect a young girl and leaving the reader to work out what is really going on (in fact, the clues are not enough to be able to infer the whole story, just the flavour of it). The girl has found an ugly monster in a pit in the garden, but seems to have some connection with it. There is also something odd about the couple who have adopted her…

Alien Invasion, by Marcia Kamien (born 1933). In this 1954 tale, a scientist finds herself mysteriously pregnant with a child which is part-monster. She discovers that her pregnancy was the result of an experiment by an alien race trapped on a doomed planet. The story is atmospheric but takes too cavalier an attitude with some basic (and well-known even then) astronomical facts.

The Witness, by Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978). One of my favourite authors of my youth, Russell wrote fast-paced SF thrillers, often well-laced with humour. This 1951 story entirely concerns the trial of an alien who had arrived on Earth, for the crime of potentially presenting a threat to humanity. The arguments of the opposing lawyers are covered in detail, and the prosecution were clearly gaining the advantage until some additional facts became available. This actually has that rare thing in classic SF, a genuinely moving ending.

This collection is a very diverse one, ranging from straightforward alien invasion tales through examples of the horror sub-genre and finishing with some sophisticated and thought-provoking stories. One omission which rather surprised me was Godzilla – surely the best-known monster along with King Kong. This first appeared in Japanese comics in 1954 so should arguably qualify, but I suppose it has always appeared in mainly visual formats (films or comics) with some text versions coming somewhat later.