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The Shaver Mystery Book Four by Richard S. Shaver, Armchair, 2013 

The Shaver Mystery Book Five by Richard S. Shaver, Armchair, 2014 

Two more collections of the rambling, occasionally incoherent stories which claim that lost civilizations with super-science live in caverns beneath the Earth, although one of these involves aliens from outer space as well. “The Mind Rovers” is the closest to being actually a good story and “Slaves of the Worm: is probably the worst. There are deformed creatures, a bewildering variety of “rays” which are projected onto the surface to influence us, some bogus science, and some of the most convoluted – not in a good way – prose you will ever encounter. From this distance it is difficult to understand why these were so popular – they boosted magazine sales for a couple of years – or even published at all. 9/30/14

Queen of the Panther World by Berkeley Livingston, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1948) 

When you start a 1940s pulp novel about two men transported to a world where a matriarchy rules, you know there is going to be some rampant sexism in the offing. In this case, the battle between two rival factions on the inevitable barbaric world is between a matriarchy and an evil male dominated group. Our heroes manage to restore the proper order of the sexes by encouraging a man to spank his wife and he and all of his fellows go from subservient to bellicose in a matter of minutes. The good guys ride giant panthers and the bad guys a cross between a lizard and a reindeer. The haughty queen discovers the true meaning of love. Most readers will experience the true meaning of revulsion although to be fair some of the female characters are very competent people. 9/29/14 

Terror Station by Dwight V. Swain, Armchair, 2010 (magazine appearance 1955)

 The head of security for a military project tries unsuccessfully to rescue a woman from a tentacled monster. A patrol finds him crouched over her dead body but they not only refuse to accept his story, they insist that he’s a spy and saboteur. Although the base commander seems rational, he is convinced to have the protagonist examined by a psychologist, and given how stupidly the hero reacts, he’s probably right to do so even though we know his story is true. Anyway, he escapes and finds a strange machine operating in one of the laboratories, so he turns it off. Everyone seems instantly recovered but before he can investigate further he and his companions are attacked by more tentacle monsters.  Our hero finds an alien ships, gets captured, discovers the details of their nefarious – and scientifically illiterate – plot, escapes, and foils their plans, rescuing his girl in the process. 9/29/14

Red Tide, edited anonymously, Arc Manor, 2014, $14,99, ISBN 978-1-61242-132-2

This is a collection of four related stories loosely connected as well to Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd.”  The first two, both by Niven himself, are very good, particularly the long title story. The premise is that teleportation has been invented making it possible for people to literally travel anywhere they want instantaneously and the stories explore the consequences of this change of technology. The third story by Brad Torgerson isn’t bad but it was very disappointing after the Niven entries. The final story is by Matthew J. Harrington is somewhat better. There is also some brief nonfiction sprinkled through. Grab it for the Niven stories. 9/28/14

Hocus-Pocus Universe by Jack Williamson, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1953)  

The narrator is a young scientist who unsuccessfully tries to help a troubled student who appears capable of altering natural laws, although he doesn’t realize this initially. He is recruited to help with an emergency defensive force because of an unconvincingly described threat of Russian attacks. This was not one of Williamson’s more successful stories. The troubled student is suspected to be the source of leaks about the secret project – even though he had no access to that information – solely because he has disappeared. The premise is that if enough people believe something, the universe will change to make that the truth. The Earth was flat until the majority of people thought otherwise. Except that the plot hinges on a secret project – known only to a few – changing natural laws. The oddball then begins to exhibit magical powers, which converts others. 9/27/14

Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna, Pyr, 2014, $17, ISBN 978-1-61614-982-6 

 A simple plot summary might make this sound like a zombie apocalypse novel, because a plague has turned much of the population into unruly quasi-primitives known as Ferals. But the Ferals aren’t unintelligent. They live within the boundaries of society and even hold down jobs, although normals find them unsettling. The protagonist is the owner of an airship, a dirigible, at least until it is stolen. So he sets out to take it back and gives us a grand tour of post-apocalyptic North America in the process.  The story isn’t bad but the prose presented two problems. The constant use of short sentences and short paragraphs, which is often effective in action sequences, becomes tiring when it is extended to the entire novel. I kept feeling as though I was reading an outline. The second problem, which won’t bother everyone, is that it is written in present tense, which felt like fingernails on a blackboard all the way through. 9/26/14

The Shaver Mystery Book Three by Richard S. Shaver, Armchair, 2012

Yet more of Shaver’s deranged nonsense. Shaver, who spent several years in a mental institution according to Raymond Palmer – after he had used Shaver to increase sales of Amazing Stories – probably actually believed in what he was writing. It would be astonishing to note that there were many groups who accepted this nonsense, but given what some groups believe today, it seems all too plausible. This volume contains “Thought Records of Lemuria,” which is dull as well as badly written, and “The Masked World,” slightly better written but just as uninteresting. Palmer reportedly heavily edited some of Shaver’s stories, so that might explain why they became slightly more comprehensible as time went on. 9/26/14

Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1952)  

A circus strongman with amnesia is startled when a woman calls him John Hastings during a performance.  Minutes later someone tries to kill him. His assailant recovers from serious injuries within hours and that triggers faint memories of tissue regeneration and something about an asteroid. He contacts someone who might be able to help him in a spaceport city, but his informer is abducted by Martian criminals who want to use him as a bargaining point with their Venusian rivals. Hastings goes to Mars where he is murdered and left to freeze solid in the desert, but he regenerates and takes up the trail again. Plot and counterplot follow before our hero thwarts the villains and gets the girl. Not bad for its time and place but not particularly good either. The climax contradicts the law of conservation of mass and energy as well as being extraordinarily stupid. The chief villain takes too much regeneration and becomes a fetus. 9/25/14

The House That Stood Still byA.E. van Vogt, Carroll & Graf, 1993 (originally published in 1950) 

Also known as The Undercover Aliens and The Mating Cry, this is an aliens among us story.  A group of 17th Century Spaniards discovered an ancient building in California that makes anyone living there immortal. In the present, there is a threat of war which causes one faction of the secret immortals to advocate migrating to Mars – taking the building with them – to avoid the danger. Others want to help Earth. This is all mixed up with induced amnesia, realistic life masks, murder plots, a mind reader, and other plot elements so diverse that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. The first third is actually pretty good, but it deteriorates dramatically after that. There’s even a robot. Too convoluted to be accessible. 9/25/14

The Man from Tomorrow by Stanton Coblentz, Armchair, 2013 (originally published in 1933) 

My recollection of the half dozen or so Coblentz novels I’d read in the past was that they were unusually incompetent. This one, at least, is only generally incompetent. A rather ineffectual inventor inadvertently brings a man from the 23rd Century back through time. Armed with a kind of paralysis weapon and contemptuous of the primitives among whom he finds himself, the visitor wanders about criticizing everything for the first few chapters. Eventually his bonafides are established and along the way Coblentz satirizes somewhat heavy handedly various aspects of our culture, although the man from the future is pretty bizarre himself.  9/25/14

Below by Ryan Lockwood, Pinnacle, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-7860-3287-7   

A shoal of about one thousand predatory creatures never before seen begins to migrate toward the coast of California. The first human victims are lost at sea when they venture into the water in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a family out fishing loses two of their number to the creatures, which are essentially a variation of squid. Will Sturman is a professional diver whose wife recently died, although we don’t learn how until quite late in the story.  The plot develops logically and plausibly and I was completely sucked into the story.  This is a very successful first novel, a thriller that doesn’t spend all of its time talking about the weapons employed, pandering to right wing extremists, or so implausible that it’s unreadable. I’ll be watching for his next. 8/23/14

The Wizard of Linn by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1962 (magazine appeared 1950) 

The sequel to Empire of the Atom has a gigantic alien ship containing the Riss returning to the solar system. They were the ones who destroyed the ancient empire and they seem equally hostile this time, although somewhat lackadaisical about it. Lord Clane has kept out of politics even though his half brother, the current ruler, is relatively weak, but he still controls the super technology he salvaged from the ruins of the old order. Although he captures the alien ship, he is sure that a fleet will follow. The death of the ruler, poisoned by his wife, leads to a threat of civil war, and a barbarian general with ambitions of his own steals Clane’s most powerful weapon.  The intrigues in this one are so awkward and juvenile that there is no tension in the book at all. Clane uses the captive starship to visit a human colony world where, to his surprise, the locals trade with the Riss and do not fear them. Clane takes silly risks and the author serves up totally inadequate explanations for why this was the right thing to do. And he saves the day by making a miraculous new discovery. Lazy writing even for van Vogt. 9/21/14

The Shaver Mystery Book Two by Richard S. Shaver, Armchair, 2011  

Two more stories in the Lemuria series, opening with the atrociously bad “The Red Legion.” It’s hard to figure out what this one is even about. Native Americans are going missing and it appears to be connected to a “man” made immortal by a growth machine hidden beneath the surface of the Earth. There’s a long article by Shaver explaining that the stories are based on actual experiences, and it’s even more incoherent than the story. Finally we have “I Remember Lemuria”, a short novel. In this, Shaver makes himself the protagonist, claiming to be the reincarnation of a Lemurian named Mutan Mion. Festooned with copious footnotes, the story tells of a planned migration from one cavern to another and rumors of a counterplan. 9/21/14

The Golden Guardsmen by S.J. Byrne, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1952) t267 

Sequel to Prometheus II and also based on the cult fiction of Richard S. Shaver.  The evil Russian dictator was defeated but not killed in the first and now he enlists the aid of extraterrestrials as well as the subterranean civilization in his plan to subjugate all of humanity. Bad science, bad dialogue, a silly plot, cardboard characters, and worst of all, no sense of wonder at all, which might at least have made the story readable.  It is not surprising that this and its predecessor languished unreprinted for more than sixty years. They’re of historical interest only, nearly as bad as Shaver’s own incomprehensible stories. 9/20/14

Prometheus II by S.J. Byrne, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1948)  t266 

This novel and its sequel, The Golden Guardsmen, were inspired in part by the Shaver Mystery stories by Richard Shaver, which is not a good sign. The plot and the writing are equally awful. Russia has conquered much of the world and the US is hunkered down. Stephen Germain is an agent who has unusual mental powers, which he has to use when the Russian dictator tries to ally himself with unholy remnants of an ancient race living beneath the surface of the Earth where they use superscience that verges on the magical. There’s an epic battle, sort of, on and below the surface but the good guys prevail.  Quite dreadfully bad. 9/20/14

The Time Meddler by Nigel Robinson, Target, 1987  t258 

Some people claim this was the first appearance of the Master, although he’s never called that, but it’s really not true, although he clearly has a Tardis. The Time Lords had not been written into the series yet. The Doctor and two companions arrive in Europe in 1066, although they find a modern artifact that causes some consternation. The title character, a time traveler, is posing as one of the monks at a monastery. This was one of Hartnell’s better efforts although the pacing is rather slow. It’s a change war story since the other time traveler plans to alter the course of history, although naturally the Doctor forestalls him. 9/20/13

World of Fire by James Lovegrove, Solaris, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-78108-207-2 

James Lovegrove’s recent novels have involved alternate mythologies and have mixed SF and fantasy devices gleefully. This one is more strictly SF and it also appears to be the opening of a new series, although it is complete in itself. Dev Harmer is an agent for an interstellar security service who is sent in his debut story to a planet even hotter than Mercury where underground colonists mine a particularly valuable substance. The planet has also attracted the attention of another star travelling race who have sent agents to undermine – no pun intended – the security of the colony, which is also menaced by the planet’s native lifeforms and the obvious environmental challenges. Can our hero thwart their plot and save the day? Of course he can, but it’s fun watching him do it. 9/18/14

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, 1898

The classic story of invasion from Mars – even though now scientifically outdated – remains the standard by which all other invasion stories must be measured. The Martians fire capsules to Earth, out of which they emerge with various machines that enable them to deal with the higher gravity and devastate humanity with heat rays and a poisonous gas. The protagonist narrator has a series of adventures in his attempt to escape and he also retells the story of his brother’s travails elsewhere. I’ve read this a half dozen times at least and it feels fresh every time I go back to it. 9/18/14

The Lost Island by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2014, $27, ISBN 978-1-4555-2577-5   

Latest in the Gideon Crew series and the first to vary from the straight adventure format to marginal SF.  Crew and a female partner are using an ancient treasure map to hunt for a secret that may, among other things, cure his incurable disease. They set out by boat in the Caribbean and soon run into trouble in the form of rival treasure hunters with a vicious streak. They are shipwrecked, threatened by a hostile tribe protecting a great secret, and discover the skull of a giant hominid who lived until the 6th Century. Their map suggests that Odysseus really made a dangerous voyage but that he was blown west to the Caribbean.  Although this held my interest, I wasn’t as immersed as I usually am with these two authors. The adventures are – until the closing chapters – quite routine and I wasn’t particularly interested in the characters. The episodic nature of the plot caused inevitable troughs and peaks in the story flow, and the payoff just wasn’t big enough for the long build. It felt like the authors were trying too hard. 9/17/14

The Outcasts of Solar III by Emmett McDowell, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1948)

A group of variously crooked people gather at a remote house where a mad scientist has designed a Cavorite style spaceship. Unfortunately the ship has sunk into the mud. When a bunch of policemen show up, the crooks retreat into the ship, manage to get it functioning, and then travel into outer space for a series of adventures. Not even remotely interesting, scientifically nonsensical, and badly written, this has all of the flaws and none of the virtues of the pulp era. 9/16/14

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells, 1904

Wells created the eccentric scientist Cavor for this story of the first voyage of men to the moon. They discover a vast underground world ruled by a single creature which has a perfectly balanced ecology and is arguably a Utopia, although their immediate hostility to humans does not speak well of their tolerance. Eventually they learn about human society and our propensity for war and forbid any other humans to come to their world. The chase scenes through the moon’s interior were much more interesting than I remembered them being and I have a much higher opinion of this one than I had before rereading it. 9/15/14

Look to the Stars by Willard Hawkins, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1950)

I suspect that this is the writer who later wrote a few novels as Ward Hawkins. It’s an odd plot. Eight criminals of various degrees of venality are gathered at the remote home of a mad scientist who has built a kind of Cavorite spaceship that has sunk into the mud. One of the eight is psychic. Four of them are women. Through happenstance they are trapped aboard by the police and predictably they fly away into outer space for various dull adventures. I kept waiting for the story to really get started and it never happened. 9/15/14

The Chase by John Peel, Target, 1989   

The Daleks are back. This novelization varies considerably from the televised version. The original script was too expensive to film so the author draws from both sources and adds some material of his own. The black Dalek, a leader, has ordered the pursuit and destruction of the Tardis and its occupants. The Doctor learns that they have been traced to a desert planet but he can’t leave until two of his companions are located and brought aboard. The Daleks show up, but there are also tentacles creatures living beneath the planet’s surface. There is also a humanoid civilization living in buried cities. The locals, awed by Dalek power, plan to turn the humans and the Doctor over to the invasion force. They escape and reach Earth, where Ian and Barbara leave the Tardis forever. A fairly large portion of the story is told from the Dalek point of view, which is quite unusual. 9/15/14

Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. van Vogt, Signet, 1952   

This fix-up novel was also published as Mission Interplanetary.  The opening section, published separately as “The Black Destroyer,” was claimed to be the inspiration for the movie Alien, but I don’t see it. Coeurl is a feline alien, the only significant lifeform a human scientific team has found on a planet that once had a flourishing technological civilization. Although obviously powerful, he seems harmless and is given the run of the ship, and at one point he sneaks out and kills an isolated human to draw some unspecified substance from the body. Although one of the company suspects him, the others prefer to withhold judgment. A duel to the death follows with what I found to be a rather unsatisfactory ending. After warding off an attack by a race that uses hallucinations to alter the psychology of their enemies in “War of Nerves,” the expedition encounters another alien lost in space in a story that was originally published as “Discord in Scarlet.” It’s also a superpowered alien and one wonders why his race hasn’t already conquered the galaxy. It’s less interesting than the first episode, and less convincing as well. The last episode is “M33 in Andromeda.”  Yet another inimical life form is lured out into empty space where it dies of starvation. I always thought this book was overrated and I still do. 9/14/14

Last Plane to Heaven by Jay Lake, Tor, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7798-2

The late Jay Lake was probably best known for his fantasy novels but I have always preferred his short fiction which spanned both SF and fantasy. There are more than two dozen stories here, most of them rather short, drawn from a wide variety of sources and covering pretty much all of Lake's career as a writer. The stories are roughly divided into groups, SF, fantasy, steampunk, etc. Both the subject matter and treatment vary greatly, from space opera to steampunk to angels to near surrealism. There are serious stories, suspenseful stories, light fantasy, sardonic humor, and rousing adventure. If Lake's reputation survives, it will be in part because of his short fiction, I suspect, which is sometimes so clear and readable that it is easy to dismiss it as far less skilled than it actually is. 9/13/14

The Green World by Hal Clement, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1963) 

This is really just a novelette about a man who travels to Viridis, a newly settled world whose native flora and fauna seem to have evolved too quickly for the environment, suggesting they might have been seeded there by an outside force.  The scientists make some startling and contradictory discoveries before one of the local animals – obviously directed from elsewhere – kills one of the scientists and the expedition is aborted. The ending – which reveals that long lived aliens dwell under the surface – is tacked on and unsatisfying, which is a shame given the really good buildup. 9/12/14

The Space Museum by Glyn Jones, Target, 1987  

This is the novelization of what is probably my favorite of the William Hartnell Doctor Who serials. The Tardis materializes inside an enormous but unoccupied museum, which actually feels more realistic in the book than in the television show. They wander around for a while and then find an exhibit which contains what are apparently replicas of themselves. It turns out that a nasty alien race has built the museum with stuff looted from various worlds. There’s a fairly ingenious explanation of what is happening and the Doctor, of course, teaches the bad aliens a lesson in manners. 9/12/14

The Pawns of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1956 (magazine appearance 1948)  

Also known as The Players of A, this is the sequel to The World of Null-A. Gilbert Gosseyn, the man with two brains, is trying to get one side in a galactic war to utilize the null-A trained residents of Venus. He is opposed by the Follower, a nebulous entity who manifests itself as a black shadow and who has a variety of human minions. Since the last book, Gosseyn has learned to teleport himself, as well as discovering the existence of the Follower, although not his true identity. The Follower has a limited ability to see the future. Gosseyn has a bewildering array of powers now. He can use telekinesis to disable enemy ships, will weapons not to function, recall objects and people he has seen in the past and teleport them to other places, sense the presence of humans he cannot see, etc. Nevertheless he briefly finds his personality transferred to that of a cowering slave in the palace of the evil emperor, presumably at the volition of the Follower’s counterpart. Much nonsense ensues. For some reason, van Vogt now decides that the daughter of the President of Earth is now actually the brother of the emperor of the aggressive interstellar empire.  We never do find out where all the spare bodies are coming from to which he can move when his current body dies. The pacing can only carry us for so long through a mishmash of unexplained plot elements and new superpowers that spring up whenever needed. 9/11/14

The Moon Is Hell by John W. Campbell, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1951)  

This short novel was far superior to Campbell’s early space operas. Despite the dated science, this is a realistic depiction of a contingent of men who have landed on the far side of the moon for a two year stay, during which there will be no radio communication with Earth because Campbell hadn’t thought about relay satellites or other alternatives. It’s a survival story following the crash of their rescue rocket, presented in the form of a diary.  Although Campbell doesn’t spend much time on characterization, there is considerable tension as they come up with one ingenious solution after another, but always fall short of their goals. The premise is that space travel is developed by private companies rather than the government, which now seems relatively impractical for missions on this scale. 9/11/14

Cosmic Saboteur by Frank M. Robinson, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1955)  

An alien race kidnaps a young Earthman and brainwashes him to hate his entire race. He is to be their agent in their plans to supplant humanity. He then leads an operation to place fusion bombs at strategic locations around the world, designed to cause the world to erupt into war just in time to be overpowered by an invading force. An encounter with a woman who seems to be a member of a competing organization begins to stir doubts in his conditioned mind. I found the alien plan implausible; if they can mimic humans and have teleportation, why do they need human agents to plant the weapons?  This is pretty minor and quite predictable but Robinson wrote well enough to make it interesting. 9/11/14

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, 1895  

This short little novel remains the classic time travel story. The unnamed traveler through time visits a year almost a million years from now and discovers that the human race has mutated into two forms. One consists of the Eloi, childlike simpletons who have no ambition or sophistication and who are kept as food stock, and the misshapen Morlocks, who exist beneath the ground in artificial caverns. He also visits a dying Earth even more remote before returning to his friends, who are skeptical, and then disappearing on another voyage into time. I enjoy this every time I read it. 9/10/14

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, 1896 409 

Wells’ examination of the ultimate in vivisection is not very plausible but it has inspired other works arguably including the Jurassic Park movies. Moreau is an amoral scientist who becomes an outcast and travels to a remote island where he is able to surgically alter various animals to give them intelligence and other human attributes. He keeps them in line by imposing a primitive religion but it’s obvious from the outset that the situation is unstable and when a castaway finds himself on the island, he is part of the stimulus that brings the entire structure crashing down. Not one of my favorites but still readable. 9/10/14

The Man Who Stopped at Nothing by Paul Fairman, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1951) t225 

This is a quasi-rationalized novella in which the protagonist dies in an automobile accident and finds himself in a higher plane where the world looks familiar, but no one except others who have died can see him. A mad scientist begins experimenting with his body, during which he occasionally pops back into reality in our reality, although it’s not clear how he manages to have two physical bodies. Deliberate silliness ensues. The scientist brings him back to life, can’t figure out how he did it, so he kills his subject so that he can try again. It’s all pretty light and only mildly funny, but it’s readable. 9/10/14

The Shaver Mystery Book One by Richard S. Shaver, Armchair, 2011  t236 

There was a mild controversy when Richard Shaver was writing his stories about a great race who once ruled as the familiar gods of mythology but later retreated to their subterranean cities where they utilized a science still unknown to us. The controversy was only because Shaver insisted they were true stories and attracted the inevitable small group of nuts. The triviality of this is that it took more than sixty years before anyone even bothered to reprint them in paperback, although part of that is that they are also so badly constructed as fiction, as well as Shaver’s often wretched prose. “Formula from the Underworld,” the first of those gathered here, is almost unreadable. It insists that it is the sun’s rays that make us mortal and that’s why the underground people conceal themselves. The narrative is chaotic but is more or less about an explorer who descends into the depths and finds mutated humans, growth rays, thought readers, and other unexplained wonders. The second is “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia.”  It is told from the point of view of one of the underground dwellers and is even less readable. Third and last is “Witch’s Daughter.” The hero discovers that someone is using mental powers to control people. It’s the least bad of the three, but it’s still puzzling that these were ever published. 9/10/14

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett, Tor, 2014, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3425-1 

The sequel to Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl takes up where the first book left off in an alternate Victorian world where steam technology has allowed England to gain control over most of the world, including its North American colonies. The title character has won acclaim for his adventures in the first book, but he’s about to be tested again. A notorious criminal has kidnapped the mechanical girl and stolen an ancient clockwork dragon and has taken both to his lair in the Americas. Smith and his allies pursue in their attempt to rescue the woman (?) Smith loves. Some recent steampunk novels have shown signs of flagging imagination but Barnett has managed to avoid that trap a second time, providing a fresh, inventive, and immersive alternate reality. 9/8/14

Ten from Infinity by Paul Fairman, Armchair, 2012

A pedestrian is hit by a car and ends up in the hospital with a broken leg. His doctor is puzzled to discover that his new patient has two hearts. He is even more surprised when he runs into the man’s exact duplicate elsewhere. Next we learn that half a dozen more apparent aliens have been found dead and one is in the custody of federal authorities, who are keeping everything from the public. The captured one is vague but suggests that he was one of ten of his kind sent to prepare Earth for invasion. The government has accounted for only eight of them and the tenth kills the ninth when it is disabled. There are some problems early on. The government sends out a top secret alert to the chiefs of police to be watching for the missing twosome – their faces are identical – but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything unless the rest of the police were notified. I would have said that the Senator character was too stupid to believe, except that we’ve seen worse in reality. The second half deteriorates sharply with people acting implausibly in implausible situations.  The last android wanders around hypnotizing people, the government investigation is disrupted by political considerations, and a reporter starts asking uncomfortable questions. The last android finally gets destroyed and that’s it; we never find out what the aliens planned or what they do next. Poor. 9/8/24

Flight of the Starling by Chester S. Geier, Armchair, 2012 (magazine version 1948)  

Two men set off on an experimental flight around the sun to test a new atomic engine. They are not friends and have recently quarreled because the narrator, a good guy, seems to have the inside track with the woman they both admire. They discover that their warp drive has moved them to the distant future when the sun is beginning to fade. Human civilization has retreated but part of it has kept its advanced technology.  They want to learn the secrets of the visiting ship so they can escape to a more hospitable plant, but the time travel factor presents a problem they did not anticipate. They investigate an ancient machine that supposedly holds lost knowledge and get captured by a tribe of barbarians before escaping, providing starship plans to the benevolent futurians, and one of them returns to their own time.  9/8/14

So Shall Ye Reap by Rog Phillips, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance 1947)

This implausible post disaster novel is set on an Earth troubled by radiation storms. Humans rarely live until their fifteenth birthday, they can become pregnant at six, and pregnancy only lasts five months. Elsewhere, cockroaches grow two feet long and are considered a good source of food. Evolution doesn’t work the way Phillips describes it here; the human species couldn’t evolve dramatically in twenty years. After showing us this horrible future, the author takes us back to 1947 when a single scientist figures out that the surface of the Earth will become uninhabitable and convinces the government to build underground shelters where a subset of humanity will not be affected by the disaster on the surface, which is expected to last for two thousand years. It’s a gloomy, not very convincing story of the end of civilization with a glimpse of what comes after. 9/9/14

Empire of the Atom by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1956 

The world of the future is a strange mixture of technology and barbarism in this early van Vogt novel. It opens with the birth of a malformed child, the result of an improperly shielded wall in one of the temples of the scientists. This leads to, or is the excuse for, an open conflict between the secular authorities and the scientific laity. The mutant child, Clane, grows up in obscurity in the royal palace but he also becomes something of a prodigy. The empire’s war against Mars is going badly and internal politics have also become a major concern. This is linearly plotted and actually not bad at all, even though the plot is borrowed directly from I, Claudius. The ending, in which a bunch of magical superweapons save the day, is pretty weak. 9/8/14

The Crusaders by David Whitaker, Target, 1965 

This Doctor Who serial, originally called just The Crusades, is one of those of which only portions remain. As the title suggests, they find themselves in 12th Century Middle East caught between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. I’m not sure how loyal the novelization is, given that I’ve never seen and likely never will see the original, but it follows the pattern established in the earlier historical adventures. The Doctor and/or his companions are distrusted by both sides, are captured, escape, run around a lot, and eventually negotiate a happy ending. There’s not much effort to evoke the historical period although I didn’t notice any actual errors. 9/7/14

The Flying Legion by George Allan England, 1920 

I believe this was England’s last SF novel, although he continued to write in other genres for some time. It’s pretty marginal. A group of bored adventurers set out to find a secret city in the Arabian Desert to which visitors are forbidden on pain of death. There they discover a plot against the world, which they promptly foil. The story takes too long to get going, isn’t very plausible, and is written in a stilted, choppy style that drove me crazy. Not one of his more memorable efforts. 9/6/14

The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells, 1906

Despite the interesting if implausible premise, this has never been one of my favorite Wells novels. Two scientists discover a compound that causes anything – plant or animal – to grow to unheard of size so long as it is administered during the growth period of childhood. Unfortunately, once sampled, it becomes addictive, at least to the handful of human children who are given the substance, Boomfood, and who eventually becomes giants. After dealing with giants wasps, rats, and ants, society has to decide how to relate to the forty foot tall giant children and inevitably violence breaks out. This is an oddly constructed novel. The first half, despite the giant creatures, is largely satirical while the second half becomes more serious and tragic. The ending leaves the issue unresolved. 9/5/14

Valley of the Croen by Lee Tarbell, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1949)   

This is essentially a lost world novel set in South Korea. Four treasure hunters find themselves in a valley where the inhabitants travel in flying saucers but live in relatively primitive circumstances. Three of them are enslaved – with some justification – but a beautiful young woman protects our hero.  The first sight of their beautiful city from a distance convinces our hero that these people lack human emotion – which is not only an absurd observation but is contradicted by what follows. The city was built by a race indistinguishable from us; it was only invaded by the bad guys - another alien race. And the good guys lobotomize prisoners to make them slave laborers. One of the alien women can foretell the future, except that she can’t, and can read thoughts, but only when it’s convenient to the plot. Captured by the aliens, he is forced to tell them secrets about the US government that he doesn’t even know.  Our hero gets involved romantically with beautiful women from three different races before the story, mercifully, comes to an end. This was the only story to appear under this byline. The prose is actually pretty good, but the plot is full of contradictions and there is some overt racism, particularly in the opening chapters.  9/5/14

Intruders from the Stars by Ross Rocklynne, Armchair, 2012 (magazine version 1944)

Ross Rocklynne wrote some interesting SF stories. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. The female tyrant of an alien – but nonetheless human – planet escapes a rebellion with one thousand soldiers in an experimental spaceship and travels to Earth, having missed its original target. Rocklynne  apparently did not realize what a solar system is. The lever that revives the sleeping crew when they land in Africa is mounted on the outside of the ship. Who did they think was going to push it? And how does the tyrant’s sleep capsule get out of the ship before it is unlocked? The plot makes zero sense. The aliens pick up a stray reporter and minister, convince them they don’t have war in their culture even though they’ve admitted having a thousand soldiers and powerful weapons, then set out to beat back the Japanese to impress the twosome, whom they know have zero authority or prestige. The spaceship then proceeds to neutralize the German and Japanese armies with little difficulty. Not surprisingly once the war is over the tyrant declares herself ruler of Earth. Eventually she gets converted to Christianity and becomes a benevolent dictator.  Then her minions rebel, she finds the true meaning of love, and the bad guys get thwarted. Mild racism, more obvious misogyny, and generally bad writing. 9/5/14

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, 1897 411 

Almost every other story that deals with invisibility uses themes that pop up in this one. An obsessed scientist makes himself invisible but discovers that without the ability to change back, he is at a distinct disadvantage dealing with the world. His mania becomes more violent as he is frustrated and he eventually embarks on a short reign of terror in which he commits murder before being trapped and killed. This is the third best of Wells’ novels and in some ways the best constructed with a clear narrative and path from beginning to end. There are even bits of genuine humor mixed with the suspense. 9/3/14

A God Named Smith by Henry Slesar, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1957) t167 

Smith is a genius who finds a way to create miniature worlds and decides to build a full scale one and add it to the solar system, people it with colonists, and run it as a kind of god.  Eventually he lures a million people to his world, but naturally they begin to chafe under his rule and there’s a rebellion. It turns out Smith is insane and a fraud and he dies when the planet explodes. The ending is quite rushed and very unsatisfactory. The planet turns out to have been one he captured with spaceships and moved into orbit rather than one he created, which is both nonsense and pointless in the context of the story. Slesar was much better as a mystery writer. 9/3/14

The Man Who Lived Twice by Rog Phillips, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1952) t180 

Suspended animation was a common way to move someone from our era to the future in 1950s SF. The protagonist wakes up after five centuries to discover that most of the human race has been merged into a mass mind by a drug that causes unrestrained telepathy. He is taken in by a band of Individuals and helps to develop a radio wave which will neutralize the telepathy. Nothing is quite that easy, however, and the story starts to fall to pieces in the second half. Our hero finds himself back in his own present, having dreamed the whole thing. Or is he in the future where he is being deluded by the mass mind? And all of a sudden we discover that entire personalities can exist separately within the mass mind. Or do they? The author never quite brings this one off. 9/3/14

Mutation by Roland Smith, Scholastic, 2014, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-73251-2

This is the fifth and apparently final adventure of the Cryptid Hunters, a YA series in each of which a different creature is discovered. Our young heroes from the previous books are off to a wilderness area in Brazil seeking answers to their questions. But having arrived, they discover that their friends who were working there have been disappearing one by one in recent days. They also learn that someone has been doing a little rough bioengineering in secret and that the results are strange new creatures never before seen on Earth. They finally get answers to new and old questions, but not until after they have faced the possibility that they will never live to return to their homes, let alone find their missing friends and relatives. I've enjoyed this series from the outset. It's written down just a bit but not so bad as to seriously impair the ability of adults to read it. The earlier books are also recommended, in fact, this one makes more sense if you know what went before. 9/2/14

Siege of the Unseen by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1959   

Also known as The Chronicler, this was one of van Vogt’s silliest novels. The protagonist develops a third eye with which he can see into another world which coexists with ours. That wouldn’t have been too bad but now he can hear and feel things from there and actually disappear from our world. In that world there is a war between a spaceship and an age old city filled with people addicted to drinking blood. Predictably he proves to be the decisive factor in ending the stalemate. Bad even for van Vogt. 9/1/14

The Involuntary Immortals by Rog Phillips, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance in 1949) 

This is the magazine version of the story which appeared in 1959 in slightly expanded form as a hardcover. Several people discover that they do not age like others, although they have no idea what could have caused them to change.  She finds a secret organization of immortals who have determined that whatever happened to them occurred in 1848. Although the plot is nothing out of the ordinary – there’s a crazy woman obsessed with destroying her immortal mother, a private detective who wants to be immortal, and various people fearful of the whole situation – it’s all carried off quite well. This is probably the author’s best novel and one of those stories that holds up pretty well even after more than sixty years.  8/1/14

Mission from Mars by Rick Conroy, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1952)

The highly advanced Martians are worried that destructive humanity is about to launch its first spaceship. Some argue for patience while others want to exterminate the threat with biological weapons. The protagonist is one of the former who comes to the Earth in the middle of a worldwide race war for various adventures. The first half of the novel is very dull and the second half only marginally more interesting. This was a British paperback original by a writer who did one other novel, serialized only, and a couple of short stories, none of which were ever reprinted. 9/1/14

Exo by Steven Gould, Tor, 2014, $35.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3654-5   

The newest Jumper novel describes a new series of adventures by a family of teleporters whose talents have made them targets for CIA abduction. The daughter is determined to jump into orbit which she can technically do by using binoculars to familiarize herself with points far above her head. I’m afraid I didn’t buy this since there are no features by which to orient oneself and pick out a particular part of empty space, but it was a fun concept so I let it go by. Her problem is that she needs a spacesuit to get high enough, so she helps sponsor a scientist who is working on a new technology. There’s a mysterious group working inside the CIA, a new take on the space program, and a few surprises along the way. There were a couple of sections that might have been tightened up a bit – too much detail about the development of the suit for my taste – but all in all I had a lot of fun. 8/30/14

The Romans by Donald Cotton, Target, 1987    

Another of the early historical adventures of Doctor Who. Recuperating from their last outing, the Doctor and his companions are vacationing in Nero’s Rome. Obviously none of them had read much history if they thought this would be a place of peace and quiet. They are in danger of being sold as slaves, caught up in local intrigues, forced to fight in the arena, or perish in the flames when Rome goes up in a conflagration. One of the minor and less imaginative stories, with the Doctor acting unusually testy and oblivious, and the others just being foolish. Never liked the serial on television and the novelization is no better. 8/26/14

Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, Target, 1965 

This was the only Doctor Who novelization that completely changed the title. The serial was called The Web Planet. It wasn’t one of my favorite adventures. The Tardis is drawn to the planet Voltis where two intelligent races – giant ants and giant moths – are engaged in a long war. The humans get captured variously by both sides and discover that there is more to the conflict than appears on the surface and eventually they resolve it all and leave. This was much too talky as a tv serial and that quality carries over into the book. 8/26/14

The Air Trust by George Allan England, 1915 

The author was a socialist so it’s no surprise that the business interests are the villains in this story about an effort to make air a privately controlled resource. Given comments by a couple of CEOs recently that water should be privately owned, this isn’t even particularly farfetched and the author’s assertion that only the impracticality of regulating it prevents air from becoming a marketable resource.  The magnate’s daughter is supposed to marry his partner but instead falls in love with a socialist agitator. When he gets wind of plans to extract oxygen from the air until it becomes necessary to buy supplementary oxygen just to breathe, he helps bring about a rebellion that suppresses the operation. This was actually rather dull, and preachy. 8/25/14

The Wrong Side of Paradise by Raymond F. Jones, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance in 1951) 

Raymond Jones wrote some entertaining SF, but sometimes he failed miserably. This, alas, is one of the latter. There’s an area of space where ships enter but never leave. There’s a woman who dreams of being a princess. There’s a mysterious power that makes dreams come true, sometimes and for some people. There’s a daring rescue attempt despite opposition by the government, which doesn’t make any sense. There’s a heroic male spaceman who triumphs over all obstacles, and there’s a climax that is unconvincing and illogical. At least this one is very short. 8/24/14

Sea of Sorrows by James A. Moore, Titan, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-1781162705

The tie-in novels to the Aliens movies series has generally been quite good, as is the case with this one. It's set on another colony world where an excavation site might uncover a living alien. (Note to blurb writers: "xenomorph" is a generic term for aliens and is thus not capitalized. The aliens are xenomorphs, not Xenomorphs.) The protagonist is sent with a group of mercenaries to try to recover a living creature for their inevitable and apparently unteachable weapons division. Much of what you would expect to happen does. First there's the oohing and ahhing and then the running and screaming and so forth and so on. Although it's obviously pretty much a formula story, Moore is better than most at evoking the relentless suspense that made the movies so effective, and he also manages to make his protagonist a character about whose fate the reader will care. 8/23/14

Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss, Friday Project, 2013, £8.99, ISBN 978-0-00-754925-2  

This short novel is labeled as the author’s final piece of SF, although Aldiss is still alive and may prove that wrong. The story is a surprisingly complex construction about a colony on Mars which is struggling with financial liquidity as well as the fact that every child conceived there is stillborn. The colony consists of half a dozen towers, each settled by a different national group, and intercourse among them is limited despite their close proximity. On Earth, the social order is collapsing as nations split into smaller entities and engage in near constant warfare. There’s a deus ex machina ending which I confess I didn’t care for but the trip getting there was more than entertaining. 8/21/14

Appointment in Space by Ernest J Blow, Consul, 1963   

The author of this not very interesting story about Mars was South African, so it’s significant that Mars has a superior human race and a decadent and savage inferior one. A Martian queen contacts Earth and helps a handful of men build a spacecraft to travel there, where they discover schisms among the superior race, have a few rather trivial adventures, and then one of their number and one of the Martian queens get romantically involved. Tolerable prose but a boring story. 8/21/14

Once in Time by Peter Dagmar, Digit, 1963   

Absolutely dreadful prose and a hackneyed plot relegate this to well earned obscurity. The ruling council of Earth has colonized Mars but not Venus. A handful of rebels wish to do so anyway in order to help reduce population pressure on Earth so they break the law and build one anyway. Much politics ensue and no one ever addresses the fact that the same effort would have been at least as beneficial if used to extend the Martian colony, but of course none of this would have affected population pressure in any case. The prose reads like an outline for a much longer novel, which fortunately we have been spared. 8/21/14

The Voice from Baru by Tom Wade, Digit, 1962

Although this early British SF adventure is marginally readable, the story just doesn’t come together. Humans, Martians, and Venusians have formed a Federation but have virtually no contact with the intelligent races from the outer worlds. A secret mission is sent to find out what’s happening on Callisto, which is deemed to be the biggest potential threat, but the wife of the Callistan ruler tells them that Titan is actually the aggressive power planning a war of conquest against the inner planets. They save the day. Ho hum. 8/21/14

Complete Short Stories by H.G. Wells, St Martins, 1987

Despite the title, this is not the complete short stories of Wells; it’s a collection of all those that he himself believed worth preserving. Most of them are SF or fantasy, not surprisingly. This collection opens with the short novel, The Time Machine, then continues with “Empire of the Ants”, in which a new kind of army ant that uses tools and poisoned weapons emerges suggesting the end of the human race. “A Vision of Judgment” is a minor fantasy in which God examines saints and sinners, causes them to understand each other, and then restarts the human race. “The Land Ironclads” was a not very accurate prediction of the invention of tanks – these are actually mobile fortresses – but it does accurately forecast how dramatically it would change warfare. “The Beautiful Suit” is a psychological piece about a boy with a special suit for special occasions who brings about his own death. “The Door in the Wall” is one of the author’s lesser known fantasies about a man who has repeated chances to leave this world for a better one but just can’t get around to doing it. “The Pearl of Love,” though not fantastic, is very good. A Persian spends much of his life building a perfect monument to his lost love and ultimately has her sarcophagus and body removed because they mar that perfection. “The Country of the Blind” is a classic. A man wanders into a valley where all the residents have been blind since birth and discovers that his sightedness is actually a disadvantage. 

“The Stolen Bacillus” has an anarchist stealing what he thinks is a plague serum, but it isn’t. “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” is one of my favorites. An orchid fancier grows an unknown bulb and gets a plant that anaesthetizes and consumes animals, including people. “In the Avu Observatory” is an inconclusive encounter between an astronomer and a strange, winged animal, either a dinosaur or a giant bat. “Triumphs of a Taxidermist” and its sequel, “A Deal in Ostriches”, are amusing joke stories. An insane killer menaces a disabled man in “Through the Windows”.  “The Temptation of Harringay” is a mildly funny deal with the devil story with the devil animating a painting. “The Flying Man” is a mild adventure in which a man in a parachute becomes a god to a savage tribe, and “The Diamond Maker” concerns a man who invents a way to manufacture diamonds, but can think of no way to sell them. “Aepyornis Island” is also quite good. A man and a prehistoric flightless bird attempt to survive on a small deserted island. 

“The Case of Davidson’s Eyes” is about remote viewing and is minor. “Lord of the Dynamos”, in which an uneducated worker sacrifices his boss to a power plant, has always impressed me but it’s not fantastic. “The Hammerbond Park Burglary” is a very minor caper story. “The Moth” I’ve never cared for – a mysterious moth comes between two rivals. “The Treasure in the Forest” is another minor surprise adventure – poison thorns within a buried treasure. “The Plattner Story” is excellent. A man visits another dimension and returns with his internal organs reversed. “Argonauts of the Air” is one of several stories Wells wrote about the discovery of flight. “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” is one of the best tales of bodynapping and “In the Abyss” is a very good one about exploring the ocean depths and the discovery of another civilization. 

A man finds and discards a piece of fruit from the Garden of Eden in “The Apple” and another has an out of body experience during surgery in “Under the Knife.”  “The Sea Raiders” is another of my favorites; a species of predatory marine life kills humans along the coastlines. This could have been a good novel. “Pollock and the Porroh Man” is also excellent, a story of voodoo. Less successful horror can be found in “The Red Room.” In “The Cone”, a jealous husband kills a rival at a steel mill. A retiring man becomes assertive after eating a mushroom in “The Purple Pileus”. “The Jilting of Jane” is about a doomed love affair. There’s another affair in the dull “In the Modern Vein.”  The saving of an endangered business by a legacy is too contrived for me in “A Catastrophe.” 

“Lost Inheritance” is a clever piece about a missing will and its consequences for an avaricious heir. “The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic” is trivial; a critic becomes incapable of not acting like a stage character. “A Slip Under the Microscope” involves inadvertent cheating and its effects on a school rivalry. Two old enemies fight to the death in the minor “The Reconciliation”  “My First Aeroplane” and its sequel, “Little Mother Up the Morderberg” are very funny. “The Story of the Last Trump” is fantasy but of little interest. There’s an encounter with a Neanderthal in “The Grisly Folk”. The next three stories are all among Wells’ best. A piece of glass shows visions of Mars in “The Crystal Egg,” a planetary collision is narrowly averted in “The Star,” and young love survives a series of dangers in the primitive past in “A Story of the Stone Age.” 

“The Man Who Worked Miracles” is another classic. A not particularly bright man discovers he can will anything, so he decides to stop the world, with disastrous consequences. “Filmer” is another story about the birth of flight. “The Magic Shop” is one of my favorites; a man and his son discover a shop that sells real magic. “Valley of Spiders” is a very brief, very creepy story about voracious spiders. A man overdoes a potion in “The Truth About Pyecraft,” which is essentially a be careful what you wish for story. I have never liked “Mr. Skelmersdale in Fairyland,” which is a Rip Van Winkle variation. Nor do I care for “The Inexperienced Ghost,” which is just what it sounds like. “Jimmy Goggles the God” is another one in which savages are amazed by technology. “The New Accelerator” is much better, a potion that speeds up one’s life rate so that the outside world virtually freezes. “Mr. Ledbetter’s Vacation” is a failed caper story. “The Stolen Body” is also what is sounds like and it’s not very good. Nor is “My Brother’s Treasure”, which turns out to be counterfeit money. “Miss Winchester’s Heart” is another failed romance.  “A Dream of Armageddon” is a vision of a vast future war. Lots of real gems, a handful of trivial pieces, and many quite good stories here. 8/21/14

The Empire in the Air by George Allan England, 1914   

Although serialized in 1914, this early SF novel has never previously appeared in book form, and there are a couple of other novels by England that still haven’t been reprinted.  The story opens with a high altitude pilot suddenly disappearing, along with his plane, while being observed by sophisticated tracking instruments. A group of scientists then see an apparently intelligent amorphous being that can pass through solid objects and which leaves behind a message from the missing man warning of danger to the entire world, although part of the message fades away before they can read it.  8/18/14

The Winged Man by A.E. Van Vogt & E. Mayne Hull, Berkley, 1967

Van Vogt and his wife only did two books together, of which this is the only novel, which originally appeared in 1944. It appears to have been updated, however, since it refers to the Korean War in what was probably originally World War II.  A submarine crew is startled when a winged man appears, fastens two strange devices to their vessel, and somehow transports them into a distant future Earth. The world has been transformed and is mostly ocean. The winged people are at war with the undersea people and they want the submarine to destroy their enemies. The understanding of the implications of time travel are lost on the authors, who assume that if someone is in the future for a year, they will return to their own time a year after they left.  The crew is caught among multiple forces because there are other time travelers present as well. Then the aliens show up and all sorts of nonsense ensues. More linear than most of van Vogt until late in the book, but not very interesting. 8/18/14

Land of the Damned by Berkley Livingston, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1947)  

The first few pages of this may be the first example of a zombie apocalypse. Descendants of the inhabitants of Mu – now part of a vast interstellar civilization – land on Earth to reclaim some lost technology, but their arrival somehow turns almost everyone into mindless killers whose first act is to rip off all their clothing. The survivors recover after a few days and become fugitives of the supposedly benevolent but clumsy invaders, who torture and kill them to demonstrate their benevolence. The aliens, incidentally, all speak English. The Murians have another problem – their android servants are beginning to develop souls. The author must have been high because parts of his story directly contradict other parts. And on top of everything else, the prose is so bad that it hurts. 

Craig’s Book by Don Wilcox, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1943)  

What an incredible mess this is! An unemployed man is hired to count the rooms in a complex purchased by an eccentric millionaire who seems to be in two places at once. There a half dozen airheaded female caricatures are somehow turned into plain white cards thanks to the supertechnology developed by a mad scientist, who is somehow in league with a gang of incompetent killers whose purpose never makes any sense. They murder their blackmail victims before giving them a chance to pay off and they allow people to eavesdrop – sometimes called “eves-dropping” on their conspiracies. Except that it’s never quite clear what anyone is doing or why, and the prose itself is so bad it reeks. “At last Archie knew he was getting next to the source of this strange phenomenon.” Appalling. 

The Last Vial by Sam McClatchie, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1960) 

Except for a short story, this was the only thing published by this writer. It’s about a new, flu-like virus that sweeps North America. The protagonist, a doctor, reads some of the case histories and doesn’t pick up the obvious common factor that foreign speaking men disperse something in the air shortly before the victim falls ill, but then again, this information wouldn’t be in their medical profiles in any case. It is, of course, a communist plot to sterilize all the males. The US secretly retaliates with a biological element that wipes out Russian agriculture. They appeal for food supplies which are provided, but which contain a secret ingredient that causes sterility. There’s a secret mission toward the end to provide some action but most of the book consists of meetings, revelations, and a mild romantic subplot. Not awful, particularly for the 1960s, but it’s no surprise it took this long before it had a book edition.

The Rescue by Ian Marter, Target, 1987  

Ian Marter was one of the best novelizers of the Doctot Who series, providing additional depth not found in the screen version. In this case, the Doctor is planning a visit to a peaceful but endangered race but he finds the planet much changed. A ship from Earth has crashed and the two survivors appear to be virtual prisoners of the last surviving native, who intends to kill any other interlopers who show up. After escaping various attempts to kill them, the Doctor and friends discover the truth, that one of the surviving humans is actually faking the existence of the supposed monstrous alien. One of the best of the Hartnell adventures. 8/18/14

Operation Disaster by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1956)  

Milton Lesser wrote some good stories, but also some pretty awful ones. This is one of the latter. The hero is the son of a scientist who died in disgrace, supposedly when he proclaimed himself a god to the inhabitants of a planet Earth was trying to evacuate pending a supernova. Why they moved them from the fourth to the fifth planet of their own system, thereby only delaying the problem for a few years, remains to be seen. The daughter of one of the men who died in the first  expedition hates him and blames him for his father’s perceived sins, and of course we know that she is going to discover that it was her own father who was the bad guy.  The plot is absolute nonsense. The new expedition arrives with absolutely no plan about how to proceed, they send the scientists out unarmed to face an angry mob and one of them – the only female obviously – gets captured, and then they decide to leave without even negotiating for her release. On top of that they have crewed their ship with convicts serving life terms, and the subsequent mutiny is inevitable. Published originally as by Darius John Granger. 8/10/14

The Dalek Invasion of the Earth by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1977  

This was one of the two Doctor Who serials that were made into feature movies with Peter Cushing as the Doctor. The Tardis returns to a near future London to discover that the Daleks have conquered the planet. A ruined building collapses and traps them outside the Tardis and they are soon playing tag with Dalek patrols. They get captured and escape, contact the underground resistance, and meet the Robomen, conditioned humans who are minions of the Daleks. They foment a rebellion, stop a plan to blow up the Earth, and destroy a Dalek spaceship which somehow causes the entire invasion to fail. Never one of my favorite serials. 8/10/14

Echopraxia by Peter Watts, Tor, 2014, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2802-1 

Blindsight ended with us knowing little more about the new alien intelligence in the solar system than we knew at the beginning. This sequel is set a short time later in a civilization radically transformed as humans find new ways of killing one another and new forms of religious mania to pursue. Terrorists have become more sophisticated and combat more organized, while traditional scientific research has become less relevant, and still no one knows what the alien wants. The question of what makes up a human being is now paramount and the border between life and death has become porous. Against this chaotic background, a handful of strange and varied characters make an unusual space voyage. I confess that I basically dislike singularity stories because they introduce too many variables and that’s a problem here as well. Given that caveat, Watts does a better job than usual of holding his story together, in part because much of it is confined to the spaceship and its passengers. 8/9/14

The Ship from Infinity by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2011  

Three men have discovered the location of an ancient alien ship in a remote part of the solar system. Agents within the government want to harvest the technology themselves and the trio become fugitives. Fortunately they have one alien device with them that allows them to eavesdrop on thoughts, although the author’s description of its range varies enormously from incident to incident. They eventually reactivate the ship in order to outwit the bad guys. Not one of Hamilton’s better stories. 8/8/14

Planet of Giants by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1990   

Doctor Who and his friends return to Earth, but somehow they have all been reduced to the size of insects. There’s also a nasty cat to menace them, but the story involves some clandestine actions involving normal sized humans.  One man is determined to prevent the use of a new pesticide which he considers potentially harmful, while another who stands to make a lot of money decides to murder the first in order to suppress his discoveries. So not only do our heroes have to survive the dangers of this altered environment, they also have to bring a murderer to justice and avert a major catastrophe. This was one of the best of the Hartnell episodes and it’s not bad in prose form either. 8/8/14

Hellhole Inferno by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson, Tor, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2271-5  

Final volume in the trilogy. In the previous volume, interstellar war has broken out because one planet has decided to free itself from the control of an empire. The rebels have the help of an alien race who begin teaching humans a method of accelerating evolution to achieve superhuman powers. Just when it begins to look like the rebellion may succeed, thanks to the aliens’ unusual abilities, our heroes discover that some of the aliens have a hidden agenda and that humanity might just be a means to their desired end. The ultimate battle might well be three sided, and the rebels are the weakest of the lot, but will they change their allegiance to protect all of humanity? Read it to find out. Grand space opera on a very large scale with elements of military SF. 8/7/14

Hidden City by Chester S. Geier, Armchair, 2013 (magazine appearance 1947) 

Some unseen force has been sabotaging efforts to build a working moon rocket, but our hero and his friend manage to defeat the saboteurs, with a little help from a mysterious man who can communicate telepathically. They reach the moon and are taken captive by denizens of a supercity, mutated superhumans who found it abandoned and assume that it was built by even more advanced mutants. The midrange mutants are planning to conquer the Earth for our own good because they are above petty politics and self aggrandizement, although their plans are hindered by their own petty politics and self aggrandizement. The hero turns out to be a mutant as well but he remains loyal to the original human race. The mysterious interloper is, naturally, from the even more advanced race. A confused mishmash of illogic which, on top of everything else, indicates that the author didn’t know what a mutation was. A deservedly forgotten novel. 8/6/14

The Reign of Terror by Ian Marter, Target, 1987  

Doctor Who and his companions materialize in revolutionary France, are promptly captured, branded as enemies, and scheduled for execution by guillotine. This was not one of the better early efforts and in fact only parts of the original serial have survived. The adventures are routine and repetitive, none of the characters are particularly interesting, and the plot is so mechanically contrived that it is of little interest. There is no effort to add anything to the bare screenplay, which would have benefitted from a little more actual history. 8/6/14

Beyond Pluto by John S. Campbell, Armchair, 2011 (magazine publication in 1932.)  

An expedition in Egypt hears disquieting rumors of a place of evil and learns that two earlier expeditions went to investigate and never returned. They stumble upon a hidden human civilization which has developed, among other things, space travel. The prose is surprisingly good despite this being Campbell’s only published novel – he did write a few short stories. I’m somewhat surprised no one has reprinted it previously. The protagonists see the marvels of the nation of Zongainia, which is aware of but hidden from the outside world. It has achieved interstellar flight and has colonized Alpha Centauri, among other places it has visited. Naturally they assume they are descendants of a Nordic race, but it turns out they came from the Moon, which was habitable until two thousand years previously. Some of the science raised my eyebrows. A basic vocabulary of 1.5 million words seems excessive. The society is not as utopian as they are led to believe, however, because upon their arrival in exile on a distant planet, they are told that war has started. They join another small group of exiles who have secretly been building a starship out of scrap and stolen parts! Some of them escape in the ship, but they cannot navigate, so they follow another ship, hoping it will lead them to Earth. Instead they get caught in the middle of an interstellar war. The second half lets down considerably but it’s still not awful. 8/5/14

The Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3694-1

Imagine a future in which the atmosphere of noir films is superimposed on an interstellar civilization. Imagine terrorists who manage to disrupt the orbit of a moon so it collides with its primary, causing a catastrophe that requires a planetary evacuation. Then imagine the detectives who set out to track them down in a future in which entire populations are kept drugged into unconsciousness while humans and aliens interact in unpredictable ways. Their separate investigations converge as they uncover a plot even more far reaching than they anticipated as they seek to capture the Ultra Thin Man (in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man the title refers to the quarry, not the detective). For no particular reason I was reminded of Iain Banks, which is not a bad thing at all, but this debut novel carves out turf of its own as well. A decently told mystery and a lot of fun getting to the solution. 8/4/14

The Sensorites by Nigel Robinson, Target, 1987 

This is another of the better William Hartnell Doctor Who episodes. The Tardis materializes aboard a spaceship whose human complement is in a kind of suspended animation. They waken some of them and discover the humans are worried about the Sensorites, a telepathic alien race who appear initially to be villains, although as it turns out, they are careful not to harm anyone. They are in fact trying to protect their people from humans, who ventured to their world in the past and caused considerable harm. Not a bad story though a bit slow moving. 8/4/14

The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1945   

Gilbert Gosseyn plans to compete in the computer monitored games that determine who gets the best jobs and who is adequately trained in non-Aristotelian logic to qualify for emigration to Venus, where there are no laws since everyone is completely rational. Before the competition starts, he discovers that his real identity has been concealed from him and he is caught up in a conspiracy that reveals that the games have been rigged, the computer is attempting to correct the situation, and an army from another star system is poised to invade Venus. He escapes but is killed in the process, and promptly wakes up in a second, identical body on Venus, where he is promptly captured again and returned to Earth. There are spies and counterspies on every side and Gosseyn can trust no one, not even himself. At one point the villains realize that if they kill the second Gosseyn, a third and even more powerful one will appear. They decide not to kill him, which is logical, but to release him from imprisonment, which clearly is not since all he has to do is kill himself. Gosseyn prepares himself psychologically for suicide as Venus is conquered, but he has also stopped the suppression of the computer’s communications. It broadcasts an alert that it has been subverted and there is a brief civil war in which it is destroyed, but not before warning Gosseyn that his third body has been destroyed as well and that he should not kill himself. The story is so random that I can’t help thinking that the author had no idea where he was going even as he wrote it. Van Vogt’s bad writing is legendary, but despite that, it has a strange appeal which is probably in part because he differed so much from what other writers were doing. 8/3/14

Reign of the Telepuppets by Daniel F. Galouye, Armchair, 2012 (magazine appearance 1963)

 Daniel F. Galouye has a brief but distinguished career in SF the summit of which was Dark Universe, a classic novel of humanity’s retreat underground to escape the effects of a nuclear war. This novella isn’t quite on that level. A small group of people are sent to a planet that was seeded with telepuppets, robots designed to explore that world. Unbeknownst to them, a malfunction has caused one of them – Bigboss – to assume that he is the creator of the universe. There’s a power struggle among the robots, and there’s also a hidden alien ship which is itself split into factions. All of this comes to a head as the aliens attack, and the robots attack, and the humans scurry about in amazement. Not a classic but fun. 8/3/14

The Aztecs by John Lucarotti, Target, 1984 

Doctor Who visits the Aztecs in this novelization of an early serial. This was one of the best of the historical adventures. They materialize inside a temple and through a bit of mischance, one of the companions is believed to be the goddess incarnate. She decides to use her new authority to convince the Aztecs to forego any further human sacrifice, but as it turns out, the local priesthood isn’t alone in wanting their old ways preserved. Her good intentions nearly result in a civil war, as well as the death of her companions. 8/2/14

Tyrants of Time by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1954)

Time agents from the future stumble upon a well hidden secret. Several despots from their own era have secretly been behind most of the dictatorships in human history. Lesser didn’t bother thinking through how cause and effect would work so it’s rather a mishmash. Taking minerals from the past would not, for example, create more resources since the past civilizations would just have depleted others. The year 1955 is inaccessible to time travel for some unknown reason, so no one knows what happened that year. But why couldn’t they just travel to 1956 and find out?  The protagonist is a time agent who is trying to track down the woman he thinks murdered his partner.  Amazingly, when it is pointed out that the easiest way to find out what happened in 1955 is to go to 1954 and just wait, the time agent is stunned that no one ever thought of that before. They must have IQs in single digits. The biggest problem with the story however is simply that it is boring from beginning to end. Lesser, who has done much better work, must have been half asleep when he wrote this one. 8/1/14

Address: Centauri by F.L. Wallace, Galaxy, 1955 

Expanded from “The Accidentals”, this is set in a future where only a very few are physically or mentally disabled beyond the power of surgery and medicine, mostly as the result of catastrophic accidents. They are all sent to a converted asteroid, supposedly to help them but actually to keep them out of sight.  Through some arcane manner, some of them become extremely long lived and they volunteer to crew the first interstellar expedition. When they are summarily refused, they hijack a supply ship and use it to plead their case, but one of their number figures out how to get the gravity drive to work and takes the entire asteroid to the stars. There are some dumb bits. The new gravity drive doesn’t work because no one has convinced the computer to want it to work, and you can’t turn two dissimilar people into twins with a couple of minutes of cosmetic work. And a body cannot continue to manufacture new tissue without nutrients. Although the science in particular is rather dated, this is actually a pretty good story. Wallace wrote no other SF novels, although he did produce some good short stories, and I suspect he might have become a significant name if he’d been more productive. 7/30/14

Potential Zero by Stuart J. Byrne, Armchair, 2014 (originally published in 1953)   

This is a really, really bad novella about a benevolent alien race with a base on Mars that contacts humanity and provides enormous technical expertise with no strings attached. Their only condition is that none of them can ever be x-rayed. Humans naturally suspect a trap and eventually launch a sneak attack that wipes them out but – since they are clones – the lone survivor says that it didn’t matter. They were just sent to test humans. The x-ray business – which supposedly would have revealed that they were clones – makes no sense at all. It would have been more surprising if they weren’t different from humans. An utter disaster of a story. 7/30/14 

Special Delivery by Kris Neville, Armchair, 2011 (magazine appearance 1952) 

A race of evil aliens have landed agents who pass for human and begin the prep work for an invasion of Earth. The agent from whose viewpoint we see this picks up a telepathic touch from a member of another race, with whom his people have long been at war. An attempt to assassinate the agent fails when he makes a mistake about the identity of the other. The plot is to mail a bundle of cash to every citizen in the world, thus putting the economy into upheaval and bringing chaos in which an invasion could be more easily managed. The alien agent begins to have doubts about the rightness of his cause and his opponent also modifies her views of the situation. Although this falters a bit toward the end, it ages pretty well in a minor sort of way. 7/30/14

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014, $13, ISBN 978-0-374-10409-2  

Opening volume in a trilogy. Part of North America has been transformed into an uninhabited area where strange things happen. Periodically expeditions are sent inside, sometimes with fatal results. Four researchers are sent on the latest, each identified only by profession. The apparent chaos is something of a problem, assuming it isn’t all explained in later volumes, given that the characters sometimes don’t react rationally to what is happening around them. The author evokes a very dreamlike atmosphere and some of the description is gorgeously done. On the other hand, the characters remain stick figures throughout and the reader will certainly not care in the least what happens to them. If they don’t mind a touch of the surreal, this should appeal to most readers. 7/9/14

Two Hundred Million A.D. by A.E. van Vogt, Paperback Library, 1964 (originally published in 1943)  

I actually found this far future adventure, also known as The Book of Ptath, more readable than I remembered it, though that’s not saying much. In a decadent future Earth, a mysterious man with unusual strength but no memory appears walking along a road. Completely ignorant of human ways, he accosts people and is eventually imprisoned for attacking them. Eventually he remembers a life from the present and assumes that he, Holroyd, and the god, Ptath, are cohabiting the same body. The plot is confusing and erratic. Apparently Holroyd/Ptath is fated to return to oppose a dictatorial goddess/ruler but another one has interfered and, flitting from one body to another, tries to guide the protagonist against his enemies. Eventually he leads a revolution. This is as close to fantasy as Van Vogt would come, but it’s also one of his least interesting early novels. 7/28/14

The Keys of Marinus by Philip Hinchcliffe, Target, 1980  

The Tardis is out of control and lands the Doctor and his companions on a planet where a single great city is guarded by a sea of acid. Reptilian invaders have arrived there as well, but it appears that they fell prey to the defenses. The human visitors are more fortunate in not being killed, but are all trapped inside the city’s walls and stalked by a hooded creature. Before long they’re caught in the middle of a mystery and a war between two races in a city where an artificial intelligence answers your every request, sort of. This is another of the lost serials so I have never seen the televised version. It’s an unusually complex story for the first Doctor, who was designed to appeal mostly to children. 7/28/14

The Star Hunter by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1958)  

An aggressive interstellar empire has sent an agent after one of their scientists, who has fled to the independent planets on the edge of the galaxy. A Terran agent believes the fugitive has developed a new superweapon, so he takes on the persona of a criminal and heads out to find him before the enemy agent does the same thing. But the man he is impersonating has enemies of his own, and the local rulers have ambitious plans of their own. A short and fairly routine space adventure and not one of Hamilton’s best efforts. 7/28/14

Darkness and Dawn by George Allan England, 1914  t244 

This long post apocalyptic work was originally published as three serials in the magazines, and as five books by Avalon some years later. This is a single volume edition of the entire story. A man and his secretary wake from 1000 years of inexplicable suspended animation to find New York City deserted and in ruins. Conveniently a telescope and the means of making fire and light have survived in their office and they set about a systematic exploration of their building, wondering if they are the only humans left alive in the world. They also find bottled water, which is remotely plausible, and canned foods which are still edible, which is not. For some reason they carry their prizes back up many flights of stairs to their original offices rather than just camp out where they are. As they make a place for themselves in the ruins, he finds evidence that primitive humans are in the area, but he lies and says he’s sure they are alone. It makes no sense to me that he wouldn’t have warned her. And then they see the savages and England’s racism becomes apparent. The savages are malformed and repulsive. It’s also implausible that humans would evolve – or devolve – so radically in such a short period of time. The first part ends following a battle with the beast men, which our heroes survive obviously, but  they have to leave the city because they know they are no longer safe there. 

In the second part they are accosted by a pack of wolves before setting out on a voyage around the coast of New England. They lose the boat when they discover that the Earth has been physically transformed and an enormous hole in the Earth bars their way. Then they restore an old airplane and fly westward where they discover a rift in the Earth that is at least a hundred miles deep. They crash in the abyss and are captured by a surviving group of white people, who haven’t physically regressed. Once again we have a convenient coincidence. One member of the tribe has for some reason chosen to study the ancient English language and can tell them what is going on. They become honored guests after using their weapons to defeat a rival tribe, but there are elements who resent their presence. The missing part of the Earth turns out to be a second moon. The final battle with the chief of the tribe takes place and he is replaced by the man from the past, and so ends the second part. 

Having repaired their airplane, the two survivors fly back up to the surface where they run into more trouble with the horde of savages. They convince their allies to abandon the abyss and recover the surface world, have some minor adventures, and then finally finish off the bad savages.  England was a good storyteller for the most part, although by the end I was glad to be seeing the last of this particular world and the too-good-to-be-true protagonists.  There’s quite a bit of chauvinism in the book. Beatrice is almost always referred to as “the girl” and even though she occasionally shows initiative, most of the time she looks to her partner for instructions. 7/27/14

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, St Martins, 2014, $22.99m ISBN 978-1-250-94621-5  

Every year when the latest in this series shows up, I am amazed at how uniformly good the contents are. There are years when I don’t think it possible for the editor to find that many good stories, although there are so many different places for them to appear now that I’m hardly a good judge of the situation. I do wonder how many bad stories he has to wade through to find the good ones at times. In any case here we have 650 plus pages of good to excellent SF from the prozines, semi-prozones, original anthologies, and online sources. Usually I’ve read only about half but this year that figure is less than a third. It’s almost always hard to pick out favorites but Geoff Ryman, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Michael Swanwick, Lavie Tidhar, and Ian McDonald were all impressive. There’s also an extensive list of honorable mentions and the always fascinating and informative summation essay. The one anthology you need to have this year. 7/26/14

Marco Polo by John Lucarotti, Target, 1985  

The early Doctor Who adventures mixed adventures on other planets which adventures in Earth’s past. This is one of the latter. The Doctor and his companions encounter Marco Polo in 13th Century China. They go to see Kubla Khan after an encounter with assassins and other dangers, Barbara gets kidnapped and rescued, and they almost lose the Tardis. This is one of the lost episodes so I have never seen the screen version. I believe the historical adventures were designed so they could describe the program as educational. 7/25/14

Jungle in the Sky by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1952)  

This old fashioned story about hunting exotic animals on other worlds and moons starts off with some promise. The protagonist suspects the captain of one of the vessels was involved in the death of his brother, but until he signs aboard, he doesn’t realize she’s a woman. The captain, we are told, is the equal of any man, strong, commanding, intelligent, and dedicated. Then the story starts to go to pieces. The circumstances surrounding the brother’s death don’t even remotely indicate the captain and the entire motivation falls apart. Then a rival ship shows up, there is conflict, and the captain faints after one fight. They are all captured by mind controlling aliens from another star system, but they escape after the captain realizes she just wants to be dependent upon a man and thought of as being inferior to men. Even for the 1950s this was pretty awful. 7/24/14

Outpost on the Moon by Joslyn Maxwell, Armchair, 2014 (originally published in 1930)

I have never read anything else by this early author and I’m rather surprised. It is the hard SF of that era, the story of the building of a ship that can travel to the moon – it’s essentially H.G.Wells’ gravity defying Cavorite. The two intrepid explorers encounter a secret human base established by scientists who believe that Ganymede is trying to communicate with us. They eventually send a ship which runs into problems because there are two very different societies on Ganymede. The politics are depressing. Maxwell makes it quite clear that democracy is mob rule and inherent flawed and that a dictatorship by the more intelligent is the proper way to order a civilization. Much of the science is outdated, obviously, but the author at least tried to make everything plausible and convincing. That tends to make the story move a bit slowly at times. And how would a civilization that can send well designed meteors to Earth to attract attention not be able to understand how a revolver works? 7/23/14

The Weapon Makers by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, originally published in 1947

This is part of the Weapon Shops series which is set in a far future empire where the Weapon Makers are a counterbalance to the government, manufacturing a line of weapons that can be operated only in self defense. It’s not clear how that is managed. The protagonist of this one is one of their group who has been quite close to the current empress, until the day she decides that he is spying on her – which is true – and orders his execution, which he avoids by means of a weapon that only exists when he needs it, and with which he commits a murder himself, which rather contradicts the premise of their existence. Hedrock is more complex than it first appears. He is centuries old and his loyalties are not to the Weapon Shops either. Much of the science is fanciful, including a device that magnifies living things so that a normal rat becomes man-sized while it is operating. Anachronistically, they still use paper files and Hedrock gets information by having a clerk hold the pages up to the picturephone so that he can copy what he needs.  The Weapon Shops motto would resonate with some people today: “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.” It might not occur to them that the Weapon Shops are not the good guys. The focus of the plot is the discovery of an interstellar drive, which the empress wants to suppress, but which has fallen into the hands of a petty criminal. The plotting is chaotic. At one point Hedrock has access to a lifeship with the interstellar drive but instead of escaping with it, he dithers even though he knows the empress is plotting an attack to capture it. Nor is it possible for a man to be unconscious for 22 days with no food or water and survive. Hedrock encounters spiderelike aliens with incredible powers, then returns to Earth and uses his giantifying machine to turn himself into a giant 150 feet tall, while confusing the reader with various manipulations of companies he secretly owns. This incredible mishmash works to a limited extent because it is so shamelessly random and illogical, but neither was ever numbered among Van Vogt’s assets. Eventually he marries the empress, reveals that he founded both the empire and the weapon shots, develops time travel, duplicates himself, outsmarts the aliens, ends the civil war among humans, gets married to the empress, and establishes humans as the future rulers of the galaxy.  Also published as One Against Eternity.7/22/14

Planet of Dread by Dwight V. Swain, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1961)  

An investigator is sent from Earth to a remote planet based on slavery after reports surface that the local ruler has a new weapon that makes him an interplanetary threat. Shortly after arriving, he is on the run, his ship destroyed, and the resistance tells him of an alien creature which the ruler is using to eliminate his enemies. The investigator ends up being the leader of the resistance, carries off the dictator’s daughter, inspires the slaves, and ends the menace. Not exactly unpredictable but reasonably well written. 7/21/14

The Red Hell of Jupiter by Paul Ernst, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1931)  

In the 1930s it was still possible to sell a story in which Jupiter and its moons all had breathable atmospheres, and one of the moons was home to a human civilization not planted from Earth. This rather silly adventure story has two Earthmen traveling to investigate the red spot on Jupiter where they are captured by weird aliens who want the secret of their space engines so that they can invade Earth. Most of the episode consists of them running around to escape the aliens or their dinosaurs – Jupiter is a planetwide swamp – or courting the girl, priestess of a people indigenous to one of the moons. Completely absurd but fun the way an old comic book is still fun. 7/21/15

Earth’s Last Fortress by A.E. van Vogt, Ace, 1960

This early Van Vogt novella, also known as Recruiting Station and Masters of Time, was half of the first Ace doublebook I ever read. The magazine version dates from 1942. A young woman is somewhat forcibly recruited by the agent of some mysterious recruiting organization, unable to leave because he uses science that effects the “time tensions” in her body so that he can make her suddenly become elderly, or restore her youth. The science is pretty bad even for its period. The woman’s old flame shows up, is kidnapped into the future where evil Earth is fighting the relatively good other planets. She, meanwhile, figures out how they are controlling her and receives a mysterious messenger who tells her that all of time is at risk. Van Vogt was notorious for illogical, radical plot twists and this is a good example. People acquire psi powers, or become immune to conditioning, or change their minds at crucial moments for no good reason, and the plot sort of lurches from one thing to another. I recall liking it at fourteen, but now it just seems silly. 7/20/14

The Edge of Destruction by Nigel Robinson, Target, 1988   

This was an early and rather boring Doctor Who adventure. A control on the Tardis malfunctions and the foursome trapped within begin having hallucinatory adventures. The Doctor gets paranoid and is convinced that Ian and Barbara are sabotaging things. There’s a lot of talking, none of it very interesting, and eventually they figure out what is actually happening and repair the problem. This one must have been very inexpensive to film. 7/20/14

We, the Machine by Gerald Vance, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1951)  

America has withdrawn from the world under a shield of impenetrable rays and established a gigantic underground machine that runs a perfect world. But it’s not so perfect when the machine begins to malfunction. The protagonist is a self proclaimed novelist who is invited into the underground vaults where a small group of humans are allowed to work, only to discover that they are starting to die in unprecedented accidents. Our hero is puzzled and alarmed when the Machine asks him to write things praising itself and he suspects – correctly – that the Machine has gone insane. He eventually finds the heart of the machine – a human brain held in suspension – and destroys it. The theme – that a lack of conflict would be fatal to human development -  is a good one, but the author’s writing talents are not equal to the task, particularly in the second half. 7/19/14

The Colony by A.J. Colucci, Thomas Dunne, 2012   

I enjoyed this author’s second novel enough to order a copy of his first, and it’s considerably better. A mutant ant is planted in New York City and a couple of years later hordes of ants begin attacking people, having already laid waste to rats and other insects. They are impervious to pesticides, larger and stronger than any previously known species, and their behavior seems to be directed by individual queens to a much greater extent than with ordinary insects. A handful of stock characters are brought together to deal with the menace, but they’re handled pretty well. The subplot about the military being secretly involved is so worn out that it was almost laughable, and the evil FBI agent should have been left out entirely. That said, this is very suspenseful, reasonably plausible, and quite entertaining. 

The Time Armada by Fox B. Holden, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1953)   

An amateur scientist performs an experiment that unexpected switches the minds of himself and his family with those of the same people in an alternate reality. The original has to deal with a society that is repressive and which slaughters its own children while his alternate tries to gain power in our reality. Eventually they get to switch back but the story is tediously told and occasionally nonsensical or unscientific. This is actually a story I had heard reasonably good things about and had never read before, but it doesn’t live up to its reputation. 

World of If by Rog Phillips, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1951)  

I read this in high school and don’t remember it being as bad as it is. The opening premise is interesting. A research company discovers that under a new form of hypnosis, people reveal interesting common perceptions of the future, and conversely, if told that something in their past happened differently, they can extrapolate how it would have affected their entire lives. An entrepreneur volunteers for the treatment and experiences a world in which a rather silly communist revolution takes over the country. The author succumbs completely to the Red Scare mentality of that era.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell, Tor, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1022-7  

The setting is the not too distant future, in which Miami is filled with canals and hurricanes have become more common. The protagonist is an ex-spy for the Caribbean states who gets a message from an old friend indicating he has been murdered with directions to some files that might solve the crime.  He, his nephew, and a young woman are soon drawn into an international conspiracy The nephew is killed and the woman appears not to be who she claims to be, leaving our hero with no real allies and limited options. And there’s a racist plot to wipe out a significant portion of the world’s population. This is a sequel to Arctic Rising and it’s also a near future thriller that should have broad appeal outside the SF community. 7/17/14

Somewhere I’ll Find You by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1951)  

This is a pretty silly novella in which a woman is abducted from our reality because she was born in the wrong plane of existence. An organization in another realm has decided to reassign her to her proper place. Conveniently her brother knows how to access a machine that summons an inter-reality ship and he and her boyfriend track her down after various adventures. This was intended to be humorous so it’s not as bad as it may sound, but the humor is only marginally funny and the adventure isn’t even marginally interesting. Definitely one of Lesser’s lesser efforts. 7/16/14

New Frontiers by Ben Bova, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7644-2 

Although I have always enjoyed Ben Bova’s novels better than his short fiction, that doesn’t mean that the latter doesn’t have its own appeal. I had read most of the stories collected here before, and a few of them I remembered well. This is possibly his most diverse collection with settings ranging from the past to the very distant future. There is time travel and hard science fiction and even a hint of fantasy in the mix. My favorites reflect that diversity including “Moon Race,” “Scheherazade and the Storytellers,” and “A Country for Old Men.” Bova always seems to be in complete control of his stories and even more importantly, he almost always has a fascinating story to tell. 7/15/14

Operation Square Peg by Frank Belknap Long & Irvin W. Lande, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1957)

This is the only fiction I’ve ever read by Lande and it sure doesn’t feel like Frank Belknap Long, so I’m not sure just how this collaboration came about. Earth is split into factions and the factions are at war, although only in space. The faction including the US has been winning but suddenly the tide turns and it seems to be because of a new weapon the enemy is using that induces fear and confusion in the minds of their opponents during battle. The story alternates between a scientist trying to solve the problem and a very repugnant thug on Earth who eventually gets enlisted in the space service because it turns out bad apples have the right psychology to resist the impulses. This is all conveyed through a series of endless conversations and lectures and it’s an absolute chore to read through to the end. Fortunately, it’s quite short. 7/15/14

Lost in Space by George O. Smith, Ace, 1960 

No relation to the television show. Humans have colonized a dozen or so worlds when one of their cargo ships, carrying a handful of passengers, malfunctions en route to another star system. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, an enormous alien battle fleet is nearby, watching, trying to decide whether to conquer humans or to negotiate an alliance. The basic plot isn’t bad at all but there are numerous rough spots including one place where Smith did not understand how the chain of command works. The actions of the people stranded in the shuttle are rather artificial as well. There’s lots of scientific explanation – some of it doubletalk – that could just as well have been left out.  Originally published as Spacemen Lost in 1954. 7/14/14

The Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma by Brian Herbert, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3254-7  

Although perhaps best known for his extensions of the Dune universe, written collaboratively with Kevin J. Anderson, Brian Herbert has produced a handful of novels of his own. This latest one posits an interesting scenario. There has been a green revolution in the US and the ecological balance is being restored, but like most groups who gain power, the new leadership becomes corrupt and dictatorial and it is the corporations who suddenly find themselves as beleaguered rebels. There’s a good deal more than simple politics in this one, with rumors of mutations and foreign interference added into the mix. It’s a dystopian satire and it’s like to irritate some readers, but I doubt that it will bore them. 7/13/14

Slave Raiders from Mercury by Don Wilcox, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1940)

Wilcox is a strong contender for most clueless writer of his era. This one involves drone ships sent from Mercury to Earth. Humans naturally crowd aboard and the ship is then recalled with a load of slaves for the humanoid inhabitants of that planet, all engineered by a human renegade. Shortly after takeoff, our hero looks out the window and correctly concludes that they’re headed to Mercury since the sun is dead ahead. The ship has no controls, but somehow they manage to operate the disposal “chute” to remove the body of a suicide. This is the first time a woman has been caught and naturally all the Venusians fall in lust with her and a power struggle ensues during which confusion the humans rebel and the bad guy gets eliminated.  7/12/14

The Crispin Affair by Jack Sharkey, Armchair, 2012 (originally published in 1960)  

A beautiful young woman talks an indolent millionaire into  financing the purchase of a starship so that she can travel to the planet Crispin for purposes unknown. The opening chapters are mildly chauvinistic, scientifically illiterate, and make the astonishing mistake of saying that income tax returns require the filer to justify major expenditures. Nor can a private citizen get a search warrant. Sharkey, whose work I usually enjoy, wasn’t working very hard when he wrote this one. After insisting that she can’t tell him why she needs to go, she proceeds to tell him exactly that. Her grandfather discovered mineral deposits and willed them to her, but she went to a crooked lawyer who has a front claiming the planet out from under her feet. So she wants to go there to find evidence that her grandfather was there first – although none of this makes a lot of sense since it’s a well known planet already despite being in another galaxy. But she doesn’t have the map that shows her where the claim is because the lawyer kept it. The plot is right out of an old western novel – and the protagonist even makes that observation. The chauvinism is somewhat ameliorated when the female character turns out to have the technical knowledge that enables them to avoid crashing on Crispin. With a disabled ship, they set out to find the grandfather’s cabin – conveniently nearby – hoping he had a shortwave radio set so they can call for help.  Since they’re a hundred million lightyears from Earth, they’ll have quite a wait. Then we are told that Crispin is basically just a big ball of copper, causing the magnetic flux that disabled their ship, even though the planet was earlier surveyed and no traces of copper were found! They also missed the intelligent indigenous race – who incidentally are not cannibals if they eat humans despite what the author says. The hero gets separated from his party one night and runs into the woman fronting for the lawyer, who has also become separated from her party. Small planet! We also discover that the author had never heard of continental drift. Despite all of the nonsense and the fact that every single character acts like he or she is about twelve years old, this is actually an entertaining story with some clever bits about a planet where magnetism is a very active force of nature. 7/10/14

The Fires of Fu Manchu by Cay Van Ash, Perennial, 1987   

The author was secretary to Sax Rohmer and wrote two further books in the series following Rohmer’s death. This one fills in the gap between World War I’s outbreak and the villain’s return to activity during the late 1920s. Fu Manchu, armed with new superscience, has gone to Egypt to acquire some mysterious artifacts, and an attempt is made on Dr. Petrie’s life in the process. Nayland Smith arrives on time and the two seek to pursue their old nemesis. In the original tradition, the two heroes are promptly captured by Fu Manchu. Discovering that his prisoners cannot provide any useful information, he abandons them to a risky future, which naturally they survive. They also learn that Fu Manchu is after a double agent who is trying to delivery government secrets to the Germans. The military authorities refuse to take Fu Manchu seriously and concentrate on apprehending the defector. Things go back and forth for quite a while – it’s a longish book – but Fu Manchu is once again foiled, although he escapes capture. A reasonably good pastiche. 7/10/14

The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow, Tachyon, 2014, $14.95, ISBN 978-1616961596  

A lowly hack television writer who doubts he will ever accomplish anything gets the surprise of his life when aliens turn up and tell him that they’ve been intercepting our broadcasts and consider his work high art. Much to his chagrin, they have trouble separating fact from fiction and reason from faith and much to his horror they intend to helpfully eliminate a few million people they think are just cluttering up the Earth. So our hero has to sharpen his wits to talk them out of it. This is humor, obviously, with more than a touch of satire. It’s not quite as ambitious as some of Morrow’s earlier work, but it’s likely to have a somewhat broader appeal. And it’s fun. 7/9/14

Doctor Who and the Daleks by David Whitaker, Avon, 1967   

I believe this was actually the first Doctor Who novelization and it doesn’t fit the pattern of the others. The author ignored the events in the first installment of the series entirely and starts over. His “granddaughter” Susan is riding home with a teacher when an automobile accident leaves them stranded. The male companion – Ian - is a complete stranger who stops to help rather than another teacher from Susan’s school. It’s also told from Ian’s point of view as a first person narration. There’s a different rationale for their being taken along to the planet Skaros, and it’s not remotely convincing. Skaros is largely depopulated and the surface is covered with evidence of atomic explosions, although at least one city remains intact. There are two races on the planet – the human Thals and the Daleks, who now live in protective metal shells. Eventually the Doctor discovers that there can be no peace between the two and he destroys the power source that keeps them alive, apparently committing genocide, although anyone watching the series knows that they have just begun to fight. Interesting primarily from its alterations from the source material. 7/9/14

A Bicycle Built for Brew by Poul Anderson, NESFA, 2014, $29, ISBN 978-1-61037-306-7 

Are You There and Other Stories by James Skillingstead, Fairwood Press, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-45-3

These two collections are from two different generations of SF writers and while there are some signs of differences, there are many more points of congruity, particularly in that they are dominated by excellent story telling skills. The Anderson collection includes four short novels including three that were halves of Ace doubles, the title story, plus The Snows of Ganymede, which involves terraforming and colonial politics, a shorter version of the fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions, and A Plague of Masters, a Flandry story also known as Earthman, Go Home! It’s a very solid collection with no weak stories. I read the Skillingstead collection a few years back when it first appeared in hardcover. The stories are much shorter and rather more diverse, but they still have strong elements of adventure and scientific progress to dominate their plots. Included is the shorter version of his recent novel, Life on the Preservation. Others of note include “Dead Worlds,” the title story, and “Rescue Mission.” There are no weak stories here either. The science is a bit more topical and there are fewer offworld settings but otherwise many of these would not have been out of place in the Anderson collection, or vice versa. So here are two very good ways of discovering just how good short SF can be when practiced by someone with both talent and skill. 7/8/14

Enchantress of Venus by Leigh Brackett, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1949)   

Stark was a recurring character in Leigh Brackett’s early fiction, reimagined a while later as Eric John Stark. Stark grew up on Mercury and has adventures on various planets, all of which have breathable atmospheres. This was a kind of romanticized science that wasn’t plausible even during the 1940s but it was a convention to disregard that. In this particular episode, he travels across the gas seas of Venus to an isolated community dominated by a handful of aristocrats who enslave outsiders in their quest to unearth ancient technology. He is enslaved himself but in due course leads a revolt, wipes out the aristocrats, and frees an old friend. The plot is pretty standard but Brackett was one of the few writers who could do this sort of story in a manner that rose above the plot. Her prose is full of colorful imagery and her characters are much more detailed than that of most of her contemporaries. 7/7/14

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Orbit, 2013, $15, ISBN 978-0-316-24662-0  

This far future space opera is a very impressive debut novel. A repressive empire has conquered pretty much all of human space thanks to its technology, which includes AI controlled warships and enslaved bodies which share a kind of group consciousness with the AIs, although this practice is eventually ended.  The ruler also exists in multiple bodies, making it virtually impossible to conduct an assassination, particularly as this provides immortality as well as near invulnerability. There is, however, evidence of a split personality or perhaps paranoia. The empire is opposed by an alien race which possesses technology adequate to the task in an uneasy peace. The protagonist is one of those AI, now stuck in a single human body for reasons we don’t learn until quite late in the story. This disconnected unit is trying to track down a single alien weapon known to be in human hands in order to make at least a token assassination attempt. This is all a rather simplified version of the plot which is complex, though not difficult to follow, alternating between attempts to acquire and use the weapon and flashbacks in which we see what led up to the situation. One small quibble and I’m not sure there is a solution. Stories about artificial intelligences always seem to me to make them entirely too human. The problem is somewhat exaggerated in this case because it’s also the narrator. I hadn’t heard of this until it showed up on the Hugo ballot, and I’m glad it appeared there. A sequel is due out later this year. 7/6/14

Star Hunter by Andre Norton, Armchair, 2011 (originally published in 1961)

This was one of the few Andre Norton novels to be Ace paperback originals prior to the Witch World series. Two criminals plan to brainwash a young man and leave him on an unsettled planet to be “found” by visitors and discovered to be heir to an interstellar fortune. They reprogram the personality of a boy from the slums and deposit him in due course. He believes himself to have been there for at least two years even though it has been a matter of days. The conditional fails almost immediately, however. He and the guide are separated from the rest of the party by a dormant alien device which manipulates the local wildlife, herding them into a trap. This was quite short and doesn’t explain much about the aliens, but it was the kind of adventure story at which Norton excelled. 7/5/14

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7540-7  

Paul Park returns to SF after a round of four fantasy novels. This is one of those novels which actually consist of separate stories thematically related, each in this case an alternate world with a common link to a Civil War battle in Virginia. One story is set in a divided North America dominated by quasi-matriarchal societies, one involves the discovery of an earlier, low key alien invasion, and the third is set in a version of our present in which details about a secret weapons project from World War II come to light. The triptych structure allows the author to demonstrate a range of moods and settings and while the three parts could probably have stood individually as novelettes, their juxtaposition underlines elements that might otherwise have been missed.  7/4/14

The Destiny of Fu Manchu by William Patrick Maynard, Black Coat, 2012   

Dr. Petrie gets captured by Fu Manchu right off the bat in this, the author’s second pastiche of Sax Rohmer’s classic series. Much of it is standard fare but there are some nice touches including an assassin on the Orient Express and poisoned butterflies. World War II is imminent and the international tension ties in neatly to Fu Manchu’s plans. Slightly better than the first in this new series with only a couple of slow spots.  Maynard blends the essence of Rohmer’s series with some interesting innovations. Nothing spectacular but very solid. 7/4/14

The Threat of the Robot and Other Nightmarish Futures by David H. Keller, Black Dog, 2012 

This collection opens with Keller’s most famous – though not his best – story, “The Revolt of the Pedestrians.” It’s a satire set in a future where humanity splits into Pedestrians and Automobilists, two separate races, and the former are nearly extinct since it became legal to kill them if they walk on a roadway. The Pedestrians eventually sabotage the power supplies and their rivals are wiped out. Keller satirizes both our dependence upon the automobile and socialism at its extreme. “The Eternal Professors” is very similar. The colleges of New York City and those of Chicago become such bitter rivals that a secret war breaks out. Keller erroneously believes that cancer is caused by “germs”. The stricken faculty members have their heads removed from their bodies and installed on artificial ones. The advantages and disadvantages of robotic nurses for infants are examined in “The Psychophonic Nurse.”  “White Collars” is a satire in which so many people are highly educated that they make up most of the unemployed.  The title story is set in a near future where football is played by robots operated by technicians. Someone substitutes a team of real players and the robots are routed. The overpopulation problem is solved by building airplanes as homes that never land in the improbable “Service Fist.”  “Stenographer’s Hands,” which is rather misogynistic, is about the breeding of a special subset of humanity who can take dictation, type letters, etc. “The Living Machine” is a rather simpleminded piece about the immorality of making machines – automobiles in this case – smart enough that they mimic life. The final story is “A Biological Experiment.” In the far future, marriages are considered experiments. Keller’s supernatural fiction is much better but several of these are quite good. 7/1/14